Tag Archives: Autobahn

Driving Me Dazy

Driving on highways is different wherever one travels.  The US has large expanses of land, and most major cities have many miles between them, hence national highways are sort of laid out and numbered in a grid pattern.  Look at national maps for even the largest European countries, like France and Germany, and it can look like that pot of spaghetti you spilled on the kitchen floor while trying to “help” your mom when you were 9 years old.

United States Interstate traffic carries ~25% of all vehicle miles, and ~80% of all commercially transported product, by value

It’s OK.  You felt bad when you spilled dinner, but mom made it a learning experience and you are a better person for it.  Now we’re going to make a little sense of those European “spilled spaghetti” highway maps.

Although these countries individually generally do not lend themselves to a US-style grid and grid-number system, both because of history and geography, they do indeed have patterns.  These are not very useful, if you want my biased opinion.  Well, perhaps useful for rote memorization.

European countries all have several “levels” of highway, just as in the US.  And each level will carry different amounts of traffic, depending on demand and the level.  For example, in the US, the Interstate Highway system has very high demand, and has the highest standard.  Although comprising only about 1% of all US highways by mileage, the Interstate highways carry 25% of highway traffic by vehicle miles.  That’s astounding.  A little more on this later.

I’ll use the two largest European countries, France and Germany, as examples here (um, “largest” not counting Russia).  Each also, naturally, has multiple levels of highway.  Or Classes.  Each has an “A”, or top level “motorway.”  In Germany the A stands for Autobahn.  Of course.  In France it is A for an Autoroute.  These are limited access, high speed, and high standard roadways; in France there is often a toll involved – and they are quite expensive. 

Each has a second-tier highway as well. In France, it’s the N highways, or Route Nationale.  Germany’s second-tier are “B” (which makes more sense, B following A), for Bundesstraßen – or Federal Roads.  These are often quite nice as well.

Speaking of expensive. Beware of radar speed detectors, especially on the B or N roads.  Speed limits rise and fall rapidly around mid- and smaller-sized cities.  Where it falls suddenly – often with scant warning – there is almost sure to be an automatic radar speed detector. If you flinch when you see a sudden flash (usually blue), you’ve been nicked. Your car rental company will make sure you get all of these resulting traffic tickets, while the ticket processing fees are inevitably pinned to your credit card.  Sneaky European bastards. You can generally ignore the tickets themselves; they make nice wallpaper, or fire starters, tools to study another language, whatever. (I hear Italy is the absolute worst). The money grabbers, er, ah, traffic officials will try to collect for about 6 months.  Ignore them. They will give up…eventually. But the processing fees for the car hire company are unavoidable. Those cost about $25 a pop.

As much of the highway patterns initially look like spilled spaghetti to an American European-car-vacation beginner, one cannot imagine at first that there is a numbering pattern.  The routes generally link larger cities and often follow – or run roughly parallel to – centuries’ old trade routes.  Often newer, higher standard “A” routes run near the “B” or “N” routes, but bypassing the snarled urban areas. But … an actual numbering pattern?

France’s Autoroute (A) network. Spokes leading to/from Paris

Well, of course there is a pattern.  We are talking Germans here.  How could Germans not have a pattern? And the French would hate to be outdone by their European rival brother. 

Germany’s single digit Autobahn A highways are border to border (except 2, apparently)

In both countries highway number sequences are assigned by region.  It’s that simple.  In France, the major highways near Paris seem to get most of the lower numbers; and they sort of radiate out from there, like crooked spokes on a banged up old bicycle wheel.  In Germany the single digit “A” autobahn highways have single digit numbers if they run across the entire country – border-to-border, so to speak.  The rest are assigned by region: for example, any Autobahn in Bavaria has an ID number in the 90s.

Yet, the Europeans have demonstrated a sort of “Highway-Pattern-and-Numbering-Envy”.  “Envy of whom?” you ask.  Of course, the United States.

In September 1925 – nearly a century ago – a small committee of national highway officials met at the Jefferson Hotel in downtown St. Louis. One of their tasks? To assign numbers to the new federal highway system. Other related tasks involved national highway standards: e.g. widths, grades, surfaces, signs and markings. This would become the US Highway system.

Until then, as in Europe, major roads – and later highways – followed older trails: in the US either old Amerindian, pioneer or fur trade routes. And, to make it complicated, each state had their own system for numbering highways (sometimes letters or names), even if  they “linked up” with a highway in an adjoining state.  They were twisted too; they often directed motorists on less than efficient paths, in order to promote commerce in remote, but politically well-connected, towns and villages. [many US highways retain these rather anachronistic vestiges, wandering through downtown and business sectors of towns, villages and cities].

Well, in what seems to have been accomplished in a single day, September 25th, a small committee of five Chief State Engineers (from Illinois, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon, and South Carolina) devised the US Highway numbering system.  With few exceptions, it’s still in use today. 

Ah, the beauty, power and efficiencey of small but powerful committees.  China, anyone? Anyhow …

These mighty five decided that highways leading mostly north/south would be assigned odd numbers, with the lowest starting along the east coast. These odd-numbers would increase as you moved west, with the highest odd-numbers being along the west coast. The longest and/or most important N/S routes would end with the number five.

Routes that went mostly East/West would be assigned even numbers; with lower numbers in the north, and increasing to larger numbers in the south.  The longest and/or most important E/W routes would end with the number zero. For example: the first transcontinental highway, also called the Lincoln Highway, was US Highway 30. 

The beloved and ballyhooed highway from Chicago to Los Angeles, which we know as “Route 66”, was originally to be numbered Route 60.  But Kentucky governor William Field wanted the more important sounding 60 to run through his state. Route 66 is officially retired, but signs and the famous song still commemorate “66”, and its representation for our attraction for the open road.

This is the US Highway numbering system still in use today.

A few decades later, in the 1950s, when President Eisenhower got the nationwide super highway system approved (the so-called Interstate Highway System, officially called the “Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways”) the numbering scheme for the new system was kept more or less intact.  With one major twist.

Key to Interstate Highway numbering: these shown end in 5 or 0; to they go border to border, or sea-to-sea, or sea-to-border. See extra figure in footnotes.

To avoid number confusion with the US Highway numbers, the lower numbered North/South Interstate routes would be in the west, instead of the east, increasing as the numbering moved east.  And the lower numbered East/West routes would be in the south, instead of the north, increasing as the “grid” progressed north.  [They wanted no number ambiguity or confusion, which was possible in the middle of the country: fly-over country. So they made a rule that there are no duplicate US numbers and Interstate numbers within the same state. This is the main reason there is no Interstate 50 or 60. And the north/south number confusion was solved by having so many highways in the more densely populated east.]

Although mainly sold as something to facilitate national defense, the Interstate system by far has had its greatest effect on commerce, and next tourism. Up to 80% of the nation’s commercial product (by value and mile) is moved to market, or between suppliers and factories, along Interstate highways. Its effect on individual or family travel: Driving across many states, or the entire nation, has been a summer vacation right-of passage in many families for decades. Many commuters use it as well.

US Highways (left) and Interstate Highways (right) have different markings and colors. US 40 (or Route 40) runs near Interstate 70 (or I-70) across much of the country, from the east coast, across the Rocky Mtns to Utah.

A few asides on the numbering systems. [Recall there is a difference between US Highways (often called “Routes”) and Interstate Highways.]

(1) The US coastal highways do not follow the “5” designation for major N/S routes: US 1 runs along the entire east coast, with US 99 and 101 running along, or near, the west coast. Neither end in a 5. [See add’l map in footnotes].

(2) Three-digit US highway numbers show highways that are sort of alternates to the original: for example, US 287 which passes through my neighborhood, goes north/south through the same regions as US 87.  Both go from the CAN-US border in Montana down to the Texas gulf coast. Both US 85 and US 285 also pass near our home. 85 goes from the US-CAN border in North Dakota all the way to the Mexican border in El Paso; 285 branches off from 85 in Denver and winds down to dusty west Texas as well.

(3) For the Interstate system, three digit numbers generally indicate loops or by-passes if the first digit is even (I-405 loops around Seattle, but otherwise is on the I-5 path) or, if the first digit is odd, it denotes spurs that shoot out to facilitate transport and commerce (I-190 in Chicago connects I-90 to O’Hare airport).


The United Nations was formed in 1945 at the close of World War 2 to help countries peaceably work together.  Well, in short order the UN had a commission for pretty much everything.  One of those was the UN Economic Commission for Europe (or UNECE). 

Around 1950 the UNECE looked first at the many highways in Europe, noting that they – like in the US before the 1925 St Louis Commission – often changed identification as they crossed boundaries. National boundaries in the case of Europe.  They noticed the numbering systems were messy and inconsistent. They also anticipated economic growth as recovery from war progressed, which would require more and better roads.  The vision was vast, eventually reaching from the UK and Ireland (island nations!) to Central Asia, and beyond … almost to China. A potential for a vast grid and simple, consistent numbering based on the cardinal directions! To wit: Copying the US approach.

These are the “E” highways shown on maps.  It is a separately numbered set of highways, much more often than not simply using existing highways. The “E” numbers were just placed alongside the “A” — and in some cases the “B” or “N” — numbers on signs and maps.

With some exceptions, they followed the US example for the “E” highways.  Generally North/South are odd; East/West are even. They have secret codes for loops and spurs and local funkiness, just as in the US. The “E” highways are generally “A” class: that is, limited access and high speed.  Yeah, there are exceptions, and lots more tedious details, but it’s kinda cool that this system extends from Ireland to Kyrgyzstan. In fact, the E 80 goes from Lisbon to Tokyo!

E highways even span the the North Sea (although the UK refuses to implement them; the M, for Motorway, system is quite satisfactory — you know: Brexit, not using the Euro and all that).

The E network throughout Europe and much of Asia, with numbering patterns based more or less on the US highway system

A consistent and logical numbering system for a huge grid of highways. Says the US: You’re welcome.  Bitte sehr.  Prego.  De nada. Molim.  Hey, have fun with it.  It’s working for us. Hope it continues to work for you.

Until next essay, I wish you safe travels with simple and uncomplicated maps and highways. Yes, even with simple easy to understand highway numbering, keep your GPS/SatNav on and up-to-date.


Joe Girard © 2020

Note of thanks to John Sarkis for his St Louis history blog, which provided many details and inspired this essay.

For my European friends and family — feel free to make corrections, additions or suggested edits in the comments on the A, B, E, N parts of the essay.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can add yourself to the notification list for when there is newly published material by clicking here. Or emailing joe@girardmeister.com

Extra figure showing US vs Interstate Numbering scheme.

US routes have low numbers in north and east.
Interstate numbers have low numbers in south and west.
US 10 used to run to Seattle, but was gradually replaced and de-commissioned as I-90 was completed in segments.

P is for Privilege

CW (Content Warning).  Please stop right now if you’re expecting a lofty essay on privilege in our culture.  This essay contains a few more thoughts and observations from our recently concluded extended expedition through part of Europe. Regarding privilege, see note [1].

The musical Urinetown must have one of the most unlikely plots – and titles! – to ever go on-stage and  be regarded as a critical success. [2]

My short version of the plot set up.  At some dark time and dismal place in the future there has been a decade’s long drought so severe that there is virtually no water for almost any use. So bad, in fact that the government creates a preposterous scheme to limit water consumption. In fact, it’s cockamamie: They make it illegal to urinate anywhere except at a public facility operated by a company that possesses a government sanctioned monopoly (called Urine Good Company, or UGC).

Facilities are few and the cost to use them are high.  Any infraction gets the violator immediately sentenced to serve an infinite term in penal colony called Urinetown.  It’s not really described what Urinetown is, or what it’s like until late in the play.  But you’re led to believe it is very, very bad.

One of the key songs in the Tony Award winning score is “It’s a Privilege to Pee”, for obvious reasons.

The reason I recalled all of this is that it’s what came to mind while on tour almost anywhere in our tour through Europe (primarily Germany, Austria, and Netherlands, with small side trips to Belgium, France and Luxembourg).

My advice for American travelers is (1) practice peeing when you think you can’t (2) practice not peeing when you think you absolutely must (3) and always keep some coins in your pocket in the event that you do manage to find a WC/toilette and it requires either a fee to enter, or an implied tip to the person who cleans them and sits immediately outside (as quite often is the case).

As a last resort, you can usually duck into a pub or coffee shop … as long as you buy a pint or a kaffee. They might very well run you out if you don’t.

Toward the end of the 7-week trip I did find myself unconsciously slipping into a European habit (confirmed by unscientific poll by discussing this with several) of reducing liquid consumption from morning to mid-afternoon.

This was a big change for me (I suppose it happened gradually), and I wondered if it didn’t have health consequences; namely, kidney stones. I did find some evidence that Germans suffer from a much higher rate of stones than do Americans.  [4]

Still, there were many positive experiences, even the worst of times, such as traffic jams on the Autobahn, when the observed max speeds quite often drop from close to 200 kph (about 120 mph) to essentially zero.  The Germans have such a useful word for “really horribly bad traffic jam”; it’s “Stau” (sort of stick an “h” between the “s” and “t” and it rhymes “how”: shtow).

Also, you can easily find interesting history almost anywhere in western Germany and this region, extending all the way back to the Romans, and beyond. Also, German wines sold locally are mostly quite spectacular … and often spectacularly inexpensive.

Don’t expect many pleasant surprises in navigation in Europe, which most Americans would regard as very, very unfriendly toward automobiles.  For starters, it’s also a privilege to park. For many cities it’s probably best to save time and frustration by parking at the edge of town, and then getting to the sites by walking, taking bus or tram.

Address numbers are so different from America that one can regard them as almost unusable.

Numbers are assigned sequentially, beginning from the beginning of a street.  So on one side they are usually 2, 4, 6 … etc; and on the other 1, 3, 5 …  If a new building is built then it might need an address like 21a, which of course is between 21 and 23, … unless there is a 21b.

Grid systems are virtually non-existent, so it’s pointless to think, for example that addresses with 200 are about one block past those with 100. Addresses are generally from center to out, and clockwise.

They simply don’t like big address numbers, like 2101 or 1508 (which would be one block beyond 2001 and 1408 in the US).  If and when a number gets too big, like close to 100 or 200, then they simply change the name of the street where there’s an intersection or a slight bend.  They have so many historical figures to name streets after that, even with this puzzle of seemingly never-ending street name changes, they will never run out of possible street names. I think the main ring around Aachen has seven names.

Also, it is quite likely that address #55 is nowhere near 54 or 56.  A few much larger or much smaller lots on one side of the street might lead 55 to be across from 15 (which of course could be ½, 1 or even 3 blocks away). One place this was not true was in Dutch towns with a canal on one side of the street.  Obviously there is no building in the canal, so – unless the street on the opposite side of the canal has the same name – these house numbers are indeed exactly sequential on one side of the street … 1, 2, 3 …

All of this means you could be at the very edge of a city and encounter an address number 1 or 2.

Confused?  Well, there’s more. These oddities, and a near blackout of visible street name signs near intersections in many cities at critical intersections, will leave you grateful for your satellite navigation system. Grateful that is, provided it doesn’t direct you to a pedestrian area such as a city square (Platz in Germany, Plein in Netherlands), down a one way street, onto an apparent farm road, or onto a side street that’s two-way, but is only about 10 feet wide with parking on both sides – all of which unfortunately happens unnervingly often.  We also experienced a major construction on a country road with no hope of deciphering an alternate route without also having a very detailed map of the area available.

And the GPS navigation warning finale: SatNat receiver programmed with an English speaking voice (or worse, an actual English accent) will absolutely butcher the pronunciation of many streets and city names, so that you’ll really want a competent co-pilot to help decipher where the heck you are supposed to go.

Back to numbering, this time on the Autobahn system. The exits are also always numbered sequentially.  Exit 25 (or Ausfahrt 25) is the next exit past 24 – or past 26, depending on your direction of travel.  It could be 1, 5 or 30 kilometers away, but the exit number increment is always one.  Americans are spoiled by the numbering (in most states); Exit 200 is one hundred miles from Exit 100.  Easy-peasey.

Is there a new exit added to the Autobahn?  It will be numbered 25A.

One unexpected and very agreeable thing about the Autobahn: pre-programmed detours.  There can be frequent experiences of a Stau, whether due to volume (usually near larger cities), construction or crashes.  That said, the Germans are prepared.  Most exits are marked with a “U” and a number, like U-22.  U stands for Umleitung (Detour): if you leave the Autobahn at that exit and U-number due to a Stau, then you simply follow the pre-arranged detour (U-x) signs through the city or countryside several kilometers down the road to where there is, hopefully, no more Stau.  I think this is very clever.

Bathroom talk. One concluding warning and tidbit on the European bathroom experience regarding the (usually very tiny) one-person shower stall.  They are elevated by several inches and usually sport a significant “lip” that you must step over; the lip is generally 7-8 inches above the main bathroom floor level.  You can imagine how carefully this naked and barefoot exit must be performed when you consider that none of the shower floors we experienced (I think 22 of them) had a significant anti-slip surface and there is no safety handle to secure yourself to.

End on the positive. One more positive part of the European Experience: we didn’t have to follow US politics at all, unless we wanted to.  And what kind of masochist would do THAT?

Probably more travel thoughts to come …


Joe Girard ©  2016



[1] Regarding privilege. The greatest privilege you can have is to be well-reared such that you have appreciation for values that include respect for others, the inherent values of hard work and delayed gratification, the beauty of self-respect, patience, grace and fortitude.

[2] Even more unlikely, the “hero”, Bobby Strong, gets killed off midway through Act 2.

Awards, besides multiple nominations.

2002 Tonys: Best Book from a Musical; Best Original Score; Best Musical Direction; and Best Musical Actor.

[3] a good way to improve your “performance” on “holding it” is to practice the Kegel exercise.  http://www.healthline.com/health/kegel-exercises#Overview1

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931286/table/T2/

From this report: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2931286/