Google Maps has now added areas of interest

Check out the redesigned Google Maps and you’ll see areas of interest:

Instead of promoting a handful of dots representing restaurants or shops at the city-view level, the new interface displays orange-colored “areas of interest,” which the company describes simply as “places where there’s a lot of activities and things to do.” In Los Angeles, for example, there’s a big T of orange blocks around Wilshire Boulevard and Vermont Avenue in Koreatown, and again on Wilshire’s Miracle Mile, stretching up La Brea Avenue*. In L.A., areas of interest tend to cling to the big boulevards and avenues like the bunching sheath of an old shoelace. In Boston, on the other hand, they tend to be more like blocks than strips. In Paris, whole neighborhoods are blotted orange.

Roads and highways, meanwhile, take on a new, muted color in the interface. This marks a departure from Google’s old design, which often literally showed roads over places—especially in contrast to Apple Maps, as the cartographer Justin O’Beirne hasshown. The new map is less about how to get around than about where to go.

“Areas of interest,” the company’s statement explains, are derived with an algorithm to show the “highest concentration of restaurants, bars, and shops.” In high-density areas, Google candidly explains that it is using humans to develop these zones. Algorithms, of course, are tuned by human engineers. But like Facebook with its News Feed, Google has decided that some attributes of the digital world need a human touch firsthand…

Even with its sliding scales, Google Maps can’t fit every shop in Tokyo in a two-dimensional map. So who gets a spot? It’s not an obvious choice: Analyzing Apple and Google’s maps of New York and London, O’Beirne found that the two companies’ maps had just 10 and 12 percent of their place labels in common. (Likewise, different people will have different businesses pop at them—try it with a friend.)

The title of the article is “All Maps Are Biased. Google Maps’ Redesign Doesn’t Hide It.” This bias could be toward certain businesses or certain areas of the city. When certain businesses or areas are displayed, others are not. But, we could also ask about the commercial imperatives of this mapping: what happens when areas of interest are primarily commercial areas and businesses? Are these always the most interesting spots in cities? When sociologists and others discuss thriving public spaces – whether the mixed use areas of Jane Jacobs or the spots of Cosmopolitan Canopies as noted by Elijah Anderson – they often do include businesses including stores and restaurants. Yet, at the same time, aren’t these spots interesting not only because they offer consumable goods and experiences but because they have a mix of people? Do the people make the spaces or do the businesses?

Particularly if Google Maps is used while driving, people can swoop in and out of these areas of interest. Or, it might alert them to specific areas and encourage a vibrant social scene. We’ll see if areas of interest lead to changing social patterns.

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Kaine as VP could bring in needed suburban voters

VP nominee Tim Kaine is a former big city mayor who has successfully attracted voters in metropolitan areas:

As the former mayor of Richmond, Kaine is the first (relatively) big-city mayor on either party’s national ticket since Democrats nominated Hubert Humphrey, the mayor of Minneapolis in the 1940s, as their presidential candidate in 1968.

In that sense, Kaine’s selection symbolizes the Democrats’ growing reliance on—and dominance of—metropolitan America. Democrats now control the mayor’s office in 23 of the 26 largest cities. The party’s presidential coalition is rooted in the cities and most populous inner suburbs. In 2012, Obama won 86 of the nation’s 100 largest counties, amassing a total advantage over Mitt Romney in them of nearly 12 million votes, according to calculations by the Pew Research Center. That allowed Obama to win comfortably, even though Romney won more than three-fourths of all the nation’s counties; the 100 largest counties alone provided nearly half of the president’s total votes…

“By the time he ran for governor in 2005, Kaine had his model and it made sense for a Richmond mayor to run this way: He ran as a polished, well-educated suburban/urban candidate,” said Larry Sabato, the director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Sabato moderated a televised debate between Kaine and Kilgore and remembers being “stunned” at the contrast in styles. “Kilgore was the favorite and he was supposed to win,” Sabato recalled. “But he came across as the southwest Virginian he had once been. He had the southwest Virginia twang; he was not particularly polished. Kaine was so dominant it was almost embarrassing at times; I felt as the moderator I almost had to stop [the fight].”…

Clinton and Kaine will be counting on this same pattern of strong metropolitan showings to offset what could be a stampede toward Trump in non-urban areas far beyond Virginia. The same equation is key to the Democrats’ hopes in other competitive Sunbelt states like Colorado, North Carolina, Nevada, and Florida, as well as familiar Rustbelt battlegrounds like Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Iowa. “The Virginia model,” says Sabato, “is now the national Democratic model.”

Recent presidential cycles have had Democrats solidly winning cities, Republicans solidly winning rural areas, and the two parties fighting over suburban voters (Republicans winning the exurbs, Democrats winning inner-ring suburbs). Both their efforts thus far – Trump on law and order and Clinton on making the country fairer for the working and middle class – could be viewed as efforts to appeal to these middle suburbanites. What exactly do suburbanites want these days from candidates? Good jobs and schools? Safety? Access to the American Dream? The outcome of this election may just hinge on who is best able to move beyond their reliable geographic bases and court suburbanites.

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Adding aerial cable cars to cities

According to Curbed, cities looking for new transportation options are considering gondolas:

Here in North America, gondolas are usually used on a ski vacation to access amazing terrain in ritzy towns like Aspen or Whistler. Increasingly, however, urban areas in the United States are considering proposals for gondolas and cable cars to efficiently move people from place to place. The Chicago Skyline project wants to use cable cars to transport tourists along the city’s riverfront, while in Austin the Wire proposal would create an aerial system akin to a “moving sidewalk” that would be much less expensive than a comparable light rail system.

Elsewhere in the world, trams, gondolas, and funiculars are common, supplementing other mass transportation systems in an effort to reduce pollution, traffic, and crowding. Compared to subways, highways, or rail lines, which often require displacing huge numbers of people in urban areas or extensive (and expensive) below-ground building, gondolas are a relatively cheap option. City planners only need to find locations to build the cable car towers and the requisite airspace. Gondolas don’t move as many people as other types of mass transit, but as a supplement to existing systems they can be quite effective…

According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, aerial cable-propelled transit systems are being considered in Brooklyn, Washington, Chicago, San Diego, Seattle, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Buffalo, Baton Rouge, Austin, Tampa Bay and Miami.

And you can see a number of gondola systems already in place around the world.

While the thrill of flying through the air is unique, I suspect there are some serious difficulties in seeing this as a major mass transit option:

  1. Can gondolas move similar amounts of people compared to buses, trains, and subways?
  2. Are these primarily about tourism?
  3. Do gondolas contribute to visual pollution, clogging up views of buildings and scenery?
  4. Do these work better in cities with hills or varied terrain?
  5. Is a crash or mishap with a gondola more detrimental (since passengers are falling out of the sky) than other forms of mass transit?

As noted in the Wall Street Journal article cited above, some of the more serious proposals are private enterprises. Perhaps it will require the private sector to test this out before many large cities are willing to put substantial public funds into this.

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Sprawl McMansions okay, teardown McMansions not

One writer in Princeton suggests not much can be done about the big McMansions of the suburbs but the trend of new teardown McMansions in older neighborhoods should be slowed and regulated:

We don’t really have quantity-over-quality McMansions in uniform subdivisions in Princeton. We were largely developed by the 1980s when the term and the phenomenon originated. If individual ersatz estates infest outlying parts of Princeton, they’re no problem — except for their owners and the environment — because the lots are large. No one has to see such a house up close — not even the owners, who are typically inside it.

So suppose those owners are content with their veneer Versailles and its Styrofoam crown molding, faux-stucco skim-coated wallboard, and travertine made from epoxy and marble dust. Suppose they can afford to heat and cool their particle-board palazzo. Suppose they trust Merry Maids to clean their tyranno-kitchen. Suppose they plan to sell their schlock Schloss and move on before it curdles. Fine. We’ve already paid for the extra roads and utility lines their large house and lot required.

No, Princeton’s current McMansion problem is when counterfeit castles replace modest tear-downs — an odd problem in a town with many actual mansions. From a 1905 description of Princeton’s Western section: “The residents build on the same street according to their means, but the hand of taste is visible in almost every house. Here is a stately Colonial mansion and beside it is a roughcast cottage overgrown with climbing roses. There is a costly stone house of the Elizabethan style, and beyond, an artistic combination of stucco and timber. … [But] as each house has a sufficient garden space about it to overcome incongruities of juxtaposition, the village becomes more and more attractive as the rivalry progresses.”

Unfortunately, McMansions in Princeton’s denser neighborhoods lack space to overcome “incongruities of juxtaposition.” And, if you live beside a McMansion, your bedroom, which once got morning sun, may now face your neighbors’ Jacuzzi, while the terrace, where you once read today’s paper in pajamas, now abuts their breakfast room. You deplore your neighbors’ sham chateau because it diminishes your privacy and privileges — and maybe raises your property value and taxes.

Based on this reasoning, you could fit McMansion opposition into two camps:

  1. All McMansions are bad.
  2. Already-built McMansions in sprawling suburbs are not so bad; ones that threaten the character of older neighborhoods should be fought.

Perhaps the first camp is the purist one: McMansions represent bad architecture, standardization, and overconsumption, wherever they are located. Even if the sprawling McMansions have already constructed roads and infrastructure, they are still costly to provide services to and a poor use of land.

The second camp is the realist group: those suburban McMansions were built a long time ago and some people might even like them (despite all the negative traits we can name in a few paragraphs). However, we don’t want those McMansions to break the containment zone in the suburbs.

Both battles are fought, depending on the location (whether there is still sizable plots of undeveloped land) and the reactions of neighbors (suburban residents can also dislike a new development of big homes going in next door). The first can veer toward the repudiation of all American suburbs while the second can involve heated interactions with neighbors on a micro scale.

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Your friends have more friends that you

A sociologist discovered a law about how many friends your friends have:

Twenty-five years ago, sociologist Scott Feld demonstrated that on average, your friends have more friends than you do. This sounds impossible, but it’s true…

Go ahead, draw your own social networks and do the math for yourself. You’ll find that Feld’s law holds true for almost any network you can think of. That’s odd, but why should you care?

One reason to care is that Feld’s law explains that feeling many of us have that we’re less popular than our friends. Odds are, you’re right. Don’t take it personally; it’s just the way societies work.

Another reason to care is that Feld’s law is also true for any relationship in which people share something with one another. People share needles in the opiate epidemic facing Maine. People have shared sexual relations since the dawn of humanity. These kinds of sharing can also share deadly viruses like AIDS, hepatitis B and syphilis.

See the abstract of the 1991 article here.

It is interesting that this newspaper piece focuses on the dangerous aspects of this. Danger and death are needed to catch the attention of readers who might not otherwise care about sociological findings? What about normal life when it seems your friends are more popular than you? Rest assured; that is just the way the math works out.

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How Illinois residents want to close the budget gap

A recent report sums up how Illinois residents between 2008 and 2016 want to address the state’s budget issues:

First, here’s how people want to address the budget deficit, according to the most recent polling.

Party Cuts Both Revenues Haven’t Thought Don’t Know/Other
Total 47% 33% 10% 4% 6%
Democrats 36% 36% 16% 5% 7%
Republicans 60% 32% 4% 3% 2%
Independents 50% 34% 9% 4% 3%
SOURCE: Paul Simon Institute of Public Policy…
So maybe we don’t want to cut our way to a balanced budget after all. Which makes sense, since it’s more or less impossible to do so without gutting programs that people support and use. That makes the next question all the more relevant: What new revenues do people favor?…
But there’s one thing that is relatively popular: soaking the rich. And the more closely targeted the policy is towards the rich, the more popular it is…
All in all, it’s a good measure of why we’re in such chaos. We claim we want to cut our way out of the problem, but only one type of cut (pensions) gets even close to an overall majority and is constitutionally prohibited. We’re actually in favor of higher taxes, but only in forms that are constitutionally prohibited, not that even an advisory referendum on a millionaire’s tax can make it onto the ballot. And one of the governor’s pet projects, extremely popular among the electorate and a potentially valuable piece of political leverage, would most likely do little to alleviate any of these problems.

Not a very hopeful analysis. In other words, voters and politicians have worked together to put together plans that significant portions of voters liked (i.e., pensions) but then neither want to enact certain changes (spending cuts and new taxes) that would help solve the past problems.

Is this good evidence for hitting a reset button on the entire state government? Bankruptcy to deal with existing debts? A completely new tax structure? More broadly, a new state constitution? Past actions in a bureaucracy tend to constrain certain future actions while enabling others…has Illinois simply run out of palatable options?

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Mass transit users want three basic things

Fast wi-fi? Cushy seats? A recent survey of mass transit users suggest they want more basic features:

Analyses in the TransitCenter report suggest that riders agree. In one, the researchers compared satisfaction levels with various attributes of regional transit systems between respondents who said they’d recommend their transit service to others and those who wouldn’t. Of all the attributes (charted above), frequency of service demonstrated the largest gap in satisfaction between transit boosters and detractors, and it got the very lowest rating from transit detractors. That suggests that frequent service is essential if you want happy riders…In that same analysis, the second-largest gap in satisfaction was travel time—how long it takes to get from station to station. Translation: Fast trains equal more satisfied riders. A second analysis supports this conclusion. Respondents were asked to ranked the relative importance of 12 potential improvements to a hypothetical bus route (the results are charted below). They ranked travel time number one. (Frequency is a close second, with cost reduction in third place.)…

Finally, the report identifies walkability—here, the ability to walk to transit—as the third key factor at the heart of effective, useable transit. To arrive at this conclusion, the researchers broke down riders into three types: Occasional riders, who use transit only once in a while; commuters, who use transit regularly, but only to get to work; and “all-purpose” riders, who take transit regularly to travel to all types of destinations—work, dining, entertainment, and shopping. That last category is especially important for cities to pay attention to, Higadishe said: “When you have lots of all-purpose riders, that’s a signal that a transit system is really useful.”

Across all three rider types, most survey respondents said they typically walked to access transit. But all-purpose riders did so overwhelmingly, with 80 percent typically getting to transit on foot, compared to 53 percent of commuters and 57 percent of occasional riders. In an additional, more fine-tuned analysis of spatial data from TransitCenter’s national transit database AllTransit, the researchers identified a similar relationship…

Infrastructure tends to work this way: it has to work well and consistently. Perhaps then some extra frills could be considered but as long as they don’t compromise the basic features.

So, if these findings hold across a majority of transit users, why don’t politicians and infrastructure authorities pay more attention to these issues? Are they too expensive to address? Or, are these leaders always looking for cool new features (i.e., wi-fi) to impress the public? Perhaps this exposes a gap between who uses mass transit and who doesn’t – politicians and business leaders likely use it less.

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Slow process for possible new rail line around Chicago area

While the mayor of Aurora praised plans for a new railroad line around the Chicago area, the process of approval will take some time:

Not that everyone loves the idea. At a recent public hearing in Belvidere, near Rockford, some 400 people showed to say the train line would be dangerous in their areas, and would impact farms and groundwater. The U.S. Surface Transportation Board held a series of hearings on the proposed railroad, and took public comment through the middle of June. The board will issue an environmental impact statement, followed by more public hearings. A final impact statement is likely two to three years away, and then the Surface Transportation Board must approve the railroad before construction could begin.

Not only does new infrastructure require large sums of money, it often involves a lengthy process involving federal and local agencies as well as local residents and local officials. As has been noted by multiple commentators, this can make infrastructure projects very difficult to construct. By the time all the hoops have been jumped through, the money secured, and bids and plans approved, a significant amount of time has passed. At the same time, not all major infrastructure projects are worthwhile. I’m thinking particularly of highways in major cities, like along the Embarcadero in San Francisco, the elevated highway in Boston which was replaced in the Big Dig, or the Lower Manhattan Expressway that was never built. So, we have a system that slows down the process, which helps in some circumstances and is burdensome in others.

This is a reminder that perhaps the best way to deal with all of this is to have good foresight. Plan ahead and fewer residents might be affected, costs are lower, and society can benefit from the infrastructure for longer. When governments or private firms wait – for lack of funds, lack of need, political pressure – the construction only becomes more difficult.

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Six elements in a green home

In order to avoid a greenwashed home, here are some things to look for to identify a truly green home:

?Site planning for the house that is sensitive to the immediate environment, minimizes tree destruction and is strong on managing water runoff.

?Energy efficiency throughout, including high-performance HVAC, lighting, insulation and appliances.

?Exceptional interior air quality through the use of advanced air filtration and exchange systems.

?Extensive use of nontoxic building materials.

?Water conservation efficiencies, such as water-saving toilets and shower fixtures and possibly some reuse of waste water.

?Ease of long-term operation and management.

I would guess most buyers would first think of #2 on the list: efficient lightbulbs, a newer furnace, AC unit, and appliances, good insulation and no obvious drafts or leaks. But, some of these other things are much harder to find, particularly it is an older home. Nontoxic building materials? How many homes – even new ones – have this? And air quality – isn’t this something that is used in the rare passive home? And #6 is interesting: the green features should be relatively to utilize and maintain.

This leads me to several questions:

  1. How many green homes would meet all six of these?
  2. What is the added cost of meeting all 6?
  3. Presumably, some of these six are more important than others. Which ones make for a greener home if you could only have/afford a few?

Expect to see more listings in coming years that emphasize green features.

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The suburbs as a “Great Wrong Place”

In a review of mysteries written by women, one critic explains why suburbs are a common setting:

In the books I’ve been reading, the Great Wrong Place is sometimes suburbia, sometimes social media, sometimes high school, sometimes the marriage bed—everywhere something feels missing in contemporary life.

There is not much explanation here. However, this taps into a familiar suburban critique: the suburbs are a darker place than they appear. Even though they might be the image of the American Dream, many disturbing situations are underneath the surface. The key is the contrast between the displayed success of the single-family home and happy family and the tension that threatens to bubble to the surface.

What then exactly is missing from suburbs? Authentic displays of human difficulty and anguish (residents don’t talk about this stuff, perhaps because being vulnerable in the suburbs leads to social problems)? A lack of diversity in who lives there (the typical suburb is white and middle-class and shuts out other experiences)? Public spaces where residents can regularly mingle without having to have strong interpersonal relationships (everyone is cooped up inside their private spaces)? Whatever the reason, the suburbs provide rich spaces for today’s mystery (such as Gone Girl) and horror stories.

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