As much as I liked ‘Articles in Transit,’ I felt it was time for a little bit of rebranding. I bit the bullet, bought the domain name, and plan to update more regularly with more transportation oriented themes. Also, to anyone interested, I created a Twitter account, @transpophile, to share these posts along with other interesting transportation related news from around the world. Until next time, take care!
The Sublimity of Science
The pursuit of natural truth has allowed humanity to manipulate and utilize our surrounding universe to levels unfathomable to even our recent ancestors. By carefully observing natural phenomena, we are able to abstract the theoretical principles and model what we suppose to be the underlying laws that govern these phenomena. We can be confident in these models and theories insofar as they predict future observations. This predictive power is mostly easily demonstrated by the technology we ultimately produce with our greater understanding of the natural phenomena. It is not by sheer chance that when I power on my laptop the physical mechanics all interact so that it functions as expected. And while we may marvel at the utter complexity of cutting edge technology, it is only possible because of our strong understanding of the underlying properties.
Yet, this understanding would not be possible but for the rigorous scientific method, which allows us to be increasingly certain of what is true and what is false. And though science may be at best an asymptotic approach of omniscience, it is the closest humanity may come with our fundamentally limited physical senses and mental comprehension. Science will always be at some level an approximation of truth, but it is a constantly refined approximation, and certainly the best one we can hope to have.
The reason for this verbose introduction is to express my frustration with so much of society’s lack of understanding of science and the process by which sciences comes to be understood. I certainly do not purport to be any sort of scientific expert; I am not a theoretical physicist, geneticist, or climatologist, but I ultimately defer to the experts in each discipline because I understand that the scientific process itself ensures that every claim of settled science has undergone immeasurable scrutiny and verification. Does this mean that every single claim, even those in the realm of active research is absolutely correct? Of course not, and the idea that this undermines the credibility of science would be laughable if it were not so prevalent. As I said, science is the pursuit of identifying the underlying laws that govern our universe, and they will always be our best approximation of any sort of absolute truth.
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.
That is, it was conventional until famed economist, mathematician, paranoid schizophrenic, Nobel laureate, and protagonist of the book and film, A Beautiful Mind, John 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
Much has been said about work and success over the past several months of campaigning, and I believe it is the relation between the two that lies at the root of disagreements between the economic right and left. In my view, the theoretical poles of this spectrum can defined as libertarianism on the right and socialism on the left. To take the extreme positions for a moment, the pure libertarian would consider the relation between one’s work, and success to be perfectly inelastic. That is to say that every unit of work generates a unit of success, or more simply, they are perfectly correlated. At the other end of the spectrum lies the socialist, for whom work and success are perfectly elastic. Success is simply a function of birth, or some other immutable attributes. There is no correlation between work and success. I am fortunate enough to have never met anyone who subscribes to either one of those extremes, however anyone who has an opinion on the matter either implicitly or explicitly falls somewhere along this continuum. As a general principal of political thought, I believe it is essential to acknowledge that all political ideologies are inherently continuous, rather than discrete. Continue reading
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.
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.
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