You’ve probably heard some wise guy ask before: Why do we drive on parkways, and park on driveways? And if you haven’t, you’re probably thinking about it now!
While it may seem like just one of the English language’s many mixed-up oddities, the terms actually make sense if you think about it from a different, and perhaps slightly old-fashioned, angle.
For one, you actually do drive on driveways. That’s their whole purpose — to get you from the road to your house or garage. And while you shouldn’t really park on a parkway, unless you’ve got some kind of bad vehicle trouble, their primary purpose might be to get you to or guide you through a scenic park, one of their original purposes.
There’s no official designation for what constitutes a “parkway” versus a “highway,” but the world’s very first parkway — the Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, NY — was so named in 1870 because the contractors tried to beautify the area with grasses, landscaping, and foliage to counteract what many residents saw as just plain ugly concrete dumped all over the road. Today, that might be less of a problem, since concrete can be colored in more than 250 different hues and shades, and modern New Yorkers are probably more accustomed to living in a concrete jungle.
Since the 19th century, more car-friendly urban park spaces began popping up throughout the country for health and recreation. Parkways are generally roads with large medians or a scenic view. Today, however, 94% of America’s 2.6 million miles of paved roads are lined with asphalt, not concrete, as are 90% of our parking areas.
There are also some linguistic reasons behind the terminology. The verb “to park,” like you do with your car, still stems from the idea of parks in the flower-garden sense. With the rise of automobiles in the early 20th century, car storage space began to take priority over grasses and lawns — and so “the park” became the place where you left your car.
Since the dawn of motorized vehicles, asphalt and concrete have been the most common choices for residential driveways. In the end, some things never change.