They tell you that's it's really easy to get around in the US, because "it's all on a grid". First of all, until you've been here for about three years, that phrase doesn't even register. They could be talking about the electricity companies for all we know.
But yes, most American cities are "on a grid" for the most part; Chicago has some weird diagonal streets that interfere with that grid, Boston is so old that it meanders around a bit, and some of the more modern suburbs have started doing that stupid cul-de-sac thing they do in England, but it's grids as a rule.
Which is fine if you know which direction you're facing. I remember when I first moved to Chicago I got lost every time I got in my car. In the end I bought a magnetic compass because everyone gives you directions in East, West phraseology and completely ignores convenient landmarks like huge churches, car dealerships and, in Chicago's case, the bloody big lake that stops you driving too far east. Usually, after driving around in circles (or squares since it's on a grid), I would head east to the lake, and start all over again.
Sometimes they give you east/west directions and they're not even correct. Like the Interstate (motorway) going from Chicago out north, then west to the airport. If people give you directions they either say "west on I-90" which means you go north from the city, or "east on I-90" which means you head south back into the city. How in the word is a stranger supposed to get into Chicago - (take note Brit Gal Sarah, this is the road from the airport).
I'd much rather hear "You make a sort of right at St. Stephen's, then take what looks like the left fork at the Ferret and Onion, and if you come to the village green you've gone too far". At least you know when you've gone wrong!
Ah, Toni, you hit the nail right on the head; a grid system with easy to follow compass directions as opposed to dodgy directions that more often than not lead me further astray ("At the second round about past the Strangled Goose, go left and continue to where the Co-Op used to be, then left, left, right, left, left and Bob's your uncle."). It brings on flashbacks of my early days here, heading out to Newport (which I knew was to the west) and repeatedly circling a round about in Surry that pointed one way to Basingstoke and the other way to Bracknell. Having never before heard of either of those places, I had no idea where to go, and the only thing I could be sure of was, given the choice between two directions, I would chose the wrong one. A nice clear sign pointing west (or north or south or east, I'm not fussy) would have been a welcome sight.
Since that time, I have kept my eye out for such types of highway assistance, but they are hard to find. I guess they figure, in a country this small, you should just know where everything is, and if you don't you probably shouldn't be here. (It's likely part of the Home Guard's defence plans held over from the war.)
I recall, in America, driving up to Lake George and needing to be on route 9N north. Three miles before I got to the junction they started having signs for it, which increased in frequency the closer I came. At the junction I found huge, clear signs pointing to 9N north, 9N south, 9L east and Birch Avenue west. And after turning on to 9N north, there were signs to remind me I was, indeed, on 9N north. The roads in the US were made for really inattentive people.
In Britain, I come to a round about and, assuming I know I need to go toward Abergavenny to get to Llanddewi, I turn at the exit I think is pointing that way, and I only discover if I hit it right when I get to the next round about (and in rural Wales, this can be 25 miles or more) to find there is no mention of Llanddewi, Pen-yr-hoel, or even Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, thought there might be a sign welcoming me to Hereford.
But the American Interstate Highway System, what an exquisite feat of engineering! As any school kid could tell you, odd-numbered highways run north and south while even-numbered highways run east and west (and the fact that I travelled to work on a section of I-90 that ran from Nassau straight north to Albany was not confusing to me in the least*). A three-digit highway beginning in an odd number was a spur leading into a city, while a three-digit highway beginning in an even number was a spur running around a city. God bless David Eisenhower. (What a lot of people have forgotten about them is that they are military roads created for national defence. The idea that one mile in every ten is designed to be straight and flat in order to serve as an impromptu runway is, however, a myth, though I believe there is regulation requiring every second exit to have a Denny's or a Dunkin Donuts.)
The upshot is, getting to where you want to go in America is far easier than it is in Britain; all you really need to know is if the place you want to get to is generally north, south, east or west of where you are. Just don't try going toward the west on I-90 from Nassau.
*It's interesting to note that Toni and I apparently lived on the same street. We were practically neighbors.
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