Thursday, May 27, 2010

More driver surveys, more discouraging results

Twenty percent of licensed drivers in the U.S. can't pass a written driving test according to a new GMAC Insurance survey. Yikes! Between machismo, distractions and now ignorance it's amazing that anyone gets anywhere.

Beware of macho men

A new study from the University of Montreal suggests that macho men are more aggressive drivers.

Study finds macho men a liability on roads
University of Montreal research on hyper-masculinity and driving

Montreal, May 26, 2010 – "Catch that car!," was the instruction given to 22 men sitting in a driving simulator. The more "macho" the man, the more risks he took on the road, according to a study by Julie Langlois, a graduate student at the University of Montreal Department of Psychology, who presented her findings at the annual conference of the Association francophone pour le savoir (ACFAS).

"Our hypothesis was that hyper-masculine drivers, often referred to as macho, were more likely to take risks in order to catch a car," says Langlois. "We didn't tell test subjects to disobey the law, yet they knew others had accomplished the same task in seven minutes."

So what is a macho man? In 2004, an American researcher developed the Auburn Differential Masculinity Inventory, a questionnaire to identify such men. It comprised 60 statements such as "men who cry are weak," or "generally speaking, men are more intelligent than women." Men had to answer questions on a scale of one (strongly disagree) to five (strongly agree).

Results of the car simulator exam highlighted men's slight tendency for risk. Still, it was during interviews that a link between macho men and speed revealed itself. "Previous studies had shown that hyper-masculine men were more aggressive on the road," says Langlois. "But we wanted to take it further."

"Some men develop a passion for driving that can verge on the obsessive," says Langlois. "They consider cars to be an extension of themselves and they become extremely aggressive if they are honked at or cut off."

During testing, some participants disregarded how they were being evaluated on their degree of masculinity and caught the car within five minutes. Others caught the car in 12 minutes and were much less dangerous on the road.

Langlois' study found that aggressive behavior is deeply rooted in the male stereotype. Aggressive driving allows some men to express their masculinity, which could serve as a predictor of dangerous driving. Cars are often a vehicle by which character traits are expressed and preventing risky behavior is an issue of public safety.

I do wonder if this is relevant to the relative danger of police chases. Overall, I expect that police officers are more "macho" than a typical fellow. Does this self-selection mean that cop chases are even riskier than if they were done by a relatively timid dude? Or are cops sufficiently well-trained so that personality traits do not increase the overall level of risk from chases (which are already plenty risky in all cases)?

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

What do you do when you're driving? Er, besides driving, I mean.

Jabra, a handset maker, has released results from a survey of drivers that asked what they are doing while driving. There are apparently differences by countries, such as the French like to yell at people.

Here are some highlights (via Motor Trend):
Other findings from the survey, which has a 2.1 percent margin of error:
• 29 percent of respondents admitted to having kissed others while driving, whereas a smaller, but surprising number (15%) said they have performed sex or other sexual acts while driving
• 28 percent confirmed they have sent text messages while driving
• 13 percent reported they have applied makeup while driving
• 12 percent admitted to having written or read emails while driving
• 10 percent reported reading newspapers or magazines while driving
• 5 percent confessed to having played video games, and another 5 percent say that they have shaved while behind the wheel. Jabra says: "Look out for troubles, not for stubbles."

We're not so sure how much we trust an online survey conducted over four days in April, but the question is valid today more than ever: How often are you distracted while you drive? Would you admit to doing any of the activities above while driving? What are your worst driving habits?

***I included the last paragraph explaining their skepticism because this is not a particularly robust survey. So let's see how Fox News explained it:
According to a scientific survey commissioned by hands-free headset maker Jabra, while 28 percent of respondents in six countries including the United States say that they’ve texted behind the wheel, 72 percent eat or drink regularly, and 35 percent admit to getting dressed or undressed. Although no connection is made, that last point may be related to the fact that 29 percent have kissed while driving and more than half that, fully 15 percent, have engaged in sexual intercourse or another sexual act. Freshening up by styling hair or applying makeup is done by 23 percent and 13 percent of those surveyed.

Nope, not scientific. No mention of the MOE. Not fair, not balanced. Just dumb.

The Hummer is dead. Are we better off?

The last Hummer left the production line today in Louisiana. This unfortunately puts 200 more autoworkers out of work as well as forces the anti-SUV crowd to find a new boogieman. In India, the Tata Nano is being blamed for the coming degradation of their cities. These two seemingly unrelated events are quite revealing, actually. I think Hummers are dumb vehicles, but they aren't any worse than other large SUVs. The real problem is when societies go from few cars to a lot of cars. When that happens, then land uses and local economies get restructured, and those are extremely hard to reverse if and when things go badly. Consider that for all of the good and bad vibes for the Hummer, the entire run of the H2 and H3 was less than 10 years. The US is only very marginally worse off because of that car--probably not enough to measure. Indian cities, however, will be much worse off if the Nano takes hold. So now that one of the largest boogiemen is dead, I suggest turning attention to the smallest and cheapest.

Friday, May 21, 2010

What does it take to drive in Dubai? Confidence!

(via Jalopnik)
Unlike Pakistan, where drivers lack confidence, drivers in Dubai are self-assured to the point of being downright nuts. The above video shows--among other things--a Toyota pickup doing burnouts, lots of people hanging out of windows and some dude driving around on two-wheels like some kind of Arabian Hooper.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

New Urbanism: once and forever "green"?

This month The Atlantic Monthly is featuring a series of essays and articles about the future of cities. One of these features is an interview with Andres Duany, the dude behind New Urbanism. He makes the case that New Urbanism is "the original green," meaning that it does not focus so much on high technology fixes. Rather, NU focuses on better design. Here is what he says about current environmental standards in building:
How does environmentalism play into all this? Back in the 1980s, no one was worried about designing "green" communities.

Environmentalism was very minor then. We stumbled across it because it was a more economical way to build. When the developers didn't have money to throw around, we would revert to very light infrastructure. So we've got examples of very light infrastructure that's 20 years old, and way ahead of its time.

Our take on environmentalism is what I call the "original green." Which is really about quite simple, economical things. One thing I don't like about the current environmental movement is that it's been captured by a very high tech ethos, which actually turns out to be more expensive. I think its absolutely absurd that people say that LEED-certified buildings might cost two, three, four, five times as much. And I say, "What are you talking about? How did you get there?" This thing about triple glazing and 8 inches of insulation and green roofs, my God it's so expensive. You can't say, "Yeah, I'll do it just to be popular." We have to go back to the original green--not the gold plated green.

Of course, environmentalism wasn't a factor in the original New Urbanism because there wasn't any money in being green thirty years ago. In Suburban Nation he writes about motorists as anti-social but does not mention pollution, emissions, climate change (global warming was mentioned in one footnote in the book) or other environmental concerns. Social and community concerns were of paramount interest, following the path laid by places such as Columbia, Maryland, Reston, Virginia and others built in the late 1960s-1970s. Other writers such as Peter Calthorpe similarly focused on the social themes, as well. During the time that these ideas were formed, meaning the late 1970s-early 1990s, cities were in decline and people were moving to the suburbs. Many scholars and policymakers felt that one undesirable outcome of suburban living was social isolation. The evidence about these claims is mixed, but social concerns are certainly important and at the time were viewed as a primary threat to our way of life. Now that cities are growing again our perceived threats have changed, and claiming a bold environmental stance helps keep New Urbanism relevant. Planning is as trendy as anything else, so you have to keep up with the latest concerns and make it sound like you were thinking about them all along.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Tiebout in action: when cities cooperate

The Los Angeles area cities of Glendale, Burbank and Pasadena are thinking about joining forces to more efficiently supply some public services including police, technology services, purchasing and transit. The cities expect that they can save money on some labor costs and lower the overall cost of supplying desirable local public goods. So why haven't they already done this? Why wait for bad financial times to search for inefficiencies? Charles Tiebout has some ideas about this, but Burbank City Manager Mike Flad puts the theory to practice:
Despite the possible economic benefits of consolidation, city officials acknowledged that they could face some opposition in their respective constituencies.

"Each of us have different commitments to the quality of service depending on the quality of service we're providing," Flad said. "For instance, Burbank might have higher standards for quality of service at its animal shelter, or vice versa."

In Pasadena, libraries are partially funded by a parcel tax, so it has more money per capita and a higher expectation for library service.

"The cities that have a higher level of service in a given area may not want to see that degraded, even if it means saving money," Flad said.

Tiebout--and subsequent public choice scholars--argue that local governments supply bundles of goods that reflect local interests and these bundles are a form of competition. The more that these three cities cooperate the less there will be to set each of them apart. So certain public services will be supplied more efficiently, but the services provided may not reflect local preferences. In a region of heterogeneous preferences more choices of bundles is better then fewer choices of bundles.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Pakistani drivers lack confidence

(via Jalopnik) What is the most important characteristic drivers need? Confidence! At least according to the Pakistan Government of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa:

How to Drive Safely
Many drivers do not exude confidence when they are behind the wheel by constantly stepping on their breaks. I always maintain my distance from nervous, insecure drivers.

Things You'll Need:
vehicle, confidence


STEP 1: Position yourself comfortably in your vehicle. Adjust the mirrors, seat and temperature.
STEP 2: Press your foot on the gas pedal, and try not to unnecessarily step on your break. If you are stepping on your break too many times, perhaps you should consider maintaining a safe distance from the vehicle in front of you. Constantly stepping on your breaks makes you look like an insecure driver.
STEP 3: You should be able to come to a complete stop, if required. There should be sufficient distance between your car and the car in front of you, so that you are not forced to rearend the vehicle.
STEP 4: Drive the speed limit or above.

Tips & Warnings

Don't be afraid of other vehicles around you.
Quit stepping on those breaks for NO REASON!

Please try driving AT LEAST the speed limit. We have places to be; people to see.

Do NOT fear cops. Keep driving the speed limit.

Move away from drivers that are constantly stepping on their breaks. They are insecure. They cause accidents.

I will add that I can see how confidence is needed to drive on Fairy Meadows Road (#3 on this list of the world's most dangerous roads). But yes, stop stepping on those brakes, people have places to go.

Are cars vulnerable to hackers?

A new paper discussed in the NY Times argues that automobiles' computer systems will be vulnerable to hackers as the systems become more connected to the internet and networked. I'm all for taking control of the car away from drivers, but this sounds bad:
“We demonstrate the ability to adversarially control a wide range of automotive functions and completely ignore driver input — including disabling the brakes, selectively braking individual wheels on demand, stopping the engine, and so on,” they wrote in the report, “Experimental Security Analysis of a Modern Automobile.”

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Turning freeways into desirable land

There are many proposals to place caps on top of freeway trenches. Today's LA Times features one of the proposals being promoted by the Park 101 group. This story follows a recent USA Today story that looks at many of the freeway cap projects underway. This one in Dallas is actually featured as part of the ARRA funding.

Since freeways are not nice neighbors to have, these are good projects. It is unclear if they can lower the localized air pollution of the roads, but increasing parkland in cities such as Los Angeles or New York is worthwhile.

Streetsblog has more about potential freeway caps in New York.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Really bad ideas in local finance

The city of Glendale, Arizona has pledged up to $25 million to the NHL in order to keep the local hockey team around for next season. In a city of about 250,000, that works out to about $100 per person for one year of hockey in the desert. The city already built the team's arena about 15 years ago. The team is currently owned by the NHL because it went bankrupt last year, and few people are interested in buying it. It is such a good investment that:
The city has already guaranteed each of the potential buying groups millions of dollars annually to the buyer through creation of the Community Facilities District. Both proposals would change the team name to either the Glendale Coyotes or the Arizona Coyotes, with the NHL's approval, and would keep the team in Glendale.

The franchise hasn't turned a profit since moving to Arizona and is expected to lose at least $20 million this year.

What on earth are these local officials thinking? No reasonable family or business should even consider moving to Glendale because the city will go broke chasing these awful policies.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How fast should emergency vehicles travel?

Slate has a story that reviews recent literature about emergency vehicle travel. The takeaway is that we overvalue speed in many trauma situations and undervalue medic and traffic safety. The editors of the Annals of Emergency Medicine even question the need for lights-and-siren transport (not to mention caution on icy roads).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Calculating the full cost of travel

According to New York City's Center for Economic Opportunity taking a taxi to work every day is the most expensive way to commute. The Center estimates that it costs about $4,700 per year for taxi users. Commuting via railroad is second at $2,100 and driving alone is third at $1,900. In an article from the NY Times, Lisa Daglin from the NY Metropolitan Transportation Council attempts to explain that price matters when choosing commuting modes:
“Deciding how to get to work shouldn’t be a job in itself,” said Lisa Daglin, a spokeswoman for the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council. “With our smorgasbord of transportation options, New Yorkers can choose the mode that fits their taste, and their wallet.”

She's right, but this study is deeply flawed. The cost of driving does not include the cost of parking, which can be many hundreds of dollars per month in Manhattan. If the cost of parking is included driving alone is by far the most expensive mode. The cost estimates for driving alone are based on the standard mileage charges allowed under IRS guidelines, which likely underestimate the expensive insurance of the NY area as well as the cost of parking at home. Delay and environmental costs are also unreported.

But a bigger problem with this study and many like it is for most people it seems entirely reasonable that you wouldn't include the cost of parking in cost of driving calculations. You might as well ignore the cost of gas or engines. It is unthinkable that operating costs would be left out of a transit agency's annual budget because you obviously have to operate the service. Quite simply, any attempt to value the full cost of driving that does not include the cost of parking should be treated as bogus. If this study is to be believed many of the taxi users and train riders are throwing away money by not driving alone, and that's a bunch of baloney.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

What Jane Jacobs has to say about terrorism

Slate's Fred Kaplan reviews lessons from the failed Times Square bombing on May 1 and highlights Jane Jacobs' "eyes on the street."* He hypothesizes that this is why places like Times Square aren't attacked more often:
This may explain why busy areas like Times Square aren't attacked by terrorists more often. The crowds make them tempting targets: lots of people mean lots of potential victims and subsequent media attention. But those same crowds—especially the regulars, who are always looking out on the street—make an attack harder to conceal and, therefore, to pull off. (Research project for a sociologist: Have terrorist attacks in Western cities taken place more often, or less often, in areas with lots of street vendors?)

And I'll argue that a planner should take that research challenge, not a sociologist!

*In a semi-related note, today Edward Glaeser takes issue with Jacobs' ideal density, arguing that her preferred walk-up buildings are impractical when demand for housing is as great as it is in Manhattan. Manhattan densities should be substantially higher, but too often land use regulations get in the way of taller buildings. With regard to "eyes on the street," the first few floors of a building supply them but I suspect that by the time you are on the 7th or 8th floor you can't see much down there anyway, but the higher densities put more people on the sidewalks.