What the 2021 Rand McNally atlas highlights in the Chicago region

The new 2021 Rand McNally road atlas is available. Here is what they have for the Chicago region on the Illinois page (available on the preview):

RandMcNally2021Chicagoregion

As my family or I have owned a version of this atlas for many years, I have spent much time viewing this page. I can recall when new roads were added (like I-355). Here is what strikes me upon seeing the Chicago area in the 2021 version (not the more zoomed in regional map which can offer more detail):

  1. The map cannot mention the names of all of the suburbs; there is not enough room. The ones listed appear to be the suburbs larger in population mixed in with some of the communities between those.
  2. This particular map does not clearly mark the boundaries of Chicago. You can roughly see where Chicago’s edges are due to the positions of other communities. Yet, the edges of the suburbs are marked – see the orange areas versus white areas – though some of the non-suburban areas within the developed areas are oddly marked.
  3. What non-municipal features are noted is interesting. Midway Airport has a label, O’Hare does not. Four universities along the lakefront are marked but DePaul and many others in Chicago and the region are not. There are some natural features and parks visible but not many (for example, it would be very difficult to know from this map all the forest preserves present in the counties in the region).
  4. The lake is present and useful for the map because some of the labels can go off into the water rather than compete for space over land.
  5. You might be able to get a sense that the road system in the Chicago area is both easy to understand and has a complicated history. The roads are fairly straight and the main highways largely radiate out of Chicago (I-94 north, I-90 northwest, I-88 west, I-55 southwest, I-57 south). But, then there are some shorter highways, two ring highways (I-294 and I-355) but not a third one to service outer development, and the toll/non-toll options blend together.

Making this map likely required a lot of decisions as to what to include and what would help make the map readable.

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.

Maps, distortions, and realities

Maps do not just reflect reality; a new online exhibit at the Boston Public Library looks at how they help shape reality:

desk globe on shallow focus lens

Photo by NastyaSensei on Pexels.com

The original topic was to do an exhibition of a classic category of maps called persuasive cartography, which tends to refer to propaganda maps, ads, political campaign maps, maps that obviously you can tell have an agenda. We have those materials in our collections of about a quarter million flat maps, atlases, globes and other cartographic materials. But we decided in recognition of what’s going on now to expand into a bigger theme about how maps produce truth, and how trust in maps and other visual data is produced in media and civil society. So rather than thinking about just about maps which are obviously treacherous, distorting, and deceptive, we wanted to think about how every map goes about presenting the world and how they can all reflect biases and absences or incorrect classifications of data. We also wanted to think about this as a way to promote data literacy, which is a critical attitude towards media and data visualizations, to bring together this long history of how maps produce our sense of reality…

We commissioned a special set of maps where we compiled geographic data about the state of Massachusetts across a few different categories, like demographics, infrastructure, and the environment. We gave the data to a handful of cartographers and asked them to make a pair of maps that show different conclusions that disagree with each other. One person made two maps from environmental data from toxic waste sites: One map argues that cities are most impacted by pollution, and the other says it’s more rural towns that have a bigger impact. So this project was really meant to say, we’d like to think that numbers speak for themselves, but whenever we’re using data there’s a crucial role for the interpreter, and the way people make those maps can really reflect the assumptions they’ve brought into the assignment…

In one section of the show called “How the Lines Get Bent,” we talk about some of the most common cartographic techniques that deserve our scrutiny: whether the data is or isn’t normalized to population size, for example, will produce really different outcomes. We also look at how data is produced by people in the world by looking at how census classifications change over time, not because people themselves change but because of racist attitudes about demographic categorizations that were encoded into census data tables. So you have to ask: What assumptions can data itself hold on to? Throughout the show we look at historic examples as well as more modern pieces to give people questions about how to look at a map, whether it’s simple media criticism, like: Who made this and when? Do they show sources? What are their methods, and what kinds of rhetorical framing like titles and captions do they use? We also hit on geographic analysis, like data normalization and the modifiable area unit problem…

So rather than think about maps as simply being true or false, we want to think about them as trustworthy or untrustworthy and to think about social and political context in which they circulate. A lot of our evidence of parts of the world we’ve never seen is based on maps: For example, most of us accept that New Zealand is off the Australian coast because we see maps and assume they’re trustworthy. So how do societies and institutions produce that trust, what can be trusted and what happens when that trust frays? The conclusion shouldn’t be that we can’t trust anything but that we have to read things in an informed skeptical manner and decide where to place our trust.

Another reminder that data does not interpret itself. Ordering reality – which we could argue that maps do regarding spatial information – is not a neutral process. People look at the evidence, draw conclusions, and then make arguments with the data. This extends across all kinds of evidence or data, ranging from statistical evidence to personal experiences to qualitative data to maps.

Educating the readers of maps (and other evidence) is important: as sociologist Joel Best argues regarding statistics, people should not be naive (completely trusting) or cynical (completely rejecting) but rather should be critical (questioning, skeptical). But, there is another side to this: how many cartographers and others that produce maps are aware of the possibilities of biased or skewed representations? If they know this, how do they then combat it? There would be a range of cartographers to consider, from people who make road atlases to world maps to those working in media who make maps for the public regarding current events. What guides their processes and how often do they interrogate their own presentation? Similarly, are people more trusting of maps than they might be of statistics or qualitative data or people’s stories (or personal maps)?

Finally, the interview hints at the growing use of maps with additional data. I feel like I read about John Snow’s famous 1854 map of cholera cases in London everywhere but this has really picked up in recent decades. As we know more about spatial patterns as well as have the tools (like GIS) to overlay data, maps with data are everywhere. But, finding and communicating the patterns is not necessarily easy nor is the full story of the analysis and presentation given. Instead, we might just see a map. As someone who has published an article using maps as key evidence, I know that collecting the data, putting it into a map, and presenting the data required multiple decisions.

Mapping daily life amidst COVID-19

I like the Citylab project of asking readers to submit their maps life during COVID-19. A few thoughts:

1. COVID-19 affects multiple dimensions of social life, including the distance people must keep from each other (and social interactions). The maps help highlight the spatial dimensions of COVID-19, reminding us of the relatively free mobility many people have during normal times (think regular commutes, a sprawling country often based on driving a car to different locations). The maps also highlight the difficulties or significant changes because of reduced mobility. On one hand, we have more technology than ever that lets us access people and places wherever all the time. On the other hand, not being able to move as we typically do is worth acknowledging.

2. It can be both fun and informative to ask people to draw their daily activities or their community. It pushes people to think spatially (which they may or may not do on a regular basis) and can quickly show what places they find more meaningful. Asking about someone’s day often leads to a list of activities or tasks; the map can include this information but add a valuable spatial dimension.

3. As a bonus, such maps not only provide information but they also allow people to display their creativity. This is clear in the Citylab maps: the contrasts of color, styles, and interpretations is engaging. Compared to more common methods of data collection like surveys or interviews, drawing a map provides a worthwhile contrast.

4. Perhaps reduced mobility will push more Americans to know their immediate surroundings in and around their residences. Instead of passing many places while driving, current circumstances may push more people to pass places at walking or bicycling speed. I know I see my neighborhood differently through regular walks; perhaps other will have similar experiences.

 

.

Google Maps and more overlaid on what you see in front of you

The next era of Google Maps may soon be underway:

By making use of smartphone cameras, apps can get a more-detailed sense of where you are and where you need to go. The app knows which direction you are pointing in, even what you’re looking at. And because it’s all seen through a camera view on your phone, the app can layer directions on top of the real world, turning navigation into an augmented-reality experience.

Lots of companies are working on improving your maps, but nobody’s maps matter more than Google’s. The company announced an AR walking feature for Google Maps at its developer conference last May and now is making it available to some users before a wider release coming… later. (Google says only that it requires more testing.)…

A moment after the app found me, a set of bold, can’t-miss-’em 3-D arrows appeared on my phone screen, hovering in the middle of the street. The arrows pointed right, so I headed right. That’s when a rectangular blue sign appeared, floating above the sidewalk: 249 feet until my next turn. At the corner, the arrows again pointed right, and down the street a phone booth-size red pin marked my destination. It was as if Maps had drawn my directions onto the real world, though nobody else could see them….

And directions aren’t the sole point either. AR maps could help you learn more about everything you pass. Tory Smith, product strategy lead for autonomous vehicles at Mapbox, a navigation startup, envisions a possible future in which your windshield could display the nearest parking garage, then tell you how many spots are open, how much it costs and whether there’s a good coffee shop nearby. You might someday navigate indoors—where GPS doesn’t work—using AR maps, with Google Translate instantly turning every sign you pass into your own language.

It is not a matter of whether this happens: it is just a matter of when. I wonder if the first company/app/place that really goes all in on this early on will benefit greatly or if this will be feature that takes a long time to catch on. This seems like what Google Glass was truly made for.

What this will do to our abilities to read maps and know places is uncertain. This is not just digital maps versus paper maps: this is a combination of realities where pedestrians could soon just expect to have directions and information in the their view at all times. Whether this makes people more or less knowledgeable about their communities would remain to be seen. If individual users had a lot of control over their settings, perhaps people would literally only see what they want to see.

 

 

When digital maps are wrong

If maps help us make spatial and social sense of our places and world, what happens when they are wrong?

Another factor in the paper versus digital debate is accuracy. Obviously, a good digital map is better than a bad paper map, just like a good paper map is better than a bad digital map.

Technochauvinists may believe that all digital maps are good, but just as in the paper world, the accuracy of digital maps depends entirely on the level of detail and fact-checking invested by the company making the map.

For example, a 2012 survey by the crowdsourcing company Crowdflower found that Google Maps accurately located 89 percent of businesses, while Apple Maps correctly found 74 percent. This isn’t surprising, as Google invests millions in sending people around the world to map terrain for Google StreetView. Google Maps are good because the company invests time, money, and human effort in making its maps good—not because digital maps are inherently better…

In my view, it’s easier to forgive the errors in a paper map. Physical maps usually include an easily visible publication date so users can see when the map was published. (When was the last time you noticed the date-of-last-update on your car navigation system?) When you are passively following the spoken GPS directions of a navigation system, and there is, say, an unmarked exit, it confuses the GPS system and causes chaos among the people in the car. (Especially the backseat drivers.)

The general argument of this piece (and the larger book) appears to be that we should not become too reliant on digital sources of information. We tend to think that digital sources of information are inherently more correct or less prone to error. So, if the digital map is wrong, we might be very surprised.

I recently thought of this myself as we purchased a vehicle with a built-in navigation system. When going through the options in the map menus, I noticed the map had a date from several years ago. When at the dealer a few weeks back, I noticed they had a sign up explaining how to update the maps. I hope to do that soon.

On the other hand, the advantage of digital systems is that our brains can offload some of the work of navigating or understanding a place by relying on a digital map or navigation system. We make use of distributed cognition in many ways, including through the use of paper maps.

Of course, upping and maintaining the accuracy of digital maps is an ongoing task and there is much at risk. All systems have the risk of failure and perhaps the biggest issue here is that we do not assume the digital map is always right.

Old Navy map of Chicago emphasizes trendy, whiter areas while ignoring other areas

A shirt recently on sale at Old Navy made some interesting choices in displaying Chicago neighborhoods:

Freeman, 35, who does freelance writing on comedy for the Tribune, tweeted out a picture of the T-shirt on Thursday. He was out looking for pajamas for his young children last Saturday and saw the T-shirt at the Old Navy in Oak Park.

“May have found the worst Chicago map ever — on a shirt at Old Navy,” Freeman tweeted. “Wicker Park has its own listing but #2, #13 and #14 sum up the entire south and west sides.”

Indeed, every neighborhood from Galewood to Little Village to Lawndale to Austin and the Island is part of the “Far West Side,” according to the map. Englewood, West Englewood, Gresham, Marquette Park, Brighton Park and a host of other neighborhoods are part of the “Southwest Side.”…

A spokesman for the city department in charge of official maps pointed out that Old Navy has a presence in Chicago, which might excuse a mistaken T-shirt.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I wonder if this reflects what a suburbanite or a tourist might know. Most of the smaller areas are closer to the Loop and Lake Michigan. The O’Hare and Midway Area neighborhoods are named after the one location in each place that an outsider might ever visit.

2. Another possible defense for the neighborhoods listed: it would be harder to fit all 77 official community areas and 178 official neighborhoods on a shirt.

3. It would be interesting to know how well Chicagoans know all the community areas and neighborhoods.

4. How many of these shirts could Old Navy sell? Several thousand? Perhaps the company should know better but the map may have had more exposure through the media reports about it than through actual sales.

Mapping county votes in the 2018 House elections

More media outlets are using maps to illustrate the results of the 2018 election. See this story from NPR that uses country level voting to show where the two parties picked up or lost House seats:

NPRcountyelectionresults2018.png

Of the 41 congressional districts that Democrats turned from red to blue this election, 38 were suburban, according to an analysis by The New York Times. (Democrats may pick up one to two more seats, once all votes are counted and elections are certified.)

But more granular than congressional districts overall are the counties that compose them. We mapped the percentage of House ballots cast for the party that received the most votes in each suburban county, and we looked at how that compared with 2016.

This map hints at metropolitan regions swinging toward one party or another while still generally adhering to the patterns of big cities and close suburbs vote Democratic and further-flung suburbs vote Republican. Regions like Seattle, San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston swung entirely Democratic. Some were more split: Denver, San Antonio, Miami, Orlando, and Washington, D.C.

Mapping how wealthier suburban voters helped deliver the House to Democrats

The Washington Post has a story with great maps that illustrate how suburbanites helped swing the 2018 House elections toward Democrats:

In Tuesday’s election, House districts on the outskirts of major American cities were the site of electoral shifts that propelled Democrats to power.

Wealthy and middle class voters delivered the suburban votes for enough Democratic pickups to secure a majority. In several cases, the battleground districts were wealthy and highly educated places that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, exposing the vulnerability of those Republican lawmakers.

The addition of quality mapping data in recent years to stories about election results is great. It helps highlight the clear patterns from recent elections regarding where the two parties have stronger bases, Democrats in cities and close suburbs and Republicans in rural areas and further suburbs.

What routes would Waze recommend that drivers would turn down?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by a 32% grade Los Angeles street to which Waze routes drivers:

But residents along Baxter Street in Los Angeles’ Echo Park neighborhood—reportedly one of the steepest streets in America (comprising two major hills)—are now banding together to try to change local traffic patterns. Neighbors have contacted city officials and Waze’s parent company, Google, to try to mitigate the problem…

The street, which dates back to 1872, has a 32-percent grade—more than double what current city law allows for today.

In 2003, the Times described the street this way: “Unsuspecting motorists gasp when they reach the crest and discover the roadway in front of them has dropped out of sight and there is nothing but empty space in front of their car’s hood.”

A decade later, Los Angeles magazine noted:

Baxter later became a proving ground for automobiles, as manufacturers staged elaborate stunts to demonstrate their vehicles’ power. In one such event in 1916, a four-wheel-drive truck loaded with 4,300 pounds of baled hay groaned its way up the grade, pausing twice for newspaper cameras. Nearly 100 years later, Baxter Street continues to bewilder uncertain drivers and confound elongated vehicles.

The appeal of apps like Waze is that drivers can avoid traffic by taking lesser-known routes. While residents may not like this, the more interesting question is how far drivers would let Waze take them. The apocryphal stories of drivers turning into lakes may make more sense when the story begins with a driver frustrated with the ridiculous or unpredictable traffic in many major American metropolitan areas. Would they drive through standing water? (The regular stories of drivers getting stuck on flooded roads suggest yes.) Would they be willing to go off pavement? Would they navigate through extremely tight places? Take a road with a severe and unblocked drop-off? Are there as willing to go through higher-crime areas? Apparently, a 32% grade is not enough so perhaps 40% would be too much?

I know this would not help Waze’s cause but I could imagine the company issuing some sort of award or recognition to users who are most willing to do something unusual to get around traffic.