Several of Chicago’s most dangerous intersections the result of diagonal streets

A new list of the most dangerous intersections in Chicago for pedestrians includes several with three streets:

The six-way intersection of Milwaukee, North and Damen avenues on the North Side is the most dangerous junction for pedestrians in Chicago, according to a list released by the advocacy group Active Transportation Alliance…

There were 43 crashes involving either a pedestrian or a bicycle at the Milwaukee/North/Damen intersection from 2006 through 2012, the highest number of any city intersection for that period, the group found…

“There are proven solutions to make crossing these intersections safer,” said Kyle Whitehead, a campaign directorat the alliance, said Tuesday. “Things as simple as improving the markings on a crosswalk or installing a pedestrian countdown signal can make a difference.”…

The three most dangerous intersections in Chicago were Milwaukee/Damen/North; Cicero and Chicago avenues on the West Side; and Halsted Street/Lincoln Avenue/Fullerton Parkway in Lincoln Park.

It makes sense that some intersections with more streets involved are more dangerous: there are more routes for vehicle traffic and pedestrians have to navigate more crosswalks while having to look in unique directions for potential danger.

Yet, I was struck by two features of these diagonal, and potentially dangerous, streets.

1. The diagonal streets have a long history preceding the efforts of Americans to impose a grid on the Midwestern landscape:

Well, it turns out that most of Chicago’s diagonal streets were originally Native American trails. No, really. Milwaukee Avenue (originally West Plank Road), for example, was once a buffalo route that led to the Chicago River. Eventually settlers moved in, kicked the Native Americans out, and started building taverns along the trail. Once there were taverns, homes and businesses cropped up and the street thrived. Sound familiar? These diagonal paths in the city (Lincoln was Little Fort Road, Elston was Lower Road, Ogden was Southwestern Plank Road) became plank toll roads, and then finally regular streets that serve as some of the major arteries of Chicago.

In other words, the diagonal streets were more direct routes between settlements.

2. Diagonal streets are one of the features of Daniel Burnham’s lauded Plan of Chicago. Such roadways cut through a grid, providing quicker access into and out of the center of the city. However, only one major diagonal was even extended as the result of Burnham’s plan: Ogden Avenue was extended to go closer to the lake. Burnham had a number of avenues intended to radiate out from his proposed Civic Center which was never constructed. (Read more in this booklet in honor of the centennial of the Burnham Plan.)

Democratic McMansion in Maryland

A newly renovated home in Maryland may just be a Democratic McMansion:

If you are a Democratic politician getting wined and dined in D.C., chances are you’ve spent an evening or two at the Norton Manor, a faux-Old European estate in Potomac, Maryland that arrived seemingly out of nowhere last year. After a six-year renovation, the extravagant Neoclassical McMansion on nine acres, owned by the Indian-American technology entrepreneur Frank Islam and his philanthropist wife Debbie Driesman, is now fêting guests like Vice President Joe Biden and the Afghan ambassador. Apparently all you have to do to get well-connected politicians at your dinner table is build a pastiche of a Gilded Age mansion, an 18th-century French chateau, and (of course!) the gardens of Versailles in a rich suburb of D.C. Fittingly, the couple says they built Norton Manor as a tribute to the American dream. The Washington Post recently profiled the house, unloading a slew of facts about the place. Here now, 10 of the most interesting details:…

10. This couple prefers Democrats. Just this year, they’ve hosted a dinner for Vice President Biden, a fundraiser for Senator Al Franken, and an event for Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, among other important left-leaning politicos…

6. $1.5M was spent on landscaping, and now there are 1,600 boxwoods, 11,000 outdoor lights, several artificial streams, waterfalls, and stone bridges. Also, there’s a backyard teahouse with a koi pond and a reflecting pool…

2. The house was built by GTM Architects, and decorated by DC interior designer Skip Sroka, who is known for his methods for hiding electronic appliances (so as to not detract from faux-Old European flourishes). He spent three years decorating this “American palace,” as he called it in the Washington Post.

Two quick thoughts:

1. This is definitely a mansion, not a McMansion. Given the costs, 40,000 square feet, and the extra features, this is beyond normal McMansion territory. Indeed, I suspect a normal McMansion would definitely not be up to par for hosting important politicians.

2. I thought McMansions were for conservatives? The headline may be playing around with these stereotypes by suggesting that Democrats with money also live in and visit such homes. Going further, I would guess the homes of wealthy Republicans and Democrats may not differ all that much.

Noting the “ghosts of place” in gentrifying neighborhoods

A sociologist who has studied gentrifying neighborhoods in New York City suggests neighborhoods have “ghosts of place”:

Sociologist Michael Mayerfeld Bell has described “ghosts of place” as “the sense of the presence of those who are not physically there,” and argued they are a “ubiquitous aspect of the phenomenology of place.” Who among us has not felt the spirited animation of the spaces we inhabit, and the objects we see, sometimes independent of our own memories or feelings of nostalgia? Based on his longstanding public socializing and photography, Bob, and other longtime downtown residents, identify the transformation of the neighborhood’s characters, marginal groups, and social misfits into collective ghosts, through the social transformation of the “place” of the neighborhood, and in spite of their continuous physical presence. Even an advanced level of gentrification does not lead to immediate wholesale displacement of existing groups and cultures. Co-presence and co-existence among diverse groups signify the everyday lived experience for people in gentrified areas. The sense of community they possess is in part composed of the mundaneness of everyday life in a neighborhood: the people and places people see and their daily and nightly rounds. But some groups are at greater risk than others of losing a physical, social, and cultural stake in a gentrifying neighborhood. Under conditions of rapid change and threats to their way of life, people work to preserve a sense of community, and in effect fight for their stake in place, in a multitude of ways…

The street gives residents like Bob the opportunity to feel the ghosts of place from their youth. Meanwhile, the nightly encounters he has with today’s living ghosts—physically present but increasingly socially invisible—anchor him to his community and allow him to cope with what he has lost. As upscale downtown living and nighttime consumption increasingly characterize his neighborhood, ghosts have become Bob’s life.

In other words, as neighborhoods gentrify, the original residents fade to the background as they try to live their normal lives. Eventually, these ghosts haunt the changed place, occasionally popping up, sometimes drawing attention, but not leaving much of a mark.

Calories, as a statistic, don’t mean much to consumers

A group of scientists is suggesting food packaging should replace calories with data on how much exercise is required to burn off that food:

A 500ml bottle of Coke, for example, contains 210 calories, more than a 10th of the daily recommended intake for a woman.

But US scientists think that statistic is ignored by most people and does not work as a health message.

Instead, telling them that it would take a 4.2 mile run or 42-minute walk to burn off the calories is far more effective.

The researchers, from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, found that teenagers given the information chose healthier drinks or smaller bottles…

They say that if a menu tells you a double cheeseburger will take a 5.6-mile hike before the calories are burned off, most people would rather choose a smaller hamburger which would require a walk of 2.6 miles…

Study leader Professor Sara Bleich said: ‘People don’t really understand what it means to say a typical soda has 250 calories.

The public vaguely knows what a calorie is – a measure of the amount of energy in food. However, the technical definition is difficult to translate into real life since a calorie is defined as “the energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 gram of water through 1 °C.” (Side note: does this mean Americans are even worse in judging calories due to not using the metric system?) This proposal does just that, translating the scientific term into one that practically makes sense to the average person. And, having such information could make comparisons easier.

I would wonder if the new exercise data would have diminishing returns over time. A new interpretation might catch people’s attention for a while. But, as time goes on, what is really the difference between that 3.6 mile burger and that 2.6 mile burger?

Florida vacation home McMansion built on the wrong lot

I’ve seen this story in a number of places but only some are calling it a McMansion: a large Florida vacation home was built one lot over from its correct location.

Their three-story vacation rental house with an estimated construction value of $680,000 actually sits on the lot next to the one they own in the gated Ocean Hammock resort community.

“We are in total disbelief, just amazed this could happen,” said Mark Voss, who owns a property management and real estate company in central Missouri. “We may have moved (to Ocean Hammock) someday. But, with this headache and grief, we’re not so sure. The Midwest is looking pretty good right now.”

The Voss’s builder, Keystone Homes, which is based in Ormond Beach but builds primarily in Flagler County, has contacted the two lot owners and other parties and is trying to negotiate a settlement, said Robbie Richmond, company vice president…

The house has five bedrooms and 5.5 bathrooms. It also includes a home theater, game room and screened-in pool.

The builder and owner say the initial survey of the land for construction is at fault. On one hand, this story is getting headlines because it seems like an egregious mistake, perhaps the builder version of the doctors who perform surgery on the wrong arm or leg. On the other hand, one lot over is not actually that much land and the article notes that there are about 10 vacant lots in a row without any distinguishing features.

Boing Boing likely claimed the home is a McMansion – which appears to have some validity – to help draw readers.

You don’t see many engagement photos set in suburban streets

One photographer looked to the suburbs for inspiration in an engagement photoshoot but didn’t find much to work with:

Engagement photos are either urban or rural. They are either a former factory or a leafy meadow, the brick wall of a forgotten factory or an empty beach. Never the subdivision. Never the cul-de-sac.

We wanted to capture the ambiance of the American subdivision.

The pictures are what you might expect: a couple standing in the middle of wide roads or cul-de-sacs amidst a bunch of cookie-cutter single-family homes. The locations are somewhat unfair; you don’t often see engagement pictures in the middle of urban or rural roads either. And, you can find lots of pleasant settings in the suburbs, perhaps even in gardens or flower beds in the very same tract homes in the backgrounds of these pictures. But, if you want to find the stereotypical image of suburbs, especially among critics, this looks correct.

Zillow back with Trick or Treat ratings for major cities

Zillow is back with its 2014 rankings of “Best Cities for Trick or Treating.” San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago round out the top three. The methodology has not changed much compared to 2013:

We take data seriously here at Zillow, even when it comes to trick or treating. While wealthier neighborhoods are often known for their frightfully sweet harvest on Halloween night, we calculate the Trick-or-Treat Index using a holistic approach with four equally weighted data variables: Zillow Home Value Index, population density, Walk Score® and local crime data from Relocation Essentials. Based on these variables, the index represents cities that will provide the most candy, in the least amount of time, with the fewest safety risks.

In the era of Internet lists, this is a potentially catchy list. The factor of housing values filters out a lot of places with the top 10 dominated by coastal cities with Chicago as the only Midwestern or Southern entry.

Yet, it also seems limited to major cities, not even metropolitan regions, so its scope is limited. Many Americans live in suburbs or smaller big cities and those don’t seem to make the cut here. Perhaps Zillow doesn’t have the same availability of data in these places.

I suspect that people within these cities would not all appreciate it if people took these rankings seriously and in large numbers flocked to the highest-rated neighborhoods just to get better candy more quickly. But, it would certainly be interesting if large numbers did show up…

Self-driving cars could make sprawl even more popular

Suburban sprawl has its critics but self-driving cars may just make long commutes more palatable:

As driving becomes less onerous and computer-controlled systems reduce traffic, some experts worry that will eliminate a powerful incentive—commuting sucks—for living near cities, where urban density makes for more efficient sharing of resources. In other words, autonomous vehicles could lead to urban sprawl.

It’s simple, says Ken Laberteaux, a senior scientist at Toyota. If you make transportation faster, easier and perhaps cheaper, then people won’t mind commuting. “What a consumer is expected to do is see what they can gain by moving a little further from the job centers or the cultural centers,” he says. That’s bad news: Urban sprawl is linked to economic, environmental, and health hardships…

Laberteaux’s not the only one concerned about this. Autonomous vehicles should ease highway congestion, and commuters will be able to catch up on work or sleep en route to the office. That limits the incentive to trade your McMansion for a brownstone, says Reid Ewing, director of the University of Utah’s Metropolitan Research Center. The implications of this go beyond transportation; in a 2014 report for advocacy group Smart Growth America, Ewing linked sprawl to obesity and economic immobility.

Ewing likens autonomous driving to the construction of “superhighways” during the post-war boom years, which spurred suburbanization. “If you can travel at higher speeds with less congestion and you can use your time productively while you’re traveling in a self-driving car, the generalized cost of travel will be less on a vehicle-per-mile basis,” says Ewing. “Just like when, before the interstate system, people were traveling at 30 miles per hour, there wasn’t nearly the spread of development that there is today.”

The car is a remarkable invention that with adaptation (oil doesn’t seem to be quite running out, alternative fuel sources, etc.) could be around for a long time. So, perhaps the real answer to limiting sprawl is simply getting rid of cars or finding more and more ways to incentive not owning a car.

Why does US subway construction cost so much more than the rest of the world?

Gregg Easterbrook points out that constructing subways in the United States often costs much more than it does elsewhere:

A recent TMQ chronicled many cases of government-funded infrastructure projects costing way too much and taking way too long. Reader Matt Thier of San Francisco adds more: “How come it’s almost ten times less expensive to build an underground subway in Barcelona versus the United States? Barcelona: 30 miles of brand-new subway tunnels and track, 52 stations, in 10 years, for $8 billion, or $265 million per mile. New York City subway construction is costing $2.25 billion per mile. Here’s a list of major transit projects broken up by cost per kilometer. All three major U.S. projects on the list are in the top four.

“The huge price difference can’t be labor or union costs — there’s a higher unionization rate in Spain than here, and wages are in the same ballpark. Land acquisition costs are in the same ballpark — Barcelona land isn’t as expensive as NYC but is not cheap by any means. Both subways use the same equipment to dig: the massive tunnel boring machines (TBMs) are only produced by a handful of companies due to their complexity, and prices don’t vary much.

“So if labor, land, and equipment costs are roughly the same, what’s causing the U.S.-based subway to cost so much more than comparable overseas ones? This Bloomberg article notes byzantine contracting processes that hand over management authority to firms whose incentive is to maximize cost and minimize pace.”

Insane cost overruns aren’t limited to underground projects. The Purple Line trolley expected to be built a short drive from the White House is up to $153 million per mile for mostly surface construction. The projected cost has risen $80 million during 2014 though absolutely nothing has been built yet — a 3.4 percent cost overrun in a year when inflation has been 1.7 percent.

We generally need more large infrastructure projects completed more rapidly at lower cost. At the least, cutting the cost of each major project would free up more funds to spend on other needed projects.

For a quick look at the cost of a number of subway and rail projects in the US and elsewhere, see here.

Flawed pie chart with too many categories, unhelpful colors

AllMusic had a recent poll asking readers about their favorite Beatles album. Interesting topic but the pie chart used to display the results didn’t work out so well:

Two main complaints:

1. There are a lot of categories to represent here:14 different albums. While it is relatively easy to see some of the larger categories, it gets more difficult to judge the proportions of the smaller categories.

2. There are some categories clearly bigger than others but the color scene seems to have little to do with the actual album title. The palette runs from black to light gray but it does not appear to be in any order. For example, they might have used the same palette but light gray would have been Please Please Me while the darkest color could have been Past Masters. As it currently stands, the reader has to pick out the category and then try to figure out where it is in the key.

Given this comes from an app intended to help create infographics, this one isn’t so great as it suffers from two issues – lots of categories and a limited color design – that I often warn my statistics students about when using pie charts.