Ask a Cartographer: Who Names Streets?

Lost in longitude or confused by contour lines? Want to know all the tips and tricks for getting the most out of your atlas? Curious if paper towns still exist? "Ask a Cartographer" is your opportunity to get the facts straight from the source. Tom Vitacco, Rand McNally Publishing’s Director of GIS and Steve Wiertz, Sr. GIS Analyst, are here to answer your burning questions, and geek out over fascinating map lore – one exploration at a time.

This week, we are discussing how streets are named and how Rand McNally pioneered idea for numbering the roads.

Question: How involved are cartographers in the naming of streets and roads and how does Rand McNally make sure all the street names are accurate on their maps?

Tom’s Answer:

Thank you so much for the questions! Regarding your first question, I would say cartographers in general are not too involved in naming new streets or roads. Often the street naming process is handled by the different departments working on the project, such as real estate developers, urban planners, and the public works team who submit naming suggestions to the city or municipality for review and approval. I have also heard of communities getting involved in the naming process through contests or public forums and meetings to gather input. Some of these departments might have a cartographer on staff as well so in that instance the cartographer might provide input on street names.

I know during my 38 years as a cartographer at Rand McNally, I have never been involved in naming streets. However, more than a hundred years ago, a Rand cartographer named John Brink decided to add numbers to the roads on a map he was creating for a company contest aimed at developing new mapping products. To take his concept even further, he made numbered signs and installed them along the actual roads to match his map. He won $100 in the company contest for his effort. His map, published in 1917 was the first to number highways. Eventually though, his idea took off when a National Highway System was formed to create a uniform marking system for road numbers in 1926.

To answer your second question about how we ensure that street names are accurate, we do use many resources to check street names on our maps. Since the maps in our core road atlas products are mainly state-level, street names are displayed on the city inset maps except for when a highway has a proper name such as the Jane Addams Memorial Tollway outside of Chicago.

Our Sr. GIS Analyst Steve Wiertz is in charge of checking street name accuracy so I’ll let him explain the process. “To check names, we often refer to publicly accessible Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to confirm our content is correct and we also reference state and city maps posted by government agencies and departments of transportation as well as other online sources available today,” said Steve.

We even have customers that write in via email to tell us about road or other name changes. We put a lot of effort into researching and checking our map databases for accuracy because Rand McNally maps have always been a trusted resource for our customers, and we want to ensure that legacy continues.

Thanks again and I hope my reply offers some clarity to your questions.

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Author: Tom Vitacco
Date:Jun 4th 2024