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Why would anyone ever establish a grid system for a city? My guess is so that getting around is easy, even without a map. You’d think, then, that usability would be a primary concern for the design. There should be few rules, few exceptions, and lots of adherence to the grid. It should be easy to build a mental model of the city and easy to explain. Like, say, Chicago’s.

But something went horribly awry in the Puget Sound take on the grid. When I moved here I was dumbfounded by the addresses I kept running across. The corner of NE 45th and 45th NE? What? How can 40th be the next exit after 148th? Weren’t the street numbers ascending before that? Are there actually 108 streets crammed under the freeway in that 5 minute drive? (That’s something like 21 streets per minute.) And how is it that Broadway East is north of Broadway, yet the same actual road?

I finally asked around, and there is a method. Kinda.

Street vs. Avenue

Streets run east-west. Avenues run north-south. If you run across something with another designation, like “boulevard” or “place,” it runs diagonally or serpentine, and has its own rules.

That’s where the usability ends.

The Regions

The city is divided into 10 sections that are not easy to memorize or communicate.

._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-._------+----------+-----------| ,-'_.-.|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-./      |          |            \,-'_.-.|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-.|      |          |            |,-'_.-.|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-/       |          |            |,-'_.-.\
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-\       |          |            |,-'_.-._|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-_|      |          |             \-'_.-._\
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'/        |          |              \'_.-._'\
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'|        |          |              |'_.-._'-\_
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-__/         |          |              |'_.-._'-._\
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'__/            |          |               \_.-._'-._,\/
._,-'_.-._'-._,_/      1        |    2     |       3       |_.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._/                 |          |                \.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._\    NW STREET    | N STREET |   NE STREET      \_._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,|   AVENUE NW    | AVENUE N |   AVENUE NE       \__/\_,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._/                 |          |                        \,-'
._,-'_.-._'-./                  |          |                       /_,-'
._,-'_.-._'-/_                  |          |                      /._,-'
._,-'_.-.____ \.-               |          |                     /-._,-'
._,-'_._/    \_.-|___           |          |                  __/'-._,-'
._,-'_/          |__ \___       |          |                 |-._'-._,-'
._,-'/_             \_-'_|__    |          |                 /-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.\_       4     \_____\__ |        __|_      ______  _/.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-.\                 \__ \|_      / _| \____/_,-'_.\|'_.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._|     W STREET      \_| \____/./ |\'_.-____-'_.-\'_.-     _,-'
._,-'_.-._\     AVENUE W        |\__,-'_.| ||___|    \____-'_.- 520 ._,-'
._,-'_.-._'\_                   |  \,-'_/  |      6       \============/
._,-'_.-._'-.\_                 |   \__/   |  E STREET    |'_.-._'-._,-|
._,-'_.-._'-._,\_______         |    5     |  AVENUE E    /'_.-._'-._,-|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'\__      | AVENUE N |             /-'_.-._'-._,/
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-._\_    |          |            |,-'_.      _,|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-._,-\---+----------++-----------+,-'_. LAKE _,\
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_\             |      8     \- WASHINGTON \
._,-'_             -._'-._,-'_.\__     7    |   E STREET |,            -'
._,-'_ PUGET SOUND -._'-._,-'_.-._\_  NONE  +--+        /,-'_.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_             -._'-._,-'_.-._'-\          |       |_,-'_.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-.|         |       /_,-'_.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-.--.-+---------+------|._,-    ._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.___'-._,-'_.-._'|/                 |._,- 90 ._'-__/\'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_/' \_-._,-'_.-._'| |                |===========/    \
._,-'_.-._'-._,-/      \___-'_._/ \|/                 |._,-'_.-._'\
._,-'_.-._'-.__/           \'_/   |||                 |._,-'_.-._'-\
._,-'_.-.___/               \_\   |||                  \_,-'_.-._'-.\_
._,-'_.-./                  |_ \  |||                   \,-'_.-._'-._,\
._,-'_.-.`\_                  \ \_/||                    \___.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-\                  \'_.'|                       \.-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-.\                  \_//                        |_-._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._\                 |_.\            10            \._'/._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,\                 \_ \        S STREET         |___|\_,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-|                  \_|       AVENUE S             _/_,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-|       9          |_\                           /-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-|    SW STREET     |_.\_                        /'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-\    AVENUE SW      \_'_\                      /_'-._,-/
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'|                    \_ \__                  |._'-._,/|
._,-'_.-._'-._,-_|                     |\__-\_                |._'-._,-\
._,-'_.-._'-._,/_                      |   \_-\               |._'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'|                     |     \-\               \_'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'|                     |      \-\             |__'-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-/                      | S ST |--|               \-._,-'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-\                      | AV S  \.\__              \____'
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'\                     |        \__.\                  \
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_\_  +----------------+----------|--|------------------
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-\ |                           |_.|___
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-.\|_      (CITY LIMITS)         |__--\
._,-'_.-._'-._,-'_.-._'-\                              \--\

The Northwest region is bounded on the east by 1st Avenue NW. The Northeast region is bounded on the west by 1st Avenue NE. As you can see these avenues share similar names. They are close to one another and run parallel. Between them is the first North region. All three are bounded to the south by the Lake Washington Canal.

The second North region sits below the canal and shares the physical avenues that define the first North region, only their names have changed to Queen Anne and East Lake. It is bounded on the south by Denny Way. This region designates its avenues with a “north” marker, but does not mark its streets with a cardinal indicator.

The West region is west and north of the no-designation-region. It is bounded by Queen Anne to the east and Denny Way to the south.

There are two East regions. The one above Denny Way labels both streets and avenues with an “east” marker, but the one below Denny Way and above Yesler Way only designates streets as “east.” Avenues are up for grabs.

The no-designation region is the city center, in which neither streets nor avenues are marked with cardinal indicators. This region is separated from the southernmost east region by a line that dog legs along Melrose, Union, and Broadway streets. They are both bounded to the south by Yesler Way. If you do find yourself walking north-south in this region, use the Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest trick. If you travel south from Pine you'll have to make your own mnemonic.

The Southwest region is actually West Seattle, separated by the south part of Seattle by the Duwamish River, but the sliver of it to the East of 1st Avenue South belongs to the South Region.

The South region is everything else south of Yesler Way and east of 1st Avenue South.

There is no Southeast region.

Cardinal Markers

Streets with a cardinal marker, put that marker before the street name, e.g. “North 1st Street.” Avenues with a cardinal marker put that marker after the avenue name, e.g. “1st Avenue North.” Don’t forget the three regions listed above, however, that are an exception to this rule, each one excepting it in its own special way. Also note that one of the major boundary Avenues, East Lake, breaks this convention.

Names

There is no convention, as in New York City, whereby avenues are numbered and streets named. So it’s entirely possible in Seattle to have an intersection of 10th Street and 120th Avenue. You can’t just say “I’ll meet you at 10th and 120th.” You have to specify. “I’ll meet you at 10th Street and 120th Avenue.” Oh wait, I’m sorry. You have to specify specify. “I’ll meet you at East 10th Street and 120th Avenue.” And if you want to be precise, you take a deep breath and utter the following, “I’ll meet you at 120 120th Avenue, at the East 10th Street intersection.”

This is not usability.

What’s worse is that if you travel across Lake Binary, the cities on the east side each have their own, similarly screwy grids. I live in the NE region of Seattle and commute to the NE region of Redmond, and it can take me up to an hour to travel between the two.

In its defense, Seattle and the Puget Sound area have a complicated geography, but I doubt this is the sole cause of the poor grid. My guess is it’s just poorly designed. Maybe it’s just something in the water up here. Maybe it’s just to distinguish ourselves from Canada's nice, regular grids.

The upshot is, for anyone coming to Seattle and the Puget Sound area for the first time: Yes, there is a system. Ignore it. Get a map.

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