American Road Grids

Are Grids Better or Worse?

One of the best indicators of where in the United States you are can come from paying attention to the roads. Streets that tend to twist and turn in no comprehensible pattern are often found in the Northeast, while the Midwest and Plains states are known for perfectly engineered rectangular blocks that stretch for miles. There are distinct advantages for both ways of building.

Road Grid Map
This map is interesting because it shows the specific dividing lines between grid and non gridded systems. The atlantic coast for the most part is built without a system and so is the gulf coast of Texas and the California coast. Otherwise, the country generally conforms to a grid structure. As a side note, Ohio is by far my favorite; they seem to wrap the state in a maze of non gridded, local grids and national grids.

Benefits of Grids

Almost without question, grids are most efficient. It is always easy to get from one place to another when roads follow a strict grid, particularly when traveling North - South or East - West. Diagonal movement can actually be quite challenging in a grid system. Another benefit of grids is that areas become quite easy to zone and plan for development. When sections of land are blocked into very specific sizes, developers can create reusable plans that can apply to many areas.

Downsides of Grids

Boring. I think that is probably the easiest way of saying it. There is almost no originality in a grid system. Everything tends to look the same or at least similar and creative architecture almost never appears. This can actually lead to confusion; because roads and landscapes do not tend to be unique it is very challenging to know where you are and to judge how far you still have to travel to your destination if you do not have a navigation system.

Benefits of Being Off Grid

My favorite thing about living off the grid in New England is the sense of uniqueness that tends to come with it. Buildings tend to be all different sizes and shapes because often they become wedged between streets in odd alignments. Towns and cities easily develop into their own special places that are not easily replicated. Two towns or cities right next to one another can develop in such different ways that residents can attach to a clear local identity. These communities also tend to provide great support for those who chose to walk from place to place.

Downsides of Being Off Grid

It can be a mess. Getting anywhere by car can be a real challenge. If you do not know exactly what route you should take to get somewhere, you can get very lost and confused. A couple of months ago I had to drive from Cambridge to Newton (both just outside of Boston). The GPS told me the trip was about 7 miles and it took me 40 minutes. I probably never stayed on a single street for more than 45 - 50 seconds. Boston is one of the most extreme examples, but this is not all that farfetched for being off grid. As much as I like grids, it would not be fair not to mention that it is inefficient as well. All of this wasted time and distance surely counts for something. 


In this debate I can never really make up my mind. I am torn between my love of efficiency and my love for New England unique designs. I don't know if I will ever really decide. I tried to present the pros and cons so that you can make up your own mind.