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10 Strange Street Facts You Never Thought Were a Thing
You may not think about it much, but your daily walk around the neighborhood is full of weird, strange, and unexpected things. We know what you’re thinking: it’s just a sidewalk, right? What could be so odd about going around town on foot—aside from dodging cracks in the cement and maybe the occasional leftover dog droppings that a not-so-nice neighbor forgot to pick up.
There’s the whole thing around car culture, too. Americans love their cars, and when we’re not walking in our neighborhoods, we are driving through them. (Hopefully, at not too high a rate of speed!) We may not think about it much as we make our way around town throughout the day, but every aspect of our drive is carefully coordinated and considered by government entities that build and maintain the roads.
With that, the truth is that the things that make your neighborhood setup so seemingly normal actually have detailed and even unlikely backstories. So, today, we’ll take a long look at lesser-known facts about streets, sidewalks, and other common city items and creations in this unique list. After you’re done reading all these tidbits, you’ll never look at your morning walk around your ‘hood or commute to work in the same way again!
10 A Road? Or a Street?
When walking along the sidewalk, are you on a road, a street, a parkway, a lane, a boulevard, or a “way”? Those distinctions matter. Sure, to all of us regular folk, we may think that the titles given to various streets are more or less interchangeable. And in the modern world, that may be sort of true; the difference between “street” and “road” is much more muddied in this day and age. But historically, those differences were actually very specific.
A “road” technically means a route that connects two different towns or places. A “street,” on the other hand, is a pathway within one town that is paved and usually lined with buildings, homes, and the like. A “boulevard” is a main thoroughfare within a city that is most often used as a main artery for people to get around for work. And a “parkway” is a tree-lined thoroughfare that usually has the two sides of traffic divided by some amount of grass within the middle of it.
Those last two aren’t as strictly distinct for city planners as the first two, though. And the rules for all four are less strictly followed now than in previous decades. You are more likely to see variations in names and titles now than you would have in the middle of the last century, for example. However, the distinctions are rooted in the history of route planning within cities. And at one time, they were very important to development and growth!
9 Sizing up Squirrels
On practically any sidewalk where you stroll along in the United States, you’re bound to see a squirrel or two. (Or three, or four, or a dozen.) The furry little bushy-tailed creatures hop from tree to tree, scamper along the ground across the sidewalk’s path, and dash out daringly in front of cars to (hopefully) make it across the road and live another day. They love to eat nuts, of course. And their frenetic pace at gathering food and getting up to safety away from dogs, cars, and other street-adjacent hazards makes us exhausted just watching it. How could an animal move so fast and so frantically all the time? Take a rest, little guy!
The quick-moving ways aren’t limited to the squirrel’s physical activity, though. In fact, their fast-twitch actions go on in ways we can’t even see. Here’s a wild example: An average front incisor tooth on a healthy adult squirrel grows at the rate of about 6 inches (15 cm) per YEAR. To put that into perspective, human hair on your head also grows at about six inches per year. So imagine that pace, but with teeth. Terrifying!
But for squirrels, that growth is a life-or-death necessity. They are constantly chewing and storing away nuts and other food as they scavenge throughout every day of their lives. So they need durable teeth that can re-grow and continue to remain sharp and strong since they wear them down so quickly. The constant chewing, eating, scavenging, and foraging keep their teeth in check both ways—always growing but also always being worn down to make room for that new growth.
8 Stratas to Streets
The word “street” has gone through an interesting evolution over the years. At first, it was the Latin word “strata,” commonly used by the Romans and derived from a Greek word before it. In Rome, it was first documented by the historian Eutropius, who lived in the fourth century. Then, it carried on from there. That word, known as “stratæ” in Eutropius’s day, was actually an abbreviation of the word “via strata,” which meant “paved road.” And it brought forth a few other words we still use in English today, like “stratum” and “stratification.”
Interestingly, the “street” we know now that came from “strata” is one of the only words that has been used continuously from ancient Roman and Greek times all the way to the modern age. Germanic peoples of Europe borrowed “strata” from the Latin inspiration and soon enough, it forked into two new words: “strasse,” which is still used today in modern German, and “stret,” which was the Old English version of this development. Today, we commonly know it as “street” here in America and the rest of the English-speaking world, and, well, here we are!
7 Gotta Time the Light
There’s always a point where you are in that middle zone while driving, and a green light goes yellow in front of you. Do you slow down quickly and stop for the light? Do you keep going through it because you can safely make it past? Sure, we know what the DMV says in driver’s tests about all that, but most of us are trying to get to our destination. So we often gun it through the yellow light. But the actual yellow signal itself is one of the variables in this equation, too—even if you don’t realize it.
In fact, yellow lights are pre-set by cities to run for a certain length of time. And the amount of time it flashes yellow before transferring to the red above it isn’t the same on every street corner. Yellow lights are instead scheduled based on how fast the traffic is legally allowed to move on that specific street.
For streets with speed limits of 55 mph (88 km/h), yellow signals last more than five seconds. On the other hand, for streets that are just 30 mph ((48 km/h) avenues, yellow lights are programmed to last only three seconds. And, of course, before the opposing traffic gets its own green light crossing the other way, there is a pause of red lights going both directions that often lasts anywhere from one to three seconds. You can never be too careful!
6 Starting with Stop Signs
Stop signs didn’t start out the way we see them on the road now. They were called “boulevard stops” in the 1920s when they first came into being. And they weren’t red and octagonal, either; they were black—and shaped like a diamond! These boulevard stops were very often placed along major roadways in urban centers.
But for the people who lived on the boulevards that held these diamond-shaped signs back then, there was a problem: Cars on the right-of-way that didn’t have these boulevard stops tended to fly even faster than usual down the road. The drivers knew they wouldn’t be asked to stop for anything, so they careened forward dangerously, knowing other drivers would stop for them.
Thankfully, instead of scrapping stop signs altogether, city planners and law enforcement agencies across the United States simply installed more. And soon after stop signs came into vogue, stoplights spread across the country as well. But that’s not the end of the story! After all, stop signs aren’t diamond-shaped or black now. And there’s a reason for it!
In the early 1920s, officers of the Detroit Police Department moved to cut the corners off the diamond stop signs. He did that because he was concerned about safety, and he wanted stop signs in his district to be more unique. That way, they would stand out for drivers going down the road and trying to differentiate between them and other traffic signs, which were also shaped like diamonds at the time.
Soon, the black look of stop signs was scrapped, too. First, it was nixed in favor of a yellow sign. But eventually, in the late 1940s, fade-resistant red paint came out, and stop signs could suddenly stand out. By 1954, regulators nationwide mandated that all stop signs be painted red with white lettering—the look we know today.
5 Sidewalks Are Actually Ancient
How long do you think sidewalks have been around? Whatever you’re guessing in your head right now, we’ve got bad news: They are way older than that. Sidewalks, as it turns out, go back at least 4,000 years. And not long after that, they were mainstream. The Greek city of Corinth had sidewalks in common use as early as the fourth century BC. Then, the Romans built their own sidewalks—which they called sēmitae—and spread them all around their empire. Now, people had room to walk down busy roads where carts, horses, and other commerce moved around them.
After the Romans, the Middle Ages saw roads and sidewalks change quite a bit. Streets narrowed greatly in most places across Europe, and there was no separation between people, wagons, and horses for the most part. That all changed in 1666 when the Great Fire of London occurred, though. City officials moved to bring some order to London. Elsewhere in Europe, other planners wanted to clean up the streets for both safety and community hygiene. As early as 1671, London laws called for various streets to be paved with cobblestones so pedestrians and horses could walk in good conditions.
By the late 18th century, the British House of Commons passed a series of what came to be known as Paving Acts. The 1766 Paving & Lighting Act gave authority to London officials to create sidewalks and paved footpaths all throughout the capital city. That act also ordered sidewalks to be raised above the street level with curbs formed to separate the pedestrian paths from wagons rolling along in the middle of the street.
Other European nations quickly followed suit with their own rules for sidewalks to keep pedestrians apart from faster-moving traffic. By the mid-19th century, sidewalks were more or less standardized across European capital cities and other urban centers—more spacious, more separated, and more sophisticated than ever before.
4 Second Street Success!
All over the country, on pretty much every sidewalk you can find in cities, suburbs, or even rural areas, there are street signs. These signs bear the names of the streets, and the most common ones are well-known coast to coast. Everything from “Main Street” and “Maple Street” to “Lincoln Street” and “Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.” are regular finds in all kinds of different cities. But none of those we’ve just mentioned are the most common street names in the country. In fact, the United States has a very unexpected—but very sensible—most common street name across the land: Second Street!
You might think that “Main Street” would be the most common street name in America. Or perhaps “First Street” since, well, it’s tough to get a “Second Street” down the line without the natural first one before it. But that’s where the stats get tripped up a bit. If you were to combine “Main Street” and “First Street” into one tally, the combination would be the most popular street name in the U.S. by far.
But you can’t combine them! They are different names, after all. So when taken separately, their raw totals take a hit. Amazingly, because different cities have different ways of calling out the first street created within their geographical boundaries, Second Street jumps over both names individually for the top spot.
3 Historic Hydrants
When you’re walking around your neighborhood, there’s at least one thing you surely notice: fire hydrants. They’re all over the place, of course, connected to each other and the water system running below the concrete just in case the worst should happen and a home should catch fire. And there’s one key component to fire hydrants that really set them apart: their bolts.
The basic fire hydrant is capped by five-sided bolts that can only be opened by appropriately-tooled five-sided wrenches. Not many people have access to those, but the fire department does, and they know how to use them in a pinch. (In places like NYC, they also know how to un-bolt the hydrant for a bit to temporarily spray some low-pressure water high in the air for kids to play in and cool off during the summer!)
These locked and powerful bolts weren’t how firefighting was always done throughout history. Over the last few centuries, before fire hydrants, private firefighting companies used hollowed-out logs to fight fires around town. When a fire broke out, these men would show up to the scene and dig down into the ground out front. They would reach the pipe buried below and drill a hole in it. Then, they’d bail out water and use it to douse the ongoing fire.
After the fire was (hopefully) successfully and quickly put out, they’d shove a long stick into the hole they had just drilled into the pipe below. They’d fill back in the dirt over the pipe, but the stick would still stand high above where the ground was recovered. That way, when the next fire occurred on that block, the firefighters could quickly get to the hole they’d already drilled, re-open it, and once again battle the blaze. Plus, that’s where the term “fire plug” comes from!
2 The Decline of Mailboxes
If your street is anything like the average street in urban America, you may have a mailbox somewhere along the way on the sidewalk in front of you. The key word there is “somewhere” because these blue USPS mailboxes certainly aren’t on every corner. And every year, they are kept on fewer and fewer corners. Heck, at this rate, it may be near impossible to find a mailbox other than whatever goes on at the actual post office itself one day!
While the USPS handles and delivers hundreds of millions of pieces of mail every day, they aren’t too keen on keeping mailboxes out in the open anymore. Over the past two decades, in fact, the government organization has removed more than 250,000 blue USPS mailboxes from street corners. That fact is wild to think about when it comes to the sidewalk scene on your neighborhood walk. What’s better than opening up the little hatch and dropping off a piece of mail while out for a stroll?
The USPS themselves cite various factors for why they’ve cut way back on those blue mailboxes. The internet is, of course, a big one. As people can now email, tweet, text, and video chat, their need to send snail mail has lessened. And because this decline in mailboxes began back in 2000, the ‘net has no doubt had a major effect.
While mass mailers still send out tons of paper mail every year, Average Joes don’t do it at the same rate that they used to years ago. So the big, blue mailbox set on the street corner is quickly becoming a thing of the past. And the ones sticking around have changed to prevent theft in ways never before seen by USPS officials. Oh, well!
1 Concrete Conundrum
Concrete is a really, really common substance. Worldwide, humans produce more concrete every year than literally any other thing manufactured on planet Earth. Workers put together literally billions of tons of concrete annually. Some estimates hold that there are as many as 3,000 pounds (1,360 kilograms) of concrete made per year for every living human on earth! That comes out to more concrete produced than other major building products. It’s more than what we make from steel, wood, plastic, and aluminum combined. That’s a lot of the hard stuff!
And it goes down deep. Sidewalk concrete is most typically 4 inches (10 cm) thick. Driveways and other roadways that host cars are 6-8 inches (15-20 cm) in thickness. And freeways tend to be as much as 11 inches (28 cm) thick to sustain the pounding that comes from thousands and thousands of cars above. Basically, concrete covers an ever-more significant portion of the earth every year. It even has some environmentalists worried about what the long-term ramifications of that production might be for future generations.
But the craziest part is that all this sidewalk stuff was lost for nearly a thousand years back in the day. It seems the ancient Romans developed specialized kilns that perfected a concrete recipe they used frequently more than 2,000 years ago. They built incredible structures with it—like the Pantheon and many others—which still stand today. That their concrete was so strong and durable should surely mean we took that recipe and perfected it, making it even better in the modern era, right? Wrong!
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the formula for this powerful, durable concrete was somehow misplaced. And we’re not talking about being lost in a random drawer during a move or something. We mean the concrete recipe the Romans used with such great success was lost for more than nine centuries!
Finally, in 1414, monks in a Swiss monastery opened a book called On Architecture and discovered what city leaders had been hoping to find for centuries: the recipe to Roman concrete, all laid out right there in front of them. Ever since, we’ve used that formulation with great success. But it was almost lost to history forever!