The Yanks are inching towards a standard metric at last, throwing off the chains that linked them to the past. It’s hard yards but they will be in a different league if they can fathom a way through. As long as they don’t make a rod for their own backs or fall off their perch before the task is completed they can finally draw a line under this problem. It has been underfoot furlong enough.
In 2023 every U.S. land surveyor will finally be on equal footing. One kind of foot, specifically: the “international foot.” These engineers have long measured land with two versions of the unit, depending on which state they are in and whom they work for. To eliminate the resulting confusion, surveyors will soon stop using what is called the “U.S. survey foot” and use only the international version.
The two are nearly identical—dividing one by the other provides a ratio of 0.999998. But over long distances, such minuscule differences add up and can cause big problems. Every building in the U.S. sits on specific GPS coordinates, which are typically rendered and documented in meters. When mapping property or construction plans, surveyors convert those meters to feet. If they use an unexpected type of foot, future engineers referencing those maps might install or look for infrastructure in the wrong place.
“It’s kind of a mess,” says Michael Dennis, the National Geodetic Survey project manager overseeing the transition. Most engineering projects in the U.S. have used the international foot since 1959, but land surveys—which map boundaries and infrastructure locations—use whichever foot an organization or state wants. (The international foot is exactly 0.3048 of a meter, whereas the U.S. survey foot, 1200/3937 of a meter, has an unending decimal.) This means that anyone working in multiple U.S. locations or with different agencies must keep careful track of which foot is in use.
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