Wednesday, December 21, 2016

A Poor Man's Bumpout

My son, Ben, sent me these two photos, which he took at West Broadway and Duane in Lower Manhattan. The flex posts and yellow paint serve to keep turning cars away from the curb, thereby increasing the size of the pedestrian safety zone.

If you can't afford to build a masonry bumpout, here's your fallback. Inexpensive, quick to build, clearly effective. And, if you decide to do something else later on, it will be easy to remove.

I've never seen this before, so I thought I would share.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Even Worse Than I Thought

Shortly after the election I was looking at Vichy France as a model for what was going on in America. Now, though, I am afraid I'm looking more at the Spanish Civil War.

The break came for me with the mini-coup d'etat in North Carolina, where the Republican legislature and the Republican lame-duck governor convened in a hastily organized special session and stripped the governor's office of much of its power. The incoming occupant of this much-diminished office is, of course, a Democrat. Elected by popular vote.

What we're looking at here is an entrenched but threatened oligarchy that is willing to do anything to hold onto its power. Very much like Spain, really.

It's true that the move away from democracy has been under way for some time, most notably with voter suppression laws. But a bridge was crossed in North Carolina. On this road we'll still have elections. But pretty soon they won't matter.

As for the foreign angle, we're about to have a Texas oil man who wears a Russian decoration on his lapel preside over the U.S. State Department.

The analogies with Spain are not exact, but they don't have to be. For instance, in Spain, the Soviets supported the popularly elected, legitimate Republic. It was the Germans and the Italians who supported Franco.

But the point is that foreign intervention, whatever its form, was critical.  I for one fail to see how Franco's Army of Africa would have gotten across the water to Spain if Hitler had not airlifted them. And it is difficult to imagine Trump rising to the presidency without Vladimir Putin and Julian Assange and the hack of the Democrats' email.

The fascists in Spain used to boast that they had four military columns converging on Madrid, but they had a fifth column working for them inside Madrid. In the American context, that would be Jim Comey and the FBI.

But at least in Spain, there were usually front lines. Our conflict may lack carpet bombing and actual firing squads, but there will be no front lines. Perhaps, in this regard, Vichy France is still the better model. Not much actual gunfire. Just the occasional roundup. And always the apprehensive waiting, the not knowing what is coming next.

I greatly fear what we are about to experience in our own land.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Parking Protected Bike Lanes in Baltimore

Little Baltimore is beating the pants off big Philadelphia when it comes to bike lanes. Below are two pictures of parking protected bike lanes installed in Baltimore this year. I took the pictures on Saturday, December 3.

The first photo shows Roland Avenue, where the bike lanes went live early in the year. Before the lanes went in, there were complaints about the loss of a number of parking spots. Parking appeared to be readily available on Saturday.

The second photo shows the parking protected two-way cycle track on Cathedral Street. It went in later in the year.

Philadelphia should install a cycle track just like this on the bridge at the beginning of Martin Luther King Drive, near the Art Museum. There's plenty of room on the bridge - inbound cars have a second lane they don't need.

Installation would require some paint, a few flex posts, and what Ernest Hemingway used to call cojones. The Streets Department should do this in April.

Baltimore provides us with an example, and also with an opportunity. We can't send the whole City Council to Denmark to study the bike lanes. But we could load them all on a bus and send them to Baltimore for a day.

For the 2015 Baltimore City Bike Master Plan, click here.

See also Drunken Episcopal Bishop Kills Bicyclist, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Looking for an Analytical Tool Underneath the Epithet
Boardwalk, Asbury Park
I started thinking seriously about the concept of fascism when my son, Ben, was still in college. He wrote a course paper on Franco's Spain that questioned whether it was actually a fascist state. After all, the pillars of the regime were the army, the church, and the large landowners. This would seem to put it more in the category of a traditional authoritarian state, only with a dictator at the head instead of a king.

So what does the word fascist mean? I was aware that many people used the word "fascist" to describe people they didn't like who were of an authoritarian bent - basically making it a synonym for the sixties word "pig." This made it difficult to distinguish among right-wing authoritarians.

I had an interest in such distinctions because I'd written my bachelor's thesis on the French army in Indochina and Algeria, and therefore spent a fair amount of time studying people who were often called fascists. But they weren't really. They were just soldiers who kept losing one war after another, and some of them lost their way. I was writing my thesis in 1967 and 1968, and I was concerned that the Vietnam war might have a similar effect in our country. Fortunately we did not copy the French experience, at least in this regard.

So I found my son's paper illuminating. I still didn't really know what fascists were, but I was extending my ideas about who they weren't. We had a number of interesting conversations on the topic. And there the matter rested for quite some time.

More recently, as I was watching the rise of Donald Trump, I found my interest in fascism rekindled. And I took a book down from the shelf and read it. It was Robert Paxton's Vichy France. I had bought it when it came out in 1972, but then I got diverted onto other things, like land surveying before the invention of the surveyor's transit.

Vichy France and Fascism
Around the middle of the book (pages 228-233), Paxton wrestles with the question of whether Vichy France was a fascist state. He starts by comparing fascism with traditional authoritarianism. Perhaps the most striking difference is that fascism always is, or aspires to be, a mass movement. Conservatives, on the other hand, "show distaste for mass participation and prefer government by a few established families."

There are also points of agreement: "authoritarianism, hatred of liberals as weak-kneed harbingers of leftist social revolution, defense of property." So one quick definition of fascism is "mass antitraditional authoritarianism."

Paxton then looks at how fascism played out in five countries: Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and France. He notes that "No undiluted fascist regime has wielded power." They all had to compromise with traditionalists in order to gain power. The question is: How much did they compromise?

Paxton suggests placing these regimes on a spectrum, "ranging from those in which fascists dominated the partnership to those in which the conservatives dominated the partnership."

At one end of the spectrum he puts Germany: "The Nazi party and the paramilitary organizations eventually broke the power of even such conservative elite groups as the diplomatic corps and the army." Italy ranks second as a fascist state. There, the king, the church, and the army "retained sufficient autonomy to regain their independence and overthrow Mussolini and the party in order to make a deal with the advancing Allies in July 1943."

Salazar's Portugal occupies the other end of the spectrum and is best analyzed as a conservative, Catholic, authoritarian regime.

Franco's Spain relied on the army, the church, and the great landowners, but it also had a political party that, in the early days at least, was strongly fascist: the Falange, which means phalanx in English. As Hugh Thomas explains on page 70 of his book The Spanish Civil War (1961), the name was "ominously taken from the Macedonian unit of battle responsible for the destruction of democracy in Greece in the fourth century BC."  As Paxton notes, "Franco gradually muted the Falange."

This leaves us with France, which was defeated by Germany in 1940, with the northern part of the country (including Paris) occupied and directly administered by the invaders, and the southern part administered by a regime located in the resort town of Vichy.

Vichy was basically two things: traditionalist and collaborationist. There was, however, a distinct fascist tinge that grew over time. The fascist influence is particularly strong in the deportation of the Jews and the rise of the Milice, a paramilitary group organized in 1943 to combat the Resistance.

All of these disparate regimes shared one thing: They played on the fears of the middle class in a turbulent time. This is what fascism does. Paxton sums it up this way: "Hard measures by a frightened middle class - that, indeed, is one good general definition of fascism. In that broader sense, Vichy was fascist. And in that sense, fascism has not yet run its course."

Where Does the Fear Come From?
So fear lies at the base of fascism. But where does the fear come from? It comes when people start to think that they may lose what they have. Or, as James Carville put it, "It's the economy, stupid."

This deep fear is usually overlain by more superficial fears. For instance, in the 1930's many people felt a pervasive fear of communism. But what underlies this? The fear that the communists are going to come and take my dairy farm in Normandy, or my trendy boulangerie in the Sixth Arrondissement of Paris. Great croissants, and a baguette to die for.

Today, Donald Trump's followers want to build a wall and abrogate trade agreements. These demands may appear as xenophobic (and they are) but they are also clearly based on deep economic fears.

And these fears are real. The middle class is getting hammered, and it's been getting hammered since Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. In 2014, Thomas Piketty noted the hollowing-out effect of more than three decades of policies that shifted income from the middle class to the rich. In his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, he wrote that "what primarily characterizes the United States at the moment is a record level of inequality of income from labor (probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world, including societies in which skill disparities were extremely large)." (P. 265.)

And he observes, "It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups." (P. 297.)

And here we are.

I agree that the recent election results have numerous causes. Anything human is bound to be complicated. But, deep down, I believe this was a change election driven by income inequality.

What Will Trump Do?
Whether Trump's middle-class voters will see better economic days is, of course, an open question. But things aren't looking good. Tax cuts for the rich, eliminating Obamacare and possibly Medicare, maybe even Social Security. Shutting down the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. All these things will only hurt the middle class in their pocket books and, frankly, their dignity.

On the other hand, Trump can play the old distraction game and give his voters a raft of things that they did ask for - basically fierce pursuit of external demons and internal scapegoats.

All this is a recipe for profound instability in this country, for the foreseeable future.

Sources of Stability
As the country lurches in unpredictable directions, it would be nice to look around and find some institutional sources of stability. However, it seems likely that Donald Trump, once he is inaugurated president, will find that he has a relatively free hand. The Supreme Court and both houses of Congress will be dominated by conservative Republicans. And Trump clearly has more than one friend at the FBI.

At the state and local level, resistance is more likely, and I think it has a real chance to be effective. But we shouldn't kid ourselves. Donald Trump will soon have the powers of the president of the United States, and he will use them. How? I don't think even he knows.

Who Will Trump Ally Himself With?
Franco had the army, the church, the large land owners. I think Trump will look for allies in the business class. He will seek out people he is comfortable with, and they will ride the roller coaster together. I'm afraid I don't see anyone in this group seeking to moderate Trump's whims. Rather the opposite.

What Can the Dems Do?
The electoral process will be increasingly stacked against Democratic candidates. This means that the Dems need to find a way to get Trump voters on their side. This is not going to be easy.

The Dems need to face some hard facts. Attacking Trump voters for their racism, sexism, and xenophobia will only drive them further into the arms of Trump.

My father was a doctor, a surgeon actually. One day he said to me - I forget the context - "You know, sick people aren't very attractive." Doctors of course have an obligation to look beyond the surface and see what they can do to help.

I believe the underlying sickness here is income inequality. I think if we could fix that, the ugliness would fade to manageable levels, although it would certainly not disappear.

The only problem is, with Trump in the White House presiding over an utterly complaisant Congress and Supreme Court, I have no idea how to fix income inequality.

I've been thinking, all the while I've been writing this story, about the Velodrome d'Hiver in Paris, and what happened there in 1942. The Vel' D'Hiv, as it was called, was a place to go watch bicycle races and other sporting events. It was located near the Eiffel Tower and no longer exists.

In July 1942 French police rounded up a large number of Jews in what is known as the Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv. Many of the 13,000 arrested were held at the Vel' d'Hiv in very difficult conditions. They were then moved to internment camps, including Drancy, which is in the suburbs of Paris, and later transported further east.  Very few returned at the end of the war.

I've given some thought to what sports venue could play the role of Vel' d'Hiv in Philadelphia. Bicycling is not a very big sport in America, but basketball is. Perhaps the Palestra, out at Penn.

Today, I'm guessing nobody thinks this can happen here. But the craziness has only begun. And here is something that I do know. If the French were capable of this, so are we.

See also Mr. Piketty's Book.

Friday, November 18, 2016

Unsustainable Income Inequality

This is an excerpt from a longer story that I did last year about Thomas Piketty's book Capital in the Twenty-First Century. To see the full story, click here.

The Other End of the Pay Scale: Supermanagers and Their Pay
Meanwhile, at the other end of the pay scale, we have another graph that destroys an entire imperial wardrobe of false justification, prevarication, and artful misdirection. Figure 9.8 compares income for the top 10 percent in the United States versus Europe (in this case Great Britain, Sweden, France, and Germany). It's on page 324 of the book; it's also in the Technical Appendix: click here.

The chart goes back to 1900, but for our purposes the story begins around 1980, when salaries for what Piketty calls supermanagers started to skyrocket in the United States (pp. 291, 294). Top salaries also increased in Europe, but to a much lesser degree.

Piketty says "what primarily characterizes the United States at the moment is a record level of inequality of income from labor (probably higher than in any other society at any time in the past, anywhere in the world, including societies in which skill disparities were extremely large." (P. 265.)

He adds, "The increase was largely the result of an unprecedented increase in wage inequality and in particular the emergence of extremely high remunerations at the summit of the wage hierarchy, particularly among top managers of large firms." (P. 298.)

And he observes, "It is hard to imagine an economy and society that can continue functioning indefinitely with such extreme divergence between social groups." (P. 297.)

Monday, November 14, 2016

For Athena

Athena Ford was 33 years old when she died on October 23, 2016. About a year before she had been a passenger - with her seatbelt fastened - in a  violent car crash that left her with a traumatic brain injury.

I'm having difficulty dealing with my grief. Athena and I were soldiers together in the campaign to get Obamacare passed, and we wound up walking from Philadelphia to Washington to promote the cause. It was a stunt. There were, I believe, eight of us. We had a lot of support, but it was a grueling march.

When we got to Baltimore, Athena wasn't feeling very well, and in a church where the historian Taylor Branch talked with us and an attentive audience, including my friend Greg Cukor, our organizers found a doctor to evaluate her.

I never knew what the doctor said, but she continued the walk, and we finished together.

About the organizers. One was Dave Ninehouser, who was my roommate in various hotels on the trip. A great guy.

One day, we were a little confused about what our various headquarters wanted us to do. In addition to walking, there were side missions to meet people and talk with them.

Dave, who had the unfortunate responsibility to be a force of authority in our little commune, said, "Well, they're in charge. They must know what they're doing."

We all waited a beat, and then everyone, including Dave, laughed heartily. It was a sixties moment.

When we got to Washington, a crowd of people greeted us in front of Union Station, and then we walked one last leg up to a Senate office building. There, in a cavernous caucus room, Harry Reid told us he was going to pass the bill.

And, by God, he did.

Now, with the election of Donald Trump as president, it looks like the Affordable Care Act may be repealed.

How do I feel about that? I feel like walking to Washington again. Only Athena won't be there. And that breaks my heart.

See also Follow the Yellow Brick Road, Having Fun Reforming Health, and We Were There All Along.

Friday, November 11, 2016

What Can Pierre Laval Tell Us About Donald Trump?

Pierre Laval is remembered today, if at all, for his role as a high official in France's Vichy government during World War II. However, he also was a very prominent politician before the war, serving as foreign minister and prime minister. His behavior in those pre-war roles may give us some clues as to what we may expect from a President Trump. Here is historian Robert Paxton's take:

"Personally, Laval brought to foreign and financial affairs the supreme self-confidence of a self-made man, contempt for the cautious upper-class rituals of professional diplomats and international bankers, techniques of direct bluff talk, and the inveterate fixer's enjoyment of knot-cutting, which had worked so well at Chateldon and Aubervilliers. This political and personal mixture was disastrous. Laval rushed into delicate affairs with inexperienced directness. In 1931 his personal negotiations with German Chancellor Bruning and President Hoover did nothing to stem the world financial crisis or to ease Franco-German relations. In 1935 he seemed to give Mussolini a free hand in Abyssinia, was unable to prevent the storm that followed in French and British public opinion, and managed to antagonize everyone. It is not clear to this day what he told Mussolini. After negotiating a mutual security agreement with Stalin in 1935, he made no effort to have it ratified at home."

This is on pages 27 and 28 of Robert O. Paxton, Vichy France (1972).

Sunday, October 30, 2016

A Sense of Perspective

Boardwalk, Asbury Park.
At the end of September, a New Jersey Transit train crashed in the Hoboken Terminal, killing one person and injuring more than a hundred.

This was a terrible thing. The governors of New York and New Jersey held a joint press conference, and soon thereafter Governor Christie of New Jersey finally agreed to raise the gasoline tax. (Revenue from this tax in New Jersey supports mass transit as well as roads and bridges.) The institutions of government actually responded to the event and changed their behavior.

But guess what? The streets of New York City kill and maim the same numbers, on average, every two days. Government officials occasionally express measured concern over the violence on our roads, but there is hardly a sense of urgency.

I have some ideas about why the responses to train wrecks and car wrecks are so different, but first let's look at some numbers. Actually, let's take a little detour first.

Oh, That Can't Be Trew!
South Philadelphia housewives - at least some, of a certain generation - love to say this: Oh, that can't be trew! For full effect it should be accompanied by a sideways movement of one hand, something like half of the safe signal that an umpire would use in baseball, but meaning the opposite. If you're ever on the receiving end of this expostulation, as I have been, it's important to bear in mind that your interlocutor has no facts; she just doesn't like yours.

This is a basic flaw in the political discourse of Philadelphia, and perhaps many other jurisdictions. I suspect that it is related to Alberto Brandolini's Bullshit Asymmetry Principle, which states that the amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it. In the present case, it's easy to deny someone else's proposition, especially if you don't feel the need to bring any facts with you.

Still, as a believer in the rational development of policy based on data, I feel the need to engage in this asymmetric warfare, even though I know that it may well be futile.

A Festival of Automotive Carnage
The five boroughs of New York City play host to a year-long festival of automotive carnage that, in 2015, killed 232 and injured 54,821. That works out to 1.27 deaths every two days, and 291 injuries every two days. In contrast, as the New York Times reports, "The accident in Hoboken was New Jersey Transit's first fatal crash involving a commuter in 20 years."

The national numbers are similarly lopsided. In 2014, the latest year for which comprehensive figures are available, 32,675 people died in crashes on the nation's roads. The death toll for passenger trains was 3; for rail transit it was 135.

In the passenger train data, if you include people killed in rail crossing crashes and also trespassers - people who wander onto the tracks - and 8 people categorized as "other," you get to 217 dead. Versus 232 dead on the streets of New York alone.

The national data here are from the U.S. Department of Transportation. The New York City data are from something called the Bicycle Crash Data Reports, put out by the New York City DOT.

The bike crash reports got their start in 2011, with something called Local Law 13. Every year a new report pulls together data on crashes involving motor vehicles, and also on bike crashes that do not involve motor vehicles. Both kinds of data are aggregated from police department crash reports, which are written on a form called MV-104. The numbers are broken down by borough and police precinct.

So Many Dead Pedestrians in the City
I'd like to point out an interesting difference between the national data and the NYC data (at least I find it interesting). Pedestrians are the largest category among the dead in New York; nationally, the overwhelming majority of deaths are among the occupants of motor vehicles. People who pay attention only to the national data are missing a big story in New York and, I expect, other cities.

Nationally, pedestrians were 14.9 percent of total motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2014. In New York City pedestrians were 59 percent of total motor vehicle crash fatalities in 2015.

Bicyclists and pedestrians together were 65 percent of deaths in New York and 17.1 percent in the United States.

Meanwhile, in Bucolic Central Park
I'm afraid we've gotten to the point where these statistics are more mind-numbing than useful. So let's take a break and talk about Central Park for a while.

Something bad happened in Central Park in 2014. Two pedestrians were struck and killed by bicyclists.

On Sunday, August 3, 75-year-old Irving Schachter, jogging on the east park loop near 72nd Street, was hit by a 17-year-old cyclist around 4:52 p.m. Schachter died of head trauma on August 5. He had been an active cyclist as well as runner. He was a long-time member of the New York Cycle Club, and he had been training for the 2014 New York City Marathon.

On Thursday, September 17, 58-year-old Jill Tarlov of Fairfield, Conn., was struck by a 31-year-old cyclist while walking across West Drive near West 63rd Street, about 4:30 p.m. Tarlov died on September 20. She was married to Mike Wittman, an executive for CBS Television Stations, and was reportedly in town shopping for a present for her daughter.

"My wife was beautiful in every way imaginable," said Mr. Wittman in a statement. "Jill was the most amazing mother to Matthew and Anna, who taught them above all that kindness, compassion, and a spirit for life were the right morals to live by."

You may have noticed yourself paying more attention to these two very sad stories than you did to the previous eight paragraphs of statistics. There's an old line in newspapering: If it bleeds, it leads. Statistics don't bleed. People do.

Oops. Here Come Those Pesky Numbers Again
The unhappiness over these deaths was intense, so much so that the New York Times published an editorial about "the bicycle menace," urging that "A little perspective would help here." The editorial continued: "The real threat, as ever, is cars. Bicyclists have killed three pedestrians since 2009. Drivers killed 178 pedestrians and cyclists in 2013 alone."

This data set can be extended. In fact, the NYC DOT has already done so. From 2000 through 2014, bicyclists killed 11 pedestrians. In more than half of those years, bicyclists didn't kill any pedestrians. Meanwhile, from 2000 through 2014, drivers killed 2,434 pedestrians. The smallest number that drivers killed in one year was 136, in 2014.

Still, people were right to be upset about those two deaths in Central Park. Something was going on in the park in 2014 - a real surge, not just in deaths, but in crashes. Bicycle-pedestrian crashes went from 20 in 2013 to 34 in 2014 (there were no fatalities in 2013). Bike-on-bike crashes held pretty steady, increasing from 26 to 29. And single-bike crashes leapt from 78 to 114.

These numbers are in the Bicycle Crash Data Reports that I mentioned a while ago. Central Park and the 22nd Precinct in Manhattan are coterminous.

I'm a bit intrigued by the solo bike crashes. I was surprised that there were so many of them. After all, the pavement on the Central Park loop is quite good - not a lot of potholes to fall into. I toyed with the idea that solo bike crashes might be a marker for excessive speed, while bike-bike and bike-ped crashes might be a marker for excessive congestion. But then it's possible that solo crashes come from successfully avoiding a crash with someone else. So, I don't know how to explain solo bike crashes.

A Place Where Death Is Rare
Here's my main takeaway from these Bike Crash Data Reports: Death in the absence of motor vehicles is extremely rare. Citywide, if you take the years 2012-2015, bike-ped crashes killed four pedestrians and two bicyclists. Bike-on-bike and solo bike crashes killed four cyclists.

This is a far cry from the profligate slaughter that we see with cars. And I would argue that it is a cause for hope. If we can establish some oases without cars, perhaps we can figure out how to get deaths all the way down to zero. And perhaps we can use these lessons profitably with cars. Or perhaps not.

Making Central Park an Oasis
After the 2014 crashes, the City moved pretty quickly to improve conditions in Central Park. In November it announced major upgrades to four important crosswalks in the park; it also lowered the speed limit from 25 mph to 20 mph - for both cars and bicycles. And then, effective June 29, 2015, it banned cars from the parts of the loop road system north of 72nd Street.

So here we may have one of the first of our oases. How's it going?

We can call 2015 a transition year, with some changes in effect on January 1 and the major road closing coming halfway through the year. Ped-bike crashes declined from 34 in 2014 to 14 in 2015; bike-on-bike crashes declined from 29 to 17; and solo bike crashes declined from 114 to 100. Nobody died in any of the 2015 crashes.

And so far in 2016, things are also looking pretty good in Central Park. The Bicycle Crash Data Reports are only issued annually, but New York City's Vision Zero program has a nifty map that shows the number and location of both fatalities and injuries, with 2016 data currently available through September.

(The history of closing Central Park to cars dates back to 1966. The advocacy group Transportation Alternatives has a timeline and a story on the struggles of the last half century.)

(Why are the park drives from 72nd south still available to cars? This report from NYC DOT offers a detailed rationale with supporting data. It is an elegant version of the basic argument that was used to keep all the park drives open to cars for so many years.)

I Paid a Visit
I visited Central Park recently, along with my wife and son. It was a beautiful fall Sunday. We got sandwiches at the Whole Foods on Columbus Circle and then walked into the park. Things were quite busy, but, unlike Columbus Circle, there were no cars in the park. I managed to walk on a part of the roadway where I wasn't supposed to walk, but with some gentle guidance from my son I soon learned the ropes. We walked and talked and sat on a bench and ate lunch and talked some more, and all the time I was watching the battalions of runners, the squadrons of bicyclists, the many, many people just strolling along enjoying the afternoon. And the pedicabs and the occasional horse-drawn carriage.

It struck me that I was looking at a modern version of the old, pre-car park. Back in the 1890's there was no asphalt; there was gravel. And I doubt there were many runners. Of bicycles there were plenty, back in the 1890s.

And one more thing, as we sat together on our bench in the sun. We talked and occasionally just sat together quietly, and I almost fell asleep once or twice. And here is the one more thing. There was no roar of traffic. You could easily hear people's voices; they didn't need to shout to be heard.

The park was crowded with people - tourists, locals, just about everybody having a good time. And it was quiet. Quiet, and peaceful.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, and Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

We Should Not Overestimate the Driving Skills of the Typical Philadelphia Motorist

Wonder Bar, Asbury Park
A little while ago I was walking home from the gym. It was a pleasant, warm afternoon. As I crossed 19th Street eastbound, walking on the south side of Lombard, the driver of a red SUV headed west on Lombard turned left down 19th without signaling and came directly at me. I was in the crosswalk, smack in the middle of the street. I assumed he would slow down. He didn't slow down. I jumped. He stopped.

In retrospect, I don't think I was ever in danger. My jump got me clear of the SUV's path, and the driver stopped before he got to where I had been. Still, there were two or three seconds when I didn't know any of this.

As I said, it was a warm day. The driver had his window down. An older fellow, white hair. Maybe two arm's lengths from me. We had a brief conversation - not cordial, perhaps, but at least civil.

He said he hadn't seen me because the sun had been in his eyes. I suggested that, if he couldn't see where he was going, it might be more appropriate to touch the brake than the accelerator.

He said he had a green light. I said I also had a green light and that, in addition, I had the right of way. He actually looked a little puzzled when I said that. Then he said he was sorry. I thanked him for his apology, and we both moved on.

I tell this story because I think it illustrates several common shortcomings of Philadelphia drivers. I'm going to classify these idiosyncrasies into four groups.

Astounding Ignorance of the Rules of the Road
Did my driver actually not understand the concept of the pedestrian right-of-way? Was it perhaps a term he hadn't heard in a long time - maybe since high school? I don't know. I'm just glad he stopped, even if it was only out of the goodness of his heart. I can almost hear him saying to himself on the way home, "Me and my two tons of fun almost killed someone." And shaking his head in disbelief.

Amazingly Deficient Driving Technique
Many Philadelphians do love to barrel around turns at speed. It's a much better idea to brake before you initiate a turn, and then accelerate slightly as you're pulling out of the turn. If you find you have to brake during the turn, you'll notice that the steering gets mushy. Brake in a straight line; then a slight acceleration will optimize your control of the car as you come out of the turn. This strategy also means you'll be better prepared to stop if a pedestrian pops up out of the pavement in the middle of a crosswalk. They sprout like mushrooms, you know.

Non-Existent Coping Mechanisms
Who knew? The sun gets low in the sky before it actually goes down. It can get in a driver's eyes. Dark glasses? A baseball cap? The visor that the car's manufacturer so thoughtfully provides? My driver's defenses against the sun were entirely undeployed.

Driver's Trance
This is more commonly called highway hypnosis, and even more commonly called "going along with the traffic." After all, if you just follow the bumper of the car ahead of you, what can possibly go wrong?

I remember talking to a lady who was in a T-bone crash at 17th and Lombard. She was unhurt, but pretty shaken up. All she could say was, "I never saw the light."

Okay. Situational awareness, folks. Stay alert. Look around - people used to call this circumspection.

I told the lady not to beat herself up. We're all human. We miss things. But at least we can all try to stay alert.

It strikes me that we have a ways to go on this Vision Zero stuff.

See also Rugged IndividualismThe Semiotics of Parking on the Street, and Vision Zero in Philadelphia.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Vision Zero in Philadelphia

Boardwalk, Asbury Park
Well, Labor Day has come and gone, and I think it's fair to say that Jim Kenney is not Michael Bloomberg.

I think many of us were willing to wait until the soda tax fight was over. But then the summer came and went, and there has been remarkably little progress on Vision Zero and Complete Streets.

Yes, we have the bike lane on Ryan Avenue, and progress appears to have been made on the South Street bridge. Philly Free Streets proved to be a lovely and very crowded event. Its chief innovation was to close South Street on a Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. (actually well past 1 p.m.).

But we are a long way from where I had expected to be at this point. Where is the city's Vision Zero task force? Where is the Complete Streets commissioner or director (I gather the effort is no longer worth a commissioner).

Where is the bike lane on 22nd in Fairmount? Where is the two-way cycle track across the MLK bridge at the beginning of MLK Drive? Where are the cycle tracks on Market and JFK west of City Hall? All of these projects have been languishing for years.  All of them could easily have been completed in the construction season that is now drawing to a close. And still no word.

I had hoped that Mayor Kenney, like Mayor Bloomberg, would be an ally and an advocate for Vision Zero and Complete Streets. By now, though, it seems clear that he has opted for a different, perhaps more traditional, role as mayor - that of an arbiter who weighs the competing demands of various constituencies.

Advice from Saul Alinsky
A few months ago I finally got around to reading Saul Alinsky's Rules for Radicals. I found the book very informative and at times hilarious. (Alinsky does tell good stories.)

One thing Alinsky emphasizes is the importance of identifying who your enemy is and then mounting a sustained attack on that enemy.

I think some of my friends may be tempted at this point to see Jim Kenney as the enemy, but he's not. City Council is not the enemy either. Even traffic engineers who are still focused on moving the maximum number of cars through the system at the maximum possible speed are not the enemy.

The enemy is bad drivers. We need to hammer that message home. Yes, lowering the speed of vehicles is very important, but it is not an organizing principle. We need to reorganize our streets to prevent bad drivers from acting on their evil impulses.

False Equivalence
I hear again and again, "Well, bicyclists and pedestrians do bad things too." Or, as a middle-aged woman put it to me at a community meeting, "Bicyclists are evil."

Yes, pedestrians have been known to cross in the midblock - this is called jaywalking. And bicyclists have been known to treat a stop sign as a yield sign - this is known as the Idaho stop, because it's legal in that state.

But I simply reject the false equivalence. Bicyclists and pedestrians do not kill motorists. Meanwhile, motorists kill pedestrians with great regularity. (And they usually get away with it, but that's an issue for another day.)

Where the Rubber Hits the Road
We will also be needing a specific, tangible issue to fight over, and I have one - Pennsylvania's four-foot passing law.

The four-foot passing law has been on the books since 2012, and it requires a motorist passing a bicyclist to leave at least four feet of clear space between the two vehicles. (Billy Penn has a very funny article and video about the four-foot rule.)

As I pointed out in an earlier story on this site, the four-foot law means that it is illegal for a motorist to pass a bicyclist on many of Philly's narrow streets.

Here's the arithmetic. Take 21st at Pemberton, in South Philly. There is one traffic lane, headed south. It is twelve feet wide.

The typical American car is between six and seven feet wide; the handlebars on the typical bike are around two feet wide. That gets you to nine feet. Add four feet of clearance, and you're at thirteen feet.

But wait. The motorist will want clearance on the other side of the car as well. Call it a foot, which gets you to fourteen feet, which is two feet more than the width of the travel lane.

It's illegal for a motorist to pass a bicyclist at 21st and Pemberton.  It's illegal everywhere in Philadelphia where similar conditions exist. And, of course, motorists commit this particular moving violation all the time.

Making the Law Effective
Wouldn't it be nice if the City did a few things to make the four-foot passing law effective? It could put up more of those signs which say that a bicycle "may use full lane." This sign doesn't tell the whole story, but it's been in the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices since 2009, which means it has received the traffic engineering equivalent of a papal blessing.

The City could also educate the public on the four-foot passing law. I'm reasonably certain that the vast majority of Philly residents are blissfully unaware of this law.

And the City could enforce the law. A police officer doesn't need any fancy equipment to do this. No radar gun required. If there's one lane, and it's twelve feet wide, and the motorist is passing, he's breaking the law. If the officer wants to whip out her iPhone and take a picture, she will have an open-and-shut case.

If All Else Fails, Sue
Will the City be eager to do this? I rather doubt it. But, if friendly persuasion doesn't work, perhaps a lawsuit will. The City does have a duty to enforce the laws, after all.

A key tool for the NAACP during the Civil Rights movement was its Legal Defense Fund. Perhaps we need a Vision Zero Legal Defense Fund.

I hope it doesn't come to that. But if we want to sway the current administration to our side, we are going to need to fight. We are going to need to fight harder and smarter than our opponents.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Semiotics of Parking on the Street

City Hall, Philadelphia.
The other day I was walking down 19th Street near Pine. It was a beautiful day, around lunchtime. Sunny, about 80 degrees, low humidity. I'd run some errands and walked through Rittenhouse Square, and now I was walking home, thinking about the subject of this article.

As I crossed Pine there was a loud noise behind me, and to my right. I was startled and actually jumped a bit. It was a car horn, of course.

A middle-aged man, accompanied by a woman who was presumably his wife, was driving a nondescript sedan. He actually had plenty of room to turn onto Pine behind me, which he proved by accelerating dramatically as he passed by.

So, why the honk? Was he concerned for my safety, thinking that I might for some reason start running backwards? If that had been his concern, he could easily have used his brake instead of his horn, and much more certainly avoided the nonexistent danger.

But no, I'm afraid I don't believe that was his motive. I think that he, like a bull elephant, was honking to assert his dominance.

Of course, from a legal point of view he was not in a dominant position. I was in the crosswalk with a green light, and I had the right of way.

Driver's Ed, Philly-Style
Anyone who lives in Philadelphia knows that none of these things matter. I sometimes think there's a class hour in Philly driver's ed courses where the instructor sits his charges down and explains the way things really work.

"Listen, kids, the streets are there for the cars. It's always been that way, and it always will be. Pedestrians tend to forget, though, so you need to remind them. Otherwise they might start insisting on their rights, and that would be bad."

The instructor looks around the class and, noticing that there are no girls, shifts his language into a rougher gear. The message, though, is always the same:  Assert dominance, discomfit other occupants of the street, and make sure you are the focus of attention.

The instructor then summarizes with the same words for all audiences: "Remember, kids, when you're sitting behind the wheel, just keep repeating to yourself, 'It's all about me.'"

And at the end, if the audience is right, the instructor will channel Sean Connery in The Untouchables and say, "Look, intimidation doesn't always work. But if you feel it's the right thing to do, you can always put them in the hospital - or the morgue."

On to On-Street Parking
So what does all this have to do with curbside parking? Well, the cars get tired. They can't spend 100 percent of their time cruising and looking for pedestrians to intimidate. In fact, cars spend 95 percent of their time parked. But that doesn't mean they're useless. They can still intimidate.

Here's what the parked cars say: I won't kill you while I'm sitting here. But if my driver comes, and he or she is late for work, or hung over, or pissed at a spouse, I will kill you on orders.

Even the parked cars know that the police and the media will probably blame the victim.

There are other reasons for parking on the street, of course - for one, it's cheap. And, if you're a big shot, you can give yourself a dedicated parking spot in front of the building where you work. (See photo at beginning of story.) Then nobody is likely to accuse you of having a small ego.

But if you want to look at the underlying message that all those lines of parked cars convey - the semiotics of parking on the street - it's not a warm and cuddly message. Those cars are saying, We own the street.

View them as an army of occupation. After all, they're big, they're powerful, and they're everywhere, all the time. They never go away. Walk down a sidewalk, and depending on the time of day, there may not be a lot of cars driving down the street. But the lines of parked cars are always there, always reminding you, always dominating the streetscape.

Think about it. What did you see more of on the street today - cars or people?

Stop Sign, Philly-Style. Corner of Uber and Ringgold Place.
For developments in the street culture of Paris, London, and Amsterdam, click here and here.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Measuring the Health of a Parking System, The Parking Dream, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Is John Forester a Car Guy?

Traffic arrows, Asbury Park.

John Forester is widely known as the apostle of Vehicular Cycling, and he dearly loves bicycles. But there's another side of him that peeks out occasionally in his 800-page book, Effective Cycling.

Consider the following tidbit: "Whether America (and large parts of the rest of the Western world) was wise in adopting urban designs that rely on personal mechanized transportation is a very serious question. Whether it would be wise to try to return to the mass transportation city is an even more difficult question. However you may answer these questions, our present cities that rely on personal mechanized transportation will be with us for a long time, probably as long as you, dear reader, are likely to be interested in cycling." (John Forester, Effective Cycling, 7th ed., MIT Press, 2012, p. 498.)

In other words, the war is over, the cars have won, and you need to find a way to fit into the new order. Henry Ford couldn't have said it better.

Actually, Aldous Huxley did say it better, in Brave New World: "Ford's in his flivver.... All's well with the world."

So is John Forester actually a car guy? Can a bike guy also be a car guy?

A Special Kind of Bike Guy
It's important to remember that Forester is a very special kind of a bike guy, and his views are very closely linked to a place (California) and a time (the 1950s). In this experience, bicycling was an activity carried out by a select few. As he puts it, "In Northern California I could ride all weekend without seeing another adult on a bicycle. If, by chance, I did see one, I knew him." (Pp. 711-712.)

For Forester, the threat to his happy little world came with America's second bicycling boom, which got started in the 1960s and took off in the 1970s. (The first bicycling boom came in the 1890s. For more information on that boom see James Longhurst, Bike Battles: A History of Sharing the American Road, University of Washington Press, 2015, and Evan Friss, The Cycling City: Bicycles and Urban America in the 1890s, University of Chicago Press,  2015.)

In the second bicycling boom, cycling increased "from substantially zero to considerably less than 1 percent of traffic," as Forester puts it (p. 712), but that was enough to get people talking about creating separate bicycle lanes.

In case you don't know it, I'll let you in on a little secret. John Forester hates bicycle lanes. As an advocate for vehicular cycling, he feels that bicycles should always travel in the same lanes as motorized traffic. Not just some of the time. All the time. He liked things just the way they were in northern California in the 1950s.

This picture includes no bike lanes and almost no bicyclists.

Forester's History of the American City
Forester makes some remarkably peculiar statements about the shape of American cities and the ways people get around. Remembering his frame of reference, we can more easily understand sentences like the following: "In modern cities, the only reasonable and available transportation modes are motoring and cycling; walking takes too long for the distances required and mass transit is ineffective." (P. 712.)

A few pages later, Forester takes on the advocates of bike lanes. Although he concedes that European cities such as Amsterdam and Copenhagen have been very successful at encouraging bicycling, he claims that the example of "old walking cities" is irrelevant  to modern cities that "developed in the automotive era." (Pp. 737-738.)

And apparently old walking cities - like the central parts of Philadelphia - require no further consideration.

Bicycle advocates also like to talk about Portland, Oregon. Forester calls Portland a city "with very strong antigrowth and antimotoring policies" and refers approvingly to unnamed experts in urban affairs who "consider Portland a failed city." (P. 738.)

Effectively, in Forester's argument, the city based on the automobile (and its attendant urban sprawl) is the inevitable city of the present and the future. (For a more insightful analysis of the rise of the automobile city, see Peter D. Norton, Fighting Traffic: The Dawn of the Motor Age in the American City, MIT Press, 2011.)

Forester even takes a swipe at what he calls "the induced traffic argument. That says that building new roads always increases traffic, so the anti-motoring person should oppose road building so that congestion will limit motoring." Based on his experience over the years, "the reasonable conclusion appears to be that the induced traffic effect is rather small." (P. 766.)

I'll give you one final paragraph from Mr. Forester. "Bicycle advocates argue for returning cities to the shape they had in 1920 when bicycle transportation was quite useful. However, over the space of my memory - say, 1940 to the present - the proportion of trips that are suited to bicycle transportation has steadily decreased. That's a fact of present life, and no bikeway system is going to alter it." (P. 739.)

A Few Points in Rebuttal
I could expend several reams of paper - or the electronic equivalent - rebutting Forester's oddly ahistorical historical analysis, but I am going to confine myself to a few highlights.

1. Forester probably doesn't think he's a car guy, but he is. Over the years, he has been quite forceful in presenting his views, even to the extent of initiating litigation, and it seems fair to say that his efforts helped to hold back the development of urban bicycle networks in the U.S. by several decades. And who did that benefit?

I expect that his arguments were music to the ears of the typical state Department of Transportation. They could listen to him and keep building out a monomodal transportation system focused on the private car. And they could ignore those pesky advocates who called for a more balanced transportation system - what we might today call "Complete Streets."

2. While it's certainly possible to criticize Portland for things such as failing to meet affordable housing goals, it seems a bit harsh to call Portland a failed city.

3. Induced demand is a trivial phenomenon. On this point, Forester is just wrong. If you're inclined not to believe me, I've got another 800-page book for you: Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking.

For more than you probably want to know about John Forester, here's an autobiographical essay that he posted on his website. I particularly enjoyed the bit about the German Schwarzkopf track bike from about 1935.

See also Cars and Bikes - the Back Story, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Learning to Dance Together, Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different? 

Monday, August 22, 2016

Learning to Dance Together

21st and Pemberton
Bicyclists, motorists, pedestrians all have one thing in common - the human body. It has abilities, and it has limitations. As Clint Eastwood said, A man's got to know his limitations.

We can't look back very well. If you drive a car, you know this. All that driver's ed about blind spots etc. Bicyclists can actually see better to the rear, because they don't have the structure of a car in the way, but still.

This limitation is a basic issue as we think about how to get cars and bikes to work better together on the street. And it's a strong argument for a network of protected bike lanes.

But in parts of Philadelphia - for instance, South Philly - there are many streets that are unlikely to see protected bike lanes any time soon. The parking lanes aren't likely to go away, and the remaining space is simply too narrow for a separate bike lane. Cars and bikes are going to have to learn to share.

Vehicular Cycling
So what would this look like? Enter John Forester, the apostle of Vehicular Cycling. I have a number reservations about Mr. Forester's work. But he has, over many decades, studied how cars and bikes can work together on the street. And I think some of his ideas may make life easier for everyone on the narrow streets of South Philadelphia.

The basic precept of Vehicular Cycling is Take the Lane. Don't cower at the curb. It's hard for many bicyclists to accept that riding in the middle of the street is actually safer, and there is a strong ethos in this country that bicycles should stay to the right so cars, which are faster, can pass more easily.

Let's see how this plays out in a town like Philly. First, a look at the real estate. As Forester notes in his 800-page magnum opus, Effective Cycling (7th ed., MIT Press, 2012), "Twelve feet is the width of the standard interstate lane and of many other main highways." (P. 392.) Needless to say, many lanes on the streets of Philadelphia are less than twelve feet wide. On Lombard Street, in front of my house, one traffic lane is ten feet wide, the other is eight feet, eight inches. (The parking lane is seven feet wide.)

Physically speaking, it is just barely possible for a car and a bicycle to ride along side-by-side in a twelve-foot lane. The typical American car is between six and seven feet wide. A bike's handlebars are typically around 24 inches, or two feet, wide. Seven plus two is nine, which leaves three feet for buffer space. The motorist will want some of this to the left of the vehicle - at least a foot. The other two feet can be buffer space for the bicyclist. This doesn't leave very much room for error.

A complicating factor is the law in Pennsylvania, which requires that a motorist passing a bicyclist must provide four feet of clearance. (Here is a link to the law, courtesy of the Bicycle Coalition's website.)

A seven-foot car, a two-foot bike, and four feet of clearance add up to thirteen feet, and the motorist will want clearance to his left as well.

It seems reasonable to conclude that side-by-side sharing of a twelve-foot lane is illegal in Pennsylvania. And this would go in spades for lanes less than twelve feet wide.

What's a cyclist to do? Well, first, don't wait for the motorist to figure it out. In dancing terms, take the lead. In  biking terms, take the lane. You don't necessarily need to ride in the middle of the lane, but you need to be far enough away from the curb to convince even the most fanciful driver that he's not going to be able to squeeze by you in the same lane.

If the street has two lanes, like Lombard Street, the motorist will need to swing into the next lane to pass. If the street has one traffic lane, the motorist will need to stay behind you. When you get to a stop sign, you may want to pull over and let the cars behind you go ahead. They are faster vehicles, after all. It's a courtesy.

Down to Pemberton
At the beginning of this story there is a photo of a sign at 21st and Pemberton. There is one traffic lane on 21st, heading south, and it is twelve feet wide. There are two seven-foot parking lanes, one on each side.

Dear Bicyclist, 
The Streets Department doesn't love you. And here even they are telling you to freaking take the lane. Listen to them.

You don't want a car trying to squeeze by you on this street. You can't escape. The parked cars have you caged in.

Vehicular cycling is not without its dangers. A following motorist may simply decide to ram you. This is unlikely, but in Philadelphia it is certainly possible.

You are also likely to have conversations with uncomprehending motorists. Forester recommends that you engage in education rather than invective. Be an ambassador for bicycling. Remind the motorists that, as the sign says, bicyclists may use the full lane. You could even tell them about the four-foot passing law. It's highly unlikely that they will have heard of it before. Finally, as Forester puts it, "Often the best action is a friendly wave and a happy smile - motorists don't expect that." (P. 518.)

Two Hazards
All this conversation may leave you a trifle hoarse, but keep in mind that taking the lane does have its benefits. It may head off two serious hazards, both of which have happened to me: the passing motorist who cuts you off, and the driver who tries to squeeze past you when there isn't enough space.

Both of these maneuvers are particularly dangerous because they engage the motorist's physical limitations. The driver who swings out to pass and then cuts back too soon may well have misjudged your speed and then lost sight of you in his blind spot. In addition, both this motorist and the one who tries to squeeze by in the lane probably have only a vague idea of where the right side of their car is. Particularly the right rear.

If there are two traffic lanes available, as on Lombard Street, even if you've taken the lane, you may well encounter a motorist who swings out to pass and then cuts back too soon. However, you can brake, and you also have room to maneuver to the right. If you start by riding at the curb, you have no escape space.

If you have a lane of parked cars to your right, instead of the curb, taking the lane will also put you out of range of being "doored" - that is, hit by a car door being opened by an occupant who didn't see you. That pesky looking-back thing again.

Vehicular cycling is not a Vision Zero program. It is not as good as a protected bike lane, but it's much better than cowering at the curb.

And we don't need City Council to pass an ordinance. We can just do this. We can do it now.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety

Zombie says overtaking crashes are very rare, 
so why build bike lanes? Turns out 40% of fatal 
car-bike crashes are rear-enders. 

Recently I posted a story about Tom Palermo, his death, and the subsequent construction of parking protected bike lanes on Roland Avenue in Baltimore, where Tom died.

Shortly before the new bike lanes went in, there was a contentious community meeting attended by City officials. After the meeting, the officials confirmed that they would proceed with construction of the bike lanes, and they responded to a number of issues that had been raised.

Among the FAQs from the Baltimore DOT (on page 9) was this: "Since rear end crashes are rare for bicyclists, how is the change to cycle track protected by parked cars justified? Please provide statistics and references."

This argument has been around for a while, and it refuses to die. I'm not quite sure how you kill a zombie argument. I'm pretty sure you don't drive a stake through its heart - that's for vampires.

At first, I was going to let this go. After all, the Baltimore officials did a reasonably good job of rebutting it, and it would have been easy enough to let things lie. However, one of the lessons I took away from the story of Tom Palermo's death and the subsequent bike lane controversy was that "specious arguments must be rebutted in detail."

So maybe you can kill a zombie argument by talking it to death. Or burying it in facts.

The FAQs from the Baltimore DOT referred to a data sheet from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which focused on fatal bicycle accidents and found that in 2013 "non-intersection" crashes accounted for 57 percent of fatal bicycle crashes.

It's possible to take this further. In 2014 the League of American Bicyclists put out a report on a study it had conducted, independent of the federal statistics. For a period of 12 months, it researched in detail every fatal traffic crash involving a bicyclist that it could find on the internet, documenting 628 crashes. The results were, as the report put it, "eye-opening":

"We learned, for example, that a much higher percentage of fatal crashes than expected were 'hit from behind' incidents." Of crashes with reported collision types, 40 percent were rear-end collisions.

Rarity Is a Matter of Perspective
So why do people think 40 percent of deaths is rare? Because rarity depends on perspective. In absolute terms, death on a bicycle is rare.

Currently this particular way of meeting your maker is running around 700 a year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 726 bicyclists died in car-bike crashes in 2014.

Meanwhile, total deaths from traffic accidents involving motor vehicles were 32,675. Even pedestrians died more than bicyclists - 4,884.

And then you can add in all the non-fatal crashes. Good numbers here are hard to find because the reporting criteria vary widely among reporting agencies, but here is one indication of the non-fatal mayhem on our highways: 39.2 percent of spinal cord injuries in the United States result from motor vehicle crashes.

And of course we could add crashes that don't involve cars. Bikes crash into other bikes, pedestrians, immovable objects, the ground. Such crashes are rarely fatal, but they can result in serious injury.

Small Compared to What?
So, yes, in absolute terms, not a lot of people die in bicycle accidents. But the rate at which they die is another issue entirely.

John Pucher and Lewis Dijkstra published an article in Transportation Quarterly in 2000 on this subject. They found that, per kilometer traveled, bicyclists in the United States are 11 times more likely to die than motorists. Pedestrians are 36 times more likely to die than motorists, on a per kilometer basis. On a per trip basis, pedestrians and bicyclists are about three times more likely to die than motorists. Think about this the next time you venture out to the grocery store. (See my previous post Death as an Acceptable Outcome.)

A car is the safest place to be on the street. There's a lot of vehicular mayhem, but the vast majority of miles that Americans travel, and trips that they take, are by car, so the shockingly high mortality rates for walkers and bikers get masked. As Pucher and Dijkstra put it, "the dangers of walking and cycling in America are not just perceived, they are real."

The Terror Factor
The idea of being rear-ended by a car while you're riding your bike down the street holds a very special kind of terror. Such an event is very likely to kill you, and you can't in most cases prepare or react, because you don't know it's going to happen. You're utterly powerless. You have no control or even influence in this situation. (Here's a story on a crash in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in June. Five bicyclists died, and four were injured. It was a group ride. The driver has been charged with second degree murder and operating while intoxicated causing death, among other things.)

There are bicyclists who live with this icy thought every time they get in the saddle. What's more, I think it's why many moms won't let their kids ride bikes in the street anymore. They don't care so much that Johnny may fall and skin his knee. It's death from out of the blue that keeps kids inside, playing video games and getting fat.

And if the driver isn't drunk and doesn't leave the scene, he or she is unlikely to get more than a slap on the wrist. It's basically a free kill. Homicide without consequences. At least for the perpetrator.

We need to rethink this. We need to think of protected bike lanes as anti-terror devices.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Drunken Episcopal Bishop Kills Bicyclist

Baltimore Then Moves to Build The City's 
First Parking Protected Bike Lanes
And That's When Things Got Complicated

Two days after Christmas in 2014 the weather was fine, and Tom Palermo decided to go for an afternoon bike ride. He never made it home. As he was riding in a bike lane on Roland Avenue in Baltimore, he was struck from behind by Heather Cook, an Episcopal suffragan bishop who had been drinking and was texting.

This story received coverage in the New York Times and the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Cook pled guilty to automobile manslaughter, leaving the scene of a fatal crash, and driving under the influence and texting while driving. In October 2015 she was sentenced to seven years in prison and immediately taken into custody. She is currently being held at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women in Jessup.

And then, earlier this year, Roland Avenue got two protected bike lanes, one on each side of the street, heading in opposite directions. Essentially, the existing bike lanes were moved to the curb, and the lanes of parked cars were moved away from the curb, so they would protect bicyclists from moving cars in the traffic lanes, including people like Heather Cook.

I hope that's clear. The parking lanes were on the right, by the curb. They moved to the left. The bike lanes had been on the left. They moved to the right, by the curb.

So, a fitting memorial. Community and government working together to improve the safety of the built environment. Right? Well, not quite.

Everyone is quick to point out that the new bike lanes had been in the works before Tom Palermo died. They were part of a larger repaving project for Roland Avenue. The bike lanes had been included in the city's bicycle master plan, the local civic organization supported them, and the principal of the 1,200-student Roland Park Elementary/Middle School supported them, along with many teachers and parents.

There are quite a few schools in this area, including the Gilman School, Roland Park Country School, and the nearby Bryn Mawr School. I'm thinking protected bike lanes might increase the number of children riding their bikes to school. And that might actually put a small dent in the car traffic. Call me a dreamer.

However, this being about bicycle lanes, you will not be surprised that opposition arose. You will also not be surprised that it arose very late in the process. And so the city and the local civic organization held yet another meeting. It was standing-room-only at the Roland Park Presbyterian Church, with the Baltimore Sun reporting that the audience of 200 seemed about evenly split between the pros and the cons.

It was a contentious meeting, so much so that a few days later a local bicycle advocacy group called Bikemore issued a white paper entitled "Mythbusting: Roland Avenue Cycletrack."

A basic claim from the opposition was that there had been inadequate communication about the project. It just wasn't true in the case of the Roland Avenue bike lanes, and the white paper runs through a litany of the communications efforts, which I won't bore you with. Bottom line: "Whether or not one chooses to attend neighborhood meetings or read neighborhood communications is ultimately a choice." However, "one's choice to remain ignorant to the details of a road project shouldn't be used as the basis to call the communication inadequate."

The opposition also claimed that the new bike lanes were making the road less safe. My favorite objection comes from the lady who said she had been using the old bike lane as a buffer when she pulled her child out of the driver's side of the car, and therefore moving the bike lane removed that buffer and made her less safe. It was suggested in response that the typical street in Baltimore does not have a bike lane that motorists can use as a buffer, and that perhaps it would be a better idea to remove the child from the other side of the car. As the white paper says, "We believe it is always best to load and unload your children and elderly passengers on the side of the vehicle away from traffic."

The white paper also addressed the concept that the objecting neighbors had a right to veto the project: "But in the end, while community input should be carefully considered, transportation projects that have the direct aim of improving safety of all road users on a public roadway should not be allowed to be derailed simply by public opposition of residents."

The City of Baltimore stuck to its guns and built the bike lanes. More than that, there are other bike lanes that are in the pipeline and on track.

I take away several lessons from the story of this battle. First, Tom Palermo's death clearly had no effect on the neighbors who objected to the bike lanes. Second, bike lane proponents should always be prepared for late-arriving opposition. Third, specious arguments must be rebutted in detail. Fourth, near neighbors have no right to veto transportation projects affecting much larger areas; it's important to make that argument clearly, forcefully, and repeatedly. And finally, people in favor of a bike lane need to attend the public meetings in force.

I've been wondering about the effect of Tom Palermo's death on the various city officials who were involved in the Roland Avenue bike lanes. After all, I'm from Philadelphia, and I've watched shovel-ready bike projects languish for years. Did Tom Palermo's death stiffen the administration's spine enough to overcome bureaucratic inertia and near-neighbor tantrums?

I spoke about this with Liz Cornish. She's the executive director of Bikemore, the Baltimore bike advocacy group that produced the white paper I've been quoting from. She didn't want to speak for the city administration, but for Bikemore, she said, "It certainly stiffened our spines."

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Intraday Biking

The things I carried.

The history of bicycling in the United States has been overwhelmingly recreational. (See Why Are European and American Bicycling So Different?) In recent years, though, bicyclists in Philadelphia and a number of other American cities have started to ride their bikes to work in considerable numbers - not the kind of numbers we see in the Netherlands or Denmark or Germany, but still noteworthy.

The thing that was missing was people going around town in between commuter hours. The Europeans use the term utilitarian bicycling, which can include commuting but also the little trips. Dropping kids off at school, or preschool. Going to the grocery store. Going to a meeting at someone else's office.

I'm primarily a recreational bicyclist myself, but I've also taken to riding Indego bikes to the Reading Terminal Market and to the Whole Foods on South Street. These are just far enough away from home that I don't always feel like walking.

Recently I've had the impression that there were more bikes on the streets of Philly in the middle of the day. I'm not sure they're all running errands like me. Some are in spandex and look like they may be out to Fairmount Park and beyond for a training ride. Others look like students and professors on their way to class. And others look like they may be commuting to jobs that start later than 9 a.m. - stores maybe, or restaurants.

Let's borrow a term from the stock market and call it intraday biking.

The Counts
As I said, I've had an impression. But what's that worth? So I decided to get some numbers.

My first stop was Rival Bros, the coffee shop at 24th and Lombard. I wanted to see what traffic was like at the deadest times. I made a leap of faith and picked 2:30-3:30 in the afternoon - after lunch, before the rush. This was on Wednesday, June 15.

It was pretty quiet. Westbound, in the bike lane on Lombard, there were 31 bikes in the hour (19 males, 12 females). Southbound on 24th there were 14 bicyclists (9 males, 4 females, one child riding with a grownup).

In all these counts I logged people as they exited the intersection. There was quite a bit of turning, and it would probably be nice to capture that information. Something for next time.

This was the quietest hour that I saw. On average, there was a bicyclist floating though the intersection every 80 seconds.

I went back to Rival on the morning of Friday, June 17. (You should try the Derringer, which I think is called a cortado elsewhere.) Between 9:30 and 10:30 a.m. there were 65 bicyclists, or more than one a minute. Westbound there were 59 (38 males, 21 females). Southbound there were 6 (5 males, one female).

Next I went to Plenty, at 16th and Spruce. (I can't resist the chocolate croissants.) Between 9:20 and 10:20 a.m. on Monday, June 20, there were 152 bicyclists through the intersection, 116 males and 36 females, or approximately one every 25 seconds. Westbound, in the bike lane on Spruce, there were 93 (70 male, 23 female). Northbound on 16th there were 59 (46 male, 13 female).

On the afternoon of June 20, sitting in my sidewalk chair at Plenty, I saw 113 bicycles gliding through the intersection, or approximately one every 30 seconds. This count ran from 2:30 to 3:30. The weather was sunny, with a temperature of 93 degrees. Westbound there were 83 cyclists (61 male, 22 female). Northbound there were 30 (19 male, 11 female).

What the Numbers Mean
These numbers say a few things to me.

First, biking is an all-day phenom, at least in parts of Center City. I'm not sure people have noticed it yet. Bikes are small and quiet, and easy to miss if you're not looking for them.

Second, there was only one child. This is probably an unfair observation; the locations I picked are parts of major commuter routes where there won't necessarily be a lot of children. But still, there was only one child.

Third, only 29 percent of the riders were female.

Women and children are markers for perceived safety. What I was looking at, I think, are the "strong and fearless" and the "enthused and confident." Maybe 10 percent of the population. Half the population is what we call "interested but concerned." I don't think they've showed up yet.

They haven't showed up because they don't think it's safe. Want them to show up?  Build protected bike lanes. That's what they did in Europe, and it works.

Rival Bros, after the coffee is done.

See also Flex Posts on Pine and SpruceMore on the Pine and Spruce Bike LanesLooking and Not Seeing, Listening and Not Hearing.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Gordon Cullen and the Outdoor Floor

Oceans of asphalt: 2400 block of Cypress.
My friend Bill Marston loaned me a book called The Concise Townscape, by Gordon Cullen. We had been looking at some of the illustrations over coffee, and I had expressed an interest in reading the text.

I was intrigued by the thought that I might have read this book, or parts of it, more than forty years ago. I wasn't sure until page 82, when I ran across this phrase: "... today the tree is more usually accepted in its own right as a living organism which is pleased to dwell among us." Some things you never forget.

The book has quite a few well-turned aphorisms. Here's another, from page 46: "The typical town is not a pattern of streets but a sequence of spaces created by buildings."

It turns out that Gordon Cullen was quite influential in his day. Many young architects interested in urban design studied his book. I called up my brother and asked him if he recalled Gordon Cullen. The answer was an immediate yes, along with the news that he still has his copy of the book on a bookshelf in his apartment.

Think of Cullen as the English Jane Jacobs - their careers were contemporary, involved magazine journalism, and centered on the harm that automobiles were doing to cities.

Asphalt Is Boring
I was particularly taken with Cullen's thoughts on treatments for the street surface - what he calls "the floor." Here's what he has to say on page 53: "Buildings, rich in texture and color, stand on the floor. If the floor is a smooth and flat expanse of greyish tarmac then the buildings will remain separate because the floor fails to intrigue the eye in the same way that the buildings do."

He comes back to this idea on page 121: "Instead of walls and floor being in harmony, the floor linking or separating architectural elements and expressing the kind of space which exists between buildings, it is as though the buildings were models plonked down on a blackboard."

And here he is on page 128: "From the visual standpoint the greatest single loss suffered is neutralization of the floor, the space between buildings, which has changed from a connecting surface to a dividing surface. ...  Buildings are gathered together but they do not form towns; one might almost as well build houses facing across a railway line."

I recently posted a story on The Pavements of Asbury Park. I wonder if my interest in the visual effect of paving treatments stems from some long-forgotten passages in a dimly remembered book.

What an Illustrator!
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Cullen's illustrations, which manage to be both highly informative and utterly charming. They put me in mind of David Macaulay and his many books. I stumbled across this wonderful TED Talk that Macaulay did a while ago. I haven't found anything comparable for Cullen, so I thought I'd share. You can find some of Cullen's illustrations online, but I think the best way to see his work is to get your hands on the book.

I'm thinking a sidewalk would help.
See also A Tale of Three Alleys.