The Price We Gladly Pay

This column in today’s New York Times is heartbreaking:

There was videotape evidence that the man who killed Cooper did not yield. Witnesses corroborated that the driver was not paying attention.

I soon learned, however, that the Manhattan district attorney’s office would most likely not charge the driver who killed my son with criminal negligence.

The author, Dana Lerner, thinks she’s battling a legal system and law enforcement. She is not. She is actually battling an entire culture. And that means she will lose despite attempts by Mayor Bill de Blasio to mitigate traffic deaths in the city.

The cold hard facts of the matter: Tens of thousands of traffic deaths in the U.S. each year is the price we gladly pay for a traffic system (including enforcement) that largely allows us to self-righteously act in any damned way we please largely without penalty.

Well, obviously, we prefer that other people pay the utimate price.

We are all guilty. Every time we exceed the speed limit. Every time we dodge a rule because, well, no one is watching (and it seems safe). Every time we sigh with relief because the price we paid for a traffic ticket was easily affordable. Every time we applaud traffic engineering that makes it easier to drive faster with fewer obstacles (e.g. those damned things walking around on two legs). Every time we act like assholes because our tender convenience is just sooooo damned important.

We are all selfish assholes.

We are totally and completely happy to allow tens of thousands to die every year so that we can remain selfish assholes. And nothing will change until you accept that fact and find a way to be disgusted by it.

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Our LOS(S)

Todd Litman examines the concept of “level of service” in traffic engineering — the idea that streets and roads be designed to mitigate traffic congestion and delay. He writes:

This significantly affects transportation and urban planning decisions, and therefore our lives. In practice, the results are often perverse: this indicator favors wider roads with higher design speeds, although this degrades walking and cycling conditions (called the barrier effect), and discourages infill development (because it can increase local congestion, although by reducing total vehicle trips it tends to reduce regional congestion costs) despite resulting undesirable impacts associated with automobile dependency and sprawl, such as increased transportation costs, accidents and pollution emissions.

Litman makes a good argument for new metrics.

Until that day dawns, our unfettered use of automobiles will remain more important than, well, nearly everything.

This culturally-heightened importance — nearly 100 years of it — ensures that traffic solutions will nearly always go in the wrong direction: wider, straighter, more. And we know that increasing the level of service by increasing capacity is self-defeating.

What is it they say about insanity and outcomes? Oh yeah: “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”

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The Whole Newspaper Thing

newsI cannot remember a time when my family did not subscribe to a print newspaper. My parents took both the morning and evening papers in Wilmington, Delaware — where I grew up. I learned about work, responsibility, and earning money as a paper boy delivering the morning edition.

I went to college with the intention of becoming a journalist. I became one.

I went to graduate school with the idea of escaping journalism, but in the end I could not. I became a journalism professor.

Last week my wife and I stopped subscribing to the print edition of the Springfield News-Leader. We became digital subscribers.

Two things kicked us into this 21st century decision:

  1. Between delivery problems and theft, we just could not count on picking up the paper in front of our loft building each morning — especially annoying on Sunday given our additional subscription to The New York Times .
  2. It’s frustrating to open a morning paper (that you paid for) and realize you read everything the day before by following links on Facebook and Twitter.

That second reason is particularly interesting in terms of journalism. It raises questions about what the content of a print edition ought to be. If it merely reproduces what we read online, it seems to me a recipe for failure of the print product. We can certainly discuss that in terms of sustainability, i.e. perhaps print ought to be re-imagined as a medium problematic to the needs of a society that must begin managing resource limits.

We have a new Sunday morning routine now. We stroll to the Bistro Market to buy the Sunday papers — the only print we will have in the loft (and can be sure will make it to the loft).

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Cool Moments

It seems like every time I take a walk around downtown (more than once per day), I run into something interesting. That’s part of the attraction of living in a dense, walkable urban environment.

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Carbon Trace Takes Next Step Forward

I announced a film project with the working title Urban Boom last May. I’m happy to report that my crew and I have made steady progress during the pre-production phase of the project, and we are now ready to begin shooting some interviews locally this month.

We also have an emerging new production company called Carbon Trace Productions — a name I’ve used somewhat whimsically on bicycle videos in the past.

Carbon Trace Productions now has its own website (still under construction) and will have a DBA by the end of the week. It also has a dedicated crew and a mission statement.

What it doesn’t have: clients or an income stream. So it isn’t really a business yet. Whether or not it becomes a business will be partly determined by how well we complete the Urban Boom project.

Stay tuned…


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The Eternal Season

That would be silly season.

You know, that special time of year (two times, really) that one can expect the unexpected on Springfield’s streets because the city is full of new college students operating various vehicles in ways that are, quite often, horrifying and dangerous. Also amusing.

I know what I’ll be doing tomorrow: Shooting video ;-)

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Lack of Imagination

We have a new pizza joint and a new sports bar opening soon in downtown Springfield.

We don’t need either one.

We have enough sports bars and pizza joints.

We have enough coffee shops, cupcake stores, bars, party venues, art shops, sandwich shops, vapor shops, and hair stylists.

What we don’t have is a drug store.

Anyone interested in making money? Open a drug store.

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The Road From Here

Proposed Amendment 7 lost in a squeaker yesterday.


Missouri’s roads and bridges need fixing — badly. And this money was going to help get things moving in that direction (including some bicycle and pedestrian projects). The amendment was the result of many months of trying to figure out the best way to raise money because we soon may not have enough to keep up with maintenance.

MoDOT blew it.

This is one of the very few times I was glad Missouri is a tax-averse state. The proposed sales tax would have been regressive.

What Missouri needs to do is raise its gas tax (ranked 45th in the nation) and create toll roads, specifically along I-70 and I-44. Such taxes would collect money from the people who use our roads most and damage them the most.

But Missouri is a tax-averse state.

So where the crumbling road leads from here is anyone’s guess.


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Rhetorical Dichotomies and Urbanism

I’m finding the process of writing a script for a documentary film especially interesting in regard to the canon of invention. Much of the advice I’ve been reading — because I’m a total newb at this — says the most you can do early in the process (the research/pre-production phase) is create a general outline.

Invention comes before outline. I’ve been doing research, i.e. reading to focus my idea. Previously described:

The Baby Boomers were children of the post-war suburbs and raised their own children in the sprawling communities at the edges of American cities. Owning an individual home outside of a city has long been an essential part of the American Dream.

That dream is changing. The Millennial generation is changing it.

Young people today are showing a strong preference for living in dense, walkable urban communities. And an increasing number of their empty-nest parents are following them.

I’m finding Charles Montgomery’s Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design to be especially helpful because I’ve created two useful dichotomies. “Useful” means rhetorically useful i.e. helping me say, persuasively, what it is I want to say.

In an early chapter about the history of suburbia, he identifies two philosophies driving suburban sprawl.

  1. The school of separation: The good life can only be achieved by separating the functions of the city so people can avoid “the worst of its toxicity.”
  2. The school of speed: Freedom is a “matter of velocity — the idea being that the faster you can get away from the city , the freer you will become.”

So I am asserting two (kinda) opposite schools that appear to be guiding a return to cities.

  1. The school of mixed use: This is one of the guiding ideas of the Congress for the New Urbanism. The good life can be achieved by living in areas where many uses intermingle.
  2. The school of proximity: It is better to walk, ride a bicycle, or take public transit to nearby places in a mixed-use urban area.

The whole point of what I’ll call a “rhetorical dichotomy” is to create a model by which you can compare things. In this case, the things are various issues of urbanism and suburbanism. A rhetorical dichotomy ought not, it seems to me, be used to over-simplify an issue. I’ll try not to. The three issues I’ll be examining (until I change my mind) are:

  1. Energy use: How much energy does one consume to live a suburban lifestyle versus an urban lifestyle.
  2. Commute: How much time and expense is involved in commuting to work or traveling to other important destinations?
  3. Infrastructure support: What needs to be built, and what needs to be maintained, to support new urbanism versus suburbanism?

There are, of course, many more issues from which to choose. These interest me now. More to come…

[Cross-posted on Rhetorica]

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Playing the Numbers Game, Part 3

For the final installment of this series, let’s take a look at manufactured right-turn conflicts in Portland, Oregon.

Two of the three general rules of safe movement are drive on the right and pass on the left. These simple rules are designed to, among other things, keep your attention directed forward into a right hand turn. It also means nothing is supposed to be on your right.

But in Portland they put bicyclists on your right. Take a look.


Here’s a green lane on a 1-way street. By law bicyclists must stay in their designated lanes and cars must stay out. So you get this right-hood conflict.


This is an interesting example. That’s a “protected” bicycle lane on the far right of the picture. The travel lane is on the far left. All that yellow paint in the middle is the barrier. So a right turn here requires an extra bit of neck stretching on the motorist’s part.


And one more example.

I don’t have much else to say except I believe such infrastructure is only possible when advocates, planners, and engineers are thinking far more about participation than traffic safety.

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Playing the Numbers Game, Part 2

So, yeah, dangerous infrastructure gets built in places that have good reputations for bicycle friendliness. On my recent trip to Portland, Oregon — a platinum level bicycle friendly community, according to the League of American Bicyclists — I saw infrastructure that violates the rules of safe movement or otherwise creates hazards worse than the street as is.

Let’s take a look at what happened at the intersection of NE Multnomah St. and NE17th Ave.

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The first picture shows a bicyclist’s point of view traveling west on Multnomah in the door-zone bicycle lane (bad enough as it is). At the intersection with NE 17th, the door-zone lane becomes a protected lane. But it requires the bicyclist to turn right toward the new lane. Notice how far the motorist must encroach into the intersection to see on-coming traffic. Notice how little of the intersection the bicyclist can see just a second away from entering it.

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The second picture shows a bicyclist making the turn and entering the protected lane. By law, he must use this facility so he must make this turn from a blind spot behind the parked cars.

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The third picture shows a motorist’s point of view from NE 17th entering the intersection. Notice how the parked cars block the view of on-coming traffic, including bicyclists that would be hidden because they are required to use the door-zone lane.

I watched this intersection for several minutes and saw five bicyclists make the required maneuver. Notice that there is a slight downgrade leading to the intersection. All five hit this intersection doing 12 miles per hour or faster. Not one slowed down either approaching it or negotiating it.

There’s nothing difficult about bicycling on Multnomah. It would be a rather easy street to ride even for a novice with just a bit of traffic training.

What traffic problem does this infrastructure solve?

Answer: No problem existed on the original street that needed solving.

Take another look at the first picture. The safest way to drive a bicycle through this intersection (with no infrastructure present) would be to control the lane. The bicyclists would then be far enough left to see, and be seen by, traffic entering Multnomah from NE 17th.

How does something as dangerous as this get built?

Answer: At the request of participation advocates who believe that something is better than nothing and that we must accept the bad with the good to get something.

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Playing the Numbers Game, Part 1

I was recently in Portland, Oregon on a vacation. I did not rent a bicycle and ride it around on the various types of infrastructure, but I did walk around and take pictures. This is the first in a short series examining what I saw.

As I have discussed before, I believe there are generally two types of bicycle advocates: those primary concerned with safety in traffic and those primarily concerned with increasing participation. There are, obviously, many nuances and complications to this bifurcation. But it works for sake of discussion.

Portland has achieved a bicycle mode share in the neighborhood of 7 percent — best in the United States.


My answer, the one I’ve also discussed here many times, is culture — the same as Amsterdam and other places that have achieved high mode share. In other words, I think participation is far more a matter of the cultural value a particular people place on bicycling than it is a matter of offering bicycle lanes or other dedicated infrastructure.

That is not to say that infrastructure won’t or cannot lead to an increase in participation. I’m not sure a good study of this yet exists. And, further, I don’t think it matters much from my perspective as a traffic safety advocate. I’d rather have fewer people ride bicycles if the alternative is to build dangerous infrastructure.

I saw dangerous infrastructure in Portland, i.e. infrastructure that created situations more dangerous than if nothing had been built.

I am not claiming that all bicycle infrastructure in Portland is bad, just as I have never claimed that all infrastructure in Amsterdam is bad. The larger point for me is this: If these two cities, and others, allow bad stuff to be built or stay built, then other cities may copy the bad stuff.

This happens. And it should not happen. Examples: Door-zone bicycle lanes and bicycle boxes.

Thus, my negativity ;-)

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Happened In The Wild

I had a bunch of errands to run this morning around the urban core of Springfield and to the suburbs — namely the Battlefield Mall to buy veggies at the farmer’s market. So I drove my bicycle on downtown streets, residential streets, collector streets, 3-lane streets, and a 4-lane arterial. I covered about every type of street you can cover hereabouts. I did the bulk of my bicycle driving today between 7:45 and 10:30.

I controlled my lanes all morning as was proper given the circumstances of each street.

Every motorist that encountered me changed lanes (or substantially so) to pass except one.

That one motorist close-passed me — making no attempt to use even a small portion of the adjacent lane.

Clearly marked on the side of that one motorist’s automobile: Springfield Traffic Services.


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Bicycling is Such a Hassle

So I’ve beenwalking_feet living in a loft in downtown Springfield for a year now.

Best. Move. Ever.

But there is something odd going on. I don’t use my bicycle quite as much as I used to. Sometimes it seems like a hassle. I mean going to the garage, unlocking it, riding it a couple of blocks, locking it, unlocking it, riding it a couple of blocks home, opening the garage (automatic door, of course), parking it, locking it.

So I just walk ;-)

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Urban Boom: A Documentary Film

From: Carbon Trace Productions and The Rhetorica Network

The Baby Boomers were children of the post-war suburbs and raised their own children in the sprawling communities at the edges of American cities. Owning an individual home outside of a city has long been an essential part of the American Dream.

That dream is changing.

The Millennial generation is changing it. Young people today are showing a strong preference for living in dense, walkable urban communities. And an increasing number of their empty-nest parents are following them.

The Carbon Trace Production Team today announces its first, full-length documentary film project. The working title is Urban Boom. The film will tell the story of Baby Boomers who are leaving the suburbs to find a new American Dream in the cities.

The film will cover the social, political, and economic issues involved in this trend and deal with the problems associated with challenging the past 70 years of cultural mythology.

You may follow production news and details on our Facebook page.

Follow us on Twitter @UrbanboomDoc.

I will also post updates here from time to time.

Want to help? Please “like” our page, tweet our news, and help us find stories to tell. We are now looking for interview subjects — Boomers who have left the suburbs to live in cities. We need a range of experiences and rationales. If you know someone, if you are someone, who would like to contribute a story, please contact me by any method.

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