Wednesday, May 16, 2007

I Did My Part

There has been an email going around suggesting that we all boycott buying gasoline on May 15 to bring the oil companies to their knees and compel them to reduce the price to $1.30 a gallon, where it apparently belongs. Well, dubious though I may be about these efforts, I dutifully did my bit and didn't buy any gasoline yesterday. Due no doubt to you petrol-buying slackers, these efforts appear to have been for naught. Oh well.

I did go to the Saint Paul Bicycle Advisory Board Bike Summit down by Boca Chica. It was ill-attended, probably due to the lack of publicity. I think my blog entry was about the most obvious announcement of the meeting, so the handful of non-BAB, non-presenters at the meeting was a disappointment compared to last autumn's 100 or so attendees. This session was really looking for comments on the bicycle portion of the transportation plan, not as open-ended a discussion as at last fall's Summit. There was some discussion of the power of the railroads in the context of the Midtown Greenway (which is now looking to build its own Mississippi River bridge rather than share the railroad's existing Short Line bridge), the Saint Paul part of the Greenway and the powerlessness to do anything about the Raymond Street bridge, which has a fairly horrid bend in the road and blind spot.

One interesting discussion during the break was with the City of Saint Paul engineer talking about Stop signs. Apparently, most residential streets used to have no Stop signs, they were uncontrolled intersections. The resulting accidents prompted the city to put in Stop signs on what he called a basketweave pattern, e.g., one every two blocks in opposite directions. Accident figures dropped, everyone was happy. Now, as time has gone on, people have become used to these signs and, as I noted in a recent entry, don't really stop, but slow down, take a quick look, and roll on through. By people, I mean motorists, not just cyclists. Accident rates at these intersections are now back to pre-Stop sign levels plus the city has got the cost of installing and maintaining all these signs. One proposal is to make all these intersections four-way stops which means, as one citizen apparently put it, it takes two idiots instead of one to cause an accident. This of course chops up travel even more--stopping (or pretending to) every block instead of every two, and is twice the number of signs that the city has to install and maintain and undoubtedley people will adapt to this, roll through these as well and, after an initial drop in accidents, no doubt the rate will creep back up.

I noted that there are some uncontrolled intersections in residential Minneapolis and I always creep up to them, afraid of someone barrelling down the opposing road. The engineer guy said that is often the case, that the responsibility is on the drivers and they take extra care. He said often as not, the safest bits of the highway are those known as Dead Man's Curve or Suicide Hill because everyone knows they're dangerous and takes extra care. Uncontrolled intersections are the same; people are cautious because they don't know what to expect.

In the insurance industry, we've seen the same sort of effect with anti-lock brakes. When they first came out, the assumption was this wonderful technology would make driving safer. In fact, the loss experience for ABS-equipped and non-ABS equipped automobiles is virtually identical. Where once, pre-anti-lock brakes, you'd creep gingerly up to icy intersections ready to pump the brakes, now you just zoom right up and stomp on the pedal, knowing the clattery ABS noises will keep you from locking up your wheels. It's been noted that people would drive a lot differently if there was a pointy metal spike sticking out of the steering wheel rather than a pillowy airbag. They'd drive differently if residential intersections were all uncontrolled, too.

It's been done. Here's a brief excerpt from an article about it:
Hans Monderman, the pragmatic Dutch planner who was one of the first to introduce the naked streets concept in Holland, reorganized streets so that cars had to proceed as cautiously as pedestrians. Drachten, a city of 45,000 people, has removed more than 80 percent of its traffic lights and more than half its road signs under Monderman’s guidance: the number of accidents has dropped dramatically. “I am used to it now,” Drachten resident Helena Spaanstra told one newspaper. “You drive more slowly and carefully, but somehow you seem to get around town quicker.”

This also ties into another bike program, the Share the Road signage. Saint Paul has Share the Road signs on a number of streets, which is good I guess, but many have their own poles and, speaking as someone who lives on a busy street, I'd be really annoyed if someone came along and slapped a pole in my front yard with a Share the Road sign on it. I was relieved a couple of years ago when some motorist crashed through our telephone pole, mailbox and street sign into our lilac hedge (then, in true motorist fashion, left the vehicle and ran off into the night). The power company replaced the telephone pole, I fixed the mailbox (which has since been hit again, again by someone who took off) but I just cut off the bent-over street sign and it was never replaced, which made me happy. I hate to say this, but I think Share the Road signs are just more visual clutter, something we can do with less of rather than more.

I rode to the Summit on my Atlantis dressed in regular work clothes--dress slacks, dress shoes, white shirt, tie. It was a good evening for this, as riding there involved a ferocious tailwind and 200 foot drop in altitude, and the wind was mostly gone by the time I rode home. I did pass a couple of Mormon missionaries proselytizing some guy at a bus stop. They, too, were on bicycles, with helmets, in white shirts, ties, dress slacks and shoes. This makes the Dressed Up Cyclist the perfect cycling uniform--if you overtake a slower cyclist, it's extra-humiliating for them to be overtaken by a guy in a tie; if you get overtaken, well, it was just some guy all dressed up, who couldn't overtake someone like that?; and strangers won't bother you for fear of being recruited into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Cyclists. When I told my wife that I looked like a Mormon missionary she pointed out that, no, they're usually young and attractive. Ouch.


KM said...

I was out of town so was unable to attend. Was there any discussion about bike lanes on east river road? I know the residents along there are vehemently opposed to both parking restrictions and a Northbound trail.

See you at the 3 speed tour.

Matt said...

No, that wasn't mentioned. I've only been on the BAB for three meetings but have heard that alluded to. I wasn't aware that there was such opposition. There was quite a bit of talk about the Raymond Avenue railway bridge and railways in general.

Just got the bike finished up tonight for the Tour, got my hat last night, some pipe tobacco this evening, things are coming together.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the summary of the bike summit. I was at the fall summit, but didn't even hear about this one until the night before. Poorly publicized indeed. I would like to have gotten an update on the Ayd Mill project, it's a route i'd use daily on the way to work.

The intersection accident rate creep doesn't surprise me a bit. People get used to pretty much anything and eventually take it for granted. I've seen the same sort of studies that show streets are actually safer with some degree of chaos. Of course, the American view is to place enough controls to ensure protected fast travel, so it's unlikely to happen here.

Jim Thill said...

On the 3ST, I overheard a brief conversation between two of the other tourists regarding cycling in traffic. One of them said he employs the strategy of creating uncertainty by weaving suddenly out into the lane of car traffic as if swerving around a pothole or roadkill. I'm assuming that he does this only when certain that he will have time to get back to the right before the drivers behind him run him down. He claimed that this little maneuver usually caused drivers to pass him more cautiously and allow him more space.