Ever wonder what the difference is—or if there even is a difference—between a “circle” and a “court?” The United States has a complex and diverse thoroughfare system, and it’s easy to confuse different types of thoroughfares with one another. But being able to distinguish among the different types can help drivers understand how to use them properly, share them with others and potentially avoid accidents.
“Road” and “street” are the most common terms that come to mind when discussing thoroughfares, and they are often used interchangeably. But, there is a difference between a road and a street. Roads are defined as strips of land that connect two urban or urbanized areas, such as cities or towns. Paved roads within those urban or urbanized areas are generally referred to as streets. Beyond that, there are alleys, boulevards, parkways and more. Confusing, right? To learn more about the differences between these terms, read on.
Glossary of U.S. Thoroughfare Terms
Alley. A narrow passageway or path behind or between a building, mainly intended for pedestrians. Alleys can be lined with houses, buildings, walls or even hedges. They are often used to connect a street to the rear of a building.
Avenue. A straight, wide thoroughfare in cities and towns, usually lined with shrubs or trees. Avenues most commonly run in a north-south direction and are meant for short-distance travel, usually ending at a landmark, monument or important building.
Boulevard. A broad thoroughfare with more than one lane in each direction, lined with shrubs or trees on each side. Boulevards often feature other types of plants or flowers in their median. The term “boulevard” is sometimes used synonymously with “avenue,” but there are a few differences between the two. Boulevards can run diagonally and must have a turn lane, unlike avenues.
Causeway. A raised road that is constructed on a marshland, on a wetland, or over shallow water. Causeways tend to be long and narrow. The term can also refer to a railway.
Circle. A one-way circular intersection that is controlled by traffic signs or signals. Circles usually have a fountain, island, or park at their center.
Court. A short street that often ends in a cul-de-sac. Typically, courts are shaped like horseshoes, allowing vehicles to make U-turns with ease.
Drive. A thoroughfare that is typically at least 1,000-feet long and characterized by numerous curves, unlike avenues and boulevards. This term is mostly used to refer to residential streets rather than major roads.
Expressway. A major roadway built without intersections. Expressways are designed for high-speed driving, aided by limiting access and exit points. They feature a divider between lanes of opposing traffic.
Freeway. A major, controlled-access roadway without tolls or level intersections or crossings. Freeways can be accessed via ramps only, as opposed to expressways, which can be accessed via local roads at certain points. Freeways are divided highways designed for safe, high-speed driving.
Highway. A major roadway typically connecting two cities. Highways can have as few as two lanes in each direction and include a median between lanes of opposing traffic. Traffic signs, signals, and cross traffic are allowed on highways, which is one of main differences between them and freeways.
Lane. A narrow, short thoroughfare typically found in a residential location. Lanes are typically curved and are dead-ends. This term may sometimes refer to a private thoroughfare.
Park. A residential street, oftentimes a dead-end, usually running along a shore.
Parkway. A landscaped highway either running through a park or connecting an urban area to a park. Many parkways have evolved into major commuter thoroughfares, and no longer allow for relaxed and scenic driving, as they once did.
Place. A short street that often ends in a cul-de-sac or other type of dead-end. Places are usually under 1,000-feet long.
Plaza. A narrow thoroughfare intended for use by pedestrians. Plazas are often found in shopping areas outside cities.
Roundabout. “Circle” and “roundabout” are often used interchangeably, but access to circles is controlled by traffic signals or signs, whereas access to roundabouts is not controlled by any signal or sign. Vehicles entering a roundabout are required to slow down or stop for any traffic already in the loop.
Road. A paved thoroughfare that provides a connection between two cities or towns and is intended for transportation. This term is also commonly used to refer to paths and routes generically.
Square. A paved rectangular thoroughfare intended for pedestrian use that can offer limited access to motor vehicles. Squares are often found at the center of a city with a fountain in the middle or a market across the entirety.
Street. A paved path within a city, a town or any other urban or urbanized area. As opposed to roads, for which the main purpose is to allow for the transportation of people and goods between two points, streets are designed to allow for interaction between people. Streets are lined with houses or stores and they feature sidewalks, which enable and encourage interaction between pedestrians.
Terrace. A type of residential thoroughfare typically constructed on higher ground overlooking a large portion of a city.
Way. A narrow, short, winding road. Ways run diagonally and are no longer than 1,000 feet.
Keep in mind that many thoroughfares were named quite some time ago. For some, although their names have remained the same, their actual layouts and the structures surrounding them have changed. So, don’t be surprised if you come across a circle that’s more like a roundabout or lane that’s more like a street.
Wherever you’re driving, make sure you have the right car insurance.