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First off, a few disclaimers: while I drive quite a bit, I've only driven in a few of America's largest cities, and I've never secured a permit to drive abroad. What follows is a set of sketchy heuristics that will get you near your destination in most American cities. I do not recommend this if you're on a tight schedule or are actually concerned with reaching your destination.

That said, I find that improvising when on vacation can make life just a little more interesting. You never learn something quite like you learn it when you're winging it and focusing on every detail to get you out of a jam, should one arise. When you make it all come together and pull up in front of your destination, everyone in the car will be impressed with your mad skills.

First, if you really want to find the address in question, get a AAA map and/or some directions from Google Maps or similar online navigation resource. You pansy.

Now, if you find yourself in an unfamiliar city without internet access or readily available navigation aids, take stock of your situation. How much do you know about the city?

If you've got rudimentary knowledge of these three questions, you should be able to get near your destination, even from out of town. This method is based on locating the city center, grokking the city's street-naming convention, and then playing the system to find your address. Keep in mind, though, this is a rough heuristic. If you stick rigidly to the rules, you may never find your destination.

  1. Relax. You need to be able to drive safely, but with total situational awareness, seeing not only the posted street signs, but also any signs that say things like "Left Lane Ends" or "One Way" or "STOP". You cannot do this effectively if you're angry or frustrated.
  2. Study the address. A few things that can help you derive information from it:
    • Buildings are usually numbered by their proximity to the center of town. 37 North Main is going to be much closer to the middle of town than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
    • Ordinal street names like "first" or "fifty-seventh" are usually numbered south to north, and serve as latitude axes (with names serving as longitude markers) in most cities.
    • Ordinal streets are usually associated with a block, called the "N hundred block." Driving north past 34th street will put you on the "thirty-four-hundred block," in which all addresses are between 3400 and 3500, until you cross 35th street.
    • Named streets are almost never named with a convention, but occasionally you'll find a city where they're named alphabetically from the center of town. They could, for example, run north to south and serve as longitude axes.
    • Named streets--I'm thinking of Lakeshore Drive in Chicago, for example--can also tell you about where you are. I figure, Chicago is next to Lake Michigan... this road probaly runs parallel to the shore.
    • Named streets that run north to south will often have a North and South variant--North Philips Avenue and South Philips Avenue are the same road, but the name changes when you cross some magical street near the center of town. Commonly, this will be First, Central, Division, State, Main, or perhaps the city name or state name.
    • Some streets are special. Any street which is called "Placename Road" probably once served as the main road to that place. If you know where that place is relative to the city you're in, then you have an idea of the road's direction. These roads tend to be older, full of red lights (which buy you time for reading signs), and straight (since they were built before the suburbs). Many of these are U.S. Highways, which take a different name in each city they pass through. For example, U.S. Route 1 is "Washington Boulevard" in Baltimore, Maryland; but it's "Baltimore Avenue" in College Park, Maryland.
    • Odd and even numbers are across the street from each other--Odds are usually on the north or east side of the street, but this does not always hold. You can usually count on the city, within city limits, to be consistent.
  3. Now, head to the center of the city armed with this knowledge. Go towards the tall buildings or follow signs for downtown. Anyone in the car is requested to begin looking for the target street, or addresses with close numbers, since this kind of data can save you an hour or two--"Hey, this is it? We passed this like, five times!"
  4. If you get to the center of the city without being pulled off-course towards a likely address, do a few laps of the downtown area. Figure out where the numbering systems start from, both east-west and north-south. Learn which side of the street even numbered addresses are on.
  5. You should, at this point, have the city in your head like a Cartesian plane, with an origin and a vague idea of where your destination is. Pick your way north or south to the right latitude, then turn east or west, scouting for house numbers to pin down your longitude.
  6. When you get to where it "should" be, you can either park the car and walk around, perhaps asking directions for the last block, or admit that you're at the wrong part of town and backtrack, reviewing any command decisions you made. At this point, you've done your best, and asking directions is the best way to get terminal guidance.

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