Street layout of Washington D.C.

I’ve heard occasionally that the place was laid out to prevent invading, armies from finding their way around. This sounds like UL to me, but Snopes didn’t have anything on it (except a piece about the missing “J” street). Searching the archives and the board here didn’t help much because “D.C.” has less than four characters. Can anyone confirm or deny this explanation?

thanks in advance --J

Try this site:
The streets were laid out for ease of access.

I’ve never heard that one before, but I doubt it. Actually, DC is one of the easiest cities to navigate once you realize that the lettered streets run east-west, the numbered streets run north-south, and the state named streets run diagonally.

I think it was actually laid out to look good, both on the map and once it was built (taking into consideration the kind of building expected at the time).

Naw, DC would be a SNAP to invade. Northern VA, especially Arlington, with its segmented streets (there’s an Edison St. in at least 3 different, non-adjacent areas, for example), etc., would make an invading army cry.

The idea that DC was laid out to be purposely confusing is most certainly a joke.

It can be easy to navigate but is an acquired taste. One confusing thing to newcomers is the quadrant system. There are four intersections called 1st and C (NE, NW, SE, SW). So every address has to include the quadrant.

The diagonal streets look great on paper but it’s very easy to get disoriented when driving them–every intersection comes in at a diagonal or a traffic circle. But once you master them you can navigate large expanses much more quickly than in a strict grid system like NYC. A few of the intersections offer a tunnel alternative so you can zoom right under the intersection with no stop, like traveling Connecticut under Dupont Circle. I don’t think that was part of the original plan, though.

Besides the lettered streets, once you go through the whole alphabet, it starts again with an alphabetical list of two-syllable words (I used to live at 18th and Belmont NW). Then three-syllable words.

And the system, however elegant, did not take into account modern traffic loads. But it’s the traffic around the city rather than right in it that seems to be the worst.

Whenever someone decides to invade L.A., our secret defensive tactic to confound the enemy is that we have two San Vicente Boulevards. They’re completely separate and have nothing to do with each other.


Oh hell!

Oh my, that is so true… You would think that North Pollard Street would connect to South Pollard Street but noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo

The east-west “letter” streets (excluding J, X, Y and Z) run until you run out of letters, then you go to one-syllable alphabetical names, then two syllable, then three. By the time you run out of three syllable, you’re in Maryland and the system is scrapped.

This is not consistent; lots of streets buck the pattern. L’Enfant’s design only went as far north as Florida avenue; the outer neighborhoods were built much later, and some of them (Chevy Chase, Takoma Park) actually straddle the state line and kind of evolved separately.

While DC is demarcated on its northen edges by Eastern and Western avenues and on paper these are straight lines, Eastern Avenue is kind of a mess and has been kind of hazy and theoretical up until the 1950s. Even now, around the Catholic Diocese in Hyattsville, Eastern Avenue is two different parallel streets about a block apart.

I’ve lived in and around DC for the last 30 years and I get lost around Fort Totten and the Old Airmen’s Home. And driving around in Anacostia Southeast, I often get the impression that the major roads are one-way away from Southwest and Capitol Hill.

I wouldn’t reccomend driving in Anacostia Southeast at all…

My favorite thing is how some of the streets just sort meander down the way. Like Washington Boulevard goes east-west and then just sort of makes a dogleg and heads south for a while. Or how George Mason snakes down the way and makes random turns. Good times.

Anacostia isn’t that bad… it isn’t good… but no one shoots at cars driving past.

I can’t find a cite, so this may be just DC legend. I was told in school many years ago that all the traffic circles were designed to be choke points in case an invading army attacked DC. The US Army would dig in in the circles. Now, since you can get from anywhere to anywhere without ever going around a circle (although you need to know the city well to do this) I tend to doubt this.

I work for the local electric company (Pepco) and have found short-cuts even my co-workers don’t believe. DC is a fun place to drive if you know it, and a very easy place to get lost if you don’t.

They may not shoot at cars, but they certainly throw rocks at them.

CookingWithGas, I never knew that about the syllable thing—they are parts of NW where the streets are named after flowers and in alphabetical order, and then there’s a section where the streets have poets’ names (Whittier, Longfellow, etc.)

Krokodil, I think the streets start with 2 syllables, not one. I’m envisioning the bus ride home and the first street after W (besides Florida) is Belmont (then Clifton, Euclid, Fairmont, Girard, Harvard…).

But then you have Park Road, which runs sorta parallel to Irving and is not only one syllable, but also skews the alphabetical order…

Atlanta streets are as confusing as it gets (contiguous pieces of pavement that repeatedly change names; street names that turn corners, so that you have to turn left to stay on the same street you’ve been driving on all along; streets that meander every which way; lots of non-right-angle intersections; and of course umpteen streets named Peachtree something-or-other), but none of that stopped Sherman.

These intuitive street-designers- can you guys spare a few? We have a Market for them here, that’s for sure.

I grew up in NW Washington right where the street names changed over from two syllable to three syllable names. The name of my street, and the next two streets over, resonate in my memory as if they were from a poem about America’s early history:

Riding a cab in D.C. is an experience. Sometimes the cabbies know excellent shortcuts and you can learn something. Other times they are recent immigrants who just might get completely lost.

I heard a joke about D.C. cab drivers. (Drivers in the area are notorious for running red lights.)
A tourist comes to D.C. and gets a cab. The driver speeds off. The next light turns yellow and the tourist thinks, “He can’t possibly think he’ll make it.” But the cabbie guns the engine right through the intersection.
The tourist is nervous but doesn’t want to say anything.
The next block, the light is definitely red and the driver speeds on through.
Next block, it gets even worse.
Finally, the cab approaches a green light. The cabbie stops.
Now the tourist can’t take it anymore. “You ran all those red lights! Now you’re just sitting here. Why?”
The cabbie turns to him and shouts “You crazy? The light is green. You want to get us killed?”

Well, for me navigating DC mean’t learning the color codes for the “metro” - DC is great for getting around using that system.

If I lived there I wouldn’t even own a car.

I can’t believe nobody’s mentioned the conspiracy theory about the alleged Masonic symbolism in the DC street layout.

Or the urbanplanning legend that L’Enfant was drinking wine, sloppily, as he drafted the master plan, and every time he set down his wine glass on the paper it left a circular vinous residue, and those were incorporated into the plan as the traffic circles. This one had to be a joke when it started, but you sometimes hear people repeating it seriously.