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People will live in electric vans

Reading an article about people in Silicon Valley living in cars (didn’t save the reference, go look for it) and noticing that there was no plan to build new housing fast enough to meet demand, it occurred to me that (necessity being the mother of invention) there would be innovation in the world of cars-for-living-in.

I thought about this a little more, and realized that electric vans (camper vans, minivans, step vans, not sure exactly what) were likely to hit the sweet spot for this. So many things go better with electricity, especially nowadays. Electricity runs lights, computers, fans, phones, electric blankets, in a pinch it can even run air conditioning. And it does all this quietly, with no smells. Gas powered cars can supply a little power for a little while from their batteries, but they’re small, and the usual way to recharge them is to run the engine when there is otherwise no need. Mechanical constraints to get power to the wheels usually force the floor of the car (or van) relatively high above the ground, reducing interior headroom.

Electric cars have comparatively huge batteries, and will certainly be able to refill at charging stations (and some employers even provide these for free, at least for a little while more), or at relatively low cost from someone else’s electric power, and there is always the option of solar (especially in sunny places like Silicon Valley), especially on the squarish roof of a van. Rooftop solar wouldn’t provide enough energy for a lot of driving, but it would cover consumption by electric amenities. Because power can be distributed to the wheels through wires instead of mechanical axles, the floor of the van can be relatively low to the ground (this is a really good idea anyway for a delivery van) which provides a lot more headroom inside.

It’s possible that a self-driving van could also dodge overnight parking restrictions by driving very slowly on low-traffic streets, automatically pulling over whenever faster traffic approached from behind (5mph or less, to conserve energy, minimize motion for sleeping passengers, and maximize safety).

If I can think of this, I’m sure someone else is already working on this. Anywhere that artificial restrictions on housing supply cause prices to spike, this could be an option.

After a little more thought, this: “Neighborhood Electric Vehicles”. A weight budget of 3000lbs, but no need for a high-strength frame or collision crumple zones gives you room to work with (old VW vans weighed much less than that).

Avoid Paypal

August 29, 2016

Avoid Paypal

I’ve been using Paypal intermittently for years, but recently encountered a problem so severe that I am now trying to terminate my account completely. The fact that I cannot, and that they cannot tell me why (without contacting “customer service”, as if I expect that to be productive) is one of the reasons why.

What precipitated this was two things. First, I moved my primary bank account from the credit union whose only remaining branch was a 30-minute drive away, to one a short walk from work, and our credit card company “upgraded” (?) us from MasterCard to Visa. Over time I took steps to upgrade all my recurring payments and stored credit cards. Most organizations would let me know if they had been missed, and I’d fix it, and poof, it was done.

Except PayPal.

For months, every attempt to remove the deprecated (now closed) bank account produced a message “Sorry, you can’t remove this bank account because of a pending transaction. Please try again later”. Same for the defunct credit card. This continued for months. I managed to find the place where the primary bank and credit card were configured, I changed those to be the new ones. I found the place where the recurring and preauthorized transactions were listed, and I canceled all of them, and went to the vendors at the other end to update their payment methods to a credit card (happily, I have a leftover credit card from oldest child sent to college, he’s employed, married, and working on a retirement plan, and it is perfect for this – low credit limit, almost never used, this cuts the risk both to me and my credit card company should any of the recurring-payment people be less secure than we might want). So, those two accounts have been deselected from everything, all the recurring payments are shut down – and no change. Still can’t delete the dead accounts.

Note that nowhere in the message from Paypal does it suggest that I can do these other things; I did have one shot at “customer service” and they told me about making sure that they old accounts were not the primary funding source – but that didn’t work.

So, given proven incompetence on the part of Paypal, it seems pretty wise to sever all ties with them, how do I know my money is safe, it was foolish of me to ever give them access to any of my money. But when I hit the “close my account” button, I get:

Before you close your account
Sorry, there’s a problem. If you keep seeing this, please contact customer service.

I’m not entirely sure what to do next. I may talk to my bank; I really don’t like the idea of these guys having access to my money, and I’m virtually certain that in the EULA that I didn’t read I consented to binding abitration bullshit, and that’s just way the hell too much exposure to someone else’s incompetence.

On June 22 Cambridge held a public meeting on traffic in Inman Square. I did not attend. I did receive a pointer to the presentation. The next day, a woman on a bicycle was killed in Inman Square, perhaps first doored, certainly run over by a landscaper’s truck.

Preliminary comments.

Slide 4, I see counts of “traffic volumes” measured in “vehicles per day”.
Which of the following is “vehicles”:

  • bicycles only?
  • cars and trucks only?
  • bicycles and cars and trucks?

I see no pedestrian counts, which seems like a major omission.
I also see no breakdown by turns, which makes it difficult to know how much of a priority to place on turning traffic.
I also don’t see any information about existing light timings.

For slide 13, the only group for whom “increase efficiency” is a concern is “Vehicle”, and I suspect that really means “Motor vehicle” since “Bicycle” is a separate category. This seems like a major omission, since you have apparently not measured either the bicycle traffic or the pedestrian traffic, we don’t know if optimizing motor vehicle efficiency reduces the total time wasted at this intersection, and it might well compromise safety. Lacking any other information, I think we must assume that each person traversing this intersection is equally important.

It’s also important to notice that attempts to “increase efficiency” for motor vehicles here could be pointless. This intersection doesn’t exist in isolation; it is connected to the rest of Cambridge, which is also filled with traffic jams. In contrast, both bicycles and pedestrians flow freely through the rest of Cambridge (I bicycle commute on Broadway or Hampshire every working day of the year, I have video) so impediments removed here would result in actual gains.

One efficiency problem that could be addressed with no infrastructural changes is locally-greedy misbehavior by drivers; people frequently enter the intersection without a clear path to exit it, resulting in a blocked box when the light changes (bicycles are less affected by this; again, I have video). Drivers also speed fruitlessly (later to be passed in a line of stopped traffic by a fat old man on a huge heavy bicycle, so truly useless speeding), endangering everyone. In both cases, the remedy for locally-greedy misbehavior is enforcement; tickets for blocking the box, tickets for speeding, tickets for running red lights. Automated enforcement is probably more cost-effective than staffing the intersection every day at rush hour.

Another thing I saw no mention of was the role of parking in reducing safety. The door zone is a constant worry to cyclists, and the space allocated to parked cars also reduces options for creating safe places for cyclists to ride.

Other questions that need answering:

  • I know that buses use Hampshire. How many people use those buses, and how much delay (summed over all the bus passengers) results from that delay? That’s another thing we should optimize.
  • There’s a lot of bike traffic on Hampshire, especially at rush hour. If we knew the range of trip distances for people traversing Inman Square in cars (especially at rush hour), we might get some idea of the potential number of bicycle commuters that would use Inman Square if were less dangerous and more pleasant (it is one of the more significant unpleasantness bottlenecks in Cambridge).

Given what looks like a severe case of car-centric tunnel vision by whoever prepared these slides, I think that someone needs to start over again, perhaps doing the mental exercise of banning cars and seeing what sort of intersection results. (That’s not quite a serious proposal for an intersection design, but it is definitely a serious proposal for being sure that something other than cars-cars-cars is considered.)

My choice for a starting point would be to de-emphasize traffic “efficiency” for single-occupancy vehicles since those are the least-efficient users of scarce road space, the most needy in terms of a clear path to travel, and relatively dangerous to other people on the roads. Buses are space-efficient, very safe for their passengers, necessary for the less-able, and a good backup choice in nasty weather. They’re not a good thing to crash into, but their drivers are trained professionals, and risk-to-others is amortized over all the passengers on the bus and thus is not that large per passenger. We should remove enough cars from the road to ensure that buses are not impeded. Both bicycles and pedestrians are very space-efficient and though neither mode is risk-free, they are very safe for other people, and they’re also able to cope with narrow paths and impediments that completely block automobiles. I would therefore do as much as possible to make those two modes attractive. When I look at all the somewhat-unused space in Inman Square, my reaction is to try to find ways to use that space make things better for pedestrians and cyclists, instead of trying to use it as more places for cars to drive on.

Videos of Inman Square:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FRIFG3ipgUc
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2rfuAL7XDzs
https://youtu.be/rlJv_6pJbzo?t=4m10s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GAPu7tdGHQ&t=7m0s
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Au1ubzT1AWA
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aZp2Ml5nYz8
https://youtu.be/deRQ4x2WUtc?t=3m50s
https://vimeo.com/109317447

Hypothesized mechanisms for “safety in numbers”

Safety in numbers is a cycling safety rule that says that the more people ride bikes, the safer each rider will be. Hypothesized mechanisms include (1) driver familiarity – because drivers more often see bikes on the road, they become better-trained to see them on the road and (2) driver empathy – because so many drivers also ride bikes, they are more aware-of/concerned-about bicycle safety issues. (Here’s a nice pile of pointers to papers, tracked down by a real live researcher.)

I think both of these mechanisms are entirely possible, but riding an actual bike in actual traffic in actual crowds of cyclists, I’ve noticed what looks like other ways that greater numbers provide safety. In at least one case I’ve captured it on video. The difference between these mechanisms and the others that are hypothesized is that they are extremely short term – “safety in numbers” can appear whenever there is a biking crowd and disappear as soon as it disperses. These are also somewhat more likely in crowded urban areas and depend somewhat on the existence of traffic jams.

The first mechanism I might call “schooling” (after Bike Snob’s “shoaling” and “salmoning”). Bikes riding in a line are schooling, and for several common cycling hazards, most of the risk is borne by the lead fish, and the rest get a free ride. If someone in a parked car is not looking for bikes and is about to open their door, but then a bike zips by, it’s not unreasonable that they would be startled, and maybe then look to see if it was clear – and if the bikes are schooling, all the followers get the benefit of that. The dooring risk is almost entirely on the lead cyclist. Similarly, cars pulling into or across traffic represent a threat only to the lead cyclist, and very little to the ones in the rear. A line of bikes is also somewhat protective against right hooks, since those usually occur when a driver thinks they can overtake a bike and turn right, or forgets the presence of a single bike. With a line of bikes, once the first is across the side street, it is obvious to the driver that a right turn is not possible.

A second method is less obvious, but safety decreases markedly in the range of speeds between the slowest and fastest typical commuters. A low-speed (below 10mph) crash is stupidly survivable; you can almost step off your bike as it falls down. A high-speed crash (above 20mph) is far more likely to send you to the hospital or worse. Bike lanes at rush hour tend to run single file for some distance, usually because the bikes are hemmed in between parked cars on the right and “parked” cars on the left. Inevitably, some riders will be slower than others, and the inability to pass then compels the would-be-faster riders behind to slow down until they can pass. This makes them safer, whether they like it or not. This, I’ve seen on video, where I play the role of impatient rider. The probability of this delay and the difficulty of passing both rise pretty quickly once there’s more than a couple of riders delayed behind a slow leader.

After dark, a school-of-fish also multiplies the effectiveness of any lights that cyclists might be using. Just considering use of lights and not, if an unlit cyclist pairs up with one using lights, they can obtain most of the safety benefit of the lights. When two cyclists both have lights, the variations in their movement or in the flashing style of their different lights will create additional visibility over a single cyclist; for example, one cyclist’s flashing light might draw attention, but the other’s steady light might allow a driver to accurately locate the pair. Not nearly as many cyclists ride at night, but bicycle lighting use in the US is not nearly as good as it should be, so there’s plenty of room for this to help.

I don’t know if I’m typical, but if I’m riding at night and overtake another cyclist without lights who’s not too much slower than me, I’ll slow down to give them the benefit of my lights. I’ve even done this with a (impressively fast and competent) rollerblader caught out too late on the local multi-use path.

The interesting (to me) thing about these is that they can work in the US, they take no time to work, and they take no change in driver empathy or enlightenment. And if a crowd of bikes disassembles, then the safety effects do as well. The effects should appear most often at rush hours, when the largest number of bikes are on the road and when they are most hemmed in by traffic.

A historical/hysterical note is where the idea for safety-in-numbers comes from, and why we assume its existence even when we’re not entirely sure how it works. Once upon a time, when Effective Cyclists were peddling their prescriptions for safer cycling (ride in the road, in traffic, just like the “vehicle” that bicycles legally are, and that legal status is a good thing for which the EC movement certainly deserves some credit) the counterexamples of “the Dutch” and “the Danes” came up, where many people often ride bikes on lanes entirely separate from auto traffic, with crash fatality rates 5 times lower than ours. The EC people were very good at finding and/or interpreting studies that “proved” that if only the Dutch would get rid of their separate facilities, they would be even safer than they are now, that in fact their extraordinary safety must have some other cause. (This might even be true, but nobody’s ever managed to get more than about 1% of the population to bike in an “Effective” style.)

And what was the obvious difference that might be the cause of that anomalous safety? “Numbers”. It must be “Safety in Numbers”, assumed to exist to fill a (huge) gap between theory and reality. This was convenient for the Effective Cyclists because they got to continue to feel correct about their prescriptions (“just you wait, once everyone here rides bikes, we’ll be the safest cyclists on the planet!”) but now this same hypothesized mechanism is used to justify creation of cycling-specific infrastructure that Effective Cyclists hate (“we’re tired of waiting, EC is phenomenally unpopular and we’ll never get the numbers that give us the safety we want if we do it your way. And by-the-way, global warming, particulate pollution, pedestrian deaths, urban congestion delays, traffic noise, and public health, we need this now. Infrastructure will get butts in saddles and safety-in-numbers ‘proves’ that they’ll be safe.”)

I was just in Mountain View for most of a week on business, biking to and from work and to work dinners in the evening. The roads are much smoother than here near Boston, the weather was warmer, it did rain once, but wimpily, and it’s flat as a board in Silicon Valley. Biking there ought to be great.

Links go to short YouTube videos illustrating claims/points

However, they blow it. If you need to cover any particular distance, it’s easy to find yourself with no choice but a four-lane road with a door zone bike lane that waxes and wanes with the whim of whoever laid out the road, and parking is prioritized enough that you often find yourself squeezed towards traffic.

One shared use path is designed with the apparent assumption that bicycles are OMFG deadly dangerous to pedestrians, so it’s considered appropriate to encourage lower speeds by installing barriers that make high speeds deadly, and that also makes larger bikes (bakfiets, trailers) difficult to pass through, and that guarantee conflicts whenever people are traveling in opposite directions or if there’s a pedestrian and a bike traveling in the same direction. Imagine, for cars, that a crosswalk was made safe not just by installing a narrowing bumpout in each lane, but by narrowing the road to a single lane for both directions.

Note that this is on a straight path where everything is completely visible, so all that’s really needed in most cases is a “slow for pedestrians” sign. Not all people will go as slow as they should, but not all people will negotiate those gates without injury or conflict, either. Later on, a blind intersection with plenty of cross traffic on the Google Campus goes completely unremarked, and several curves past that are gratuitously blind, either because of untrimmed vegetation, or because bicycles were routed between two chain link fences, and for no particular reason one side (the one that matters) is intentionally made opaque by slatting installed in the fence so that it’s impossible to see oncoming bicycle or pedestrian traffic on the fence-narrowed path.

Incomprehensibly, an underpass with over 7 feet of clearance (I reached a hand up to measure as I passed under, so that’s an estimate – apparently they couldn’t be tasked with actual measurement, but I ride quite tall and cleared easily) was declared to be dangerously low, and thus we’re told to walk our bikes there, as if.

Actual road crossings are designed with zero thought to the convenience of cyclists. At one there’s a gate to force a U-turn to enter it, then a beg button that imposes an interminable wait despite large gaps in motor traffic (I didn’t wait). A cyclist obeying traffic laws to the letter could not ride back that same way – the returning lane slips onto San Antonio, and returning on the sidewalk instead one is greeted with a WRONG WAY sign specific to bicycles (and the sidewalk is clearly intended for bicycles, else the sign would read “no bike riding”). It’s not much wonder that I just wing it.

At another crossing on the Permanente Creek trail, cyclists are vaguely directed to enter traffic and then make a u-turn at the light, as if that is preferable to looking for a gap (which we’d need to look for anyway, to enter traffic to make that u-turn) and just crossing on foot. There’s a sidewalk, but it’s twisty and too narrow for two-way traffic. Crossing on foot is necessary because there’s a big-ass curb in the middle of the road. The same can be seen on parts of Middlefield, where children crossing to/from school have worn goat paths in the median strip, far from any crosswalk. (Video is not great; there were kids, they were waiting to cross, and the median is cut by little footpaths.)

At a larger level, multilane Alma/Central and the RR tracks make a nasty barrier to traveling (peninsula-compass) east-west in Mountain View. Crossings are not well signed, Google Maps doesn’t seem to know about them, the entry is tight, the mirrors at the bottom make it clear the bicycles are known/expected to be there, but the ramps are quite narrow, guaranteeing conflict if there’s 2-way traffic or pedestrians.

This is all doubly annoying because it could be so nice. Remember, flat topography and a mild climate. If there were good, comfortable, safe routes that led anywhere interesting, lots of people could and almost certainly would use them. But right now, Mountain View is failing both in the small (annoying and insulting inattention to details of intersections and safety) and in the large (arteries are for cars – wide, fast, and with varying-width door-zone bike lanes, sometimes very fast).

And yeah, I know, “reasons”. Y’all ought to look at yourselves, a 10-lane highway jammed up every morning, even with thousands of employees delivered by buses instead of single-occupancy vehicles. I rode a bike to dinner after work and beat the people driving. Here’s two free clues as to why Mountain View ought to install a ton of really nice bicycle infrastructure. #1, no matter what you do about traffic, more cars will always arrive to fill the voids that you create, and with high tech salaries I’m not sure even congestion charges would do the job. #2, if you install really nice bicycle infrastructure, if you need to get around your own town, you won’t care about that traffic, and because the land is so flat and the climate so mild, that’ll be true all year. You might want to knock out a few parking spaces and replace them with bike corrals to make this really be true, but I managed to find bicycle parking a lot closer to the restaurant than anyone driving there.

Subway capacities

May 7, 2016

I recall once figuring that the capacity of a single track of subway was substantially higher than a lane of traffic. This is how that is calculated for a real live subway (the MBTA Red Line, also roughly applies to Orange and Blue lines which run similar equipment.)

redline_cars_per_train = 6

Source: Wikipedia red line article

redline_trains_per_hour = 60/4.5 = 13.3

Source: 2014 MBTA Blue Book, page 17.
Headway is 8 or 9 minutes at rush hour on each of the Alewife/Ashmont and Alewife/Braintree lines, or 4.5 minutes on average on the shared portion of the line.

redline_ppl_per_car_policy = 167
redline_ppl_per_car_crush = (267*74+260*58+277*86)/(74+58+86)
redline_ppl_per_car_seated=(63*74+62*58+52*86)/(74+58+86)

Source: 2014 MBTA Blue Book, page 18.
167 is the policy people-per-car. Seated and crush capacities are averages over the red line fleet.

seated_rush_cap = redline_ppl_per_car_seated * redline_cars_per_train
policy_rush_cap = redline_ppl_per_car_policy * redline_cars_per_train
crush_rush_cap = redline_ppl_per_car_crush * redline_cars_per_train

seated_rush_cap * redline_trains_per_hour => 4,671.5596
policy_rush_cap * redline_trains_per_hour => 13,360
crush_rush_cap * redline_trains_per_hour => 21,526.6055

Compare this with a lane of traffic. Rule of thumb is that you get one car every two seconds, or 1800 cars per hour, and an average of 1.2 people per automobile, or 2160 people per lane per hour. Simple seated subway capacity at rush hour is double that, so-called “policy” capacity is 6 times that. Crush capacity, which I’ve seen and not much liked (“nobody takes the subway, it’s too crowded”) is just shy of 10 times the capacity of a lane of traffic.

And understand, this is far from the theoretical capacity of a subway line, it’s just what is actually obtained on a real subway in a real city at rush hour. Run longer trains (requires longer platforms, a completely doable thing) and you can add capacity. Run trains more frequently, and you raise capacity – the London Underground appears to manage 24 trains per hour at rush hour on the Northern Line or not quite double the Red Line’s frequency.

Re-doing the numbers at the London Underground’s rate for scheduling trains:

seated_rush_cap * underground_trains_per_hour => 8,408.8073
policy_rush_cap * underground_trains_per_hour => 24,048
crush_rush_cap * underground_trains_per_hour => 38,747.8899

At the Underground rate, “policy” train packing carries 11% more people than “crush” packing in the current system. And the theoretical “crush” capacity is the equivalent of 18 lanes of traffic.

Earlier this week, I was riding my bike home on a road with a bike lane, and came up to an intersection where the car at the front looked like it was planning to turn right (based on position in lane and angle of wheels) but was not signaling a right turn. The intersection has no advanced stop line for bicycles, just a plain old stop line and crosswalk. And understand, me going first is a completely legal thing, there are two lanes, straight traffic has right-of-way over turning traffic.

This presented several choices. I could stop far enough back that if the driver intended to turn right, they could easily do so (except that they would probably get hung up by pedestrians in the crosswalk and would stop midway, blocking the bike lane and delaying me). If they did manage to turn right quickly, there’s no guarantee that the driver behind might not try to barge on through with their own right turn; that’s happened, I even have video of someone doing this. Or, I could pull up to the stop line, and hope that if they did decide to turn, that they’d notice my presence in time not to hit me, and also not try to just make their turn through intimidation. Or, (and this is what I did) I could stop a little bit in front of the stop line – technically illegal, though I’ve never, ever seen this particular law enforced and drivers violate it constantly – and position myself so that the driver could hardly help seeing me, and even if he didn’t or if he decided to go anyway and there was a collision, I’d land on the hood of the car – relatively safe for me as collisions go, relatively damaging to the hood of the (expensive) car.

I hope it’s clear that this is no way for a normal person to ride a bicycle. I do so because I’ve learned it over the years and it’s no longer difficult, but to think that I would explain this to someone else as “useful tips for riding in traffic” is insane. This is similar to knowing that “it’s okay to ride closer to parked cars in a residential permit parking zone, because people move those cars only about once a day”. Or, “practice riding through potholes no-hands, so you get really good at controlling your bike on our crappy crappy roads”. I’m not making any of this stuff up, I do these crazy things, our roads are messed-up enough that it helps.

I’m not sure how this gets fixed. Safety-in-numbers is some mitigation; with enough people on bicycles, it becomes obvious that there’s bike traffic to the right and bike traffic through intersections and bike traffic past car doors, and the normal distribution of aggression among bicyclists insures that a few of them will help carve out space for the rest. I don’t put much stock in driver education; there’s not that much in it for the drivers, and it’s work to constantly be looking around for bikes. We could pretend to do more enforcement, but in practice the majority has zero appetite for that (evidence: we don’t vote for more enforcement, despite continual infractions and drivers killing thousands of themselves and other people every year). I think I’d like it if we adopted some modern Dutch infrastructure; a lot of that is designed to get rid of these designed-in conflicts and make it easier to see what’s going on. I have some hope that robot cars might be helpful; tedious rules like “always signal a turn at least 10 seconds or 3 car lengths before the turn” are what computers are for, as is “look for bikes in all directions always”.