What good is the grid?

I’m fussy about the term “gridlock.” You’ll never see me refer to “gridlock on the Beltway,” or “gridlock on I-395.” No grid, no gridlock. The term, still relatively new in our language, has a specific meaning.

It’s origin is attributed to a couple of New York City traffic engineers, Sam Schwartz and Roy Cottam, who in the 1970s feared that under certain conditions, Manhattan’s grid of streets could lock up. The term gained a wider audience during a 1980 transit strike, when the city expressed fears that too many cars would enter the city and block the intersections.

As the New York Times describes in a story today, the city this week will look back on a longer-range bit of “gridlock” history: the origin of the grid itself.

Tuesday marks the 200th anniversary of the date on which city commissioners certified the grid pattern laid out north to 155th Street, well beyond the range of intense development in that day, though not now.

During my college days, our professors of urban planning derided the grid, calling it a fine tool for selling real estate lots and a poor one for moving vehicles. And yes, you can’t have gridlock without a grid, though the planners of the early 19th century could not have anticipated our autos, buses and rail systems.

Now, in the 21st century, well beyond the original planning, as well as my college days, I find that planners look far more favorably on the grid. Down with the sidewalk-less roadways that provide no escape routes for drivers and no alternatives, like walking. Down with the cul-de-sacs that bottle up drivers and leave them with no alternative but to join the same traffic jam everyone else has gotten into on the local artery.

The Fairfax County planners struggling to retrofit Tysons Corner from a parking lot into a 21st century city speak fondly of the grid as a way of increasing mobility in that congested area. A “grid of streets provides circulation within the boundaries of Tysons Corner,” says a hopeful study prepared for the Fairfax County Department of Transportation.

More grids won’t end traffic congestion, and aren’t really meant to, but they might give more travelers a fighting chance.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region.

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