Thursday, August 18, 2011

Assessing the Cost of Transportation Options

I recently read a study entitled Life Cycle Assessment of Transportation Options for Commuters, by Shreya Dave, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, February 2010. I appreciated the following language from the introduction:

American commuters travel an average of 15 miles to
work each way, usually alone, and often in vehicles that
are designed to transport more than the single passenger
(US Department of Transportation). In light of an energyconscious
society, ride-sharing, fuel-efficient vehicles,
telecommunication technologies all aim to reduce the
impact of commuting. Still we may question why a 3000-
pound vehicle is used to transport a 150-pound person.
Each type of transportation option requires a certain input
of energy, not only to operate but also to manufacture and
assemble. In addition, energy is required to construct and
maintain the infrastructure required for operation. The
energy and material input required for production and
operation of any product has a certain environmental
Life Cycle Assessment of Transportation Options for Commuters,
p. 3.

The study interestingly concludes that the environmental impacts of walking, bicycles, and electric bicycles are comparable, and all far less than other modes of transport. Notably, buses do not fare well, since they often operate off peak. To my mind, buses also falter because bus fleets are often old and poorly maintained, and thus have higher emissions than they should. In any case, an interesting study to read, and I particularly liked the neutral phrasing in the introductory paragraph above.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Confronting Misconceptions on the Road

Over the weekend, I was riding close to the curb in the right lane on a 4 lane divided road with a 40 mph speed limit in light traffic. A car passed me midblock, in the left lane, and next thing I know, its passenger is leaning out his window, shouting at me to "get off the road!"

Of course, it is not uncommon for road users to be mistaken about the law. At least this car passed me safely and did not actively try to run me off the road, presumably because it was the passenger rather than the driver who was acting the idiot. A number of motorists do not understand that bicycles have the same rights to the road as any other vehicle, let alone that a motorist should give a bicycle at least 3 feet (in my state; other jurisdictions vary) of clearance when passing. Frankly, a number of cyclists do not know this either. What to do when confronted with one of these individuals?

Intemperate as I am, I took offense and yelled back, but the vehicle was already a car length or two ahead of me when the passenger accosted me. I suppose I should have just politely ignored his ignorance. Other than a confrontation at the next red light, which is more likely to just make matters worse, there is generally no opportunity to correct these misconceptions. Some people go so far as to try to pass out literature about the rules of the road, but this seems hard to manage (and illegal) in traffic, and about as unlikely to be favorably received as my reflexive invective. Even if the mistaken road users is a cyclist or pedestrian, conversing does not guarantee results. Some report moderate success with polite conversation, but I generally find that if someone is vehement enough to shout, they are unlikely to be receptive to a rational discussion. I suppose I could have yelled back "Share the road!" (Illinois' catch phrase) instead, or maybe even "Refer to 625 ILCS 5/11-502 et seq.!!" But really nothing I could have said would ever have helped. You simply cannot change motorists' behavior individually, certainly not in a brief on road interaction. Even being pulled over by a cop rarely alters behavior for any length of time (unless a license is confiscated).

I think the only realistic method of change is a change in the environment. When more bicycles are on the road, to the point where they become a common piece of the environment, motorists will begin to accept their presence and adapt their behavior. Studies have always shown that safety increases with the number of cyclists, and that motorists modify their behavior (drive slower, etc.) in areas where they consistently interact with numerous pedestrians and/or bicycles. Unfortunately, that kind of sea change is hypothetical in most of the states at this point. What to do in the meantime? Of course, safety and avoiding collisions are the real goals on the road. But until I come up with a cleverer retort or become more zen, I am ok with the occasional shouted invective!