Russell's Blog

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The tale of the rampaging lorry

Posted by Russell on May 23, 2009 at 4:33 p.m.
On Friday morning, a fellow named Boris and two of his friends got on their bicycles for a ride. As they pedaled along, observing the speed limit and traffic rules, a speeding truck overtook them. As it bounced over a speed bump, it's rear door swung open and snagged a parked car, and flung it across the road. It came within a few inches of crushing Boris and his friends.

So far, the event I've described above seems fairly unremarkable. Things like that happen all the time. There are two unusual things about this crash, though. First of all, the incident was caught on tape by a security camera, so we know exactly what happened. The three near-victims were Lord Adonis, Kulveer Ranger, and Boris Johnson; the UK's minister of transport, the director of transport of the city of London, and the mayor of London, respectively.

Helmet in hand, the mayor of London walks over for a better look at the car that almost killed him. This iPhone shot is by user Beatnic on Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

The three were cycling through London to scope out possible routes for a system of protected bicycle "super-highways." Mr. Johnson had the following to say about the incident:

"I am relieved that no-one was hurt, but this incident reinforces the need for us to make London's roads safer for cyclists, which I am determined to do and to make London the best city for cyclists in Europe.

"Cycle Super Highways, which are part of our record investment in cycling, will play a central role in this, providing clearly demarcated routes for cyclists that lorry drivers and others will be aware of."

What does this mean for American cities? I would take three lessons. First, London is huge, cramped, and damp. Yet London is looking to bicycles as a significant part of its transportation mix, and the city government takes it seriously enough that the mayor himself is regularly out surveying bicycle routes. Bicycles are a serious metropolitan transportation system, not just a recreational activity. Relative to London, cities like Davis are in a much stronger position when it comes to cycling; it should press its advantage.

Second, helmet laws and cycling safety initiatives are important, but even the most careful cyclist -- even the mayor of London -- can do very little to protect himself from a rampaging truck.

Third, out-of-control vehicles are depressingly common. If you want bicycles to play a serious role in municipal transportation, you must deal with vehicle safety.

As if vehicle safety weren't worth pursuing anyway! 43,000 Americans die every year in car accidents. That's like one 9/11 hijacking every month. Bringing this number down will take more than airbags and antilock breaks. It will require making some changes in the way we drive, and the roads we drive on.

The World Avoided

Posted by Russell on May 14, 2009 at 5:28 p.m.
NASA's Earth Observatory posted a fantastic article yesterday about a big computation effort led by Paul Newman, a scientist at the Goddard Space Flight Center. Newmans's group set out to answer the question, "What would have happened if we had failed to regulate CFC gases?"

CFC gases were essentially banned in 1989 through the Montreal Protocol, the world's first international environmental treaty of global scope. So, what did we avoid by banning CFCs?

Newman's group found that we avoided a previously unanticipated runaway cascade of ozone depletion, which would have led to a nearly complete loss of UV protection over the temperate and tropical regions -- not just over the poles.

The year is 2065. Nearly two-thirds of Earth’s ozone is gone—not just over the poles, but everywhere. The infamous ozone hole over Antarctica, first discovered in the 1980s, is a year-round fixture, with a twin over the North Pole. The ultraviolet (UV) radiation falling on mid-latitude cities like Washington, D.C., is strong enough to cause sunburn in just five minutes. DNA-mutating UV radiation is up more than 500 percent, with likely harmful effects on plants, animals, and human skin cancer rates.
By the end of the collapse, the UV index would have exceeded 30 in temperate North America. A UV index greater than 10 is considered extremely dangerous.

We're talking about radiation levels similar to Hiroshima in the days following the atomic bomb (though at a different spectrum), except across the whole planet, every single day, for centuries. A walk on the beach on a sunny afternoon would have been permanently disfiguring, and possibly lethal.

Instead of this hellish scenario, CFCs peaked around the year 2000, and they're already down about four percent. The simulations predict that the ozone layer should finish healing by about 2065. Sweet.

We saved the world, at least from that particular disaster. What did we sacrifice? Basically, nothing. We had to switch to different refrigerants, and it took a few years before people figured out how to make air conditioners that worked as well as the old ones. It might even have been a net positive for the economy, since it accelerated engineering innovation and equipment upgrades, and thus efficiency.

Carbon dioxide is going to be a bigger challenge. We emit a lot more carbon than CFCs, and the things we do that emit carbon are, for the most part, much more fundamental to our economy than running refrigerators and air conditioners. Nevertheless, the Montreal Protocol is a valuable lesson. It shows that politics can influence the world in positive ways, even when everything is a mess. 1989 was not exactly a banner year for political stability, good leadership, or economic strength.


Posted by Russell on May 09, 2009 at 11:21 a.m.
Mimi just called a few minutes ago to say she finished running her half-marathon! Neat!

Now she just needs to finish her thesis...