Category: Transit

Improving Transit Will Not End Traffic Congestion (And That’s Okay)

It is unarguable that transit is vastly more effective at moving large numbers of people per unit area than personal motor vehicles. As such, it might be reasonably assumed that increasing the transit capacity of a city would decrease motor vehicle congestion as users of the latter shifted towards the former, thus freeing scarce road space. Yet, to understand why this is so rarely the case, we must dig deeper into the root causes of transportation demand.

 

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By prioritizing spatially efficient modes like transit, walking, and biking, the Tilikum Crossing is able to increase transportation capacity, and therefore potential economic activity, far more than an equivalently sized bridge built for private vehicle traffic, and without the negative impacts on the surrounding environment as well.

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Autonomous Trollies: Ceding Ethics to Economics

Autonomous vehicles will almost certainly precipitate an unparalleled reduction in traffic fatalities. And as someone who is deeply disturbed by the sheer magnitude of carnage our society is willing to tolerate for the sake of motorists’ convenience, I absolutely welcome this change. However, while Voltaire cautions us to not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, we are at the precipice of an incredibly troubling convention to be embedded into the state of our transportation system. I am of course referring to Mercedes-Benz’s announcement that they will be prioritizing the lives of vehicle occupants over all other people using the street. I wish to explore the disconcerting implications of elevating the value of customers’ lives over those of bystanders, and moreover, the general decline in our collective ability to distinguish between moral and economic philosophies.

In order for autonomous vehicles to be successfully integrated into the urban environment, they must account for the vulnerability of people outside of the vehicles as well.

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Zero Traffic Deaths: Aspirational or Attainable?

Moments after Transportation Alternatives’ Executive Director, Paul Steely White, opened the Vision Zero Cities conference by imploring the audience to regard Vision Zero not as a mere slogan, but as an achievable target, NYPD Commissioner, Bill Bratton, sullied the room’s enthusiasm by flatly stating that the goal, while laudable, was in fact impossible. The commissioner’s skeptical assessment, while disappointing—and as I will discuss momentarily, false—was ultimately unsurprising. But I would venture to guess that beyond the circles of activists, academics, and experts who better understand the nature of traffic violence, Bratton’s sentiment is largely shared by the general public. So long as people are walking, bicycling, and driving in close proximity to one another, won’t there always be the occasional confluence of circumstances that will tragically end in the death or serious injury of someone?

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Metro North’s Hudson Line, taken near the site of 2013’s infamous Spuyten Duyvil derailment in the Bronx. While undoubtedly tragic, that derailment represented a system failure, rather than a system norm.

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The Fallacy of Neutrality

It is difficult to pinpoint a single idea or experience that led me to believe that our current allocation of street uses is inherently unjust. There was no epiphanic “a-ha!” moment, nor a sudden catalyst which concretized my convictions. This, unfortunately, makes it difficult to explain my perspective, which is admittedly quite distant from the conventional viewpoint. In light of this, any attempt to boil down the essence of my beliefs into a satisfactory starting point has proved to be quite challenging.

In my attempts to do just that however, I kept returning to this one point which is necessary to understand my views. That is, there is no such thing as absolute neutrality. Now, I don’t just mean this in the obvious sense, in that a person can never fully remove their own self-interest and personal experience from consideration in pursuing true impartiality. What I mean is that all systems, by their very nature, harbor implicit biases which favor some things over others. All systems have incentives and disincentives woven into their very fabric. Moreover, there is an implied balance of power in any given framework. To claim that something is neutral can only be true relative to a given system, not in any absolute sense.

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Fourth Avenue in Brooklyn illustrates how the lack of consideration for the inherent differences between modes creates a hostile environment for non-motorized transport, rather than a neutral environment.

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A Carte Blanche for Public Space

There is perhaps no meteorological event more aesthetically pleasing than a heavy snowfall. The sense that crystalized vapor carries in it the transformative power to invigorate the mundane and ornament the begrimed is among the most wonderful attributes of winter. Yet the transformative powers of snow are not limited to mere aesthetics, for it also carries in it the capacity to transform a public space, and consequently the very essence of a neighborhood.

A street is not often understood as a public space in our current conception of the word. For our lifetimes and the lifetimes of everyone we have ever personally known, streets have been synonymous with motion—synonymous with roads. And the conflation between street and road is indeed an unfortunate one, whereby our confusion is carried through to its design, and set in place by concrete. More precisely, a road is a way from one place to another whereas a street is a place in and of itself.

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Residents wasted no time in reclaiming a snowy Court Street in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, NY, during the Blizzard of 2016

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The Unknown Survivor

The Eternal Complexities of Time Travel

If you could travel back in time, what would you do? The answer given to the point of banality is to kill Hitler as an infant. Yet, surely this would be a thankless job. Without any knowledge of the atrocities he would beget, you would certainly not enter the canons of history as the savior who prevented the deaths of millions from war and genocide. You would receive no recognition from the men, women, and children who would have come to be murdered by his regime, for no one would have ever known that they were to be in danger. Rather, you would be known only to the locals of a small Austrian town as the scumbag who killed a defenseless child.

Don’t get me wrong; I understand the impulse. Who wouldn’t want to save the lives of countless innocents, recognition be damned? No doubt, you are a selfless individual who would gladly take one for the team. What I have a harder time understanding though is how a great many of us would enthusiastically defy the laws of physics only to be sent to the gallows shortly thereafter, while paying so little attention to actions we can take in the present which will assuredly prevent deaths of the more quotidian variety in our own future. Continue reading

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: Traveling Between New York and Montréal

Though New York is certainly a popular destination for Montrealers, not many New Yorkers realize how easy it is to get to Montréal. The drive is comparable in duration to Boston or Washington, especially when factoring in the heavy traffic along the Northeast Corridor.

Over the past seven years I have traveled between my hometown in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley and my university in Montréal countless times. Considering that you can get from one to the other by just about every conceivable mode of transportation, I thought I would outline the pros and cons of each one. I have been asked from time to time to recommend the best way, however the answer is highly dependent on your circumstances. Continue reading

Think Adding Roads Reduces Congestion? Math Says No.

People like being stuck in traffic the way they like hearing nails against a chalk board; with the exception of a few masochistic individuals, it is universally loathed. If only the <Feds, State, County, City> would add another road no one would have to sit in this parking lot. Now of course one could imagine a number of logistical reasons to refute this fallacious line of reasoning: bottlenecking, merging delays, turning delays, signal delays, start-up delays and even further demand induced by the new connection, to name a few. While those are all certainly valid criticisms, what I intend to discuss here has nothing to do with with these more intuitive problems; there is a more fundamental problem rooted simply in mathematics and basic economic theory.

Conventional economic philosophy dictates that individuals rationally acting in their own self-interest would ultimately also benefit society as a whole– a sentiment well-captured by this panel from yesterday’s SMBC comic.

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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal #2891. 2013-Feb-18.

That is, it was conventional until famed economist, mathematician, paranoid schizophrenic, Nobel laureate, and protagonist of the book and film, A Beautiful MindJohn Forbes Nash, forever changed the field with his concept of equilibrium in non-cooperative games. His concept became known as Nash equilibrium and went on to become a cornerstone of contemporary game theory. Continue reading

The Perfect Crime: Kill Cyclist, Blame Victim

It is a hobby of mine to follow my hometown newspaper in order to stay in touch with those local affairs. However, to my great repugnance, I have read about one cyclist fatality after another. In the past month alone, there have been three human beings struck and killed by vehicles, the most recent of whom was killed by a woman with a suspended license. Yet no sooner does the ink dry on the reports of these tragedies than do apologists begin to hurl blame around to everyone but the one behind the wheel. And while it is true that tragic accidents do occasionally happen, what we see most often are not freak occurrences but deaths that were entirely preventable by the driver. But until we begin to hold drivers accountable for their manslaughter, I expect that we will continue to see article after article trying to make sense of why our neighbors’ lives have been cut tragically short. Here are some of the excuses that perpetuate the mindset that the driver can do no wrong.

“Cyclists are reckless, and therefore at fault for their own deaths”

The ‘victim blaming’ card is one that will require a little bit of nuance in order to understand it the way that I do. Every action that we take has consequences: some of which we can reasonably anticipate and others that we can not. All actions, however seemingly insignificant, carry risk. Although some risk may be negligible, everything we do undergoes some sort of internal cost-benefit analysis. However, even though some choices we make can lead us in greater or lesser danger, if an incident was to occur, it is never the fault of the passive party. For example, if I have two possible routes to walk home, and one is longer, but on a well-lit thoroughfare while another is shorter, but through a dark alley, the latter may carry a higher risk than the former. Yet however irresponsible my decision may have been and however much I could have potentially done to prevent it, if I were to get mugged, the fault would lie solely with the mugger. For it is he who perpetrated the crime even if there was conceivably something I could have done to lessen my risk. It is he who actualized my risk into consequence, and without him, my action, however risky, would have passed without incident.

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A Case for Public Bike-Shares

For my first substantive post I would like to discuss a topic that raises ire in many, not least of whom, my fellow urban dwellers. I consider the issue to be particularly timely with respect to the soon-to-be unveiled inaugural season of New York City’s own bike-share as well as the start of the third season for which I have subscribed to Montréal’s bike-share, BIXI. In my view, the public bike-share fills a critical niche in urban transportation. Complaints though are indeed numerous, and I will attempt to address them all here while providing my own rebuttals.

What is a public bike-share?

The latest generation of public bike-shares began with Lyon’s Vélo’v system in 2005, soon followed by Paris’ system called Vélib’ in 2007. They were the first to incorporate modern technology such as electronic locks, smart cards, telecommunication systems, and on-board computers. These systems allowed electronic payment to be made and for docking mechanisms to secure the bicycles in place. Bike-share systems usually allow for day rentals as well as monthly or yearly subscriptions. Usually, the first 30 to 45 minutes are included in the initial fee with additional time adding cost in cumulative intervals. After docking a bike there is normally a 2-5 minute waiting period before you can take another out, so if you are planning a longer trip it may be worth it to just park it and wait a few minutes. Stations are usually spaced within about 250 meters of one another and therefore work best in areas that can be supported by a high population density. The stations are typically modular, allowing many possible configurations to be added and changed and are usually energized by solar power, thus liberating them from fixed power sources.

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Why not just use a private bicycle?

Perhaps the first and most obvious question one would ask is what benefit does a public bike-share provide that private personal bicycle can not. The simplest comparison to make would be that of a taxi to a private automobile. In fact, the name BIXI comes from the combination of bicyclette and taxi, and upon further inspection, the similarities become clear. As far as private automobiles go, once you have purchased one you are responsible for its upkeep, parking, and any other associated expenses. Of course the advantage is that it belongs to you and you can drive it to and from just about anywhere your heart desires. Conversely, when you leave a taxi, you are no longer under any obligation for its well-being; you do not have to worry if it gets damaged or stolen. The downside is that the area in which you can find one and take one to is considerably more limited than that of your own car. Clearly each situation presents its own merits and constraints and the mode you choose is subject to your own specific circumstances.

Likewise, a private bicycle remains your responsibility even after you lock it to a bike rack. The advantage is that your origins and destinations are virtually unlimited and you know that you will always have access to it. Yet the advantage of the bike-share is that you are not bound to a single bicycle. You can take the bus, then pick up a bike, or ride the bike to the subway and come back a different route. However it is always possible that there are no bicycles at the station you desire to depart from or that there are no available docks in which to return your bike. This all goes to say that different lifestyles may be better tailored to one or the other, but clearly there is a large niche for the public bicycle. Continue reading