I still haven’t actually been to Boston, but I have a much better understanding of it*.
Last weekend’s drive up the Boston Post Road not only offered the opportunity to prove that I could drive for eight hours without collapsing from the boredom, but also let me see and appreciate the things** about Boston that I didn’t get in Atlanta, Greenville, Philadelphia, or Fairfax.
I have heard it uncharitably claimed last weekend that the road network of Boston was laid out as cowpaths. I have heard the exact same claim about Lafayette, Louisiana, and Atlanta, Georgia. What’s so wrong with that? A road network based on lines of desire and convenience of walking trips makes more sense for walking than one based on the easy sale of real estate (Blocks, cf. New York, Los Angeles, much of what was built between 1820 and 1920), or the easy movement of traffic from calm-cataclysm-calm (the Hierarchical Road Network of every place built since 1930).
The road network of Boston (or particularly, Belmont and Newton) looks more like a cobweb than a system of blocks. Perfectly sensible for neighborhoods that developed with railroads in the 1830s, horsecars in the 1860s, and trolleys in the 1890s. All of the passengers of those long distance, high speed transportation modes walked from their transit stops to the their jobs, housing our shopping. Eight or even six MPH was high-speed relative to walking or even riding a wagon through muddy streets in that era. To get a sense of the miraculous advantages of rail, steam, and electric power in the time of Boston’s greatest growth, think of the miraculous speed gains of your modem through the 1990s.
The natural road network that evolved from this was an overlapping hub and spoke pattern. There is no reason a transit passenger needs to get in a car after alighting, even today.
And this made for an acutely walkable terrain. The morning we stayed in Newton, I wanted to walk to a cafe to get some writing done. Google maps showed me three within a 15 minute walk. So I walked to the end of the residential block, to an arterial, and thence to a commercial district, crossing I-90 on the way. The riverine roar of traffic helped us to sleep the night before.
We never stayed in a house with a street address greater than 100, so short and discontinuous was the street network. To get from the place we were staying in Belmont to the place in Newton, we made two right turns, drove over a long hill, made another right, and we had arrived. Philadelphia, Washington and New York pride themselves on their comprehensive block numbering and lettering systems. Boston uses navigation of that complex network to filter natives from residents from visitors. Learning the lingo of landmarks and shortcuts is a token of belonging. Anyone can understand any network if they live there long enough, “good design” “principles” notwithstanding. Ask any subdivision resident from Florida to California.
*I’ve only briefly changed trains underground at the Tremont plaza, to make my way from Logan to Cambridge. It is comical.
** Trraffic networks discussed here, but the question I won’t write about until I get better acquainted with it is : Why do so many Boston houses have such complex roofs?