Archive for February, 2015

I was hoping to avoid comment on Senator Liu’s mandatory bike helmet law. It is a zombie idea that pops up every so often in the US. The California legislature last considered the idea in the early 1990’s. That was during the height of bike helmet hysteria, and even then Legislators thought it was a bad idea. Two decades later, the idea has even less traction now that we can look at the experience of nearly a dozen places that tried it. Senator Liu has yet to explain why it would work in California when it failed miserably in Canada, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and Seattle.

One argument frequently heard is that mandatory helmet laws are just like mandatory seatbelt laws. There is actually a lot of validity to that argument: Both are feel-good measures and yet counter-productive for safety.

Now you are probably thinking that seatbelt laws have saved tens of thousands of lives. You are also thinking that automobile fatalities have been on a long decline, and that seatbelts are largely responsible. You may also have watched slow-motion videos of crash-test dummies. But the inconvenient truth is that while seatbelts are good to have in an accident, there is no evidence that mandatory seatbelt laws improved safety:


That figure comes from work done by Dr. John Adams. It covered 80% of the world’s car population at the time of publication. If you have not heard of the name and believe he is some crank, it is quite the opposite. Dr. Adams literally wrote the book on modern risk analysis.

Here is another figure, showing how fatalities and injuries increased when the UK passed its mandatory rear seatbelt law:


And here is what happened when Australia implemented the law. Note again how fatalities went back up:


It is worth considering why mandatory seatbelt laws have negative consequences. One reason has to do with the idea of risk compensation:

Risk compensation is a theory which suggests that people typically adjust their behavior in response to the perceived level of risk, becoming more careful where they sense greater risk and less careful if they feel more protected. Although usually small in comparison to the fundamental benefits of safety interventions, it may result in a lower net benefit than expected.  By way of example, it has been observed that motorists drove faster when wearing seatbelts and closer to the vehicle in front when the vehicles were fitted with anti-lock brakes.

A consequence of risk compensation is that motorists drive faster, causing increased risk for pedestrians and cyclists. It is a major reason why pedestrian and bicycle fatalities have not declined.

Another reason why seatbelt laws didn’t work is because they were implemented instead of making changes in the infrastructure. It is a similar problem to bike helmet laws, which legislators also prefer to implement over more costly infrastructure improvements.

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Parking is one of those things everyone in Berkeley complains about (ironic for a city that is supposedly environmental). Merchants especially have complained about parking “deficits” in downtown and southside areas. And yet whenever city planners measured parking occupancy, they found empty spaces even during peak hours.

What was going on here — was there or was there not a parking crunch? As it turns out, both sides were right. Due to inefficient pricing, the prime on-street spaces were monopolized while garages and other areas went under-utilized. Drivers would typically drive in circles hunting for the cheap on-street parking, avoiding more expensive garages.

Could market-pricing strategies correct the parking imbalance, and result in more efficient utilization? The city received a 3-year Federal grant to test that hypothesis. The transportation department analyzed parking occupancy rates in three neighborhoods, continually adjusting parking hours and pricing based on demand. Price and time limits were set with a goal of always having 65-85% occupancy on each block. Where parking exceeded the 85% threshold, prices went up and time limits went down. Where parking occupancy dropped below the 65%, prices were reduced and time limits increased. Clear signage was installed to inform drivers their pricing options.

The results of the program are quite impressive:


Here is another survey result:


But the most surprising result is the large number of blocks where price and time limits were relaxed due to minimal parking demand (remember: price and time limits can go up or down depending on parking demand). On the map shown below, these are are indicated in green; i.e. the Max Parking Zones. It is interesting that areas that were thought to have very high demand, such as 2 blocks from campus, actually don’t have very high demand at all.


The program is on-going. One of the next challenges will be automating the collection of real-time data. It is currently done manually, which doesn’t scale well. The city is exploring technological solutions to automate the process, such as the use of parking sensors or license plate readers.

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A good first step, but this really needs to be implemented nationally as a Federal safety mandate:

At least 200 municipal trucks will be outfitted with side guards this year as city officials try to cut down on pedestrian and bicyclist deaths. The side guards — actually rails — to be installed between the trucks front and rear wheels help keep people involved in a collision with a truck from being dragged underneath, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office said in a news release.

While trucks make up less than 4 percent of vehicles on city roads, collisions with trucks account for 12.3 percent of pedestrian fatalities and 32 percent of bicyclist fatalities, city officials said.

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If you are planning to board Amtrak buses in San Francisco, be prepared for some insane TSA-style security checks:

Security Check

Upon entering the facility, passengers must show your Amtrak ticket or photo I.D. to the Greyhound Security Staff. Greyhound security will also inspect bags and wand passengers for metal contraband who enter the building. Please allow additional time arriving for this process.

So now you can’t even enter a bus terminal without a security check.

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You Reap What You Sow

With vacant storefronts and burned-out lots, Telegraph Ave in Berkeley has been on a long downward spiral. To revitalize the corridor (and boost tax revenues), city planners once envisioned converting the auto-centric arterial into something more pedestrian friendly. The street would get a road-diet to calm speeding. The excess road space would be converted to bike lanes and a new Bus-Rapid Transit (BRT) service. Wider sidewalks were also proposed, with streetscape enhancements and outdoor cafe seating.

But merchants balked at loosing automobile capacity. Arlene Giordano, owner of the Le Bateau Ivre restaurant, vehemently opposed the plan. She put forth a ballot initiative with the intent of killing the project, and wrote some scathing editorials.

City Council relented, leaving Telegraph as a high-speed arterial. And this is the predictable result:

After the recession, its co-founder’s death and dwindling foot traffic, the fabled Berkeley hangout is losing money and struggling to survive in a changing landscape. Owner Arlene Giordano, who founded the restaurant 43 years ago with her late husband, Thomas Cooper, launched an Indiegogo campaign in September, hoping to crowd fund $60,000 to pay bills, replace kitchen appliances and get the business back on its feet.

She is now applying for a small-business loan from the city to stay afloat. Part of the loan would be used to install lights “which she hopes will help make it more obvious that the restaurant is open for dinner.” I guess she is finally discovering that drivers zooming by at high-speed won’t notice your restaurant.

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Heckuva Job Obama

feinburgHaving deep experience in the railroad industry isn’t necessarily a good thing for running the FRA (case in point: Joe Szabo). But an FRA Administrator should at least have some technical or transportation background:

Feinberg has a resume loaded with high-level jobs as a communications specialist and Democratic staffer. She was an assistant to Rahm Emanuel when he was President Barack Obama’s White House chief of staff and later director of communications and corporate strategy at Facebook. She also worked on Capitol Hill for years, as communications director for the House Democratic Caucus and as national press secretary for former Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle. Feinberg was formerly married to Dan Pfeiffer, a key White House adviser whose service to the president dates back to Obama’s days as senator from Illinois.

But her executive experience doesn’t include running anything the size and complexity of the FRA, and she does not have much experience with railroads. That’s led some to question whether she’s a good fit to lead an agency widely thought to need an urgent overhaul.

One of the (many) failings of the Bush Administration was its appointment of unqualified political hacks to key positions. People like Michael Brown to run FEMA, or the GOP ideologues who ran the provisional government in Iraq. You would think the Obama Administration would not repeat that kind of mistake.

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The 5 victims in the horrific Metro-North collision in Valhalla will be listed in the official statistics as train fatalities — even though it was an automobile that killed them. Each year, there are tens of thousands of automobile fatalities, but for some reason, the NTSB only investigates crashes involving trains or other mass transit.

Based on previous work by the NTSB, one can expect their report to focus on accident survivability, not accident avoidance. The key question isn’t what role the 3rd rail played, or the design of the road — but why the grade crossing was even there in the first place?

The Commerce St. grade crossing has little traffic, and is located just 1 mile away from grade-separated crossings in both north and south directions. Closing the crossing to motor vehicles is the obvious solution. It would greatly increase safety, with only minor time penalty for motorists.

Metro-North has such a large number of crossings similar to this one that it begs the question as to why they are left open to motor vehicles. A systematic approach to closing minor at-grade crossings that are in close proximity to grade-separated roadways would greatly increase safety, with only minor impact on motor vehicles. Note that crossings could still be left open to bikes/peds, avoiding the “Berlin-Wall” effect. The reason this has not been done is because small inconveniences for motorists takes precedence over the safety of train passengers. Hopefully this latest tragedy will lead to a change in priorities.

And it is not a problem unique to Metro-North. In the SF Bay Area, the Caltrain line has a number of minor at-grade crossings that should be closed to motor vehicles. It is just dumb luck that Caltrain has not experienced a mass casualty event. And when the agency starts using EMU’s, you can be sure the knives will come out if one of those “dangerous” non-compliant trains were involved in a fatal accident.

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Stop a Douchebag

Would you stare down the barrel of a gun to defend a sidewalk?

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The decline in oil prices provides the opportunity for countries to slash subsidies:

Across the Middle East and much of the developing world, government subsidies make energy cheap and encourage consumption. But governments around the world are beginning to take advantage of plummeting oil and natural gas prices by slashing the subsidies. The cuts are just a small fraction of the global total of annual subsidies, but energy experts say they are beginning to add up.

On Jan. 1, the Indonesian government abandoned a four-decade-old policy of subsidizing gasoline, permitting prices at the pump to rise and fall with global oil prices. As long as oil is cheap, Indonesians will not see much of a difference. Since October, India has stopped subsidizing diesel and raised fuel taxes. Malaysia cut subsidies on gasoline and diesel late last year. Angola, a major African producer, raised gasoline and diesel prices 20 percent in December. Ghana has also acted to remove subsidies, and Nigeria is expected to follow suit after its national elections in February. Iran cut gasoline subsidies early last year.

The US also provides gasoline subsidies, though the NY Times is confused about this:

The United States, like most developed countries, does not subsidize the consumption of energy or put price controls on fossil fuels, although environmentalists point out that oil companies receive tax breaks for exploration. A debate has begun about whether to raise gasoline taxes now to repair roads and bridges, as well as to damp demand for cheap fuel.

Actually, environmentalists would point out that the US provides huge subsidies to build and maintain roads. The gas tax collected at the pump covers only a small portion of cost of the highway infrastructure. If places like Indonesia, Iran, and Ghana can fix the subsidy problem, why can’t the US?

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