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The types of roads in America vary greatly from multiple-lane freeways in large urban cities to dirt tracks in remote rural towns. Such variety makes it difficult for even the most skilled of travelers to navigate some areas.
However, rest assured, there is a method to the madness and with a basic working knowledge—and a good navigational system—you can get to where you're going.
Basic U.S. Road Categories
While there are numerous names for the various roads in our country, the Federal Highway Administration organizes them into the following categories:
- Local roads.
- Collector roads.
- Arterial roads.
However, some experts also add freeways and toll-roads to the hierarchy—both of which we've also included below.
Local roads and streets are at the bottom of the U.S. roadway hierarchy. They serve small communities, including homes, businesses, and even farms. Generally, local roads experience low traffic volumes and enforce low speed limits. Within some of the more rural areas of the country, some local roads are even unpaved.
Aside from helping people travel within their small communities, local roads provide access to collector roads.
Similar to local roads, collector roads (or distributor roads) provide access to residential and business properties, as well as other locations such as schools, churches, and recreational facilities. Sometimes, they do this by connecting drivers from local roads to the collector roads.
However, collector roads tend to feature more traffic signs, signals, and intersections.
Generally, U.S. collector roads are low-to-moderate capacity roads and vary in appearance. Some are located in urban areas and consist of wide streets or boulevards; some are located in rural areas and are narrower and less busy.
Speed limits vary depending on factors like the area, development degree, access frequency, establishments (such as schools, which have low speed limits), intersections, and pedestrian access.
Just as local roads give drivers access to collector roads, collector roads give access to arterial roads.
Arterial roads in the United States are high-capacity urban roads that move traffic from collector roads to even busier roads, such as freeways or interstates.
Some arterial roads actually are considered limited- or controlled-access roads, which are basically highways for high-speed traffic; however, this isn't always the case. Unlike controlled-access roads—which are designed to provide an unhindered flow of traffic—most arterial roads and limited-access roads feature traffic signals at intersections (or stop signs, when minor side streets connect).
An arterial road's speed limit depends on the surrounding developments. They're usually slower in areas such as school zones, and faster in rural or otherwise undeveloped areas.
Freeways are at the top of the roadway hierarchy. However, freeways are quite similar to arterial roads in that they generally include limited-access roads and controlled-access roads, such as interstates.
Typically, freeways provide almost completely uninterrupted travel, have high speed limits, and are connected to other roads by on- and off-ramps.
Generally, a U.S. toll road (or turnpike) is part of a freeway or interstate, though drivers might encounter toll roads along other types of roadways throughout different parts of the country.
Basically, a toll road is one that collects a toll, or fee, for passage. Fees are usually based on vehicle type (for example, a large commercial vehicle will cost more than a regular passenger car), as well as state laws. Mostly, fees are used for road construction and maintenance.
Where and how you pay the toll varies by location. Most commonly, turnpikes use toll booths where you can pay using cash or with a pre-paid transponder, such as the E-ZPass. Some toll houses employ people to take your fee; others have machines where you can deposit your money or scan your transponder.
How to Navigate U.S. Roads
Now that you have a basic understanding of the different kinds of roads in the United States, how do you go about navigating them?
Keep these tips in mind before you hit the road:
- Each state provides a driver handbook that outlines the rules of the road in that state.
- Most state transportation websites provide state maps online, or for downloading and printing.
- Generally, you can purchase state maps at area rest stops, tourist and travel centers, and even gas stations.
- You can choose from a number of smartphone mobile apps that offer state and country maps as well as navigational services.
- Some newer model vehicles have built-in navigational systems; if your vehicle doesn't, you can use a Global Positioning System (GPS) device, of which there are many brands available.
- Additionally, most navigational systems provide information about road and highway numbers, speed limits, and even amenities such as rest stops and restaurants along the way.
- When available, use the state's 511 services.
- Not all states have implemented 511 yet; check out our 511 Traffic Systems guide to find which states offer it, as well as links to the state's website and other info.
When all else fails, you can always contact local law enforcement. Many major highways have signs displaying the police number to call in case of any emergency.