The terms stairway, staircase, stairs, and even steps, are often used interchangeably, but do they all really mean the same thing? And what about flights, landings, steps, treads and risers? What do they mean? Keep reading to find out what they mean, and why you will usually hear me use the term stairway when I describe sets of steps.
Let’s start with basic definitions and illustrative diagrams, so you can learn the lingo. I used the various Merriam-Webster dictionary definitions, in blue text, and added diagrams so you can easily visualize what the terms look like on example stairways. Further down the page, I provide the terms we use in the stair-walking community, in green text, to describe things like stair-streets, and side-stairs.
Step – 1: a rest for the foot in ascending or descending: as one of a series of structures consisting of a riser and a tread
Tread – 2a: the upper horizontal part of a step
Riser – 2: the upright member between two stair treads
Flight – 6a : a continuous series of stairs from one landing or floor to another
Landing – 3 : a level part of a staircase (as at the end of a flight of stairs)
Stair (see stairway) – 1 : a series of steps or flights of steps for passing from one level to another —often used in plural but singular or plural in construction 2 : a single step of a stairway
Stairway (see stair) – 1: one or more flights of stairs usually with landings to pass from one level to another
You can think of a stairway as only the set of stair-steps (and landings), without a support structure, since a set of stair-steps (and landings) resting on a hillside does not need an added support structure (such as a case or well) to provide structural support, they do just fine with the ground itself as their structural support, as you can see for the stairway to the right. You can imagine that the 2 flights and single landing shown in the diagram above, and to the right, is resting on a hill side. This is just like the upper flights of 231 step Baxter st stairway that climbs from where the Baxter roadway ends at Avon, up to Park, seen at the top of this blog, so it is a stairway and NOT a staircase!
This definition is also analogous (similar) to a walkway, roadway, or even a drive way, which is a way (a place or route), made of stairs and/or landings, typically to climb a hill or to rise above some barrier. A typical outdoor stairway would be one that is built onto a hillside, like the many stairways in Silver Lake, such as Baxter, Earl, or Loma Vista. Stairway is the most general term to use, since staircases or stairwells, are stairways set in, and supported by cases or wells respectively, but many stairways, and certainly most public stair-street stairways, are NOT staircases or stairwells (though a few are). Here is a video showing the beautifully painted Heidelman St stairway with 234 steel reinforced concrete steps resting on the hillside.
Staircase – 1: the structure containing a stairway 2: a flight of stairs with the supporting framework, casing, and balusters
These two staircase definitions, taken together, are similar to that of a bookcase, which is a case or structure containing/supporting bookshelves. You can think of a staircase as a stairway held by a case, where each tread in a staircase is like a shelf in a bookcase. Staircases are structures that usually exist inside buildings, or are attached to them. A typical wooden two-story home staircase is really just a tall bookcase that is built at an angle, instead of vertical, so that the ‘bookshelves’ are offset, and serve as the steps. Note the brown wooden treads in the diagram above and to the right, there are no separate risers in the staircase, where the case itself, acts as the risers for the treads. Those three structural case elements holding the treads are called stringers. Although most staircases are wooden and indoor, there are a few outdoor woodenb staircases. Here is a video of a staircase on Eldred St, with 196 wooden steps, which is your reward for climbing a 33% grade to get there!
1: a vertical shaft in which stairs are located
Stairwells are really a subset of staircases, set in a shaft or building interior, typically with stair flights alternating directions, or wrapping around in a square helix, like the one in the photo at right, to stay within the well. Think of the stairs we walk in multi-story buildings; those are stairwells. So a stairwell is a staircase inside a well (or shaft). Sometimes a stairwell will exist along the outside side of a building, or even along the face of a steep drop, where the structure, usually 4 corner support beams, instead of being in a shaft or well, are free-standing.
Here is a video of a trip down an 81 step stairwell on the California State University at Long Beach (CSULB) campus in the Hall of Science building going down from the 3rd floor to the basement.
So how are stairways, staircases and stairwells related?
All stairwells are staircases, but not all staircases are stairwells.
All staircases are stairways, but not all stairways are staircases.
This Venn Diagram shows the relationships:
Stair-Walking Community Definitions
Stair-Street – A stairway that connects two streets, either up a hill, or up across and then down, to go over a hill or other barrier, like a freeway, or rail line. Stair-streets can be either perpendicular between two parallel streets, or as the continuation of a street to a perpendicular street (think T), or as a stairway continuation of two discontinuous sections of a street.
Additionally, another kind of stair-street, called a Side-Stair (in analogy to side-walk) occurs when the sidewalk of a street – typically on a steep-hill – contains partial stair steps or sidewalk’s entire width is a series of stair-steps. Stair-streets are pedestrian connections where cars cannot travel, or allow pedestrians to climb steep streets on stair-steps. We mark stair-streets (and side-stairs) with circular markers on the Google maps, with color indicating the number of steps.
Walk-Street – A walkway connection without stairs, though it may have ramps (a few are very steep), usually between the sidewalks of two streets, usually to allow peds to walk past some same-level barrier, like a house, building, or park, that cause the street to have a gap. In the photo to the right, the street does not continue, but the “sidewalk” does go down the hill to the street below as a steep ramp, with no stairs. Walk streets can also go over/under barriers as POCs/PUCs, but with ramps instead of stairs. Thus all POCs/PUCs are either stair-streets or walk-streets, depending on whether or not they have stairs. We mark walk-streets with circular markers on the Google maps, with white, or light gray color indicating there are no steps. The time-stamped video below shows the Maltman Ave walk-street.
Non-Stair-Street Stairways – A stairway that does not connect two streets, either because it is a dead-end stairway, of connects a street and a walkway, or connects two walkways. Such stairways are often at the beach, or in parks, or even shopping malls. They are still useful stairways for stair-walking, but are not stair-streets. I usually refer to these as “stairways” as opposed to “stair-streets”. We mark these stairways with star-shaped markers on the Google maps, with the same colors indicating the number of steps as we use for stair-streets.
Pedestrian Over-Crossing or POC is a pedestrian bridge that crosses over a barrier. When a POC serves as the continuation of a street or sidewalk that was severed by a freeway and/or rail line barrier, to a street on the other side, and climbs/descends stairs to go over the barrier, then it is a stair-street.
If the type of POC described above, has ramps instead of stairs, or is level with the bridge, then it is a walk-street. OTOH, many POCs are not Stair-Street or Walk-Streets, because they connect streets to walkways, or walkways to walkways, such as the ones in shopping malls, or parks. Stair/walk-street POCs are often built to serve as ways for peds, usually children, to safely cross over main streets, freeways or rail lines, usually to reach nearby schools. We mark POCs with square markers on the Google maps, with white, or light gray color for no steps, and the same colors indicating the number of steps as we use for the stair-streets. Here is a time-stamped video of the Caldwell St POC shown in the photo above.
Pedestrian Under-Crossing or PUC is a pedestrian tunnel that crosses under a barrier. When a PUC serves as the continuation of a street or sidewalk that was severed by a freeway and/or rail line barrier, to a street on the other side, and descends/climbs stairs to go under the barrier, then it is a stair-street. If the type of POC described above, has ramps instead of stairs, or is level with the tunnel, then it is a walk-street. OTOH, many PUCs are not Stair-Street or Walk-Streets, because they connect streets to walkways, or walkways to walkways, such as the ones in shopping malls, or parks. Stair/walk-street PUCs are often built to serve as ways for peds, usually children, to safely cross under main streets, freeways or rail lines, usually to reach nearby schools. We mark PUCs with diamond markers on the Google maps, with white, or light gray color for no steps, and the same colors indicating the number of steps as we use for the stair-streets. Here is a time-stamped video of the Selby Ave PUC shown in the photo above.
Finally, here is the coding we use for our Google maps. Please note that we drop suffixes on Ped Over-Crossings and Ped Under Crossings, and simply use the color to distinguish where they have stairs or not.
Note: Not everyone agrees that POCs/PUCs with stairways, connecting two streets, or continuing a street, are stair-streets, however, these are the definitions we use for SoCal Stair Climbers maps, routes and events. Additionally, Bob Inman of Guide to the Stairways of Los Angeles sets a lower limit of 10 steps for considering a stairway to be a stair-street for his maps, and Doug Beyerlein of Friends of Public Stairs sets the lower limit at 100 steps for a stairway to be considered a stair-street in his maps. I don’t set a lower limit, but I do mark those with less than 10 steps with a different color on my Google maps.
I never knew that there was so much terminology when it comes to describing stairways! My wife and I want to make sure we get the exact staircase we envision in our new home. We’ll be sure to use some of this terminology as we search for a contractor to help us out!