Tag Archives: street design

best practices for sidewalk closures

Here are some best practices for sidewalk closures published by the city of Oakland, California. In a nutshell, contractors have to provide a walkway rather than make pedestrians cross the street in downtown areas, expect for very short periods. The walkways have to be ADA accessible. If the walkways take up a bike lane, there has to be a safe place for the bikes to go. Barriers have to be substantial enough to actually protect pedestrians if vehicles hit them. I could walk 5 minutes in any direction in Philadelphia and see every one of these principles violated.

January 2017 in Review

I just realized I forgot to do a month in review post in January. Well, I had a lot going on in my personal life in January, most notably the arrival of a tiny new human being. Blog posts are not the only thing I forgot – I forgot to pay some important bills and to do some important paperwork at my job too.

3 most frightening stories

  • Cheetahs are in serious trouble.
  • The U.S. government may be “planning to roll back or dilute many of the provisions of Dodd-Frank, particularly those that protect consumers from toxic financial products and those that impose restrictions on banks”.
  • “Between 1946 and 2000, the US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in about one of every nine competitive national-level executive elections.” The “Great Game” is back in Afghanistan.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

you can sue your city for unsafe streets

According to Streetsblog NYC:

The Court of Appeals, New York’s highest court, ruled that New York City and other municipalities can be held liable for failing to redesign streets with a history of traffic injuries and reckless driving…

“This decision is a game-changer,” says Steve Vaccaro, an attorney who represents traffic crash victims. “The court held that departments of transportation can be held liable for harm caused by speeding drivers, where the DOT fails to install traffic-calming measures even though it is aware of dangerous speeding, unless the DOT has specifically undertaken a study and determined that traffic calming is not required…”

Vaccaro said the decision “will create an affirmative obligation on the DOT’s part to — at the very least — conduct studies to determine whether infrastructure can reduce traffic violence, and unless such studies indicate otherwise, to install the infrastructure.”

Lawsuits are not the ideal way to do urban planning or protect public safety. They are a last resort. But I support them as one tool in the toolbox when engineers, planners, and public officials are ignoring their ethical obligation to protect the public when they know (or, if they don’t know, are ignorant of knowledge they are ethically obligated to acquire to be a competent professional in their chosen field) there are better, proven alternatives out there.

September 2016 in Review

3 most frightening stories

  • The U.S. and Russia may have blundered into a proxy war in Syria. And on a loosely related war-and-peace note, Curtis LeMay was a crazy bastard.
  • The ecological footprint situation is not looking too promising: “from 1993 to 2009…while the human population has increased by 23% and the world economy has grown 153%, the human footprint has increased by just 9%. Still, 75% the planet’s land surface is experiencing measurable human pressures. Moreover, pressures are perversely intense, widespread and rapidly intensifying in places with high biodiversity.” Meanwhile, as of 2002 “we appropriate over 40% of the net primary productivity (the green material) produced on Earth each year (Vitousek et al. 1986, Rojstaczer et al. 2001). We consume 35% of the productivity of the oceanic shelf (Pauly and Christensen 1995), and we use 60% of freshwater run-off (Postel et al. 1996). The unprecedented escalation in both human population and consumption in the 20th century has resulted in environmental crises never before encountered in the history of humankind and the world (McNeill 2000). E. O. Wilson (2002) claims it would now take four Earths to meet the consumption demands of the current human population, if every human consumed at the level of the average US inhabitant.” And finally, 30% of African elephants have been lost in the last 7 years.
  • Car accidents are the leading cause of death for children ages 5 to 24. The obsession with car seats may not be saving all that many lives, while keeping children out of cars as much as possible would be 100% guaranteed to save lives. And one thing that would be guaranteed to help us create more walkable neighborhoods and therefore save children’s lives: getting rid of minimum parking requirements in cities once and for all. And yet you don’t hear this debate being framed in moral terms.

3 most hopeful stories

3 most interesting stories

  • Monsanto is trying to help honeybees (which seems good) by monkeying with RNA (which seems a little frightening). Yes, biotech is coming.
  • Some people think teaching algebra to children may actually be bad. Writing still seems to be good.
  • There have been a number of attempts to identify and classify the basic types of literary plots.

why I don’t bike in Philadelphia

I’m a huge believer that bicycling should be the second most common form of transportation in cities, after walking. Walking is the perfect way to run errands in a residential neighborhood. Some people are lucky enough to be able to walk to work, but not everybody wants to live in the central business district, so the nicest neighborhoods are often a few miles from the center, a little far to walk but perfect for biking. Biking promotes the perfect city layout, and the perfect city layout promotes biking. It also saves time, promotes exercise, physical and mental health, saves energy, promotes cleans air, and is good for business. So I’m a huge believer. But I don’t bike very much. Occasionally on the weekend for recreation, but almost never on weekdays to get to work, and absolutely never to take children to and from school. Here’s why:

On a bicycle in Philly, I’ve been spit on, cussed at, honked at, clipped by rearview mirrors, and told to do things to myself that can’t be written in any respectable publication. More times than I can count, I’ve had vehicles clearly try to make a point by speeding by me way too closely … only to be stopped at a red light half a block away. And all for riding my bike in a legal, responsible way…

But what about all those scofflaw bikers, blowing through stop signs and weaving through traffic with their devil-may-care attitudes? Bikers just don’t follow the rules of the road! …

But, I’ve also got some top-secret info: Cars in Philly break traffic laws, too. In fact, you might think that sliding through a stop sign perfectly, pulling a fast U-turn on Broad Street, driving down a one-way street the wrong way, and texting while driving, steering with your knees, are all on the PennDOT driving test. (Swerving around potholes and deciphering parking signs is probably on there too.) Because we’ve all seen cars do these things, and more, in Philly. All the time.

And the fact is, when drivers do these things surrounded by two tons of steel, it’s a whole lot more dangerous for everyone on the street and sidewalks than when a bicyclist does the same with a 20-pound bike.

Recently, City Council President Darrell Clarke said, “This is Philadelphia. People drive to the corner store. This is what we do.”

Sigh.

“This is what we do,” sounds a whole lot like “This is the way we’ve always done things.” And “this is the way we’ve always done things” has got to be the laziest, worst excuse for doing anything ever…

Those are appalling statistics. Philly’s got a problem. And it has to do with cars hitting bicyclists.

What’s best for the city is not the status quo. What’s best is more protected bike lanes, real progress toward Mayor Kenney’s commitment to Vision Zero, and more access to modes of transportation other than private vehicles.

I couldn’t agree more. One thing the article doesn’t mention is that the police openly state that they don’t enforce the traffic laws because they are busy fighting violent crime on our city’s streets. Well, how exactly is the murder of pedestrians and bicyclists on our city’s streets by illegal driver behavior not considered violent crime on our streets?

Enforcement could help in the short term, but human behavior should be taken mostly out of the equation by better street design in the longer term. Safe street designs have been nearly perfected in Northern Europe and are slowly coming to U.S. cities, even including our cousins over in Pittsburgh. But in Philadelphia, supposedly a leader on progressive policies, our political and bureaucratic leaders seem to believe that what is common in sister cities is crazy or impossible here, because they have apparently never left the county. People are dying as a result of these ignorant cowards.

I would love to see Mr. Kenney show real leadership and appoint some real leaders instead of the same old ignorant, cynical, can’t-do bullshit that has held Philadelphia back from being a world-class city for decades. It seemed like we were finally turning the corner under Mayor Nutter, but it seems to me that we are backsliding now. Please prove me wrong, Mr. Kenney!

vehicle speed and pedestrian injuries/deaths

Here is the hard data on a person’s probability of survival when hit by a car traveling at a range of speeds. You should go to the link and look at the graphs, but here are a few highlights I picked out:

  • For the average person hit by the average vehicle, you need to get speed down to the 30-35 mph range to have a 75% survival probability, and the 20-25 mph range if you want a 90% survival probability. 15 mph would get you up to about 95%.
  • All people are not average. A 70-year-old struck at 30 mph has something like a 60% chance of living, while a 30-year-old has more like a 85% chance (I’m eyeballing a tiny graph, these numbers are not exact.)
  • All vehicles are not equal. Getting struck by a pickup truck or SUV is more likely to be deadly than a car. Again just eyeballing, if you’re hit by a light truck vs. a car at 30 mph, the average person’s odds of survival would drop from something like 80% to 75%.
  • Those numbers are for death. Obviously, the risk of severe injury short of death is higher. Again using the 30 mph example, the risk of severe injury for the average person hit by the average vehicle looks to be around 50%.

I think our first instinct is to look for someone to blame – and it’s obviously true that better driver behavior, pedestrian behavior, or both could prevent accidents. But police enforcement is obviously part of the answer. It upsets me when I hear the Philadelphia Police openly say they don’t enforce traffic laws because they have “real crimes” to attend to. Sure, their job is to keep the population safe from violence on our city’s streets – well, this is violence on our city’s streets! And it disproportionately puts children and the elderly at risk compared to other forms of crime.

Finally, better design of streets, intersections, and signals is a big part of the answer. Nearly perfect designs exist in places like Denmark and the Netherlands, but well-trained and well-intentioned U.S. engineers are either ignorant of them or cynically assume they can’t or won’t work here, or that they are not affordable.

I assume these same police and engineers would not go out on the streets and shoot old people and children in the head, because that would be unethical, so why is knowingly allowing the preventable deaths of old people and children through ignorance and negligence any different? And why does the public largely accept this and assume it can’t change?

fire trucks

I want to start this post by thanking the fire department for what they do. Obviously, they save lives and property, and have one of the least morally ambiguous jobs out there. That said, they are so almost universally revered that you wonder if it is okay to voice any doubts about the way they do things. So I was surprised to see this article voicing some of my own questions about whether fire trucks need to be so big. When I lived in Singapore, I noticed that they didn’t use the huge fire trucks – they were more like vans, and used some kind of foam rather than pure water. Now, the buildings in Singapore are almost all very modern, and all have prominent water hookups, and streets are very wide. Singapore chose to bulldoze a lot of its older buildings and streets at some point and start fresh, and I would not necessarily want my home city of Philadelphia to do that – I love our narrow streets, largely 19th century housing including my own house, and the walkability, mom-and-pop businesses and odd scattered public spaces it leads to. Another thing is that as an engineer occasionally involved in aspects of street design, the fire department is sometimes a voice in opposition to change. Take bumpouts for example that create  a shorter crossing distance for school children at intersections. These will save lives. The fire department will say that these slow down fire trucks making turns, and anything that slows down fire trucks could cost lives. I am not saying this is the wrong dialog to have, but the fire department shouldn’t always be the bullies getting their way, the two safety issues should be weighed against each other and a rational (okay, at least political) decision made.