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Archive for August, 2012

What an idiot.

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Running the Gauntlet

The VTA has produced their revised Technical Guidelines for bike facilities. It is supposed to promote “best practices” for bike facilities in Santa Clara County.

The document is all well and good — if the year were 1999. For a year 2012 publication, it looks rather dated. Perhaps they just dusted off the 1999 version?

For example, here is the recommended design for accommodating bicycles through an expressway interchange with a merging/auxiliary lane:

Does that look like a fun place to ride a bike? Now compare to how the Dutch might design this:

If you look carefully at the signal head, you will see that cars wanting to enter the ramp have a red arrow, while the cycle path has a green “bike” light. Much safer and less confusing — for all road users.

Even better: that right-turn arrow for automobiles can serve as a ramp metering signal so as to moderate the flow of traffic onto the freeway. All over the Bay Area, the MTC has been installing ramp metering signals. Problem is, they are being installed in the wrong location.

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Ambien Zombie Drivers

After drinking 5 or 6 glasses of wine, Julie Bronson downed an Ambien sleeping pill. At some point, she then got into a car and ran over three family members in their front yard. 18-month-old Ava Lopez, who was with her mother as she did yard work, suffered severe brain damage.

Bronson got off on probation using the controversial “Ambien defense“:

Bronson is far from the first person to have acted strangely and without memory while using a therapeutic dose of Ambien, testified Dr. Janci Lindsay, a biochemist and toxicology expert hired by the defense to review the case. In 2008, the company changed its patient brochure to more explicitly warn users that side-effects in some cases have included sleep-walking, sleep-eating, sleep-driving, sleep-sex and sleep-talking on the phone.

Some 44 million Americans are Ambien pill poppers, and all across the country the “Ambien defense” is being used in criminal cases. The most famous was a 2006 case of Patrick Kennedy, the former congressman from Rhode Island and son of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy. And the Mercury News yesterday reported on the case of Kevin Robertson in another Ambien acquittal.

Is this a case of juries running amok, or is there a serious problem with the medication? Hard to say – Bronson had taken alcohol even though instructed not to. And Robertson had previously been involved in an Ambien-related accident.

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The Price of Silence

When “SMART” stupidly decided to operate under Federal FRA-compliant regulations, it created a whole bunch of unnecessary costs:

The board of the Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit District this week unanimously agreed to spend at least $12 million on safety measures associated with establishment of “quiet zones.”

Federal regulations require that train horns blow a quarter-mile before a crossing and continue to sound until the train passes into the intersection. They must sound at a minimum of 96 decibels, which is equal to the volume of a backyard power mower.

Actually, 96 decibels is equivalent to a jackhammer from 50′ away. If they had decided to operate the line as a transit operation, then FRA rules would not apply and the $12 million quiet zones wouldn’t be necessary.

$12 million is not a trivial amount of money, especially given SMART’s budget problems. For example, $12 million is enough to buy two or three DMU trainsets.

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You’ve heard of uninsured drivers — this is a story of an under-insured driver.

In June 2010, Kaitlynn Fisher was killed in a car crash when the other driver, Ronald K. Hope, ran a red light. There was no doubt as to culpability: a jury and even Hope’s insurer (Nationwide) agreed that Hope was at fault.

The story gets interesting because Fisher’s insurer, Progressive, did not want to pay out a claim. You see, Fisher carried coverage for under-insured drivers. Hope had maxed out his $25,000 in coverage, and Fisher’s policy provided up to $100,000 coverage for accidents involving uninsured and under-insured drivers. Obviously hoping to avoid paying out a $75,000 claim, Progressive interjected itself into the wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Hope.

The ploy backfired. The story has gone viral on on the internet, creating a lot of bad publicity for Progressive. But there is a much larger problem here — one that goes way beyond the actions of an unscrupulous insurer.

The real problem is that Maryland, like most states, only requires drivers have $25,000 in insurance coverage. That is peanuts compared to the damage a driver can inflict. Wrongful death settlements are easily be in the millions of dollars. And a driver who is maimed can still be facing huge medical bills, especially where there is a permanent disability.

Imagine if drivers had to carry insurance coverage proportional to the damage they could inflict. That would drastically change their transportation choices.

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GAO Report On Passenger Rail Car Costs

Passenger railcar purchase is such a fiasco in the USA, one might think the GAO would look into it.

In fact, they did — as recently as 2010. Their report, Potential Rail Car Cost-Saving Strategies Exist, starts out promising enough:

U.S. demand for transit rail cars is limited and erratic and orders tend to be for customized cars. Transit rail cars in the U.S. comprise about 5 percent of the worldwide fleet. Transit agencies’ purchases vary considerably over time: A large transit agency may replace its entire fleet in 1 year, contributing to a spike in the market, whereas in other years, there may be only a fraction of that demand for the U.S. market. Transit agencies often request custom car designs to address not only legacy infrastructure requirements and interoperability issues with existing fleets, but also preferences. Rail car orders of small size and demand for customized cars can increase the price per car by, for example, concentrating design costs among fewer cars.

The federal government provides some funding for transit rail cars and has varying levels of involvement in setting design standards for transit rail cars. More than half of the transit agencies GAO interviewed purchased rail cars with some type of federal funding, such as formula or discretionary capital funds. When transit agencies use federal funds to purchase rail cars, certain requirements apply, such as “Buy America”—which requires, among other things, that rail cars be assembled in the United States.

Unfortunately, the study is a disappointment as the GAO fails to connect the dots. They don’t make the connection between “Buy-America” and the cost blowouts. Nor does the GAO investigate why transit agencies are hiring consultants to design boutique trains (and no, it isn’t a problem of legacy infrastructure).

And then there is the FRA-compliant nonsense. Getting rid of the FRA buff-strength rules would solve a lot of problems, but here the GAO doubles down:

FRA enlisted APTA’s assistance to help develop safety standards for commuter rail cars and then expanded the effort to establish industry standards and recommended practices for commuter rail car safety. According to FRA and APTA officials, his has led to greater uniformity in the design and production of commuter rail cars. This greater uniformity could alleviate some of the market difficulties that we previously discussed resulting from customized designs.

Of course, we now know that this FRA “standardized” design had the opposite effect. For example, Amtrak’s latest order for 130 new bi-level railcars came with an absurd price tag.

So how did the GAO get it so wrong? Well, it is clear that the GAO only consulted with domestic manufacturers, and the APTA union — i.e. rent seekers who benefit from the existing regulatory framework. Or perhaps the GAO wasn’t really interested in solving the problem. In any case, transit advocates really need to have input on these GAO audits.

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40th Street in Oakland is your classic road-diet candidate. It is a wide 4-lane arterial with minimal traffic — and it serves as an important connector between the Macarthur BART station and the big shopping center in Emeryville.

So why is Oakland planning Green-Stripe sharrows instead? Instead of standard bike lanes, Oakland Public Works wants to submit an application for non-standard green stripe sharrows. Here is what the application states:

The experiment is proposed for 40th Street between Adeline Street and Webster Street in proximity of the MacArthur BART Transit Station and Transit Village development. In California, the use of non-standard traffic control devices must be reviewed and approved by the California Traffic Control Devices Committee and by the Federal Highway Administration. The City will request
permission to experiment in 2012. If approved, the experiment would be conducted in 2012 and 2013.

Problem Statement
The California Vehicle Code requires bicyclists to “ride as close as practicable to the right-hand curb or edge of the roadway” (CVC 21202(a)). Exceptions to this requirement include roadways with “a substandard width lane” defined as “a lane that is too narrow for a bicycle and a vehicle to travel safely side by side within the lane” (CVC 21202(a)(3)). In the City of Oakland, the majority of urban arterials and collectors have lane widths that are too narrow for a bicycle and vehicle to operate side by side in a safe manner.

Hopefully the application will be rejected because the “Problem Statement” is erroneous. The real “problem statement” is the lack of political will to implement a simple road-diet. 40th Street traffic volumes are relatively low, thus a road-diet is the correct engineering solution for bike accommodation (and the dangerous speeding).

Even more distressing is the rationale used by Oakland planners to oppose bike lanes. The problem, they say, isn’t traffic volumes today, but future traffic volumes — partly due to a “transit-oriented” development in the works at the Macarthur BART station.

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