Red light cameras: another false “controversy”

[On deadline this week & next week, so no grand posts for now. Instead, here’s something I adapted from an online argument about red light cameras. However, I do have some meaty posts on their way.]

I know that red light cameras aren’t popular, but (1) car crashes kill about as many Chicagoans each year as murders, and many more in affluent areas; (2) the consensus of peer-reviewed research [e.g., Bochner & Walden, ITE Journal 80.5; Persaud et al, TRR 1922] shows that RLCs are significantly effective at reducing crash severity. Yes, the number of rear-end crashes increases, but the number of right-angle crashes declines by more, and those are much more severe crashes: not only do they occur at higher speeds, but directly impact the passenger cabin. RLCs would be a good investment in safety even if they did not pay for themselves.

The popular press has a way of taking a peer-reviewed study, and quotes from actual experts, and “for balance” contrasting those with quotes from less rigorous research or just base speculation. In this particular instance, the contrasting study is not peer-reviewed, does not consider crash severity, and likely doesn’t pass statistical significance.

It appears that the popular press more broadly is fabricating evidence against RLCs, appealing to readers who want to absolve themselves of responsibility for their poor driving habits (and dodge the accountability that RLCs provide). People don’t like to be reminded of the horrific consequences of driving, after all.


Wider fronts in the not-war on cars: the East Coast & the world

More data points that I’d meant to post in last week’s update from the trenches:

1. Doug Short has graphs of population-adjusted VMT going back to 1971. Interestingly, most of the decades seem to see pretty steady growth, with growth rates (relative to 1971, so not even accounting for the larger base) declining in the 1990s, leveling off in the early 2000s, and beginning a sharp decline thereafter. The cumulative effect of that curve? Americans drive about half as many miles as would have been projected in the late 1980s, based on the fast-growing trend line at that time. Time to shred all those old highway plans, folks! (Via Brad Plumer‘s latest post on VMT trends)

2. A bunch of papers and videos from the OECD on driving trends in the USA, France, Netherlands, Mexico, Japan, and Australia. (Also via Plumer.)

3. “Gasoline demand stayed flat in states bordering the Gulf of Mexico or in the Rockies. But on the East Coast, it has slipped 10% below its peak level…. it has accounted for half the overall drop since the [peak]… The more striking trend: East Coasters are simply driving less. Vehicle miles traveled in Northeast and South Atlantic states in the year ended in March were 4.2% lower than in the same period ended in September 2007. In the rest of the U.S., they are down just 0.5%.” — Liam Denning, WSJ

Vehicle mix also factors in: “Real Americans” are 2.62X more likely to buy pickups than us effete eastern elitists, and 11.6% less likely to buy a hybrid car, but I doubt that vehicle mix has changed enough over the past few years to explain the differing outcomes.

4. I took this photo in 2005; it was in 2004 that the VMT trend began to sputter. In 2013, the gas station has closed, and a Tesla dealership opened across the street. So yeah, it’s tough to be in the gas biz these days.

$4/gallon, here we come!

5. Of course, Todd Litman from VTPI is always more comprehensive about this topic than anyone else. Here’s his 30-page take, which he updates frequently.

6. Contrast these data points to the comparatively rosy (for carmakers, and therefore awful for the planet) scenario recently posited in the Economist:

One reason for concern is that half the world’s population now lives in towns and cities, which have only so much space for cars… Young urban residents may also be meeting up less often in person, thanks to social-networking sites that let them keep in touch digitally. So they have less need for a car… In particular, the generation who came of age after 2000, the so-called “millennials”, express a preference for having access to rather than owning cars…

[S]tudies also show a marked rise in the proportion of elderly people with driving licences. Baby-boomers pretty much all learned to drive, and now that they are beginning to retire they expect to continue motoring. The development of assisted driving, followed one day by fully automated cars, will allow them to stay mobile for much longer.

What may be happening in rich countries is a one-off shift in the timing of people’s driving careers, so that they start later but then continue well into old age. This may be no bad thing for carmakers… So it is not clear that declining car ownership among young urbanites will have more than a marginal effect on overall car sales….

All in all, “peak car”—the point at which worldwide demand for cars will stop rising—still seems quite a long way off. In the rich world some of the economic factors that have deterred young people from taking up driving will fade away: as cars become increasingly self-piloting and accident rates fall, insurance costs should decrease, and in time there will be little or no need to take expensive lessons.

Perhaps true, but retirees generally don’t travel very far, and VMT/capita drops off considerably at retirement. Crowded cities in developing Africa, Asia, and Latin America have less potential for car growth, and have arguably embraced many transportation innovations faster than the rich world has.

War or not, it’s working

“…because the mayor hasn’t declared a war on cars. I doubt that anyone disagrees that we need to reduce traffic. I would call it an effort to get people to use alternative transportation.” – Mayor Vincent Gray, 20 February 2013

Okay, so I think we’ve established that there is no war on cars. But call it what you will, “efforts to get people to use alternative transportation” do seem to be working quite well, as steep declines in people using cars to get to work (lighter lines) are declining vs. people using “sweet modes” increases (from MWCOG research):

How Washington, D.C. residents get to work

One net result is that the doom-and-gloom traffic apocalypse predictions are now no longer valid. Even if VMT resumes its 40-year upward track — an exceedingly unlikely occurrence given recent trends — the past several years of flat or declining VMT has permanently dented the total, and therefore the amount of road space needed in the future (from OSPIRG):

VMT increase projections

Driving is not coming back. It’s time to get used to it.

Diseases of affluence cured by…

removing affluence, of course. Or, put another way, saving money can sometimes save lives.

Population-wide interventions (in this case severe austerity) reduced chronic disease burden in the very unique case of Cuba’s “special period,” an economic catastrophe that struck a society that is peculiarly undemocratic, resilient, and underpinned by strong public health resources (and thus has excellent data). From Richard Schiffman in The Atlantic, summarizing an article by Manuel Franco, Usama Bilal, et al in BMJ:

that the health of Cubans actually improved dramatically during the years of austerity… based on nationwide statistics from the Cuban Ministry of Public Health, together with surveys conducted with about 6,000 participants in the city of Cienfuegos, on the southern coast of Cuba, between 1991 and 2011. The data showed that, during the period of the economic crisis, deaths from cardiovascular disease and adult-onset type 2 diabetes fell by a third and a half, respectively. Strokes declined more modestly, and overall mortality rates went down… The Cuban experience suggests that to seriously make a dent in these problems, we’ll have to change the lifestyle that helps to cause them. The study’s authors recommend “educational efforts, redesign of built environments to promote physical activity, changes in food systems, restrictions on aggressive promotion of unhealthy drinks and foods to children, and economic strategies such as taxation.” […] If the United States want to stem the rise of diabetes and heart disease, either we get serious about finding ways for to become more physically active and to eat fewer empty calories — or we wait for economic collapse to do that work for us.

The authors (and I) do not condone replicating the Special Period crisis, but as a data-collection exercise it is unique in providing a look at the effects of unprecedented, population-scale, sudden change in both diet and exercise. The primary cause of removing fossil energy had a secondary effect of removing food energy from the economic system, as well, and increasing its expenditure to make up for the lost fossil fuel. The accompanying video (at the BMJ site) has interesting graphs of how the entire population’s BMI shifted both during and after the Special Period.

Same road safety crisis + different contexts = different results

When urban America motorized in the 1920s, it faced a crisis of children crushed by cars, with 7,000 deaths in 1925. Our solution then was to blame the victim, ban pedestrians from the streets invented for them myriad years ago, and turn over the roads to cars. Today, ~7,000 pedestrians each year still die on American streets, in addition to the untold violence our auto-centric transport system wreaks upon local and global ecosystems. This process was extensively documented in Peter Norton’s book “Fighting Traffic.”

Holland faced the same crisis in the 1970s — after feminism, environmentalism, historic preservation, and the bike boom had emerged — and arrived at a radically different and much safer solution for both humans and our planet. London Cyclist magazine has the full story on how “Stop de Kindermoord” (yes, the unsubtle “Stop Killing Kids”) catalyzed these movements and created one of the world’s safest road cultures.

If you’re now inspired to rearrange the streets that you traverse — add some trees, a turning lane, a cycle track, wider sidewalks — you can go ahead and easily try out a new street section at StreetMix. (Hint: you can easily measure street widths using the ruler in Google Earth.)

(H/t to Eli at Seattle Neighborhood Greenways.)

War on cars continues: bike lane takes 0.2% of parking!

L Street Protected Bike Lane Ribbon Cutting

Per Downtown DC BID, “In 2006 the Washington Parking Association (WPA) estimated that there were 199 parking garage locations in the Downtown and Golden Triangle BID areas providing 45,721 spaces.” That does not include the 17,000 street parking spaces that even AAA acknowledges still exist. Therefore, the 150 parking spaces removed to build the “controversial” L Street bike lane pictured above = 0.2% of downtown parking supply. In other words, 417 out of every 418 downtown parking spaces remain even after AAA whines that “The bike lanes have taken up all the parking spaces.” [posted to TheWashCycle]

Also, calendar note: the JITI Urban Transportation Seminar on February 6 will feature speakers from Tokyo Metro and Tokyu Corporation. Tokyu is notable for being one of the more profitable commuter rail + real estate + retail conglomerates in metro Tokyo.

Peak Car presentation

Taking to the street

I gave a brief Pecha Kucha presentation last night at CNU-DC‘s bimonthly 20×20 series. My topic was “Peak Car: nothing to fear here,” in a weak attempt to fit into the month’s Halloween theme. Peak Car doesn’t mean Apocalypse Now — cars will continue to be an important way for millions of people to get around — but it means that a whole series of assumptions around having to always increase pavement supply need to end, and a new set of assumptions around sharing urban spaces among many modes (and methods of interaction) needs to begin.

PK presentations don’t lend themselves to extensive quotes or footnotes, so here are three bonus items:
1. Mark Halper’s article at SmartPlanet provided background on the cost of alternative automotive fuels. Takeaway: $4+ “gas” is here to stay, regardless of whether it’s actually gasoline or something else. Joel Garreau made this point in Edge City (p. 126) back in 1991, and despite all the technological advances since then, it still holds true.
2. Christine MacDonald wrote in CityPaper about Joe Mamo, who holds a near-monopoly on DC’s gasoline supply — but not because the gas business is lucrative (it’s in a long term decline, as even oil industry CEOs admit), but because they’re an opportunistic real estate play: “The market is changing. A lot of properties are being used for best and highest use, as the properties become more expensive. So the chances are less and less gas stations in the future.”
3. The takeaway: car access to a location will slowly mean less and less in the future. Non-car access to a location will increase in importance. There are great tools out there, like Mapnificent, which can help us visualize these relative differences.

Stay tuned for a February follow-up about how America can love its streets once again.