“Using OpenStreetMap (OSM) data, I was able to see how bendy or straight the roads are all over the world. One theory I had was that Europe, where current roads are based on older roads that predate cars, would have more bends and curves than the USA, where current roads were (in many places) only put in in the last 150 ? 100 years, and probably put in directly and dead straight.
“The Mid-west USA and Canadian prairies have the most straight roads. Nearly all of the roads there are straight. This broadly matches my theory.”
For anyone questioning McCann’s methods, rest assured he used an actual “bendyness ratio” defined as the “length of the road divided by the straight line difference between [its] end points.” He didn’t think to abbreviate this ratio with a mathematical symbol, but I would suggest ||/?.
The project, which McCann launched some time ago but is now featured at Maps Mania, has its shortcomings. One is potentially incomplete road data in OpenStreetMap, another a technical issue with split “ways” that McCann delves into on his site. Still, it appears to paint an accurate picture of the Midwest, land of unbending, endless-feeling roads (red-orange areas mark hotbeds of straightness):
A lot of this is due to the fact that it is possible to have straight roads on flat land. Yet, these straight roads may be helpful in other ways. Back in graduate school, I wrote a paper about cognition in cities and some have argued that having a grid system – often aided by having flat land (see San Francisco for an interesting application of a grid on numerous hills) – is helpful for navigation (it is easy to tell directions) and better for traffic (multiple options in a grid rather than having some roads that are used more heavily). Think the Manhattan grid. Having this grid may even allow city dwellers to use the landscape as extended cognition where they don’t have to cram so much into their brains because they can offload information onto the grid. In contrast, I was recently in the western Philadelphia suburbs where the roads tend to follow the topography. It took me a number of visits before I knew which roads went where as they tend to twist and turn in ways that make sense. Of course, the Midwest roads may not be as scenic as those dipping and turning around hills, forests, water features and other natural phenomena. Some of the early wealthy suburbs like Riverside, Illinois intentionally had such curved roads on the flat landscape in order to highlight the landscape. Such curved roads in neighborhoods can also slow down drivers who have to be a bit more wary.