Our roads confuse one urban planner, but he loves it

Some street grids

Of course, Boston roads are whack, but what's Charlotte's problem?

Geoff Boeing, an urban planning postdoc at UC Berkeley, has been playing around with software to figure out how major US cities orient their roads. Not surprisingly, he finds Boston roads an impenetrable blob (right up there with, um, Charlotte, NC).

But we make up for it, he says:

60 years ago, Kevin Lynch defined “legible” cities as those whose patterns lend themselves to coherent, organized, recognizable, and comprehensible mental images. These help us organize city space into cognitive maps for wayfinding and a sense of place. But what Boston lacks in legible circulation patterns, it makes up for in other Lynchian elements (paths, edges, districts, nodes, landmarks) that help make it an “imageable” city for locals and visitors. ...

I find Boston’s street patterns illegible and difficult to navigate. But as a newcomer I can settle for the concomitant sense of wonder, bafflement, and inexplicable adventure that accompanies every simple right turn.

Also see:
A New York/Boston road comparison.

H/t Chris Devers.

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Comments

The problem isn't the layout

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Decentralization and hub-spoke orientation is actually common in many areas of the planet.

The problem was the inbred fear of outsiders that led to a severe lack of signage and people who couldn't help you because they never left their neighborhood. That and the pathologic fear of maps.

This has changed in the last 20 years, and for the better. I like my "confusing" city now that it is much easier to find my way from one area to the next.

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All this time I thought the

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All this time I thought the lack of street signs was because we're too cheap.

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Not Boston

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Love him or hate him, one thing Tom Menino did was make sure every single intersection had signs - for both intersecting streets.

Now, if you want to see a classic New England street-sign horror show, cross into Quincy, where you can drive for endless blocks without ever finding out what street you're on.

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Cambridge

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Back in the day, I walked from Central Square Cambridge to the BU bridge without ever learning the name of the street I was on. That changed for the Bicentennial, but then eventually fell back into entropy.

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Lynchian?

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Lynchian=David? I hope so!

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Oh stawp, no excuses needed

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It's hellishly confusing for Boston residents too. Sure, you might be familiar with your own neighborhood, but wander into another one (particularly if it contains a street with the same name as one in your area) then all bets are off again.

Obviously, we're not alone in being "a blob of streets". Try as we might, we will always be hundreds of years younger than almost anywhere in Europe, for starters. Where we fall way behind are in the simple things: large, consistent, street signs at all corners which are assiduously maintained. A single trip to almost any European city (say, London to take an obvious example) would show how embarrassingly lazy we are.

We shouldn't be proud of our street confusion. We should be ashamed that we haven't done a thing to make it better, when so many ready examples exist around the world.

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Where we fall way behind are

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Where we fall way behind are in the simple things: large, consistent, street signs at all corners which are assiduously maintained. A single trip to almost any European city (say, London to take an obvious example) would show how embarrassingly lazy we are.

Have you ever actually been to London? It's way worse than Boston when it comes to actually signing streets!

Take this intersection right outside Euston Station for example: https://goo.gl/maps/G6zMcc7S5Zr

The only street signs I can find anywhere are tiny and mounted in horribly hard to find and see places. In this case, one on a building on the far left corner, and one about knee-high next to a tree on the far right corner Can you read either sign from this far back? Or even quickly locate them? Because I sure can't!

And once you get out of the big cities, you're lucky to find any sign at all, which is compounded by the fact that they don't really have a national standard for street name signs like we do.

Boston actually does a surprisingly great job of posting street name signs. It's not as good as some other US cities, but on the whole it's great, and Europe is a terrible place to look to for inspiration!

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I've been to London perhaps

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I've been to London perhaps three dozen times now, and your example is actually emblematic of how GOOD London signage is. It's so good that they put street signs directly INTO building walls!

If you're used to street signs existing on buildings, you by default look for them there. And they're *everywhere" like that.

Here in this country, God forbid a privately-owned building would ever consent to becoming a street sign for the city. You'd think chiseling it into stone would be by far the most resistant method to weather and relieve the street corner of an additional pole, but no: we're not sensible, are we?

It's rare I get lost in London as a tourist. Boston — I *live* here and I get lost, and I'm far from the only one.

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Disagree

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I have always found that most anywhere in Europe, each (major) intersection will have a street sign ON THE BUILDINGS. They are generally all at the same height and, as they are not on a post that can be knocked over, they tend to be functional for decades at a time.

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Exactly

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The consistency, robustness, and pervasiveness of the street signs etched directly into stone plaques on the building is why European cities are so much more navigable. Do I need to point out again that they are all hundreds of years older than Boston?

I've been to London/UK perhaps three dozen times by now (business and family), so yes: I do know what I'm talking about.

Boston, like all American cities, are populated by people who not only don't know anything about the outside world (cue people still posting about how we are an "old" city) or have actually seen the outside world but came back no more enlightened than before, or even less so (

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Ever been to Scandinavia?

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Yes, the tiny signs affixed to buildings, at eye level if you were Yao Ming, but were you driving around, you’d be hard pressed to be able to figure out which intersection your were at.

Also, many of my Irish cousins live on roads without names, meaning directions entail “the third left after the bridge.”

Boston does a good job with signage. It’s the lack of slavish attention to grids that gets people.

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Signage

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*Boston* does a good job with signage (as Adam pointed out earlier), but some of the nearby towns and cities (Newton, Waltham) don't.

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Yes, Boston

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And if our of towners can’t figure out the difference between Boston and Wakefield, there’s nothing we Bostonians can do about that.

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Venice

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Have you tried finding your way around in Venice? There are signs here and there, but they aren't exactly street signs, because there aren't really any streets. God forbid you have to find an address. Buildings have numbers, but they don't have anything to do with the street. 1101 Cannaregio is just building 1101 in the Cannaregio sestiere , one of the six districts of the city. It isn't necessarily anywhere near 1102.

It's a lot of fun. I'd like to see one of those diagrams of Venice.

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I once read an autobiography

I once read an autobiography set in Japan and I was struck by the number of times characters had to draw maps for people while giving them directions.

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Charlotte

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Charlotte's issue seems to be twofold:

A) Lots of many differently-oriented grids near the center, each of which is arrayed at different angles to each other

B) A good deal of suburban-style developments within city limits, which have all sorts of curving arterials, twisty winding roads, dead ends and cul-de-sacs

That'll do it.

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Charlotte driven by...

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It's not a western/midwestern city, so there isn't the standard big-grid land deeds and street layouts based on 640 acre squares.

It's not an old city where there was a bunch of development 1800-1930 when density was important because walking, horsing around, and transit were the only options

So, it just sprawls, subdivision by subdivision, no rhyme or reason except to make it hard to drive through neighborhoods by design, and to hell with anyone who is on foot or bike or bus.

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Just like you said, looks

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Just like you said, looks like it's a bunch of subdivisional grids arranged in a circle.

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Well, that's what happens when

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you lay out your city 250 years before the invention of the automobile, on hillsides surrounded by swamps that later get filled in.

New York City's grid was viewed with some controversy at the time it was proposed. Some people felt it was "monotonous in its regularity".

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The 'Wonders' of a City

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Anyone who's been to Venice, Italy knows the absolute delight of discovery, exploration, surprise and wonder. Boston's European roots create similar unexpected features in the layout of the city.

Unfortunately, unlike Venice, which has no cars, Boston is in a perpetual schizophrenic state between a traditional Cattle-path/Horse-driven grid and the ever-changing requirements of the automobile culture.

Some day, a new day might dawn for Boston,...which is car-free and built upon the innovations in private and public modes of transportation which can accommodate any terrain, grid or layout.

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Boston better than Atlanta

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At least in Boston you can eventually find your way if lost. In Atlanta you can make turn after turn that will eventually lead to a dead end. with intersecting streets with similar names, Peachtree Rd., Peachtree St, Peachtree Ave, Peachtree Ave NE ....

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Map delineating Names of Bordering Streets of Districts.

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ReDistricting debate at Boston City Council coming up... No available Map delineating with greater clarity the Names of Bordering Streets between adjacent neighboring Districts for folks nearby Bordering Streets between adjacent neighboring Districts https://democraticredistricting.com/

Currently available Maps don't display Names of Streets clearly or too many making it too difficult to understand clearly the Names of Bordering Streets between adjacent neighboring Districts.

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Googlemaps

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Boston’s streets are so confusing that we have even beaten the mighty Google. Googlemaps gave me directions the other day (I was outside my neighborhood) by telling me to turn right “after the KFC”. If only it had been “right, after where the store 24 used to be”. That would have been truly Bostonian.

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Sheesh!!!!

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As a UC Berkeley grad myself, I find Mr. Boeing an embarrassment. I thought EVERYONE knew that many of Boston's streets - and especially those in Downtown Boston - are based on old cow paths.

The only good news is that at least sheep weren't laying out things.

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I thought that was a myth. It

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I thought that was a myth. It's an insult to cows to suggest they would walk as crooked as downtown Boston's roads are!

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Myth

They're not based on cow paths, and very few actually meander. They're mostly based on shorelines that have radically changed over the centuries, and direct paths from square to square.

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And contours

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Sure in flatter places, grids make sense. In a place like Fort Hill, not so much.

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