Just Keep Turning

I think it’s time for another participatory article. The 12MC audience seems to its like little puzzles and challenges. I had to drive to a local shopping center a couple of miles from my home yesterday afternoon to pick up my wife. An Interstate Highway stood between the two locations, acting as a natural barrier, with no direct straight-line route between them. This created a situation requiring the use of several roads both to find an underpass below the highway and then to snake my way back to the desired endpoint.

Once back home again, it occurred to me that I’d taken 9 completely different roads to move from Point A to Point B. The detours and turns increased the driving distance to 3.2 miles (5.1 kilometres). Thus, with some quick math, my little trip involved 2.8 roads per mile (1.7 roads/km). That’s a lot of roads and a lot of turns in a very short distance. Certainly I could find better, though.

Reston, Virginia

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I’m hamstrung by my own neighborhood because it’s built on a grid. Usually that’s a good thing. The most efficient path between two points rarely involves anything more than maybe three or four roads. Only an odd situation such as an inconveniently placed Interstate Highway could raise the count so I needed to look elsewhere.

There are large planned communities on the outer perimeter of my area, built in the style of the now largely discredited cul-de-sac model of urban sprawl. Those seemed ripe for better examples. Some residents have to take multiple roads to get anywhere, even to exit their housing developments. I picked a particularly remarkable occurrence on the metropolitan edge, Reston, Virginia, and quickly improved my result. That’s not intended to pick on the fine residents of Reston of course — I could have selected any of several other communities — it was the first one that came to mind.

The result: 7 roads in 1.2 miles = 5.8 roads/mile (3.6 roads/km).

Kissimmee, Florida

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What might confound the road network more than a planned community like Reston? How about a gated community combining the effect of two awful design elements: cul-de-sacs and limited access. I seemed to recall numerous gated communities in and around Orlando, Florida, and quickly found two such communities adjacent to each other in Kissimmee to wonderful effect.

The result: 9 roads in 1.2 miles = 7.5 roads/mile (4.7 roads/km).

Hot Springs Village, Arkansas

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Then I got greedy. If a gated community produced a great result then the largest gated community in the United States should score even better! That place is reputed to be Hot Springs Village, Arkansas (albeit without a citation). Sometimes assumptions aren’t scalable and this one may be an example. It’s one gargantuan gated community, that’s obvious, with an absolutely spellbinding spaghetti network of roads. The various water features and golf courses also increased road complexity and raised my hopes. However it was more grid-like than it appeared at first glance, using circular patterns rather than rectangles. I generated a decent score although I couldn’t raise it up to the level of Kissimmee or beyond.

Incidentally, when does a gated community grow so large that the alleged benefits of gates become meaningless? Hot Springs Village is 55.7 square miles with a population of nearly 13 thousand. I would have to assume that at some point along the continuum it reaches a semblance of equilibrium with the outside world.

The result: 8 roads in 1.1 miles = 7.3 roads/mile (4.5 roads/km). Good, not best.

Diamondhead, Mississippi

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I discarded size and seized upon the obstacle element introduced by Hot Springs Village. What about a planned, gated community with the addition of internal through-road barriers such as golf courses? I have family that live along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and some of them are located in a community called Diamondhead that seemed to match the criteria. It’s a nice community that happens to have particularly weird streets. I nearly get carsick driving through Diamondhead with all of its crazy turns and switchbacks that drill to the depths of the development. In addition the oddity of Hawaiian-themed names in Mississippi has always confounded me although that’s not particularly germane to the topic today. I’ll just note the dissonance and move along.

I produced my best score yet. Just as importantly, I can reasonably expect to replicate this route in person some day.

The result: 8 roads in 0.8 miles = 10.0 roads/mile (6.2 roads/km); and a variation with 7 roads in 0.5 miles (map) = 14 roads/mile (8.7 roads/km) (if only Malino Place changed names at the T!).

The Contest and the Rules

It’s pretty simple. Try to improve upon 10.0 roads/mile. Feel free to use any of the communities I’ve explored already. I didn’t mine them exhaustively so better examples may be lurking in there. Alternately, feel free to examine places more familiar to you.

  • As always, the default route on Google Maps is the final authority. No additional manipulations are allowed. You can specify only the two endpoints (using lat/long to shorten the distance on the beginning and ending roads is fine).
  • A given road can be counted only once even if Google Maps says "bear left to remain on road X" or "turn right to remain on road Y" or "do a U-turn on road Z" or whatever. You’ll notice that I tossed the second instance of Manoo Street in my Diamondhead example (even though it approximated a turn)
  • Let’s not get silly. We can all find better examples using only three roads. I won’t place a minimum on the number of roads, however, anything with fewer than 7-or-so roads begins to lose credibility. The goal is to produce an example of ridiculousness without becoming a ridiculous example.
  • What if an arrow-straight road changes names multiple times as it crosses town boundaries? I guess it would count although it does conflict with the spirit of the effort. That might be a good idea for a different contest, though.
  • You may conduct your examination using whatever measurement of distance makes you happy. Use chains, nautical miles or astronomical units for all I care, however, please convert your calculations both to miles and kilometres when presenting results. Google has easy converters (e.g., mi to km and km to mi).
  • The results need to be repeatable. Provide the map link or embed the map itself within your comment.
  • In the event of a roads/mile tie, the "better" result will be the one that involves more roads. In other words, 20 roads in 2 miles would be a lot more impressive than 10 roads in 1 mile.
  • Extra kudos will be bestowed upon anyone who has actually walked, biked or driven the submitted route in person.

I would say that any example meeting or exceeding double-digit mileage results (10.0+ roads/mi) or an equivalent (6.2+ roads/km) is pretty impressive. You should feel free to pat yourself on the back and call it a day. I know that my best score can be improved upon however, and I wonder by how much. I need to find a community shaped like a maze or the capital on an Ionic column.

Humble Mississippi

Most everyone has an awareness of the Mississippi River no matter their cultural background or geographic familiarity. It would be like never hearing about the Amazon or the Nile. The Mississippi is one of the great rivers of the world and it drains a huge North American watershed. It’s a fixture. I’ve enjoyed this natural wonder many times over the years including an entire vacation that I focused specifically upon the Upper-Midwest portion of the Great River Road. It certainly earned the honorific "Mighty" Mississippi.

Mississippi watershed map 1
SOURCE: Wikimedia Commons, via Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-SA 3.0) license

Except this article isn’t about the Mighty Mississippi.

Certainly it’s about the Mississippi River, albeit a more humble, demure Mississippi River. It’s the one in Canada, and I don’t mean the small portions of Alberta and Saskatchewan that fall within the massive footprint of the famous one. I mean the Mississippi River in Ontario, near Ottawa.

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This version of the Mississippi River flows around 200 kilometres (120 miles) to drain much of the wetlands and lakes southwest of Ottawa. I’ve chosen to highlight only the final segment before it spills into the Ottawa River in the map because it’s too small to view easily beyond that. It’s quite a pretty river from reports I read, with stands of deciduous forests just beyond the edge of the Carolinian Zone. The river supports lots of outdoor activities such as canoeing, kayaking and fishing. The watershed sounded like a rather pleasant place as the Mississippi Valley Field Naturalists described it. I wouldn’t mind seeing it in person someday.

Mississippi Mills is a primary community within the basin, a name reflecting longer than a century of textile milling powered by the river. The factories closed their doors only in recent times. The town is new, however. As Lanark County explains, "The former Town of Almonte joined with the townships of Pakenham and Ramsay to form the new Town of Mississippi Mills" in 1998. It has a population of about 12,000 residents in "a diverse community of rural and small town interests covering over 500 square kilometres." One might think of it as an exurb of Ottawa, a 40 minute drive away.

Nobody knows for certain how this tributary of a much larger river became known as the Mississippi. It doesn’t make sense. One popular theory postulates that the name may have derived from an unrelated Algonquian phrase that sounded similar to Mississippi. Over time it morphed into a form that reflected the spelling of the famous river flowing to the Gulf of Mexico. It’s as plausible as any other explanation I suppose.

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The former town of Almonte, at the heart of Mississippi Mills, honors a Mexican general. This unusual designation created another odd twist to place name selections within the area. Lanark County explained,

The former Town of Almonte was named after General Juan Almonte, a Mexican soldier and diplomat. Lauded as a ‘kindly and accomplished gentlemen’ he was venerated by a group of British residents in the late 1800’s.

That seems to be a bit of revisionist history.

The inhabitants of Almonte provided a different slant. Juan Almonte was a thorn in the side of the United States in the 1850’s, the years immediately following the Mexican war. Residents named their town after Almonte because of lingering hard feelings and distrust in the decades following the War of 1812. The United States continued to be viewed as antagonistic as it expand its borders during the Nineteenth Century. The naming of a town to recognize a Mexican general was meant as a poke-in-the-eye to the United States.

Pakenham 5 Arched Stone Bridge
SOURCE: ActiveSteve on Flickr, via Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-ND 2.0) license

Pakenham township was another area absorbed within newly-created Mississippi Mills. People seemed justifiably proud of their local bridge with five masonry arches spanning the Mississippi River. It’s reputed to be the only structure of its type in North America according to numerous Intertubes claims that I cannot verify. It’s quite striking although that’s not why I highlighted the former township.

Let’s roll the clock back to the War of 1812 again. General Edward Pakenham apparently stopped here briefly during the war. That was enough of a physical connection to name a town along the Mississippi River for him.

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Pakenham was the commanding British general at Battle of New Orleans in 1815, a decisive United States victory even though combatants hadn’t heard that a peace treaty had already been negotiated. Pakenham died in battle (as depicted in a well-known engraving) after being struck by grapeshot from a U.S. artillery position.

Here’s the final irony or indignity depending on how one might wish to view it: Pakenham died along the banks of the Mississippi River. The one in the United States. That’s a nice little poke-in-the-eye in return for all of that Almonte business.

There is another Mississippi River in Ontario called the Little Mississippi to avoid confusing it with all of the others (map). That would make it a third-tier Mississippi. I don’t know much more about it other than it exists.

Nasty Commutes

The Washington Post published a recent article on bad commutes, "A Dubious Distinction: The Longest Ride in U.S." This was considered so significantly newsworthy that it appeared on the front page of their print edition on February 3, 2009. They determined that the sufferers of the worst average commute in the United States live in a distant exurb of the Washington, DC metropolitan area.

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The worst average commutes in the United States

One has to understand that this is a city of hard-charging achievers. There’s a small feeling of failure when someone else rises to the top of the charts, even when it’s something as boldly negative as snarled traffic. Every year the Texas Transportation Institute issues an Urban Mobility Study that examines traffic congestion. Los Angeles, California usually comes out on top year-after-year, with Washington, DC not far behind as a perennial runner-up. With the recent announcement there’s now something to grasp, some tiny hope, some small shred of empirical evidence to show at long last that Washington can claim the lousiest commute.

The Post based its assertion on 2005-2007 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey. Doubters may question whether it’s an appropriate source for this purpose. The data are self-reported and averaged. Each unit is only a fraction of a metropolitan area. Are respondents exaggerating? Do conditions in a few individual neighborhoods transcend to an entire city? Is the sampling sufficient? But let’s set those thoughts aside and have a little fun.

The Census Bureau survey estimated a national average commute of 25.1 minutes. How is yours? Better? Worse? Remember, this is an average. Every neighborhood is made up of people who travel lots of different distances through varied traffic conditions to get to their jobs. Neighborhoods falling below the average have abundant jobs nearby. Those above the average don’t. They tend to be outer-suburbs on the fringe of metropolitan areas with cheaper land and affordable housing.

(1) BRISTOW / LINTON HALL, VA (46.3 minutes)

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The Post article focused much of its attention on this unincorporated town about 40 miles southwest of the city. That’s not surprising since the town now represents Washington’s new claim to fame. It’s within a swath of Virginia that has expanded rapidly in recent years. Road infrastructure and public transportation alternatives simply can’t keep up with the booming population. Bottlenecks and backups occur daily as drivers attempt to enter Interstate 66 at approximately the same time heading towards distant job centers further east.

MARLBORO, NJ (46.0 minutes)

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Marlboro, New Jersey is not a new town, in fact it dates back to 1685. What is new, however, is an explosion of McMansions. People must live a good 40 miles outside of New York City to be able to afford these large trophy houses. So these intrepid exurbanites face a daunting daily slog to Manhattan in return for square footage and a yard.

POINCIANA, FL (44.0 minutes)

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Poinciana, Florida is the only town in the top tier that isn’t located outside of Washington, New York City or San Francisco. The 2000 Census pegged its population at around 20,000. A recent article in the Orlando Sentinel sets the current population at 70,000. Imagine the infrastructure problems that would have to arise from such a mushrooming of families. It’s apparent why this one made the list. Poinciana is a massive master-planned community governed by a homeowners’ association. They are currently studying whether to incorporate as one possible way to meet an oversized demand for services. However, the largely working-class population has already been strained by recent economic conditions, and there’s concern that new taxes would cause hardships.

TRACY, CA (43.8 minutes)

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Tracy, California has 80,000 residents mainly because it’s incredibly expensive to live in the San Francisco Bay area. People have to push all the way into the Central Valley to find an affordable home with a little elbow room. Rich agricultural land gives way to subdivisions. Geography conspires to make the commute particularly miserable. Commuters need to find a way across the Diablo Range. Interstate 580 through Altamont Pass is about the only choice.

Here is the remainder of the Dirty Dozen nasty commutes:

5- Vernon, NJ (43.4 minutes)
6- Brentwood, CA (43.2 minutes)
7- Manalapan, NJ (42.7 minutes)
8- Fort Washington, MD (42.5 minutes)
9- West Windsor, NJ (42.1 minutes)
10- Los Banos, CA (41.8 minutes)
11- Clinton, MD (41.7 minutes)
12- Dale City, VA (41.3 minutes)