Chart of the Day: Minneapolis Street Grid Orientation vs. Other US Cities

Here’s a cool project by Geoff Boeing, a planning postdoc in California.

Check out this street grid chart:

The tiny part the center is the river-oriented part of downtown Minneapolis, where the streets are aligned to the Mississippi instead of the ordinal directions.

Even better, Boeing made charts for a whole bunch of US cities. Here they all are:

Boeing writes about how the grid relates to urban navigation, using Kevin Lynch’s famous book Image of the City as a touchstone.

In 1960, one hundred years after Emerson’s quote, Kevin Lynch published The Image of the City, his treatise on the legibility of urban patterns. How coherent is a city’s spatial organization? How do these patterns help or hinder urban navigation?

Most cities’ polar histograms similarly tend to cluster in at least a rough, approximate way. But then there are Boston and Charlotte. Unlike most American cities that have one or two primary street grids organizing city circulation, their streets are more evenly distributed in every direction. For example, here’s Boston:

Boston, Massachusetts city street network, bearing, orientation from OpenStreetMap mapped with OSMnx and Python

Although it 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.

I guess we should be thankful that Minneapolis and Saint Paul (and most of the rest of the Twin Cities) are grid aligned, for the sake of visitors. Personally, though, I love getting lost in Boston.

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10 Responses to Chart of the Day: Minneapolis Street Grid Orientation vs. Other US Cities

  1. Max Hailperin
    Max Hailperin July 11, 2018 at 12:16 pm #

    Cool. It would also be cool to have some sort of a visualization, perhaps using color coding, that showed all the different grid spacings that exist in various parts of the city. Sometimes a particular spacing extends for a substantial area and then changes to another spacing that is just slightly different, causing dislocations of varying sizes at the boundary street, with occasional omissions on the less closely spaced side. Other times, the spacing may change just on a localized basis and instead of being slightly different it is different by an integer multiple, in the “superblock” or “subblock” fashion. There’s a lot of room for variation (and confusing the unfamiliar) even when the streets are all aligned to the grid.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 11, 2018 at 12:40 pm #

      If only I knew a programmer who was intimately familiar with every block in the city…

  2. Nicole Salica
    Nicole Salica July 11, 2018 at 10:25 pm #

    I still blame my being raised in a wiggly-roads suburb for my having no sense whatsoever of direction. The predictability a city grid offers you is really, REALLY helpful.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 12, 2018 at 2:06 pm #

      I got lost biking in my home suburb just the other day. completely lost in the culs-de-sac

  3. Dan Kendell July 12, 2018 at 7:55 am #

    Fun article. Pittsburgh?, being in the Allegheny Mountains, is constrained by rivers, mountains and roads based on foot trails. Pittsburgh is at street level, often disorienting and sometimes claustrophobic. At other times, the vistas provided by mountain tops and the roads following riverbanks allow one to comprehend exactly where one is.

    In MSP man made things(downtowns, street grids) allow me to sense where I am and navigate. Chicago and Milwaukee are hybrids of geography and man made; the lake is to the E, the city is a point, rds are largely ordinal. Pittsburgh requires more thought, I visualize a map of the geography; the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers / valleys and track my position relative to those.

  4. Daniel Hartig
    Daniel Hartig July 12, 2018 at 1:53 pm #

    St. Louis is built on the curve of a river, so the different alignments allow main roads to draw somewhat graceful arcs from the Mississippi north of downtown to the south (see Jefferson, Grand, and Kingshighway streets in St. L).

    Germantown, Frankford, and Kensington were independent towns with their own grids and well over 100,000 people that were amalgamated into Philadelphia in 1854. Boston also grew by annexation over the 19th century.

    What’s Charlotte’s excuse?

  5. Tom Holub July 12, 2018 at 4:08 pm #

    Coincidentally, Charlotte was one of my other study cities, and its street grid is on the opposite side of the spectrum from Minneapolis in almost every way conceivable. I used Boeing’s OSMnx package (which is awesome if you do GIS work in Python) to evaluate roughly equal areas of the two cities. Maps here:

    Minneapolis: https://flic.kr/p/WTE2ee
    Charlotte: https://flic.kr/p/WTFFq2

    In the census tracts within that equal-area circle, Minneapolis has over three times as many intersections and street segments as Charlotte. So in addition to the regularity of the grids, they differ substantially in the density of the grid. That has a big effect on bike and pedestrian usage and safety.

    Minneapolis also gets the benefit of the Mississippi, which acts as a radal street cutting across the grid, with good non-motorized access to downtown on both sides. (This doesn’t work nearly as well for St. Paul).

    Minneapolis and Portland’s street grids have a lot of similarities. It’s not coincidental that they’re two of the highest-cycling cities in the country.

    • Bill Lindeke
      Bill Lindeke July 12, 2018 at 9:01 pm #

      streets.mn: for all your Charlotte, Netherlands, Austin, and Winnipeg urbanism coverage

  6. David Markle
    David Markle July 12, 2018 at 4:56 pm #

    Pioneer John Stevens later said he and other early residents made a mistake when they met in his little house and decided that the streets and avenues should respectively run parallel with and perpendicular to the river. Trouble is that the darn river keeps changing directions.

    That;s why we have a bunch of grids, not one big grid, and why the graph may be a little misleading.

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