Featured Post

Part 1: Mark Baumer Reflection: Impounding Vehicles & Immigrant Rights

This is part of a multi-part reflection I've been doing following the death of my friend, Mark Baumer . There's nothing graphic i...

Sample Size Errors

From NY Times poll: "How Do Youse, Y'all, and You Guys Say Things?"
Rhode Island finds itself at the first and last place on many lists. We were, until recently, #1 for unemployment--and by some measure, it's not clear that that has truly improved, so much as it's been hidden by people going off the official unemployment list. We're last (as in, we have very little) for gun violence, we're first for the number of uncared-for bridges, we're one of the oldest (as in, by population age) states. We're #2 for density; and second highest land prices (both after New Jersey). According to Dep. Director of RIDOT Peter Garino, we are, as a state, denser than Japan.

As the smallest state--a state that is smaller than some western counties, and even size-comparative with some cities in size (less than three New York Cities* or Los Angeleses in size)--we have to guard against drawing conclusions about our state without considering the larger picture.

I wanted to look some more at maps and thicken-out my conclusion that Rhode Island has too many highways. We're #8 (technically this statistic applies to Providence, not RI). Does sample size affect our results on this score?

I was pulled back on the map of Philadelphia as a region, and thought I was drawing a line between the Schuylkill Expressway (I-76) and the Blue Route (I-476), and then realized at higher resolution I'd actually connected Church Lane, part of U.S. 13 to the Blue Route. It got my thinking about the idea of "highway" as a term. What does our linguistic categorization at a regional level do to affect our choices about design? Or does design affect speech?**

Anyway, one container of speech that I do think matters is the idea of "a state" or "a city". You expect to see a certain number of high speed roads in a state, as well as a city. Having a smaller than normal state puts you at cognitive risk of putting too many roads in to serve too few people (this is my unproven hypothesis).

In a state like Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, how many roads should we have?

The distance between the nearest two limited access, north-south routes in Delaware County, PA is about 10 miles, as the bird flies, between the Blue Route and I-76.*** I-76 is of course in Philadelphia proper, and the Blue Route is way out in the styx of Delco.

What would it mean for our state to rethink its reliance on expensive, limited-access roads? When you look at the state as a whole, you get the impression that what we've invested in is rather modest: it looks not a lot different than a Philadelphia area map. 

I think we can say the same for a Providence-level  map:

If you don't think about the fact that Providence is like a neighborhood or two in size on a Philly map (Philly's like the size of the Bay, without counting the islands, to get that comparison in your head) then you'd think this map was really reasonable, wouldn't you? I mean, it's all counted up the same: there's a highway along the water, and there's one deeper in, and there's some connecting ones to bring them together at the top and bottom.

I think that the containers of "What is a highway" and "How many highways do we need?" are both deeply important to our thinking about what to do with Rhode Island, and Providence. It's very clear that we're investing in infrastructure that is far too great for our needs, but unless we're able to step out of our linguistic containers, we won't see that. 

*I've never seen New York City as "New York Cities" before, and I wasn't sure if I should try "New York Citys" against the orthographic rule, as if changing the spelling somehow attacks the qi of the place, but what are you going to do? Same for Los Angeleses (Los Angeli? Los Angeleseseseses?). Also, I never knew that Los Angeles and New York's five boroughs were about the same size. . . Who knew?

**Growing up, my parents referred to any road over 30 miles per hour as a highway. This suggests a linguistic constraint on Philly-ese speakers to think of any busy road as a highway, along Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis lines (Geow Als!). I wrote another piece about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, suggesting that our RI term "service road" affects how we think about the streets that lead up to highways. This might be another example. 

The thing to understand about the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is that it's really sexy and interesting to act as though it completely constrains our thoughts, but it really doesn't. Most linguists feel that linguistic relatively is a factor in our thinking, but not inescapable. An example of this is how English has the word "Sorry" which means both "I did something wrong I regret" and "I am empathetic with you for that thing that happened that is in no way my fault". In German, there are two separate phrases for this: Entschutelgung means "Forgive me" or "Excuse me" while Es tut mir leid means "Wow, what a shame" or "Quelle domage". The fact that English does not draw linguistic distinction between the two sorrys is certainly a cause of occasional confusion. How often have you told your girlfriend/boyfriend "Sorry" and had her/him misunderstand what type you meant? But on the other hand, it's not like we English speakers are wandering around unable to communicate our feelings. We know that these words overlap, but it doesn't take away our ability to reason.

In the same way, I'm not suggesting that because Philadelphians apparently use the word "highway" to mean "busy road" is a suggestion that the Delaware Valley doesn't distinguish between two different kinds of things (a limited-access highway, and a stroad, or even in some cases, a busy road that's not really a stroad). Also, for what it's worth, though Google Maps clued me to this thought in the first place, the way Google catgorizes a road is obviously not constrained by what Philly people do, and is in some ways a refutation of my thesis. Check out more thoughts on this here.

***When I was a kid, the Blue Route wasn't even finished, because the wealthy suburbs to my west had fought it for decades. The Blue Route, by the way, is named for the route that PennDOT finally chose out of a possible "Red Route" and "Green Route" set of options. I remember the section behind my dad's work, the Marple Pathmark, opening up and my dad taking us behind his store to look at the backside of his work. I was filled with a feeling that I can only describe as being akin to the first time you discover you can see your house on Google Streetview. It was totally novel to me to think that a place that was of importance to my life would be immediately viewable from the highway. For what it's worth, the Blue Route is where my family would go if we were heading to Allentown, but other than that, I don't recall ever using it. The exit by my dad's work was the "Upper Darby" exit, but you had to go through two towns to get to Upper Darby. I'm sure that the travel habits of people in thoroughgoingly suburban areas like Marple were probably different than my family's, but it speaks to this idea that when highways are limited you use local streets to get around, and only use the highways for long journeys.

No comments:

Post a Comment