Wind is Populist

GM bikes to work. Almost everything about his 5 mile commute is great. Almost. There’s one thing that’s a real, quite literal, drag: the wind.

Generally in the morning when GM’s riding east along the mall towards Capitol Hill, it’s not bad. If anything it’s typically a slight tail wind. But given the fact that morning winds are generally less strong than afternoon winds it doesn’t really matter that much. But when it comes to his return trip at night, then things get bad. Like sustained 25 mph wind in the face bad. It’s still the best way to get to work, but some days the wind can make that a closer call than it should be.

GM has joked with himself as he faces down another gusty ride that the wind has something against people from the western half of the city. And given that that side of town is generally more affluent it’s almost like the wind is populist force trying to level the playing field against the bourgeoisie.

Yes it’s a dorky joke, but there’s actually an odd truth to it!

No the wind isn’t sentient and/or socialist. But the situation is not strictly a coincidence. Here, let GM explain.

In DC, like many cities, there is something that sociologist Christopher Leinberger has dubbed a “favored quarter”. This is a general compass direction from the city’s center in which the wealthier residents have historically clumped together. For DC the favored quarter is northwest, as demonstrated by this chart created by Rob Goodspeed:

The red areas represent the more wealthy areas, relative to the entire metro area. Almost every major city in the US has a favored quarter. And on the east coast, the quarter is more often than not northwest of the city center.

And that’s not a coincidence that favored quarters on the east coast are often in the northwest. That’s because prevailing winds along the east coast are northwestern winds. This is definitely true in DC. Here’s a study that proves it! Here’s a graph of the winds in DC:

So GM wasn’t imagining things! The wind really does want to blow in his face while he travels home in a west-by-northwest direction. (The study actually found that the mall itself experiences more directly westerly winds. In other words, the wind comes down the Potomac from the northwest, but is then funneled straight down the mall. So when you’re biking from the Capitol back to Georgetown, you’re getting wind in your face the entire ride, even though you take a sharp turn halfway through.)

So what’s the connection between the favored quarter and wind? Well, when DC was more industrial, wealthier residents sought refuge from the smells and smoke of the factories and warehouses by heading upwind. Over time that resulted in the areas upwind becoming the tony neighborhoods we know today.

So yes, the wind is sort of populist, but only because our settlement patterns are anything but.

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