Flexibility in transportation choice

My actually last Record column for the year focuses on points I’ve discussed in the blog, particularly the fundamental attribution error:

Flexibility in Transportation Choice

When transportation is discussed, inevitably the categorizations get made: cyclists are asking for this, that project pits transit riders against drivers, this road widening is good for drivers. But the basic assumption here – namely, that most of us fall neatly into one of those groups – just isn’t true.

Certainly there are people who will drive no matter what, and hardcore cyclists, and so on. I, however, walk, cycle, drive, and take transit. Though I have my preferences for walking and against the stress of traffic, in general I travel by the means that makes the most sense for the trip I’m making. I’m not wedded to my car, or my bike, and certainly not to the bus — and I venture to say that the same is true for you.

There’s a basic finding In social psychology called the fundamental attribution error. It refers to people’s tendency to attribute too much of the behaviour of others to their personal traits. In other words, while you might choose to do X in light of the situation, if others do Y it’s because they’re the kind of people who do Y. So while we aren’t likely to ascribe our choices to our being Car Drivers or Pedestrians or Transit Riders or Cyclists, we eagerly pigeonhole others in this way.

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The future is multi-nodal

TriTAG's map of the LRT (red) and planned express bus routes. The line is more interurban than it is CBD-to-suburb.

My last Record column this year evaluates the idea of the central business district in the context of Waterloo Region, and (of course) again discusses light rail. Hopefully it isn’t too unfocused:

The Future is Multi-Nodal

Commentary on the light rail transit project reveals a common but outdated assumption that a city should have a central business district (CBD) — an area of downtown that no one lives in, but many commute to from the suburbs. A frequent argument against the project is that downtown Kitchener isn’t a large enough CBD and that there aren’t enough people commuting in. But the whole concept of a central business district is a thing of the past, and light rail does not need a large CBD to make sense. The future lies in urban areas composed of multiple dense nodes connected by high-quality transportation — which happens to be exactly what Waterloo Region is planning for.

Cities once contained housing in addition to commerce and industry. When streetcar lines were started, they moved people within the city, but they also opened up the suburbs for residential development that promised tranquility and fresh air. Later, the availability of cars and cheap fuel together with massive post-war highway and road development led to suburban flight on a larger scale. Commerce also followed the highways and set up shop in suburban malls. Only jobs remained, producing the classic CBD — where commuters stay from 9 to 5, leaving an empty city every evening. But those long commutes aren’t healthy for our cities, and an office monoculture is not conducive to urban living.

Most of Waterloo Region’s growth has occurred after the post-war years, and many jobs are located in suburban office parks. So we have no reason to cling to the notion of a CBD — it just doesn’t apply. But that’s not a bad thing. Instead of jobs clustering in any single downtown, many destinations and much employment have fortunately clustered along a reasonably dense linear corridor.

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Breaking down the modal barriers with language

The fundamental attribution error leads us to interpret the behavior of others as reflecting something inherent about those people, more than is warranted. However, the language we use plays a role in that judgment as well. Our labels often describe who people are instead of what they’re doing, e.g. pedestrians, cyclists, transit users, or drivers. Each one of those terms gives us a category to which those people belong, making it easier to attribute their actions as reflecting some property of members of that category. That, in turn, makes it more difficult to progress towards a multimodal and sustainable transportation system.

I propose a different and deliberate use of language to mitigate this:

  • Old: pedestrians. New: people on foot, or people walking.
  • Old: cyclists. New: people on bikes, or people cycling.
  • Old: transit users. New: people on transit.
  • Old: drivers or motorists. New: people in cars, or people driving.

Sometimes we’re in cars, sometimes we’re on transit, sometimes we’re on bikes, and sometimes we’re on foot. But we’re all people, and our perspectives are much more similar than the facile modal categories lead us to believe.

Open Data Waterloo Region

There is now a website for Open Data Waterloo Region as well as a mailing list.

Open Data movements are about getting governments to open up their data sets in accessible electronic formats for citizens to use as they see fit. This allows people to render the data more widely understandable and readable, and to combine data in fruitful ways.  I’ll leave further explanation as links: Three Laws of Open Data, 8 Principles of Open Government Data, and Creating Effective Open Government Portals.

In Ontario, Ottawa and London have strong Open Data movements. Here in Waterloo Region, despite the high-profile technology focus and the proliferation of Blackberries, we don’t yet have one. I’m hoping to fix that, perhaps in time to have some impact on the upcoming municipal elections.

Anyone who is interested in helping to build Open Data Waterloo Region — to advocate for and to use local government data to improve our community — is invited to an informal organizational meeting this Thursday in Waterloo. (See the Facebook event listing if you like.) Whether or not you can make it, you are welcome to join the Facebook group to show your support and stay updated on progress. Please direct people who may be interested to this post.

Thursday, September 9, 6pm – 8pm.
Huether Hotel – the BarleyWorks operations room (2nd floor of BarleyWorks)
59 King St N (at Princess St), Waterloo, ON
(Google Maps link. Note that getting there requires traversing several flights of stairs.)

Barriers to entry and the path of least resistance

(Photo: Flickr / Helen Cook)

Many people will volunteer that taking transit or eating locally is a good thing to do. But yet, people do not undertake sacrifices in droves to make “right” choices, unless there is no alternative. If we aim to change the choices people make, it helps to have a good way of thinking about the decision-making process. Here’s my way, which I find useful as a general conceptual framework:

People generally follow the path of least resistance given their situation and reject other paths due to higher barriers to entry. Moreover, the pool of resources for overcoming barriers is limited.

To be more precise, what matters is the perceived resistance and barriers.* We can be influenced by culture or limited information to perceive a choice as being more or less difficult. Though I think it takes a great deal of culture to get us to willingly refrain from littering, or to get us to recycle — and even then, we need those options to be easy.

Barriers to entry are anything that comes between the path of least resistance (or between no choice) and another choice. These could be a lack of information, difficulty of usage, discomfort of use, price, how long something takes, etc. — and there is both commonality and individual variation in the factors. The current path of least resistance may well have had its own barriers to entry.

Take the example of driving. At some point, the motorist had to learn to drive and had to buy and register a car. Following the framework suggests that overcoming those barriers actually was the path of least resistance, e.g. lacking a car severely restricted mobility. But once the car is in your driveway, the barriers to entry are few: the perceived marginal cost of gas/maintenance/depreciation (low), the price of parking (generally free), the price of the roads (generally free), and congestion to face (now we might be getting somewhere).

The view offers some specific guidance to changing choices:

Remove barriers to entry: provide frequent transit service for which one doesn’t need a schedule, let people use their cell phones or credit cards to get on transit, eliminate marginal costs through universal passes, get rid of helmet laws for cycling, make available bicycles that are easy to use in all conditions.

Put up barriers to entry: increase congestion, increase (or make more obvious) the marginal cost of driving — motorists won’t take into account the costs of highway infrastructure or parking if they’re never faced with them. Make roadways more narrow, thus decreasing the speed of least resistance (instead of hoping that speed limits will work).

Take advantage of the barriers that already occur, such as the large initial barriers to driving. Provide sufficiently good alternatives to car ownership — transit, cycling, walking, carshare — that it simply never makes sense to take the plunge and buy a car, and maybe not even to get a driver’s license. It’s much harder to get people not to use the car they own than it is to get people to continue not owning one.

Demolish false perceptions of barriers to entry, through education, good information and maps, and marketing.

The overwhelming implication of the perspective is this: to change people’s decisions, focus less on convincing and more on making the choice easy. Instead of attributing choices to something intrinsic about the person, or blaming the person for not doing enough, start changing the path of least resistance.

*To be even more precise and general would require adding in a notion of utility.

Growing Waterloo Region up with transit infrastructure

The new tramway in Nice, France. (Photo: Flickr / Ian Britton)

My Record column today makes the case for light rail in Waterloo Region, with a slightly different approach than last year’s one:

Growing Waterloo Region Up with Transit Infrastructure

A single line of built-up areas is easily seen in Waterloo Region satellite imagery — this is the Central Transit Corridor. The planned light rail line and the express bus line to Cambridge would connect four downtowns, the university district, three major commercial areas, and many corporate and industrial campuses — along with a quickly growing supply of housing. In the context of a redesigned bus network and strong planning policy, LRT (light rail transit) is the infrastructure necessary to manage growth and provide for the region’s economic and environmental health.

Most of the tremendous post-war growth here has been suburban, but the area near the LRT route has still grown by 50% or more since 1955 — the last year of interurban trains. If that was it, light rail wouldn’t make sense. But the plan looks to 2031, and the province projects more than 200,000 new residents by then. The Region’s new Official Plan implements provincial targets of 40% of growth occurring in the urban cores. This will more than double the population and jobs along the Central Transit Corridor. A light rail system will both help attract this development to the downtowns, and handle the resulting demand for transit along the spine of our region. It would also be a more environmentally and financially sound approach than ramming wider roadways and more parking into our downtowns.

Many have called for more buses instead of rail. But this isn’t either-or. In fact, the recently approved Regional Transportation Master Plan calls for a dramatic ramping up of the Grand River Transit budget — tripling per-capita funding within twenty years. The plan calls for five new express bus routes in the next five years to service other major corridors, for more frequent and later service, and a redesign of bus routes to a more grid-like network to connect with the light rail and the express routes.

However, simply more buses won’t work in the Central Transit Corridor. Already, each direction of King Street between Waterloo and Kitchener sees 12-15 iXpress and Route 7 mainline buses an hour. Which is great for riders now. But when the population and jobs more than double, so will transit ridership — or actually more without road expansion. With buses as they are now, 20-30 buses an hour is essentially the limit. Past that point they bunch together and form jams at busy stops. For them to handle the ridership we would need a bus highway through our downtowns, with passing lanes and level platforms. For most of the cost of an LRT system, it would get us dozens more buses per hour polluting our downtowns with diesel fumes and noise, and would only postpone the capacity issues.

LRT, in addition to its smoother ride and quieter and friendlier electric propulsion, has larger vehicles that can be coupled in trains. Less manpower is needed to operate it, and more and bigger doors allow for low dwell times at stations — which are the main capacity bottleneck. And more than just funneling growth into central areas, the inflexibility of light rail will be able to guide development to occur alongside transit and in a way conducive to transit use.

We’re finally realizing that our resources are finite. In the post-war era, anything was possible. Technology would solve all problems, land was plentiful, gas was cheap, and everyone could drive their car from the idyllic suburbs to work downtown. We know now that sprawl comes with costs to the environment, costs to our health, and costs to our wallets — it’s expensive to build streets and lay down infrastructure to serve low densities at the edge of the city. We’ve already chosen to put a limit to sprawl. Now it’s time to follow through with the transit service and infrastructure that will grow our Region up and not out.

Twelve reasons why vehicular cycling isn’t enough

Vehicular cycling. (Photo: Flickr / boboD90)

We often hear that cyclists should follow the rules of the road, just like motor vehicles. Since recently obtaining a practical city bike I have been using it as my primary means of transportation — and have mostly been following those rules. But as helpful as the techniques of vehicular cycling are, it has become quite clear to me that this model of bicycles sharing space with cars is generally inadequate as a model to encourage regular use by regular people on bikes.

Those rules of the road in North America were explicitly designed to facilitate automobile travel. But bicycles — and particularly city bicycles — are not cars, and they generally cannot travel on the same road as fast-moving cars and trucks in a way that is convenient and subjectively safe.

Bicycles are slower, much smaller, quieter, and generally less visible than are cars. They pose virtually no hazard to the occupants of a motor vehicle, and little hazard to the vehicle itself. In North America, they are also unlikely to pose any financial or legal hazard, as unintentionally hitting a cyclist does not usually result in any consequences. (Amazingly, you can even intentionally hit cyclists with no jail time.)

I believe that a number of routine car interactions are dependent on the threat posed by other vehicles on the road — gut feelings being the real driver, as in so many other situations. Naturally a motorist does not feel threatened by a bicycle on the road as he does by another vehicle, and thus a cyclist has difficulty navigating road situations which implicitly rely on that threat.

Here are a few specific reasons why and situations in which vehicular cycling poses problems, due to visibility, speed, and that lack of threat. (Left and right are in the context of right-hand traffic.)

1. Left turns at intersections without signals or left turn lanes. If there’s any traffic travelling in the same direction, you’ve got problems. How do you make it across fast-moving lanes of traffic to get to the left-most lane to make the turn? How do you know that cars coming up from behind will see you when you’re standing there waiting to make the turn? Do you have enough time to make it across during gaps in traffic? Are motorists behind you getting pissed off and starting to pose a hazard?

2. Left turns at conventional signaled intersections. Here there may well be a left turn lane, but again, how do you get to it across multiple lanes of traffic? If you have to yield to opposing traffic, can you find a gap in traffic? If you go when the light turns red to avoid getting stuck (as motorists will do), do you have enough time to cross — and are motorists who just got green on the intersecting road going to be angry at your low speed?

3. Roads with blind curves. Cars travelling at speed around curves pose a serious danger to slow-moving, small (and thus poorly visible) bicycles. Unlike faster-moving vehicles, bicycles are more likely not to have been seen prior to the curve.

4. Obstacles in the right-most lane or bike lane, including gutters, debris, and parked vehicles. Traffic in the next lane over is likely moving much faster. How do you get into that lane?

5. Merges into a lane with high speeds or heavy traffic. Here a car can accelerate to speed and/or force its way in. The speed and threat imbalance make either a difficult proposition for a cyclist.

6. Trucks and buses. Drivers of large vehicles have poorer visibility of the area around the vehicle, and so are particularly likely not to notice a bicycle. They are also less able to judge how close the bicycle is.

7. The encouragement to ride faster and to accelerate faster. Car speeds set a norm for the speed of road travel, and the slower you ride, the more impatient drivers will be with you. On the other hand, the faster you go, the fewer times you will be passed by cars (often too closely for comfort). Going fast and accelerating quickly are counter to the normal inclination when riding a city bike for utility without cycling clothes or needing a shower at the end of your ride.

8. Riding side-by-side. This natural and pleasant way for two people to ride somewhere together is incompatible in philosophy and practice with vehicular cycling.

9. Stop signs. Setting aside the fact that motorists themselves often don’t come to a complete stop, there is no good reason for cyclists to come to a full stop at a stop-controlled intersection. On a bike one can get very good sight-lines by slowing down at an intersection, but without losing all momentum. (This is known as an Idaho stop.)

10. Tight left turns from an intersecting street. We all love to cut corners, and motorists are no exception. When turning left, they often cut into the cross-street’s left-turn lane if they don’t see any cars there. A bike in that lane is less visible and less expected, and thus in danger.

11. Cars merging from the left on a road without bike lanes. If a car travelling closely behind another car in the left lane decides to merge right, slow-moving and small vehicles (e.g. bicycles) can be obscured by the car in front.

12. Multi-lane roundabouts. If you’re staying on the roundabout past a two-lane turn, you’re either in the right lane and liable to get hit by a car turning from the left lane or you’re in the left lane and liable to get hit by a fast-moving car.

If you’re fast enough, sufficiently trained, and aggressive enough, you can probably navigate the above scenarios on the busiest of suburban arterials. But most people want neither to be particularly fast nor aggressive, nor to undertake difficult training in traffic. They want to travel safely and comfortably, with their stuff, and without breaking a sweat.

Vehicular cycling is a marginal activity, barely visible and taking place on small pieces of car-dominated roads. It is a coping mechanism for cycling-inadequate road infrastructure designed for cars. Its techniques are useful for making do with what we have, but it is useless as a model for promoting cycling as an everyday mode of city transportation for regular people. If we want people to cycle in large enough numbers to make a difference in our cities, we have to acknowledge the serious differences between bicycles and cars — and for that matter, between bicycles and pedestrians — and implement segregated cycling infrastructure. Especially on roads with high speeds or many large vehicles, and at intersections.

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