On foot and cycle in Berkeley and Oxford

Berkeley bicycle boulevard.
Wide Berkeley sidewalk.

I’ve just returned from my sabbatical in Berkeley, and while I’ve written some harsh criticism of life in the US when it unfortunately intersects with the medical system, as long as you can stay healthy there are some conspicuous advantages to life in Berkeley. Particularly if you walk or ride a bicycle.

Some of it is no one’s fault: There’s obviously more space in Berkeley for wide sidewalks, and the crush of tourists on a few major boulevards, particularly in summer, is peculiar to Oxford. On the other hand, Oxford city council chooses to allow merchants to block half of the narrow pavement with advertising signs. Still, with the narrow, often one-way streets, Oxford is no paradise for drivers either.

And maybe that’s part of the reason why Oxford drivers are, there’s no way to prettify this, hateful toward non-drivers. (Presumably toward other drivers as well, but I haven’t had that experience.) Not all of them, of course, and not all the time, but enough to make cycling something I avoid when I have time to walk, and makes me feel on edge much of the time even when I’m walking. Berkeley drivers are sometimes thoughtless, of course, but the threatening incidents of recklessness still seem less frequent in Berkeley than the incidents of active aggression and rage in Oxford.

Cycle lanes are occasional and intermittent, and the average Oxford driver considers “cycle lane” to be just a fancy word for “free parking”. We don’t have as much of a problem with restaurants or constructions sites parking their dumpsters on the cycle lanes as they apparently have in Belfast, but here’s a cheeky comment on their difficulties.

I suspect that the better conditions in Berkeley are a good example of the civilising influence of the law. California law requires that drivers stop for pedestrians in any crosswalk, whether or not it is marked. And they do. Nearly always, except on high-speed highway-like urban roads, and even there if you make yourself conspicuous you’ll usually get someone to stop pretty quickly. This gets people into the habit of paying attention to slower travellers using the road, and frequently they’ll stop even when they are not required to, for instance, for pedestrians crossing in the middle of a block, or for cyclists on a cross-street.

In Oxford, as in all of England (I have been informed), cars are required to stop only at elaborately constructed official zebra-striped crosswalks with huge flashing lights overhead. Because of the elaborate construction these are rare, and even so are often ignored. And I can certainly count on the fingers of one hand the number of times in five years that any driver has stopped to let me cross the street as a pedestrian when it was not strictly required by law. It didn’t matter if it was snowing or pouring rain and I was out walking with a small child. In Berkeley I was more likely to be embarrassed by a car stopping for me to cross when I was merely loitering near to the crosswalk.

Research impact and road construction

I’ve been interested in the turn of government funders of scientific research in several countries — in particular, US, UK, and Canada — to target research spending likely to have high economic benefit. I’ve commented here on Canadian developments, and satirised UK impact obsession here (though I actually think the UK bureaucracy has done a fairly good job at diverting the ill-informed government rhetorical pressure into less harmful directions). Lawrence Krauss, writing in Slate, has pulled together some of these recent developments with some interesting commentary.

One interesting analogy has recently occurred to me: Scientific research is a public good, like roads. I’m no expert on transportation policy, but my impression is that when transportation plans are laid, when they decide to invest the necessary capital in widening this highway, or paving that cowpath, the political decision-makers don’t devote a lot of energy to questioning whether it’s really productive for people to be travelling along this route, whether people going from A to B (and back) is actually going to provide economic benefits. The arguments usually stop at the evidence that people are travelling that route, that the current roads are congested, and so on. Experience has shown that efficient transportation infrastructure promotes economic growth and general public welfare, and government should provide people with the means to get where they want to go reasonably quickly and safely, without needing to micromanage exactly why everyone wants to go wherever it is they want to go.

Similarly, experience shows that thriving scientific research promotes economic growth, and public welfare, and we should invest in making it thrive. Where should we invest? We should look where the traffic is going, and not ask why it is going there.

This is not quite as straightforward as the road-building problem, because we do want to distinguish between high-quality research and low-quality research, but even a certain amount of boring, non-paradigm-breaking, grey-skies research can play an important part in keeping the scientific enterprise healthy. Making this distinction is the job of peer-review, and maybe it needs to be done differently, but I would contend that trying to slather on another layer of “impact” evaluation is not going to make the process or the research more productive.

New frontiers in cost-benefit analysis

Headline in the online edition of the Toronto Star

Finding the ‘sweet spot’ on transit taxes: where benefit and cost match up.

I’m no expert on the subject, but I think that when the costs and benefits “match up”, you’ve gone too far…

More seriously, the article is based on weird analysis like this:

“It’s unfair to tax people for parking their cars when there is no real alternative (to driving),” he said.

That sounds superficially fair, but does it correspond to any principle that is more generally followed? How about: It’s unfair to tax people (i.e., charge them) for riding a bus when there is no real alternative. Or, it’s unfair to tax people for getting a passport when there is no real alternative. Why is it that services provided by the government ought to be free by default? Conversely, if “fairness” (defined as not charging people for necessities) is an important principle for the public sector, then why not for the private sector?

Consent of the governed

Speaking at the recent Conservative party conference, a government minister has said that the mass arrests and prison sentences for decent citizens who chose to rob shops and set buildings ablaze in London and other cities during a recent wave of looting, had brought the law into disrepute.

Our laws against arson were introduced centuries ago, when a typical London building was built of wood. There have been huge advances in fire-fighting technology since then. Our blanket ban on arson has been discredited, because it failed to keep up with these changes. And what about “vandalism”? Should the law really be fixated on the practices of wandering bands of hairy Germanic tribesmen? Can anyone genuinely say he thinks our laws against burglary are fit for a 21st century economy? By allowing a portion of the shops’ overpriced merchandise go up in flames, and another portion to the informal vending sector, where it is substantially marked down, we bring thousands of decent firebugs and thrifty shoppers back within the law, restoring the legitimacy of the penal system, improving productivity and delivering hundreds of millions of pounds of stimulus that the economy sorely needs.

No, sorry, I got that wrong. The correct quote is:

The 70mph motorway speed limit has become “discredited” and resulted in millions of motorists breaking the law, Transport Secretary Philip Hammond said today as he confirmed plans to consult on allowing it to rise to 80mph.

Mr Hammond told the Conservative Party conference the move would “restore the legitimacy” of the system and benefit the economy by “hundreds of millions of pounds”.

He said: “The limit that was introduced way back in 1965 – when the typical family car was a Ford Anglia.”

Mr Hammond said he owned an Anglia, as did Baroness Thatcher when she became an MP, but added: “Things have changed quite a bit since then. There have been huge advances in car technology, road deaths have been reduced by three-quarters.

“Meanwhile, the 70mph limit has been discredited because it failed to keep up with these changes – with almost half of all motorists exceeding it, bringing the law into disrepute.

“So I will consult on increasing the limit on motorways to 80 mph, bringing millions of decent motorists back within the law, restoring the legitimacy of the speed limit system, speeding up journey times, improving productivity and delivering hundreds of millions ofpounds of net economic benefits.”

We should start making a list. Laws that need to be ruthlessly enforced when they are disobeyed en masse: Arson, burglary, “theft by finding”, receiving stolen goods. Laws that need to be abolished when they are disobeyed en masse: Tax laws, speed limits. Hmmm. What’s the pattern? Prosperum ac felix scelus virtus vocatur. [Seneca. A successful and happy crime gets to be called virtue.]

Of course, Monty Python nailed it while I was still a toddler. In this case, the Mouse Sketch:

Make a thing illegal and it acquires a mystique. Look at arson – I mean, how many of us can honestly say that at one time or another he hasn’t set fire to some great public building? I know I have. The only way to bring the crime figures down is to reduce the number of offences.

An Omnibus named Perdition

christian_bus Atheist-Bus

The famous atheist buses have come to Oxford. What do they mean — other than that the redoubtable Richard Dawkins has found a new venue for self-promotion? I have already commented on the peculiar place — or, at least, what seems peculiar to someone who has generally lived in basically secular, non-theocratic countries — of religion in the public sphere of the UK, which appears to outweigh by far its importance in the private sphere (but maybe that’s just Oxford). It’s hardly a surprise, then, that the Anglican atheists would crave public acknowledgement of their private obsessions. The public forum par excellence is the public bus. The Christians are already there, and the atheists now have their gospel plastered on the side, saying “There’s probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” (Or is it “no God”? Hard to say, given the typography…) For those craving more detail, there is a url for Dawkins’s website. (Which, interestingly, when I checked it just now, featured a large photograph of the man himself, next to the slogan “The Enemies of Reason”. He seems to be selling DVDs, which perhaps reveal whether he is numbered among the enemies, or the enemies of the enemies. I’ve heard he once had ambitions to be a scientist, which explains a lot, when you think about it.) Continue reading “An Omnibus named Perdition”

Transportation in and around Oxford

Bicycling in Oxford

Oxford has the reputation of being the UK bicyclist’s utopia, and the Oxford City Council has the reputation of being extremely hostile to automobiles. One can see where that impression might come from, but it is sobering to note that the end effect is hardly different from that seen in communities where the ostensible priorities are reversed. Some believe that there is a secret transportation plan, carefully laid out in 1968, aiming to intensify the contradictions in the transportation dialectic  Be that as it may, for present generations bicycling through the city centre is difficult and dangerous at most times of day or night. There are bicycle paths that cross over automobile lanes, paths that run for 100m beside a busy road and then simply stop, and no lack of automobilists for whom passing a bicycle has a pavlovian urgency, even when the bicyclist has signalled a turn, even when the car itself is just about to brake to turn off the road. Outside the city centre, there are some very useful bicycle paths, some fairly elaborate. And on a larger scale there is the UK national cycle network, now over 10,000 miles in length, which we have yet to explore.

Continue reading “Transportation in and around Oxford”

Weather and Politics

From the old “Moving to Canada” blog, originally posted on 22 Jan, 2006:

Two things I did not anticipate for January in Kingston: A federal election, and having to remove my coat to cool off while bicycling.

Weather (or où sont les neiges d’antan?)

I didn’t expect to be able to bicycle at all in the winter, since I expected the roads to be icy and dangerously narrowed by snowbanks.  Instead, the two feet or so of December snow have vanished, except for a few tough icy rinds, and we’re back to shuttling Chaya to daycare in her bike trailer.  Some nights it has not even been dipping below freezing.  It’s like an unending late fall, with the days getting longer. Meanwhile, Europe has been having a Canadian winter.  The natives here complain about the weather.  It’s too slushy. They want the streets properly frozen.

Skating is a big deal in Canada.  Skating rinks are an essential public service, and municipal governments are judged in their effectiveness on their ability to keep them well maintained, and in their social conscience on making them available to the poor.  In this, they are like the swimming pools in German cities, or railway bicycle storage in the Netherlands.  Or prisons in the US…  The Market Square in Kingston (soon to be renamed the Springer Market Square, according to a backroom city council sponsorship deal which is now the topic of legal action) has had a cooled outdoor ice rink installed, open 12 hours a day every day, and several parks have had wooden ovals installed, which they hose down at regular intervals and let freeze, if the weather is cold enough.  Whereas middle class men in the US are always off to their basketball leagues, here they go play hockey at midnight, because that’s when they were able to get the ice free. Continue reading “Weather and Politics”