Russell's Blog

New. Improved. Stays crunchy in milk.

A new Prometheus

Posted by Russell on December 08, 2012 at 2:33 a.m.
One year ago, UC Davis law student Megan Glanville was killed a stone's throw from my front door. She was crossing the street for a morning run. It was foggy. The driver didn't see her.

Since then, the intersection where she died has been redesigned. It is now a three-way stop with modern LED lighting. Watching over the scene, there is a new flashing red beacon.

This sort of infrastructure is easy to take for granted. As a Commissioner for the City of Davis, I suppose I pay closer attention to these things that most people do. I've payed particular attention to this little piece of city infrastructure because I pass through it several times a day.

Something has changed there since the red beacon went up. Up and down the boulevard, for almost a mile, there are crossings to access the bicycle path. Drivers now stop and let me cross. They never did that before. I am not exaggerating when I say that wherever the beacon's light falls, the feel of the street has changed. It's no longer the tail end of a lonely country road. It's a neighborhood street, and people act accordingly.

I would like to think that drivers feel the significance of the flashing beacon. I would like to think that they have noticed that the intersection has been redesigned. I would like to think that they know that Megan Glanville died there. In all likelihood, they are oblivious to these things. They stop and smile and waive me through anyway.

Why?

Good design matters. That's why.

The rocky ledge runs far into the sea,
And on its outer point, some miles away,
The Lighthouse lifts its massive masonry,
A pillar of fire by night, of cloud by day.

Even at this distance I can see the tides,
Upheaving, break unheard along its base,
A speechless wrath, that rises and subsides
In the white lip and tremor of the face.

And as the evening darkens, lo! how bright,
Through the deep purple of the twilight air,
Beams forth the sudden radiance of its light
With strange, unearthly splendor in the glare!

Not one alone; from each projecting cape
And perilous reef along the ocean's verge,
Starts into life a dim, gigantic shape,
Holding its lantern o'er the restless surge.

Like the great giant Christopher it stands
Upon the brink of the tempestuous wave,
Wading far out among the rocks and sands,
The night-o'ertaken mariner to save.

-- The Lighthouse, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

On a superficial level, a flashing red beacon is a utilitarian thing. If you look more closely, you will see that it is also a thing of beauty. It is an avatar of the compulsion we all feel to protect, to warn, to guide. The humble beacon is one of the better angels of our nature, sculpted with massive limbs of galvanized steel and eyes of electrically exuberant gallium phosphide. It sends our message out into the world, again, and again, and again.

be careful

be careful

be careful

be careful

be careful

...

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.

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.

4.01

Posted by Russell on May 19, 2008 at 1:56 a.m.
For the first time, I just paid more than $4 a gallon for gasoline. It cost $40.34 to fill the tank on my tiny Toyota Yaris. My commute to UCLA is 37 miles each way, and I get about 38 MPG for that trip. I normally do a little better, but the Sepulveda Pass always seems to wreck my milage. At about $0.11 a mile, one trip costs me $7.77. If I drove in every day, it would cost me about $155 a month. That's almost as much as the payments on the car. If gas goes up another 84 cents, then I'd be paying more for the gasoline than the car just from driving to school.

Ouch.

Meanwhile, a Metro day pass costs $5, and a month pass is $62.00. If you commute in LA, chances are pretty good that your employer will buy your pass for you.

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.