Main Street ran east to west, land astride platted into tidy rectangles
October 23, 2014 11:41 PM   Subscribe

Maps of street layouts, coloured based on their orientation. Includes San Francisco, New York, Washington DC, Los Angeles, Tokyo, Paris, Chicago, Berlin, Boston and London.
posted by frimble (37 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
 
Clever - the color sequence cycles every ninety degrees, so a road at a right angle to another road will be the same color.
posted by BiggerJ at 12:02 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I read somewhere that the Spanish liked to orient cities in the Americas Northeast-to-Southwest so that the sun would not be shining directly on a wall when it's at its highest point. Makes giving directions in California take longer than I'm used to.
posted by Space Coyote at 12:07 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


These are lovely but I wish the background was a plain white or black so the street layout could speak for itself without any other distractions.
posted by narain at 12:59 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


I've spent most of my life around hills and canyons, but seeing it like this.... It's no wonder I have no sense of direction. Yes, the mountains and the ocean are obvious landmarks and there are many major corridors here, but it makes total sense that I learned to navigate by visual markers (turn left at the blue house) rather than orientation. Thanks for posting this!
posted by Room 641-A at 1:20 AM on October 24, 2014


It always surprises me when American friends visiting me in London ask if we're travelling east, south, etc. It seems to be a particularly American quirk to need to know where the compass points are. Neither I nor any of my friends here ever wonder which direction we're facing. I have no idea usually, and looking at the map of London it's easy to see why we never know which way we're facing.
posted by essexjan at 2:43 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Damn, Chicago, that's a whole lotta grid.
posted by Navelgazer at 5:30 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


They aren't just the named cities; if you zoom out on the Boston one, for instance, it goes out past 495.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:03 AM on October 24, 2014


Teotihuacan's grid appears to have been oriented so that it was aligned east-west with the sunset on August 12th and that it cycled back so as to be re-aligned on April 29th the following year - exactly 260 days, or one Aztec calendar cycle, later: the whole city was a fucking sun dial. I think whoever came up with that layout would be rather disappointed with the orientational free for all taken by more modern city planners.
posted by rongorongo at 6:33 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Neither I nor any of my friends here ever wonder which direction we're facing.

Isn't that because you've internalized the map?
posted by smackfu at 6:40 AM on October 24, 2014


smackfu: "Isn't that because you've internalized the map?"

Dunno about London, but here in Tokyo, I've met many, many adults who have neither internalized maps nor directions, but just travel methods. Like, "I know you walk down this street and then turn left to get to the station. And then you get on line 2, and that gets you to Shibuya." And then you can ask, "so is the station north, south, east, or west of here?" and the answer is "I don't know", and you can ask "Is Shibuya north, south, east, or west of here?" and the answer is "I don't know".
posted by Bugbread at 6:57 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Once, in grad school in the UK, a local expressed surprise that anyone might keep cardinal directions in their head. So I said "everybody point north!"

Old World people -- Europeans, Japanese, Chinese -- had no idea.

New world people all decisively pointed in a direction. Canadians and Americans decisively pointed north, Kiwis, Australians, and South Africans equally decisively pointed south. Turns out that people who come from 'grid cities' unconciously track the position of the sun.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:30 AM on October 24, 2014 [13 favorites]


People might also be interested in the work that the Space Syntax lab - associated with London's Bartlett school of Architecture - have done on street layout. Basically they look at where people go and don't go and use the plotted information to inform urban design. Here is their suggested pedestrian map of London based on the where people go and the landmarks that they say they are following to get there. It is sort of like Harry Beck's map for when you just have shoes.
posted by rongorongo at 7:37 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I had no idea about Graton (i.e. that it even existed), and I lived in the Bay Area for years. Wikipedia entry makes for fascinating reading!
posted by blucevalo at 7:41 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


I follow the Bugbread model. My cartography is compassed around public transit rather than cardinal points. I understand islands and little districts of shops, homes, workplaces, but in this city any attempt to strike out, westward ho! to reach the rumoured nightclub that you know is just yon that direction will end up with you being led gently around a road that curves imperceptibly, skews another direction midway, then joins a crossing road at a non-euclidean angle. Instead you keep two sets of books and navigate the physical world using Harry Beck's unreal leylines, and metro stations warp the mental spacetime here like gravity.
posted by forgetful snow at 7:51 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Bugbread has it exactly right for how it is in the UK too. We know how to get to places, but not the orientation of those places, except in very general terms (e.g. Notting Hill is in west London and Stratford is in east London).
posted by essexjan at 7:54 AM on October 24, 2014


Dunno about London, but here in Tokyo, I've met many, many adults who have neither internalized maps nor directions, but just travel methods. Like, "I know you walk down this street and then turn left to get to the station. And then you get on line 2, and that gets you to Shibuya." And then you can ask, "so is the station north, south, east, or west of here?" and the answer is "I don't know", and you can ask "Is Shibuya north, south, east, or west of here?" and the answer is "I don't know".

In my first few years in Boston, that was my understanding of the map. If you don't have a car and you primarily take the subway to get places, it's an entirely reasonable way of understanding a city. It wasn't until I started taking buses more often that I gained a better understanding of the actual layout of the city.

The first time you venture off the subway map it kind of blows your mind. Not to mention the fact that are interesting areas that aren't even on the subway.
posted by maryr at 7:59 AM on October 24, 2014


(The newest MBTA map that includes some key bus routes might give you a sense of this - the idea that a bus might be faster than the subway seems ridiculous until you realize that the bus goes to point B directly instead of going all the way downtown first.)
posted by maryr at 8:02 AM on October 24, 2014


By Stephen Von Worley of the excellent Data Pointed.

The coloring is fairly clever; it's not just naively drawing the line segment based on the orientation, there's some smoothing I can't fully figure out from the blog description. See this closeup in Boston for instance, the effect is more like tie-dye on a black and white map than it is individually colored streets. (I also hate the rainbow palette, although in this case it's not an incorrect choice.)

I could swear I've seen a simpler treatment of this data before, with just colored line segments. Can't find it. There is this radar plot of street orientations that is a lovely statistical summary of street grids, though.
posted by Nelson at 8:14 AM on October 24, 2014


Beautiful. There is also Neil Freeman’s centered streets exploring similar ideas.
posted by migurski at 8:44 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


Turns out that people who come from 'grid cities' unconciously track the position of the sun.

Pure speculation, but I'd be willing to bet it's also tied to whether or not people commonly drive outside cities. Even on twisty old highways you need to know your cardinal directions to get around on unfamiliar roads (albeit less so with GPS). My sense of north gets all screwed up in cities but is always on when I'm in the country.
posted by echo target at 9:52 AM on October 24, 2014


Neither I nor any of my friends here ever wonder which direction we're facing.

This blows my mind, because there have been literally dozens of times where I've been walking in an unfamiliar city or an unfamiliar part of my own city (often with the help of a phone-based map!) and without knowing the general direction I'm going I'd get hopelessly lost.
posted by psoas at 9:53 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]


Related: the Guugu Yimithirr, who [almost] always know where north is
posted by kurumi at 10:01 AM on October 24, 2014


I live in one of the most nearly cardinally-aligned grids of Oakland, and it's actually a giant pain to be riding home down a west-facing street while the sun sets. Not a concern to a surveyor laying out a town with horse-based transportation, but it seems less wise now.
posted by oneirodynia at 10:14 AM on October 24, 2014


I had no idea about Graton (i.e. that it even existed), and I lived in the Bay Area for years. Wikipedia entry makes for fascinating reading!

You're lucky -- if you lived in the Bay Area now you'd know it for the awful Macklemore song commercials for the casino up there. Aaaaargh.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 10:48 AM on October 24, 2014


London totally broke my fucking brain with its total lack of grid. I was constantly grumpy and checking my map when I studied there because I am a lifelong Midwesterner and PRE-PLATTED CARDINAL ORIENTATION GRID OR GTFO. I've spent my whole life with roads that run at 90* angles or - very rarely - at a 45* diagonal. I ALWAYS know which direction I'm facing.

I also got dumped out on a rural road in Wisconsin one time by a detour that petered out. I had no idea where I was but I just shrugged and picked tiny roads going south or east, figuring I'd eventually run into the Illinois state line or Lake Michigan and either way I'd know where I was.

It worked.

I'm very uncomfortable in places where it doesn't!
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:59 AM on October 24, 2014 [3 favorites]


Pure speculation, but I'd be willing to bet it's also tied to whether or not people commonly drive outside cities. Even on twisty old highways you need to know your cardinal directions to get around on unfamiliar roads (albeit less so with GPS). My sense of north gets all screwed up in cities but is always on when I'm in the country.

Funny, I think of it differently - east/west doesn't matter so much as the direction to the nearest city of size.
posted by maryr at 11:54 AM on October 24, 2014


Wow, yeah, it blows my mind that people wouldn't internalize cardinal directions. At least to have a general idea of whether or not they were going in the right direction. I mean, seriously, how does that work when you're in an unfamiliar place?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 12:14 PM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]


how does that work when you're in an unfamiliar place?

It doesn't, and is a source of genuine stress and anxiety. Sometimes even in the city I've lived in most of my life. If you've ever had that momentary panic when you can't find your glasses it's similar except when you misplace your glasses you are generally within a small comfort zone you can still navigate with.
posted by Room 641-A at 12:56 PM on October 24, 2014


how does that work when you're in an unfamiliar place?

Maps? I guess I don't know what you mean. I would say I have a reasonably good sense of direction, but I'm terrible at knowing which way is north. Those aren't concepts that contrast to me.

When I've navigated unfamiliar cities I've generally used transit systems as my cardinal directions. For example, when I visit SF, I orient myself based on BART and MUNI and Golden Gate Park. I guess I use north/south somewhat, but I think of it as up/down. I've gotten pretty horribly lost in SF (meant to go to the Presidio. Ended up in outer Sunset), but even then I've just returned the way I came (got off bus, boarded bus in across street).
posted by maryr at 1:23 PM on October 24, 2014


rabbitrabbit: "Wow, yeah, it blows my mind that people wouldn't internalize cardinal directions. At least to have a general idea of whether or not they were going in the right direction. I mean, seriously, how does that work when you're in an unfamiliar place?"

Nowadays? Phones with maps and GPS functionality. 10 years ago? Lots of maps posted in stations and on the streets. Asking people for directions. And all advertisements for all events, stores, etc. having a little map drawn on them.
posted by Bugbread at 4:11 PM on October 24, 2014


Before I had a smartphone with GPS, I'd print off directions from Google Maps. Before the internet, I carried a London A-Z with me. I have a good sense of direction - for example, I know how to get from one part of London to another, and I know where places are in relation to the general layout of London as a whole so I could point out, say, Islington on a map of Greater London. But I couldn't tell you if the walk from my house to the Tube station is north, south, east or west. I just know the road goes there. And people here would think it a bit odd to know or be concerned about such a thing.
posted by essexjan at 5:22 PM on October 24, 2014


But even with GPS, you get things like "Head north on Main Street." Or do non-American GPS apps work differently?
posted by rabbitrabbit at 7:06 PM on October 24, 2014


All of the GPSes that I've used in Germany and Austria say things like, "follow Erfurter Straße in the direction of Erfurt for 15 km". For shorter distances, I.e. In cities, it's a series of lefts and rights with no Cardinal reference.
posted by frimble at 10:56 PM on October 24, 2014


rabbitrabbit: "But even with GPS, you get things like "Head north on Main Street." Or do non-American GPS apps work differently?"

Huh. I've never used an American GPS, but that sounds so weird. I mean, I presume that not everybody in the US has a great sense of cardinal directions, right? There have to be some folk who don't track the sun all the time. While pretty much everyone knows their right from their left, day or night. So why would a GPS say "Head north on Main Street" instead of "Turn right on Main Street?"

And, as far as them working differently (besides just the cardinal direction part), Japanese streets don't have names, for the most part, so the GPS just says "Turn right in 100 meters" and then "Turn right in 10 meters" and then "Turn right now".

Also, when I was talking GPS, I was actually thinking about instructions for walking, not driving, so there aren't audio instructions (or, rather, nobody ever turns them on). Instead, you take out your phone, enter where you want to go, and follow the line on the map.
posted by Bugbread at 1:22 AM on October 25, 2014


My American car GPS has never mentioned a compass direction. It's always "Turn left" or "Take the exit right", or "Keep left."
posted by Kirth Gerson at 5:35 AM on October 25, 2014 [1 favorite]


how does that work when you're in an unfamiliar place?

Apart from an orientational grid - the other trick is to base your city round a massive landmark. This is why Edinburgh - with a great big castle, a prominent hill and views out to the sea, is much easier to find your way around than Glasgow. It is also, apparently, one reason why Walt Disney opted to stick the (otherwise pretty useless) Sleeping Beauty Castle in the middle of Disneyland.

The only thing that is more confusing than a city build without a grid - is one without a grid that is based along a meandering river. London: step forward.

Finally there are layouts which are quite deliberately confusing: Marrakesh's souks would confuse an invading enemy perhaps: but they are a perfect trap in which to part tourists from their money. The same thing applies to the labyrinths of Ikea, in fact.
posted by rongorongo at 12:20 AM on October 26, 2014


"But even with GPS, you get things like "Head north on Main Street." Or do non-American GPS apps work differently?"

Huh. I've never used an American GPS, but that sounds so weird.


Since so many streets in North America are oriented by cardinal directions, it makes a lot of sense, actually. Frequently when exiting from a highway there are signs indicating "Main Street North - 3/4 mile" and "Main Street South - 1 mile" (and even in places like DC when exiting from some Metro stations, you'll see signs for pedestrians alerting them that this exit goes to the northbound side of Connecticut Ave and that exit goes to the southbound ones). It really is more a part of our lives.
posted by psoas at 4:39 PM on October 26, 2014


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