Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

Moving forward by stopping

Posted by Russell on April 02, 2012 at 4:06 p.m.
Just a three weeks after I was sworn in for my term on the City of Davis Safety and Parking Advisory Commission, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed just a few dozen feet from my doorstep. She was out jogging on a foggy morning, and truck coming into town from the county road ran her down in the crosswalk. I never knew Megan, but her death deeply upsets me.

I've been worrying about pedestrian and bike safety ever since my little sister was nearly killed by a careless driver.

I find it extremely frustrating that most people do not look beyond the (usually imagined) behavior of the people involved in an accident like the one that almost killed my sister, or that did kill Megan Glanville. Either they identify with the frustrating experience of driving, and blame the victim, or they side with the law, and place the responsibility at the feet of the operator of the more dangerous vehicle. I will always side with the person who suffered more, but both views are myopic. When someone has been killed in an accident, the question of who was more "right" in that sliver of time is irrelevant. It is worse than irrelevant; it is an insult to the lives of all the people affected.

There are other, far more urgent questions that need to be raised. If you see a problem, the first question you should always ask is, "In what way am I responsible for this?" We are all bound together by bonds of mutual responsibility, and nothing happens among people, good or bad, for which each of us are not in some sense responsible. That is what words like "society," "community," and "civilization" mean. They describe the fact that the bonds that link us together are fundamentally inescapable. There is such a thing as integrity, but there is no such thing as self-reliance. Interdependence is the very essence of what makes us human. And so, if you see something that upsets you, the first thing you should look at is your own role in causing it. Through our choices, we were all present on morning that George Souza killed Megan Glanville. You. Me. Everyone. We all had a hand in it.

Clearly, we failed. You failed. I failed. Someone is dead as a consequence of that failure.

So, let us set aside the choices of George Souza and Megan Glanville, and look at the choices we made that contributed to this terrible thing. They are easy enough to see :

This is the crosswalk where Megan was killed, which is part of a system of roads that belong to the City of Davis. The arrow on the yellow sign is pointing almost directly at the spot. The laws that govern the design of the road are a kaleidoscopic fugue of local, county, state, federal and international regulations. Within that often contradictory matrix of statutes, the city government has a small keyhole of authority within which it may choose what the road looks like and how it works.

From an engineering point of view, it's pretty clear what the problem is. The road on the left is just a stone's throw from the border of the city. Beyond the border, it is a wide county road that cuts a nearly straight line for miles among orchards and farms. When it crosses into the city, this road suddenly plunges into a dense residential neighborhood with no transition whatsoever. The intersection where Megan was killed is the very first intersection an eastbound driver encounters in the City of Davis. So, drivers come in from the county road going at county road speeds, and roar through this intersection where people are trying to cross to the bike path that parallels the road. Add a little darkness and bit of fog, and the accident was basically inevitable.

Why was this intersection designed this way? I don't know. According to the laws and statutes that regulate its engineering, there is nothing particularly wrong with it. But then again, houses that catch fire and burn people alive inside are often built to code. Compliance with the law is not enough. Only thoughtful design can keep people safe, and the absence of that thoughtfulness killed someone.

So, who is to blame? The legislators who wrote the statues describing how intersections should be designed? The engineers whose designs were constrained by those statutes? The City of Davis Public Works Department that built and maintained it? Surely, some of the responsibility falls to them. But not very much. If you've ever driven, walked or bicycled through the intersection of Lake and Russell, then a great deal of the responsibility falls on you. If you've ever felt uncomfortable or unsafe while passing through it, then you knew someone would get hurt there sooner or later.

The Council Chambers are open to the public. The meetings and agendas are available weeks in advance for all to see, at CityOfDavis.org. You can even submit your concerns in writing if you don't have time to come to the meetings. In other words, you had the reason and the means to get this fixed, or at least play a part in getting it fixed, before Megan Glanville was killed. I share in this responsibility; I serve on the commission charged with advising the City Council on these things, and I did not raise this issue either. And I use this intersection several times a day. And I always feel unsafe. It is my fault too.

So, here is what is going to happen. The City Council was asked, and agreed, to take steps to prevent anyone else from getting killed. The proposed changes will add stop signs on Russell Boulevard in both directions, a blinking red light in case drivers don't see the stop signs in the fog, and four new street lights for better illumination overall. It will cost about $20,000.

This is a much better design. It's impossible to know if it would have saved Megan's life had it been in place in December, but it seems likely that it would have. I strongly support it.

Roads are not natural phenomena. They are public infrastructure, and they are designed and built and maintained in exactly the way the public asks them to be. Let's try to do a better job of holding up our end of that conversation.

OMG snake.

Posted by Russell on July 04, 2009 at 2:22 p.m.
After it started to cool down yesterday, I went for a bike ride around the research farms, and I saw what I thought was a seam in the bike path. It wasn't until I was almost on top of it that I noticed that it was the shadow of a snake crossing the path! I ran over the poor guy before I could hit the breakes.

Fortunately, the snake survived, and went slithering into his hidey hole in the roots of one of the huge trees that line the bike path. I used a stick to touch the end of his tail to make sure his spine wasn't broken, and he reacted in about the way you would expect a not-run-over snake to react.

Sorry this isn't a very good picture. Since T-Mobile pushed out the Android Cupcake upgrade, my phone has been ridiculously, pathetically slow. It took almost a minute and a half to get the camera application open and snap a picture. By that time, the snake had spent 30 seconds slithering around on the bike path checking itself out (which would have been an awesome shot), and then gone about 20 feet into the grass. Boo Android! Fix your shit!

The snake was about four feet long and about the width of two fingers. The head was sort of bullet-shaped, as opposed to shovel-shaped, so it's probably not a viper. My guess is garter snake.

Bike safety column in print

Posted by Russell on June 19, 2009 at 4:55 p.m.
My article on bike safety is in print in the Davis Enterprise! I was invited to write this column as a follow up to my Davis Crash Map article and Anna's accident in 2007.

It's not up on their web site yet. I'll update with a link one they post it.

:: update ::

Here is the text of the article :

The Davis Enterprise: June 19, 2009
Davis Bicycles! column #20
Title: When road design gets personal Author: Russell Neches

Two years ago my little sister was riding her bicycle to a friend’s house. A woman was diving home from work. They met when the car hit Anna at 30 mph.

Before I go further, Anna is OK.

The weeks following the accident were hard. Aphasia, hematoma, and dental prosthesis became a regular part of family conversation. It was a month before we were sure she would get better.

Anna lives in Norman, Oklahoma. Norman is a lot like Davis; it’s roughly the same size, population and distance from the state capital. Norman hosts a big university and encourages bicycling.

After the accident, I desperately wanted someone to take responsibility. At first, I blamed Anna for not being more careful. Then I read the police report, and blamed the driver. But when I visited Norman and stood by the splashes of dried blood on the asphalt, I found I couldn’t blame either of them. The blame belonged to the road itself.

In sharp contrast to Davis, Norman has some of the sloppiest road design in America. The road where the accident happened has no curb, no sidewalk, no lane markings, no lights, and no center divider. The street is a smear of asphalt that informally fades into gravel and scrubby grass on its way to becoming front yard. This wasn’t some lonely country road. It happened downtown, right next to the University of Oklahoma. The equivalent spot in Davis might be about Seventh and E Streets. Until Anna’s face slammed into the windshield, the driver had no way of knowing for sure that she was driving on the wrong side of the road.

Davis does a pretty good job when it comes to road design. Even out amongst the farms, most of the roads have reflectorized lines to mark the center and shoulders. This isn’t because paint is cheaper in California. It’s because public officials have found that the lines help people be safer drivers.

With Anna’s final round of reconstructive surgery still in the works, I hope I can be forgiven for being preoccupied with bicycle safety. I’m a scientist. When scientists get worried, we go back to the data. Mapping the last couple of years of Davis accident reports indicates that the biggest problem spot in our town is the much-debated Fifth Street corridor.

It has been proposed to transform the stretch of Fifth Street north of downtown from a higher-speed four-lane road with frequent stops into a lower-speed two-lane road with center turn pockets. The design would look somewhat like B Street does now. I was surprised to learn that the two roads carry about the same amount of traffic.

Not everyone likes the idea, and some warn that slowing traffic may result in congestion. This must be taken seriously, and so detailed computer models have been constructed. The models show that the proposed design would actually increase throughput and reduce congestion somewhat.

This counterintuitive result is something with which I have personal experience. I grew up in Los Angeles, the poster city for congestion. It got that way because people tried to solve congestion problems by adding lanes. What we got for our billions of dollars was even worse congestion. LA has more acreage under roads than under destinations, and yet it is still asphyxiated.

Roads are ancient technology. Roman engineers would find California’s freeways impressive, but would learn little from them. But even ancient technology can be improved. We didn’t get from swinging stone axes to landing robots on Mars by refusing to try new things. Lane reduction has been tried in other cities, with great results for safety and efficiency.

The proposed Fifth Street design sounds like something worth trying. It will make Davis a safer, more efficient place walk, bike and drive. Repainting and installing different signals is part of the normal process of maintaining and improving roads. The proposal would simply guide this process. If it doesn’t work, the city has more paint. My family learned the hard way just how important lines of paint really are.

I’ve made an interactive map at vort.org/media/data/crashes.html displaying the last couple of years of Davis accident data. I hope it will inspire you think about how our roads are designed, how those designs succeed, and how they can be improved.

— Russell Neches is a microbiology graduate student at UC Davis. He has commuted to school and work through Los Angeles, New York and Boston on various vehicles including bikes, cars, trains, subways and on foot.

:: update 2 ::

Here is the direct link to the article on the Davis Enterprise website : http://www.davisenterprise.com/story.php?id=621.3

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 Davis Crash Map

Posted by Russell on April 29, 2009 at 12:02 a.m.
I want announce a little project I put together over the weekend. For want of a better name, I'll call it the Davis Crash Map. Basically, I analyzed the accident report spreadsheets from the City of Davis Public Works Department, and made an overlay for Google Maps to visualize the data. The spreadsheets are a bit difficult to analyze, so I'm leaving out the reports that aren't clear to me (about 15% of the reports). The reports that gave me some trouble seem to be randomly distributed over the city, so the overlay should still give an unbiased picture of what is happening.

In particular, this is map is intended to examine bicycle accidents. I hope people will look at this map, and think about how they behave on the roads, weather on foot, on a bicycle, or in a car. How you behave on the road has direct, and sometimes dire, consequences for you and for other people.

However, there is more to this than behavior. This is also a design question. Roads are not natural features. They are designed and built by people for use by people. As with anything that is made by humans, there are good designs and bad designs. These designs have a real impact on peoples' lives. In the case of streets, the impact on your life can be very literal, as this map shows.

Even good designs can always be improved. Davis is a pretty safe town in which to walk, bicycle and drive. But if you study this map, and think about it as you go about the town, it's also clear that things could be better.

I'm not a traffic engineer, or a civil engineer, or a city planner. I claim no expertise in those areas. I'll leave it to other people to make specific suggestions. However, I think it is important for the users of streets -- pretty much everybody -- to think about what kind of streets they want. This map should help give you a better idea of what kind of streets we actually have.

For some reason, people seem to get very emotional about traffic. I grew up in Los Angeles, home of the nation's worst traffic jams. Perhaps this is to make up for our lack of a professional football franchise. Passions about transportation, especially mundane things like parking spaces and HOV lanes, get people really worked up. Los Angeles is also famous for road rage, and nowhere is it in greater evidence than in the corridors of City Hall. Public meetings on traffic can make I-405 look like afternoon tea. In fact, thousands of people from all over the world tune into the internet broadcast of the Santa Monica city council meetings to listen to Californians scream at each other over the exact position of little blobs of paint on little strips of asphalt.

What the conversation needs, I think, is some perspective. Data can help provide that perspective, especially if it can be represented in a way that is easy to understand. Maps are good at that.

If you will indulge me, I'd like to share my perspective on this data. Each marker represents a traumatic event for someone. Under some of those markers, a life came to a sudden, violent end. I'd like to share a picture of what kind of event a marker on this map represents. You won't find a marker for this event because it happened in Norman, Oklahoma, a college town that is a lot like Davis.


Anna and me

In October of 2007, my little sister was riding her bicycle near her house. A lady in a Mercedes made a lazy left turn, and crossed onto the wrong side of the road. She hit Anna head-on. Anna went up and over the hood of the car, and face-planted on the windshield, breaking her nose and her front teeth. The lady slammed on the breaks, and Anna then went flying off the car and slammed her head on the pavement. That much is clear from where my mother photographed the tire marks, the blood stains, and scattered teeth.


Who designed this street, anyway?

The sequence of events afterward are a little unclear, since Anna does not remember anything from that day, or for several days before and after the accident. The police report includes several details that are impossible or don't make any sense; for example, the officer thought she was coming out of a driveway onto the street, but the driveway did not belong to anyone she knew, and was paved in gravel (extremely annoying to bicycle on). The report also places the accident on the wrong side of the street, which was obvious enough based on the tire marks and blood. Based on what her friends say she was doing -- biking from her house to a friend's house -- she would have just been pedaling along the side of the road. The details of what happened are somewhat unclear, other than the evidence left on the road and gouged onto my sister's face.

After hitting the pavement, she evidently got up and staggered around for a bit, and then collapsed. She stopped breathing, and officer on the scene couldn't find a pulse, and assumed that she was dead. This was the reason given for not immediately summoning an ambulance.

Then she suddenly revived and started mumbling. The lady who ran her down went into screaming hysterics, and had to be restrained (or evacuated, or something). It was only then that an ambulance was called. From the report, it appears that paramedics and police spent a good deal of time tending to the driver of the car, who was having an anxiety attack, instead of Anna, who was bleeding from massive head trauma.

Anna then spent the next several days in the hospital. My mother got on the next flight to stay with her. For the next several days, Anna went through long and short memory lapses and dizzy spells of various lengths. When I spoke to her on the phone over the next several days, she also had some kind of aphasia, which was very jarring to me because she is normally a very articulate person. And then there was the puking. Brain injuries often come with a heavy dose of overpowering nausea. She was on anti-nausea drugs for a long time after the accident.

It took a long time for he to start feeling "normal" again. Almost two years later, she's still not sure she feels completely normal. Fortunately, thanks to some really great work by her surgeons, she looks normal. Needless to say, she is both very lucky and very tough.


Anna's bicycle. The police kept it as evidence, but allowed my mother to photograph it.

You could say that I have a personal stake in this, and I will not claim to be unbiased. Many people who argue against safety measures that would slow traffic argue their case on the basis of personal responsibility. We are each responsible for our actions, they argue, and if you do something stupid, you are responsible for the consequences. Why should people who don't do stupid things be inconvenienced?

I agree completely. However, if one casts any real issue into the frame of personal responsibility, then things are rarely so simple. Everyone who could act in a situation has responsibilities, even if they are not they are directly involved. When you have the power to prevent something bad from happening, and you choose not to act, then some of the responsibility falls on you. Every unfortunate, stupid thing that happens involves a cast of thousands of silent, but not blameless, bystanders.

We have a responsibility to at least attempt to protect people regardless of what they are doing -- even if it is stupid. This is especially true when it comes to the things we build. We shouldn't, if we can possibly avoid it, build things that injure and kill people. If we can think of ways to make something we build less dangerous, we ought to give it a try.


Anna and Earnie, about a year after the accident.

My little sister was stupid not to wear a helmet that day. The lady in the car was stupid not to have been on the lookout for cyclists. But neither of them deserved what happened. Each of them is obviously bears some measure of responsiblity (and I have my own opinions on how those measures are apportioned), but the city of Norman is also responsible. The city didn't even bother to paint a line down the middle of the road; what was the driver supposed to be on the wrong side of?

Yes, this is about personal responsibility. We, the public, build the roads. We are responsible for the markers on this map, and all the terror, trauma and tragedy they represent. Let's try to do better.

Bike saftey in Davis

Posted by Russell on April 25, 2009 at 11:18 p.m.
I've been tinkering with a little data visualization applet for looking at bicycle crash data in Davis, and I thought this map might be interesting to people. This is a image was generated with Google Maps and a heatmap overlay generated with a gheat tile server.

This is for 168 bicycle accidents that happened between 2004 and 2006. I have a lot more data, but 95% of the work in this little project involves parsing and renormalizing it. Evidently, police reports are not written with data processing in mind! I suppose that makes perfect sense. An officer at the scene of an accident probably has things on her mind besides generating a nice, easy to parse data point for future analysis. The priority seems to be completeness, rather than consistency. My parsing code, for example, has to be able to correctly detect and calculate distances measured in units of "feeet".

I'll release the applet here once I make an interface for it (and get the rest of the data imported). Stay tuned.

Fun with My Tracks, an accident, and Biking in Davis

Posted by Russell on April 21, 2009 at 5:40 a.m.
I was biking home today, and I decided to take a detour to enjoy the warm evening (and to avoid the not enjoyable warm apartment). About half way around the Davis Bike Loop, I remembered that I wanted to try out My Tracks. Here's the result :
Neat!

After wandering off the Bike Loop a bit, I decided to head home. I was biking down Russell Blvd., and I witnessed a very scary car accident. The accident happened where I stopped recording the track, at the red marker. A guy in a cherried-out lifted F-150 was sitting at the traffic light (that's the point where I turned around). When the light turned green, he floored it. According to the other witnesses, he was racing with someone, or trying to catch someone who had cut him off. I couldn't see the other car because it was behind his gigantic stupid truck.

What I did see, though, was that he accelerated continuously until he reached the next intersection (the red marker), where he had a head-on collision with a girl in a 1990's Honda Civic trying to make a left turn. His engine was deafeningly loud even a block away, and I heard it roaring and down-shifting right up until the crash.

Looking at the damage to her car, it looked like he basically ran it over. The lift kit on the truck put his undercarriage about level with her roof, and there were even little ladders installed to climb up to the doors. After he ran over the Civic, he swerved around a bit, jumped the median, sideswiped a small SUV in the oncoming traffic, spun 180 degrees, and snapped his axle. When the axle snapped, I heard his engine redline for half a second and then cut.

Happily, nobody was hurt. The girl in the Civic was pretty much petrified, though. She was convinced that the accident was her fault because she didn't get out of the way.

I told her this was nonsense; the truck was going more than double the speed limit, and I'm pretty sure he didn't have his lights on (it was dusk, but not completely dark yet). She asked me about five times, "How much do you think it will cost to fix?" I told her, "Cost you? Nothing. He was committing maybe a dozen moving violations, and probably racing someone. His insurance company will probably be so happy not to have to pay medical bills that they will buy you a whole new car."

Maybe she could have been a little swifter completing her turn, but it's a busy street and there is a lot of pedestrian and bicycle traffic (it parallels a bike path). Making a quick turn is probably not a good idea. Or, maybe she could have waited until this asshole passed, but, as I pointed out, he was going maybe 50 or 60 in a 30 zone, and accelerating. She timed her turn right for reasonable traffic flow, but didn't account for total maniacs among the oncoming traffic. It would have been difficult to judge when he would reach the intersection she was turning through.

Oi!

As it turns out, Davis has been thinking about redesigning this stretch of Russell Blvd. for several years. If you look at the proposed design, it would have made this accident impossible or unlikely. You can't race on a one lane road, and a landscaped medium would have prevented the second collision.

HOWTO: Repair a broken Brompton chain tensioner

Posted by Russell on April 13, 2009 at 12:56 a.m.
A little while ago, I was riding home on my wonderful Brompton bicycle, and the chain tensioner suddenly disengaged. That had never happened before, and I discovered that the gear on the chain tensioner had completely smashed to bits. Here's what it looked like :

After puzzling about it for a while, I think I understand what happened. I use the same chain oil on my Brompton that I use on my racing bike. The "oil" is actually a mixture of a heavy lubricant in a volatile solvent. The solvent evaporates after coating the chain, and dissolves whatever gunk has accumulated. I think the solvent damaged the plastic. I've seen this happen with some plastics when they come into contact with gasoline. The gasoline dissolves the plasticizing agents, and leaves behind an open matrix of molecules, like a very, very fine sponge. The open matrix has a huge surface area and oxidizes rapidly. Your nice flexible plastic turns into something hard and crumbly, like a stale cookie.

That's what I think happened here. The remaining bits of plastic are still relatively flexible, but the bits that broke off have turned into a powdery mess.

The guy who sold me my bike offered to let me buy an idler wheel off of one of the bikes in his stock, but I didn't want another plastic gear. Here is what I built :

I bought a standard anodized aluminum derailleur gear from a local bike shop, and attached it to the Brompton chain tensioner arm with a few pennies worth of standard hardware. The new idler wheel (gear? cog?) slides along a little stainless steel tube I picked up at the hardware store and cut to length. This gives it enough play to allow for easy shifting. The tube has just the right tolerance to allow the gear to spin very easily, but not wobble.

Here's the exploded view :

From top to bottom, the parts are :

  • regular old bolt
  • two washers
  • stainless tube
  • gear
  • another washer
  • lock washer
  • nut
The gear is part of a Shift Biscuits pully set (though probably any pully set would work), and the steel tube is 7.94mm x 7.4mm (stock No. 7117) cut to length with a hacksaw (this took a while). The rest of the hardware is standard hardware store stuff.

I had to saw off the plastic axle tube on the chain tensioner arm because it would have prevented the idler wheel from sliding into the right position for the outer gear. I chose a bolt with a hex-head that fit snugly into the socket on the tensioner arm (similar to the bolts on the toggles for locking the frame in place). Once the nut is tightened against the lock washer, the axle is extremely rigid. The gear slips across the tube with almost zero play.

The shifting action is actually much smoother than it was with the plastic gear, and the bike seems to make a little less noise than I remember (that could be my imagination).

Yay! I've got my bike back, and without another dorky plastic gear, too. Neat!

Warm spell

Posted by Russell on January 13, 2009 at 8:52 p.m.
I was biking to the gym yesterday, and it occured to me that since it was so beautiful outside, I may as well just keep biking. So, instead of sitting on the stationary bike, I did a three and a half hour ride down some random county road. It was awesome, even with my funny little commuter bike.

Along the way I passed this pathway planted with olive trees through the middle of one of the UC Davis research farms.

Note to self: Plant more olive trees.

Peadal power

Posted by Russell on December 04, 2007 at 4:26 a.m.
When you're at the gym, do you ever watch all the spinning wheels and slowly reciprocating weights and think about what a waste it is that all of that effort isn't captured and put to work generating electricity? Isn't that a lot of energy?

My usual workout includes a ten mile bike ride, which I usually complete in about 45 minutes with heavy resistance. According to the machine at my gym, I burn about 500 calories, or 2.1 megajoules, in the process. I'm going to assume the machine means kilogram calories, which is what you see on food labels.

Evidently, I'm putting out a bit more than three quarters of a kilowatt. That's a bit more than one horsepower, which is 745.7 watts. This is a bit surprising -- that's not too far shy of what Wikipedia says you'd expect for the first six seconds of a cycle sprint (900 watts). A professional cyclist can hit about two kilowatts during a sprint. So, 775 watts sustained over 45 minutes is not too shabby.

If they had bothered to wire my exercise bike into the grid, LA Fitness would have obtained 581 watt-hours from my efforts. In Pasadena, we pay $0.15 per kilowatt-hour, so I managed to produce a little less than a dime's worth of electricity. If a hundred people did the same workout, which is roughly what I'd expect over the course of a day, we would together generate $8.72. The gym could save that much by switching off the TVs when no one is watching, or turning down the music a little. The electricity you can generate on an exercise bicycle isn't worth the wires that would carry it.

According to the Department of Energy, the average American household uses about 29.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day, so you'd have to pedal at the sprinter's pace of 1216 watts, all day, every day, just to keep up with your household use.

My 2.1 megajoules of peadaling is actually a lot of energy. What astonishes me is that even this rather large amount of energy is worth so little.

Update : My friend Chris points out that the bike at the gym is probably reporting some kind of estimate total power, including power dissipated as heat, that it extrapolates from the work you put into the mechanism. He suggests that around 20-25% of the calories you burn are available as work, so that means I am putting somewhere around 155 to 194 watts into the bike. This probably has an error of 50% or worse, since the bike is extrapolating the total power from the mechanical power, and then I'm extrapolating back to the mechanical power from the result. The actual electricity one could generate is more like $0.02 worth.

Protect your noodle

Posted by Russell on October 31, 2007 at 12:58 a.m.
Yesterday afternoon, my little sister was hit by a car while riding her bicycle across the University of Oklahoma campus. She suffered lacerations and abrasions to her face, lost a couple of teeth, and a number other injuries. She also has a serious concussion. She is now experiencing memory loss, disorientation, extreme nausea, and huge amount of pain.

All of this is, in a sense, good news. She was very, very lucky, given that she was not wearing a helmet. The prognosis is that she will recover completely after some unknown amount of time. My mother flew out to Oklahoma on the first available flight, and she'll be staying with Anna at least throught next week.

She is an exceptionally smart girl, and she knows perfectly well how important helmets are. When we were little, I witnessed her flip her bike and pile-drive her head into the sharp point of the curb in front of our house. She was not hurt, but her helmet nearly split in half. We still have that helmet, even thought it is ruined. The seven inch long, two inch deep gash across the crown makes it perfectly clear that Anna would have died that day, had it not been for a geeky-looking early 1990s vintage Bell helmet. The very first serious email I ever wrote was to thank Bell Sports for saving my little sister.

Now is not the time to wonder why she wasn't wearing her helmet yesterday. Maybe she lost it, or maybe she figured she was only going to ride a short distance, or maybe she didn't expect any cars on campus. We may never find out, given that she doesn't remember the accident. For now, we're focusing on when we can take her out of the hospital, and how long it will take her to recover.

I am writing this here today to ask you, dear reader, to always wear the proper safety equipment. Concussions are not funny. Shit happens. Protect your noodle.

I am going to go ahead and shamelessly plug Bell helmets. Bell has been making helmets since 1954, and they invented the modern bicycle helmet in 1975. Bell saved my little sister once, so they've got my vote for life. Buy a helmet, and make sure it is on your head whenever you so much as handle a bicycle, in case you are overpowered by a sudden uncontrollable urge to peddle around. In fact, buy two, just in case you loose one, or for variety, or for the hell of it.

If you are wondering how to make bicycling safer, you can do two things. Wear a helmet, and bicycle more :

The analysis undertaken in this study suggests that policies which lead to an increase in cycling will not increase the likelihood of cyclist crashes. From the work reported here, it seems the more cyclists there are on the roads the lower the risk that any individual cyclists will be involved in a collision. Road safety professionals concerned about reducing the likelihood of cycle crashes might consider measures that increase cycling.

Bus racing

Posted by Russell on October 23, 2007 at 7:14 p.m.
On my way home from UCLA today, I decided to see how fast I ride my bike from Westwood and to the terminus of the Metro Purple Line on Wilshire and Western. Particularly, I was interested to see if I could get there quicker than the 720 bus. To make it fair, I waited until there was almost no traffic for the bus to get mired in. Rush hour now lasts well into the late evening, so traffic was heavy but not jammed at 9:00 PM.

I waited for a 720 bus to pull into the station, and then took off. It was pretty much a dead heat until the Starbucks at San Vincente, and I got a couple of lucky breaks from the walk signals. I beat the bus to Western by about four minutes, completing the trip in 43 minutes without breaking a sweat. Oh, and it's mostly an uphill ride with lots of pedestrians to which one must yield.

Two weeks on a folding bike

Posted by Russell on October 21, 2007 at 6:29 a.m.
Since I am now commuting to UCLA from Pasadena, I've spent a lot of time wondering how to cut down of the time, expense and misery of commuting. Most of that pondering happened while trapped somewhere on the Ventura freeway, or the perhaps on driving aimlessly around Westwood looking for a parking spot.

To that end, I've started using the Metro as much as possible. The Metro Gold Line is fantastic, and gets me from Lake Street in Pasadena to Union Station downtown in about 20 minutes (less if I catch an express). The Purple Line gets me as far as Koreatown, and this is where things start to suck. From Wilshire and Western, it's about seven miles to UCLA. During business hours, the 720 bus takes about an hour and 45 minutes to traverse this miserable stretch of urban leprosy. The worst part is Beverley Hills, which I would gleefully bulldoze if given the chance.

It's maddening. The first 22 miles of the trip take about 30-45 minutes, depending on intervals between trains. The last six and a half take three times that.

While I was riding a 720 bus packed with more people than I attended high school with, it occurred to me that 6.5 miles in 105 minutes is a little slower than four miles per hour. I could probably beat that walking on my hands.

So, I bought some new tires for my bicycle, and gave it a try. Sure enough, I passed five or six 720 busses as they sat like flatulent beached whales in the morning rush hour traffic. With all the traffic lights, it's a slow ride, but it takes about 50-60 minutes, so I'm averaging between 6.5-7.8 miles per hour. In West Los Angeles, velocities this high are known to cause Cerenkov radiation. I could go a lot faster if drivers would actually look at the road instead of staring blankly into space while driving their Range Rovers in the bike lane, parking in the crosswalk or on driving on the sidewalk to get around busses (yes, really). It would be certain death for a cyclist if all of this mayhem weren't happening at the speed one can push a loaded dumpster up a hill.

There is just one problem, though. When you're not riding it, a bicycle is miserable thing to carry. You may as well be traveling with an Alexander Calder sculpture.

So, I bought a folding bicycle :

This is a Brompton M6R. It folds up really, really tiny, and has little wheels on the bottom to roll it like a suitcase when it's folded up.

Surprisingly, the small wheels don't seem to make much of a difference with stability. The only difference, really, is that it takes a lot less torque to turn the front wheel, even at speed. This makes it feel "twitchy" at first, but the sensation goes away after about twenty seconds of riding. The Bromptons also have really strong breaks. You have to be careful not to pitch yourself over the handlebars.

Compared to my road bike, the Brompton is almost alarmingly responsive. This makes it ideal for crowded situations -- it's easy to avoid unexpected obstacles, squeeze through narrow spaces, and stop suddenly. When it's folded up, it's nice to be able to walk down the train platform without goring people with the pedals or stabbing them with the quick release levers.

The Brompton has two main disadvantages. First, it's a little on the heavy side. I didn't shell out for the titanium version, so it weighs in at 23 pounds. This turns out not to matter very much, except when lugging it up long flights of stairs. The second disadvantage is that I must answer a never-ending stream of questions about it.

I will write a more detailed review of the bicycle itself in a few weeks.