Category Archives: Roads

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.

Washington’s Vulnerable User Law Is a Joke

A man walking his dog is hit and killed in a Kirkland crosswalk. The driver who hit him isn’t charged with violating Washington’s Vulnerable User Law, RCW 46.61.525, which punishes – merely as a misdemeanor – drivers who fuck up while driving in a way that endangers life or property.

The prosecutors’ excuse? The driver didn’t see the man in the crosswalk.

Listen, morons – if you thought she saw him, you’d be charging her with murder. This is about people driving a deadly implement around without taking proper care.

Here are a few more salient facts, courtesy of The View From the Crosswalk:

  • The driver hit the pedestrian – who was in the crosswalk – while making a left turn at a three-way T-stop.
  • Despite starting from a dead stop at the intersection, she hit him hard enough to kill him – while driving a fucking Prius.
  • OK, not a fact, but something we all know from driving: if you make a turn, from a standing start, and are going fast enough to hit someone and kill them before you’ve traveled 100 feet, you’re fucking flooring it. Especially in a Prius.

That’s about as egregious a set of circumstances as you can get for hitting someone in a crosswalk. This isn’t a tragic situation where one car is stopped for a pedestrian at a mid-block crosswalk with two lanes, or a left-turning truck on a one-way street with a bike lane on the left. It’s an impatient driver gunning it through an intersection, not paying enough attention, and taking someone’s life.

And yet it’s still not enough for the Vulnerable User Law to come into play.

I’m not a big fan of having too many laws of any kind. But if we’re going to try to have safer roads by punishing drivers with strict liability for having too high of a blood alcohol content, we sure as hell can have laws that punish drivers for running over pedestrians in the fucking crosswalk.


A Holiday Wish for Better Bike-Car Interaction

Riding on the tiny bits of bike-centric infrastructure in Seattle – the bikeways on Broadway and 2nd Avenue – offers a glimpse of what urban cycling could look like if we had meaningful planning and building around it. It would be easier, less stressful, slower and safer.

But until that day, those of us who ride daily in the city must contend with infrastructure and traffic rules that are designed primarily for cars. As a result, it’s safest for cyclists to “ride like cars” and truly share the road (rather than just a tiny slice of it).

But what if, in the embryonic period between vehicular cycling and fully-separated bike infrastructure, cyclists and drivers alike developed rules – not so much laws as guidelines – for sharing the road?

I know, it’s a pipe dream, as most drivers can’t relate to the issues cyclists are dealing with when navigating the city’s car-focused streets. But in the spirit of holiday optimism, here are my thoughts on what these rules might look like:

  • Stoplights and stop signs are optional for bikes.
    • Bikes: You can ride through a stop signal when it’s safe to do so – meaning no cross-traffic or other dangerous condition. Otherwise, wait along with the cars.
    • Cars: You won’t get butthurt because some cyclist ran through a red light when there wasn’t any cross-traffic. Their doing so impacts you not at all, except for some vague sense of unfairness in your lizard brain. Let it go.
  • Bikes will “take the lane” whenever it’s safest to do so.
    • Cars: Most of you don’t realize that bikes who give you enough room to pass often have to put themselves into the low-visibility “door zone” to do so. This substantially raises the risk of being “doored” or colliding with a pedestrian darting out between parked cars. It also make it much harder for cars crossing or turning onto the street to see the cyclist before pulling out. And no, the fact that the city of Seattle has stupidly placed bike lanes right in the door zone on many streets doesn’t magically make it safe for cyclists to ride in those lanes.
    • Related bonus for cars: Look before opening the damn door.
    • Bikes: Take the lane more often. You’re not doing anyone any favors by wobbling along in the door zone. But you should also be making an effort to move along as quickly as you safely can, and give cars the opportunity to pass when it is safe to do so.
  • Passing.
    • Cars: Don’t pass a bike, particularly one that is taking the lane,  unless you plan on driving straight and at speed for at least a few more blocks.  If you’ve got a notion to turn right, cruise for a parking space, or drive slowly while looking up an address on your iPhone, just stay behind the bike.
    • Bikes: Don’t pass cars on the right (or the left, on one-way streets) when you are both about to enter an intersection. Even if – hell, especially if – you’re in a bike lane.
  • Safe Driving/Riding.
    • Cars: Drive predictably. Don’t tailgate or crowd bikes.
    • Bikes: Ride predictably and visibly. Don’t do dumb stuff. Have working brakes on your bike.

It seems so common-sensical, but of course, that’s too much to expect in a world where people still think bicycles need to be licensedbikeways get torn out in favor of parking, and everything on the road is built in deference to King Car.

But just you wait – if I don’t get my Christmas miracle of drivers and cars getting along (which, in fairness, they do better on Capitol Hill than in most places), I can still look forward to end of urban cars. That’s on its way, and soon (my musings on that subject to come).

Happy holidays.

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’s Unclean Streets

Here’s another gripe about Seattle’s lack of bike infrastructure – or really, its lack of attention to the basic blocking and tackling of running a city.

In a city of foliage-blocked stop signs, roads laced with seams, cracks and a shameful number of potholes, and a nod to cyclists in the form of paint splashed on the road, we can add this: a near-total lack of attention to street cleaning.

When I lived in San Francisco, even the residential neighborhoods had once-weekly street cleaning – a four-hour window where parking was forbidden, on pain of being towed.

And the city meant it, as I found out more than once when I forgot to move my car.

Here?  While it’s big news that we’re getting a fancy cycle track cleaner for Broadway, it’s more telling that it never occurred to the city that they’d need the thing.  And in Seattle’s leafier neighborhoods?  Forget about it.  Those leaves fall, and absent conscientious property owners cleaning the streets in front of their places, those leaves remain to moulder and create giant slick patches all along our residential streets.

I get that there are city budget priorities, and tax dollars only go so far.  But I bet we could cover a fair bit of the cost with all of the impound fees.

And until then?  Yet another reason to just take the lane.

A Note to Drivers from an “Aggressive Cyclist”

Really, KIRO7?  An investigation of “aggressive” cyclists?

Must be troll week.  But I’ll play along.

Apparently, “aggressive” cyclists are out flipping off drivers, running red lights and riding too close to pedestrians.

Guilty as charged.

But I think the nitwits at KIRO7 – who no doubt have never spent a day riding in the city, let alone commuting every day – need a little education in why “aggressive” cyclists do what they do.

  • The Bird!.  Me, I’m more partial to the “ass-slap”, as the times when I most want to flip the bird are when some impatient driver honks at me for taking the lane.  Is it rude?  Yes.  It it earned?  Yes.  If you’re a driver, and you get flipped off by a cyclist, there’s a 95% chance that you did something stupid, dangerous or rude to deserve it.  Just own it and try to be a better driver.

  • Running Red Lights.  Drivers need to get in touch with their passive-aggressive tendencies here.  Is it really such a problem that a cyclist just ran through a red light?  Does it affect you in any way, other than to offend your sense of law-and-order?   (Seattle pedestrians, cowed by generations of overly-hyper jaywalking enforcement, are complicit in this view)  Yes, cyclists occasionally run lights in dangerous ways.  But the vast majority of the time, what I see (and often what I do myself) is cyclists running through red lights when it’s safe to do so.  You see, traffic lights are designed for cars.  They’re not designed for bikes.  When you’re stopped on a bike in traffic, you are at your most vulnerable.  Red lights expose you to unaware right turners and red light runners in 4000 pound cars – all sorts of evil.  While there are plenty of situations where it’s safer to wait for the light, there are also many where it is better to ride through it.  Once you’ve ridden in the city for a while, you realize – as drivers and occasional cyclists don’t – that safety dictates taking what the philosophers call a critical view of traffic laws.

  • Pedestrians.  One critical element to riding in the city is to be predictable and visible.  Seattle’s pedestrians are neither; they dress in black and think nothing of scurrying into traffic after loitering pensively on street corners.  They also need to realize that cyclists need only 20 inches of space to get by them – which is, by the way, a lot less than a car.  We also want to preserve momentum; it’s what keeps us safe.  So we’ll ride in front of you, or ride behind you.  Just please keep walking in a predictable way.  And don’t expect us to stop for you, unless you’re in a large group.  Just keep walking.  You’ll be fine.

  • Bike Lanes.  Look, I know you think I should be riding in the bike lane.  But Seattle’s bike lanes suck.  They put riders right in the “door zone” of parked cars.  They’re often littered with debris, clogged with double-parked cars, or abruptly shut off for construction.  My daily commute includes less than 1.5 miles each way on 12th Ave, which has bike lanes in both directions.  And most days you’d need two hands, each way, to count the number of times I have to leave the bike lane for double-parked cars.  Riding in the bike lane also makes it hard for traffic turning into the bike-laned street to see you.  The downhill portion of 12th from Cherry to Yesler is –  much like the downhill lane on Pine – completely unusable without taking your life in your hands.  In short, Seattle’s bike lanes are unreliable and dangerous.  Sure, I’ll use them for climbing, when door zone issues and reaction time don’t loom so large.  And I’ll happily ride in them in other places where it’s safe to do so.  But drivers need to be prepared for cyclists to abandon the bike lane, and take the whole lane, whenever the bike lane fails us.  Which brings us to . . .

  • Taking the Lane.  For whatever reason, this seems to outrage drivers, even though in many places in the city we’re barely slowing you down.  I take the lane because it’s the safest place to ride.  It gives me the most options to avoid obstructions or one of Seattle’s famously-obtuse pedestrians darting into the street.  And I really don’t want you to try and “squeeze by.”  When you do, you radically reduce the bailout options, and increase the danger.  Riders have to be more aware, because we are constantly in danger of being crushed.  And drivers increase that danger when they squeeze by, or think we should ride right in the door zone – where we’re much less visible to car passengers, pedestrians and crossing traffic – to allow you to get ahead of us.  So hang back.  In the city, it’s not going to be for more than a few blocks.

  • Riding on the Sidewalk.  I’ll admit,  I don’t like riding on the sidewalk.  It feels wrong – even though it’s legal to do so in Seattle.  The thing is, it’s dangerous when done at speed, because of the lack of predictability and the overall cluelessness of Seattle pedestrians.  But it’s sometimes preferable to ride on the sidewalk for a block or so, in order to avoid construction or dangerous road conditions.  Or to execute a “Copenhagen left”, which is both safer and better for traffic flow in dense areas.  So don’t be offended at riders on the sidewalk – although it’s fair to expect that they ride slowly and courteously.

  • Sharrows.  Many drivers think cyclists need to ride in the middle of the “sharrows” found on Seattle streets.  But that would be wrong, because to do so would – again – put the rider right in the “door zone” of parked cars.  There’s also some unique quirk to Seattle roads that positions a pavement crack right in the middle of the sharrows.  Note to drivers: pavement cracks are bad when you’re riding a bike.  BTW, while some think “sharrows” is brief for “sharing arrows”, it’s actually short for “shitty arrows:” a way for the city to claim tons of “bike infrastructure” for the cost of a little paint.  Ultimately, sharrows are just a reminder that there will be bikes in the road.  Possibly taking the lane.  Nothing more.

  • Signaling.  I’ll signal when it’s safe to do so, and I think it’s useful to drivers, pedestrians or other cyclists.  But have you seen the state of Seattle’s streets?  It’s rarely a good idea to take a hand off the grips.

As with drivers, sometimes cyclists ride in rude or dangerous ways.  But a lot of what non-cyclists consider “aggressive” is just what’s required to navigate automotive infrastructure on a bicycle.  Ride a few miles on our pedals and perhaps you’ll have a clearer view.


Safety in Numbers?

Does having more riders on the road mean things are safer?  Probably, once you reach critical mass.  But there’s a difficult middle stage, where more cyclists make it more dangerous.  Like now in Seattle.

I’ve never been shy about why I believe it’s safest – at least in American cities – to be a vehicular cyclist and to be minimally troubled by obeying traffic rules.  The trouble is, many other riders adopt a more tentative riding style.  That’s fine for bike trails or quiet residential streets, but experienced riders know that approach doesn’t cut it for urban riding in a city lacking meaningful cycling infrastructure.

So the other morning, I pulled up on 12th  at the Madison intersection, heading south.  Two riders were ahead of me in the bike lane, stopped before the crosswalk.  The bike lane on 12th is borderline usable, but it doesn’t have a bike box at the intersection, let alone any special signaling.  A very large construction truck was in the lane, signaling to turn right.

This is a situation that demands pulling in front of the crosswalk, in front of the truck.  Or maybe, if there’s room,  joining car traffic in the regular lane behind the truck.  Basically, anywhere is better than sitting in the bike lane in the truck driver’s blind spot as he attempts to turn right.

One guess where the other two riders were.

So my choice is to rudely force my way around them, or defer to the dangerous riding decision they’ve made for me.

That’s just one example.  I want to ride politely, but I’m more interested in making it to wherever I’m going in one piece.  I’m sure with better bike infrastructure – and a lot more riders – this would largely be a non-issue.  It would rarely be necessary to ride aggressively or vehicularly.

But as bike commuting grows slowly on our pothole-riddled streets, there’s a tension between those of us who ride as the conditions demand today, and those who ride as we aspire for them to be.

Where’s the Stop Sign?

So my wife and son were driving home today when they smashed up the car pretty bad. They’re fine.

The car, not so much.


They were driving on 12th Avenue on Capitol Hill. It’s a road that’s part of my daily bike commute. A driver (new to the city) came up a side street and blew through the stop sign. While that’s hardly the most responsible approach to an uncertain intersection, it’s not like the stop sign was very easy to see.

In fact, the stop sign in question is in the photo above. Can you spot it?

While I try to always ride aware – and as far from the curb as possible to maximize my chances of avoiding a collision with someone running a stop sign or not seeing me – it’s a reminder of how much is out of our control out there.

But perhaps the city could also help by making sure our stop signs aren’t camouflaged quite so effectively.

Bike Lanes v. Vehicular Cycling?

I make no bones about being a proponent of vehicular cycling. But that’s not to say I wouldn’t embrace riding like a coddled child in a secure bikeway if my city magically became Copenhagen or Amsterdam overnight. It’s just that Seattle lacks the bike facilities to make anything other than vehicular cycling a safe way to ride in the city.

And all those miles of bike lanes Seattle city government crows about? Please. More often than not, what passes for bike infrastructure around here is something like the godawful 12th Avenue bike lane in the picture above.

Thanks, but I’ll just take the lane.

To its credit, the city does have some projects in the works – like the Broadway cycle track – that look intriguing. And they had the good sense to do uphill bike lane / downhill sharrows when repaving the top few blocks of Pine a couple of years back.

The Seattle Bike Blog, in its post on this topic, linked to a recent Canadian study that examined the relative safety and appeal of different places to ride. Graphed out, it’s an interesting data set:

This is pretty consistent with my experience. Note the outlier of the cycle track; one of the most preferred and far and away the safest. Although I rode once on the new cycle track that runs down the center of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. and it was a bit terrifying, given how the police seem to find it very convenient for passing and U-turns.

And how about major streets with parked cars? This is what most of my commute is like. There’s a preference for having a bike lane, but only a marginal improvement in safety. This is no doubt due to the visibility, “door zone” and reaction time problems that riding in a bike lane alongside parked cars causes.

Finally, check out multiuse paths (like Burke-Gilman). Very high degree of route preference, but also one of the most dangerous places to ride, thanks to high usage and speed/skill differentials between users. Further confirmation that I’m safer on the streets, mingling with traffic.

At least until we connect Seattle in a web of cycle tracks . . .

Cycling Death at the Olympics

News today that a cyclist died in a collision with a media bus at the London Olympics.  As told in this very affecting eyewitness account from Reddit, it was a left-hook rollover (the equivalent of a right-hook here in the states).

It’s a horrible thing, and something of an epidemic in the UK.  A study of London cycling deaths found that less-aggressive riders are actually at greater risk of death: Unwilling to take the lane, they will pull up to an intersection at the curb – putting them in position to be crushed when a larger vehicle that can’t see them makes a turn.  I see this riding behavior all the time on my commute, but fortunately Seattle’s infrastructure is not as dense as London’s and there’s usually someplace to escape to.

This video graphically illustrates the danger of hanging in the curbside blind spot (and don’t worry; no cyclists were harmed in the making of the video):