The two worst US cities for drivers are both in Massachusetts

Boston: visit at your peril. Image: Rick Berk at Wikimedia Commons.

Massachusetts, besides being the hardest US state to spell, can also boast another dubious honour: it contains both the US’s two most dangerous cities to drive in.

The 10th edition of Allstate insurance’s “Best Drivers Report” surveyed insurance claims from 200 different cities (this year, it took other factors, such as population and weather, into account too). It found that Boston, and the nearby city of Worcester, had the most collisions and worst driving conditions out of the lot.

On average, explained Allstate spokeswoman Kari Mather, a Boston driver will have a collision “every 4.4 years”, which does seem a little high. By contrast, in Fort Collins, the Colorado city which ranked safest in the country, the average driver would expect an accident only every 14.2 years; nationwide, the average is just once a decade.

One explanation, besides things like weather and city size, could be differences in road layout. Fort Collins’ major roads have the classic grid structure, beloved of US city planners and familiar to most drivers:

Boston, on the other hand, has what urban physicists would call an “amorphous” street structure:

And here’s Worcester, MA, which is similarly disordered:

A ranking by author Bert Sperling named Boston as the hardest city in the US to navigate, blaming crowded roads, missing signs, and the sprawling street layout. (This happens in cities that are nearly 400 years old.) On the other hand, a regular grid structure like the one in Fort Collins – a relatively young city, which has grown 10-fold in just 60 years – has less complicated intersections and easier navigation. 

Another factor is the number of intersections per length of road. Civil engineers Norman Garrick and Wesley Marshall researched the issue of Californian street patterns and car safety in 2011. They found that cities with a greater number of intersections actually had less road fatalities overall, as constant intersections make drivers travel at slower speeds and made cycling or walking more appealing. Their research, however, found that both Boston and Worcester had a high volume of intersections, so would receive a high safety rating. Garrick commented that while "fender benders" and other small incidents might have a high incidence in these cities, fatalities and injury levels were low.

Luckily for Bostonian drivers, Allstate doesn’t intend to use the ranking information to determine their insurance premiums.  An interactive map of the data is available here.


What’s up with Wakanda’s trains? On public transport in Black Panther

The Black Panther promotional poster. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Black Panther is one of the best reviewed superhero films of all time. It’s instantly become a cultural touchstone for black representation in movies, while shining a positive light on a continent almost totally ignored by Hollywood. But never mind all that – what about the trains?

The film takes place in the fictional African country of Wakanda, a small, technologically advanced nation whose power comes from its main natural resource: huge supplies of a magical metal called vibranium. As is often the case in sci-fi, “technologically advanced” here means “full of skyscrapers and trains”. In other words, perfect Citymetric territory.

Here’s a mostly spoiler-free guide to Black Panther’s urbanism and transport.

City planning

It’s to the credit of Black Panther’s crew that there’s anything to talk about here at all. Fictional cities in previous Marvel films, such as Asgard from the Thor films or Xandar from Guardians of the Galaxy, don’t feel like real places at all, but collections of random monuments joined together by unwalkably-wide and sterile open spaces.

Wakanda’s capital, the Golden City, seems to have distinct districts and suburbs with a variety of traditional and modern styles, arranged roughly how you’d expect a capital to be – skyscrapers in the centre, high-rise apartments around it, and what look like industrial buildings on its waterfront. In other words, it’s a believable city.

It’s almost a real city. Image: Marvel/Disney

We only really see one area close-up: Steptown, which according to designer Ruth Carter is the city’s hipster district. How the Golden City ended up with a bohemian area is never explained. In many cities, these formed where immigrants, artists and students arrived to take advantage of lower rents, but this seems unlikely with Wakanda’s stable economy and zero migration. Did the Golden City gentrify?

Urban transport

When we get out and about, things get a bit weirder. The narrow pedestrianised sand-paved street is crowded and lined with market stalls on both sides, yet a futuristic tram runs right down the middle. The tram’s resemblance to the chunky San Francisco BART trains is not a coincidence – director Ryan Coogler is from Oakland.

Steptown Streetcar, with a hyperloop train passing overhead. Image: Marvel/Disney.

People have to dodge around the tram, and the street is far too narrow for a second tram to pass the other way. This could be a single-track shuttle (like the former Southport Pier Tram), a one-way loop (like the Detroit People Mover) or a diversion through narrow streets (like the Dublin Luas Cross City extension). But no matter what, it’s a slow and inefficient way to get people around a major city. Hopefully there’s an underground station lurking somewhere out of shot.

Over the street runs a *shudder* hyperloop. If you’re concerned that Elon Musk’s scheme has made its way to Wakanda, don’t worry – this train bears no resemblance to Musk’s design. Rather, it’s a flying train that levitates between hoops in the open air. It travels very fast – too fast for urban transport, since it crosses a whole neighbourhood in a couple of seconds – and it doesn’t seem to have many stops, even at logical interchange points where the lines cross. Its main purpose is probably to bring people from outlying suburbs into the centre quickly.

There’s one other urban transport system seen in the film: as befitting a major riverside city, it has a ferry or waterbus system. We get a good look at the barges carrying tribal leaders to the ceremonial waterfalls, but overhead shots show other boats on the more mundane business of shuttling people up and down the river.

Transport outside the city

Unfortunately there’s less to say here. Away from the city, we only see people riding horses, following cattle-drawn sleds, or simply walking long distances. This is understandable given Wakanda’s masquerading as a developing country, but it makes the country very urban centric. Perhaps that’s why the Jabari hate the other tribes so much – poor transport investment means the only way to reach them is a narrow, winding mountain pass.

The one exception is in freight transport. Wakanda has a ridiculously developed maglev network for transporting vibranium ore. This actually follows a pattern seen in a lot of real African countries: take a look at a map of the continent and you’ll see most railways run to the coast.

Image: Bucksy/Wikimedia Commons.

These are primarily freight railways built to transport resources from mines and plantations to ports, with passenger transport an afterthought.

A high-speed maglev seems like overkill for carrying ore, especially as the film goes out of its way to point out that vibranium is too unstable to take on high-speed trains without careful safety precautions. Nevertheless, the scene where Shuri and Ross geek out about these maglevs might just be the single most relatable in any Marvel movie.

A very extravagant freight line. Image: Marvel/Disney.

Perhaps this all makes sense though. Wakanda is still an absolute monarchy, and without democratic input its king is naturally going to choose exciting hyperloop and maglev projects over boring local and regional transport links.

Here’s hoping the next Black Panther film sees T’Challa reforming Wakanda’s government, and then getting really stuck into double-track improvements to the Steptown Streetcar.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray tweets as @stejormur.

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