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Laziness and convenience

September 8, 2018

I’ve long felt that I am basically lazy, and have only learned to do anything in a timely fashion because I’m going to end up doing it anyway, might as well feel virtuous for finishing before the absolute last minute. But I’ve also learned that another way to look at “laziness” is “preferring convenience” — if you want something to happen, make it “convenient”, so that “lazy” people will do it. We’re sometimes reluctant to increase convenience because it looks like “rewarding laziness”, and we all know that laziness is bad, right?

I mention this because failing to realize the importance of convenience is keeping people in cars, and out of mass transit, off their feet, and off of bicycles. This would be no big deal if cars didn’t kill thousands of pedestrians in crashes, cause tens of thousands of early deaths with their particulate pollution, contribute to global warming, and clog city streets with traffic — but they do. And since most of these problems are problems for other people and not so much us when we are driving, we still find cars to be pretty convenient, and thus use them to excess, even to the point where it affects our health and shortens our lives — we’ve made it really easy to be lazy. If we want to change this, either we have to find a way to make cars less convenient (that’ll be really popular, there’s nothing people love more than inconvenience for their own good) or to make everything else more convenient.

Consider transit. One big reason for driving a car is because it keeps the weather off. Standing by the side of the road waiting for a bus does NOT keep the weather off; if we expect people to wait for buses, there should be something to block the wind, rain, and sun. People driving get to sit; there should be a bench. It shouldn’t be optional, and it shouldn’t be regarded as “extra spending”. One problem with buses is that they’re not always reliable because they get stuck in other traffic; that can be fixed (making buses more convenient, from the point-of-view of scheduling) by giving them a reserved lane, and allowing them to trigger green lights so they don’t wait at intersections.

Or consider bicycling. There are many reasons people give for not riding a bicycle, but even someone who really wants to will be put off if it is too inconvenient. Bicycle parking should be convenient — in particular, it should be more convenient than car parking, because it’s cheaper and more compact. That means there should be so much that it almost never runs out. And because it is so compact, whenever possible it should be located close to the ultimate destination, and not in some remote corner. Ideally it’s also covered to keep the weather off, because a wet butt is Not Convenient. Yes, people can carry little seat shower caps with them and put them on every time they park their bike, but adding extra steps for people is less convenient.

It’s also possible to make walking more convenient. For cars, we have traffic sensors to ensure that green lights are triggered when someone needs to cross — nobody expects drivers to push a button for a signal. If we could have signals for pedestrians, we should, it usually happens automatically, and traffic flow is even studied to so that lights can be synchronized. Or, have you ever noticed that every traffic light everywhere always defaults to green for cars traveling in one direction or another? No matter how low the automobile traffic, the default is never for pedestrians. Such a light would be all-ways red, changing to green for cars only after one is detected.

This extends to safety devices. For whatever reason, we’ve somehow made bicycle “safety” in this country inconvenient. You’re probably already thinking, “bicycle safety, that means helmets, surely those aren’t inconvenient?” Yes, they are. Every time I go to ride my bike, I find the helmet, untangle the straps, put it on, make a vague attempt to adjust it. It almost always makes my head a little sweatier than it needs to be. When I get off the bike, I have to store it somewhere; it’s an extra step. And every summer, I sweat enough that I need to wash the helmet pads, because they get nasty otherwise. Have you noticed that car seatbelts don’t even require adjustment, that they automatically tension themselves? That’s because it was too inconvenient for people to adjust their seatbelts properly, and thus they didn’t and it was less safe than otherwise (I learned to drive in a car with aircraft seatbelts, the first time I flew in an airplane it was amusing to me that people needed instruction in how to adjust and fasten their seatbelts, I’d been adjusting seatbelts like that for years). People in cars could wear helmets — despite five-point harnesses and roll cages, race drivers wear helmets, and despite airbags and seatbelts, head injuries are a major cause of car crash death, and car crashes are a major cause of traumatic brain injury in this country — but they don’t. Helmets aren’t convenient. (Note that taking the time to answer questions about why you’re wearing a car helmet is also not convenient).

Or, “always wear hi-viz”. That’s not convenient either — it’s another piece of clothing to keep track of, it doesn’t always fit well, it can get dirty and need washing. It might not be appropriate for where you’re going, you’ll need to put it somewhere.

The safety devices I like, that I always and happily use because they are convenient, are built in to the bicycle. When I started commuting regularly, I knew myself well enough (and batteries then were needy enough) that I knew that I wouldn’t keep battery-powered lights charged, and besides, what a pain to attach your lights before every ride and then remove them at every stop, either because of theft worries, or because they needed charging. So instead I went for sidewall generators, and eventually generator hubs. If the bike rolls, the light is on, it’s a safety device that always works despite my laziness. The relatively fat tires on my bicycle are another no-effort always-present safety device. In this country we bizarrely associate skinny tires with “serious” cycling, but fat tires are better in several ways. They don’t require frequent reinflation, which is a delight to a lazy person. They don’t rely on my constant vigilance to protect the bicycle rims from potholes; within reason, they can handle whatever our town (a Boston suburb locally famous for its terrible road conditions) can dish out. Lazy people like me are not constantly vigilant. Fat enough tires don’t even fit in sewer grates or cracks in the road; again, with constant vigilance, I can be sure to hit those at an angle so they don’t grab my skinny tires, or I can just use fat tires and lazily dispense with the mandatory vigilance. (Fat tires also have lower rolling resistance, if their tread is designed for that, and since I am so lazy, that’s what I use).

My bicycle is designed for laziness convenience in other ways, too. I don’t usually use pants clips; instead I have a chain guard. Pants clips are inconvenient. Besides the lights, I tend to excess on the reflectors, because I’d rather not carry around a special piece of clothing just to be more visible. I used to use special shoes that clipped in to special pedals, but no more, it’s much more convenient to just ride in regular shoes, instead of either changing shoes at my destination, or walking around in unfashionable shoes that go click-click on hard surfaces and aren’t really that comfortable to wear all day anyhow.

I do in fact own two pairs of the funny pants, both because I raced when I was a kid, and because every year or so I ride dozens of miles in some sort of recreational event and for that distance they’re nicer than cotton underwear and pants. But I practically never wear them otherwise, because changing clothes just to ride a bicycle is not convenient.

Perhaps you think I’m crazy to be so picky about convenience, why would anyone worry about that, let along spend money on it? After all, you don’t see car manufacturers dressing up automobiles with silly gee-gaws like automatic chokes, automatic transmission, power brakes, power windows, power locks, power mirrors, power antenna, keyless entry, keyless start, remote start, air conditioning, cruise control, seat warmers, and backup cameras, do you? What sort of lazy person would want all that?

I guess people think I am tedious on this subject (people on Facebook think I am tedious on this subject), but bike share is very safe. By design, it can count the number of trips. We’re pretty good at counting deaths, too. In over 100 million trips there have been two deaths. (Death #1)

On “normal” bicycles, we’d expect to see 20 deaths in that many trips. In cars, we’d expect to see 9 deaths in that many trips. Instead, two. (As a sanity check on those rates, Canadian statistics are similar.)

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I’ll just put these articles out here.
Note that we count overdose deaths per 100,000, Europe counts them per million.
Our best state in 2015, Nebraska, had 69 overdose deaths per million, or back of the pack for Europe. Portugal, with decriminalized drugs, had 3 per million.
Here’s the European stats referenced in that article.

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Reading List

June 2, 2017

Normal Accidents, Charles Perrow
How complex systems go wrong, or not.

Influence, Robert Cialdini
How we get conned / how to con.

The Control of Nature, John McPhee
Hubris wins, but it’s close.

Waves and Beaches, Willard Bascom
For mitigation of hubris, and there’s interesting mathematics happening right in front of us at the beach.

Bicycling Science, David Gordon Wilson
More than you’d ever want to know about the most efficient means of human travel.

Roxana’s Children, Bonfield and Morrison
“Because they’re always writing about the men”, and reverse nepotism. Roxana’s my great-great-great-grandmother, married twice, raised nine of her own kids and two stepkids, all lived long enough to marry. (Morrison is my great-aunt).

To Say Nothing of the Dog, Connie Willis
Because I keep re-reading it and enjoying it. Time travel with bits of Christie, Sayers, and Wodehouse.

The March North, A Succession of Bad Days, Safely You Deliver, Graydon Saunders
Because I keep re-reading and enjoying them. A friend of mine doesn’t like them, maybe you won’t either, but I did. Emerging interesting theme: “we’re changing, so what do we want to change into?”

Yesteryear I Lived in Paradise, Myrtle Scharrer Betz
Florida before air conditioning and the crowds it has now. I grew up sometimes messing around in boats on St. Joseph’s Sound behind Caladesi Island, where she grew up.

Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, Braungart and McDonough
Read it once at the recommendation of my uncle, it made a real impression on me, and got me permanently thinking about the asymptote, after we’ve sucked up all the cheap-and-easy resources.

The Winner-Take-All Society, Luxury Fever, Robert Frank
Introduces you to tournament economies and relative-status utility functions (deriving satisfaction from your status relative to others screws up the mathematics of market economics; free markets can easily yield suboptimal results under those conditions).

There’s probably other books that I’ve forgotten, and at least one that hasn’t been written, about how flaky and weird our mental engines are, and why we shouldn’t just be content with how we’ve made ourselves, and how we could be better people (not smarter people, not longer-living people, but more considerate, less biased, more careful).

Biking and cold weather

April 1, 2017

One thing I didn’t understand growing up in Florida was how people could bike in cold weather.  Now that I live near Boston, I do it all the time, and I understand how.  I will share these secrets with you.
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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).

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