Home

This came up at work, where we’re all still WFH and probably will be all through the winter, that Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing and likely to bite harder than usual this winter, what with so many people almost entirely at home.

One approach to this is to get fancy lamps and that’s probably not a bad idea, but another, and also this dovetails with how to socialize safely given COVID, is to spend time outdoors.  But it’s going to be cold, winter is that way.  How do we do this comfortably?

As it happens, I have been riding my bicycle 6 miles to and then from work year-round, near Boston, since early 2015 (and 2+ days every week before that, since 2006, 10 miles one-way).  I have some experience staying warm, though it is biased a bit by physical activity and my inherent toaster-ness.  However, I know how to round up and have also been out on a bike in single digits, and my advice involves buying stuff from a guy who lets you dial up the warm to levels that have me covered in sweat.  Seriously, I have a hat, it has never, ever, failed to make my head sweaty.  I call it the dammit hat, as in “dammit, my head and ears will be warm”.

And obviously, tons of people know how to cope already (people work outdoors in the winter, after all), but tons of people are also aghast that I bike in the winter and wonder that I am not frozen when I do.  I can only guess that they don’t spend much time outdoors in the winter.

“The guy” is Lou Binik, who has a business called FoxWear. He/his minions sew stretchy technical fabrics into things. The ordering process is distinctly old-school, I have always exchanged a few e-mails, the result is at minimum semi-custom for things like tights.  I typically pay by USPS-mailing a paper check.

For me, the three best things he makes are (1) tights (2) hats and balaclavas and (3) socks/oversocks.  My default fabric choice is stretch polar fleece, he calls it “Power Stretch”, you get your choice of colors and thicknesses.  2.5mm is the thickness of the dammit hat; if you’re willing to settle for black (it is always in style) you can get 3mm.  I’ve never tried “double sided fleece” or “Retro-X” but those are even warmer options.

The tights just work, and they’re easy to take care of, just throw them in the washer and then throw them in the dryer (I do tend to use the low heat level in general, to reduce the risk of accidents).  They work as an underlayer, too.

For tights-ish pants that are somewhat less stretchy, but more wind, water, and snow repellent, choose “Power Shield” or perhaps “Wind Pro” instead.  You’ll need to be sure that it’s not undersized in waist/butt/thighs, because it’s less forgiving there and you may end up feeling like a sausage if they’re undersized.  One pair I eventually decided was too tight (my thighs got bigger from the new commute), I gifted them to someone with skinnier legs (For reference, my thighs are 65cm at their largest, so if you’re in that ballpark and ordering pants in this fabric, you might want to mention it). Wearing these, you can go out and shovel snow or run a snow thrower or whatever for a few hours, stomp your feet before you come indoors, and all the snow falls off, your legs are still warm, dry, and comfy.

The socks are a peculiar compromise; they’re not as stretchy and comfy as nicely knit socks, and there’s a seam down the bottom.  But, they are super durable, warm, perform well even when (very) wet, and their durability extends to washing and drying; these are fire-and-forget.

Oversocks are a weird thing — super-oversized socks, you pull them on over your shoes.  They are unusually helpful for keeping your feet warm, I do not know why.  If you actually go for this, you may want to treat the bottom with Plasti-Dip — for that you put a shoe in a thin bag, put the sock on the shoe, find a pan/tray you don’t care about, and then “dip” the bottom of the sock in the Plastic-Dip (more detailed instructions and pictures).

Get the hats with earflaps.  Ears get cold, right?  If you’re up for a balaclava, you should get one, a stretch polar fleece balaclava is great.  Know what your hat size is when you order, that matters.

Another thing to consider is a jacket.  I ordered one once, and for me, it’s actually too warm, I almost never wear it biking and instead my son uses it.  It’s light on pockets, but warm, comfy, and not incredibly bulky.  Looking at the site just now, I see a Snowboard Jacket, and that looks really warm, and it has pockets.

So, my plan for cold winter days when I want/need to just hang around outside, is to wear a pair of thicker tights, the dammit hat, the boots I already own with a couple of pairs of socks (no overstocks), a scarf, and perhaps order myself a Snowboard jacket, with additional wool layers underneath as necessary.  If that’s not enough, I have a yellow Land’s End stadium parka to toss over the whole mess that I’ve owned since forever.  Gloves, I have some ski gloves for biking, those work.  I’ve done this before on Boy Scout skiing trips to Northern Vermont, the goal is not just to survive the cold, but to be comfortable, even just standing around in it.

I’m updating this as I read more, the goal is to write it all down in one place, compactly, with the best information I have in the time that I have.

Senate races that are plausibly close, to donate or volunteer.  Sooner is better,  do what you can.

This guy says “Iowa, Kansas, Georgia, Montana, Alaska, Texas”.  He’s using the “race is close, isn’t rolling in dough already” rule.

Your money goes farthest in these smaller states:
Maine: https://saragideon.com
Montana: https://stevebullock.com/
Alaska: https://dralgrossak.com
Iowa: https://greenfieldforiowa.com

A special election, seated perhaps in time for a Supreme Court vote:
Arizona: https://markkelly.com

These races are also competitive and states not too large:
N. Carolina: https://calfornc.com
S. Carolina: https://jaimeharrison.com
Kansas: https://bollierforkansas.com

Got to hold the seats we’ve got:
Alabama: https://dougjones.com 
Michigan: https://petersformichigan.com 

Don’t forget the state legislatures, those are also important if we want to get rid of Republican gerrymandering: https://idlewords.com/2020/09/effective_political_giving.htm
TLDR? These are good choices from that article, for flipping state legislatures and some overlap with up-ballot turnout.
Swing Left Super State strategy
Sister District State Targets
State Slate Omnibus

These seats are possible:
Georgia: https://electjon.com
Texas: https://mjfortexas.com
Colorado: https://hickenlooper.com
other Georgia (special election): https://warnockforgeorgia.com/

Mitch McConnell sucks, but is decently ahead in the poll and his opponent has a lot of money
Kentucky: https://amymcgrath.com 

For more details: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/09/16/senate-seats-most-likely-flip-november/

I don’t know how well this actually works; it seems better to me, but since I am biased I don’t trust that.  I made a few for other people and nobody (except my neighbor’s daughter, who is perhaps being polite, but it I notice that hers hangs from the mirror in her car) has declared that it was awesome.  Nonetheless, with “normal” masks people have complained about speaking, complained about breathing (especially jogging and riding a bike) and this really does seem better to me.

First, a picture, so you can see what I put on my face:

ME IN MASK

Two straps, one an elastic (13”) behind your head, the other a shoelace cut in half and joined with a cord-lock behind the neck.  A nose wire to seal below the eyes, and darts to make it go under your chin.  This mask seals pretty tight and is not designed to be super easy to move up and down, though you can get it off your head with one hand (grab the cord lock at your neck, loosen, bring same hand around to grab your glasses, lift glasses and mask off your head, put glasses back on).

And, unlike most masks, a pointy noise that is held away from your mouth by a pair of coffee stirrers (5.5” long).  The pointy nose adds surface area and the sticks prevent it from collapsing when you inhale hard, as you might riding a bike or running, and as I am doing in this picture.

My current plan is to make most of these out of normal fabrics, nothing fancy (the one in the picture is 700 TPI cotton, and yes you can breathe okay through that until the mask gets sweaty.  It is a little more work; I later modified the mask in the picture to include a second elastic so that I didn’t lift it off my face exhaling, and then wore that mask for 6 miles riding a bike on a hot day.  But regular cotton is easier).  For personal protection, you can also make these out of Halyard H600, if you can get some (I have some).  Halyard’s not washable; one thing I’ve consider doing is just sewing a mask without the props out of Halyard and just put that on over whatever I am wearing when I go into a store, so I wear it only when I really need it protect myself.  Halyard is very good (it’s “medical wrap”).

And yes, it looks a little odd.  I don’t care, consider the situation that we find ourselves in and the fucking idiots that got us into it.  I want a mask I can wear, period, without running out of breath when I ride a loaded bike up a hill.  I think it also helps with talking, since my mouth is not directly against fabric.

So, what if you wanted to make one of these?  Here’s the pattern, at 100% and 110% (I wear 110%; I have a big head).  It is based on a design from the University of Florida Med School, but different fabric, different straps, and of course the most excellent pointy nose.

I made a bunch of pictures while I was sewing up a mask; ignore the fabrics (3 layers, different fabrics, polyester bike jersey is really a pain to work with), look at the sewing steps.  They are similar to the ones in the original UF design.

It’s possible, if you are good at sewing, to make most of the fuzzy edge be inside the mask.  I have managed to do that.  It is a little nicer that way.

And, also, if your mask gets wet enough (drenched in a rainstorm, for example) it’s just not possible to wear it.  The air can’t get through.

Not-quite post-pandemic, lots of people (including me) are not going to be super-enthusiastic about taking the T to get to work; unless everyone on the bus/train is wearing a mask and wearing it well, there’s some risk.  And with many other people sharing this opinion and electing to drive instead, it’s very likely that the roads and parking lots will be filled beyond capacity; driving will be slow and un-fun.  That doesn’t leave too many choices, a lot of people will be biking, I read that bikes are flying off the shelves.  If not biking, then perhaps using a skateboard, or some other small thing with a small electric motor in it; except for the reduced exertion, very much like a bicycle, much of what I say here will still apply.

Cambridge and Somerville have also recently designated some streets for no-through-car-traffic.

In my case I was already riding my bike most places  (literally, my everyday commute plus on-the-way shopping, over 3000 miles per year) so this is no change.  But for some other people this is a new thing.  Here’s my advice for how to enjoy it more. Why should you listen to me?  I’ve been biking for over 50 years, been commuting by bike on and off for over 30 years, over 2500 miles per year for the last 14 years, and exclusively by bike for the last five years.  I raced a little bit when I was a kid, worked in a bike shop for a little bit, I understand the logic and assumptions behind a lot of popular advice that I now think is wrong.  I have (ahem) made some mistakes, some of them painful, some of them merely a waste of money.

And before someone gets fired up about how “I cannot possibly bike because reasons, you are clearly an out-of-touch idealistic dirty hippie” — the first section below is all about things that will make a commute difficult on a bicycle and perhaps make it not your choice.  So not you.  But maybe, if you want traffic flowing faster than a walking speed, and some place to park when you finally arrive, somebody else might ride a bike?

I’d separate my advice into three parts — things that generally hurt a bike commute (that you can’t do much to control), bad things you can avoid, and things that help.  All of this is specific to the area where I live, and to commutes that are roughly parallel to mine, into Cambridge towards Kendall Square.

Things that hurt a bike commute

These things are part of your situation, that you cannot easily change, that will affect whether your commute is pleasant or not.  If too many of these are negative, you might not have a good time biking to work.

Long commutes.  Too long means it will take too long, and you’ll be too tired (especially at first) and perhaps more sweaty than you can tolerate.  I am a middling-speed rider, nowhere near as fast as I used to be when I raced.  I did a 10.5 mile commute a few days per week for about 9 years, so it’s possible, but notice how I didn’t do it every day.  It took too much time out of my week.  On the other hand, my current commute is just over 6 miles (almost exactly 10 km) and I am quite happy to do it every day, it takes less time than driving at peak rush hour, only a little more when traffic is flowing freely.  BUT — I’ve been doing this for years.  If your commute is five miles or longer, maybe start off by biking it on the worst days for driving, till you feel stronger. I made a point of doing my 10.5 mile commute on days when traffic jams were usually worst.

Hills.  Hills tend to be somewhat demoralizing, especially at first.  Shortest route for my old commute (9.5 instead of 10.5 miles) was up Belmont Hill to Park Avenue and up to the water tower in Arlington.  I could save a few minutes that way, but it was too much like work so I almost never did it and took the long way Instead.  This was actually a shame, because from an exercise point of view that sort of serious heart-pounding work is very good for you — but it was just too unpleasant to do it every day.

One additional problem with hills, especially if you are a (re)new rider — you can go very fast on the downhill side.  High speeds are much less safe than low speeds; drivers will misjudge your speed, you‘ll have less time to react, and if something goes wrong, the resulting crash will be much, much worse.  So, should you find yourself descending a hill at a good pace just coasting, then just coast, enjoy the short rest.

Lack of good bike parking. Ideally, there will be some place secure and protected from the weather.  A room or “cage” where the door requires a card for access is good, video monitoring is good.  You’ll need to lock your bike up anyway, because thieves sometimes manage to work their way past the door lock.  Bonus points for clean and well-lit; that’s often not the case.  For smaller vehicles, like electric skateboards, hover boards, or mono wheels, you might be able to store them at your desk instead, and you might want to charge them anyway.  One thing to be wary of is building (landlord) policies; where I work, bikes are not allowed indoors, and it’s possible that the electric batteries on some of these devices would be banned for “safety” reasons.  One problem with asking is that you might accidentally generate an anti-policy, as in “better to ask forgiveness than seek denial”.  So inquire carefully.

Despite all this, I frequently day-park a $2000 bicycle on the street in Kendall Square.  It’s near a cab stand, the cabbies know me, it’s also within view of the security guard’s desk.  It helps that it’s a weird bike (difficult to fence, easier to trace) that doesn’t look like it’s worth $2000.

Bad weather. Weather is less of a problem than people who drive think, but it can take some getting used to.  In the beginning, maybe you only bike when the weather is nice in the morning and predicted to be nice in the afternoon.  After a while, maybe you bike in the morning if the weather is nice, and if it turns bad (that is, rainy) on the ride home, that’s fine, change out of your wet clothes when you get home.  Eventually, you might just ride in the rain. There’s two reasons for this approach.  One is that it does take a certain mental load to do a new thing, and adding rain (and puddles, and potholes, and drivers who fail to adequately compensate for their reduced traction and vision) can be more than you want to deal with.  Second is that rain can be cold, and in the beginning you won’t be as strong.  “Strong” in this case has an aerobic component to it, and the stronger you are, the more heat you can make, and you can keep yourself warm.  But in the beginning this won’t work, and instead you’ll be cold and miserable.

Weather also includes high winds, and snow.  For large enough values of “high wind”, you can’t ride a bike, you’ll just be blown off of it.  For likely values of high wind, it will definitely interfere with your steering, and no-hands will be off the menu.  For snow, if there’s any chance of ice at all, you’ll want studded tires.  This is why you don’t start biking in the winter; studded tires are noisy and draggy, and when storing the bike you have to be more careful because they scratch everything.  The good ones (Schwalbe Marathon Winter) are also expensive.

Really hot weather will tend to make you sweaty, and the longer and hillier the commute, the more this is true.  If there’s showers at work, that can help, otherwise, many people bring or leave a change of clothes at work, and change.  Slowing down also helps.  But this can be a problem.

High-stress traffic.  There are higher- and lower-stress roads  My old commute was completely tolerable for the first eight miles, but the last 2.5 were horrible (out the Middlesex Turnpike into Burlington, past the mall).  Bad hills, bad traffic, and in the winter, terrible snow clearing.  My newer commute has no big hills, quiet neighborhood streets, a separate cycle track section, more quiet neighborhood streets, and finally a 2-lane stretch where there’s room for a bike but the car traffic is so clogged it must go slow.  Slow traffic is good because slow traffic is safe.  But, imagine if you have a commute that is entirely on terrible roads — is that really something you want to do every day?

Too much stuff to carry.  I put this here because it’s a common problem that isn’t really a problem if you decide that you really want to ride a bike —  with a cargo bike, or a trailer, a moderately experienced biker can carry silly amounts of stuff.  But this advice is not for the moderately experienced biker, this is someone starting from near-scratch.  It is generally a good idea to get a rack, front or rear, so you don’t have to carry a backpack all time; those can make your back all sweaty, and wear on your clothing.  I pack my work stuff in a backpack, but normally it rides on the bike.  If there’s enough shopping on the way home that the bike ends up completely full, then I wear the backpack for the last two miles home.

Things to avoid

These things make your commute worse, but you can avoid them, either when they appear, or by choosing routes where they are rarer.

Big trucks. Big trucks are deadly.  In the unlikely event of a crash with a car, your odds of survival are actually pretty good, walking away with bruises and scrapes is common.  That’s not so with a big truck — anything with exposed wheels that can roll over you, can kill you in an instant.  If it seems like a truck driver might want to pass you, find a way to make it easy, find a way to get lots of clearance.  Pulling off to the side is one way to do this.  One place to never, ever be is to the right of a truck at an intersection; when they turn right the rear of the truck tracks a tighter line than the front, and that might end up rolling over you.

Massachusetts Avenue.  Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, especially west of Harvard Square, is not a safe place to ride a bicycle.  It is better now in places because some protected lanes have been added, but they’re not continuous.  It helps to know why Mass Ave is so unsafe, because it’s not the only unsafe road around here, it’s just the one you’re most likely to end up on.  First, it is mostly businesses, meaning parking for shopping, so cars are constantly parking and leaving and every time a car parks, its door opens.  That is, the risk of dooring is relatively high.  Second, it has more than one lane in each direction, which means that drivers have more things to keep track of besides you on a bicycle, and also that they will be looking for ways to use the other lane to go faster.   There’s other roads, use them when they get the job done.

Trolley and railroad tracks.  Trolley tracks and railroad tracks can grab your bicycle’s tires if you are traveling nearly parallel to the track and attempt to cross it.  This will throw you off your bike, it’s not fun.  So, avoid these, if you cannot avoid these, try to swerve so that you are nearly perpendicular to the track when you cross it.  If all that fails, stop, wait for traffic to clear, or just walk across.  Wider tires help, but it’s more a matter of better odds than solid protection.

Riding too close to the curb.  If it’s been a while since you were on a bike, you’re going to tend more wobbly.  At the same time, because you want to stay away from moving cars, you’ll tend to ride close to the curb or the edge of the road.  If you wobble into it accidentally, you’ll probably crash.  In time you’ll wobble less and can ride closer to the curb, but in the beginning it is about as dangerous as cars are.

Things to do

Get good tires.  If you’re commuting, you want the fattest smooth tires that will fit on your bike.  Thin tires aren’t good at tolerating potholes, require frequent reinflation, and you’ll feel every bump in the road.  They’re easier to get caught in cracks, and their rolling resistance is higher, which matters at typical commuting speeds (this is not conventional wisdom, but I’ve actually measured.  People use skinny tires for racing because at 20+mph the smaller tires have lower wind resistance.)  If you want a specific brand recommendation, Schwalbe.  One of the easiest bike upgrades is to replace the knobby tires on a mountain bike with Schwalbe Big Apples, Big Bens, or Fat Franks.

Get good lights.  Get spare lights.  You don’t want to be caught in the dark without lights, ever.  And it appears, based on one study of good quality, that running your lights in the daytime is also very helpful.  If you consider that cars and motorcycles tend to have daytime lights nowadays, and the number of times drivers will claim not to have seen the bicycle that they just hit, this makes a certain amount of sense.  If possible, get lights with a shaped beam so you can illuminate the road and be noticed by drivers, but also so you don’t blind pedestrians and other cyclist. Some people have real problems with bright light point sources, even in daylight (you may notice them wearing a hat with a brim).

Consider “upright” handlebars. You may discover, as an adult, that your hands and back are not as happy about that aerodynamic bent-over posture as they were when you were younger.  One fix for this is to replace racing handlebars with something “upright” — specific recommendations include Velo-Orange “Left Bank”, Rivendell/Nitto “Bosco” 52cm.  Sitting more upright is easier on your hands and back, makes it easier for you to see what’s going on, makes it a little easier for other people to see you, and if you need to stop fast, makes it a little less likely that you’ll go over the front of the bike (or so one study of moderate quality says).

Be nice to pedestrians. This ought to go without saying, but having watched other people and listened to how they describe these interactions, it needs to be said.  Be nice to pedestrians.  Stop for them when they are in a crosswalk (don’t just swerve around, the law says stop, they expect stop, so stop).  When you do pass them outside a crosswalk, try to pass wide, and try to pass behind, ideally both but at least one.  If you really really think that you need to say “on your left”, do you plan to wait for them to acknowledge you?  What if they are deaf? What if they are not paying attention? (That is legal, for pedestrians.)  What if they are listening to music or reading a book as they walk? (Also legal.)  It’s not your business to be the police for imaginary walking laws, and if not for you on a bike, there would be no problem, so yield, wait, be nice.

If you see small children or dogs, don’t assume that they are paying attention or using the same plan you are, assume that they could do something completely, nonsensically random.  My rule is that 3 kids or dogs means I should be traveling under 5mph with my fingers positioned on the brake levers — fast enough to pass someone walking, but also slow enough to stop on a dime.

Don’t run red lights.  It would be nice if we had Idaho stop, but we don’t.  The Cambridge police will ticket you for this, I have seen it.  All-ways pedestrian scramble is more ambiguous; technically you are running a red light if you ride, I have seen the Somerville police do this at the Mossland-Somerville-Beacon intersection (officer on bridge, over the railroad tracks, waiting to catch people coming from Mossland left onto Somerville, then taking a right onto Beacon).  It is, however, legal to walk your bike on a pedestrian scramble, since you are then a pedestrian.

Three simple tricks for saving time. For hills, work as hard as you can on the uphill, get your wind back on the down hill.  At stops, get yourself back up to a comfortable speed as quickly as possible.  Learn the light timings, and you’ll eventually figure out which lights you can make with a little extra effort, and which you cannot.  A block-long strategic push is easier, safer, and more effective than a last-minute sprint.

Consider slowing down.  If you feel like you’re too sweaty when you arrive at work, or the ride tires you out too much (especially at first), consider slowing down.  You’ll sweat less, be less tired, and you won’t be that much later anyhow — 6 miles at 12mph is 30 minutes, six miles at 10mph is 36 minutes (both of these, plus stops).

Other advice

https://twitter.com/jefposk/status/1258589011230126080 Twitter thread from another guy on a bike (SF)

https://bostoncyclistsunion.org/learn-to-bike-boston Web page, local bike org.

https://www.rivbike.com/products/just-ride Old fart in the bike industry with mostly-good opinions (we disagree mainly on top tube height, I think it should be lower or actually low).

I also enjoyed Bike Snob’s first book. Young fart, mostly-good opinions.

Tech guy here, not a real doctor, officially out of my area.  That said, I wish to rant.

For this pandemic, there are a lot of things we can do to control it, and a common criticism is “but X won’t handle Y” (and this is true), and the criticism is posed as if it is a deal-breaker, we should just abandon X, it won’t work.  This is wrong.  Pile on enough imperfect measures, and you can shut down the epidemic, and as long as those half measures continue to be employed we might be able to “open up” many parts of the economy once the infection rate is low enough.  One thing that motivates this criticism is a misplaced focus on what things like masks are for — the mask on your face is not to protect you, that mask is intended to protect other people from you.  If the only thing protecting you is the single mask on your face, then it has to be supremely good, and nope, a cloth mask does not meet that standard, those good masks are relatively scarce and doctors and nurses need them because they are exposed to nearly 100% actual sick people.  If, on the other hand, you are protected by the dozens to thousands of masks on the faces of all the people you might encounter in a given day, those masks don’t have to be nearly so good, just good enough (in combination with other measures) to stop the epidemic.  

So, first, a discussion about how an infection apparently progresses and spreads.  To start, you get some virus in your mouth or eye or up your nose or whatever.  A few days go by, and you become infectious.  A few more days go by, and you may start to feel generic symptoms, maybe a fever, and are infectious.  A few more days go by, and you may start to feel terrible symptoms, check with a doctor, whatever, you’re really darn sick, and infectious.  Some people never show symptoms, and they may or may not be as infectious as the sick people, but we’ll assume they are.  We’ll also assume that the number of people who don’t show symptoms is “about half”, meaning anywhere from 25% to 75% (this, from randomized sampling in Iceland, and from cruise ships full of old-ish people where everyone was tested and from naval ships full of healthy young-ish people where everyone was tested).  There’s guaranteed to be a few days when you’re infectious but don’t feel sick, or think it might just be allergies, and it’s possible that you might be infectious for more than a week without ever feeling sick at all.

The fact that so many infected people are asymptomatic is not good news; it means that it’s much harder to rely on people feeling sick and staying home.  It also means that nobody should assume that they are uninfected, which can be hard for some people to understand.

So, now, consider “half measures”:

  • Cloth masks.  Cloth masks are far from perfect at stopping inbound, atomized virus (for example, measles).  Atomized virus particles are tiny, and require an N95 mask to get someone to the point where they might feel “safe”.  Depending on the cloth, cloth masks may not be that good at stopping even bacteria.  Or they may be worn too loose to seal properly, or worn in a way that doesn’t cover the nose.  But: cloth masks are pretty good at stopping you from projecting infection; if you happen to spray it instead of saying it, it stays in the mask.  If you cough or talk loudly, the airflow is thwarted, the larger drops are captured, the medium-sized drops fall to the ground closer to you, the smallest ones are at least not propelled away from you in a puff of air.  Perfect?  No.  But better.  Suppose it cuts the rate of outbound infections by half per mask-wearer, and 2/3 of the people wear masks well enough to do this.  That means the revised infection rate R’ is R0 * 2/3 * 1/2 + R0 * 1/3 * 1 = 2/3 R0.  If R0 was 3, R’ is 2.  The virus is still spreading, but not as fast, despite half-effective masks only mostly-worn correctly.
  • Contact tracing.
    The old way: Suppose, crudely, 1/2 the people with the virus have symptoms, and when this causes them to seek medical help,  they are asked about their contacts.  Suppose that they remember 1/2 of their contacts, who are then re-contacted, and quarantined.  I.e., 1/4 of all cases, that would ultimately be both symptomatic and asymptomatic, are now intercepted and quarantined before they can spread the virus.  I.e, R’ = 3/4 R0.
    With an app:  Assume half the population uses the Google/Apple tracing app (this is actually very optimistic).  Now, symptomatic cases, half (1/4 of total) do it the old way and half (1/4 of total) use the app.  Naively, the app will yield perfect results for the half of the contacts that also use the app, and the other half have to be done the old way. It’s messy arithmetic, but R’ = 11/16 R0.  We’d want more, but this is “free” — one reason to use the app is that it is far less costly, and quick.  If we were lucky enough to get 70% of the population using the app, the math is even messier, but the factor is now:
            0.5 [asymptomatic, never traced] + 0.15 * 0.5 [no app, missed half of contacts] + 0.35 * 0.3 [contacts not using app] * 0.5 [half found through old-way tracing]
    or about 5/8.  Suppose we couldn’t afford to do detailed person-by-person contact tracing — if 70% of the population used the contact-tracing app and we only relied on the app, the factor is still slightly below 11/16.  What this means is that the app can still help when the number of infections is more than can be managed with person-by-person tracing.  But if you don’t have at least half the population using the app, it isn’t helping that much.
  • Partial work-from-home.  Not everyone can work from home, but many people can.  If 1/8 of the workforce that would normally show up at work can stay home, that reduces the infection rate; everything is less crowded.  Crudely, if 1/8 stays home, the infection rate is reduced by a factor of 7/8.
  • Partial testing.  Testing every person every week or every two weeks is an enormous undertaking, and it doesn’t look like that’s happening soon in the US (I’d love to be wrong).  Some jobs require lots of interaction with other people, which creates a high risk of infection for the person working that job and a risk of spreading that infection widely.  Assume for the moment that this is the source of 1/4 of infections, mostly on the outbound side.  To reduce the risk of infections, test these people frequently (for example, every Monday and every Thursday), and if they show positive, they are quarantined to prevent further spread.

Nothing here is perfect, but enough layers attacking infection spread from different directions can win.  Take all these factors and multiply them: 2/3 * 11/16 * 7/8 * 0.75 = 0.3.  Together, these are adequate to stop an epidemic that has a reproduction rate of 3, though it would take months (3 * 0.3 = 0.9 which is less than 1, but it would take 0.9 to the 11th power to get reduce the infection rate by 90%).  Any improvement — more mask wearing, better mask wearing, wider use of a tracing app, more work from home, more widespread testing — means it can shut down the same epidemic more quickly, or stop a bug with more spread.  Small changes matter a lot; if the reduced R0 is 0.8 instead of 0.9, an epidemic is stopped twice as fast (0.9 * 0.9 = 0.81).

Because small changes matter enormously, it’s helpful to examine why people might not do what they need to do, and think of ways to improve.  Realistically, some people won’t stay quarantined.  Some people might not quarantine immediately, which reduces its effectiveness.  Suppose, you’re on your way to pick up your kid from day-care (will we have day care while we’re doing this?  Pretend we will) and your phone buzzes and says “you were in close contact with someone who had COVID.  Please quarantine immediately, then call this number.”  So, do you pick up your kid?  If you don’t, who does?  If you arrange for someone else to do it, who pays the late pickup penalty?  If the “quarantine now” demand comes with some assistance for unwinding your immediate obligations, you’ll be much more likely to do it.  If you’re quarantined, what if you don’t have two weeks of food in your pantry?  (Or, you don’t have a pantry.) Who does the shopping?  This would be a good thing for a public health department to backstop (in some countries, they do just that).  And what if someone has a job that cannot be done from home — do they lose their job if they stay home?  Who covers their costs for the two weeks they’re not working?  If there aren’t good answers to these questions, more people will either cheat on their quarantine, or try to avoid contact with public health officials altogether.  That’s not how we stop an epidemic.

Or consider masks.  Depending on how they are made and used, they filter inbound and outbound infections with varying efficiency.  Workshop N-95 masks do a great job of protecting the wearer, but usually have a valve that allows them to bypass the filter when they exhale, so they hardly stop outbound infections at all.  Surgical masks (not medical N-95 masks, which are another step up in quality) are quite good in both directions.  On the other hand, surgical and N-95 masks don’t tolerate washing, so they’re harder to reuse. Cloth masks appear to be better at reducing outbound infection than they are at reducing inbound infection, but they can be washed.   If people can get good masks, they will, but if they have to make their own, the materials and fit will be somewhat random. For all kinds of masks the fit matters; if it’s not properly seated to your face, or if the nose piece isn’t snug around your nose, or if someone has the wrong arrangement of facial hair, they can leak around the edges pretty easily, and both transmit and receive infection.

One problem with masks is that many places actually have laws against wearing masks in public, and if people (in particular, not-white people) believe that mask-wearing will create a pretext for harassing them, they might not wear masks.  Or, instead, if mask-wearing is the law, how is it enforced?  If the first step in enforcement is arrest instead of handing out free masks, that’s not necessarily helpful.  If the arrested person is actually infected, the steps to arrest them are quite likely to spread the infection, whereas handing them a mask reduces the spread right then.  The traditional enforcement approach does not directly fix the problem, it instead (at outsized expense) “creates incentives” for other people to fix the problem, and just assumes that they have the means and ability to comply.  What if they don’t?

Contact-tracing apps don’t work if they’re not widely used, and if they are opt-in they won’t be widely used, especially if people have fears about being tracked or spied on.  It’s possible to design a protocol that is resistant to spying and hacking, but how many people will believe that claim?  One “solution” to this is to make the app opt-out, or even mandatory; this will cause all sorts of loud objections from a tiny number of well-meaning people who care a lot about privacy, but in practice mandatory or opt-out will save lives.   The traditional contact-tracing process is not exactly privacy-preserving, either.  On-the-other hand, a larger fraction of asymptomatic infections will reduce the effectiveness of contact tracing in general, because without frequent and widespread testing, nobody will ever check the contacts of asymptomatic infected people.

Another attack on the transmission problem is to try to remove some of the high-risk infection points altogether.  Amazon has experimented with checkout-less shopping; the cart knows what you put in it and know who you are, and you are billed as you walk out the door.  There is no cashier, either to be infected, or to spread infection.  Bus drivers are at high risk; do they actually need to collect fares?  Could collection be automated?  Do there need to be fares? (No fares might result in crowding; perhaps we declare that a “full” bus need not pick up new passengers.)  Jails and prisons are terrible for transmitting this infection; one way to fix this is to only jail people who really, truly need to be jailed — so for example, unless someone is arrested for a violent crime, maybe they don’t spend time in jail before trial, period.  I.e., change it so the default is not to arrest — take the entire process, and make it as if you were arrested, had a bail hearing, posted bail, and were released.  The current process is actually bullshit, because it pretends to merely be necessary process and not punishment all by itself, when obviously it is also punishment administered by police with plenty of bias and not much oversight.  I’m sure there’s tons more of these, where “we’ve always done it this way” or “we have a process” get in the way of less infection and fewer dead people (I mean, seriously, what about traffic stops?  “License and registration, please?” All the information’s on line in law enforcement databases, why should we be tasked with carrying around stupid little pieces of paper?)

It was useful to push some plausible (I hope they are plausible) numbers through and see what popped out.  One result of this exercise is that I am much more gung-ho about mask-wearing than I was, and much more worried that contact-tracing will not be nearly as useful as people seem to think.  I understand why people like contact tracing; they assume that they’ll never get infected, so it won’t be them having their privacy invaded by a public health official taking notes on exactly where they spent the previous week, and therefore they don’t have to do anything different at all, life will be great.  “And why should I let Google and Apple spy on me, I’m sure they’ll just try to sell me more stuff,” so they won’t want to run any app, either.  But if half the cases are asymptomatic and we’re not testing very thoroughly, contact tracing cannot reduce the reproduction rate by a better factor than 0.5.  In addition, I think any work-from-home that can easily be continued after the economy opens up more is a good thing; it gives us a slight edge in preventing disease spread, where a “slight edge” might end outbreaks twice as quickly.

So, that’s my rant.  Don’t dismiss infection control half-measures, combine a few of them and you get some real results.  And don’t quit with the half-measure you’re doing just because some new control has been added, the old and the new can work together.

 

Dear Motorists,

You have surely noticed that streets have many fewer cars on them, and that the edges have many more cyclists and pedestrians.  I realize that it is tempting to indulge the fantasy that we have suddenly landed on the open roads of a car commercial and zoom freely, but please let’s not.

With the pandemic and the resulting stay-at-home, many people are not getting the exercise that they used to, whether at the gym, walking to transit, or biking to work.  Kids are stuck at home — no recess, no Phys. Ed., and playgrounds and town fields are closed to prevent the spread of infection.  Ordinary socializing, at dinner, at church, in coffee shops, wherever, has also stopped for the same reasons.  As a result, people are walking, jogging, and biking, often with their kids, far more than they did before, and also socializing (at a safe distance) with friends that they encounter on the way.  If they didn’t, they’d go buggy, and probably be a lot less happy.

But the sidewalks are tiny; if people walking are to maintain a 6 foot separation, someone has to step into the street when they pass, and if someone is biking in the street they also need to separate from that pedestrian that just stepped in the road.  People now need to use the street for purposes other than driving; it’s a public way, meaning everyone, and transportation in general (and because these are primarily town roads, they’re paid for with property taxes, not gas taxes).

At the same time, because of what this pandemic has done to the hospitals, the risk is greater if anyone makes a bad mistake, and mistakes involving cars are extra-bad.  Hospitals are full of people capable of spreading COVID-19, and medical resources have been allocated away from everything else.  It’s a bad time to visit an ER.  Crashes are rare, but they happen, and right now any crash is a worse crash because medical care is compromised.  The biggest source of risk comes from cars; we (I am a driver — did you think I was not?) need to drive extra-carefully to compensate for the increased medical risk, and for the increased number of pedestrians and cyclists on the road.

And yes, asking drivers to slow down and take more time at intersections is an imposition, but your car does a lot for you that isn’t zooming down the road, and it still does all those things if you drive more carefully.  It still keeps the rain off.  If you don’t like the temperature, it still fixes that for you.  If you’d like to listen to music, it comes with a stereo.  Maybe you need to carry two weeks worth of groceries — it does that, too.  If you hit a pothole, it’s damage to the car, not your ankle —the car ER is not full of coronavirus, and they’d probably really appreciate the business right now.  And in this pandemic, it is downright relaxing to not have to think about masks or separation or any of that stuff.  And also in this pandemic, at least for now, you have all the parking you could want — so enjoy that, it’s just like being in a car commercial.  Just, please, don’t drive like you’re in a car commercial; take your time, go extra slow, be prepared for other people to be using the road, and share it with them.

And also, thank you very much for driving so much less.  The air is much cleaner, it’s a good deal quieter, most drivers are decently careful, but not quite enough people, and it is so easy to be seduced into speeding by the big empty road.

Teleportation

January 17, 2020

I saw this awesome piece of research on twitter, where someone asked people whether they would prefer to use a teleporter for their work commute.  Step in a booth, ZAP!, you’re there.

And, the cool thing was that not everyone said yes, and depending on how they commute already, they are more or less likely to say yes.  Some people were worried it might be dangerous, others simply refused to believe it would work. Some people liked aspects of their current commute ennough that they’d rather not switch, even if teleportation was instant.

I wish they had asked some more teleportation questions.  For example,

“We have teleportation, but it’s not quite perfect.  Every time you use it, there’s a one in six million chances of it killing you, and a 1 in 50,000 chance of being seriously injured in some way.  Would you use teleportation for transportation?”

“We have teleportation, but it’s not quite perfect.  Overuse is bad for your health, and increases your annual risk of death (from heart attacks, strokes, cancer, that sort of thing) by 25%.  Would you use teleportation for transportation?”

“We have teleportation, but it’s not quite perfect.  When you use it, it emits some sort of radiation that is harmful to other people.  If everyone used it, there would be about 50,000 early deaths per year in the US from this radiation.  Would you use teleportation for transportation?”

One thing that amazed me once I noticed it was how fast roads fall part if they have a decent-sized pothole filled with water.  Each car that drives through jets a little water out as their tire fills the pothole, and the water jet carries some of the gravel that makes up the road asphalt.  If you look at this picture, you can see all the gravel accumulating next to the curb and sprayed up onto the cycle track.  I think the presence of the pothole also degrades the pavement nearby; I can’t tell if it’s a lack of support from the side, or if water is getting access to the roadbed and making it less firm.  Either way, damage accumulates fast.

IMG 20200103 112228

 I’ve been completely unable to find any research or analysis of how this damage might depend on car speed; greater speed is certainly a cause of more vigorous splashing to the side.  It seems like reducing speed might also reduce the rate of pothole growth, but apparently this is not studied, not published, or not findable.  As near as I can tell with search engines, the internet consensus is that potholes arise spontaneously and are inflicted on cars, not vice-versa.

I’ve been trying to imagine how I would make the pitch to our town, Belmont,  (e.g., our town meeting) to increase the number of people who live here.  That is, I’d like to make the case for greater density.  I’ve been trying to get this organized for a while now, I hardly think that this will make the case all by itself, but I’d love it if people at least thought about this, maybe had better ideas.

I think the pitch has several parts — why we need more density, what the obstacles are (there are several), and how we deal with those obstacles, rather than going “oh, shucks, obstacles, guess we can’t do that density thing”.

To begin, why.  The main reason is that skyrocketing housing prices are socially bad, and given enough time to skyrocket, they start to be bad for the quality of life in town as “normal” people find it harder and harder to live anywhere near by.  And the longer we wait to act, the harder it is to fix the problem.

I take some of my conclusions from my experience living in Silicon Valley, which we left when we felt unable to buy a home (25 years ago) and which has since become even more unaffordable.  I recently learned that our favorite bakery in Palo Alto was closing, not because of high rent like you might normally expect, but because they could no longer hire qualified bakers; none could afford to live a reasonable commuting distance from the bakery.  This could happen here, too, in time.  Another problem is the difficulty that our children will have living anywhere in the area, unless they’re lucky enough to get a very lucrative job with one of the wealthier tech companies or strike it rich at a startup.  That’s how things are in Silicon Valley now; even as a senior employee at one of those wealthy tech companies, I’d be very reluctant to commit myself to a mortgage in Silicon Valley at today’s prices.  For most young people it’s simply impossible. That could happen here, too.  It’s a little harder to imagine this happening if you haven’t seen it happen, but I have seen it happen, I think we should very much take the Silicon Valley experience as something that is possible and should be avoided.

High housing prices are also socially bad.  Inequality is up for various reasons, but a spike in housing prices makes the inequality that much worse; unless you’re very wealthy, you probably have a rotten commute because you cannot live anywhere near your job.  Long commutes are bad for everyone; they’re bad for the children of parents with rotten commutes (who don’t get to see their parents, whose parents burn some of their patience just getting to and from work), they’re bad for the health of the commuters, and they’re bad for everyone who lives near the roads that the commuters drive on.  In Belmont, Cambridge, and Boston, because we lack adequate transit options to affordable suburbs, we suffer from all that traffic.  And of course, rotten commutes in not-electric cars spew pollution and greenhouse gases (electric car market share is about 2% in the US), and rotten commutes tear up our roads and cost money for maintenance, more than is collected from gas taxes and tolls (should we raise those taxes?  Seems like we should, but that also hardly seems fair to all those people forced into long commutes by our choice to let housing prices soar by capping supply).

We can attempt to mitigate cost-of-housing problems by reserving some units for affordable housing, but the higher the price of market-rate housing, the more costly (for someone) those units will be, and we don’t build nearly enough to make a dent in demand.

What these means for Belmont is that the town changes; what once was a town with a solid middle class and even a decently-housed and employed not-so-middle class, becomes instead a town of the very wealthy and the very lucky.  Because we are so adamant about not liking teardown and relatively strict zoning, the configuration of all the houses stays very much the same, but the people living in them are completely different.  I think the people are more important than a particular configuration of houses, and I think the character of the town depends more on the people living in it than on the size and shape of the houses they live in.

There are several obstacles to greater density.  The hardest and most important obstacle is how we handle many more children in our schools.  Belmont’s motto is “town of homes” (whatever that means — town of poor tax base, perhaps?) but in practice what we’re known for, and what drives demand to live here, is the quality of our schools.  Another important problem is how we would deal with additional traffic, but I think this is much more tractable.  A third problem is simply expectations; people assume that if the zoning rules are changed, they’ll be changed in a way that shortchanges them.

Zoning

I don’t think that zoning should be treated as if it were stone tablets handed down from a mountain top, because it’s not — we tweak it every few years, and recent history suggests that if every grandfathered structure in town were replaced with something that could be built by-right, quite a few lots would go vacant, and we’d complain about the ugliness and bulk of most of the rest.   People prefer the look and size of older non-conforming structures to the new ones that conform.  The same seems to be true of Somerville and Cambridge — almost every small residential property in Somerville is grandfathered and non-conforming.  What we actually dislike is change, any change.

Neighborhoods can change in several ways — a neighborhood can maintain the same sort of people over time (locksmiths, principals, newspapermen, bartenders, electricians) and perhaps get more dense over time, or it can maintain the same density, but as property becomes more expensive, the middle class can no longer afford to buy, and all the new residents look more and more like the most-wealthy 1%, and also tend older because almost nobody earns that much money when they are young.  Over time, as the town demographics change, town preferences and policies will change, too.  Older residents might stay, but as the reward for selling goes higher and higher, and as their children end up living far away in more affordable places, the incentives to leave eventually win.  Either way, something will change.

The original purpose of zoning was also socially dubious — “poor folk” were viewed as a detriment to neighborhoods — but that doesn’t have to be the case.  We can change our zoning to reflect social needs, like a need for more housing, or a need to let people live closer to where they work.

Traffic

One big worry about increasing density is that if the new people behave like the current people, we’ll just end up with more traffic and more competition for a fixed amount of parking.  This is a risk, but I think two things mitigate it.

The first is that the main point of adding density is that it will make the alternatives to driving more feasible.  More people taking transit means buses can run more often; in our town, there are two buses to two parts of town, and the bus that serves the dense part of town runs every 7 minutes at rush hour, and no worse than 17 minute intervals in the middle of the day; the bus that serves the not-dense part of town runs every 20 minutes at rush hour, and up to 35 minute intervals in the middle of the day.  Recently, to improve service, a lane was reserved for the more-frequent bus in a critical portion of its route because more people were traveling that section of the road by bus than by car.  The large number of people using that bus was part of what made this reserved lane politically possible — it was not “better for the planet” or “mass transit is good for social equity” or “mass transit is safer for other people” — it was literally, “this will move more people along this road in a given amount of time”.  Similarly, for bicycles, more people trying to bike to work and bike places will generate the political will to make it easier, and it might not even impede automobile travel.  The Mass Central Rail Trail is off-road, so takes no space from cars. In quite a few cases the impediment to car travel is competition for intersection time, not competition for road lanes (this is true on the Middlesex Turnpike/Lowell Street through Lexington, this is also true for Concord Avenue from Belmont to the Fresh Pond Rotary).

That is, one of the reasons for increased density is to make not-car transportation physically and politically feasible, and to create more options.  The bus that you don’t take because 20-minute intervals are not convenient, might become the bus that you do take because 10 minute intervals are convenient.  And by creating those options, we also create the option to not care so much about traffic; if you ride a bike, car traffic jams are just something that you ride through or ride past.  If you ride the bus, there can be a bus lane so you’re not delayed, and even if you are delayed, at least you’re not driving.

The second thing that might mitigate the traffic impact of increased density is that induced demand is a two-way street — if travel on a road gets easier, more people will drive there, but if travel on a road gets harder, fewer people will drive there.  Another way of phrasing this is that traffic will be pretty awful no matter what we do (till we ban it, block it, or price it), so traffic doesn’t actually matter. If, somehow, we kicked 10% of the population out of town, fewer people from in town would be clogging the roads — but more people from out-of-town would use the newly available road capacity to get to Cambridge and Boston.  This effect is becoming larger and faster-acting as more and more people use apps like Waze to quickly seek free-flowing routes and avoid traffic.  If, on the other hand, we added 10% to our population, more people who lived here would be clogging the roads — and cut-through traffic would seek other routes, commuters would reconsider using mass transit, car pool, etc, and the total traffic increase would be somewhat blunted.  At the same time, if we cut our population by 10%, our existing bus routes might have their frequency reduced because of the reduced demand, whereas increasing population increases demands, and ultimately leads to increased frequency. The #73 arrives more often because the #73 fills up.

Creating these options to get people out of cars is one of the reasons to favor increased density near jobs and transit; cars are entirely a personal good, not a social good.  Anyone in a bus wishes the cars were out of their way.  Anyone living near a road wishes fewer cars used it because cars are noisy and create and raise dust.  Anyone walking near a road would prefer fewer cars for all those reasons, plus the difficulty of crossing a road quickly and safely, especially with children.  Anyone biking on a road definitely prefers fewer cars (especially with children).  And even someone driving on a road, if they are stuck in traffic, would prefer that enough other people (but not them) would choose not to drive right then, so that they could drive faster.  And to the extent that most cars (98%) are not electric, cars pollute somewhat and emit greenhouse gases.

Another way to look at this is that our current traffic problems are in some sense a product of our zoning; we’ve zoned in a way that makes bus transit to half the town far less effective, so few or no buses run there, thus people drive instead.

Education

Education is a much stickier problem.  Anyone who’s rah-rah density and wonders why those bozos in Belmont don’t do their part, read this section carefully, and imagine coming up with an answer that’s not glib.

At least in Massachusetts, K-12 education is largely funded from local property taxes, and education is relatively expensive.  For Massachusetts, in 2017, average per-pupil spending was almost $16,000, but the average single-family tax bill was well lower than that, not quite $6000 in 2019.  This may be misleading because cities have both large non-residential tax bases and also large populations that proportionally influence the average.  I will instead work with the figures for Belmont, both because they are available, and because its proximity to Cambridge and Boston make it an obvious candidate for “why not greater density?”

In Belmont, the average tax bill in FY2019 was $12,720, so double the state average — there’s little business or industry in town, so almost all of the property taxes are paid by homeowners.  The tax rate is a low percentage because land is expensive.  Education spending is below the state average, and below neighboring peers, but still $13,581.74 per student in FY2017 — that is, more than the average residential property tax bill. In FY2019 the state subsidized about 1/6 of our school spending ($9.5 million out of about $60 million). That is, households with multiple school-aged children cost the town more in school spending than they pay in property taxes.  This is mentioned every time zoning changes or affordable housing are brought up at town meeting, and both the we-hate-taxes crowd and the spend-for-schools crowds unite, because the school supporters know well that our schools run very lean and are not sure how many more students they can support. (Results above average, spending below average, we have a goose that is laying golden eggs but gosh it costs so much to feed it.)

An additional constraint is the size of the school facilities themselves; there are four K-4 elementary schools, one middle school (5-8) and a high school (9-12). The middle school was rebuilt after a fire in 1995, but the school’s size was limited by state projections of declining enrollment in future years.  These projections turned out to be incorrect (the town lobbied hard for larger but was turned down, as I was told a few years ago by a member of the school committee then) and the middle school has been using additional modular classrooms since early 2017, when middle school enrollment was 1389 students.  Middle school enrollment this school year (2018/2019) was 1489 students (from belmont_public_schools_FY20.pdf, a copy of the annually updated original), and peak enrollment (based on real estate trends and the existing elementary school pipeline) is expected to be 1621 in school year 2021/2022.  That is, middle school enrollment grew by 7.2% in the last two years.

Overall enrollment, in the nine years starting at 2018/2019, is projected to increase by 7.77%, or 0.835% per year, compounded.Screen Shot 2019 06 10 at 9 13 13 PM

This increase is not a result of greater density, but changing demographics, but it is still an increase.  The number of school-aged children is expected to grow at a moderate rate over the next decade, and until the new high school is completely finished, the schools (especially elementary and middle) are pretty much full.  The new high school is necessary because the old high school has become impractical to maintain, but it is designed to accommodate two more grades to take pressure off the middle and elementary schools — elementary schools become K-3, the middle school becomes 4-6, and the upper school becomes 7-12.  This change is not reflected in any of the projections above, and it will reduce the space crunch in all the schools.  We’re spending plenty of money to make this happen.

I’m a little puzzled about how to reconcile the usual recipe for solving “our property taxes are too high” with the need for regional housing growth to match regional job growth.  Normally, the advice for a town like Belmont is to add more commercial property — that is, add jobs, not housing, because businesses on the tax rolls are a budget win.  That’s not going to improve the regional jobs-housing imbalance.  The state’s role in this is also a little puzzling, because Belmont runs a pretty good school system for not much money.  I am certain that a lot of this comes from our history of somewhat better schools and somewhat higher property values than several neighboring towns, which leads to selection for new residents-who-are-parents focused on their children’s education and who have somewhat deep pockets, but this was also true 25 years ago, with our much-more-middle-class 25-years-ago demographics (which we’re not preserving because the price of housing is spiking).  Assuming that the state government sees best-feasible education for the largest number of kids as a public good, it seems like they’d want towns with good school systems to be able to grow and educate even more students, but that’s not current policy.  The spike in housing costs also changes who can buy into towns with better school systems; the middle class is priced out.  This seems like something the state would care about, and if the state sincerely cares, they’d say it with a wheelbarrow full of money.

I don’t see an easy way around this; if we just add housing of all kinds, we’ll strain the school capacities and the school budgets, but if we do nothing the housing scarcity problem remains.

Half-assed ideas

I’m convinced we have to do something, but maintaining a small school system while adding population is a tough problem.  I grew up someplace with regional school funding (Pinellas Country, FL) where the population grew 3.3% per year the entire time I lived there, and they had a hard time keeping up (and that population growth was disproportionately older people, not children).

If the state committed to seriously funding education with state revenues, that would help remove the fiscal reason to oppose density.  In years past that funding source has not been reliable across recessions, whereas property taxes are regarded as intrinsically reliable (without anyone noticing that we defined them that way — Prop 2.5 permits a steady growth in revenues as long as property values do not crash catastrophically).  A wealth tax, i.e., a property tax generalized to cover financial instruments and bank accounts in excess of some threshold, might help here, provided that the state government diverted an adequate fraction of this into its rainy day fund during good times. (Massachusetts is constitutionally prohibited from having income tax brackets).  Or perhaps, some sort of Georgist land value tax at the state level.  I’m not sure what would happen with a wealth tax that allowed variable rates to track a stable revenue stream,like Prop 2.5 does for real estate; in recessions, the tax rate would rise, and that might make them worse.  Or, by prying money loose from people who had accumulated it, it could blunt the effect of the recession.

We have some regional cooperation already; for special ed, LABBB (Lexington Arlington Belmont Bedford Burlington) pools resources for better services and efficiency.  The local vocational education school (Minuteman) is also supported regionally by a larger collection of towns, though Belmont is not currently a member.  If there were a way to make funding more regional, say, by sharing some of the property taxes paid by an employer/employer’s-landlord with the employee’s city or town, that would reduce suburbs’ fiscal incentives for opposing new population growth.  Simply expanding revenue collection out over a larger region would do the same.

Another possibility is to arrange for the new housing to be too small to easily accommodate families, for example studios, and single-bedroom units. Quite a few towns around here do something similar for their affordable housing; they attempt to make it retirement-sized, not family-sized, in hopes of reducing the number of children that move to town.  Assuming we did this but for not-retired people, we’d want to locate it somewhat carefully to increase the chance that these new residents would be less likely to drive to work and common errands. Three obvious choices are Waverley Square (Fitchburg commuter rail line and the very-frequent #73 bus), Belmont Center (Fitchburg commuter rail line, less-frequent #74 bus (also #75), and an easy bicycle ride to Alewife commuter rail station), and the southeast corner of town, roughly Precinct 7, which has a shorter ride on the #73, and plausible bicycle access in several directions (it is past a hill, that helps).  Someone who was not really sure that people would do without cars might favor Precinct 7 because rush hour trips into Cambridge and Boston would traverse only a small bit of Belmont.  Another option might be near Blanchard Street between the railroad tracks and Concord Avenue; that gives easy bicycle access either to Alewife or into Cambridge, and the option of either the #74, #75, or #78 buses into Cambridge.  However, some of that is low, and might be vulnerable to flooding in the future.

I have in the past thought that adding small, higher-density housing would be merely “kicking the can down the road”, because what happens when a couple living in a small apartment decides they want to start a family? Either they will want to move into something larger in town (creating demand) or decide to make do with the smaller apartment that they have (increasing the school population).  I think this still adds students to the school system, but perhaps in lower proportion to added population than if we built additional family-sized housing.

Belmont has two lower-density areas that I think are problematic for adding people.  Belmont Hill is quite low density (zoned that way), but it has no transit connections, is problematic for biking because the hill is so steep, and if someone there drives into Cambridge or Boston, they travel all the way across town.  The northeast corner of town, across Little Pond from the rest of town, has some recently-built housing, and has a plausible walk to the Alewife T station, but is otherwise disconnected from the rest of town. It’s also quite low, and if sea levels rise much in the next few decades will be correspondingly more vulnerable to floods (5 feet shown, assuming some combination of sea level rise and bad storm).

One thing we might need to also do is get over the idea that a “home” (what Belmont is a town of) is a single-family detached residence.  I know that our motto is going to generate a little bit of resistance to building something that isn’t “homes” as we usually think of them here.  We in fact have quite a few 2 and 3 family homes in precincts 3, 4, 5, and 7, especially closer to Trapelo Road and Belmont Street.  Those are homes, and larger collections of smaller apartments would also be homes, and many people would be glad to live there.

So, people who come here to complain about cyclist behavior, why?

  1. Can you actually show us it’s a problem with actual harms? So far it is incredibly anecdotal, nationwide we get one or two pedestrian deaths per year from a bike crash, usually in a crosswalk, usually with a bike moving 20mph or faster. For comparison, last year car crashes killed about 6200 pedestrians, if you average this out to per-trip, driving is about 15 times more dangerous for pedestrians. “I’m an avid cyclist and I have feels” is not enough evidence. I have feels too, what makes your feels more important than mine? Collect video, collect statistics, make your case.
  2. If you claim it’s about bike safety, have you noticed that the stats don’t support you? Most crashes in Cambridge are car problems — doorings, driver failures to see bikes in the road or yield to them if they do. Even in cases where cyclist law breaking was a factor, there are other mitigations that also work, like separate infrastructure and truck wheel guards. Humans cut corners and make mistakes, concrete is there all the time.
  3. If your claim is it’s about road respect, where’s your evidence? Nothing else works this way, we don’t hear “take away crosswalks and shorten crossing times because pedestrians jaywalk.” We don’t hear “let’s not add more lanes to the road because drivers speed”. What’s so special about bikes that this would be different?  An excess of car crashes on a road where everyone speeds is actually used as justification to spend millions of dollars on road improvements, for example, Route 2 at Crosby’s Corner.
  4. EVEN IF THESE WERE TRUE, what the heck do you expect anyone here to do about it? I’ve actually tried, twice, it’s hard work to catch a light-running cyclist (they run lights, after all) and when you do and say “this makes us all look bad”, they just ignore you, and god knows that does not scale. Drivers do not then recognize that you are an awesome scofflaw-correcting cyclist and let you take the whole lane w/o honking, turns out actually they just want you out of the way.

Lest you think I am some scruffy law-breaking cyclist, no, I was Very Effective for about 30-35 years, I helped gather information about bicycle laws in other states to support Brownsberger’s changes to bike laws a few years back. I’m an actual Avid Motorist, driven in many parts of the US (drove stick in SF!), drove to work for years, worked on engines, transmissions, brakes, did some on-road rallying when I was a kid.  It was after chasing down scofflaw #2 above that I realized most of the points above — that “cyclists need to obey the laws if they want respect” is a scam; we don’t apply that rule to anyone else on the road, and there’s no way that I myself can obtain group perfection, and my efforts to obtain that impossible goal would go unrecognized.  

What I’d like to see is sensible laws, and sensible enforcement. Treating slow, yielding, bikes as pedestrians is a great default, the existing sidewalk bans in Cambridge (Harvard, Central, Inman, Porter, a few other crowded places — probably ought to add Kendall) make plenty of sense. Idaho stop (again, yielding to pedestrians) works fine.