Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The geography of flyover country

A couple of months ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story about a new generation of large, high-tech distribution centers that companies are building to cater to online shopping. Here’s how the article begins (The bold at the end is mine): 
They are rising in farm country west of King of Prussia like giant garrisons positioned to deploy packages to shoppers up and down the Atlantic Coast: automated warehouses of herculean proportions aimed at moving online orders to people's doorsteps in just hours.
Philadelphia's Urban Outfitters Inc. is among a rush of titanic store-based retailers spending staggering sums to open online fulfillment centers closer than ever to customers, in a red-hot patch of Pennsylvania along the state's toll-free I-81 spine.

Ahem. Let’s have a quick look at Google Maps, shall we? (Click to enlarge.)

Point A is King of Prussia. Point B is the site of what will soon be Urban Outfitters’ new fulfillment center, now being built in greater metropolitan Gap, Pa. (pop. 1,931). Point C is Carlisle, the “red-hot patch of Pennsylvania” that the Inquirer is referring to, where distribution centers have indeed been rising like giant garrisons for decades now.
Gap, Pa., is right in front
of that plateau in Texas.
Note the way Interstate 81 heads northeast from Harrisburg to Hazleton and Scranton. Note that this is nowhere near Gap. I assure you, none of the 1,931 people in Gap think they are on the I-81 spine, or anywhere near it. Their most convenient access to said interstate is back toward Harrisburg, a good 55 miles west on Route 30.

And while both Gap and Carlisle are technically west of King of Prussia, I don't think anyone who lives in the middle of the state would think of lumping them together. It’s sort of like thinking of Los Angeles and San Francisco as being a short drive apart, rather than the roughly six hours they actually are.

Everyone has myopia about where they live, which is why everyone gets the joke in Saul Steinberg's famous New Yorker cover. But understanding Urban Outfitters’ site choice involves realizing that it’s not on the I-81 spine, yet it still makes sense. (Thanks primarily to Route 30, which feeds eastward into the network of interstates around Philadelphia and all up and down the East Coast.) The Inquirer muddled the very geographic point that it should have gotten right. 

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