Sunday, April 27, 2014

Railrunner crash: Epilogue

Above--Surveillance video taken on the Railrunner. 
The cyclist seems oblivious to the possibility of a train.
Note: the Youtube site keeps wanting to convince me to download shit.

With regards to the cyclist killed at the Zia Road train crossing, it now appears that eyewitnesses not only got the earphones stuff wrong, but the cyclist's direction of travel as well. According to a story in the Friday issue of the Albuquerque Journal, train video shows (italicized stuff from the Journal) "...the cyclist was trying to ride west across St. Francis Drive at Zia Road when the light for traffic on St. Francis appears to green. She makes it across St. Francis safely but then rides in front of the southbound train that was crossing Zia..."

She was in fact hit on the Rail Trail crossing, as previously reported.  The Journal further reports Police spokeswoman Celina Westervelt said one witness who was driving south on St. Francis told police he or she had to slow down to give LeBeau a chance to get across the street just before she was hit.

Its all conjecture as to what happened next. Did she run the light or enter late or on yellow? What is the yellow cycle time for Zia? Maybe in the rush to get across the intersection, LeBeau overshot the crossing or just missed the fact of the train. Anyone can guess. Would a gate have helped? We will never know. What we do know is that you can, especially in tight situations, get killed out there, bicycle trails or not. Lesson learned: Be careful and conservative out there.

Some of this bears on John Allen's recent growling at People for Bikes, a pseudograssroots organization of the bike biz. I'm not an ardent foe of the organization, but I do have a bone to pick with its attempt to create uncritical riders dependent on advocates or government to provide for their safety. There stated goal "Riding made simple. The choice to ride a bike is yours. The responsibility to ensure safe and convenient riding opportunities is ours." That statement kinda misses the point. Riding a bicycle may be simple enough. Riding it safely requires a modicum of personal engagement or as my mom used to say, "I can't pour it into your head in liquid form."

Find the cyclist
The responsibility to provide safe and when possible, convenient riding falls to all of us. Depending on advocacy or government to provide for your safety is a one or two legged stool--an inherently unstable situation. It takes smart riding and reasonably well designed facilities (not all facilities live up to their billing, either) to be safe out there. Government and advocacy can help with facilities and education, but in the final analysis, its the competent, engaged rider who has to put it all together. That balance of responsibilities must be carefully maintained. We all have a role to play in safe riding. Especially the cyclist.

Note added later. Its not just cyclists, of course. From Carol Clark's Daily Post. Someone tell me, sun or not, how you miss a tractor trailer:

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Los Alamos and PEEC Mark Earth Day With Cognitive Dissonance*

Or, They Paved Pajarito And Put Up A Parking Lot

  * psychological conflict resulting from simultaneously held incongruous beliefs and attitudes, as a fondness for excessive resource consumption and a belief that such consumption is harmful to the environment

"...I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawai'i. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song..."--Joni Mitchell

Interesting. Honolulu in 1970 vs. Los Alamos in 2014. Not much has really changed.

Earth Day was originally held to remind us that we need to be far more sensitive to the relationship between our exploitation of the earth's surface environment and the unintended consequences, lest we crap our nest beyond repair on a human time scale or at minimum, damage it to the point where our own existence as we know it is threatened. Earth Day, as we older farts vividly recall, came on the heels of the Cuyahoga River catching fire, soap suds in our streams, eutrophication of Lake Erie, the Torrey Canyon shipwreck and oil spill, and urban air thick with lead-laden pollution aerosols derived from the burning of leaded gas. Among other things. How soon we forget when the threats are not as vivid and visceral. Hydrofracturing is discreetly underground, CO2 is a natural component of the atmosphere, the Westerlies blow away the auto exhaust and aside from the occasional wildfire causing us to flee the Hill, life is good.

It still seems a little amusing, or perhaps not, that a county of scientists and engineeers celebrated Earth Day by clogging Canyon Road with cars so folks can celebrate the groundbreaking of the new PEEC "Nature Center", our own little Tree Museum**. Perhaps a proper groundbreaking would have everyone walking, biking, or taking the Atomic City Bus to the site and a No Parking sign on the site itself. But I guess its OK to drive today's "clean burning" cars excessively. Or perhaps not.

Go figure. While you are figuring, note the sign in front of the long line of cars parked on Canyon. Photo hijacked from the Daily Post article.

Please park at the Aquatic Center. Or perhaps not...
Photo from Carol Clark, Los Alamos Daily Post
Somewhat on point... is a sad and funny song, Big Yellow Taxi, from one of my favorite songwriters. I saw that paving of Paradise happening in Honolulu during my time there, 1987-2001, during a time of continued rapacious development of the islands. Perhaps Taxi should be BombTown's official song, given the county's (that's us) continued zeal to pave the Pajarito plateau, i.e., at the new Municipal Building, Smith's Marketplace, Airport Basin, etc. You would think we were born without feet. From the air, downtown BombTown looks a lot like a patchwork of parking lots with a few buildings interspersed, as Michael Ronkin once observed.  Zoom in and take a look. Downtown Bombtown is the lower right quadrant.

View Larger Map

** By the way, there really is a "tree museum" as referenced in Big Yellow Taxi: Foster Botanical Gardens.
Full disclosure. We are both PEEC members.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

Sent to the Albuquerque Journal.

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

On April 19, Suzanne LeBeau, an avid cyclist, was killed when she rode her bicycle into the path of the southbound Rail Runner train at the point where the Santa Fe Rail Trail crosses the tracks just south of Zia Road.

Commenters to a local TV outlet claim she was wearing some sort of headphones or earphones. This has not been confirmed by the ongoing police investigation.

Also relevant is that rail trail runs parallel to S. St. Francis at that location and approaches from behind the train station. A cyclist riding north will be screened by buildings and will then be looking at the sides of the lights and crossing arms in a large and busy intersection. The cyclist will also be looking directly towards the southbound train. Although the railroad barrier arms, safety lights, warning sirens and the train’s horn were all activated and working properly, readers must note that there are in fact no barriers or safety lights whatsoever at the actual rail trail crossing used by cyclists.
We will never know everything that happened on Saturday to cause this tragedy, as Suzanne is not here to explain it. My condolences go out to her family and to the train engineer, who was powerless to stop events.

Are there lessons here for cyclists, municipal planners, and facility designers? Certainly.

First, cyclists must maintain their situational awareness and anticipate hazards. We must constantly be asking "what can happen at this intersection or crossing and what will I do about it." Whether the cyclist was wearing headphones is less relevant than how a cyclist compensates for the loss of critical sensory information under potentially adverse conditions. Darkness, cold (requiring headgear), bad weather, and other  situations can compromise one's sensory safety envelope and require adjustment. Distracted riding can be perilous because it takes away the ability to sense and evaluate danger.

Secondly, the design standards for trails should be comparable to those for an immediately adjacent roadway—if there are barriers and lights for a busy roadway, why not for a key rail trail crossing at that very busy intersection?. Indeed, this is not just any trail but an important component in Santa Fe's offroad bicycle network, made necessary because many of its major roads (and especially St. Francis Drive) are decidedly bicyclist-unfriendly, thus requiring separate bicycle facilities. In this context, a cyclist should benefit from a warning light or barrier system similar to that enjoyed by motorists. A cyclist arriving via the Rail Trail is riding at right angles to the road’s barriers and warning lights. Is it possible that this reduced visibility coupled with background visual clutter did not provide the warning the designers had assumed?

Some of this discussion goes to the very heart of defining the roles of the cyclist and the government in maintaining roadway safety. We have to balance personal responsibility with an appropriate government role in building safe, well-engineered facilities. Let's reexamine these roles today and not let Suzanne LeBeau’s death be in vain.

Khalil J Spencer

League Cycling Instructor, League of American Bicyclists
Los Alamos, NM

Saturday, April 19, 2014

RailRunner 1, Situational Awareness 0?

Similar to R15-1, 
your basic rail crossing sign
Multiple news sources have reported that a cyclist was hit and killed while crossing the railroad tracks directly into the path of the 10:30 am. southbound Railrunner today at the Santa Fe Rail Trail where it crosses Zia a few feet west of  South St. Francis in Santa Fe (see map below). One commenter, who left a comment on the KRQE web site, stated "The young lady was zipping along with headphones on... She did not hear the train or the train's horn blowing. Please do not ride your bikes or run with head phones on... Be aware of your surroundings... This was a horrible accident."  The New Mexican cites unnamed witnesses who said much the same. Note added later. As of this afternoon, 4-22-2014, there is no evidence of headphones having been used.

I don't know much other than what's been reported and these uncorroborated comments, but it is never a good idea to leave the mental situational awareness switch turned off for any reason, electronic or otherwise, and leave mental distractions turned on. Way too much going on around a cyclist, especially in a city. There is some stuff out there marketed as safer for those who want to listen to tunes while riding, but I'm not sure I would buy into anything that would take my mind off the road. Live to the end of the ride and you can turn on those big 901's.

Some mistakes you only get to make once. This is tragic. Be careful out there.

The entities who designed this intersection/trail crossing don't get off scot free. The main road, Zia, is marked with flashing lights and gates. The bike path has Jacques Schitt--just a little white sign.  Tim Rogers, posting to the BikeABQ list, said "There are no gates here or at any other sidewalk or trail crossings.  These crossings are all adjacent to roads and it was decided that the bells & whistles were enough to warn pedestrians and cyclists without dedicated gates. Ugh."

Readers should also note that the cyclist was on a path that runs north-south, parallel to St. Francis until, at the last instant, it turns sharply right and crosses the tracks. I was told by a Journal reporter that she was headed north on this path and then made the sharp right across the tracks (see below). Therefore, it would seem a cyclist could not easily see the lights flashing until late in the approach to the tracks because the cyclist would be parallel to them rather than facing them, and contending with screening buildings as well. Still not sure how you miss the train, but there could be a lot of visual clutter there on a Saturday morning. I'll have to ride that myself, but looking at Google maps, that is what I would suspect. But based on my assumption of how the layout affects visibility, there is even more reason for a separate set of warning lights.

That double standard in design does not relieve cyclists from their obligation to pay attention and maintain situational awareness. Having said that, a city that prides itself on its trails as part of its Silver Bicycle Friendly City status, and which relies on trails because many of the major roads are pretty sketchy for cyclists, needs to make sure they are done right, even if it means spending a few bucks and twisting some arms at the NMDOT.

cyclist's intended route, south to north, as I understand it, 
shown with the black line. 
The Rail Trail jogs over the tracks just south of Zia, crosses Zia, and continues north.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Global Warming Deadly to Motorcyclists

Keeling Curve CO2 levels in ppm (NASA blog site) vs. 
NY Times reported MC deaths as % of total traffic deaths
It has long been known that elevated exposure to CO2 can cause headache, confusion, and lethargy. So it should not be surprising that elevated CO2 in the atmosphere could be leading to the higher percentages of motorcyclists being killed on our roadways, given their lack of protective "cages", i.e., a car chassis in the event of a mishap. Maybe our ideas of threshold levels of CO2 caused impairment have been too high.

Of course, there are other theories as to why motorcycle deaths are becoming more prevalent among total traffic deaths.  This morning (4/1/2014), the New York Times published a graphic in its Science section "Fewer Helmets, More Deaths" and attributed the rapid proportional rise of motorcycle fatalities in the last couple decades to the repeal of helmet laws. A CDC report is quoted, but no numbers are shown that supports that the lack of helmets led to the sharp rise in deaths, i.e., were these fatals primarily due to head injuries? Do the rise in fatals in states repealing helmet laws exceed, statistically, the rise in fatals in "control" states that still have helmet laws? On first glance, the rise in fatals in TX and Arkansas, two states that repealed, looked similar to the national average. Florida was higher.

Meanwhile, in 2010, Dr. Mark Gestring of the Univ. of Rochester Med School/Strong Memorial Hospital trauma center authored a journal article (March, 2010, American Surgeon) where they showed that the demographics of motorcycle crash injuries had changed, with a significant rise in motorcycle crash injuries or deaths in the cotere of middle-aged guys returning to motorcycling after a hiatus, i.e., "Old Guys Returning to Motorcycle Riding" population rather than the "young and fearless" riders who used to keep the meat wagons occupied. The authors suggest the rise in fatals and serious injury in older riders is due to two things, one, the prevalent crashes for the older rider were simple loss of control crashes, perhaps due to a loss of the fine motor skills and senses (seeing, hearing) these returning riders used to have when they were young thus making them more likely to crash (unless the rider consciously compensates for these skills losses), and two, the inability of the old rider to withstand the trauma of a crash that a young person could have withstood with good chances of recovery. Interestingly, the prevalence of helmet use was similar in both older and younger riders involved in crashes requiring hospitalization or the morgue.
Other things are changing as well. Cars and light trucks are constantly re-engineered to protect their occupants.  A motorcyclist is still his own air bag and crumple zone, although current motorcycles have better handling and brakes. OTOH, they have gotten huge and overpowered. Huge, overpowered motorcycles in the hands of older riders with diminished motor skills, poorer vision, and slower reflexes...hmmmm.

I emailed the NY Times asking if they would defend their position that this is all about helmets. One could just as easily plot motorcycle deaths vs. the Keeling Curve (i.e., the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere as measured at Mauna Loa Observatory) and claim a relationship.

We in the bicycling community often go through our own cycling arguments about correlation vs. causation, not to mention question begging, with topics such as helmets, safety in numbers, facility design, rider position vs. driver awareness, etc. One has to beware of plotting things and claiming cause and effect, i.e., begging the question rather than testing and disproving or finding scientific support for a hypothesis.  I'd love to see the numbers published supporting various great ideas we bat around in the advocacy movement(s).

Stay tuned
Khal Spencer
Member, Old Guys Returning to Motorcycle Riding
April 1st, 2014