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Arlington's systemic streets

Earlier this year, we explored the nature of Washington's street-naming system. Across the Potomac, Arlington County also has rhyme and reason to street names.

While Arlington was originally part of the District of Columbia (until 1846), it was not incorporated in the plan of Pierre L'Enfant. Unlike its larger neighbor, Arlington's streets don't follow a strict grid, but development has still followed a somewhat rectilinear pattern. The street-naming system dates back to 1932, and was undertaken in order to convince the Postal Service to allow "Arlington" as the mailing address for the entire county.

The county is divided into northern and southern sections by Arlington Boulevard, a major east-west thoroughfare which bisects the county.

In contrast to Washington, east-west streets are numbered. Since Arlington does not have quadrants, but instead has halves, most streets are identified with "north" or "south" relative to Arlington Boulevard. The directional suffix follows numbered streets, but precedes named streets. Numbered streets increase with distance from Arlington Boulevard in both directions. Accordingly, it is flanked on the north by First Street North and on the opposite side by First Street South. Numbered streets are usually "streets," but when additional streets fill in blocks, "Road" and then "Place" is used.

Named streets run north-south. Like DC, the first letter of the street name and number of syllables indicates where in the grid a street is located. The origin for the named streets is the Potomac River. The first "alphabet" is made up of one-syllable words, the second of two-syllable words, the third of three-syllable words, and the fourth is just one street: North Arizona Street. As distance from the Potomac increases, letters increase successively.

Instead of using "Place" to indicate a second street of the same letter filling in the street grid as DC does, Arlington just uses another word of the same first letter and syllables. In that regard, Danville Street could be followed by Daniel Street. A look at a progression of successive letters shows the strata of the alphabets in Arlington's street grid.

None of Washington's state-named avenues continue into Virginia, so Arlington uses a different methodology for indicating major streets. Like the street bisecting the county, major east-west roads are typically called "boulevards". Examples include Wilson and Clarendon Boulevards.

Major north-south streets are often called "drives." Examples include Walter Reed and George Mason Drives.

Many roads pre-date the addressing system of 1932, and have kept their historical names. These include "roads," highways," Spout Run Parkway, and Columbia Pike.

Matt Johnson has lived in the Washington area since 2007. He has a Master's in Planning from the University of Maryland and a BS in Public Policy from Georgia Tech. He lives in Greenbelt. He痴 a member of the American Institute of Certified Planners. He is a contract employee of the Montgomery County Department of Transportation. His views are his own and do not represent those of his employer. 


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Arlington also has 8 streets named "Courthouse Rd." The flaw in Arlington's system is that the lettered streets are frequently discontinuous, which drives out-of-towners crazy.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 10, 2009 12:02 pm • linkreport

Kinda pretty when presented like this... hard to explain to a cabbie yes, but pretty.

by Arlington Aaron on Dec 10, 2009 12:05 pm • linkreport

hey, it keeps those people on the other side of the river.

Is Spout Run Parkway an old road or park of the GW parkway?

Where it gets really confusing is North Arlington around MIlitary road -- no grid at all yet they try to shoehorn it in.

by charlie on Dec 10, 2009 12:07 pm • linkreport

The numbered streets are discontinuous as heck too; you can be in the 4200 block of North 19th but good luck figuring out how to get to the 2100 block of North 19th from there.

by neff on Dec 10, 2009 12:07 pm • linkreport

Arlington is tricky to navigate at first, but once you learn where a few key roads and blvds are, you can always find your way. The discontinuous segments are a problem, thats why it is always best to know which of the key roads it relates too.

by spookiness on Dec 10, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

Excellent work, Matt.

I'd also like to add that an early Federal statue prohibited the Federal government from building any Federal buildings in the District west of the Potomac. Thus, as you can imagine, the District residents west of the river must have resented the burdens of taxation without the benefits of representation and federally subsidized development. Slavery complicated the matter even more.

North Arizona Street is an interesting oddity as it is located at the far western tip of the original District and is now at the junction of Arlington Co., Fairfax Co., and the City of Falls Church. Within one block, the street passes through three jurisdictions, illustrating different road standards.

It starts at the south as Meridian Street in Falls Church with a curb and no sidewalks. As it enters Arlington Co. for the distance of one or two houses, it narrows significantly, loses its curbs and changes names to North Arizona Street. Then it quickly enters Fairfax County, regaining its name Meridan Street, where it quickly intersects a wide road with curbs and a sidewalk.

You can still see the original 1792 boundary stone located a pocket park on the street.

by Eric F. on Dec 10, 2009 12:20 pm • linkreport

Some streets got renamed some time in the '30s; Stafford used to be Clements Street. I think Quincy was also called something else.

Interestingly, "Clarendon" once stretched much farther west, encompassing Washington-Lee HS--not to be confused with Clarenford, a neighborhood north of Wash Blvd that was all but demolished for I-66 (though a small pocket remains just east of Glebe).

by JB on Dec 10, 2009 12:22 pm • linkreport

Great stuff! Nicely done.

by Joe on Dec 10, 2009 12:26 pm • linkreport

As a lifelong Arlington resident and son of a cartographer, I can say this post is one of the few cases I come across where people acknowledge that Arlington has a rational street system. Yes, not every road runs continuous from border to border, but it all fits in the system.

Another semi-related bit of trivial information, Glebe Road roughly follows the "Arlington Ridge", and you may notice, especially the farther away from JD Highway that you go, that when you are driving towards Glebe it is almost always "up hill" to get there.

by Lou on Dec 10, 2009 12:46 pm • linkreport

There's a part of Arlington that's south of the Boulevard yet retains an "N" designation in the streetname. It makes sense when you think about it.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 10, 2009 1:49 pm • linkreport

Oh, and very, very excellent post Matt. Way better than Arlington's page on the subject.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 10, 2009 1:53 pm • linkreport

Charlie, Spout Run Parkway ends at the GW Parkway, but isn't a part of it. When Kirkwood Rd crosses Lee Highway (at the Lyon Village Shopping Center), it becomes Spout Run Parkway, has a single exit for Lorcum Lane in both directions, and then merges drivers onto the GW.

Tiny little parkway but does the trick. Though it's considerably more confusing now than the old loop-around exits when I was growing up...

by John Alex Golden on Dec 10, 2009 1:56 pm • linkreport

And that would be N. Glebe Rd?

charlie: to answer your question, what is now Sprout Run Pkwy was originally part of the G.W. Pkwy. What is now G.W. Pkwy west of there opened up in stages during the early 1960s.

by Froggie on Dec 10, 2009 1:58 pm • linkreport

Interestingly, there is only one residential address on Spout Run Pkwy, my building, the Cardinal House Condominium. And I think it is the only address period, because Giant, CVS, et al, in the Lyon Village shopping center all list their address on Lee Hwy.

by Bob on Dec 10, 2009 2:49 pm • linkreport

Ditto to all the comments about discontinuous streets. When the civic leaders renamed the roads in the 30テや冱 they acted as though separated streets were part of a grid. But there has never been any plan to connect the parts. There are parts of S. Randolph Street and S. Quincy Street all over south Arlington.

S. Stafford Street still exists but the portion in Shirlington Village was recently renamed Campbell Avenue テや a sad departure from history and an otherwise rational naming system.

by Ray from Shirlington on Dec 10, 2009 3:46 pm • linkreport

Didn't know that, Froggie! Interesting!

by John Alex Golden on Dec 10, 2009 3:51 pm • linkreport

Arlington's streets didn't develop in one standard way. A lot of the development happened in small communities like Rosslyn, Clarendon, Columbia Pike, Ballston, Westover, etc. None of those areas ever became a town (Clarendon tried), but they all had separate identities up until shortly before the big street renaming. The street renaming happened because, as the post points out, Arlington County wanted USPS to recognize it all as one city name, and USPS wanted the county to simplify its streets if it did that.

So it's not really what you'd call a grid system. It's kind of like if I threw some marbles on the floor, drew a grid in the area where the marbles are, and identified each marble chiefly by the closest lines on the grid.

@Eric F.: That statute was actually enacted under pressure from Virginia, prior to the District's founding. They just didn't want to have much to do with the federal government. As we all know, it sort of bit Alexandria County in the ass.

@Froggie: Is that true? I'd never heard that before. I do know that Spout Run Parkway was planned to become part of Interstate 266.

@Lou: I thought Arlington Ridge Road followed the Arlington Ridge. (North of Pentagon City, it used to go straight through what's now Arlington Cemetery to Rosslyn. It actually formed the eastern border of the cemetery for a while.)

by Tim on Dec 10, 2009 3:53 pm • linkreport

@Tim. That's not what I heard about the statute barring federal buildings southwest of the Potomac.

The story as I heard it went something like this: When George Washington was given the power to site the Federal City, the limitation was that it would exist between the Anacostia River and some other point 50 miles up (that I can't recall). Geo. Washington lobbied to be able to locate the city slightly downriver of the allowable swath in such a way that it would encompass most of the pre-existing Alexandria. (Part of the District, thus, is south of the Anacostia.) Both Washington and Congress knew that Washington's family owned great holdings in this area that would likely increase in value substantially from being included in the Federal District. As a compromise, and to avoid the impression of impropriety, in exchange for allowing Geo. Washington to locate the District downriver of what was authorized, the statute was put in place that no federal buildings could be located there, so as not to unfairly enrich (or appear to unfairly enrich) the Washington family.

by Joey on Dec 10, 2009 4:12 pm • linkreport

@Tim, part II.

Spout Run Parkway predated the earliest plans of the Interstate system by decades. As I understand it, there were a number of proposals for that land other than just converting it wholesale to I-266, including keeping Spout Run Parkway in addition to running I-266 adjacent to it.

@Froggie, how was that intersection arranged before? I've been curious about how the various parkways in the region got their limited movements. Like how you can't get on the GW Parkway southbound from the Key Bridge, or how you can't get off Rock Creek Parkway northbound at P Street NW, (except during rush hour). I kind of assumed that the parkways used to be significantly less limited-access in form, and that left turns were probably more allowed. Is this right?

by Joey on Dec 10, 2009 4:17 pm • linkreport

I would love for a system wide grid for DC, Arlington & Alexandria

by kk on Dec 10, 2009 4:45 pm • linkreport

@Joey: Hmm, looks like you're right about Alexandria County. Now I don't remember where I read that.

As for SRP, I didn't mean for what I said to exclude what you said. But I'm still curious about what Froggie said.

by Tim on Dec 10, 2009 5:10 pm • linkreport

A little more background (being the highway historian that I am).

Planning for the G.W. Pkwy had existed for decades, but GW Pkwy itself did not exist north of Memorial Bridge until 1952, at which time the northern end of GW Pkwy followed today's Spout Run Pkwy and the short leg of Route 124 to Lee Hwy (Route 29).

This was considered temporary, though, as GW Pkwy was planned to extend further north....up to Great Falls at one point, but as we all know it never got built past the Beltway. The next leg north...up to 123...opened during the 1960-61 timeframe, at which point the former northern end became Spout Run Pkwy.

Regarding I-266...the original, ca. late 1950s design for I-266 had it following Spout Run, but only eastbound would have been concurrent....westbound Spout Run Pkwy would have still been separate from I-266. 1964-and-later plans had I-266 completely separate from Spout Run Pkwy.

by Froggie on Dec 10, 2009 6:22 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know why the alphabetical streets start with Ball Street? Was there ever a 'first-alphabet' street starting with A?

by Richard on Dec 10, 2009 6:27 pm • linkreport

I believe the reason for Arlington's massive renaming of the streets was the Post Office's threat to stop deliveries. Before the renaming, 8 streets were named "Lee". You can see a relic of this at Washington Blvd. and Arlington Blvd. (formerly Lee Blvd.) in the Washington-Lee apartments.


Ball St. was originally the second alphabetic street. The first one was demolished for the Pentagon, I believe.

by Chuck Coleman on Dec 10, 2009 8:35 pm • linkreport

There's a part of Arlington that's south of the Boulevard yet retains an "N" designation in the streetname. It makes sense when you think about it.
This would be the area near Fort Myer, since Arlington Blvd veers north just before it, along a stretch that would probably otherwise have been Courthouse Road.

by Wes on Dec 10, 2009 10:13 pm • linkreport

Matt, Great piece!

Also, interesting tid-bit about Washington and why no fed buildings could go in west of the Potomac. Despite this I'm sure the Washington family benefited immensely from the situating of DC here .. Just look at the Lee's and the estate they held right across from today's Mall area. (I believe they were descendents of Martha's ... ?) Makes you wonder where the rest of the Washington family ended up ... and what kind of wealth situating the capital here brought to them as a family.

by Lance on Dec 10, 2009 10:36 pm • linkreport

For those that are interested, there are a couple of large atlases dating from the 30テや冱, 40テや冱 and 50テや冱 here in the plan room at Courthouse Plaza (suite 800) that show the old and テや從ewテや street names. Back in 1999 we started with the list in the 1935 book to confirm all the street names we were using in GIS and then poured through every official report we could find that showed any other changes since then. My favorite was Courthouse Roadテやヲ the board at one point declared that the road be renamed Courthouse instead of Court House so that it wouldnテや冲 take away from the importance of the actual テや廚ourt Houseテや. In that memo from the board they stated that only the Court House itself should be referred to with two words while the streets should use one word. (I only wish I could find that memo nowテやヲ I re-filed it but after a couple offices moves I donテや冲 know where those memos all went... they belonged to another office that re-organized and moved twice since then.)

Originally all streets north of Arlington Blvd were supposed to have テや廸テや and those south テや彜テや. However we found memoテや冱 making changes over the years to various streets テやヲ notably ones that were only on one side of Arlington Blvd like Fairfax Dr. The memoテや冱 usually declared that since the street was unique and only on ones side of Arlington Blvd it didnテや冲テや need a N/S designator.

by CntyCartographer on Dec 11, 2009 7:49 am • linkreport

Washington didn't need the money. Remember that he offered to turn down the Presidential salary as a means to help out the US's struggling finances in the early years, but was convinced to take it as to not set the precedent that only the wealthy could afford to hold such high public office.

by Alex B. on Dec 11, 2009 8:57 am • linkreport

CntyCartographer: do those atlases also show the state primary routes within Arlington County? If so, I'd be interested in viewing them.

Also, on a related note, why does Arlington County">charge for GIS data when the District offers theirs for free on their website?

by Froggie on Dec 11, 2009 10:38 am • linkreport

The 1935 book does list US and State route numbers if that's what you're looking for.

As to the charge for the GIS products... I don't know why DC doesn't charge for their data. The State of VA does allow us to charge under the state's FOIA law and for topographic data allows us to charge more to recover some costs. If you would like to discuss it more send us an email (you can find it on our site.)

by CntyCartographer on Dec 11, 2009 11:02 am • linkreport

Here's the problem I have with Arlington's "plan": Notice 20th Pl, 20th Rd, 20th St all of which are "dashed lines" none of which intersect (which is what I've come to expect from outside of Arlington, i.e. if there is a 20th St. then 20th Pl. is off of it.) Also notice house 19th Rd crosses 19th Rd where the 2 halves become Vermont & Upland.

I honestly believe that the "system" was invented to keep people who don't live in Arlington, out of Arlington...

by Kearns on Dec 11, 2009 11:24 am • linkreport

@Kearns: Arlington's streets aren't typically through streets. If you want to travel long distances in Arlington, you have to travel on something that isn't a named or numbered street. This happens in Washington, DC too, though less often. I prefer to think of the streets and addresses as grid coordinates, then I use a Road, Boulevard or Drive to get near there.

Sure beats the alternative of having no system at all and naming the streets at random, like in Falls Church.

After 9 years of living here, I'm pretty good at navigation in Arlington. The biggest change for my California brain was that all trips don't require the freeway.

by Michael Perkins on Dec 11, 2009 11:57 am • linkreport

..That's nothing. Look at the place in Arlington where 28th Street South is north of 25th and 26th Streets. South 28th is probably the least attached to the grid. Campbell Ave. in Shirlington actually used to be 28th Street before being renamed two years ago.

by Wes on Dec 11, 2009 12:30 pm • linkreport

Actually parts of both 28th Street and the former Stafford Street, S. were turned into Campbell Avenue. It remains bothersome that Campbell has no relation to any naming system.

by Ray from Shirlington on Dec 11, 2009 12:43 pm • linkreport

@Kearns & Michael Perkins,
After working on the County maps for the last twenty years I've come to really appreciate the naming system. Give me a block number and street name and I can nearly pinpoint the spot on a map of the County... I've lived in Fairfax for as long and can't tell you were any street is since the names are so random.

I feel that once you know the convention you can easily navigate to any place in the County without a map and not get lost (temporarily misplaced but not lost...:) But there's no way you could navigate in Fairfax without an up-to-date map to guide you.

by CntyCartographer on Dec 11, 2009 1:04 pm • linkreport

Fairfax's situation is pretty much Virginia in general. Very few localities (referring to counties and the independent cities) have some sort of naming/numbering pattern to their streets and roads. A very far cry from my native Upper Midwest.

Regarding the GIS data...even within Virginia, VDOT posts centerline files online for free, as do several DOTs and other governmental entites across the country. Guess I'm just used to not having to pay for what is considered public information.

by Froggie on Dec 11, 2009 1:44 pm • linkreport

Check this out. There are nine instances of "60th and 60th" in the same neighborhood in Queens, NY.

by BeyondDC on Dec 11, 2009 5:40 pm • linkreport

The thing that gets me with Arlington is that the streets aren't alphabetical. They're grouped together by letter of the alphabet, but streets within each letter grouping aren't guaranteed to be in alphabetical order. Most cases it turns out to be alphabetical but there are exceptions, like Powhatan Street coming before Potomac Street or Livingston before Lebanon.

by Wes on Dec 11, 2009 8:23 pm • linkreport

It's true that VDOT does give away some street data for free... however ask VGIN for their VBMP data and you'll find that they got an exemption from FOIA for it so they could charge even more for it than what FOIA allows.

Most FOIA laws that I've seen allow a charge of some type some more some less. I don't set policy here though... however for the jurisdiction I do live in (Fairfax) I'm glad they do charge... I'd like some of my tax dollar recouped from companies that would just take the data and make a profit from it. I can't say why Arlington set up the charge since that was done about nineteen years ago and has been policy ever since.

FOIA was a means to allow the public to inspect government records and allow for a more "open" government. It wasn't a means to supplement private enterprise in their work so they could save a few bucks. Personally I'd have no problem giving away the data for a citizen to use for their own personal use or to use to question some "government" action. But for someone to take it and use it for profit when I (Joe Taxpayer) paid for it and I am not getting anything in return... I have a problem with it. I'm always amazed when I hear people complain about people getting something "free" from the government (handouts, food, etc)... but somehow that never translates to GIS data... :) just my two cents. (sorry to go way off topic.)

by CntyCartographer on Dec 13, 2009 10:03 am • linkreport

Not way off's been a point of contention for me ever since I got into GIS, since I'm one of those "citizens who use it for their own personal use". I just find it annoying that some governmental jurisdictions charge for what I consider public data (i.e. street data). I can understand your point regarding private businesses, but it doesn't help me, the private citizen/taxpayer, any.

by Froggie on Dec 13, 2009 1:37 pm • linkreport

The Central Library's Virginia Room also has a set of maps showing the pre-1932 street names--really neat stuff to look through, and an essential resource if you want to research an old house's history.

by Rob Pegoraro on Dec 13, 2009 2:03 pm • linkreport

We do offer the data for free to entities working on projects for the County. I know ours is generally some of the cheapest since most jurisdictions charge by the "tile" per layer and we just sell the whole county on one disk with almost all the data.

If you have some suggestions on how we can go about offering our data for a citizen's personal use while still charging an entity that wants to use it for profit we'd love to hear it... we're always open to suggestions. It's just that if it requires any staff time to do something, we'll have to charge back that time. And just putting the data on a web site for download by all opens it up to everyone who wants to use it for profit.

I'd love to find a method that works for all. Especially if it can save us some staff time and the citizen's money.

by CntyCartographer on Dec 14, 2009 9:19 am • linkreport

Ok, just for clarifcation... here's the VA FOIA rule that applies to GIS... interpret it as you will (I know everyone else does)... :)

F. A public body may make reasonable charges not to exceed its actual cost incurred in accessing, duplicating, supplying, or searching for the requested records. No public body shall impose any extraneous, intermediary or surplus fees or expenses to recoup the general costs associated with creating or maintaining records or transacting the general business of the public body. Any duplicating fee charged by a public body shall not exceed the actual cost of duplication. The public body may also make a reasonable charge for the cost incurred in supplying records produced from a geographic information system at the request of anyone other than the owner of the land that is the subject of the request. However, such charges shall not exceed the actual cost to the public body in supplying such records, except that the public body may charge, on a pro rata per acre basis, for the cost of creating topographical maps developed by the public body, for such maps or portions thereof, which encompass a contiguous area greater than 50 acres. All charges for the supplying of requested records shall be estimated in advance at the request of the citizen.

by CntyCartographer on Dec 14, 2009 9:34 am • linkreport

I'll have to sit and think about the first one (how to provide the data to private citizens while charging for the for-profit entities). Either that or eat the cost of obtaining the data as a "hobby cost"...

For the second one, what's their definition of "topographical maps"?

by Froggie on Dec 14, 2009 9:42 am • linkreport

"...definition of topographical maps"... :) you hit the nail on the head... they don't define it. I know the NOVA GIS staff in each county define that statement in different ways to suit their needs.

For us the only data that we currently charge "more" for are the contour CD and the Ortho CD. Those two datasets are not part of the basic data CD. The utilities are not either but we don't release those unless specially requested since 9/11 and they have to go through a few extra approvals.

by CntyCartographer on Dec 14, 2009 4:09 pm • linkreport

Does anyone know who built Washington & Lee Apartments just off Pershing Drive? Plus - does anyone have access to images of Washington & Lee Apartments during its construction and when it was new? I grew up there and was brought home there when I was born. Doing a research project. Thanks in advance of any help.

by Jim Smart on Jan 17, 2011 12:18 am • linkreport

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