Boston’s street layout, so confusing that an urban legend arose that it began with cow paths, is less grid-like than some other American cities but more orderly compared with some cities abroad, new data visualizations show.
Geoff Boeing, an urban planning postdoctoral researcher from the University of California, Berkeley, plotted the compass orientations of streets in cities, both in America and abroad, on a polar histogram, or rose diagram (think the face of a compass).
The directions of the spokes radiating from the center represent the compass orientations of the streets, while the lengths of the spokes represent the relative frequency of the streets following those bearings, Boeing said in a blog post.
The lines naturally cluster at the four points of the compass for American cities that are laid out on north-south/east-west grids.
Manhattan is slightly off because, while it is organized into a grid, the grid is not lined up with the compass points.
Detroit is interesting because it has two grids, one that lines up with the compass points and one that is slightly askew.
Boston and Charlotte were particularly disorganized. “Unlike most American cities that have one or two primary street grids organizing city circulation, their streets are more evenly distributed in every direction,” Boeing wrote.
“Although [Boston] features a grid in some neighborhoods like the Back Bay and South Boston, these grids tend to not be aligned with one another, resulting in a mish-mash of competing orientations. Furthermore, these grids are not ubiquitous and Boston’s other streets wind in many directions. If you’re going north and then take a right turn, you might know that you are immediately heading east, but it’s hard to know where you’re eventually really heading in the long run,” he wrote.
Here’s a look at the street orientations in American cities:
The Globe reported on a similar visualization effort in 2014.
Boeing, who is heading to Boston this fall to become a professor at Northeastern University, also created data visualizations of cities around the world, showing that a number have a tendency to be messier than American grid cities. Here’s what he found:
It looks like Rome would be an easy place to get lost, with streets heading out in every direction.
Boeing said in a telephone interview that there’s no right way or wrong way to lay out a city, though an orderly layout may make it easier for newcomers to navigate.
A particular street layout “changes the culture of how people use the city, but it doesn’t alone make a city good or bad.”
The best way to lay out streets is to figure out what people want and serve local needs. “It’s hard to say there’s a one-size-fits-all” answer, he said.
In his blog, he wrote that he’s looking forward to coming to Boston, despite its funky street layout.
“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,” he wrote.
Oh, and about those cow paths? The director of the Massachusetts Historical Society told the Globe in 2004 that Boston’s early street layout was simply unorganized. People crowded into a small area near the waterfront. They built houses wherever they wanted, and roads emerged among them without any planning. In taverns, he said, people once toasted “the crooked little town of Boston.”