Monday, July 8, 2013

DC cyclists: Fines for skipping red lights coming

We all knew that it was coming. Just over a week ago, I was stopped for the first time after having cycled through a red light (that was just about to change). The first thing I was told is that it is a $25 for each time you are caught skipping a red light. It sets off warning signs when the first reason we are given for obeying a law is that we will be punished. Anyway, I decided to see how obeying car traffic rules would be over the last week. There are some positive sides - I didn't risk a car coming the other way and hitting me. So that is nice. But thanks some little things I like to call 'eyes' I rarely seem to have this problem anyway. On balance, I felt a lot less safe. Here is why:

1. I couldn't get away from traffic at the lights by going a little before them. More dangerous for me and more annoying for them. It is especially scary when cars need to turn right soon after lights and cut right in front or right behind you.

2. Turning left at lights became quite dangerous. I couldn't turn when I spotted a clear safe moment but rather I found myself in the middle of the road with cars coming in both directions. I tried to counter this at times by making myself big and blocking a large part of the lane. Not something all cars appreciated.

3. I used the pavement more. I tend to stay off the pavement when I can but I started to use it more when I saw one of the above coming up.

Possibly I can adapt to all of these things and my behaviour should be taken with a pinch of salt. It is difficult to analyse your own behaviour. It reminds me a little of an economist friend who decided to record each day how many cigarettes he smoked along with information such as did he drink? was he bored? stressed? have an argument?

Still, I am going to keep watching.

For those interested, it was just north of Du Pont Circle. I don't think they are giving fines yet but want the word to be spread that they would start some time soon. So there we go. I am helping the word get out.

Safe cycling!

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Should cyclists obey the same rules as car drivers?

I have thought a little about this over the last few years and especially since a pedestrian kindly pointed out that "it's red for you too" as I glided perfectly safely though a red like. He was, as I was reminded shortly afterwards, correct.

But should cyclists and drivers be expected to follow the same rules? Henry Graber at the Atlantic Cities thinks that we should Never Fine Cyclists. I don't know if 'never' is the right way to think about it but I agree that there is no reason why bikes and cars should be treated equally.

Fines exist for cars because they put other people and property in danger. The fine is higher the more the (perceived) risk of a manoeuvre has been. The average car weighs about 1.5 tonnes in Europe. You can do a lot more damage with that than with a bike that weighs a few kilos. It also takes longer to stop in a car than on a bike and you can go faster. This makes both the likelihood of doing harm and the level of potential harm higher with a car. It is perfectly reasonable to have different standards. Just like the fines are higher for not following gun rules than for not following knife rules.

Then there are moments that happen quite regularly when it is actually safer if cyclists do not obey rules. While this can also be true for cars (speed to get away from a driver weaving all over the lane), it is likely to be less so because the rules were made for car safety, not bike safety. One nice example of this is crossing an empty junction to avoid a line of stressed rush-hour drivers waiting at the light. Getting ahead of them gets you out of their way. This is especially important on one junction on my morning commute, after which cars slip onto a lane to go right. With the bike lane on the right and cars cutting across lanes, this is an accident waiting to happen. I don't mind admitting that I am happy when I have got though that.

If rules were made for cyclists that were more appropriate then we could enforce those. In the last example, it would mean allowing cyclists to cross a junction earlier than cars. This already happens for pedestrians (in DC at least).

There are other reasons to make rules easier for cyclists. When one person chooses to drive, there is a cost for the community. If we favour cyclists, we would encourage people to cycle rather than drive, reducing the social cost. My bicycle pollutes your children's air less than your car does. It takes up less space, is more social, keeps me fitter (reducing medical costs and making me much nicer to look at :)  ), releases less carbon dioxide and looks cooler than your car (yes, seriously). Society should encourage me to ride.

So when those rules for bikes are designed, they should consider the benefits of biking and the lower risks and design the rules accordingly.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

400 ppm. What could possibly go wrong?

Graph kindly borrowed from The Economist article this week: The only good news about the Earth's record greenhouse gas levels is that they have been well measured.

Hurricane Sandy: 72 American deaths and 1.2% of GDP of the affected states.

Bangkok flooding: World surge in rice prices and economic growth slashed.

Texas drought and wildfires: Cost to homeowners exceed $100 million and farmers $7.6 billion.

Summer heatwaves in Europe: 2,200 deaths per day in France and 70,000 in total across Europe in 2003

Freezing winters: deaths across Europe and economic growth harmed.

Ocean acidification (it absorbs your carbon): No more fish n'chips.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Green schemes may push up fuel bills

"Leading energy companies have told the government it needs urgently to review the costs of its latest green energy programme, which one group claims could add as much as £100 a year to household power bills."

Yes. And that is kind of the point. Dirty energy should be more expensive. After all, someone is already paying for it. And the chances are that person is way poorer than the average blog reader (check how rich you are compared with the rest of the world here), however squeezed people are right now. 

If dirty energy prices rise, it would encourage energy saving efforts (around 6% of energy consumed in western homes is from phantom loads - i.e. when you leave your TV on stand-by or you leave a cell phone charger plugged in with no cell phone attached). Plenty of other money-saving efforts still remain. Putting in energy-saving bulbs will save money. Getting your loft insulated will save money (and you can sort out your junk at the same time).

Read the rest of the FT article HERE (behind firewall, register for a free article).

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sentences of note

"In the US nearly half of all water withdrawals is used for cooling thermo-electric power plants."

From a Guardian Science debate series on the 'Water, food and energy nexus'. (Watch or listen as a podcast.)

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The economic value of natural resources

Ecuador has a lot of oil sitting beneath its beautiful and bio-diverse Yasuni National Park. If the Economist is right, it will soon need to tap that wealth. But the government has cultivated a 'green' image and doesn't want to touch the oil (although it expoits it elsewhere and even has loans from China that will be repaid in future oil production). It has proposed that it would be prepared to leave at least this oil in the ground, and maintain the Yasuni if the international community compensate half of the oil value that it would forego. The idea is that the trees an environment have both an intrinsic value by existing and provide a valuable service for the whole world; absorbing CO2. I have already contributed to the environment bonds

This week, one of my favourite podcasts, Planet Money, have an excellent episode on the Yasuni Park and the difficulties in how to compensate countries for maintaining their environments when it would be more profitable for them to destroy them. We need to find a better way to price nature and decide who should pay for it.