Thursday, April 20, 2017

Intermittently Terrifying

Slate has a nice story about this picture.
I find bicycling in Philadelphia to be intermittently terrifying. I know that our streets are not actually a war zone. I've read the statistics, and I understand that the chance of my dying on a bike is smaller than when I walk to the grocery store.

But it doesn't feel that way. I've had my eye out for some actual data on this topic, and on April 4 help arrived from England.

Peter Walker has a simply nifty new book entitled How Cycling Can Save the World. He's a writer for a very good English newspaper called the Guardian, and he regularly covers biking issues. (He also worked as a bicycle messenger shortly after getting out of college, in both London and Sydney, Australia.) I suspect that this book will become one of the standard texts for people interested in reimagining our public spaces, along with Jeff Speck's Walkable City. It's aimed at the general reader, but it's also crammed with the latest research results.

The Near Miss Project
Those research results include a 2015 British study called The Near Miss Project that neatly fills the gap between crash data and our perceptions of danger.

The study was led by Dr. Rachel Aldred, who teaches at Westminster University, which is located in London. She and her colleagues recruited 1,532 participants from across the UK. The participants kept a diary of their cycling on a preselected day and rated any incidents on a scale of 0-3, starting with annoying and ending up with very scary.

According to the researchers, the data from the Near Miss Project "can represent a missing link between 'perceived risk' (how risky people think cycling is) and 'objective risk' (how risky it actually is, in terms of injuries and/or deaths). This is because they may tell us about 'experienced risk' - how risky cycling feels. Studying experienced risk could help us understand why perceived risk seems much greater than objective risk." (From the report entitled Cycling Near Misses, page 6.)

And indeed experienced risk does deepen our understanding. The researchers calculated that a cyclist was likely to encounter one "very scary" incident every week.

Drivers do thuggish things to bicyclists on a regular basis. And we now have the data to prove it.

So my personal perceptions were not overblown. It really is scary out there. If, once a week, you find yourself inches away from turning into road kill, then I think you have a legitimate beef. (For examples of life on the road in the UK, see this article in the Guardian.)

Control Bias, Familiarity Bias
As the Near Miss researchers suggested above, there is a suspicion that bicyclists have been overreacting. If you look at fatality rates rather than absolute numbers of fatalities, you will probably be less inclined to see overreaction. But I concede that it's a subtle argument. And standard psychology suggests that it's reasonable to at least look for overreaction.

In 2012 John Pucher and Ralph Buehler pulled articles together from 21 scholars on four continents and put them out as a book called City Cycling. There's a very interesting chapter on women and bicycling.

I was quite taken with how normal psychological processes may increase the perception of danger. "In particular," the authors note, "familiarity bias and control bias may reduce the perceived risks associated with car travel and increase the perceived risks for cycling." People tend to like things that are familiar and over which they feel a sense of control.

When you're riding a bike in traffic with cars, you are not in control. Of course a network of protected bike lanes would increase bicyclists' sense of control and decrease the perception of danger.

The familiarity argument is, to me, less straightforward. The basic idea is that if you do something more often, you become more familiar with it, and with familiarity comes a rising comfort level.

I think Dr. Aldred's data can lead us to a different view - one where regular exposure to very scary incidents can lead to a major increase in the fear factor.

Once again, however, a network of protected bike lanes would significantly decrease the ability of motorists to create "very scary" incidents with bicyclists, and bicyclists would tend to become more comfortable as they used the lanes more.

(See Jan Garrard, Susan Handy, and Jennifer Dill, "Women and Cycling," in John Pucher and Ralph Buehler, eds., City Cycling, MIT Press, 2012, pp. 211-234, at 225.)

Choosing Our Future
As I've said before, I personally think that a network of protected bike lanes could quintuple the number of people bicycling in Philadelphia.

But do we, as a city, really want to do that? I'm not at all sure.

Such an increase in bicycling would change the city dramatically - and I would argue that the changes would be good. But others, I fear, are clinging to the failed dream of the car. Detached house, a car or two in the driveway, picket fence. But no traffic jams, no deadly crashes, no smog. They're not part of the dream. Of course they are part of our reality today.

If you're still clinging to the dream of the car, you need to make the connection between your car's tailpipe and the asthma inhaler in your child's pocket. You need to stop dreaming, or at least recognize the nightmarish aspects of your dream.

And I think that's going to be a stretch for a number of people, some of them quite powerful.

See also A Sense of Perspective, Death as an Acceptable Outcome, Vision Zero in PhiladelphiaWe Should Not Overestimate the Driving Skills of the Typical Philadelphia Motorist, Zombie Arguments in Bike Safety.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Citizens of the Planet

University of Pennsylvania, 1984.
Long before the current wave of globalization, there was something called the British Empire. Britannia ruled the waves and also quite a lot of the land - from Australia to India (including Pakistan and Bangladesh) and something called Mesopotamia (the Brits called it Messpot; we call it Iraq), through huge swaths of Africa and on to Canada in the western hemisphere (next to the thirteen colonies that got away).

Inside this rather capacious grab-bag of an empire, people got used to moving around. And it wasn't just upper-class Englishmen who had this global mobility. Mohandas Gandhi, born and raised in western India, studied law at the Inner Temple in London and worked as a lawyer in South Africa for 21 years before he went home and became known the world over as Mahatma.

Fast-forward to Groundhog Day 2017, Dilworth Park, Philadelphia. There I was, standing with a couple of thousand mostly young people, mostly Comcast tech employees. And they were from all over the planet. They were a cheerful bunch, actually, but they weren't very happy about the first Muslim ban, which had hit a few days before. And I said to myself, I think Donald has just organized a whole new political constituency, and it's not on his side.

It wasn't just the recent arrivals who blew me away. There was a young man who said he was Irish-American; his family had come here generations ago, and his grandfather had fought in Normandy in World War II, to protect our freedoms. And he suggested that it was now time for all of us here today to fight to protect those same freedoms.

Closing the country down is an interesting proposition when just about everybody in the country came from somewhere else.

The people I was standing with weren't the typical immigrants that Americans are used to. The classic view of migration is the movement of poor people to a new area of greater opportunity - the huddled masses and wretched refuse trope, as encapsulated in the Emma Lazarus inscription at the Statue of Liberty. The people I was standing with are well educated, affluent, connected, and not accustomed to being treated like dirt.

This is what Steve Bannon ran into at the nation's airports when he started treating people with valid papers like dirt. And he didn't know it was coming. Shame on him for being ignorant. It seems he's like his boss in that regard.

But let's get back to what I occasionally call the globally mobile business class. I admire them, but I'm not like them. The biggest move I ever made was from New York City to Philadelphia. The idea of moving to another country is, I confess, something I have never considered seriously.

The globally mobile are just that - globally mobile. Migration for them is not a one-way trip to a fixed destination. An Indian computer programmer may go to the United States to work. She may wind up settling permanently in the United States. Or she may return to India, where her experience could make her a good candidate for a management job and increasing levels of responsibility. Or she might decide to relocate to Hong Kong. Or, during the course of her career, she may do all three.

Their mental map spans the globe. Mine, frankly, does not.

My father was actually better at this moving-around stuff than I am. He was born in southern Alabama before World War I and moved to New York City to go to medical school. And there he stayed, put down roots, and had a family, including, in due course, me.

Dad wasn't exactly globally mobile. But he did go home quite often. Sometimes all of us would go. Sometimes he would go by himself. He maintained those connections.

Here's a word of advice to Donald and his aspiring thugs. If you want to be a popular president, don't tell a young man he can't go visit his mother.

College Hall, University of Pennsylvania, 1985.
I'm reliably informed that the Greek inscription on the 1878 Ivy Day stone above may be translated as "Not to live, but to live well." Thanks to Ashley Opalka and Emily Marston.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

$50 for 31 Minutes? Surreal Parking on Schuylkill Avenue

I stumbled onto the opening day of the new CHOP building next to the South Street bridge - March 20 - and then I hadn't been back until today. Progress, of a sort, had been made. There's an open-air parking lot on Schuylkill Avenue that is apparently open to the public. The first 30 minutes are free. Then 30 minutes to 24 hours cost $50.


Who are these people?

Stop, Bill. Just report.

Here's a picture of the main building. I rather like it.

And here's the entrance to the garage that opens onto the South Street bridge.

It was open on March 20, but when I went by today, April 2, it was closed.

Not sure what's up with that. Here's what I think is the Schuylkill Avenue entrance.

If it's open, I think you get to it by going through the same entrance that gets you to the open-air lot.

Just to round out the story, here's some of the retail up on the bridge.

Here are the switch-back ramps on CHOP's version of the Spanish Steps. I think it will look nice when it's done. Have no idea how people will use it.

And here's the bridge across the railroad tracks to the Schuylkill Banks.

Here's a shot of the interior of the bridge.

And here's a view of the Schuylkill Banks extension under construction.

And that's what I have so far.