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Do Street Names Matter?

In research with Roland Fryer, later written up in Freakonomics, we asked the question “Does the name you give your child matter for her life outcome?” (I say “her” because we could only look at girls because the way we tried to answer the problem was by linking a baby girl’s birth certificate to the birth certificate of her child when she later gave birth.) We found that names didn’t seem to matter. Black women with “distinctively black” names had nearly identical — maybe even a little better — outcomes than did Black women with more traditional names.

Sylvia and Steve Crossland, two real estate agents in Austin, Texas, have posed the same question regarding street names on their blog. Will people pay less for an identical house if it is located on Sisquoc Avenue instead of Pleasant Street? I like their approach, which involves gathering data and making some sensible comparisons. I don’t think they conclusively answer the question with their data, but it is a good start.

The very fact that very few streets have really dismal names like “Massacre Lane,” or “Poison Avenue,” or “Stench Street” does suggest that when cities were first developing the people naming the streets associated some disutility with bad street names. Since it is essentially free to choose a good name for your street when you start, there is no particular reason to saddle your street with a bad name, even if the costs of having a bad name are trivial. So that doesn’t tell us much about the magnitude.

If street names matter, but a child’s name doesn’t, why is that? I would argue that most of the important interactions people have are with people who know them well. If a person knows you well, they have better signals than your name. Your street name mostly comes up in situations where people don’t know much about it, like in a for sale listing or ordering items from a catalog. Still, although I think a street name could matter a little, my guess is the effect is very small if it exists at all.

(hat tip to achen)