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January 11, 2010

Getting Lost in Big Cities

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Ever get lost in a big city? Or even disoriented for a few minutes?

It probably happens to everyone. I have a fairly good sense where I am and how the surroundings are laid out. This is mostly because I try to get hold of a map and study it before entering unfamiliar territory. If nothing else, this prior knowledge alerts me when I begin to drift away from my mental picture of where I'm trying to head.

This shouldn't be news to anyone, but it's pretty hard to get lost in grid-pattern cities. I should add that specific places might be a little hard to track down by address in Salt Lake City, Utah. (The Wasatch Mountains to the east make it difficult to get totally lost there.) You see, the street-naming system is partly based on the Mormon temple and major streets' relationship to it: "East South Temple," for instance.

Street patterns based on cow paths or influenced by topography are where trouble can set it, especially in overcast weather or at night when the sun's position is of no help. Fairly flat cities with twisty streets and no tall buildings are the most trouble because there are few landmarks to help guide one.

So what cities are the hardest to get around? Here are some of my "favorites."

Stuttgart, Germany caused me trouble when driving. It's hilly, and hills and relatively flat areas determine how streets and roads are laid out. I wanted to head out of town to the northeast, but to do so it was critical that I make a certain street change. Despite having my wife holding a street map, I missed the turn and eventually exited to the south, which cost us a up to an hour of extra driving to get back on track.

Bamberg, also in Germany, was difficult because we were trying to drive to a hotel in the center. But the presence of a river, pedestrian-only zones and one-way streets -- coupled with the fact that I had only a sketchy motel-brochure map -- resulted in 45 minutes of circling and circling until we finally struck the right route. Never try driving in Bamberg without a good street map.

One year I had a terrible time trying to drive to our hotel in Montecatini Terme, Italy. I had been there a few years earlier, but didn't have a street map this time. The city has a large park-like area in the middle where health spas and related facilities are located, and the many of the streets are one-way. So, as I struggled to find the hotel, I realized that I was slowly working myself in the opposite direction. Once more, a high-frustration situation.

As for walking, Venice in Italy gets the honors from me. For some reason I once wanted to walk from the train station to the Rialto bridge. Even though I had a map showing all the canals, streets, squares and churches, it was a hard slog. Better to have taken a vaporetto along the Grand Canal. On my last visit, I discovered that, in the touristy area, there were helpful signs pointing one to key destinations such as the Piazza San Marco. I have read that Venice's street patterns were a helpful defensive measure, being confusing to potential invaders yet familiar to natives. That's probably so, though I'm not sure defense was the primary reason for the jumble -- it might have been a consequence of the canal-building, land-filling process.

Amsterdam also has canals, though their layout has a regular pattern, unlike Venice. Even so, I found that I drifted off-course walking to the Rijksmuseum.

I was last in Tokyo in 1964 and found a map essential for walking around. The main high-rise landmarks then were a few Eiffel Tower like TV towers. Seoul's Namsan Hill was a helpful landmark there.

As for American cities, I find San Diego tricky for driving because much of it is comprised of higher ground chopped up by valleys and arroyos -- these latter are where freeways and expressways are often found. A map is really helpful.

Because of its pattern of hills and water, Seattle is probably confusing to outsiders. But I grew up in Seattle and know how to get around most of the time.

Washington, DC is difficult because of its diagonal avenues that can cause confusion and loss of sense of direction.

New York City outside of Manhattan between 10th Street and just beyond the top of Central Park is a lousy place to get caught without a street map.

Philadelphia and Baltimore beyond the downtowns can be confusing. Boston is pretty confusing every place besides Back Bay.

Any other candidates?



posted by Donald at January 11, 2010


It's easy to get lost in San Francisco, not in the sense of having no idea where you are (hills & water make pretty distinctive landmarks) but because the one-way streets and dead-end alleys make it hard to get where you're going -- and once you've been detoured, near impossible to get back on track.

Posted by: Brillo on January 12, 2010 5:01 PM

Most Italian cities have their charms, but you can take it as axiomatic that you will get lost going from point A to point B. On a recent trip, my wife and I found Padua an utterly baffling and frustrating maze to drive in.

Padua's directional signs — and in fairness, they do have a good system of symbolization and color coding in Italy — either tell you too much at once or point you in the right direction from that point but don't follow up. So you keep wondering if you missed a turn. Sometimes you conclude you have, but you don't know where you missed it. Sometimes you can't figure out where you are even with a map.

Anyone who plans to do much driving in Italian cities would probably be wise to fork over the extra cost of a GPS guidance system in the rental car. It might almost pay for itself by avoiding wasted fuel (very expensive there) on wild-goose chases.

Posted by: Rick Darby on January 15, 2010 12:48 PM

Canberra is laid out in concentric circles with irregularly positioned spokes. You are never quite sure how far around the circle you are, how far around the circle you want to be, which circle you should actually be on, or how to get there once you have figured all that out.

Posted by: Olive on January 15, 2010 2:54 PM

Amsterdam? I thought the graachts actually made navigation easy. London has some very confusing areas. I think DC is ridiculosly easy too navigate, but I grew up there so maybe that's not fair. I'd say most large Japanese cities can be confusing, not just Tokyo. The advantage of course is that you're almost always close to a subway or train line so worst case you can find a train to take you back to somewhere familiar - I guess that won't help if you're trying to drive.

Mexico City is just a sprawling mess that it strikes me as a little intimidating even if it's not really that easy to get lost there.

Posted by: Vanya on January 22, 2010 9:45 AM

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