Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When Good Apps Go Bad

You might have caught this story about San Francisco's new parking app on NPR a few days ago. Part of the pilot SF Park program, the app helps improve parking efficiency by providing real-time information on parking space availability--and price (the other key component of the program is demand-based pricing)-- so that drivers can head directly to the spot they want rather than circling endlessly in search of the elusive golden parking spot (i.e. the one that's free and right in front of where they want to go).

While the app has the laudable goal of reducing traffic congestion (much of which is caused by drivers stalking parking spaces) and its associated environmental impacts, as noted in the NPR segment it also presents users with the virtually irresistible temptation to engage in distracted driving. Although the program's creators insist that they "always encourage drivers to look at the app before they start driving," the reality is that the app won't work nearly as well unless people use it to make decisions in real time; drivers need to call up the information right before they arrive at their destination, not before they start driving.

To be fair to SF Park, the same is true of many other apps out, such as those showing real-time traffic congestion. Apps like these can help to reduce congestion and the problems associated with it, but only when drivers can use them to change routes on the spot. For all of the talk about discouraging distracted driving, it's illogical to pretend that real-time traffic and parking apps don't rely on it.

So how do we continue to reap the benefits of this technology without creating safety problems for pedestrians and drivers alike? Well, my dream is to take driving out of the driver's hands entirely, and let cars handle that themselves. But since that seems to be a few years off, we could at least update our apps to allow users to enter their preferences in advance, and then let the app tell them (automatically and audibly, without having to muddle around with a mobile device) what to do.

For example, a San Franciscan could enter their destination before they start driving, along with the maximum amount they would be willing to pay for parking, and the app could direct them to the closest space in their price range. Or the app could get super-fancy and allow the user to enter a price/distance combo (e.g. a preference to pay up to $2 more for a premium space right up front), and direct the user appropriately.

Sadly, I'm only a transpo--not a techno--geek, so I can't implement this idea myself. But there must be someone, particularly in the haven of all things techno that is the Bay Area, who can?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

This Week on Foot

This week is full of the *shocking* news that walking is dangerous! There's a City study: Chicago pedestrians in crosswalks are in cross hairs, while On Wide Florida Roads, Running for Dear Life. Here in California, Accidents involving pedestrians, cyclists escalate, Alameda police say, and a Woman Dies One Month After Being Hit By Cyclist In San Francisco.

That last story leads to some debate over the relationship between cyclists and pedestrians. If You Want Real Bike need to consider both pedestrians and cyclists (as well as any other users), and make the lanes safe for all. Of course, some just think that Awkward, These Pedestrian Wars Are.

Perhaps so, but they can also be lucrative--at least for one B.C. pedestrian hit in crosswalk awarded $1.1 million (finally, some justice in the pedestrian world!). Perhaps we need more settlements like this, to underscore the financial dangers of ignoring pedestrians' needs. 

Fortunately, many jurisdictions are being proactive about the issue. In North Bend Oregon, they're Creating safer roads for pedestrians to cross , while North Myrtle Beach taking action to make sure pedestrians stay safe, and across the globe Belfast pedestrian access to be prioritised. Closer to home there are Flags Up for Pedestrian Safety in Santa Barbara, San Carlos to spend $2.7 to improve pedestrian and bike safety in town's east side, and Sunset Magazine Breaks Ground On the Sunset Smart Homes, Silicon Valley's Greenest Mixed-Use Development (with a focus on walkability).

Meanwhile, in Florida we note that Rural areas' lack of sidewalks fuel obesity. But in Minneapolis they're wondering, Is walking really exercise?

Hopefully so, since NY Gov Will Sign Complete Streets Law this week, and in Lake Charles, Louisiana More McNeese students taking advantage of new crosswalks. All things to consider when we're Planning the future of cities.

Oh, and if you'd like to get involved in that planning? Volunteers needed for annual count of bicyclists and pedestrians in Washington next month.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Of strollers and sidewalks

It's a truth almost too obvious to mention that walking with a baby changes your perspective on the pedestrian environment, but I'm going to mention it anyway because it allows me to rant afresh about a problem that affects more than just new baby owners.

Exhibit A: the sidewalk in our neighborhood (see above). Note, I use the term side-"walk" here loosely, as nothing about this crumpled thread of concrete is actually conducive to walking. In fact, until three weeks ago I ignored this mess entirely, sticking instead to the smooth path of asphalt beside it.

And then...enter baby. Suddenly, I'm not so pleased about being forced to share a roadbed with several tons of lethal vehicle. Granted, the on-street parking, narrow roadways, and low traffic volumes make sharing the road a mostly-reasonable proposition in my community. But honestly, if we're going to have sidewalks that are so narrow and poorly maintained that they aren't even usable, why even have them at all? Wouldn't it be a better idea to just tear them out, and instead have a slightly wider shared roadway that a pedestrian with a stroller (or in a wheelchair, or with a cane) might actually be able to use?

It's this unceasing bias against infrastructure for pedestrians, and in favor of that for vehicles, that makes me angry as a pedestrian advocate. This situation would never be tolerated if we were talking about vehicle lanes. Can you imagine the outcry if Los Angeles let its roads deteriorate to the point that they weren't usable in much of the city? In fact, the City's Operation Pothole was instituted to avoid just such a scenario. Yet the City continues to find reasons not to fix its sidewalks (or more precisely, not to force responsible property owners to do so).

What I'd like to know is, where is our Operation Sidewalk?

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Demand a Pardon for Raquel Nelson

Okay, I'm dipping a toe back into the world of blogging for just one quick moment, because I feel so passionately about this story and want to spread the word as much as possible. I hope you'll forgive me if I blatantly copy info from our friends at Transportation for America, rather than coming up with my own:

Raquel Nelson, a metro Atlanta mother, was crossing the street from a bus stop to her apartment complex with her three children after a long trip that included an hour plus wait between buses. Along with a handful of fellow passengers headed to the apartment complex, she unsurprisingly chose to cross the street at the bus stop rather than walk more than half a mile in the dark to the nearest traffic signal and back with her tired children.

They were struck by a hit-and-run driver, killing her youngest son.

Then the unbelievable happened: Cobb County charged this grieving mother, who did not even own a car at the time, with vehicular homicide and other charges, carrying a potential sentence of 36 months in jail. A jury of six – none of whom had ever taken a local bus – convicted her July 12. The judge sentenced her to 12 months’ probation, community service, and the burden of paying court costs. In the face of widespread outcry, she also offered her the option of a retrial, and Nelson intends to exercise that right to clear her name.

But we think she should never have been charged in the first place.

Please consider signing Transportation for America's petition to the Georgia Governor and the Cobb County Solicitor General requesting her immediate pardon or refusal to prosecute her again in a new trial.

You can find additional information about the case on the Transportatino for America blog here.