Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A quick blip on riding in the normal traffic lane

The always interesting XKCD comic did an graphic on a person's visual field.  It immediately reminded me of a fundamental reason why safe cycling experts strongly suggest riding in the primary focus points of a driver ... the center of the lane.

Experiment with the graphic below to see how much less detail and color we see outside a narrow band of the focus point.  Riding to the far right often puts the cyclist in a location where they are less likely to be cognitively recognized and actively accounted for by the driver.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Let's stop perverse motives in prison sentencing

It is commonly understood that perverse things happen in prisons but we should to be outraged when justice is twisted to further personal interests at the expense of the incarcerated but to their families, loved ones, and the greater society that needs these precious resources.  Consider the following two examples.

Louisiana has become the state with the highest rate of incarceration in the US.  Fundamentally, this is driven by "entrepreneurial" prisons owned by rural sheriffs and law enforcement receiving funds connected with prisons and the number of prisoners incarcerated in them.
If the inmate count dips, sheriffs bleed money. Their constituents lose jobs. The prison lobby ensures this does not happen by thwarting nearly every reform that could result in fewer people behind bars.
Not only are sentences shockingly high -- "a two-time car burglar can get 24 years without parole" -- but the likelihood of parole has dropped since Louisiana has shifted to the paradigm of entrepreneurial prisons.  See a full-sized version of the graphic with this link.

Except from the Times-Picayune graphic

The California Correctional Peace Officers Association -- the union for its prison guards -- is infamously influential in state politics and has pushed a pro-incarceration agenda for years. 
It gave over $100,000 to California’s Three Strikes initiative, Proposition 184in 1994, making it the second-largest contributor. It gave at least $75,000 to the opponents of Proposition 36, the 2000 initiative that replaced incarceration with substance abuse treatment for certain nonviolent offenders. From 1998 to 2000 it gave over $120,000 to crime victims’ groups, who present a more sympathetic face to the public in their pro-incarceration advocacy. It spent over $1 million to help defeat Proposition 66, the 2004 initiative that would have limited the crimes that triggered a life sentence under the Three Strikes law. And in 2005, it killed Gov. Schwarzenegger’s plan to “reduce the prison population by as much as 20,000, mainly through a program that diverted parole violators into rehabilitation efforts: drug programs, halfway houses and home detention.”
Why push the agenda?  CCPOA member Lt. Peters explains in the context of pushing the Three Strikes law.

You can get a job anywhere. This is a career. And with the upward mobility and rapid expansion of the department, there are opportunities for the people who are [already] correction staff, and opportunities for the general public to become correctional officers. We’ve gone from 12 institutions to 28 in 12 years, and with “Three Strikes” and the overcrowding we’re going to experience with that, we’re going to need to build at least three prisons a year for the next five years. Each one of those institutions will take approximately 1,000 employees.
Moreover, the political power wielded by the union also shelters its members from oversight and prosecution.

If for some reason fair play and justice for the incarcerated fail to get one riled, then there are several practical reasons to stop allowing self-motivated agents push for extraordinarily long sentences.  One, keeping people in prison is really... really ... really expensive.  By an estimate, a year in state prison costs more than a year at Princeton.  Mind you, this only captures the accounting costs of keeping that man or woman in prison in that a person in prison is broadly not a productive member of society.  Moreover, skills deteriorate in prison reducing a former inmates ability to be productive.  Two, if we treat non-violent offenses severely, the consequences of being caught for violent and non-violent crimes becomes relatively more similar and there is less incentive for a criminal to avoid violence.  In other words, if someone is going to say rob a store or a person, one might as well use a deadly weapon since the difference in punishment might be small.  Three, decades of research strongly suggests that increasing the likelihood of being caught and punished is a better crime deterrent than the severity of punishment.  Take for example, Honolulu's project HOPE as described here.  In short, not only are we using a lot of resources that we desperately need elsewhere -- 10.4 billion dollars by Pew's back of the envelope calculation -- we're getting lousy results with high recidivism!

We can be tough on crime, but we should be smarter on who we lower the hammer.  At the moment, we have over six million of people in prison at a higher rate per population than any other country in the world.  Moving to a strategy of greater certainty and swifter punishment rather than long sentences sounds like a really complicated and perhaps expensive strategy.  Although there are some working examples of how to move forward on the idea.  But we can continue what a handful of states have already started with the obvious step of using our dollars more wisely by tailoring our sentences to keep violent and threatening criminals off the street rather than those committing crimes which might annoy, offend, or make life a more difficult in the short run.  It's something that liberals and conservatives can support together.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Capital Bikeshare: an earmark for rich white people?

Reason magazine -- associated with the Cato Institute -- recently declared Capital Bikeshare a subsidy for rich white folks.
Capital Bikeshare, which rents bikes at more than 165 outdoor stations in the Washington D.C. area, serves highly educated and affluent whites.
There's nothing wrong with that, of course, except that the program has received $16 million in government subsidies, including over $1 million specifically earmarked to "address the unique transportation challenges faced by welfare recipients and low-income persons seeking to obtain and maintain employment."
I'm no expert on Capital Bikeshare, but just based on a few perused articles I've read in the past and the Reason video, it's reasonable to conclude that the direct-effect of bike sharing has done little for DC area poor.  If one is going to evaluate it on that basis alone then indeed, it's a boondoggle.

But if we're going to ask ourselves ...
Why are affluent, educated, and employed whites riding taxpayer-subsidized bikes?
... in the greater context of whether a transportation subsidy is worthwhile, then it seems appropriate to evaluate it in the context of other subsidized transportation which would include driving, public transportation, and just about anything that comes to mind.  For instance, consider the subsidy to driving ...
Economists have long criticized the current system of roadway pricing, contending user fees should be structured so that different classes of vehicles would pay their respective costs. One such study found that single-unit trucks weighing more than 50,000 pounds contribute in user fees only 40 percent of the estimated costs of their use. Autos contribute 70 percent of their costs; pickup trucks and vans, 90 percent; and single-unit trucks weighing less than 25,000 pounds contribute 150 percent of their costs through the taxes and fees they pay.
If you think the important question is whether we should subsidize bike share or -- in the context of the Reason video -- if you think that we shouldn't subsidize rich white folks, then it may be the case that subsidizing rich white folks to ride bikes might reduce the subsidy they receive when driving.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

My STRIDA folding bike

Personal friends are probably rolling their eyes and muttering something along the lines of, "You got another folding bike?"

Indeed, I have indulged again in the sin of folding bikes and picked up a STRIDA folding bike through a GROUPON special.  For quite some time I was eyeing this odd bicycle for "multi-mode trips": travel with Metro combined with some longer walking distrances.  Often these trips involve some visit to an office during the middle of the work day.

Some quick tidbits about the bike.  The singlespeed bike has a greaseless belt drive and consequently is very clean.  The hubs mount onto the frame on a single side making tire changes and flat tire fixes faster.  Disc brakes stop the bike, fenders come with the bike, and the saddle has two preset heights: Note that there is the Mini and SX versions for short and tall people respectively.  Last but not least, tubes and tires are generally available for the 16" (ERTO 305) wheels; although you will probably have to mail order high quality tires.

To be blunt, the bike's handling is quirky to say the least.  One can quickly get used to it but an ordinary task like riding without any hands is a fantasy in my experience.  There is a considerable amount of flex relative to any standard bike and even other folding bikes that I've ridden.  Moreover the STRIDA's geometry is quite unusual.  Both likely contribute to the unusual handling.  The bike's fit can also be awkward relative to a standard bicycle since it's designed to be an acceptable fit for those 5'0" to 6'4".  The saddle is has two preset height positions and there is no stem to alter the reach.  One can move the saddle forward and aft a limited amount.

In short, if a high level of riding performance is necessary for your tastes, you should look elsewhere.

The fold, however, is very robust.  The STRIDA's rather appealing feature is the tiny footprint of the fold.  Even though the folded bike is tall, it is quite compact in an appropriate way for a Metro car.  I'm no giant, but at roughly 6' tall and 190 pounds, I can sit in a row seat on a Metro car and fit the STRIDA between my legs.  Moreover it fits well in closets and coat check rooms since it is quite easy to lean against a wall or a corner; small elastic bands keep the brakes applied when the bike is stood on its wheels.  In the following video, I fold and unfold the STRIDA in a deliberate manner to make the process absolutely clear.  (click here for a higher resolution video)

The unfolding steps are straightforward:
  1. Unfold handlebars and lock them in place with spring-loaded buttons and quick release.
  2. Rotate drive-side crank forward.
  3. Break magnetic lock on hubs with a slight turn on the handlebar.
  4. Slide the front wheel forward. 
  5. Connect the horizontal bar with the male/female connection near the front wheel
Folding the bike is quite similar to unfolding it.  In the video, I also demonstrate the STRIDA's second appealing feature; the folded bike is remarkably easy to roll while folded and I have done so with long flights of steps and tight quarters.  While the factory settings were fine for me the magnetic lock strength is adjustable if the hold is too strong -- unfolding the bike is difficult -- or weak -- the bike unfolds at inopportune times.

After a month or so of using the bike, I've been quite happy with the STRIDA.  I've taken it on Metro several times during peak travel and never had to bag it nor experienced any annoyed looks/comments from other travelers.  I've taken the bike into several offices, doctor visits, and stores without a single hitch outside of getting past Secret Service around the White House.

At the doctor's office

At an ordinary business
I've used the bike for distances up to two miles over relatively flat terrain and, while no speed records were broken, the amount of time saved has been considerable for all of my travel.  Interestingly, I've received many positive comments on the bike and it is a general conversation starter ... which can be a positive or negative aspect according to your personality or mood.  It's not particularly good at carrying "stuff".  If I have something to bring I would use a messenger bag or backpack.  

While I have used the bike for riding with the kids, I don't imagine ever using the STRIDA for "fun rides" as opposed to utilitarian rides.  For the purpose I discussed earlier, it is an excellent bike.  If instead, one is looking for a casual bike for weekend rides on trails and so on, I would steer that person away from the STRIDA and towards a regular bike or a folding bike with 20" wheels.  

But what if one is looking for a compact folding bike for Metro, fun and/or utility rides?  At this point, whether one should purchase a STRIDA is about tradeoffs, in my opinion.  For context, I used to own a Brompton and have a Downtube Mini.  I've test ridden a Bike Friday tikit.  I could go into excruciating details, but in a nutshell I'd steer the ...
  • ... more performance-oriented or long-ride-oriented rider towards the tikit.
  • ... person who needs a super compact fold, travel moderate distances, and carry lots of stuff towards the Brompton.
  • ... person who fits into one of the above categories but is constrained by a budget towards a Dahon Curve or the Mini.
  • ... person looking for something simple and convenient for short trips to the STRIDA.
The retail price -- $650 when I last looked -- is a bit steep for me.  But for compact folding bikes with some resemblance of manufacturer support, the price is competitive and with a little patience one can find a better price.  Obviously, there is little for me to say about bike maintenance other than it appears that there is little to do other than periodically adjust the brakes.  The cables themselves are routed internally which should protect them from the weather but make it somewhat of a pain in the butt to change them.  

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Cyclists with helmets ride faster

Part of the perennial discussion about cycling helmets is whether wearing a helmet results in cyclists riding faster on average, thereby taking more risks and increasing the likelihood of injury.  The idea originates in the concept of risk compensation whereby people adjust their behavior until some level of risk is reached.  The classic example taught in economics is the Peltzman effect regarding seat belt use.  The hypothesis is that when seat belts were commonly installed in automobiles and used, drivers took more risks on the road thereby offsetting the increased safety of using the seat belt.  In my own teaching experience, many students had a hard time accepting this.  So I suggested a counter example -- not my idea by the way -- whereby a big spike is installed in the middle of every steering wheel pointing at the driver.  Would drivers on average be more careful?  If you think yes, then if people are willing to risk compensate when danger increases, why would the reverse be false?

The Wall Street Journal summarized some recent research on the topic regarding bicycle helmets ...
From 2009 to 2010, free bicycle helmets were issued to 1,557 volunteers in Bordeaux, France. The subjects' average age was 32 years; 58% were women. Previous helmet users were excluded.
Data was collected daily at seven locations, each equipped with two cameras programmed to detect moving objects, isolate cyclists and calculate their speed. Cyclists were photographed from above and behind.
Helmet use was recorded in 99, or 3.8%, of 2,621 movements made by 587 cyclists captured on camera.
Cycling speed of helmeted men averaged 11.9 miles an hour compared with 10.4 miles an hour for unhelmeted men. Helmeted and unhelmeted women cycled at 10.2 and 9.9 miles an hour respectively, suggesting risk compensation is a male behavior, researchers said. That behavior disappeared when helmeted men cycled in areas where speeds were extremely fast and the objective risk of injury increased, the study found.
There are some important caveats about the unobserved cyclists and whether they are meaningfully different from those observed in the data.  Moreover, it can certainly be the case that volunteers are inherently different from the rest of the population.  Nonetheless, while this is a simple data point, it does support the notion that pushing for greater helmet use by cyclists is not necessarily welfare improving.

EDIT: The original article is gated and such that details of the experiment are fuzzy.  I can interpret the passage above a few ways that (subjectively) make the selection effects more or less relevant.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

I can run a country with my eyes shut?

Now that we're in the information age it's more than a bit ironic that the House voted to cut funding for the American Community Survey and the Economic Census in its latest appropriations bill.  As the old military phrase, "the fog of war" suggests, the military needs good information to be effective.  Not surprisingly it turns out that government, business, and society in general needs information to be effective.

From Businessweek ...
Tom Beers, executive director of the National Association of Business Economists, says that without good economic data, businesses would be “flying blind.” He adds: “You end up in a guessing game about what’s going on in the economy. The types of losses that result are far worse than what you end up spending to fund these surveys.”
More strikingly, from the same article ...
Contacted last week, economists at conservative think tanks Cato Institute, American Enterprise Institute, and the Heritage Foundation all expressed support for the data-gathering agencies since all three rely heavily on the statistics they produce to study the economy. “Those agencies are essential,” says Phillip Swagel, an economist and nonresident scholar at AEI. “The data they provide really tell us what’s going on in the economy. This shouldn’t be a political issue.”
Some people have suggested that state or local government agencies or private organizations might be able to fulfill the data gathering and processing responsibilities of the ACS and Economic Census.  The resources needed to design, organize, and execute effective surveys is nontrivial.  The science of survey design -- large surveys often have complex designs to realize large savings for a given precision -- as well as developing/maintaining an organization to implement it strongly suggests that there would be large economics of scale/scope with centralizing its function.  Moreover the alternative overlooks that data fits aspects of a public good quite nicely: (1) while you can impede people's access with some effort, it would be hard to exclude people from its results and costly to prevent people from sharing it and (2) one person's use of data does not impede another person's use of data.  So in a classical economic sense, it is something that government should do.

Theodor Geisel, Dr. Suess, once wrote I Can Read with My Eyes Shut! to encourage children to read.  But even my little boy knows that this is just a jest not to be taken seriously.  Let's not run a country with our "eyes" shut.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Great advice

A hero of United Flight 232, Denny Fitch, died recently.  As an off-duty airline pilot, Fitch helped "land" Flight 232 after a turbine fan shattered severing the hydraulic lines needed to control the airplane by manually adjusting the throttles while sitting on his knees.  While Fitch was devastated by the 111 people that died, he eventually recovered from his injuries, returned to work as a pilot and eventually became a motivational speaker.  

From an interview in a documentary about the crash ... 

"What makes you so sure you're going to make it home tonight?" he said. "I was 46 years old the day I walked into that cockpit. I had the world ahead of me. I was a captain on a major U.S. airline. I had a beautiful healthy family, loving wife, great future. And at 4 o'clock I'm trying to stay alive."
From the Associated Press article
Fitch became a motivational speaker, who advised others that they should let their family and friends know how much they're loved.
Great advice by any standard.

P.S. The linked documentary above is great.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Mandatory Sidepath Legislation in the Transportation Bill

The recent Senate version of the Transportation Bill is a serious infringement on cyclists' road rights in the form of a mandatory sidepath law that states,
The Secretary of the appropriate Federal land management agency shall prohibit the use of bicycles on each federally owned road that has a speed limit of 30 miles per hour or greater and an adjacent paved path for use by bicycles within 100 yards of the road unless the Secretary determines that the bicycle level of service on that roadway is rated B or higher.
Briefly, if the Secretary decides that a road fails to meet an arbitrary standard more related to comfort than safety and there is a  paved path within 100 yards, then the Secretary can prohibit bicycles from that road regardless of the path's maintenance and construction standards.

John S. Allen is leading a charge against the discriminatory bill and you can find his letter to a Senator with additional information and opinions on this linked page.  I highly recommend reading his take on the issue.  Below are a few additional comments and points I want to emphasize.

By no means am I an expert on Bicycle Level of Service (BLOS) or its alternatives, but it appears to be a tool for transportation people to design an appealing bicycle network for ordinary folks as opposed to a rigorous standard based optimizing safety and convenience.  Playing with this BLOS calculator suggests that virtually any park road without a bike- or wide-outside-lane will fail to attain a B rating and be prohibited to cyclists at a Secretary's whim if a paved path is within a 100 yards of the road.  Simply based on personal anecdotes, the general public is unfamiliar with the safe-cycling literature and often misguided regarding conditions leading to meaningful differences in cycling risk.  In short, I would expect perverse decisions such as the example of Mount Vernon presented later.

The term "bicyclist" includes a variety of individuals such as children, occasional riders, and experienced adult riders.  Not surprisingly, a rider's safest route from point A to B can vary across these people.  But perhaps less obvious is that the safety of other side path users are at stake, as well.  Judging from local facilities, there are many multi-user paths where for everyone's safety and convenience, the experienced road cyclist should stay on the road.

Fundamentally, if a road alternative is safe and convenient choice under present conditions, then the experienced cyclist will take the alternative.  With this in mind, under the present wording of the bill, the National Park Service -- or whoever is in charge of the side path and road -- has no incentive to improve conditions for bicyclists on either the road or side path.  The bottom line is that people who regularly ride bicycles are no fools and are generally the best prepared to evaluate alternatives.  The riders also have the most to gain or lose.  Taking the decision out of their hands and putting it in the care of an administrator can only make the situation worse.

The Washington DC area has a good example where the National Park Service has prohibited bicyclists from the scenic road adjacent to the Mount Vernon Trail along the Potomac River.

View Larger Map

View Larger Map

At that location, the Mount Vernon Trail is steep, narrow, lots of sharp curves, poor lines of sight, poorly maintained, lined with trees, and with deep ditches just to make things exciting. Moreover the multi-use trail is used by pedestrians and cyclists of all ages. I know of no official statistics of how many cyclists are rescued from those ditches every year -- they are very deep -- but in non-winter months reports of such incidents on local forums occur on a regular basis. The road is well-maintained with good lines of sight and two lanes to facilitate passing. Nonetheless, NPS has made cycling on this stretch of road illegal. Also notice that for a lot of trips, taking the scenic road is much faster and convenient.

In my opinion, it's obvious that for most cycling adults, the scenic road is much safer. But everyone is entitled to their own perspective and should choose the alternative they think best.  Now this is just one example that I'm familiar with and cataloging these examples broadly would be very time intensive.  However, across the internet people are pointing out examples where our road rights can be greatly infringed.  Broadly, do we really want people that may or may not have any real cycling experience or knowledge making these decisions for us? Do we want people who may or may not have our interests in mind making these decisions for us? In my opinion, the answer is an obvious no.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

SHARROWs on George Mason Drive

Arlington County recently repaved sections of George Mason Drive roughly around the area where it intersects Lee Highway.  George Mason Drive is a north-south connector in Arlington that happens to be labeled a bike route.  The official speed limit is 30 mph but there are stretches where motorized traffic will regularly exceed the speed limit.  When traveling south it has a moderate downhill grade which lets cyclists approach motorized vehicle speeds.  George Mason Drive also has homes, street parking, and many intersections making it a poor candidate for many alternative facilities.  I don't show them in the video below, but there are also SHARROWs for the moderate climb up to Lee Highway heading north.

In my opinion, Arlington County did a great job with the SHARROWs since they appear frequently, are centered in the lane, and are accompanied by bicycles may use full lane signs.  The lanes are too narrow to share laterally and the speeds cyclists can travel here make it necessary to maximize visibility in the center of the lane.  The signs and lane markings should decrease harassment and give cyclists some additional confidence to ride among traffic.  In the past two years, Arlington County has put in SHARROWs in several other locations that are also well designed.

For a higher resolution video, click here.  

For people unfamiliar with Arlington County, there are few north-south connectors since the county is divided by I-66 and Rte. 50 along with several lesser arterial roads.  Promoting efficient and safe cycling on these north-south connectors is good for a robust transportation grid.