Does block size and street width really matter? 

The great American street grid; 

Some people love it, some people hate it. But you have to admire its simplicity, and it certainly does have some merit; 

  1. It is incredibly easy to plan out and survey (everything is an aligned rectangle.)

  2. It is highly connected (there are no dead ends.)

  3. It is very hard to get lost in (especially if you number your streets like in Manhattan.)

Of course, there are disadvantages. Particularly, it can become repetitive and uniform (a strict grid usually does not offer much variation in block sizes and street widths), and it does not accomidate diagonal travel very well. But, I have chosen to focus on the street grid, as it is not the worst street layout there is, and it is very easy to mathematically model and study. 

Within the basic street grid, you have some flexibility, namely, in the size of the blocks and the widths of the streets. But, just how much of an effect do these variables have in affecting the walkability and efficient land usage of a city? 

To help me in my analysis of the street grid, I developed a simple Street Area Calculator tool. You can input a street width, block size and it will generate some simple statistics about the land usage and walkability of a particular grid. I have used it to generate the statistics and diagrams in this post. 

Sample Grids

To study the properties of different street grids, I needed some data to work with. I went on a tour around the United States in Google Maps, and used the measuring tool to measure the block and street sizes in various cities; 

The measurements are pretty crude but they are accurate enough to get a general idea of each city's grid. I took measurements for the following cities; 

City

Street Width

Block Size

0.5 Mile Section

Austin, TX

115 ft

345 ft

Little Rock, AR

95 ft

300 ft

Manhattan, NY

58 ft

600 x 250 ft

Portland, OR

60 ft

200 ft

Salt Lake City, UT

130 ft

660 ft

San Francisco, CA

65 ft

420 x 275 ft

Already, we can see some massive differences between the grids. We can tell just by looking at it, that the streets and blocks of Portland (left) and Salt Lake City (right) are vastly different; 

Land Usage

One metric we can pull from the grid is how much land is dedicated to the streets versus the actual block. This is an important metric, because essentially, the area used by the block is productive (it can be privately owned, and generates revenue for the city), while the area used by the street places a burden on the city (both due to physically maintaining the surface of the street, and due the lack of land that could potentially be privately owned and generating tax revenue.) 

Here are our above cities, sorted by their land usage. From a tax perspective, the less area dedicated to streets, the better; 

City

Street Width

Block Size

Street Area

Block Area

Manhattan, NY

58 ft

600 x 250 ft

25.99%

74.01%

San Francisco, CA

65 ft

420 x 275 ft

29.96%

70.04%

Salt Lake City, UT

130 ft

660 ft

30.2%

69.8%

Portland, OR

60 ft

200 ft

40.83%

59.17%

Little Rock, AR

95 ft

300 ft

42.32%

57.68%

Austin, TX

115 ft

345 ft

43.75%

56.25%

This is a great metric for measuring how much land has the potential to be put to productive use - for example, I would consider the grid wasteful in Austin, TX wherenearly half (43.75%) of land is dedicated to streets, removing the potential for it to be put to productive use. 

However, it is not such a great metric for measuring walkability. Walkability is correlated with scale - the closer destinations are, the more destinations that are within walking distance, and the more likely you are to walk. A simple Street:Block ratio does not account for scale differences, and hence, are not good indicators of walkability. This can be observed when comparing Portland's grid to that of Salt Lake City, despite Portland being 'less efficient' by allocating more land to streets (40.83%) than Salt Lake City (30.2%); 

Street Frontage

Another metric we can gather from the street grid is how much of the street frontage is within walking distance (street frontage being defined as the perimeter of a block that faces the street.) For example purposes, I will define "walking distance" as refering to half a mile - which may take an average person 10 minutes or so to walk. 

An interesting property I have noticed about the street grid is that in most circumstances, 45% to 50% of street frontage of a surrounding square mile is within walking distance, regardless of the scale of the grid. Both of the grids below represent a square mile. Let's assume that we have been dropped into the middle of this grid, with the red areas representing the street frontage that is within a half a mile walk; 

You will notice how our walking distance takes the shape of a diamond pattern. This is the result of the grid layout forcing us to use Manhattan distances (we can only walk at 90 degree angles, not diagonally) compared to Euclidean distances (in an organic street layout with diagonal roads, the red area may look more like a circle rather than a diamond.) 

Measuring the amount of street frontage within walking distance is an interesting metric, because you could easily correlate street frontage with 'destinations.' A destination is along a street, and takes up street frontage; 

So we can reasonably assume that the more street frontage that is within walking distance, the more destinations that are within walking distance, and the more walkable the environment is. (This is a flawed assumption, as the street front may not actually be a destination, and instead a parking lot, or a blank side wall, but it will work as a generalization.) With that in mind, here are our cities sorted by the street frontage that is within a half a mile walk - in this case, larger is better; 

City

Street Width

Block Size

Street Frontage Within Half A Mile

Portland, OR

60 ft

200 ft

158400 ft

San Francisco, CA

65 ft

420 x 275 ft

110920 ft

Manhattan, NY

58 ft

600 x 250 ft

106696 ft

Little Rock, AR

95 ft

300 ft

98496 ft

Austin, TX

115 ft

345 ft

83280 ft

Salt Lake City, UT

130 ft

660 ft

56960 ft

This appears to be a much better metric for measuring walkability. Despite Salt Lake City's grid having less land allocated to streets than Portland, Portland's grid has 2.78x the street frontage within walking distance. 

Downscaling

The smaller the blocks are, the more there is within walking distance. Let's assume that we have 60 ft wide streets, and we will play with the grid sizes; 

The smaller our blocks are, the more they are broken up, and the more street frontage we have. The trade-off is that this greatly increases the amount of land we then dedicate to streets; 

The reason behind this is simple - when we break up a block, we need to run a new street through it. Eventually, we reach a point where we are simply wasting space, by allocating more than 50% of our land to streets; 

Grid Size

Street Frontage Within Half A Mile

Street Area

100 ft

207,360 ft

60.94%

200 ft

158,400 ft

40.83%

300 ft

120,960 ft

30.56%

400 ft

101,760 ft

24.39%

500 ft

86,080 ft

20.28%

If we are to downscale our blocks to make our grid more walkable, we also need to downscale our streets, in order to keep the ratio of Street Area:Block Area down. We can have 150 ft blocks and keep our street area down to 22.15%, if we also build 20 ft streets (which would result in 284,800 ft of street frontage being within a half a mile walk - far greater than that of Portland!) 

However, when we start talking about 150 ft blocks and 20 ft streets, we begin to get into the realm of traditional cities; 

Traditional cities are naturally highly walkable, human-scale environments. 

Conclusion

The grid layout is great to study because it is very simple to model mathematically, which allows us to see the effect of different street widths and block sizes on land usage and walkability. The trade-off with the grid layout is choosing between walkability (small, finely grained blocks) or efficiency (large blocks, with very few streets). 

In this blog post, I presented a purely mathematical model where all blocks and streets were equal in size. In real life, this is not always the case, and there are plenty of cities that have added their own variation to the grid layout. The best implementation of a street grid that I have seen is Melbourne's. Melbourne has a great mix of wide streets; 

And narrow laneways; 

In the future, I will discuss other street layouts - such as radial grids, organic streets, cul-de-sacs, and hierarchical systems. 

Update

on 2013-12-03 16:42 by Charles Marohn

This article has received a lot of attention, including some great follow up thoughts.

  • My blog friend whose writing and insights I really admire, Patrick Kennedy, provided some interesting thoughts on this topic over at Walkable DFW. As always, Patrick, very nice work.

  • Sarah Goodyear at the Atlantic Cities also took and interest in the topic and wrapped it into a larger piece that is equally readable. Sarah's work is always great so I was really happy for Andrew.

Congratulations to Andrew Price for such a thought-provoking piece. I feel really fortunate that he found us, shared to much of his great work at the Strong Towns Network and then agreed to share some of that regularly here. Stay tuned for more from Andrew.

-Chuck Marohn