Tag Archives: equality

Mapping Car2Go Portland

As a relatively new resident of Portland, Oregon who doesn’t own a car, I’ve become quite reliant on walking, public transit, and a nifty service called Car2Go (plus the occasional Uber or Lyft). Car2Go is a pretty neat on-the-spot car rental service that I first joined while visiting San Diego a few years ago.

Basically, there are a bunch of 2-seater Smart Cars all around a city, and anyone with a membership can walk up to one and rent it for $0.41/minute. You can park it anywhere on the street in that city’s “home area” when you’re done, and if there’s a meter, you don’t have to feed it. There’s a one-time $35 signup fee and a free smartphone app that shows you where cars are in real time. It’s a pretty awesome deal.

(I could go into more detail about the service, like how you can reserve a car for up to 30 min ahead of time if you want, and how one time it said there was a car and there wasn’t and I was sad, and how parking rules vary a bit from city to city, and even how they have not-unreasonable-but-pricey maximum rates for hourly and daily rentals… but you get the idea.)

The branch of Car2Go in Portland announced today that it was “updating” its home area—that’s the area where you can find cars to rent and end your rental—so I went to take a look.

Here’s the present Home Area.


And here is the new Home area, effective August 24, 2015.


I was initially annoyed, because this interfered with my brilliant plan to take Car2Go to within a couple blocks of symphony rehearsals in East Portland this fall. But then I thought a bit more, after realizing that my home and most places I frequent are still well within the new Home Area. I wondered who will actually be most affected by this change. So I pulled up the trusty Racial Dot Map and sketched the old (red) and new (green) Car2Go borders on top of it.


I learned three things during this exercise. 1) Manually drawing a bunch of lines on a screenshot is probably not the most efficient way to compare map data, 2) The old Car2Go map is much better drawn to scale than the new one, and 3) Asians, Hispanics, and Blacks will disproportionately be excluded from Car2Go beginning August 24. I took a quick look at a map of Portland income and earnings too, and was unsurprised to see that the areas cut appear to be overall poorer than the areas retained. And for reference, here is a cool map of the “Transit Oriented Development” score throughout Portland. (Note this map is significantly more zoomed-out than all the others here. Source here.) The areas excluded are much less well-served by public transit than the areas retained. Intentionally or not, Car2Go has chosen to offer the convenience of renting a car on the spot predominantly to white, wealthy people who already live near public transit.

About the change, Car2Go has this to say:

Based on careful evaluation of member feedback and historical data, we have determined that members are not able to experience the true benefits of car2go as the Home Area size results in vehicles sitting in areas, where they are idle four times as long as our vehicles in high demand areas. By updating the Home Area, we are confident that members will be now able to find a vehicle in the areas that they frequent most.

Of course, Car2Go can do whatever they want. But I wish they had dug a little deeper into their ridership data. I would love to see them market their service specifically to areas underserved by public transit and to individuals and families who might not otherwise have the privilege of a private vehicle. With an effort like that, Car2Go could make a real difference in the cities they serve rather than just giving lazy, wealthy white folks (like me) an excuse not to take the bus.


Hacking Middle School Math with One Weird Test

This recent post over at the Women in Astronomy blog about spatial skills and success in STEM resonated with me. Here’s why.

One day in my 6th grade math class, we took an unusual test. Mrs. Bergstrom distributed the exam without fanfare or introduction, saying simply that this would not affect our grade but that we should still do our best. It was something new they were trying.

Which of the bottom shapes is a rotation of the top one? Much to my delight, a surprise sixth-grade math test was filled with questions like these. Image from sharpbrains.com
Which of these shapes is a rotation of the top one? Much to my delight, a 6th-grade math test was filled with questions like these. Image from sharpbrains.com

When the sheet landed in front of me, my eyes brightened. Instead of the usual numbers and word problems, this test had a series of unusual shapes. It was filled with multiple-choice questions about rotating blocks, pattern recognition, geometrical shapes, and cross-sections. There were no numbers! This was amazing! I breezed through the exam and wondered hopefully if these questions were the beginning of a new unit in math class.

Up to that day, I was always a good student, but my marks in English were always higher than math. I never really learned my times tables properly, much to my father’s chagrin. I harbored a passionate loathing of long division that remains to this day. I wasn’t bad at math, per se, but I was only borderline qualified for my school district’s gifted program in 3rd-5th grade. I loved science and space, but also reading and writing, and anything to do with numbers made me feel insecure and helpless in a hurry.

So you can imagine my parents’ surprise when they got a telephone message from my middle school, asking me to come in for further testing to see if I could skip 7th-grade-honors Pre-Algebra altogether and go straight to Algebra.

Apparently the mysterious math test I so enjoyed was actually a spatial reasoning test. They were using it to identify students who had potential to succeed in math. After a conversation with my parents, I went to my guidance counselor’s office with Mom. There, they gave me a more traditional “place out of Pre-Algebra” test that was much less fun. The questions got harder as I went, but I felt equipped to answer all of them and did my best.

My counselor graded the exam right in front of me. There were 20 questions; I was allowed to miss 4 and still pass. So of course I missed the first three “easy arithmetic” questions, and another toward the middle of the test, just barely squeaking through. But that was all I needed. Suddenly, I was Really Good at Math.

The next fall, on my first day of 7th grade, I entered the 8th-grade-honors Algebra classroom with trepidation. I was the only 7th grader. A few people assumed I was lost, but Mrs. Howes was kind and welcoming. The class, on the other hand, was extremely hard. I was not used to school being hard. But in the third week, shortly before the first test, another 7th-grader joined the class: my friend Jessica. (When her parents heard that I had skipped Pre-Algebra, they insisted she also take the placement exam. She aced it.)

At first, having Jessica in the class was intimidating. Everything seemed to come easily to her, even though she joined the class late. I got a D on the first test; she got an A. There were murmurings of whether or not I belonged in the class. But louder than those murmurings were voices of support: from Mrs. Howes, from my parents, and even from Jessica. I belonged in Algebra, and once I set aside time to study and learned how to work multi-step homework problems, I succeeded.

I have no idea why I was so good at spatial reasoning in 6th grade. It was certainly never formally taught to me. But by being in the right place at the right time, I was somehow able to graduate from “you’re a smart kid who’s OK at math” to “you’re a smart kid who’s a math whiz.” From that, it followed that my bad grade on an Algebra test must be a fluke, and I got the support I needed to succeed. Today I’m a PhD candidate in Astronomy, and calculus-based math is one of my most important tools. I can only imagine the difference we could make if all middle-schoolers knew math was fun, and that they were good at it.

So, Feminism

Why is the idea that women and men should be treated equally and have access to the same opportunities so controversial?

I’ve been asking myself this a lot lately. Here is a powerful idea that is far from being realized, especially in male-dominated fields such as astronomy. Maybe it is a simple misunderstanding. Some folks define “feminism” quite differently than I did above, with some kind of vindictive screw-over-all-the-men undertone. What? That’s certainly not the feminism I stand for.

At this point, I should probably throw some shocking statistics at you to prove that advocating for feminism is necessary. But you’re a human being with a brain, and the internet is at your fingertips. If you can’t use those tools to learn how women have statistically-demonstrated more difficult lives than men in many ways, I think we’re done here.

Most recently, Emma Watson’s speech at the UN has been the focal point of many feminism discussions online. To put it kindly, some have been more productive than others. The not-blatantly-useless responses seem to broadly fall into two camps:

  1. This is fantastic, I’m so glad to have a well-known celebrity making a passionate and eloquent appeal for feminism worldwide, I’m genuinely excited about the HeForShe movement, and I think this is an important first step toward making the world a better place for both women and men.
  2. This isn’t terribly bad, but she kind of misses the point by suggesting men be the focal point of a new feminist movement, and this upsets me because real change toward any kind of equality must center on the marginalized group (women) and not the group that already has power and privilege (men).

Huh. Well, I agree with both of these.

I understand it is easy for marginalized groups to be ignored and undermined. We need more women, more minorities, and more folks from all manner of diverse backgrounds to have a voice in mainstream society. Doubly so if that voice is advocating for equality. It follows that men should not be the frontrunners in a movement about feminism.

At the same time, I believe we are all one human family. If one part is hurting (women), the rest cannot be whole. Maybe there will be short-term gains for the part that is less broken (men), but that is analogous to a runner saying, “my legs are so strong!” while suffering from a sprained ankle. Something has to give. The body suffers because all its parts are deeply connected.

So, feminism. Yes, men should join the fight for gender equality. But they must understand: it is not about them.