Reminder of Chicago’s vital position in the American railway network

I recently saw a map on Reddit that displayed four maps of railway networks: Europe, North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia.RailwayNetworksJul2320

There is a lot that could be said with these maps. When I looked at the North America map, one thing jumped out at me: the centrality of Chicago to the passenger network (and to railroads more broadly). Not surprisingly, given the density of population and major population centers, there are more passenger trains between Washington, D.C. and Boston. The rest of the country is relatively sparse except for the convergence of lines in and out of Chicago. This is partly the result of geography – Chicago’s position at the base of the Great Lakes helps – but also the result of decisions to route traffic and develop infrastructure in and around Chicago and not elsewhere (like in St. Louis or Memphis or Cincinnati or other options). And a lot of rail traffic and freight runs through the region as well.

If a more robust passenger rail system develops in the United States, this map suggests Chicago will be in the thick of it. This would present an opportunity for a city that is already a transportation center with busy airports, crowded roads, and potentially more rail traffic and visitors. It is a little surprising that Chicago and Illinois leaders do not talk more about potential railroad options – consider the decades-long focus on a potential third airport, plans for highways that do not get off the ground, or the slow speed at which railroad congestion is addressed – as this could only add to what Chicago already has.

The Twitter world versus the world of academic research

A recent conversation about Twitter and my own acknowledgement of my lack of Twitter participation pushed me to think about the differences between Twitter conversations and academic research. These rough thoughts may be obvious to many but I think they are helpful to enumerate as we think about good information and data.

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1. The speed of Twitter, and social media, is quite fast. An opinion expressed or a “story” (link/video/article/”text”) can generate a lot of feedback but the process usually happens over just a few days. In contrast, academic studies routinely take years as researchers develop good questions, collect and analysis data/evidence/”texts”, and respond to hypotheses, theories, and existing conversations while also thinking about the implications of their findings and then go through the publication process. Academic work can sometimes go quicker but that length also theoretically allows time for more reflection.

2. Posts on Twitter are limited to a certain number of characters through tweet threads or good conversation following a post can effectively convey a longer argument or set of information. Academic studies also have space restrictions – while there are indeed examples of very lengthy books or articles, journals tend to have proscribed word count or page limits depending on their audience and the format of papers – but there is more space to make and develop an argument.

3. Twitter offers more immediate feedback, possibly much more, compared to academic works. When students ask me how many people read academic studies, it is hard to know: we have citation counts (which suggest at least those citing the work read it or are familiar with it) and journal websites now often offer the ability to see how many times an article has been viewed. But, how to count students who read pieces for class or projects, researchers who access material through databases and repositories, and other means of accessing academic work? However, I would assume the viral posts of Twitter gain more readers in a shorter amount of time than almost all academic works.

4. Those with Twitter accounts can post or access tweets. Those who publish in the academic world are a small subset of the population generally with advanced degrees and specialized knowledge. Yet, the percent of the American population who engage regularly on Twitter is low.

5. Tweets are validated or not by likes, retweets, and comments made by other users. Academics have more formal processes to vet work including peer review and presentations at conferences, lectures, and colloquia plus responses from audience members. A published academic work likely has had multiple eyes on it; tweets do not require this.

On the whole, academic research involves a longer, more formal process to get to publication and information available to other academics and the public. In contrast, Twitter offers speed, quick feedback, and is easier for both readers and posters to access. Thus, when the two worlds collide – academic posting about research or Twitter users engaging with academic work – it can seem as if two worlds with different processes and rules are trying to engage. The overlap can go successfully but it does not always; the advantages each system has do not necessarily complement what the other side does well. And the two systems may influence each other: the world of Twitter may prompt academics to speed up research and/or communicate their work differently while academics participating in Twitter may engage in deeper and longer conversations since much study involves nuance and complexity.

I do not spend much time on Twitter. It can be used effectively to quickly gather or share information. And if you follow engaging Twitter users in a particular subject area or field, there is much to be learned. I am grateful there are academics who can effectively use Twitter to engage audiences regarding their research and knowledge. But, the speed of the conversation can gloss over the depth of the issues at the heart of conversations or leave little room for the important context and background knowledge of phenomena.

(An aside: attempts to find a middle ground between such universes are worth thinking about. TED Talks seem to offer some compromises: an expert on the subject gets roughly 10-20 minutes to share out of their vast expertise. The videos are easy to follow and digest and they tend to come from people with advanced experience or education. The visual format has some appeal as opposed to text-based communication on Twitter and in academic writing. Podcasts could offer some similar benefits: there is more space for the storyteller to share but the audio cannot go on too long.)

Background noise and less seismic activity caused by humans during COVID-19

Measuring seismic activity often requires locating instruments away from population centers. During COVID-19, the seismic activity caused by humans dropped a lot:

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Writing today in the journal Science, dozens of researchers from around the world show that the seismic activity from our civilization plummeted as lockdowns went into effect. This “anthropogenic seismic noise,” as seismologists call it, comes from all manner of human activities, whether that’s running factories, operating cars or trains, or even holding concerts. Seismometers pick up these activities as a kind of constant din, which actually peaks on weekdays, when more people are moving around, and falls on weekends when economies slow down. All this activity that seismometers detect mixes with the natural rumbles that scientists are really interested in, like earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides.

But boy, are they interested in the anthropogenic seismic noise now—or the lack thereof, as humans began to shelter in place. “We see it effectively moving around the globe as a seismic lockdown wave,” says Royal Holloway University of London seismologist Paula Koelemeijer, one of the paper’s coauthors. “So starting in China originally, then in different places in Italy, and then going through Europe. And whenever lockdowns happened in different countries, we see the effect that’s up to an 80 percent reduction in the amplitude of the seismic noise in some places.” The average was about 50 percent…

Normally, seismologists don’t bother monitoring urban environments for just this reason: There’s way too much noise muddying the signals of Earth’s natural processes. But for the past few years, citizen scientists have been collecting signals thanks to a clever little device called the Raspberry Shake, a Raspberry Pi computer outfitted with sensors to create an internet-connected seismometer. “Those instruments have been popping up more and more in people’s homes,” says Koelemeijer. “And so about 40 percent of our data stations that we looked at have been these citizen science instruments. It’s just people finding it funny, geeky, to have one of them. Like, I’m one of those people. I have one in my house.”…

But it was in a remote part of Germany where seismologists recorded perhaps the most surprising lockdown data. The Black Forest Observatory is not only isolated, and thus considered to be a reference low-noise laboratory, but its instruments are stowed over 150 meters below the surface, in bedrock. Yet they, too, picked up a small noise reduction at night during the lockdown. “Germany was a big surprise for us, because that station is very much a remote station, and seen as a very good seismic station for looking at natural signals,” says Koelemeijer. “So the fact that we saw it there was quite remarkable.”

Human activity influences all sorts of spheres that we do not often consider. Here, humans create a lot of noise and activity below the surface of the earth. There are occasionally complaints about noise pollution but most people put up with a certain amount of noise and vibrations in the places where they live.

This reminds of several different aspects of working with “background noise.” Working in radio, I often used sound effects for promotional material. The sound effect CDs we had contained a variety of background noise or din. For example, the city options largely contained traffic noise with vehicle rumbling and honking mixed together.

More recently, sports broadcasts have adjusted to teams playing in stadiums with no fans present in the stands. They often use recordings of fans where a sound technician has the ability to respond to play on the field (such as cheering for a good play for the home team or a negative response from fans). Without such background noise, the broadcast sounds very different: voices echo, the players can be heard, and a comforting or familiar element of the broadcast is lost.

All together, the background noise of our lives matters in everyday activity and in scientific measurement. If COVID-19 changes human movement and interactions, what we hear by ear and scientific instruments also changes.

Former Lt. Governor of Illinois now devoted to fighting for fair housing in Chicago suburbs

As Evelyn Sanguinetti transitions to addressing fair housing after previously serving for four years as lieutenant governor of Illinois, she describes the kinds of housing discrimination that occur:

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Discrimination takes so many different forms. It’s not as apparent as it once was decades ago. The wrongdoers have become better at this sort of illegal activity. You will see it taking the form of lying about the availability of housing or home loans or home insurance, or applying a no-pets policy on service animals. You will see discrimination in the way of illegal steering. So when a prospective tenant wants to look at one apartment, the company showing the apartments says, “No, no, you really want to look a few blocks over; that’s where you really want to go.” A lot of people do not know their rights and they do not realize that this is what’s occurring. Another form it takes is offering different terms or conditions to members of a protected class, such as requiring sex in exchange for rent.

You see discrimination in the form of constructing inaccessible buildings — that’s a big one, too. A lot of the cases that we have pending and a lot of the work we do from a previous settlement, is we make improvements to make housing accessible to people with disabilities.

Another form of discrimination is saying, “No children allowed,”bwhich to me is like a stake straight at my heart. I grew up with my abuelita, my great-grandparents. I mean, there were a lot of us in one household and a lot of children. But the wrongdoers also find a way of making sure children are not allowed. Well, children need to live somewhere.

This sort of discrimination is often quietly done and scattered across locations. It rarely comes up in the news. It may be hard for people to guess how often it happens. The people affected by it may not know how to fight back or bring the issue to light.

Some of the issue might be defining fair housing. Sanguinetti explains the concept:

There’s always this conclusion that goes on with a lot of people like, “Fair housing? Free housing! That’s cool.” And I’m thinking, “No, no.” The Fair Housing Act provides that if you have the resources to live where you want, but you’re being prevented from doing so because you’re a member of a protected class, that’s illegal.

I imagine some might confuse fair housing with affordable housing which is often about providing housing for those who do not have the resources to live in a place. If we do not have a foundation of fair housing, it would be even harder to make the case for affordable housing – which is hard enough in many suburbs.

At the same time, efforts which help ensure fair housing do not necessarily help with getting residents resources (jobs, income, wealth, connections, etc.) that would help them access housing). Fair housing addresses the housing side once people try to acquire housing. Work is also needed on the other end in helping people get to a point where they can have housing choices that help them meet their goals.

The current social contract: we get along by leaving each other alone

A Washington D.C. resident says he is leaving the city because social order has broken down. Here is how he describes what made city life work:

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All I asked in return was relative safety and to be left alone to enjoy the city. City-living in America, for decades, meant tolerating mild inconveniences so that you could be left alone, alongside millions of others. That was the tacit pact…

Gay? Black? Trans? No offense, but, so what? We are city people: we have seen it all—literally, all—our entire lives. You are our neighbors, our friends, the president of our HOAs, our coworkers. The great beauty of the city is that we come from all walks of life and we get along. We accomplish this by leaving each other alone.

This sounds similar to how sociologist M. P. Baumgartner described the “moral minimalism” pervasive in suburban social life:

A kind of moral minimalism pervades the suburbs, in which people prefer the least extreme reactions to offenses and are reluctant to exercise any social control against one another at all. (3)

suburbia is a model of social order. The order is not born, however, of conditions widely perceived to generate social harmony. It does not arise from intimacy and connectedness, but rather from some of the very things more often presumed to bring about conflict and violence – transiency, fragmentation, isolation, atomization, and indifference among people. The suburbs lack social cohesion but they are free of strife. They are, so to speak, disorganized and orderly at the same time. (134)

In both descriptions, residents want to be left alone. They want to live life as they see fit without interference or social control exerted by others. This does not necessarily mean there is no social interaction or residents dislike the local environment; the Washington, D.C. resident describes partaking in and enjoying urban culture and interacting with neighbors. In Baumgartner’s study, suburbanites might know each other or interact; they just do not get too deeply involved or try to pressure others.

At the root of this seems to be a deep seated individualism that provides space for people to make their own choices. Every space or community provides some constraints on what people can do (or can imagine doing) yet Americans often imagine themselves as solitary units. The strains of this are everywhere: as long as it does not hurt other people, people should be free to do it; what people do on their own time or in their own dwelling is none of my business; a man’s home is his castle; you do you and I’ll do me; and so on.

Even though this idea is widespread, it also has limits. If individuals are masters of their own fate and this should not be interfered with, it can be tough to rally people around particular causes that require collective effort. Indeed, I think a good argument could be made that some of our current political conflict is due to the fact that different groups would like to introduce ideas/values/legislation for others to consider and/or follow while wanting to claim that they also support individualism.

More broadly, this is an odd social contract to have considering the sweep of human history and societies. Much of what humans experienced took place in relatively small groups with strong bonds. Today, more of our world is organized around people with whom we have chosen to interact with more tenuous ties to traditional bonding agents like extended family, religious groups, and specific geographic locations and the communities there.

I do not know if this social contract will last. The individualism of the last few centuries has changed much. Yet, it is helpful to keep in mind as we consider how to do anything together.

What could lead to Americans considering what they want the suburbs to be

Yesterday, I wrote about competing visions of American suburbs. Under what circumstances might a national conversation, debate, and/or reckoning take place regarding what suburbs should be in the future? Here are a few possibilities:

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  1. An election. As noted yesterday, elections can help to bring issues to the forefront. The suburbs are not a key issue in the 2020 presidential election but this does not mean they could not be down the road.
  2. Building concern about housing. The need for cheaper housing in certain metropolitan areas has led to local and state-level debate but this has rarely reached national levels. I am pessimistic about national level discussions about and solutions for housing – but it could happen.
  3. Some sort of crisis or unusual occurrence in suburbia that pushes people to rethink what suburbs are about. Perhaps it is ongoing police violence – like in Ferguson, Missouri – or an usual place like Columbia, Maryland that people want to emulate.
  4. Declining interest in living in suburbs among future generations. Whether millennials and their successors want to or can live in suburbs is up for debate.
  5. A redefinition of the American Dream away from single-family homes, driving, and private spaces to other factors ranging from different kinds of spaces (perhaps more cosmopolitan canopies?) to an inability or declining interest in homeownership compared to securing health care and basic income or a rise in AI, robots, and technology that renders spaces less important than ever.
  6. Black swan events or large changes beyond the control of the average suburbanite. Imagine no more gasoline or a disease that strikes suburbanites at higher rates or a collapse of the global economy rendering the suburban lifestyle difficult. (Because these are black swan events, they are hard or impossible to predict.)

For roughly seventy years, the United States has promoted suburbs on a massive scale (with evidence that a suburban vision has existed for roughly 170 years). With a majority of Americans living in suburbs, it would take work or certain events for a robust conversation to be had and then a wind-down of the suburbs and shift toward other spaces would likely take decades. At the same time, future researchers and pundits might look back to important conversations, events, decisions, or changes that started the United States down a path away from suburbs. Those precipitating factors could occur today, in the near future, somewhere down the road, or never. While the suburbs in the United States have tremendous inertia pushing them into the future, they do not necessarily have to continue.

What vision of the suburbs do President Trump and other Americans have?

With recent words, President Trump has suggested Joe Biden and Democrats want to destroy suburbs. To Trump, what are the suburbs? One columnist puts it this way:

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Trump seems to have a suburb in his imagination, one that’s a remnant of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s populated entirely by white people, who came there to escape diversifying neighborhoods and are terrified that people of color might move in next door. These suburbanites can be pulled to the Republican Party with a proper dose of racialized fear.

Yet, the suburbs as a whole today do not look like this:

Trump seems to think it’s still 1973. But here’s his problem: The suburbs of today are very different than they were then. The suburbs are still majority white, but they’re more diverse than they were when Trump was refusing to rent to people of color. They have more immigrants, more people of color, more people with higher education — and critically, the white people who live there are rejecting Trump.

Suburbs have indeed changed – see this earlier post on complex suburbia. In multiple ways, suburban areas are now different. They have more nonwhite residents and more residents who are lower-class and working-class (as well as more who live under the poverty line). Some suburbs are classic bedroom suburbs populated by whiter and wealthier residents but there are also numerous suburbs that are more diverse and less well-off. Suburbs are now full of jobs, from manual labor and production jobs to elite white-collar positions.

While this story casts the issue in terms of voters and winning the 2020 election – and suburban voters are indeed crucial – there is a bigger issue at stake: what vision of American suburbs will win out? Here are three competing options:

1. The suburbs are the American Dream where anyone who works hard can purchase a single-family home, live with their family, and expect to live a relatively comfortable life and expect good things for their children. This is often tied to the mass suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s – and this vision may have fully flowered at this point – but this ideology stretches back at least a few decades earlier.

2. The suburbs are the American Dream as they offer opportunities to all Americans who want to find the good life as defined by a decent job, a place to live, and peace and quiet. This would be a more multicultural vision of suburbs where the movement of minorities and those with fewer resources to suburbs in the last few decades represents progress and success as they too can enjoy a suburban lifestyle (and the dream of #1 was restricted largely to whites).

3. The suburbs are a dead-end for all Americans. According to critics of the suburbs, the emphasis on sprawling land use and driving, individual lives and private homes, and exclusion are not sustainable or desirable for future generations. While some people may want to live this lifestyle, we should encourage more Americans to live in denser communities.

No presidential election is a referendum on just one issue. At this point, the issue of suburbs is still not a front-burner issue: housing received limited attention at the Democratic debates and arguably Trump is more interested in discussing race and cities in ways to attract voters than he is in considering suburban life and its ongoing role in American life. Yet, this is an opportunity for Americans to think about what kind of spaces they want to encourage and inhabit in the future.

Disproportionately more Illinois COVID-19 cases and deaths in the Chicago suburbs

The Daily Herald reports on COVID-19 cases in the Chicago suburbs as a whole:

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Since the outbreak began, there have been 83,563 cases in the suburbs as of Thursday, 50% of the state’s total, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health. There have been 3,750 deaths in the suburbs, representing almost 50.9% of all deaths in Illinois.

The data presented suggest the Chicago suburbs account for roughly half of cases and deaths in Illinois. But, how does this compare to the percent of Illinois residents living in the Chicago suburbs?

The subsequent numbers of COVID-19 cases by community suggest these are the counties in the Daily Herald analysis: suburban Cook County, DuPage County, Kane County, Will County, McHenry County, and Lake County. If you add up these populations (using the U.S. Census QuickFacts 2019 population estimates), the suburban population is roughly 5,610,000. With the total population of Illinois at 12,671,821, the residents of the Chicago suburbs account for a little over 44% of the state’s population.

Thus, the Chicago suburbs have slightly more of their share of COVID-19 cases and deaths within the state of Illinois. Is this expected or unexpected? If we hold to images of wealthier, whiter suburbs, perhaps this is surprising: can’t many suburbanites work from home and/or shelter in place in large homes? Or, is suburbia more complex?

The disparities across suburban communities are not just limited to DuPage County. Take two large municipalities in suburban Cook County: even though Schaumburg has 13,000 more residents than Des Plaines, it has 1,200 cases than Des Plaines. Or, in Kane County, St. Charles has 4,500 fewer residents than Carpentersville (population of just over 37,000) but has just a little more than half of the cases.

While much attention regarding COVID-19 has focused on cities – and for some good reasons – this data from the Chicago suburbs suggests it is a issue for many suburbs as well.

(It is unclear how this data might change if the analysis extended to more counties in the Chicago metropolitan region, which include additional counties in Illinois, northwest Indiana, and southeastern Wisconsin.)

When a pie chart works for analyzing the lyrics of a song, Hey Jude edition

Earlier this week, a data visualization expert presented a pie chart for the lyrics of The Beatles’ hit “Hey Jude”:

HeyJudeLyricsPieChart

Pie charts are very effective when you want to show the readers that a large percentage of what you are examining is made of one or two categories. In contrast, too many categories or not a clear larger category can render a pie chart less useful. In this case, the word/lyrics “na” makes up 40% of the song “Hey Jude.” In contrast, the words in the song’s title – “hey” and “Jude” – comprise 14% of the song and “all other words” – the song has three verses (the fourth one repeats the first verse) and two bridges – account for 40%.

This should lead to questions about what made this song such a hit. Singing “na” over and over again leads to a number one hit and a song played countless time on radio? The lyrics Paul McCartney wrote out in the studio sold for over $900,000 though there are no written “na”s on that piece of paper. Of course, the song was written and performed by the Beatles, a musical and sociological phenomena if there ever was one, and the song is a hopeful as Paul aimed to reassure John Lennon’s son Julian. Could the song stand on its own as a 3 minute single (and these first minutes contain few “na”s)? These words are still hopeful and the way the Beatles stack instruments and harmonies from a relatively quiet first verse through the second bridge is interesting. Yet, the “na”s at the end make the song unique, not just for the number of them (roughly minutes before fading out) but the spirit in which they are offered (big sound plus Paul improvising over the top).

Thus, the pie graph above does a good job. It points out the lyrical peculiarities of this hit song and hints at deeper questions about the Beatles, music, and what makes songs and cultural products popular.

Wealthier Americans have a larger carbon footprint in part due to larger homes

Large homes and McMansions do not just take up land and resources at construction; according to a new study, they have larger carbon footprints. Here is the abstract:

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Residential energy use accounts for roughly 20% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States. Using data on 93 million individual households, we estimate these GHGs across the contiguous United States and clarify the respective influence of climate, affluence, energy infrastructure, urban form, and building attributes (age, housing type, heating fuel) in driving these emissions. A ranking by state reveals that GHGs (per unit floor space) are lowest in Western US states and highest in Central states. Wealthier Americans have per capita footprints ∼25% higher than those of lower-income residents, primarily due to larger homes. In especially affluent suburbs, these emissions can be 15 times higher than nearby neighborhoods. If the electrical grid is decarbonized, then the residential housing sector can meet the 28% emission reduction target for 2025 under the Paris Agreement. However, grid decarbonization will be insufficient to meet the 80% emissions reduction target for 2050 due to a growing housing stock and continued use of fossil fuels (natural gas, propane, and fuel oil) in homes. Meeting this target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.

More from the study linking energy use, wealth, and housing size:

We find that both household energy use and emissions per square meter vary widely across the country, driven primarily by thermal energy demand and the fuel used in electricity production (“grid mix”). ZIP-code level analysis shows income is positively correlated with both per capita energy use and emissions, along with the tendency for wealth and living area to increase together. City and neighborhood analyses underscore the environmental benefits of denser settlement patterns and the degree to which carbon-intensive electrical grids counteract these benefits.

Bigger homes require more energy to heat, cool, and light. Wealthier people can afford these expenses. Indeed, being able to shoulder all of these costs with a larger home may be a form of conspicuous consumption: “I have enough resources to live in a larger home and maintain it.” Critics of McMansions argue that such homes are meant to impress those who see them, not necessarily great spaces for residents to inhabit.

The study also connects the findings to possibilities for making single-family homes more green. The models work with two options: (1) retrofitting homes to make them more energy efficient and (2) reducing power generated with fossil fuels (“grid decarbonization”). Yet, there are other options to pursue that could help with the situation:

1. Promoting the construction of or the inhabiting of smaller homes. This could range from tiny houses to the “not-so-big home” to smart-sizing or down-sizing. This may require more significant lifestyle changes – cutting on consumption would be difficult – that are too hard for many people.

2. Promoting fewer single-family homes. While they are the basis of suburban life and popular in many other American communities, multi-family housing is more energy efficient. Given the rhetoric surrounding suburbs (such as President Trump claiming Democrats want to abolish suburb), this may not be easy.

3. Promoting less energy use within homes. What if residents used less heat, air conditioning, and lighting? What if they watched less TV and used their phones and computers less? Again, this might require large lifestyle changes that many would find difficult.

4. Constructing newer homes with much stricter energy guidelines, perhaps even net-zero-energy homes or passive houses. Even if these are restricted to wealthier homeowners who can afford the changes, this could help limit the energy use of larger homes. Also, if such homes are viewed by the public as cool or desirable, perhaps these features trickle down.

5. Could wealthier homeowners purchase carbon offsets for their homes? This would allow them to keep their bigger structures while providing funds that could be put to good use elsewhere.

The scenarios in the paper as well as the ones I proposed all require working multiple sectors of society to get to a place where homes, particularly large ones, use less energy.