Tag: Roads

The future of transportation is already here, but everybody is missing it

Maybe it was the news that Tesla is now the largest U.S. carmaker by market cap, or maybe it has been the uncertainty around the price of oil, but there has been a flurry of futurism lately centred around looming changes to our transportation systems, specifically around autonomous electric cars.

Autonomous, electric vehicles are about to take over our lives, say prognosticators of the future, a change that has some dragging out Y2K-level hyperbole. Many of these predictions are being built on the idea of cities filled with blissfully shared roving robot-vehicles safely and orderly awaiting our smartphone hails.

Only recently, however, have those futurists started to put some thought into the impact of autonomous vehicles on our streets. A few consensuses have emerged – that driverless cars will reduce collisions, for example – but there is surprising diversity in opinion on the long-term impact on our cities.

There are plenty of Pollyanna predictions that streets will become safer, less congested places because of autonomous vehicles. But there are just as many hypothesizing that our streets are about to become a whole lot worse, particularly considering the recent troubles of the company that was once seen as the future of the city: Uber (if you missed the big New York magazine story, here’s the short version: Beyond the company being allegedly riddled with assholes, Uber has made congestion worse, not better, is still heavily subsidizing nearly every ride by as much as 60 per cent, making it barely profitable in big cities and horrifically unprofitable in small ones, thereby bringing into question the very idea that ride-sharing is the future).

No matter which side you come down on, however, one obvious thing seems to have escaped the notice of most of these predictions, even though it should be clear to anybody with a working set of eyes.

If you were to teleport to today a citizen of a decade ago into a city of today, and asked them to identify the differences in transportation, I’m willing to bet they would not mention technology, or autonomous vehicles, or smartphone apps, or even car sharing. It would be bikes.

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This New Yorker said as much. The most profound change to the streets of many cities over the past decade is the prevalence of people on bikes as a practical form of transportation.

So why is this so rarely mentioned in discussions about the future of transportation? Of all the nascent transportation disruptions we’re in the midst of, question marks still litter many of them. But use of the bicycle is a proven improvement, and seems destined to keep up its breakneck growth, especially as a generation grows up with new appreciation for its practicality. Urban cycling is the most profound change to city transportation in generations, yet the allure of technology is overshadowing it.

It’s a strange omission. Yes, autonomous vehicles represent a sea change in the way we think about transportation, but swapping one type of vehicle for another doesn’t solve the fundamental problem of congestion. Nor is there any track record behind many new vanity ideas (sorry, Mr. Musk) such as boring tunnels beneath cities to facilitate even more cars. Progress is moving more people more efficiently, and there are precious few ways to do so. None of them involve adding more cars.

Bike paths fall

This isn’t a zero-sum game. There are certainly ways that autonomous vehicles can help improve the efficiency of our transportation system, but not if such thinking is done is isolation.

If you want a look at how an efficient city of the future moves people around, forget robot cars, or tunnels, or 1950’s-style car-centric road systems simply updated with new vehicles. Instead, look at Amsterdam or Copenhagen or Seville or New York or Montreal or Vancouver and the masses of people riding bikes because it’s faster, easier, healthier, more effecient, and more enjoyable than being trapped in a box, no matter how high-tech that box might be.

Here’s what happens to your bike ride when thousands of more cars are added to roads

You’ve been there, even if you haven’t consciously been there: Riding your bike down a typical city street feeling squeezed from all sides, unable to see past the next intersection, worried about being doored and generally unwelcome on what should be public space.

Why do you feel that way? Because the street looks like this:

UntitledThere’s nothing wrong, technically, with this street. These scenes are everywhere. But the reason you feel all those things is so obvious it’s almost invisible. There are cars everywhere. And I mean everywhere. Crammed along the curbs, congested on the street, taking up space everywhere.

I know you know this. Like me, you’ve read all the statistics about the increasing number of cars on our streets. But maybe you were like me and didn’t really stop to think about what that means to your everyday bicycle commute.

What opened my eyes was a comment from a reader named Stu on my piece a couple of weeks ago about vehicular cycling. Here is part of Stu’s comment.

I can barely remember 1976, but what I do remember is that I could bike down most streets and not encounter a motor vehicle. Today it is the (opposite), no matter how ‘residential’ the street, the chance of not meeting up with a MV is slim. Times have changed, everyone seems to own a car or two and they use them for even the shortest of trips.

Something about Stu’s comment stuck in my head. I started imagining my bicycle commute in 1976. I’d be riding a steel-framed 10-speed in tiny shorts and knee socks, my feathered hair unencumbered by a helmet, and I would pass down a residential street with no cars. It’s almost unimaginable (not the hair, the image of a street with no cars).

So I did some digging into the impacts of increasing car ownership rates on the physical space in a city. Beware incoming numbers:

I live in Calgary, Canada. Back in 2008, the number of registered motor vehicles in the city was 829,030, according to this. By 2015, that number had grown to 1,005,109, according to this. That’s an increase of 176,079 vehicles in about seven years.

Think about how much space that takes up in a city. If each vehicle is, say, five metres by two metres (that’s an estimate, mostly to make the math easier, but it’s in the ballpark), that’s 10 square metres we’ve lost for each of those vehicles. I know they aren’t all on the road at the same time, but no matter how you slice it, occupying 10 square metres more than 175,000 times is a lot of space — 1.76 square kilometres, to be exact.

There’s more. According to the 2011 census, the size of Calgary is 704.51 square kilometres. For the sake of argument, let’s say that number didn’t change much between 2008 and 2015 (the city has grown, but not by much: Calgary’s wise but belated push to reduce sprawl, like basically every other city in North America, means there hasn’t been a big annexation since 2011, and the last major one was in the early 2000s).

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years,.

A map of a land annexations in Calgary over the years.

That means the number of cars per square kilometre had grown to 1,426 in 2015, from 1,176 in 2008.

Think about the square kilometre around your house, and then imagine cramming in an average of 250 more cars in that space. Guess what? That happened over the last seven years, and you probably didn’t realize it.

Here’s one more thing to think about. I couldn’t find car ownership rates going back to 1976 to test Stu’s memory. But I did find this fascinating study from NYU, which compared vehicle ownership rates around the world between 1960 and 2002. In Canada in 1960, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people was 292. By 2002, that had climbed to 581. Based on a 2015 population of 1,230,915, the number of vehicles per 1,000 people in Calgary in 2015 was a whopping 816.

That isn’t an entirely apples-to-apples comparison, so I wouldn’t base your Ph.D thesis on it, but it does give you an idea of how many more motor vehicles are on the roads these days, and it’s a safe bet a similar story is playing out in other North American cities.

It also helps explain why you sometimes feel like an alien, unwelcome and pushed around, on your own street, when you ride a bicycle.

A well-functioning society of course needs motor vehicles, but Stu, it seems was right — our streets are much different now than they were just a few years ago, never mind back in 1976.

Much of this has happened unconsciously, so maybe a first step in making our cities more friendly is to start thinking about what enabled all those cars, and to take the steps necessary to curb the growth of car-ownership. We all, after all, have to share that space.

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How to pass a bike in a car without killing anyone (or being a dick)

Some things about driving a car are difficult. Doing a 180-degree e-brake slide into a parking space, for example. Or that famous kickflip in the James Bond movie The Man With the Golden Gun, which was so difficult nobody even attempted to replicate it for 40 years.

Another thing that’s difficult, apparently, is passing a person on a bike. A newish one-metre passing rule that has been adopted in Ontario, but is not yet being enforced, seems so difficult that drivers are outraged. It’s madness, it seems, to think that a grown adult with government-approved driving skills could possibly overtake a cyclist safely. The only options, if you believe the angry reaction, are maiming the cyclist or plunging headlong into oncoming traffic. The law, according to the reasoned comments in this CBC story, is “idiocy,” “sick,” and a “raging double standard.”

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We can empathize with the concern. After dominating the roads for the last 60 years with bully tactics and consequence-free killings, learning to share can be a challenge for some drivers.

But we’re here to help. Here are 10 tips for drivers trying to safely pass a cyclist on a road.

  1. Don’t kill anybody.
  2. If you approach a cyclist from behind, wait until it’s safe and then pass on the left, then give the person on the bike a wide berth, at least a metre (that’s about three feet). It’s OK to venture into the oncoming lane when doing so. Crossing that yellow line in this case is legal, and is preferable to killing that cyclist.
  3. If there are cars in the oncoming lane and you can’t get around that cyclist, just wait. There’s a pedal in your car next to the accelerator. If you press it, your car will slow down. Use it to reduce your speed and wait behind the cyclist until it is safe to pass.
  4. But what if there is a lot of traffic in the oncoming lane, and you can’t safely pass the cyclist? Good question. There are a few options here.
    1. You could lean on the horn to frighten the cyclist out of the way. Poor option: Dick move, and possibly illegal.
    2. You could rev your engine, preferably the six-cylinder type found in a half-ton pickup, and lurch toward the person on the bike to express your displeasure with having to wait. Poor option: Dick move, and possible illegal.
    3. You could accelerate and narrowly pass the cyclist, based on the theory that if you are going to endanger a person on the road, you might as well get it over with quickly. Poor option. Now illegal in Ontario, and many other places. Also a dick move.
    4. You could just wait until it is safe to pass. Good option. Legal, courteous and compliant with tip No. 1.
  5. But what if you want to obey tip 4d, but you have to wait behind that cyclist for a long time, like for 30 seconds, or even — gasp — a minute? That cyclist is slowing you, and all the people behind you, down too. Must you just sit there and wait until it’s safe? Even if you are in a hurry? The answer: Yep. Remember tip No. 1.
  6. But what if you’re really in a hurry? Like, say, you’re driving your daughter to soccer practice and you’re running a little behind, which means she’ll be punished with a set of pushups? Or you’re returning from an evening out and you want to get home in time for the season finale of the Bachelor, which promises the most dramatic rose ceremony ever, and that cyclist is just riding in that lane like she owns it, without even caring that she’s holding up the people behind her? Must you just sit there and wait, even if it annoys you? Yep. See tip No. 1.
  7. Imagine, for a moment, that person on a bike is driving a different vehicle, like a car. Perhaps a little Honda Civic, or, say, a Lada Riva. And she’s driving that Lada a little below the speed limit, and it’s holding you up. What would you do? You might get annoyed. You might vent a little frustration into your dashboard. But you probably wouldn’t try to roar past that Lada in the little space between the car and the traffic in the oncoming lane. You would probably recognize that person in a Lada has a right to the road that trumps your right to drive the maximum posted speed, even if it’s annoying. Got it? The same applies to a person on a bike.
  8. But driving too slow is against the law, you say. You can’t impede traffic. This is true. Kind of. Most jurisdictions have a law that requires road users to travel at a “normal and reasonable” rate to maintain the flow of traffic. But that doesn’t mean it’s illegal to drive slowly. The posted speed limit is a maximum, not a minimum. And if you are driving slower than that posted speed, you are often required to drive as close to the right of the lane as is practical. If you are on a bike, does “practical” mean that riding unsafely in the door zone, or in a gutter lane filled with dangerous debris and obstacles, just to appease the inpatient drivers behind you? I’m willing to bet most police officers and judges would err on the side of safety, rather than road efficiency or speed (because they see the consequences of reckless driving on the roads). So if you plan on arguing that you absolutely had to squeeze past a cyclist illegally because that cyclist was impeding the normal flow of traffic, good luck. Sure, you might win that argument, but it may be simpler to just wait until it’s safe to pass courteously. See tip No. 1.
  9. If you are a cyclist caught in this situation where you need to ride in such a way that traffic is building up behind you, my sympathies. This situation sucks. It’s stressful and unsafe. Yes, you have a right to do it, but consider those people behind you, and choose to pull out of the way occasionally to let those impatient drivers pass. Or better yet, find another way. Or even better, get your city council to build some separated infrastructure to eliminate such situations.
  10. See tip No. 1. Be safe.

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