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Why the streets of Phoenix are so confusing


If you've lived in Phoenix for a long time, like I have, and you hear someone say that the streets are confusing, you may say "Huh?" I will often point out that Phoenix streets are on a simple grid, and have a wonderfully logical order. The east-west major streets are all a mile apart, and the north-south streets are numbered. Of course you have to know the difference between Streets and Avenues. Let's take a look at all of this from a visitor's point of view.

When Phoenix was originally platted, in 1870, the north-south streets were named after Indian tribes (well kinda), and the east-west streets were named after Presidents. That's why Washington is the main east-west street. Central (then called Center) was the main north-south street. As you went west it was Cortez, Mojave, Papago, Cocopa, and so on, and as you went east it was Montezuma, Maricopa, Pima, etc. That was fine when Phoenix was tiny, but as it grew the names were changed to numbers.

The numbers of the streets go up as you get further away from Central. So if you're at 36th Street and Washington, you're exactly 36 streets away from Central. On the other hand, if you're 36 streets west of Central, you're not on a street, you're on an Avenue. The locals are nodding their heads and the visitors are saying "what?" What that means is that you're at 36th and Washington, you could be 72 blocks away from where you're supposed to be. You need to know if the address is an Avenue or a Street.

Then there's the "becomes". As you travel around Phoenix, a street will suddenly change names for no apparent reason. Lincoln becomes Glendale, Dunlap becomes Olive, there are a lot of them. Again, the locals are smiling and nodding and wondering why that would be confusing, but visitors have to remember that the exit for Dunlap from the 101 freeway isn't called Dunlap at all, it's called Olive. From the 1-17 the Olive exit is called Dunlap if you're planning to visit me in Glendale.

Oh wait - how about Grand Avenue? Even the locals are looking kinda sad now. It's a road that goes 45 degrees, and even if you've driven it a lot, it can be confusing. When my parents first started visiting Phoenix, many years ago, I told them to just stay off of Grand. My mom accused me of treating them like "old fools", but later told me that they had tried to use Grand, and that I was right to recommend that they stay away from it. Grand was confusing even then, and then it was made even more of a tangle when a bizarre set of bridges and Rube Goldberg style entrances and exits were made to it. Anyone who can successfully use Grand Avenue has my respect!

I haven't even mentioned the reversing lanes on 7th Street and 7th Avenue. Let's see, at particular times of the day, and only on weekdays (I think), the turning lane turns into a traveling lane. And that means that if you've figured out how to use the turning lanes (usually called "Suicide Lanes" by locals), you can find yourself suddenly driving against oncoming traffic. They were designed to make things better for the regular commuters, so it's best to leave it to them. Stay away from 7th Street and 7th Avenue. And the more I think about it, the more I'm pretty sure you're safe on the weekends. You have to read the signs.

Of course if you want to go to Scottsdale, or Tempe, or any of the surrounding cities which aren't technically Phoenix, you have to deal with a confusing combination of the Phoenix street system, and systems that the local cities keep. My favorite confusing set of streets in Scottsdale are Drinkwater and Goldwater. If you're a visitor to Scottsdale, and you just remember the street that's "something-water", you're stuck. Oh yeah, and if you're going to the Chuckbox in Tempe, you exit on Priest. Then you take University past Mill.

Oh what the heck, let's take the Light Rail, or use Uber! What do you say?

Image at the top of this post: Flying over Phoenix, Arizona in 1965. You're looking northeast towards Camelback Mountain.

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