Friday, July 28, 2006

London, bike registration, and jaywalking

The July 28, 2006 Times of London had an interesting article title "Cycle numberplate plan to catch lawless riders". The proposal was to affix plates to bicycles so they can be caught by cameras for violations (like riding on sidewalks.) That may actually be a sound policy to help encourage better cycling behavior. The number of people cycling has shot up 50% in the last 5 years, after remaining relatively flat for 10 years. (though the dates mentioned in the article appear somewhat suspect). However, the remainder of the article had some very interesting quotes from London mayor Ken Livingston.

"In America jaywalking is illegal, but in America you have this situation that at virtually every busy junction there is a zebra crossing and as the lights change the pedestrian has priority and only when they've crossed can then the cars turn....
But if you are going to ban jaywalking you're going to have to have a lot more actual formal pedestrian crossings."

I've seen pedestrian priority lights in San Francisco where the peds get a couple second head start before cars go. However, in most of the United States, pedestrians have to fight it out with the cars to cross. Crosswalks are fairly common at busy intersections. However, it is also common to see iomitteded from one side of the road so as not to 'interfere' with turning traffic. And in many cases they are not put in place, and pedestrians only get the 'green man' if they push a button. 'Jaywalking' is a concious choice by pedestrians to directly cross where they feel most safe. Thus it is really not a pedestrian problem, but a problem for other vehicles.

Perhaps the congestion charge has been working too well in London. Now that traffic can actual move, the cars want to keep pedestrians and anything else that slows them down out of the way.

Athletes and Doping

Floyd Landis was accused of having elevated testosterone levels after is 'come-from-behind' stage win in the Tour de France. It makes you wonder why anybody would be stupid enough to take performance enhancing drugs at that point. (Did he figure he had no chance of winning, so might-as-well take something to climb up in the standings. Only the stage winner, overall leader, and a couple random cyclists are tested, so odds are good he wouldn't be tested.) However, testosterone only helps out if it is taken over a period of time. Would one shot really help? Could there have been some shenanigans going on where he was framed? Or could it actually have occurred legitimately. Hopefully this will be sorted out soon.

However, a big question is, why do we care? There are a whole slew of 'performance enhancing' drugs that are legal. There are others that cannot be detected. Why are we so concerned about some but not others?

A simple answer could be that we care about the long-term harm to the athletes. But, an athletic career only lasts 10-20 years, while there are much more time to live after that. A logical athlete wouldn't sacrifice his life for it. Or would he? With the short span of the career, there is no option to 'do it later'. All of the rewards come in the short time. Perhaps if all prize and endorsement money were paid out over a 50 year period, there would be an economic incentive to not harm the body. However, there is still the pride incentive. As long as professional sports are a big thing, and athletes are idolized, there will always be the desire to enhance the body in the short term, with possible long term consequences? Should we care? After all, there are plenty of other things athletes do that could be harmful long term. (Look at the knee injuries in many sports.)

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

New Urbanism

Article responding to new urbanism critiques

This article focused on refuting some of the critiques of new urbanism.
one of the first thing it brings up is what new urbanism isn't:
"New urbanism projects, particularly those involving intensive office and retail uses, regularly meet either conventional (single-use) or shared parking ratios (parking spaces per one thousand square feet of leasable space) defined by the real estate industry."
This brings up one critique of New Urbanism that wasn't;t addressed: driving. The structure of new urbanism with abundant parking makes it easy to drive. While a new-urbanism development would enable somebody to both walk and drive, there is little disincentive to driving. So, when the weather turns sour, those many short walking trips could easily turn in to many short driving trips. And if in the car, why not go a little further to the big box to keep cheaper things? Building an environment that brings pedestrian to the same level as cars is a good start. However, the goal should be to give pedestrians a higher priority.
The car parking data is of great concern. If people are to have the ability to walk, why is so much space devoted to cars? IF less space is devoted to cars, density could be increased, while still providing more individual space.

Another unaddressed NU shortcoming is described in a defense: "NU's greatest contribution comes not at a macro-policy level but at the level of site planning, neighborhood design, and development."
The problem is that an isolated 'enclave' does not fully provide for its residents. If it were isolated and built on a micro scale with 1000 miles of ocean separating it, then it would be self-sufficient. However, most areas in the US are built on suburban sites. One dense walkable area 15 miles away from a job center, may produce more car miles traveled than a sprawling burb 2 miles from the job center. The location does need to be considered as part of the development question. However, the author is correct in the grand importance of the micro view

The economic critiques of urban developments (and new urbanism) is also one of the main reasons we need more of it. New urbanist housing is generally more expensive than sprawl housing. Basic economics teaches that when demand exceeds supply, price will be higher. Urban developments are expense because many people desire them, yet there is not sufficient development. Furthermore, restrictions are built up to discourage walkable communities. Parking requirements, traffic manuals, setbacks, and many other legal requirements are codified in favor of sprawl growth. The fight to overcome these impediments causes more sprawl growth that is not wanted. New Urbanism, though it has many flaws could be a good step to overcome the barriers and begin to level the playing field. New urbanism actually gives more options and more freedom. A far cry from the suburban sprawl model that has included more homeowners associations and additional layers of restrictions.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

And how the VTA increases traffic

An interesting VTA Workshop document can help shed light on what goes on in the minds of transit planners in Santa Clara county.

It's amazing how much money the VTA would like to throw away on expressways. Where to start... $13 million to widen an uncongested portion of central expressway. (Perhaps an attempt to make congestion on other portions even worse) A few hundred thousand here and there to convert HOV lanes to mixed flow (so much for encouraging car pooling). Half a million to reduce access on Lawrence. And that's just the expressways.

The criteria for selecting these is stated as "increasing LOS F intersections and keep them from downgrading back to LOS F by 2025". Many of these involve reducing access, thus they can be expected to accelerate degradation of other intersections. Focussing on intersection LOS can also degrade facilities for non-car travelers, and thus cause additional increases in travel. And even if it is a long-term success, the increased travel speeds can result in longer travel distances, and thus greater miles traveled and worse environmental conditions.

This document projects $32 million for bikes with $1.9 billion for freeways. We can hope things have come along a little in the past few years. With the money spent on expressways, all VTA transit service could easily be fare-free for the entire span of the program.

Why not foot-traffic engineering?

An example of the past thinking of traffic management can be found in the report on Hollenbeck Avenue/Harvard Avenue Traffic Control:

"On the segment of Hollenbeck between Danforth and Remington, the average speed is 32 mph and the 85th percentile speed is 36mph. These are much closer to the posted speed limit than is normally found." The speed limit is 30. There are a number of driveways lining the street, as well as two side streets (Knickerbocker and Harvard) within this area that may bring down the speed. It thus seems clear that the majority of the drivers are speeding - and this is one of the better streets. If fines, are at least sufficient to cover enforcement cost, the road could be made safer with no net cost to taxpayers.

Regarding removing parking at the Harvard/Hollenbeck intersection, staff objected that "Individual residences front onto Hollenbeck. The removal of parking would probably cause a hardship or inconvenience to these residents. The greater concern is whether the City should take action that might encourage pedestrian crossings at this location." Thus its more important to preserve unused free parking than to provide facilities for pedestrians. Alas, they had no study to determine the demand for free parking on the street. Based on the use (or lack thereof), the hardship would be that somebody would be required to park their car in the driveway instead of the street. And in the worst case, they may have to walk at most an extra hundred feet to their parked vehicle. Meanwhile, staff's preferred alternative is to require pedestrians to walk an extra 1250 feet to Remmington or Danforth. (Walking a few feet is a great hardship for drivers, but a 1000 feet is ideal for pedestrians.

Another interesting bit was the use of traffic "warrants" to justify the placement of a signal. They use the current pedestrian counts to say that a signal is not justified. However, elsewhere, they object to enhancements that might increase pedestrian crossings. IF the enhancement would increase the number of crossings, shouldn't this estimated increase be used as the basis of the pedestrian count? And if it is really a goal to encourage the environmental, economic and health benefits of pedestrians as opposed to automobiles, shouldn't they take priority over cars through movement.

In the end, the city council barely rejected adding a traffic light by a 4-3 vote.
It is interesting to compare the statement from a city council member to that of the staff report. The council member investigated the conditions: "I was out there measuring today and the sidewalk is not wide enough in many places. There is not even a buffer between the sidewalk and Hollenbeck. And in some places utility poles are set smack in the middle of the sidewalk."
Meanwhile, staff, without investigating the conditions "was a bit surprised by input received at the Neighborhood Meeting. Apparently some parents feel that it is unacceptable for their children to walk on the sidewalk on Hollenbeck. Using only internal neighborhood streets does add some walking distance to reach the signals at either Danforth or Remington. While staff agrees that it might be preferable to use less traveled streets, it does not think there is anything wrong with students walking on the Hollenbeck sidewalks. Admittedly, a very unusual accident can occur anywhere, but walking on a sidewalk adjacent to a vertical curb on a street with Hollenbeck's relatively slow speeds does not seem inherently unsafe."
Thus staff was more than willing to adhere by rules and manuals but not to take a little effort to see current conditions. (And if utility poles blocked Hollenbeck itself reducing it to a total of one 7 foot wide lane, would they have noticed that?
In this case a full time light may not be justified. (It may actually be preferable to have a non-signaled interchange to limit 'waiting' for a light. However, that was never mentioned in the report.

Similarly, the city council had voted not to expand Wolfe/El Camino. In the staff report, a key concern was not letting the intersection fall to "LOS F" which could reduce funding due to Congestion management programs. Nowhere in the report are bicycle or pedestrian concerns covered. (In fact, the only mention of the words is in reference to meetings held by the bicycle and pedestrian committee. They obviously had knowledge of the committee meetings, but did not take them in to account.)

Monday, July 24, 2006

Housing report card?

The Bay Area Council of Governments "Housing Report Card" got a lot of press recently. However, it was remarkably devoid of any useful data. In the report card, they assigned a letter grade to the Bay Area, the counties, and cities based on each meeting its needed housing target. Never were they clear how the housing target was calculated. (I searched through the entire report and never saw a clear formula or definition.) There data was also suspect, with Sunnyvale even disputing the housing target. And even if the data and methodology were accurate, the validity of the goal is suspect.
A city may get an "A" for meeting 150% of its target for housing. But what good does that do if the jobs are all in another city 50 miles away? Housing should be available close to jobs. A new housing development in northeastern Santa Clara does a better job of providing for jobs in Northern Sunnyvale than does a location in southwestern Sunnyvale. Are the housing report cards just making traffic worse?
Better targets would include density and proximity to jobs.

Bureaucratic = Car by default

I saw a copy of the "Borregas bridge plan". It contained 100s of pages describing a plan to build two simple pedestrian bridges to reconnect what had once been a continuous road. In it were a number of pages of the 'researcher' trying to find information on any nearby Indian burial site. Sure it may be worthwhile to identify those sites to prevent disturbing them. However, it may be a little late. The freeway is already in existence, and the road had been there many years prior. However, perhaps there are some important sites 15 feet in the air that may be disturbed by the new bridge. Yes that could be a legitimate concern.

However, what would happen if they found some sites on the ground there? Would they actually shut down the freeways? Or would they demolish a few homes to reroute the freeway around those sites?

The great freeway project has been built. It cut off the access for the street. Now to restore access it takes years, millions of dollars, and mounds of senseless paperwork. If only they would get it right the first time...

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Jaywalking - A safety necessity

In order to cross Fremont Ave. near Fremont High school in Sunnyvale, there are two main ways to cross.

Crossing Fremont:

1) 'jaywalking'. Cross two lanes of traffic. Then wait on extra-wide landscape median. Then cross two more lanes of traffic. A pedestrian only has to cross two lanes of uncontrolled traffic at a time.

1.5) There is also a crosswalk available - the condition ends up somewhat similar to the jaywalking position, though without the comfortable median, and closer to the intersection, thus reducing the ability to see as much traffic.

2) 'Crossing at an intersection'. At the intersection of Sunnyvale-Saratoga and Fremont there is no median, so the entire street must be crossed at once. There is a right turn lane, three through lanes, 2 left turn lanes, a through lane, and an extra-large through lane. A total of 8 lanes. If a pedestrian must push the button and then wait until the start of the next light cycle. The green pedestrian 'walk' light will light up for a few seconds followed by the flashing don't walk. (If the pedestrian pushes the button after the light starts, they will have to wait for the next cycle.) The walk signal means that the through traffic and left turn traffic will not be in conflict. However, right turn traffic will still present a conflict. The Sunnyvale-Saratoga right turn traffic has a green light, while the Fremont right-turn traffic can make a right turn on red. This leaves 2 lanes in conflict.

Crossing at the 'official' location requires crossing 8 lanes at once, with two 'conflict' lanes. 'Jaywalking' requires crossing 2 lanes of traffic at a time, still with only 2 'conflict' lanes. Crossing at the 'official' locations gives the pedestrian a narrow interval of a few seconds every few minutes when they can cross. A 'jaywalking' pedestrian can cross at any time they feel safe. Crossing at midblock, pedestrians can see traffic for a distance and cross when safe. Crossing at the intersection, turning traffic can appear without being seen.

Intersections are engineered to maximize auto traffic. The number of traffic lanes may double at an intersection to maximize automobile throughput. However, this also makes it a greater burden for pedestrian crossing. The signals are also optimized for automobile traffic. Pedestrian walk signals only appear if a pedestrian presses a button before a signal cycle. Even if there will be a minute remaining on the cycle, a late press of the button will not bring a walk signal. (The signal needs to keep its options open for auto traffic.) A two minute through light, may only produce a pedestrian walk signal for a couple seconds, followed by 20 seconds of flashing don't walk, and then sold don't walk. If the cycle is going to be 2 minutes, why is the pedestrian light only for a few seconds? Why doesn't the walk signal last for 1 minute 40 seconds? And if the signal will easily last long enough for pedestrians to walk, why doesn't it just automatically put the walk signal on without pressing a button? The flashing "don't walk" is also the primary time to cross. Imagine if traffic lights for cars behaved similarly, with a 2 second green followed by a 20 second yellow.

And poor engineering at intersections is only another part of the reason why jaywalking is a pedestrian necessity. A location may have a curb cut for cars to enter a parking lot. Why not pedestrians? That implies a crossing location, and pedestrians have a desire to cross just as cars do. Furthermore, a pedestrian may move at 3 miles per hour, while a car at 30. A pedestrian taking a detour of 1/4 mile to get to the intersection to cross would be the equivalent of a car going 2.5 miles out of its way (just to pull a u-turn to go back the same distance)