The difficulties in finding out the most popular street name in the United States

FiveThirtyEight tries to find out the most common street name in the US and this leads to comparing Census information from 1993 with a Reddit user’s work:

The chart on Reddit that sparked your question looks very different from the 1993 list of most common street names from the Census Bureau.

Why, for example are there 3,238 extra Main streets in that chart compared with the census records in 1993? To find out, I got in touch with “darinhq,” whose name is Darin Hawley when he’s not producing charts on Reddit. After speaking to him, I think there are three explanations for the difference between his chart and the official data.

First, some new streets may have been built over the past 20 years (Hawley used 2013 census data to make his chart). Second, some streets may have changed their names: If a little town grows, it might change the name of its principal street from Tumbleweed Lane to Main Street.

Third, I don’t know how the Census Bureau produced its 1993 list (I asked, and a spokesperson told me the researcher who made it can’t recall his methodology), so Hawley might have simply used a different methodology to produce his chart. Because I wasn’t able to find any data on the frequency that American streets are renamed or the rate at which new streets are being built, I’m going to stake my money on this third explanation. Hawley told me that he counted “Main St N” and “N Main St” as two separate streets in his data. If the Census Bureau counted them as just one street, that could account for the difference.

That’s not the only executive decision Hawley made when he was summarizing this data. He set a minimum of how far away one Elm Street in Maine had to be from another Elm Street in Maine to qualify as two separate streets. That’s a problem because streets can break and resume in unexpected ways.

In other words, getting an answer requires making some judgment calls with the available data. While this is the sort of question that exemplifies the intriguing things we can all learn from the Internet, it is also a question that likely isn’t important enough to spend a lot of time with it. As an urban sociologist, this is an interesting question but what would I learn from the frequencies of street names? What hypothesis could I test? It might roughly tell us the names that Americans give to roads. What we value may just be reflected in these road names. For example, the Census data suggests that numbered streets and references to nature dominate the top 20. Does this mean we like order (a pragmatic approach) and idyllic yet vague nature terms (park, view, lake, tree names) over other things? Yet, the list has limitations as these communities and roads were built at different times, roads can be renamed, and we do have to make judgment calls about what specifies separate streets.

Two other thoughts:

1. The Census researcher who did this back in the early 1990s can’t remember the methodology. Why wasn’t it part of the report?

2. Is this something that would be best left up to marketers (who might find some advertising value in this) or GIS firms (who have access to comprehensive map data)?

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