Category Archives: Commuting

The End of Cars?

I’ve been thinking about cars lately. Not because I drive much, but because I wonder what the city would be like without them.

And I don’t think that day is too far off.

Consider: the technology for driverless cars is already here. Google has unveiled a “real build” of a fully-automated car; Nissan, Audi and others have all announced they will be commercially releasing “driver assist” technology in two or three model years.  And Uber has apparently hired some 50 robotics scientists to work on automating its fleet.

Google Self-Driving Car
(Google’s adorable robo-car; photo courtesy of Google)

The gating factors for this technology are more regulatory, cultural and – most importantly – the perceived need to have cars do everything they do today, without a driver.

A thought experiment: what if a city were able get rid of private cars overnight, and replace them with a system for getting citizens around town flexibly, quickly and cost efficiently?

I know, ignore my bias against government regulation for a minute and go with me on this.

So, no more cars. You want to get around town, you need to walk, ride a bike to take public transit.

Ugh, right? Sometimes you need the flexibility and (hopefully) speed of a car.

But urban public transit could revolutionized by self-driving cars. In our hypothetical city, light rail and buses are rejected as being yesterday’s technology: too inflexible, too expensive, and dependent on an antiquated system of schedules and stops that don’t take advantage of the massive advances in communications and positioning technology that have occurred in the last decade.

Instead, the city deploys a fleet of self-driving vehicles. They come in different sizes and configurations, are dispatched by smartphone, and don’t go beyond the city’s otherwise-car-free streets. If you need to get somewhere in town (and don’t want to walk or ride your bike) you call for one of these vehicles. Think of it as a combined Uber and Car2Go – but fully automated.


Hand-wringing over robot driving aside, it’s pretty clear that any self-driving car would be massively less likely to get into an accident than the easily-distracted, sometimes-impaired wetware currently necessary to drive a car.

But our automated city system would offer safety benefits beyond even those the come along with an always-vigilant, computerized driver. Because these are the only vehicles on the road (there could be designated routes for commercial deliveries), and because they only operate within the city, they could be built very differently than today’s autos, which must be safe at highway speeds. With a fully automated traffic system, the vehicles would rarely need to stop; they could “flow” around town. This would enable relatively slow speeds; max speeds of 25 mph would still get riders most anywhere in town in 20 minutes or less due to the elimination of stopping and congestion. A 25 MPH-max car could be built lightweight and simple, able to stop on a dime. These cars would pose far less of a threat to pedestrians and cyclists (and not just because there no longer is a human behind the wheel).


Another big objection to driverless cars stems from the assumption that such vehicles would need to operate in all of the same circumstances cars currently do. City streets, freeways, remote desert highways, all in any manner of weather conditions, and at speeds between 0 – 90 MPH. If you assume you need to solve for all THAT, you’re requiring a massive amount of complexity in the navigational, safety and decision-making capabilities of the vehicles. You’ve got to address fog, and snow, and construction reroutes, in all possible areas, and at sorts of speeds.  You’ve also got to build in safety systems capable of protecting vehicle occupants in high-speed crashes.

But limit the system to the small, tight and well-monitored ecosystem of a city’s streets (or even just most city streets), and these problems become orders of magnitude more manageable. At the far smaller scale involved, navigational markers can be programmed and updated at a very granular level; the streets would become a virtual track for the cars to operate on.  And it’s easier still, if, like our model city here, you can do so without having to deal with traditional cars at the same time.


Our city would need far, far less space for parking. Most space currently used for street parking could be given over to drop-off zones, bikeways, and promenades. Some parking structures would be necessary for storage and maintenance of system vehicles, but far fewer spaces than a city with private cars would need. In fact, with the fleet of vehicles continuously in use going from call to call, our city might well have 10x fewer vehicles than a city with traditional cars.

How? Consider how little private vehicles – particularly vehicles owned by in-city residents – are used. The average commute time for Seattle residents is 25 minutes. That means that the typical driver is using their car 50 minutes a day. Even if you increase that number by 80% to account for errands, etc. you’re still left with this: our cars are sitting idle 93.75% of the time.  With smart fleet management and dispatch software smoothly sending cars from call to call, our city’s vehicles could be in use over 50% of the time (including times of low demand).

There are obviously some big environmental benefits coming from this – not just the lower cost per mile to operate simple, light vehicles at low speeds, but also the massive impact of eliminating the manufacture of so many cars.

This piece of the puzzle, believe it or not, is already being worked by Uber with “Uber Pool.” Check out Bill Gurley’s in-depth look at the math behind Uber Pool, and why it’s potentially such a huge deal.


The cost of a system such as this – whether to the city or a private operator – would be much lower than traditional public transit. There’s little infrastructure to build, and the vehicles themselves – freed of the operational complexities of traditional cars – should also be cheap, and can be scaled up as demand dictates.

For users, the cost would be far lower than owning a car. Lower-cost vehicles being utilized at 10X the frequency of traditional private vehicles compels that result. In fact, the cost could easily end up being cheaper even than current public transit options.

Take a look at some current monthly costs for transportation in Seattle:

Monthly Metro Pass – $81.00

50 15-minute Car2Go rides – $307.50

50 5-mile UberX rides – $600.00

The Uber option is already cheaper than owning a car and parking downtown.  Imagine how low that could go with a liquid, automated system utilizing much cheaper vehicles.


What of the disabled, and those unable to operate or afford the mobile phone, or rides on the system itself? These are issues that today’s transit systems have to contend with, and while I can’t predict exactly what the solutions would be for a robo-car system, there would be more – and more flexible – options than exist for transit operators today. The sheer number of vehicles involved in the system offers the potential for solutions that are far cheaper and easier than the brute force approach of equipping every bus with an expensive, disruptive and prone-to-fail wheelchair ramp.

Outside the City

While this system would solve the problem of in-city transportation – essentially replacing private vehicles and traditional public transit like light rail and buses- it would take longer for driverless cars to take over outside of cities. As soon as you try to do that, you’ve got to solve for higher speeds, lower density and more complex navigation.

But let’s call that a second-order problem. To get started, our urban robo-car system could simply interlink with the outside ecosystem of traditional cars. Those coming in from out of town would park in lots – like today’s park-and-ride lots – where they would grab a driverless vehicle for the trip to their in-city destination.

Obviously, a system like this would require sophisticated algorithms for traffic balancing and flow. Minimizing wait time and cost would be critical to adoption. But the technology and math know-how to do this? We’ve already got it. Putting it in place is really just a matter of overcoming a century’s worth of how we think about cars – and the jarring shift to get there.

Reasons I Didn’t Ride – 2014

2014 was my seventh year of bike commuting, and despite a lot of business travel (I hit MVP status on Alaska before mid-year) I had my third-highest number of bike commuting days, with 187 on the year.

So what accounted for the days I didn’t ride?

  •  Business: As usual, the top category. Traveling for business means no bike commute to work, and it took out a whopping 36 days (which, weirdly, was actually exactly the same number of days as last year).
  • Vacation: Despite taking an awesome hiking trip to Scotland with my son, brother and Dad, I only took 16 days of vacation on the year. The only number on this list I’m looking to increase . . .
  • Family: Now that my kids are fully ensconced in high school, family-related business only preempted riding 7 times.
  • Illness: Being too sick to ride sucks, and it cost me a record-high 5 days in 2014 (after missing zero days for illness in 2013).
  • Other: Social stuff kept me off the bike for another 4 days. However, unlike years past, neither weather nor mechanical issues cost me a single day of riding in 2014.

With my travel schedule, it’s hard to see hitting 200 rides in a year again. Nonetheless, as 2015 begins, that number is once again my goal.

Pronto First Look

“Pronto,” Seattle’s bike share system, launched today, with some 500 bikes spread across 50 stations. A couple of those stations are mere blocks from my office, so I took one of the shiny green things for a quick shakedown cruise.

The system operates similar to those found in other cities – insert your key fob (if you’re a member) or use the kiosk to buy a pass (if you’re a visitor), press a button to unlock a bike, adjust the seat height if needed, and off you go.

Unlike the 3-speed bike share bikes I’ve ridden in flat places like D.C., Denver and Columbus (yeah, freaking Columbus freaking Ohio got bike share before Seattle!), the Pronto bikes have a 7-speed internal hub. The shifting mechanism works well, but as you’d expect with heavy bikes that need to cater to a wide swath of people, the gearing is set pretty low. These things aren’t built for speed, and those accustomed to riding single speed are rarely going to need to shift out of gears 6 and 7, even climbing Pine Street.

It remains to be seen how well the helmet system will work. Right now it’s on the honor system, with the dreaded helmet vending machines expected sometime next year. I really hope the system proves popular, and the stations expand around town. It’s a great addition to Seattle’s transportation infrastructure, particularly for quick point-to-point trips around downtown and Capitol Hill. I’m excited to use it more in the months to come.





I Don’t Like the 2nd Ave Bikeway

It’s a bit out of my way, but I took a detour this morning and rode into work along the entire length of the new 2nd Ave bikeway, which opened bright and shiny and new this morning.

For those not familiar with Seattle, the bikeway runs down a particularly busy street in the heart of downtown.  It replaces a traditional bike lane that was the scene of a tragic death just days ago.  Like most bike lanes in Seattle, the old 2nd Ave lane was dangerous for putting riders directly in the “door zone” of parked cars.  And it was doubly dangerous because it ran downhill, on a busy one-way street also running downhill, and was on the left where fewer drivers would expect to see bikes.

The new bikeway is still on the left, but it’s separated from traffic and benefits from a system of bike-specific lights designed to prevent collisions with left-turning vehicles. This morning had a bit of a festive air, with lots of riders trying out the bikeway, and earnest volunteers from Cascade Bicycle Club cheering riders along and offering ready-made postcards to send to the mayor thanking him for adding this bit of cycling infrastructure.  The bikeway needs a little more work – better demarcation between the uphill and downhill lanes, and some surface smoothing in a lot of places – but it’s certainly an improvement over the old lane . . .

if you like riding in the bike lane.

If this morning was any indication, riders are going to rely on the bike signals at their peril.  I had not one, but two cars blow through red turn signals (and green bike signals) across my path.  Fortunately for me, when I do ride in bike lanes, I always ride assuming cars can’t see me – which means never, ever, ever going through an intersection when a car traveling the same direction is next to or slightly ahead of me.

I fear that the bikeway has the potential to make matters worse, at least until a critical mass of riders are passing through downtown.  At several intersections, a line of parked cars separates the bikeway from traffic.  That’s great, but it also prevents left-turning vehicles from seeing downhill bicycle traffic, and vise-versa.  If those vehicles don’t mind the left turn signal (as the cars did to me this morning), there will be more collisions on 2nd.

For riders, the bikeway can’t be a panacea.  It’s not a replacement for critical thinking.  Those little bicycle signals may look pretty, but riders will continue to need to pay close attention to what vehicle traffic is doing.

And for me?  The next time I ride downhill on 2nd, I’m going to do what I’ve always done – take the lane.

Seattle Bike Share Almost Here

Despite some website difficulties (and my skepticism about the program’s success, given Seattle’s nanny-statish helmet law), I signed up for a membership with “Pronto,” Seattle’s new bikeshare service.  It’s scheduled to launch in mid-October.  Although the nearest initial station is a mile from my house, I figure it will give me yet another option for closing shorter distances downtown and on Capitol Hill.  And I want to support the program, of course.

One system that doesn’t need any additional support?  Any bike share system in China.  Vox reports today that China has over 400,000 bike share bikes – and growing, very, very rapidly.

Takes One to Know One

This excellent piece by Carl Alviani, titled “Why Bikes Make Smart People Say Dumb Things,” tackles the cognitive dissonance at work when people spew vitriol at the occasional scofflaw cyclist (or worse, tar all cyclists with that brush) while blithely accepting the carnage and lawlessness committed all around them by drivers.

As Alviani notes, the vast majority of people don’t ride bicycles, particularly in urban settings, leading to:

The social psychology term for this bias is “fundamental attribution error”: the tendency to attribute the actions of others to their inherent nature rather than their situation, and the less we sympathize with their situation, the greater the bias. A 2002 study from the UK’s Transport Research Laboratory found that it plays a starring role in our perceptions of traffic behavior, with drivers far more likely to see a cyclist’s infraction as stemming from ineptitude or recklessness than an identical one committed by another driver. 

This lack of sympathy for cyclists is also related to the failure of drivers to understand why someone on a bicycle might do something – even if that “something” is breaking the law.  A driver might understand and sympathize with another driver who cuts off a pedestrian in a crosswalk, but is aghast at the cyclist who rolls through a red light.

It also probably explains why I always feel safer riding on Capitol Hill. You see, it’s not only the relatively lower traffic speeds, but also the fact that so many of the drivers are bike-sympathetic riders who just happen to be driving at the moment.

Thanks, hipsters!

Reasons I Didn’t Ride, 2013 Edition

I tried Strava in 2013, but the novelty of it wore off – and it’s no substitute for tracking data in excel (probably safer, too, as I’m no longer competing against my top time for the “12th Avenue Bump” when riding home).

In any event, here’s how 2013 shaped up:

  • Days Ridden: 176.  That’s actually slightly better than last year, but still well below my goal of 200 days ridden.
  • Business Travel: 36.  The biggest category cutting into my bike commutes – the 50,000 or so miles I flew this year had to exact a toll somewhere.
  • Family: 17.  Not so bad, considering kids starting high school, football games, family events out, etc.
  • Vacation: 13.  Wow, I can’t believe I only took 13 days of vacation.  Sad.
  • Social: 4.  Or should we call that “anti-social?”  Although in my defense I was much better this year about riding my bike to happy hour and other get-togethers.

I missed one day due to a poorly-scheduled dental appointment, and one day to weather (an inch of snow during the morning commute earlier this month).  All in all, a good year.  I’m convinced the stress-busting benefits of riding (particularly the single-speed uphill ride at the end of each day) is what’s keeping me from missing any rides – or days of work – due to illness.

Here’s looking at 200 days ridden in 2014!

Cold Weather Cycling

It’s been cold the last week or so in Seattle.  Temperatures in the teens and 20s, which is much colder than usual for this time of year.  To be sure, it’s not Duluth or Buffalo cold, but cold in a way we’re not really set up for in Seattle.  Many older homes here, including mine, have no insulation to speak of.  And we go more in for water- and wind-proof jackets than fur-lined parkas.

If we’d had rain or snow along with the cold, I wouldn’t have kept riding to work.  Our hills, narrow streets and inexperienced drivers make it far too dangerous to take the bike out when there’s ice on the pavement.  But – as is typical when it gets this cold here – the frigid air was accompanied by crisp, clear skies (until yesterday morning, when an overnight dew made it scary-slick on the way in).

People often look askance at me for riding in this weather, but honestly, it just takes a few gear adjustments.  And riding on a dazzling clear morning beats hell out of sidling up against crowds of sniveling sickies on the bus, or idling in a car, stuck in downtown holiday shopping traffic.  Here’s how I manage it:

Hands:  I’ve tried a number of different gloves over the years, and I’m convinced there aren’t any cold weather bike gloves that perform below 40 degrees.  As I don’t really need all of the specialty padding for my 3.5 mile commute, I just throw on my ski gloves.  So much better than even my warmest pair of bike gloves.

Head:  I like my simple, thin balaclava.  Decent enough protection for the ears and neck, and can be pulled over the chin and mouth if it’s really cold and windy.  Of course, wearing a balaclava = guaranteed bad hair day. Makes mine all stand straight up.

Neck:  It sucks to hoover up cold air through the neck of your jacket while riding downhill.  Zip-up sweater, balaclava or even a scarf – they all work.  Unfortunately, I forget about my neck half the time when heading out the door.  Brr.

Body:  My ride is short.  A sweater and windproof jacket work fine.  A little cold, but fine.

Legs:  For some reason, the cold doesn’t bother my legs.  I’m in knickers year-round.

Ride: I really appreciate my fixed-gear when the weather drops below freezing.  The connected ride, all the feedback I get with each pedal stroke, makes me far more confident when riding on potentially-frozen streets.

Like someone once said, there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear.  And it doesn’t take too much gear to make cold-weather riding work – at least here in Seattle.  Anyone else have any crappy-weather tips and tricks that work to keep them riding?