I keep hearing here and there that cyclists should obey the rules of the road. Usually after someone nearly missed creaming one with their car at an intersection. The rules that cyclists follow are not exactly the same as the rules that traffic follows, and here’s how they differ most dramatically. Continue reading
Which is riskier, the suburbs, or the cities? Cities have the ill repute of being hotbeds of crime, even assault and murder, while suburbs are seen as safe bucolic, even isolated places from crime. Abetting that isolation, both in land use stand in getting around, is traffic. We just assume traffic is a part of the suburbs, but we don’t often think of the risk of two ton vehicles routinely moving ten times faster than we can walk.
In the city, we carry the image of anonymous assault, injury and murder with us, especially in some neighborhood. Of course its dangerous. Just look at the nightly news. When I’m walking in an unfamiliar neighborhood in a city, I look for signs of high crime and dilapidation, like bars on the windows and rotting wood on the buildings. I know from these signs how much to let my guard down. Alleys can be portals of wonder, like in New Orleans’ French Quarter, or danger, like in Philadelphia’s Kensington. Whether I take my time admiring their private splendor or glance furtively into them depends on these cues of care or neglect. If I notice a bad situation coming up or worse, following me, I can cross the street most of the time, or make it clear that I belong there and am not the easiest snack on the sidewalk. In the city, I can mitigate risk by walking around danger. Safety surrounds avoidable danger.
In the suburbs, we don’t overtly carry the image of danger, but it is in fact all around us. I could walk 20 yards to my life and get killed after finishing this article, easy. The place I am sitting is surrounded by roads where I have no legal right to life when walking in them. While a dark, forbidding alley between blocks may be ten feet wide, the roads that surround my block are between 30 and 60 feet wide. I have known since childhood how to avoid death in these streets, but death is always on offer while walking in the suburbs. The danger doesn’t wish me ill intent. I am more likely to be killed by someone looking at their radio than looking at me. While I am relatively safe on the sidewalk, of I want to go anywhere I have to cross into the way of danger. I can only mitigate risk by walking through danger in the 1% of the road that allows me to cross. In the suburbs, I mitigate risk by following the rules of danger. Danger surrounds islands of safety.
It’s not even that safe for the drivers and passengers of the cars. A high speed collision is much more dangerous than a low speed one. While congestion may be annoying, it is safer than the open road. Rush hour is mush safer than the middle of the night. A traffic collision at 10 MPH is a fender bender, or a broken bone for a walker or a bike. A collision at 50 MPH, like the traffic whizzing by on that road 20 yards to my left, is a matter for emergency responders, or coroners.
In the coming weeks, I’ll work on finding some numbers to understand more about risk, danger, and hazard avoidance in the cities and the suburbs.
This week, I briefly visited Philadelphia.
I had to loiter for a few hours before meeting a friend in Bella Vista, so I hung out at the Starbucks at the corner of 9th and South. I’m now typing this from the Starbucks at the crossroads of Ponce De Leon and a highway that was built as a turnpike in 1804. I’m not proud of sitting in coffeeshops so much, but I love the connection to places.
South Street is one of Philly’s great party districts. Party districts never spoke to me, even in college. I do enjoy the variety and festivity of the streets cape, even if I’m only interested in the Atomic City Comics and the Starbucks.The funny thing about South Street is that its nowhere near a college campus that I can think of. Its also almost a mile from the central business district and convention center*. But it is straight down the road from Penn and Drexel, and almost as directly connected to Temple’s campus. Checking a map, I see that the University of the Arts is a few short blocks from South Street, but 2,000 art students can’t support the frolics of South Street, even if they do have Camile Paglia.
Not that a Penn student would, but they could easily walk down Spruce and across the South Street Bridge to get their drink on in sybaritic glory. They would not pass through any neighborhoods that were obviously dangerous or bombed out on the way over. This may not have always been the case in the 1980s, but its been so for at least the last decade.
Many people have a hard time traveling through neighborhoods that are different from their own, either because they do not want to, or they are not allowed. The speed of traffic or biking can insulate from the neighborhood you are moving through, but many trips are routed to stay in the same kind of neighborhood as the home of the traveller. I wish I had national data for that, or something better than conjecture. At this point I am only stating a hypothesis. Yet another thing to find data to test someday. I’m sure its already in the literature.
The class of neighborhoods is defined by things like wealth, safety, investment in buildings and provision of services. Cities provide more for neighborhoods with people that can call friends at city hall. Counties put things that everyone needs but no one wants near neighborhoods where no one has time to monitor requests for proposals, environmental reviews, or public meetings. Neighborhoods rarely just fade into each other, there is usually some barrier that enforces the line. This can be a rail gulch, a highway, or a block of vacant, unsuccessful buildings. It can also be woods that were never developed.
These lines are much easier to define in the suburbs, however. Suburban neighborhoods are usually built as subdivisions connected only to arterials, not each other, and the arterials are separated from the neighborhoods by a gray band of parking. I’m sitting next to a 60 car parking lot on an arterial, and I would guess there are 700 parking spaces within a mile of me. A mobile home park, single family homes built in the 1960s, homes built in the 1920s, townhouses and garden apartments are also within that mile, but they are all in separate subdivisions. However, I would not know about the apartments if I didn’t decide to get a little lost last week and discovered them among the houses.
Within that mile are tens of thousands of square feet of retail and commercial space. I’d bet the wages of most of the jobs in those places don’t support the rents or mortgages around here. So all the people who live here get on the arterial every weekday to get to jobs lucrative enough to support those rents, and all the people who work here get on the same arterial to come to jobs lucrative enough to pay much cheaper rents elsewhere.
Its all very easy to do, as there are about 100,000 miles of traffic way in this metro, but it’s not cheap. Where I live, the traffic is legendarily bad. I’ve arranged my life to avoid that traffic, by choosing a home near where I work. I can tell from the traffic every morning and afternoon that mine is not a universal choice.
My design goal is to make places where people have the choice of living and working within walking distance, instead of needing to commute driving distances. I understand this is not for everyone, but right now a traffic commute is mandatory for most job-housing pairs. I’ve Identified where we could reasonably offer that choice **. The place where I’m sitting is at the edge of one of those areas. This place, next to the arterial, the 600 parking spaces, and the Wal-Mart, could offer so much more.
* Another special circumstance of South Street is that it was slated for destruction in the 1950s and 1960s. This may have made the real estate so cheap that it was easy to do crazy things without worrying about making rent.
** Thanks to the EPA’s Smart Location Database, which I’m currently reworking in GIS. America is a big place.
I cannot believe I haven’t written you about this until now. Today’s post is about scale in transportation, and one of the enduring lessons of my first graduate degree in botany.
Coming out of school in Atlanta, I was fired up to do urban landscape ecology. Every school and faculty I talked to had never heard those three words in the same paragraph, much less concatenated. So I wound up doing landscape ecology for my thesis project. Our study plot was a great design by Dr. Nick Haddad at UGA (now at NCSU) designed to test the effect of landscape connectivity and distance on movement of species. The landscapes were 128m on-a-side squares of clear cuts connected or not-connected to other clear cuts of the same size by a 32 meter wide clear cut corridor connecting two of the larger clear cuts. It also turned out to be a great way to test edge effect, since these were clear cuts after all. Each “triad” of patches let us look at the effect of connection on lizards, butterflies, birds, mammals, and bees. Or specifically, Passionflower pollen, on the backs of Carpenter bees.
I won’t go into the details of everything we tried to get good data out of these bees, but I’ll cut to the chase. I can regale you with colorful tales of graduate suffering, insect personalities, and personal misadventure in the comments if you’d like. Ask me anything.
Carpenter bee movements are a great way to study Passionflower pollination. Xylocopa are the primary pollinator species in the Southeast of Passiflora, and their bodies are just the right size/hairiness to pick up pollen from anthers in the morning and deposit it on stigmas in the afternoon. The problem with carpenter bees is that they are strong fliers. Nearly an inch long, they have no problem flying a mile or more in one day. This was a problem for an experimental landscape with a maximum corridor distance of 384 meters. We spent the first two summers figuring out that the landscape of our design was not the landscape of Carpenter bees. I had to figure out how to get reasonable data out of these bees, or give up on graduate school entirely. So I found a landscape over five times as large in the same area to work with, and worked my third summer to get data out of it.
This little parable is a great metaphor for the problem with transportation in America, and why we don’t walk as much as we could. The landscape we have built for almost a century is for vehicles that move, weigh, and need over ten times as much as walkers or bikers. New walkable places in America must contend with the fact that a lot of America is populated by these vehicles operating at a different scale entirely. Walking is an afterthought between parking lot and store, supplied by loading dock, fed by trucks. Little wonder that we barely walk anymore. We don’t build at that scale anymore.
Apologies for the hurried ending, but I have to make a journey that would have taken the founding fathers a week. In traffic, natch.
This is data I’ve been chewing on for a bit in support of my last chapter, and I thought I’d share it with you. My definition of sprawl is simple: is traffic the most obvious and useful mode for the majority of trips in that place? Then it is sprawl/. I know this gets a lot of false positives, but I like a simple rule rather than a complex one for explanatory value. I value parsimony.
The National Household Travel Survey (NHTS http://nhts.ornl.gov/det/) is a periodic sampling study put out by the DOT since 1965 whenever they can muster the funding to collect the data. After the first transportation equity act, ISTEA, in 1992, they began to take walking and biking seriously as transportation modes. I’d love to know what the national biking picture was in 1965, but the data was simply not collected. Bikes were seen as toys then, anyway.
Three big things happened since the 1992 ISTEA. We spent 1-2% of our 11-figure annual transportation budget on bike and walk ways, rather than just spending 90% on traffic and 10% on transit. We also had a great recession, which forced a lot of people to reevaluate their ability to pay the $8,500 average annual cost of cars. The cost of gas also spiked in 2008, right when the economy was collapsing the fastest. This put a temporary halt to the sales and even use of SUVs. Small cars, hybrids, and even walking and biking were suddenly fashionable.
During this time, there were three NHTS, in 1995, 2001, and 2009. All but the first of these was right after a party-switching election, and coincidentally right after an economic collapse. I won’t go into epochal patterns of public impoverishment, income rigidity and inequality. The data do show that we love to drive in traffic on trips of any major distance, but that we are learning to use other modes for trips under 3 miles.
Everything at the top of this mostly gray graph is all the trips taken by bike, walk, and transit of all types (bus, trolley, train, commuter rail, subway, light rail, automated guideway, monorail, tramway, and funicular (there are no cog railways that I know of for transit use in the US)). Note that the gray area is the largest area in the graph, but it is declining.
Looking at median and modal (most common)distance of trip, we can see that traffic, walking, biking and transit are sorting into their optimal distances since ISTEA.
Traffic’s share of trips below 1 mile is declining, but still in the majority. Maybe this is just a symptom of longer driveways and walks to the car?
Sarcasm aside, note that in 2009, less than 50% of the trips under a mile were by car. 17 years after ISTEA, but also a year after the worst economic collapse in living memory. Where did those trips go? Walking, mostly.
They only went a little bit to biking, though the pattern of bike trip distances in the table above indicates that Americans are beginning to bike more to the natural range of 3-5 miles. In 1995, most Americans got the bike out and biked as far as the closest traffic arterial before they realized that driving a bike in this traffic was lunacy. By 2009, bike facilities had gotten much better, so more people have been able to make much longer regular trips by bike.
Unfortunately, bikes are still a tiny fraction of the transportation, even if they are increasing. The scale of this graph is 10% of trips, not 100%, for clarity’s sake.
My challenge is to figure out how to tease apart the effect of infrastructure from economy. I don’t see that we have done nearly enough to truly embrace biking and walking as modes, but its encouraging to see that we are moving in the right direction. My concern, as before, is that the right direction is the effect of economic collapse, and not policy improvement. Biking and walking need to make a generally accepted case that they are more prosperous than traffic, not just cheaper.
So, what does the future look like, anyway? Rats and weeds, I have found, and here’s how.
I wrote this after seeing a sobering graphic over at XKCD, showing that basically all surviving land mammals exist for our sake.
This probably has something to do with the fact that over 40% of the Earth’s biologically captured energy goes to feed 7 billion of us. Our numbers, predicted to level out to 9 or 10 billion by 2050, already leave damn little room for any other mammals. Every species that wants to survive had better figure out how to be tasty.
While domestication is a great evolutionary choice for a couple of dozen species, there is another winning strategy in a world made human. Rats. Any species that can make use of waste food and waste spaces will thrive in the human ecosystem. Any mammal, bird or bug you see around you is there because it can take advantage of the human landscape. Some animals, like rats, pigeons, house finches, and cockroaches, do best in the most human environments. They’ll do fine in this bare new world.
The rest of the mammals, birds, reptiles, fish and insects will have to become food, rats, or go extinct.
But what if this thought depresses you, dear English-language reader on a computer probably in America? Americans make up less than 5% of the Earth, but attract a global network of goods and capital to their homes and businesses, for energy, goods, and even food. The average footprint of an American is 13 hectares, meaning we each need that much resource just to live in America, People around the world make their livings off the cash that we in America and the west are willing to send their way for goods and commodities. One of the goods we find most valuable in thsio trade is pollution. Pittsburgh and Chicago are very clean cities now. One hundred ago they were remarkably filthy, industrial cities. Many cities in China, India, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Bangladesh, are now filthy, industrial cities. One hundred years ago they were bucolic, colonial or feudal places. The scale of development and growth in the rest is largely in service of markets in the west.
Along with good roads, predictable real estate markets, enforceable contracts, and gadgets, markets in the west value biological conservation. For conservation to work globally, it must confer more fitness on nations, communities and property owners than extraction. Conservation right now is a luxury affordable by those with more fitness. Conservation is no longer the cause of this fitness, however, but a perceived good by those wealthy enough to not worry about making a living off extraction from the land. Conservation, or at least stewardship of resources pertinent to agriculture or commodities, was foundational to this wealth, but in the distant past. We now have the cash and logistics to buy what we want from overseas.
The rest are in a different bind. Still emerging from penury, conservation of land, nature and species is pretty far from their minds. Since the flood of wealth is largely from without, there is little incentive to steward local resources for the future. The future is connected and fungible, not local. The reason Shrimp Scampi is so cheap at restaurants is that Thailand cleared its mangrove forest to set up Shrimp mariculture to feed profitable American diners. Education or external incentives form the west will not alter this. The average Congolese citizen knows how to make a living, and conservation is not part of that plan. Making a living trumps conservation, every time.
The problem with food and land is that they are not substitutable. We all need food, and we would all like better food if we can afford it. This is not liken energy or gadgets, unfortunately. Developing nations do not have to build coal-fired power plants and use incandescent light bulbs with solar panels and LEDs developed in the west getting more effective every year. The only way to make food more efficient for a world of 10 billion people would be to use less energy per pound of food. In other words, vegetarianism or veganism. This gets back to the second problem with food. People want better food if they can afford it. Until there is a bespoke Turnip that is more delicious, nutritious, and expensive than Salmon, meat is going to be what families around the world strive to eat as often as possible. Conscience is a luxury, and greed is an honest emotion.
So what to do? Cost benefit analysis and education campaigns are bunk. We are all excellent at computing our own cost benefit analyses in real time, and our findings often run counter to the received wisdom of the Solons. The UN can release a 500 page study,with 15 page abstract in policy English and translated into 40 languages, and 1% of the people in the world responsible for the decline in species diversity will read it. Of those 1%, 99% of them will not do anything about it. Policy reports often stridently recommend that sovereign nations or local communities form action plans around their prescription, but these plans are rarely as compelling as the status quo. The status quo is often driven by state policies more compelling than the latest plan. I would not be sitting here typing with a few regulations and standards enforced over the last century on road capacity and parking, for example. If the government tells me it would be a good idea to drive less, I might agree in words, but everything built around me says I should drive more.
Anything that is going to work has to be more compelling at a personal, household, and market level than whatever went before. Any serious solution must identify the pieces of a new scheme that is going to work better for people, not because its the right thing to do, but because it makes them better off.
I left conservation biology over a decade ago because I saw that it was not equipped to deal with the challengers it set itself against. My upcoming book “The Land Less Taken”, is about a pro-growth way to develop that improves transportation and land use choice. These questions of individual fitness were always on my mind when I was writing it.
Friday, I will write a shorter piece following up on this one.
Bracketing the scarcest weekend of the year, I’d like to talk today and Monday about the grim future. Work and Life. I actually went in thinking both pieces would be plain and grim, but I’m getting more upbeat about today’s piece. Thanks to Cece Azadi and Andrew Stallings for having these discussions elsewhere. Let’s see if I can get this out in under 1,000 words. Continue reading
Its still snowing outside, in the coldest, wettest winter I can remember. I did come to the hazard, however, moving from the southeast to the northeast in 2005. Even old neighbors in our quaint (1967) suburban townhouse community say they’ve never seen anything like this. So there we have it. Whether this is an example a “Climate Weirding”, a revocation of same, or a periodic climatic event depends on your biases and how close they are to you. I withhold judgement, as climate is not a thing that happens in a season.
I just looked out my window on this snow day and saw the neighbor haplessly shoveling snow while her kid watched and played in the falling snow. By the time she’s at the end of the walk, the stoop will likely be covered in a fresh inch of snow. I’m not touching a shovel until this nonsense is over. The high today is 22 degrees, so I’m not of a mind to go out twice.
The reason this inspired me to write this is it called to mind something about maintenance. On Dan Burden’s Facebook page, he’s asking for advice on the state of the art in enabling walkers to be as much of a transportation mode as traffic*. A favorite topic this wintry weekend is shoveling. The state of the art in snow shoveling for the sake of walkers is city ordinances requiring people to shovel their walks within a day of a snowfall’s end. The sidewalk in front of each owner’s house or business is their responsibility, not only for seasonal shoveling, but for heaving, cracking, breakage, and other acts of egregious unlevelness that might cause someone to trip. The legal maximum deflection in our town is 1/8 inch, or about the width of the “_” on your keyboard.
Maintenance of sidewalks are the property owner’s responsibility, even though the sidewalk is within the publicly owned right of way. The city can make a point of this, or not. Cities can be very pushy about this, and concrete formwork and pouring for a broken section of sidewalk is not a bill any homeowner wants to get. My native Atlanta did not make a point of sidewalk maintenance for a very long time, and some of their sidewalks are in worse condition than the Appalachian trail. Putting responsibility for maintenance on the adjacent landowner implies that the primary beneficiary of a sidewalk is the landowner themselves. The primary function of a sidewalk in this legal doctrine is to be walked across from building to parking, not to be walked down as a means of walking from one place to another. Just as the sidewalk is a strip mall is for crossing between storefront and parking lot, the sidewalk in the suburbs and cities (Atlanta, Ann Arbor, Los Angeles, New York, and probably any other city I care to check) is budgeted and planned for crossing between properties and traffic and back.
Contrast this with maintenance for highways. Who do we charge for the upkeep and plowing of traffic lanes? Every passing car, off to trips maddeningly local or adventurously distant, cannot be bothered to pay the penny its live load costs in maintenance costs for every mile, every year. So we’ve agreed for a century that the maintenance of public roads is the public’s business, and we task state highway departments to monitor and repave the hundreds of thousands of lane miles in their charge. The annual cost to the public to own and operate a lane mile of road is very similar to the amount it costs for a household to won and operate a car: 8-9 thousand dollars. We spend something like the Marshall Plan** ($100 Billion) on the construction and maintenance of roads every year. We spend almost as much as health care ($1 trillion) to own and operate the cars on those roads, in traffic.
We see the maintenance of sidewalks as the property owner’s responsibility, because we don’t see walking as transportation for the public good. We see the maintenance of roads as the public’s responsibility, because we see traffic as the only form of transportation worth using in most of America. America has much to gain by seeing and enabling both as valid transportation modes.
* The metric of success is simple. For every 10 cars you see on the road, do you see 16 or more walkers on the sidewalk? Do you see 16 bikers in the bike lanes. If you get past those numbers, then you have a walkable, bikable place.
** Thanks to Bob Yaro for the striking comparison