Americans Can’t Kick the Auto Habit

After looking this week at the growth of the physical size of cities due to improvements in transport technologies, the increasing density of cities, and then the contribution of automobile (especially personal cars) to carbon dioxide emissions, today we look at a piece from the Transport Politic comparing US and French mass transit ridership to see whether the recent decline in US ridership is inevitable or a choice made by consumers and policymakers. Spoiler: it’s not inevitable.

The article makes use of a few graphics and an interactive component. The lead-in graphic is a nice line chart that runs with the spaghetti nature of the graphic: lots of line but only two are really highlighted.

The French are definitely better than the US here.
The French are definitely better than the US here.

Light grey lines and light blue lines encode the US and French cities under study. But only the lines representing the averages of both the US and France are darkly coloured and in a thicker stroke to stand out from the rest. Normally I would not prefer the minimum of the y-axis being 50%, but here the baseline is actually 100% so the chart really works well. And interestingly it shows that prior to the Great Recession, the United States was doing better than France in adoption of mass transit, relative to 2010 numbers.

But then when you directly compare 2010 to 2018 for various US and French cities, you get an even better chart. Also you see that French cities reclaim the lead in transit growth.

A lot of declines on this side of the pond.
A lot of declines on this side of the pond.

These two static graphics, which can each be clicked to view larger, do a really great job of cutting through what some might call noise of the intervening years. I do like, much like yesterday’s post, the comparison of total or aggregate ridership to per capita numbers. It shows how even though New York’s total ridership has increased, the population has increased faster than the ridership numbers and so per capita ridership has declined. And of course as yesterday’s post examined, in the States the key to fighting climate change is reducing the number of people driving.

What I cannot quite figure out from the graphic is what the colouration of the lines mean. I thought that perhaps the black vs. grey lines meant the largest cities, but then LA would be black. Maybe for the steepest declines, but no, because both LA and Boston are grey. I also thought the grey lines might be used when black lines overlap to aid clarity, but then why is Boston in grey? Regardless, I like the choice of the overall form.

But where things go really downhill are the interactive charts.

Just what?
Just what?

Talk about unintelligible spaghetti charts. So the good. The designer kept the baseline at 100% and set the min and max around that. After that it’s a mess. Even if the colours all default to the rainbow, the ability to select and isolate a particular city would be incredibly valuable to the user. Unfortunately selecting a city does no such thing. All the other cities remain coloured, and sometimes layered atop the selected city.

I would have thrown the unselected cities into the greyscale and let the selected city rise to the top layer and remain in its colour. Let it be the focus of the user’s attention.

Or the designer could have kept to the idea in the first graphic and coloured American cities grey and French cities light blue and then let the user select one from among the set and compare that to the overall greyed/blued masses and the US and French averages.

Overall, it wasn’t a bad piece. But that final interactive bit was questionable. Unfortunately the piece started strong and ended weak, when the reverse would have been preferable.

Credit for the piece goes to Yonah Freemark.

Auto Emissions Stuck in High Gear

The last two days we looked at densification in cities and how the physical size of cities grew in response to the development of transport technologies, most notably the automobile. Today we look at a New York Times article showing the growth of automobile emissions and the problem they pose for combating the greenhouse gas side of climate change.

The article is well worth a read. It shows just how problematic the auto-centric American culture is to the goal of combating climate change. The key paragraph for me occurs towards the end of the article:

Meaningfully lowering emissions from driving requires both technological and behavioral change, said Deb Niemeier, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Maryland. Fundamentally, you need to make vehicles pollute less, make people drive less, or both, she said.

Of course the key to that is probably in the range of both.

The star of the piece is the map showing the carbon dioxide emissions on the roads from passenger and freight traffic. Spoiler: not good.

From this I blame the Schuylkill, Rte 202, the Blue Route, I-95, and just all the highways
From this I blame the Schuylkill, Rte 202, the Blue Route, I-95, and just all the highways

Each MSA is outlined in black and is selectable. The designers chose well by setting the state borders in a light grey to differentiate them from when the MSA crosses state lines, as the Philadelphia one does, encompassing parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. A slight opacity appears when the user mouses over the MSA. Additionally a little box remains up once the MSA is selected to show the region’s key datapoints: the aggregate increase and the per capita increase. Again, for Philly, not good. But it could be worse. Phoenix, which surpassed Philadelphia proper in population, has seen its total emissions grow 291%, its per capita growth at 86%. My only gripe is that I wish I could see the entire US map in one view.

The piece also includes some nice charts showing how automobile emissions compare to other sources. Yet another spoiler: not good.

I've got it: wind-powered cars with solar panels on the bonnet.
I’ve got it: wind-powered cars with solar panels on the bonnet.

Since 1990, automobile emissions have surpassed both industry emissions and more recently electrical generation emissions (think shuttered coal plants). Here what I would have really enjoyed is for the share of auto emissions to be treated like that share of total emissions. That is, the line chart does a great job showing how auto emissions have surpassed all other sources. But the stacked chart does not do as great a job. The user can sort of see how passenger vehicles have plateaued, but have yet to decline whereas lorries have increased in recent years. (I would suspect due to increased deliveries of online-ordered goods, but that is pure speculation.) But a line chart would show that a little bit more clearly.

Finally, we have a larger line chart that plots each city’s emissions. As with the map, the key thing here is the aggregate vs. per capita numbers. When one continues to scroll through, the lines all change.

Lots of people means lots of emissions.
Lots of people means lots of emissions.
There's driving in the Philadelphia area, but it's not as bad as it could be.
There’s driving in the Philadelphia area, but it’s not as bad as it could be.

Very quickly one can see how large cities like New York have large aggregate emissions because millions of people live there. But then at a per capita level, the less dense, more sprawl-y cities tend to shoot up the list as they are generally more car dependent.

Credit for the piece goes to Nadja Popovich and Denise Lu.

Different Paths to Density

Yesterday we looked at the expansion of city footprints by sprawl, in modern years largely thanks to the automobile. Today, I want to go back to another article I’ve been saving for a wee bit. This one comes from the Economist, though it dates only back to the beginning of October.

This article looks at the different ways a city can achieve density. Usually one things of soaring skyscrapers, but there are other paths. For those interested, the article is a short read and I won’t cover it here. But for the sake of the graphic below, there are three basic paths: coverage, height, and crowding. Or to put in other terms, how much of the city is covered by homes, how tall those homes go, and how many people fit into each home.

Reticulating splines
Reticulating splines

I really like this graphic. It does a great job of using small multiples to compare and contrast three cities that exemplify the different paths. Notably, it keeps each city footprint at the same scale, making it easier to see things such as why Hong Kong builds skyward. Because it has little land. (It is, after all, an island and the tip of a peninsula.)

One area where I wish the graphic had kept to the small multiples is its display of Minneapolis. There, the scale shifts (note the lines for 5 km below vs. Minneapolis’ 10 km). I think I understand why, because the sprawling city would not have fit within the confines of the graphic, but that would have also hammered home the point of sprawl.

I should also point out that the article begins with a graphic I chose not to screenshot, but that I also really enjoy. It uses small multiples to compare cities density over time, running population on the x-axis and people per hectare on the y-. It is not a perfect graphic (it uses I think unnecessary arrowheads at the end of the line), but scatter plots over time are, I think, an underused graphic to show how two variables (ideally related) have moved in tandem over time.

Overall, this is a strong piece from the Economist.

Credit for the piece goes to the Economist graphics department.

Mapping the Growth of Cities

This is an older piece from back in August, but I was waiting for a time when I would have some related articles to post alongside it. To start off the series of posts, we start with this piece from CityLab. As my titles implies, it looks at the growth of cities, but not in terms of people or technology but in terms of area/land.

The basic premise is that people look for a 30-minute commute and have done so throughout history. To make that point, the authors look at how transport technology evolved to enable people to live and work at further distances from each other, expanding the urban core.

The designer then chose to overlay the city limits of several cities largely defined by these technologies atop each other.

From small, compact, and dense to large, sprawling, and fluffy.
From small, compact, and dense to large, sprawling, and fluffy.

Conceptually the graphic works really well. The screenshot is of an animated. gif leading into the article that step-by-step reveals each city. However, throughout the article, each de facto section is introduced by a city outline graphic.

The graphic does a really nice job of showing how as technology allowed us to move faster, people chose to be further removed from the city core. Of course there are often multiple factors in why people may move out of the core, but transport certainly facilitates it.

Credit for the piece goes to David Montgomery.

I Have an App for That Too

Well, everyone, we made it to Friday. So let’s all reflect on how many things we did on our mobile phones this week. xkcd did. And it’s fairly accurate. Though personally, I would only add that I did not quite use my mobile for a TV remote. Unless you count Chromecasting. In that case I did that too.

What about boarding passes?
What about boarding passes?

If I have to offer a critique, it’s that it makes smart use of a stacked bar chart. I normally do not care for them, but it works well if you are only stacking two different series in opposition to each other.

Credit for the piece goes to Randall Munroe.

How Worldly Is the World Series?

The World Series began Tuesday night. But, as many people reading this blog will know, baseball is not exactly a global sport. But is it really? CityLab looked at the origin of Major League Baseball players and it turns out that almost 30% of the players today are from outside the United States. They have a number of charts and graphics that explore the places of birth of ball players. But one of the things I learned is just how many players hail from the Dominican Republic—since 2000, 12% of all players.

There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.
There are quite a few players from countries around the Caribbean.

The choropleth here is an interesting choice. It’s a default choice, so I understand it. But when so many countries that are being highlighted are small islands in the Caribbean, a geographically accurate map might not be the ideal choice. Really, this map highlights from just how few countries MLB ball players originate.

Fortunately the other graphics work really well. We get bar charts about which cities provide MLB rosters. But the one I really enjoy is where they account for the overall size of cities and see which cities, for every 100,000 people, provide the most ballplayers.

One of the other things I want to pick on, however, is the inclusion of Puerto Rico. In the dataset, the designers included it as a foreign country. When, you know, it’s part of the United States.

Credit for the piece goes to David H. Montgomery.

Pub Trivia Scores—The Ryan’s Wedding Version

So another Wednesday, another pub trivia night. But two weekends ago, I attended the wedding of a good mate of mine down in Austin, Texas. And at his rehearsal/welcome dinner, he and his now wife had a trivia game. How well did their guests know them?

Turns out my friends and I, not so much. And I can prove it, because I documented our score after every round in my sketchbook.

Somewhere towards the middle we just started picking the most ridiculous answers.
Somewhere towards the middle we just started picking the most ridiculous answers.

Credit for this one is mine.

Canadian Election Results

Yesterday Canada went to the polls for the 43rd time. Their prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has had a bad run of it the last year or so. He’s had some frivolous scandals with wearing questionable fashion choices to some more serious scandals about how he chose to colour his face in his youth to arguably the most serious scandal where an investigation concluded improperly attempted to influence a criminal investigation for political gain. (Sound familiar, American readers?) Consequently, there was some chatter about whether he would lose to the Conservatives.

But nope, Trudeau held on.

So this morning I charted some of the results. It was a bad night for Trudeau, but not nearly as bad as it could have been. He remains in power, albeit head of a minority government.

That's a steep drop in seats, but it could have been worse
That’s a steep drop in seats, but it could have been worse

Credit for the piece goes to me.

Brexit Deal 2.0

I’ve been trying to work on a Syrian changing alliances graphic, but the Brexit news today scuppered that. Instead, we take a look at Boris’ deal, which differs from May’s in that it chucks out the notion of territorial integrity, creating a border in the Irish Sea where goods will have to be inspected. My old Brexit trilemma graphic shows the new deal’s fundamental choices.

Shifting priorities
Shifting priorities

But how does this exiting the customs union and single market work? Well, the whole of the UK is leaving the customs union, but on the single market, there Northern Ireland remains in, aligned to the EU, whereas the rest of the UK is leaving. Ports will screen for some goods to ensure compliance with UK officials ensuring EU standards.

There are still questions about how this will all shake out
There are still questions about how this will all shake out

The BBC graphic above is pretty straightforward, showing the new border as a dotted line. But the border is there. There is still quite a bit we don’t know. And most important of those questions is can Boris get his deal through Parliament? Remember, he tossed 20 MPs out of the party. And there are signals that the DUP, a conservative Northern Irish party that provides the crucial backing votes to the Tories to ensure the Tory majority (before, again, Boris kicked out 20 of his own MPs), will vote against the deal because it separates them from the rest of the UK.

Credit for the trilemma is mine.

Credit for the BBC graphic goes to the BBC graphics department.

Americans Retreat, Turks Invade, Syrians Return, Kurds Die

I did not have a lot of time to cover this story last week. So let us try to get into it a little bit today. The New York Times published this morning an article about what is next for Syria, titling the online version 4 Big Questions About Syria’s Future. So I went with four statements about what is happening today for the title of this post.

If you somehow missed it, President Trump announced that American forces were retreating from the Syrian–Turkish border because Turkey wanted to invade Syria and crush the Kurds, a minority population in Syria, Iraq, and Turkey. There, in Turkey, Kurdish separatists have fought a war for autonomy if not independence from Ankara. (I am dramatically oversimplifying this.) The group that organised these attacks, which Turkey considers terrorism, has ties to the Kurds in Syria that have organised a relatively peaceful and stable region of Syria during the Syrian Civil War—no small feat. But because of those ties, and because Turkey fears an independent Kurdistan on its border, Ankara decided to invade Syria and crush the Kurds and has launched heavy and devastating airstrikes alongside a ground invasion to that end.

Of course the Syrians would like to regain control of their entire country. But they had left the Kurds in relative peace as the Syrians shifted most of their forces from the northeast to places like Homs and Aleppo where they fought the various opposition forces and then the jihadists and then ISIS. The Syrians and Kurds did occasionally skirmish, but these were often far smaller engagements than the heavier fighting in the west of the country.

But now the Syrian army and air force, weary but battle hardened, having retaken control over most of western and central Syria, can move back into northeastern Syria where the Kurds have power and re-exert control. The Kurds have asked the Syrians (and the Russians) for help repelling the Turkish invasion and both countries seem eager to oblige.

Amidst all of this, Kurds die.

But the New York Times article does a really nice job explaining all of this and it frames the answers to its questions around three maps. This screenshot is from the main one that shows the sites of Turkish airstrikes and Turkey’s desired buffer zone (though there are reports Turkish forces are pushing well past that line).

It's all a mess right now
It’s all a mess right now

The maps uses the four colours to represent the four main power blocs. The others provide additional context, especially in terms of the ethnic makeup of Syria. Overall it is a solid piece that goes a long way towards showing just how messed up things have gotten since Wednesday.

Here, the annotations help identify key battlegrounds and locations. But since being published this is already out of date, as there are reports that the Syrians alongside Russian troops have retaken the town of Manbij. Suffice it to say this is a fluid situation and by tomorrow this could all be different.

Credit for the piece goes to Anne Barnard, Anjali Singhvi, Sarah Almukhtar, Allison McCann, and Jin Wu.