A round earth and seeing the Chicago skyline from Indiana (or from other angles)

Standing on a beach in Indiana and seeing the Chicago skyline is a unique sight. Does it demonstrate that the earth is flat or round?

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“If the earth was really a globe, the Chicago skyline from Indiana would be hidden by 1,473 ft. of Earth Curve,” reads the text included in one such Nov. 6 Instagram post (direct link, archive link). The post, which garnered more than 2,000 likes in one week, includes an image of the Chicago skyline taken from across Lake Michigan at the Indiana Dunes State Park.

But the claim is false.

Scientists say the photo actually proves that the Earth is indeed curved. While the buildings in the Chicago skyline are visible in the photo, parts of the buildings are obscured by the curve in the Earth. A simple trigonometric equation confirms that the buildings of the Chicago skyline are indeed visible from the Indiana Dunes State Park, where the image was taken…

“The image actually demonstrates that the Earth is round,” Oran said. “(The bottom) parts of the buildings are actually obscured because the Earth is curved.”

Oran noted the lower halves of the buildings are not visible in the photo. According to Oran’s calculations, roughly 500 feet of the bottom of the Willis Tower, the tallest building in Chicago, would not be visible based on the distance the picture was taken from.

While the flat earther phenomenon is interesting in itself, I am more interested here in how this is based on a unique view of the Chicago skyline. I know that seeing it from a different perspective can be disorienting or reveal new angles. Growing up, I mostly saw the skyline from the west coming into the city. In graduate school, I often saw the skyline from the south and southeast arriving from a different direction. I rarely see it from the north because I have little reason to come from that direction. And the view can be very different from an airplane depending on the approach or takeoff of a particular trip and the flight patterns for the day.

Would any of those views push me to conclude the earth is flat? No, but I have definitely noticed different buildings, different ways the sun or dark frames places, and how the city seems to be a different place when approaching from different directions.

The disadvantages and advantages to living on a major suburban road

I regularly drive by a single-family home that is located on a busy four lane road. Decades ago, this was a two lane road and traffic was lighter. Now, it is a road with a 50 MPH speed limit and many cars zooming daily between suburbs. In the morning, the school bus stops on the busy road to pick up kids from one house. Most of the housing in this area is located on streets that branch off this main road; this is common in suburban areas as residential neighborhood traffic is routed to arterial roads.

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When looking for housing years ago, I remember seeing homes located on such roads. What might be the advantages and disadvantages of such properties?

Advantages:

-Quick access to a major road. Suburban subdivisions can be big and the roads winding. It can take minutes just to leave the neighborhood.

-A reduced price. If the road is busy and noisy, this may mean the property is cheaper than comparable houses and lots.

-A location along a known road.

Disadvantages:

-Noise. The sound of cars and trucks is constant.

-Safety. Many suburbanites might wonder whether kids can safely play.

-Lower property values in comparison to similar properties.

-Less parking. If you have lots of people over, is the driveway big enough for everyone?

I would guess many suburbanites would choose not to live on or even near such a major road if they can help it. At the same time, plenty of suburbs have houses located along busy and fast roads.

Looking at the driver next to you who is clearly looking at their phone

How often do you pull near another vehicle and take a quick look over? These days, you will often see a driver looking at their phone. Recognizing phone use while driving is relatively easy to spot: the driver’s head is tilted down, not looking at the road. There is a particular posture, as illustrated in the photo below:

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This can occur while accelerating in leaving an intersection or driving at high speed down the highway. Many drivers appear unable to keep their eyes off their phone while their vehicle is in motion.

Perhaps this is just a sign of our era? Americans love driving and love smartphones. Even as deaths while driving increase, phone use continues. The acknowledgment of a public problem with phone use while driving from years ago seems to have faded away a bit.

From a driving norms perspective, is there a polite way to signal to another driver that you can see their phone use and request they pay attention to their safety and your safety?

From a social perspective, is the smartphone the new car in that we are willing to reorganize society around using smartphone use rather than fitting smartphones into our existing social order?

Putting together statistical data and experiences, Right Turn on Red edition

A discussion of Red Turn on Red (ROTR) pits statistical evidence and experiential data:

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Critics of the D.C. bill have pointed out the lack of data showing the dangers of RTOR, but many people who don’t use cars know instinctively how dangerous turning vehicles can be. “Our current safety studies fail to capture the reality of the constant near misses and confrontations that result between these motorists and pedestrians, which can be observed daily just by observing a typical busy intersection with RTOR,” Schultheiss says.

When teaching a research methods class, I can often come back to this observation about how sociologists approach data and evidence: we want both “facts” and “interpretations” to get the complete story of what is going on. In this particular situation, here is what that might mean: even if the statistical data suggests ROTR is not very dangerous, it matters that people still fear cars turning right on red. The experiences of pedestrians, bicyclists, and others on sidewalks and streets is part of the larger picture of understanding turning right on red. This would go alongside the data and experiences of vehicles and drivers.

Once this full set of data is collected, making policy decisions is another matter. If leaders want to prioritize vehicles, that is one choice. Or, as the piece suggests, some cities want to rethink streets and transportation, and they can end ROTR. But, it would be advisable to have all of the evidence before acting.

Trying to make suburban mass transit more attractive by offering private rides and vans to reserve

Pace has tried for decades to increase bus ridership in the Chicago suburbs. Here are two new strategies:

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Commuters can reserve a $2 ride in a small bus that typically stops at train stations and travels on major roads…

On-Demand service runs from early morning to evening with zones in Aurora, Batavia, Hoffman Estates, Naperville, Round Lake, St. Charles/Geneva, Vernon Hills/Mundelein, West Joliet and Wheaton/Winfield. Rides need to be booked at least an hour in advance.

Another experiment is the VanGo program that lets people reserve a Pace van at the Lake Forest or Lake-Cook Metra stations and drive to employment centers such as Baxter International. An expansion to Palatine is under consideration.

“We give you a code for the vehicle, it unlocks the door, it unlocks the key, you can take it to work and back at night to the train station” along with co-workers, Metzger said.

VanGo drivers must have a credit card and a good driving record, plus meet other requirements. A round trip is $5.

These are mass transit options – still mass transit because the vehicles are operated by a transportation entity and because they are hoping there are multiple riders in the vehicle – that try to adapt to suburban sprawl. A lack of density in the suburbs means that traditional railroad and bus lines cannot reach enough people and the ease of traveling by car means that many people will choose driving. These options offer more flexibility to individual users and specific locations.

Will it work? Can Pace compete with ride shares companies or companies that offer access to vehicles? I am skeptical that it will be effective in the long run given the current nature of suburbia.

A marker of a certain kind of community: lots of Teslas on suburban roads

I believe I have seen a growing number of Teslas on local suburban roads. How much is this tied to the kind of community I live in plus the character and demographics of nearby communities? A few thoughts:

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  1. Teslas are not cheap. There is not a big used market. People need money to purchase Teslas. (New cars are not cheap in the US overall.)
  2. Teslas are electric and electric car owners may have particular political and social patterns. This area has leaned slightly Democratic in recent national elections. As a company, Tesla itself may be more aligned with libertarian or conservative causes, but I do not see large numbers of other electric vehicles. (There are plenty of Prii.)
  3. Teslas are a particular status symbol. They are cool. Some have a cool matte finish or special trim levels. Particular suburbanites want to have one. (Particularly compare them to other “cool” suburban driving options, whether the latest SUV or a sports car.)
  4. The people here take a lot of shorter trips and/or have access to electric chargers. Even the vacation destinations of many in this area – whether Wisconsin or southwest Michigan – are within a single charge.
  5. They are available at local showrooms and dealers. One can go to a nearby suburban shopping mall and check out a Tesla.

If it is true that you can tell something about a community by looking at what cars are in parking lots or driveways, all of these Teslas say something.

“Driving in ‘American Dream mode'”

Driving during a stretch of pleasant fall weather, I thought of a phrase I heard a few months back in a radio conversation: “driving in ‘American Dream mode’.” The idea was this: putting the windows down, turning up the radio or music, and enjoying the drive is an ideal expression of the American Dream. Freedom. Cars. Moving quickly through the landscape.

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Many car commercials play off this idea. These commercials rarely feature traffic and stopping for traffic lights or stop signs. The driving is often through pleasant landscapes. The drivers and the passengers are enjoying the experience. The cars are new and loaded with features.

Numerous social forces converged to this point where a particular driving experience embodies the American Dream. The construction of roads and highways. Sprawling suburbs. The rise of fast food, big box stores, and road trips. Driving is an essential part of the American way of life.

Even if relatively few people get to regularly drive in “American Dream mode,” it is a powerful symbol.

The limited safety of pedestrians and bicyclists even in quiet residential neighborhoods

Street and intersections in quiet suburban subdivisions are not necessarily designed with the safety of pedestrians and bicyclists in mind:

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The station reached out to county officials and the local police precinct; everyone sure scratched their heads about that one. There was supposed to be a stop sign there, said the county, and they didn’t know why there wasn’t one installed. The police made sure to point out that it wasn’t their fault, either, because, they said, residents hadn’t complained. “Some residents have now reached out to us requesting additional signage,” said the precinct’s commissioner, James Mett. “In the coming days, we plan to examine and research the issue to determine the best course of action moving forward.” A few phone calls later, it was announced that a new stop sign would be installed Thursday.

So, that’s one thing that made this street unsafe. But there are plenty of other problems, not unique to this intersection but common to many, many American streets, that also made it unsafe. There’s no signage of any kind to alert drivers to the possibility that walkers or cyclists might want to cross. There are no traffic-calming design elements, like speed bumps, raised crosswalks (or any kind of crosswalk), or extended curbs. There’s no protected bike lane.

The speed limit on this road is 30 miles per hour, as it is on roads in all Texas cities. Last year a Texas lawmaker introduced a bill to lower the speed limit on such roads to 25 miles per hour. Cars traveling 30 miles per hour are 43 percent more likely to kill pedestrians they hit than cars traveling 25 miles per hour, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. This is the lawmaker’s third attempt to pass this bill, and it seems to have been just as successful as the first two times, as nothing has happened to the bill in more than a year. (We don’t know how fast the driver of the Hyundai was traveling. Maybe she was going less than 30 miles per hour. Or maybe she was going faster; after all, Google Street View suggests you can drive the entire length of Kings Mill Road, a circuit of nearly a mile, and never see a single speed limit sign.)

And notably, the driver who struck and killed Chase Delarios was driving a midsize SUV. The heavier the car, the more likely it is to kill a person if it strikes them. At between 3,500 and 5,000 pounds (depending on specific model), a 2017 Hyundai Santa Fe is more than a match for an 8-year-old and his bike. (The post-crash local news coverage shows the bike, horribly, jammed under the Hyundai’s rear wheel.)

And the conclusion:

Like most American streets, Kings Mill Road is not a safe area for pedestrians or people riding bikes. It’s designed for drivers, and drivers use it that way. That’s the system we’re trapped in…

In the United States, cars and vehicles with engines rule the roads. We have built whole systems and ways of life to accommodate them and ease their travel. It is supported by public and private money, public sentiment, and an ongoing series of decisions.

If you are traveling via other means, you have to be aware and careful. Know where vehicles are at all times. Be cautious in crossing, even at clearly marked walkways. Be ready to move quickly if needed. Make yourself visible to vehicles.

To change this or seriously address this would require a long-term effort to redesign basic aspects of everyday American life. It can be done, but a sustained series of actions is difficult to organize and execute.

Even with some working from home in 2021, driving alone is by far the most common way to get to work

Here is data on how people in the United States got to work in 2021:

Over two-thirds of workers drove alone. This is the case even with some Americans working from home.

The percent of Americans either driving with someone or taking mass transit is low. Estimating from this data, fewer than 11% travel to work among others.

Commuting is primarily a solo task in the United States. This has all sorts of implications ranging from traffic and congestion on roads, environmental concerns, time use, land use, social interactions, and more.

Emphasize the drive-thru and delivery, ditch the indoor dining

More fast food, coffee, and fast causal restaurants are moving toward no indoor dining space:

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Last August, Dunkin’ opened its first “digital” location on Beacon Street in Boston. There are no cashiers, replaced by touchscreens and mobile ordering, and no seats or tables.

Dunkin’ is far from alone. Name a fast-food restaurant and the odds are the company has recently developed a branch without any restaurant at all. Chipotle’s first “Digital Kitchen,” which opened in upstate New York in 2020, has no dining room. A branch that opened last year in the Cleveland suburbs doesn’t even let customers inside the store. This summer, Taco Bell opened something it calls Taco Bell Defy, which is not a restaurant at all but a purple taco tollbooth powered by QR code readers and dumbwaiters that bring the food down from a second-story kitchen. The operation is, by most accounts, astoundingly efficient. Wingstop’s “restaurant of the future” doesn’t have seats or take cash.

What’s driving this trend? Partly savings on real estate and labor. But mostly it’s a response to consumer preference. Pushed by pandemic restrictions and pulled by the increasing ease of mobile transactions, customers have rushed into drive-thrus, delivery, and mobile ordering. Even with coronavirus fears in most Americans’ rear-view mirror, Chipotle’s in-restaurant sales now account for just a third of its business. At Panera, which opened its first to-go-only locations this summer, that figure is under 20 percent…

Like the parallel remote-work phenomenon, the rise of what McDonald’s calls the Three D’s—digital, drive-thru, and delivery—may reflect an ongoing social atomization as the shared spaces that emptied out during the pandemic are slow to fill back up, to the point that walk-up, dine-in customers like me are no longer the focus, and might even be a nuisance. Often lauded as a vital “third space” for seniors, teenagers, and families in communities that lack friendly public spaces, McDonald’s unveiled a concept store in 2020 that has no seating at all.

This kind of eating works in the United States largely because of the amount of driving Americans do. In commuting and other trips from place to place that are required for daily life, they want access to food on the go. The option of indoor dining might be nice for some – see the idea of third spaces above and the ways this can enhance public life – but much business via people who never leave their car.

If those who used to eat inside these restaurants cannot do this, where will they go instead? This could lead to an uptick in eating restaurant food at home. This is a different kind of experience, more private with the diner have much more control over lighting, screens, sound, and more. It is much harder to fix wrong orders or to get more food. The restaurant experience might be limited to only larger outlays of money and specific foods in particular locations.