NEB&W Look at the Downtown Grid

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Scenery, Structures & Details Table of Contents

Introduction

The advantage claimed for the octagonal house (c. 1860) was that it minimized the amount of wall per the amount of interior space, which became a consideration once balloon framing was developed. With the older mortise and tendon construction, the important consideration was to minimize the number of corners, as the joints were so hard to make. This in effect gave us rectangular buildings.

A triangular building would have the least number of corners. If you add a fourth corner, 33% more joints, you double the interior space, gaining 100% more, a desirable trade-off. Adding more joints, so as to create a pentagon, etc., on up toward a circle, gives diminishing returns.

The concept of a rectangle for living quarters is so ingrained in Western culture that we need to remember how many, perhaps the majority, of the human race over the last million years or so have either lived in irregular-shaped housing (caves), or round houses, such as tipis, igloos, thatched huts, etc.

The point is that towns and cities generally were laid out in a rectangular grid, which is probably a legacy of the mortise and tendon. This is the most space-saving way to fit buildings with right angles. Imagine if the octagonal house had caught on, but in a simpler hexagonal form. Our cities might wind up looking like a honeycomb.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Victorian city's need to squeeze meant that street frontage was very valuable. In order to fit in enough living space with the narrowest front meant that the lots and buildings were going to be long and narrow. Since every major building needed to be accessible by a street or alley, the blocks became two buildings across, and as long as possible, interrupted only by cross-streets to make it possible to get from street to street without too long a distance to the end of the block. Notice that while the long narrow shape of the buildings was mirrored in the long narrow shape of the blocks, the narrow side of the buildings was set on the long side of the block and vice-versa. The proportion of width to depth of the rectangular lots was not related to the proportion of the rectangular blocks

With the basic building block of the city a long narrow rectangle, it would be possible to arrange them in a number of patterns. If one was laying up bricks or other masonry, it was desirable to offset the crosswise joints. With city blocks, one wants the joints to line up, not be offset, so once the pattern was set, the grid would extend to the city limits unless some other force disturbed it. For instance, River Street, the western-most major thoroughfare in Troy meanders as it more or less stays parallel to the Hudson River. Broadway in New York City cuts across the grid pattern as it was an old trail which became a street long before the grid was established, as was the random street pattern of Greenwich Village.

There is a curious effect on travel within a grid composed of unequal widths and lengths. If someone lived in a field, then travel would be radial. All things being equal, the travel over any portion of the field would be a function only of how far it was from the individual. If you filled the field with a populace (such as at Woodstock, on a beach, on planets scattered through out the galaxy), on average all portions would be traveled equally.

When you introduce large obstacles, such as blocks, then travel is restricted to the streets and sidewalks. If the blocks were square, then each thoroughfare would see equal travel. Now imagine an extreme case, a city a mile square in both directions, with 100 avenues and only one cross-street. (Each avenue has two blocks.) If you plotted the travel by any random inhabitant, to go from his or her house to any spot in the city, the person would have to use a section of the cross-street to go from that avenue to any other. Travel on any avenue other than the originating one would be a one out of 99 chance, while travel on the cross-street would be 99 chances out of 100.

If the person lived on the cross-street, then the cross-street would be used for every trip. However, there is a 100 to one chance that a person would live on the long street, that being the ratio of long streets to cross-streets in this scenario.

(Another analogy would be a skyscraper with 100 stories but only one working elevator. Given random destinations within the building without regard to vertical versus horizontal, the elevator would be used for every trip from one floor to the next.)

What I'm trying to demonstrate is that the rectangular grid funnels more traffic along the cross-streets than the long streets, related to the ratio of the length to the width. If you were setting up a retail operation, you would want to have your store on the cross-street rather than on the long street. I doubt this was ever a consciences decision, but stores on cross-street would tend to be better patronized by people just happening to pass by, would do better, and would attract neighboring stores. Of course, some area(s) become the shopping districts, and attract enough business to spill over to the long streets, while other areas become mostly residential. Zoning also artificially dictates where businesses can be located, but I think zoning only started around WWI, and wasn't in effect in Victorian days. Even if it did, zoning boards can give in to pressure from merchants, so the boards often just go with the flow anyway.

I noticed in South Troy, where the grid narrows down to eventually just one street, that just before that where there are only a few long streets, the cross-streets see little traffic.

This relation of where the stores are likely to wind up is much more a function of a pedestrian city. In a city where most travel is by auto, the routes are not as important as where the parking is. You can drive by a store many times, but only patronize the one you can park near.

In terms of a stacking arrangement of the lots, they could all be kept perpendicular to the long streets, so that on the cross-streets the sides of the row buildings were exposed. Or the lots on the ends of the blocks could be rotated 90 degrees so they face the cross-street, with the side of the buildings along the first 100 feet or so on the long streets. If the neighborhood is residential, the favored stacking pattern should be with all the buildings facing the quieter long streets. In the business section, the buildings would be expected to face the busier cross-streets.

As I've said, the ratio of length to width of the blocks affects the degree to which the traffic is funneled to the cross-street. I've only studied a small section of just the few cities that we model. The blocks are in the range of 400 feet long and somewhere between 250 and 280 feet wide. (Many of streets are not exactly at right angles, so one side of the block is longer than the other.) The block behind the Saratoga depot is 630 feet, an exception. The cross-street funneling effect is more subtle in our "NEB&W" cities.

If you look at a map of Manhattan, the ratio is much greater between the avenues (which are their cross-streets) and the numbered streets. I've also seen some aerial photos of such areas as Queens, where the buildings are not connected. I can't explain Manhattan's ratio, but in an area of unconnected buildings, the risk of fire engulfing the entire block is much less, so the function of cross-streets as a firebreak is not as important. Thus the blocks are interrupted by cross-streets less frequently. Also, unconnected buildings mean pedestrian traffic is not as important, so less real estate is given over to cross-streets.

In the suburbs where the lots are big enough and the buildings are not connected, the lots can made irregular, and the streets made to wander. This was a feature of areas laid out to discourage through traffic, as in post-WWII housing. However, these sections of town are far from the tracks, and rarely get modeled.

The Railroad & The Grid

The railroad might have come into a town either before it was laid out, or afterwards. In a few areas, such as the Baltimore waterfront, it came in afterwards. In most cases, it was first.

In the Midwest and West, usually entire towns sprung up after the line was operating. Some railroads even decided where the new towns were to be and laid them out themselves, using a set pattern so that they varied only in name. On flat land such as the Midwest, the grid pattern was less likely to be disturbed by natural variance.

But even in established populated areas, the right-of-way was generally purchased in the least expensive area, which meant the least settled. Subsequent development would then follow, so much so that this was taken into account when railroads were deciding where to locate the station.

For instance, when the first Grand Central was built in New York City at 42nd Street, people laughed at how far out in the country it was. Grand Central is now considered in the heart of Manhattan. In Philadelphia, 30th Street Station was similarly set outside the main drag with the assumption that such growth would follow to sustain it, although in this case they were wrong.

Even in villages this happened. The station at Chester, VT is so far (all of half a mile) from the village center that it is actually in Chester Depot, VT, a separate corporate entity. The depot at Vergennes, VT is nowhere in sight of the downtown. In another Chester (NY), the Erie built their depot about a mile from the colonial cluster of buildings (including a tavern where Washington slept). While the depot became the main economic center of a Victorian downtown, Chester found itself with a "downtown" and an "uptown", as in-fill development never took place to connect the two.

If the railroad came in first, the grid was established in line with the tracks. If the line came in second, it would aim to line up with the grid. In Troy, the tracks made a long diagonal from those parallel to the River at the south end, to then turn and run parallel once they reached Sixth Avenue. (Originally in Troy the railroad came into the established business district of River Street, but 20 years later moved to the less settled area inland.)

Saratoga's grid was also there first, but the rail line was laid out in the infancy of the industry (1832), with tight curves befitting the stagecoaches on flanged wheels. When I look at the map of Saratoga, it looks like it was laid out with Lionel 0-27 track, as the track runs parallel to each street in turn before a bend this way and a bend that way gets it over and parallel to the next. The D&H gritted their teeth and lived with the squeal of flanges here until finally in 1958, when the decline of passenger service allowed them to reroute the line around the city and put an inaccessible passenger shack out in the boonies.

The long vs. the narrow of the grid pattern is merely relative to which way the observer happens to be facing, until you put the railroad through it. Layout planners often admonish modelers to keep the track from running parallel to the edge of the layout, but the most you can do is introduce a slight angle. Otherwise the track runs off the edge and "ge-smash" goes your equipment.

While the railroad might be in line with the grid, you might think that there is nothing that predicts whether the narrow or the long side would be favored. However, in order to minimize the number of streets that have to cross the tracks (either at grade or with an expensive bridge), it would seem logical that the long side would be favored.

Sometimes some of the cross-streets would be stopped from extending across the tracks. The station is almost always located next to a street that crosses the track, and this street becomes one of the busiest cross-streets.

Troy had a well established grid, which was mostly parallel to the tracks except in the above mentioned diagonal over to River on the south end, and the mess north around the wye. However, in order to cross the Hudson on the shortest run, the tracks make a full 90 degree curve in the wye, so that when the line crosses River Street, the grid is perpendicular.

Saratoga also was parallel, with a long street behind the station. Cohoes was the same, although so many of the buildings next to the track were enormous churches that there isn't the same "stacked store effect", jut one or two big buildings dominating each block.

In Chester, the main street is perpendicular to the tracks, with the hardware, the grocery, and the feed store parallel to the tracks. In Chatham, the block is parallel to the tracks, but it narrows down toward the station, becoming a point with a "flatiron" type of building on the end.

In Green Island, the tracks come off the Hudson River bridge at right angles to the grid and then turn around another full 90 degree bend, the opposite of the Troy one, to run parallel to the grid.

What I'm trying to demonstrate is that in many cases (perhaps the majority), the sides of buildings near the station face the track because the front is facing the street that is perpendicular to the track. Rutland, VT is a notable exception, as the station/yard complex is lined with storefronts facing it. Modelers, however, especially if the scene is very narrow, place the fronts facing the track, often using them for fronts. Now while that isn't wrong, you might consider avoiding the cliché and rotate the buildings 90 degrees. (Or use the leftover sides, from the kits you've used just for their fronts, for another town for some variety.) Or just pick a prototype and copy the arrangement even if you don't model it building for building.

Right-Angle Turns

On Hollywood sets, they frequently use a right-angle turn on a street so the set can visually end with row of buildings, and not have extend into the distance. Modelers sometimes resort to this same trick. Now that I've noticed this, I realized this is very unusual in real life.

In real life, streets tend not to form a right-angle turn, but end in a "T" section, terminating in a cross-street. The reason, I think, is that the corner lot on the outside of the angle, would have no street frontage, and hence no window area. And before '38, no windows, no building. So if the street does make a sharp turn, there probably would be no building there. (A lot is a lot to waste, so to make it useful, there would be a space, an alley at least to allow windows, which then makes the right angle turn in a sense a T-intersection.)

The Mantelpiece City

Modelers typically free-lance their urban areas. They love to put their main yard and engine terminal in the downtown commercial district, which is set high on a retaining wall along the back of the scene. In my opinion this makes the city look like it's set up on a mantelpiece to show it off. I find this particularly annoying because so many modelers do this.

Yards and engine terminals are normally not in the heart of expensive downtown real estate. And if the tracks had to be in an area dug out (implied by the retaining wall), no railroads would be able to stay in business after spending their money on the initial construction and subsequent property taxes. Yards are generally found in the outskirts. Normally they aren't even lined by industries quite as much as the mainline is as it begins to approach the downtown. After all, industries need workers, who weren't as mobile and didn't travel as far when the industrial development took place. Even blue-collar worker districts had higher property taxes than outside the city. In other words, even an industrial area is too expensive to have a yard.

Selkirk and Mechanicville are both the major yards of the Capital District, but they are miles from downtown Albany. There were smaller yards scattered around, of course, such as West Albany and South Troy. The yard in Rutland, VT was an exception, right in the heart of the city. The yard was lined with the passenger station and main street on the east and the servicing facilities of the railroad on the west. Some of the industries were even further west, but most were north or south of the yard.

A seemingly paradox is that the bigger the downtown, the less likely it might be an element of the scene. Thus the area of your layout you might want to suggest serves "Lionel City" might have the yard fringed by oil tanks with the (distant) skyscrapers flapping on the backdrop, while "Varneyville" might have a bustling downtown adjacent to the tracks.

Yes, I know a layout is far from ideal. If you need to place the yard next to the main passenger terminal, and the terminal needs to be in the city's center, at least lower the retaining wall. I suppose you could explain it away as a grade separation project, but anything more than clearance is wasted effort.

Also, with all things being equal, if the tracks were lowered, they would need to be so by the clearance required by rolling stock passing under street bridges. If the tracks were raised, the necessary clearance is for highway vehicles, which is less. The grade separation would thus favor raising tracks, especially as it is cheaper to fill than cut. Of course, bridges to carry railroads over streets are more expensive than vice-versa, as railroad equipment is so much heavier than highway vehicles. If the track is lowered, it can be covered, thus eliminating the din of passing trains (as was done in New York City and the reason why "El's" were eliminated in favor of subways). But modelers would hardly favor their tracks covered.

Grade Crossing Eliminations

By WWI, the explosion of automobile traffic led to the need to separate the highways from the railroad. This trend continued until most of the problem spots were corrected and then the decline of rail traffic made such changes academic on remaining problems after WWII. Almost universally, this being the concrete century, all the abutments were concrete, and sometimes the bridge itself.

The simplest form was to just eliminate the street crossing itself. Normally a pedestrian underpass was added, looking like a subway tunnel, and concrete was also used to make a fence across the street. This was done at one street in Albany, NY, on the New York Central, and Monroe, NY, on the Erie.

In rural areas, where just one highway had to be separated, it was the roadway that was altered. In general, if the landscape was flat, the road could not be lowered to go under the tracks, as it probably would hit the water table. In these situations, the road was elevated to go over. If the road crossed at an angle, sometimes the elevated road would be shifted so it took a hard turn near the top to cross closer to a right angle (to minimize the length of the bridge) and then took a second hard turn in the opposite direction.

Examples of this includes Johnsonville, NY on the B&M, River Street in Rutland, VT, and Whitehall, NY on the D&H. Johnsonville was unusual in having a wide enough bridge to require a truss. I think they might have planned for the addition of more tracks in the future.

In rolling country, the road typically was lowered. The standard width was 20 feet for the two lanes flanked by about 13 feet on each side for the sidewalk. The road would have to be lowered to meet highway clearances, but the sidewalks wouldn't have to go so far, so the curb between the two goes from just a few inches to a couple of feet. In some cases, the curb becomes so deep that an iron railing was added for a short section.

The underpass was used at Delmar, NY on the D&H and Vergennes, VT, on the Rutland.

With a city full of streets, the railroad had to change elevation. In the July 9, 1915 Railway Age, there was a lengthy discussion by C. N. Bainbridge of the Milwaukee Road about whether to go up or down. The clearance for highway traffic was 12 feet to 13-1/2 feet, with 3-1/2 feet to 4 feet for the depth of the bridge floor. The railroad required 18 to 22 feet for clearance and a similar floor depth, or from 5 to 11 feet more.

The difference was increased by the clearance issue. Sideways clearance for the equipment at the bottom of a cut requires a greater width as opposed to the width needed just for the track at the top of a fill. A cut had to be 26 feet wide while a fill had only had to be 20 feet wide. For any given length, the amount of material to be either removed or added would be about 2.3 times greater if a single track was depressed than if it was raised. (For a double-track, the difference was only 2.1 in favor of the raised trackage.)

Bainbridge pointed out that if the track was raised, material would have to be cut someplace and moved to the site, the opposite of cutting it at the site and moving it away, so the cost per cubic yard would be the same. However, to raise the track would require first a trestle with the fill dumped around it, and the cost of the trestle added to the overall project would balance things out. (At some point, earth-moving bulldozers and such equipment would be used to add the fill, not the older method of filling around the trestle using railroad dump cars.)

As with lowering a single road, it may not be feasible to cut below the surface if the water table is near the surface. However, since a railroad required such a gentle grade, an additional consideration comes into play. Railroads in our region connected cities that were at water level and the tracks were kept as close to that as possible. Even if the water table wasn't a problem, the tracks probably were already at a minimum to cross any waterway. For instance, if the mainline was depressed in downtown Troy, it wouldn't have enough distance to get up to the height of the nearby Green Island lift bridge. Raising the tracks would allow the main to cross over the Hudson at a greater height, which would only please the ship operators.

Streets often had water, gas, and sewer lines buried in them, and these lines would have to altered if the tracks were lowered, but not if the tracks were raised. The sewer line was the biggest problem to change, as it the biggest in diameter. I think a sewer line has to maintain a downgrade.

Generally industries lined the right of way. If the tracks were raised, the spur could be served from the second story, and a coal dealer would only be happier to have a raised spur. Having the spur at basement level was not always feasible.

A steam engine's stack was already about a second-story level and raising the tracks raised this source of noise and dirt that much further. Lowering it only brought the stack right down to street level.

There are many examples of where the tracks were raised, such as in Schenectady, NY and Syracuse, NY, both on the New York Central. (Syracuse had the main line down the middle of the main business district until the mid-1930's. If I was a Central modeler or anyone looking for a free-lanced big city, I'd model Syracuse with the tracks in the street.)

The only two places I can think of where the tracks were depressed was in New York City on the approach to Grand Central, and at Whitehall, NY, on the D&H, and both were special cases. In New York, the idea was to bury the tracks as the real estate was so valuable. (All the elevated transit lines were similarly converted into subways.) At Whitehall, the tracks had to run in the street for aways just north of the depot to get over a small ridge. Lowering the track was for as much for the grade reduction as the grade elimination.