Taking the High Road with Worldwide Address Formats

In a country where everybody is born with slight streak of rebellion, especially where traffic lights are concerned, it’s perhaps a little surprising that The Netherlands has one of the world’s most standardised address formats.Every Dutch street address has a maximum of just five components – a thoroughfare name, a building number, a sub-building indicator, a postal code and a place name. Buildings have odd numbers along one side of the street and even numbers along the other side. All very sensible and ordered.

Google mishaps

So regimented is the address system, in fact, that anomalies are very noticeable.

Close to where I live, the building number along the street jumps suddenly from 140 to 368, I presume as a result of demolitions and re-buildings after the Second World War. This is so unusual that a prominent notice has been added to where the buildings abut: “here begins number 368”.

Even within apparently standardised systems like this, though, there is a fair amount of variation. Thoroughfares often change name along their span. One street in Amsterdam changes its name six times along its (quite short) length. Not only a nightmare for taxi drivers, it also confuses the all-conquering Google Maps, which is only able to show the first and last segments of the thoroughfare.

Cardinal win

Street layouts, names and systems, as with their numbering, differ markedly throughout the world. Within Chinese philosophy, the cardinal compass points have great significance. This is reflected in the street addressing system, which can see street names within cities change as many as 16 times, with the building numbering recommencing when the name changes. Streets may be divided into east and west or north and south, such as Nanjing dong lu (Nanking Street East), Nanjing zhong lu (Nanking Street Central) and Nanjing xi lu (Nanking Street West).

Whereas in Europe building numbers with more than three digits are a rarity, in North America thoroughfares can be longer, and building numbers of five or more digits are not uncommon. Yonge Street in Canada claimed for many years to be the world’s longest street, at 1896 km. It isn’t, as its name changes along its length, and fortunately the building number ranges repeat too.

In the New World many streets are numbered rather than named. Confusingly, some are numbered and named – in New York, Sixth Avenue, or Avenue of the Americas,  is a commonly quoted example of this.

International street-smarts

In some countries, building numbers count up along the same side of the street; in others odd and even numbers are on either side of the road.

In still other countries, such as Japan and Korea, the roads are seen for addressing purposes as just the (usually unnamed) empty spaces between buildings – the blocks and buildings are numbered in the order in which the building was built (excellently explained here). This is a system which, while confusing for visitors, virtually guarantees the postal workers’ jobs for life!

Whole swathes of the world have streets with no names and buildings with no numbers.  When people need to guide visitors to their location they use charming but highly inconsistent descriptive addresses – “to the left of the second bridge, beyond the blue building and opposite the supermarket”.

Don’t be fooled: they’re avenue on

It’s not just address block formats which change between countries – the whole infrastructure the addresses describe differs too.

Interesting though these anomalies are to some of us, they have serious consequences for your international data gathering, processing and storage systems. Equally, don’t be fooled by apparently uniform addressing systems – every system has its idiosyncrasies and its exceptions.

As ever, the rule is to arm yourself in preparation for these differences by learning about them – knowledge is the key to good international data management.


  • Jeff

    Hi Graham,

    Excellent article. Was wondering if you had intended to provide a link to the “excellent explanation” of the Japanese addressing system? I’d love to give it a read.

    Was wondering if you’ve spent much time working with UPU and their Postcode database? A recent challenge I’ve been trying to tackle. If so, perhaps we could chat at some point.

    -Jeff

  • Hi Jeff,

    Glad you enjoyed it.

    The link to the explanation of the Japanese postal code system is above – click on the word “here” (easy to miss, I know). I won’t comment about any provider’s offering on this public forum, but you’re welcome to contact me for my personal opinions offline.

    Graham

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