Sunday, April 26, 2009

Good Design and Open Design

I'm speaking generally in this article and not attempting to show too much favouritism, but I am painting history with a pretty broad brush so I appreciate your accomodation of that. 


[caption id="attachment_534" align="aligncenter" width="420" caption="IBM clone PC"]IBM clone PC[/caption]

IBM PC vs Apple Hardware

Until recently the "IBM PC" has absolutely killed more proprietary hardware (like Apple products) in affordability. 

Our family owned a Laser 128 apple clone, but apart from that we have over the years owned 1 TRS80, 2 386s, 1 486, 2 Pentiums, 1 Celeron, 1 Athlon64, 2Athlons, 1 zeon  AND zero apples.  Now this is with all the exposure to Apples in the school system (hence the Laser 128)

There was only 1 "Apple" computer company making hardware, but there are many many computer companies building "IBM clones".  We could purchase a 386 for $1500 or we could purchase the same computer from Apple for double the price.  IBM decided to "open" the form-factor for their IBM PC so that low cost manufacurers overseas could "clone" or copy the hardware without paying licensing fees or battling an army of lawyers.  Suddenly this meant there were 5 -10-15-20 soundcard manufacturers, and 20 video card manufacturers, and 10 hard drive manufacturers and 40 Motherboard manufacturers all able to design compatible products and compete on features and price.  While Apple design has remained compelling, it is like Ford's model T. "Any colour you like as long as it is black".

I attended a wedding a few years ago and listened to a man chatting at a table who had worked for IBM for years comment; "It's really too bad that IBM opened up their PC design, they could have made a killing if they had just held onto that and not let others use their design and build components".  He missed it.  He didn't understand that it was precisely because others could have the blueprints that we had commodity computers and incredible demand.  (Understand there is high demand for affordable computers, and very little demand for unaffordable computers) 

Open Standards let us cooperate and work together

There are lots of smart people out there.  They don't all do things the same way, we have chaos or war unless people can agree on how to work together.  that is why we have "standards".  Those attempts to get everyone playing by the same set of rules so we can work together.  Some examples;

  • A green light in traffic means...?

  • In my country we drive on which side of the road?

  • A Meter is exactly how long?

  • Do you use POP3 or SMTP for receiving or sending email?

  • Are you reading an HTML web page right now transferred by HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol)?

So standards are smart right? They allow people who are willing to negotiate or compromise to choose a common method (often it is not the "best") but it is reasonable for the greatest number of people who are willing to collaborate.

Open versus closed design

Some silly companies think that cooperating with others reveals "weakness".  They think that they are smarter than everyone else.  They think everybody should do things their way and they work hard to avoid cooperating with others.  Lets call them "big brothers" because they like to be in charge of the customer and remove choice.  Here the 2 philosopies collide.  The collaborators and the "big brothers.  Collaborators try to make things like software and file formats work with others including "big brother's.  The "big brothers" work hard to obscure and continually update their formats to make them difficult to copy.  Big brother is all about control.  Ironically Apple chose imagery from 1984 for their 1984 Superbowl ad where they were urging people to break free from the IBM PC. ROFL!  OK, when it comes to file formats, there are many "big brothers" out there.   Kudos! It was a brilliant Ad anyways Apple! (as was this um... "modification")


[caption id="attachment_532" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Big Brother knows best!"]Big Brother knows best![/caption]

Office document formats and the battle for useability

For years, Microsoft's office formats have been the only game in town.  MS Word, MS Excel etc.  If you try exporting to another format, they you "lose features" and the docs never did look quite right.  Microsoft is no longer the only game in town, but they are holding on hard to the idea that they know best, that cooperation is not as good as being uncooperative inovation.  Every version of Microsoft office introduced new formats that would not work with the old versions of the program (or would not work well).  In order to make things work, you would have to "upgrade" to the new version.  (Now there was nothing wrong with the old one, its just that Auntie Sue bought a new computer that had the new version and now  you can't read what she writes..)  So pull out your wallet and pay money every year to be able to continue doing the same things you did last year.  That is how the "big brothers" make your life. Expensive and difficult.

Enter the giant killers.

Open Office has been looming on the horizon for years.  Their converters for MS Office documents have been getting better and better.  Now you can use free software that works pretty much as well as the MS Office programs, and it can convert to and from those formats.  Open Office saves you paying hundreds of dollars to Microsoft, and new versions address the version issues Microsoft creates.


Google has created an online system called Google Docs that allows you to create, upload, edit and download documents online. No software other than your web-browser is required, and there is a a high level of compatibility with other office formats.  

These companies are making your life easier, more affordable, and are being open and transparent about their formats so that  you have fewer hassles.  Their "open design" is translating into "Good design" and putting money back in the wallets of people who have been paying "rent" on their software for far too long.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

BC-STV British Columbia's Single Transferrable vote - Take 2

I wrote about the BC-STV the other day.  I continue to learn more good things about STV and am determined to do my part in informing other voters in my sphere of influence so they can make an informed choice on May 12th.

I heard some really compelling arguments in favour of the STV written by Arthur here:  

And today in the paper "Dave" from Castlegar BC offered a letter comparing First Past the Post (FPTP) with Single Transferable Vote (STV):

... First past the Post:

  • Fails to accurately reflect voter's choices (percentage of votes case is not accurately represented by seats in government)

  • Allows a minortity of votes to elect majority governments

  • Restricts new parties and independent candidates from fair competition

  • Entrenches power in established political parties

  • Narrows voter  choice <not wanting to "waste votes">

Single Transferable Vote:

  • Accurately reflects voters choices by seats in government

  • ensures that majority governements are not formed without a morjoity of voter support

  • Allows new parties and independent candidates to fairly compete

  • Increases voter choice.

As a footnote Dave went on to mention that in Ireland where STV is used, the politicians held two referendums in an effort to get rid of STV and both times the public voted to keep it.  As more people become educated about STV, its support increases...

Vote with me on May 12 2009 to implement the "Single Transferable Vote" and redeem the opportunity of a lifetime to improve your democracy in a significant way.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

BC-STV, British Columbia's Single Transferable Vote

British Columbians have a unique opportunity to improve the quality of our electoral system on May 12th when our province holds its next provincial election. Under the slogan "Power up the vote", the BC Citizen's Assembly is advocating the "Single Transferable Vote" this may be the single most significant opportunity to improve how we vote. Their website tries to anticipate and answer questions about the STV.

Power Up Your Vote with BC-STV

The Citizen's Assembly was charged with making a recommendation directly to the citizens of BC, to improve our voting system. through a process detailed on their website, the BC Citizen's Assembly determined that the BC-STV system would bring us the most advantages.

Current system

In British Columbia currently there is the system of "first past the pole" the candidate with the most votes wins. Truly it is the simplest system, but upon comparison with other options it is clearly far from perfect. Consider a hypothetical situation with the current system where in a riding there were 4 candidates each receiving 24%, 24%, 25% and 27% of the vote. It is clear that the candidate with 27% of the vote is the winner. However, it is also clear that 73% of the votes were "wasted" / "unrepresented in government" and that the majority of voters preferred someone other than the winner. Here is how the BC Citizen's Assembly put it...

British Columbians believe that it isn't fair that a party can form government without having the most votes, or that our province could be left without an official opposition - even if we voted for one. We don't think its fair that a party can govern as if it had majority support when it doesn't, or that a majority of votes do not elect anybody, or that some regions may have no representation in government at all.
Regardless of how we vote, British Columbians think elections should be about fair results, greater choice, effective local representation and accountable government.

Proposed system

Basically you only get to vote once, but your vote is more powerful. If you picked a losing candidate, your vote keeps on working to better represent your vote. Check out the 4.5 minute video below. It is brilliant.

Why is there another referendum after the one held in 2005?

In the referendum in May 2005, STV received 57.7% of the total vote and a clear majority in 77 of 79 electoral districts. Although it far exceeded the first bar of receiving majority support in at least 48 constituencies, it narrowly missed the second unprecedented 60% province wide threshold. Clearly this created a problem because only 42.3% supported retaining the current system. Given the results it was entirely appropriate that the people of BC be further more opportunity to explore STV. The question will be put to all the voters in BC in a second referendum, held on May 12, 2009, in conjunction with the next provincial election. If the voters clearly endorse the Citizens' Assembly's recommendation, the government has promised it will introduce legislation so that the new electoral system could be in place for the following provincial election in May 2013.

Vote for the BC-STV

From what I've learned in my research, the BC-STV is an improvement that would give British Columbian voters better representation by popular vote. It seems like a brilliant idea, let me encourage you to;

1. Vote for the BC -STV on May 19th 12th. [Updated, Thanks!]

2. Explain the BC-STV to at least 3 other eligible voters so they can be informed.

Happy Voting! Oh, and check out these related videos on Proportional Representation featuring John Cleese and one of the Royal Canadian Air Farce:

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Observations on Mexican Transportation

For those of you who know my passions, you will recognize the sparkle in my eyes since traffic is the topic.

I couldn't believe my eyes as we left the Cancun International Airport.  A divided highway with overhead lights on the median.  Not only in the city , but in the country stretching for many kilometers.  The highway was well marked, well signed, well maintained and in most ways as safe as any other north American Highway.


[caption id="attachment_503" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Good Highway in Mexico South of Cancun"]Good Highway in Mexico South of Cancun[/caption]


Illuminated LEDs embedded in the roadway guided vehicles to merge.  it was impressive even if this tourist highway was not typical of highways elsewhere in mexico.

This highway was a "1/2 freeway" not Interstate standards, but pretty close.

The highway was limited access, had some at grade crossings as well as overpasses.  Also seperating it from freeway standard was the provision of the uturn "retournos" where traffic could exit the fast lane, turn around and enter the opposite fast lane.  The roadways in mexico often use metal speedbumps embeeded at different interfals where traffic is expected to stop for a police check or an at grade intersection.


[caption id="attachment_505" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Mexican Police checkpoint"]Mexican Police checkpoint[/caption]


I noticed other modes of transportations in cities.  Playa del Carmen had more scooters than I'm used to.  and more bicycles.  Playa had dedicated bidirectional bicycle lanes seperated from traffic by a curb.  Practical tricycles pedalled by union tricyclests carry many local deliveries.  

Taxis (Playa is a tourist area) are plentiful as well as busses and collectivos.  The taxis were similar to anywhere else except for the reputation that Mexican taxi drivers have for being daring.  Taxis are not metered there, so negotiate your price before you get it and pay when you get there. 

The busses are like the greyhound or charger coaches seen in Canada and USA.  Plush seats, airconditioning, TVs, curtains (some seatbelts).  Taking a 20 minute ride between towns cost only $1.80 which is a bargain considering a similar trip would cost $5-15 in Canada.  It seems that those busses run very regularly.  Hourly or every 15 minutes.  In Canada you are lucky to get 1/2 a dozen busses in a day.  So as a Canadian I can't help feel like we are being ripped off here.  A poorer country like Mexico can make nice regular cheap bus service an option? (Maybe everybody owning a car up here has made that a difficult challenge for the operators here?) I wonder what I'm missing here?

Mexico has something special I haven't seen elsewhere in North america.  Collectivos are 15 passenger vans that operate somewhere between bus and taxi.  Heading down the freeway they will pick up people who need a lift as long as there is room left.  When full, the collectivo will travel at alarming speeds to get you to your destination and it becomes more like a taxi at that point, leaving main roads to drop you at your destination.


[caption id="attachment_504" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="Collectivo"]Collectivo[/caption]


Those are the neat observations I made about Mexican transportation.  Thanks for listening, I'm glad I could share some of the things that impressed and surprised me.


Mexican Time

Before our visit to Mexico, we were cautioned to accept "Mexican Time".  Learning to relax and enjoy the ride has made all of the difference in our trip.  It works.


[caption id="attachment_499" align="aligncenter" width="199" caption="(flickr credit: Omar Omar)"](flickr credit: Omar Omar)[/caption]


In Mexico there aer some things that run precisely on time like busses and airports and lunchbreaks.  Other things are scheduled a little more vaguely;

I was told I was scheduled for 10:30 or 11AM if they come today.  So it was a definate appointment with a variable start time and optional existence (it never happened)  "Es Mexico".   I noticed on the appointment slip that if I cancelled there was the threat of a $20 USD cancellation fee. <insert fist shake here>

Some evening entertainment scheduled for 9:45 had people arriving from 9:45 to 9:55 with 3 seperate welcomes from the MC who each time indicated there would be further delay before starting. (after stating that "this is the main event")

An information session was first "promised" to last only 5 minutes, then 10 minutes, then in reality it lasted 45 minutes.

I noticed at the beach that the "dive shop" which would lend kayaks and snorkelling gear was steadfast about not allowing gear to be borrowed 10-20 minutes before lunch hour.  Hundreds of acationers used the beach and even ate on the beach over lunch hour, but the dive shop created a 1.5 hour "hole" in the beach activities by being so zealous about their lunch break.  It seems there is still a love for "rules" in a culture where some timelines seem option.

I also noticed Mexican staff at the hotel hustling to serve customers and I've observed that staff who are constantly working outdoors in the heat tend to work at a constant but slower pace.  This makes sense when I understand that many work (10-16 hour shifts).

The heat gave me reason to pause as i observed how low my energy level became.  Suddenly any "convenient stereotypes" of  a bunch of lazy Sombrero topped Mexicans snoozing in the shade fell apart, replaced with an appreciation for hard working people who in many ways have a healthier more realistic pace of life.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Value Proposition - Being content with the price you pay

I grew up in a world where the price on the price tag was the price you paid.  Being a shrewd consumer involved shopping around for the same product with a lower sticker price.  Although I did attend an auction or two in my childhood, that was an experience far removed from our weekly shopping trips.  I grew up learning that price was important, but quality was also important so the product would last and not need replacement or repair.  So sometimes paying a little more for better quality meant conserving money in the long run.  I want to pay the least and conserve my money for use elsewhere, but with a growing understanding of where our products come from, I won't knowingly choose a low price at the expense of others or the natural environment.  In this journey from fact to face negotiation, to automated Internet transactions and corporate marketing strategies, It is easy to lose sight of the people on the other sided of the transaction whose welfare must remain a part of the equation.

[caption id="attachment_492" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="(flickr credit: sharpstick's photos)"](flickr credit: sharpstick's photos)[/caption]

In married life, the Internet has allowed us to compare prices without actually having to visit stores (much like the telephone allows), in fact we can compare prices without actually interacting with another person.  It feels like a safe anonymous inexpensive activity.  Ebay started introducing us to live on the wild side by bidding for things at "less than" the asking price.  Until recently this was the extent of our financial education until I met my friend Cindy at work and she introduced me to the idea of "asking for a better price".  "The worst they can say is no" she explained.  So in small ways I began to assert my desire for fairer prices.  Saving $200 on fees associated with buying a car, saving $15 off the price of a pair of shoes.  Spotting inconsequential defects and asking the cashier for a deduction.

Experience has eroded my confidence that retail prices accurately reflect value

I remember being shocked to observe retail markup first hand when i worked at the garden centre.  I saw two things that forever changed my view on pricing. 

1. The first was observing products coming in at a wholesale price and immediately being marked up to a retail price that was 2 times the wholesale.  The $4 items became $8 items, and the $40 items became $80 items.  I was alarmed that at the garden centre 1/2 of every price was basically profit.

2. The second was re-potting plants.  When a plant outgrew its 1 gallon pot, we would pull it out and place it in a 2 gallon pot surrounded with fresh dirt.  So on Friday the shrub was a 1 gallon plant for $4 and on Saturday it was a 2 gallon plant for $7.  In some cases the re-potting would only be half complete, and customers would pass over the 1 gallon shrubs to purchase a 2 gallon shrub (the plants were identical).

I think you will share some of the other experiences I've had; 

  • Gas wars where 2 gas stations compete on price and the cost of a litre of fuel drops and drops to ridiculous prices (like 1cent for a litre).

  • [caption id="attachment_493" align="aligncenter" width="240" caption="(flickr caption: Micah Maziar)"](flickr caption: Micah Maziar)[/caption]
  • Electronics where the retail price drops month after month, while other electronics like the Wii where the retail price remains constant for years.

  • Recently crude oil prices plummeted while gasoline prices remained at record high levels for over a year.

Clearly the retail price is not a reflection of value in all cases.  The prices rise and fall despite constant demand and identical products.  The prices you see are not the direct result of a "market effect" but rather the contrived price of marketeers.  In some cases, nobody pays the same price, such as in the case of "yield management" where the airlines use complex formulas in their attempt to extract as much money as possible from each customer for a seat on the same plane.

Very recently on a trip to Mexico, I saw how a silver right for $80 could be purchased for $35.  How? by haggling.  A bead bracelet for $5 becomes 2 for $7 at a cost of $3.50 each.  Now there are the long faces and the sad stories of large families at home in need of money, but don't tear up, it is a game.  In the 5 minutes it took you to pay $7, you supplied 1/3 of the average Mexicans daily wage.  This whole process of haggling over prices felt uncomfortable to me.  As someone accustomed to paying sticker price.  I feel awkward haggling or arguing over price.  Because the "price tag" is what the man asked, I feel compelled to pay it.  After the face I am faced with the tension (maybe unhappiness) that results from having options in the price I pay.  My joy at "finding a good price" is robbed from me when I realize that I could have negotiated a "better price".  When I do haggle for a "better price" I wonder if I got he best price, or did I settle too high?


[caption id="attachment_494" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="(flickr credit: Pandiyan)"](flickr credit: Pandiyan)[/caption]


The only solution I have found to this unhappiness with the prices I've paid is the value proposition.  What is the value of this to me and given this value am I content with the price I paid for this product.  For me the value proposition includes; the price I must pay, the quality of the product, the level of customer service I receive and the social impact of the product through its manufacture and associated labour and waste (explained clearly in "the story of stuff").    If I am content, then it does not matter that someone else got a better price or that the price dropped the next week.  I am content, I make my purchase and (unless there is a deal to refund my money when the price drops) I walk away secure that I made a choice and paid a price I was content with. 

I wish you success in leveraging the "value proposition" for your own peace of mind in purchasing.


Monday, April 6, 2009

We need to Plan and Build Roads Better

I love the freeway.  I get on it, I drive as far as I want and I get off.  It isn't like some of the other roads we have around here.  You know the ones where you stop every block or two because there is a single car pulling out of some mini-mall.  In fact there are some pretty hillarious roads around here.  One of them is the "Langley Bypass".  Historically most of the vehicle traffic going through Langley travelled on Fraser Highway, which was 1 lane in each direction with businesses down both sides of the street (the typical downtown for a small town).  People on Fraser Highway were stopping at stored, looking for parking, backing out of parking spots and basically making this road a very poor choice for anything other than shopping.  A plan was designed to bypass langley (appropriate name).  As a provincial highway it connected Fraser Highway to itself, bypassing the city as well as connecting to glover road 200th street, the route to the ferries.  With 2 lanes in either direction, it moved traffic quite well.   At first.  Then the township decided to allow zoning all along the bypass for shopping.  3 starbucks, countless restaurants, RV dealerships, audio video stores, and of course we will need some traffic lights to let the shoppers in and out.  So rather than this area being a "bypass" to allow through traffic to flow efficiently, it became a traffic magnet attracting more vehicles, and disrupting the flow of the traffic.

What happened?  The planners forgot what they were doing.  They forgot the purpose of the road.  To "bypass" Langley.

Often there will be a visionary who will present a great idea like a "bypass road" if it remains true to its vision it works well. BUT somebody always wants to make plans work for their own interests.  The land owners won't make as much money selling farmland as they would selling land with potential for "retail development"... so they lobby government to change the zoning.  If the city / municipality doesn't have a zoning plan (or doesn't stick to the plan) "good luck".  If we could stay "on vision" we would have roads that performed their designed function well, instead of doing a mediocre job of many contradictory functions. 

Freeways work so very well because they are "limited access" (You can only get on or off at certain points), because they have no "at level" intersections (meaning the traffic can carry on at speed despite the presence of other roads crossing), and they are built to a very consistent standard (meaning the road is predictable in signage and design).   Can you imagine if Freeways started having pedestrian crosswalks installed? or if a business was forced to have their driveway onto the freeway?  It's the wrong road for those purposes.

We need to classify our roads, and we need to build them to meet their function, and protect them from those who would dilute their function.

From my limited experience I'm familiear with the following types of roads;

  • Residential

  • Collectors

  • Non-Commercial Arterial

  • Commercial Arterial

  • Limited Access

  • Highways

  • Service

You look for a Residential street when you are ready to buy your first house and you are ready to settle down and have children, you want to avoid a "busy street".  You are essentially choosing to avoid living on a "collector" or "arterial" road.  A road fit for the purpose of living on.

Collector roads have more traffic and bring folks in from residential areas to the higher speed roads that actually go someplace.

Non-commercial Arterial roads are urban roads that act as the main routes for carrying traffic through a city.  Their focus is on the efficient flow of traffic through a city.  If you want to go somewhere quickly get on a non-commercial arterial road.

Commercial arterial roads provide easy access to businesses, with mini malls, mom and pop shops, big box stores and any number of opportunities to stop your car and spend your money.  The flow of traffic is less efficient because of the abundant access to businesses.  If you want to buy something get on a commercial arterial road. 

Limited access roads  such as free-ways, seriously limit where traffic can get on or off, which makes for very efficient travel on these roads.  This is why the freeway moves so well, there is little turbulence from new traffic entering, and in this case, no interference to the flow of traffic caused by traffic lights.  I remember a number of years ago, the embarassment that was expressed in North Vancouver, that they had the only traffic light on the transcanada highway. (It isn't true, there are traffic lights along the highway in towns like Golden BC or Revelstoke BC, but perhaps North Van was the last in a developed urban area.

Highways allow for travelling further, without significant business or residential access, but they often do allow more access to collector roads. 

Service roads provide a unique function with highways.  Where highways come into town (like in Rocky Mountain House AB) "service roads" are employed to provide access to businesses such that the function of the highway isn't impaired by the business access.  Its a smart idea.

Understanding why Business Frontage is only of benefit sometimes

When a motorist wants to get from point A to point B in a timely manner, Business frontage or access on the streets the motorist drives on, has no advantage for the motorist or the business owner.  For the business owner, he is NOT a potential customer.  For the motorist, the buesiness access just slows things down by congesting traffic and introducing more traffic lights where he needs to wait on his trip.  So a word of wisdom to the cities and municipalities that consider introducing commercial development on non-commercial arterial roads. Don't. The old fashioned idea that business frontage is good for property value and taxes does not hold on these roads.  It is a compromise of the road's primary purpose which is to move traffic efficiently.  That thinking only holds when you are considering a commercial arterial road.  In Abbotsford, there is an commercial arterial road called "South Fraser Way" which has shopping malls and auto centres, and strip malls, and car dealerships, and it is a place where people go to buy things.  Maclure is a non-commercial arterial road in Abbotsford which stretches almost the entire length of the city, with almost no commercial at all.  It is limited access (every 1/2 mile or so, rather than every block) and it is 2 lanes with a median.  It is the most efficient road in Abbotsford for travelling across town and a testament to the prior city leaders who had the vision for a road with no drive-ways.

The different types of roads above look different.  residential and collector are likely to have sidewalks, arterial might, but limited access, highways and service are unlikely to have sidewalks.  Speed limits are different too.  A commercial arterial road should have lower speed limits than a non-commercial arterial road that is limited access.

I see anomolies.  Perhaps someone is working on our behalf to keep things simple, but in our cities, a standard speed limit of 50 Km/h applies unless it is otherwise posted.  South Fraser way is a major 2-3 laned commercial road with a speed limit of 50, and my small dead end residential road full of young families with children has no posted limit meaning that it's limit is also 50. This does not make sense.  Perhaps there should be a sliding scale based on road classification;

  • Residential 40 KM/H

  • Collector 50  KM/H

  • Non-Commercial Arterial 60  KM/H

  • Limited Access 70-100  KM/H

Now I'll introduce you to a radical idea of which I am quite an advocate... Ready?   Roads are for driving on.  They exist only to move people from place to place.  They are not for parking or any other purpose.  They are to provide space for people to move from one location to the next.  With the context of this truly revolutionary idea the next points will fall into line.

The idea of allowing car parking on roads is silly.  Regardless of what has happened in the past, why do we need to build roads 4 lanes wide just because somebody decided to leave their car "out" on the street?  We see car parking on some commercial. arterial and collector roads as well as  residential. The idea that people view this as a right rather than a privilege, that people don’t consider whether they have space to park a car before they buy one is bizarre.  Since the roads are built with your tax dollars, and you are forced to go work to earn that money I think this should be a point that is dear to you. In progressive countries like Japan, you need to prove that you have room to park your vehicle before you are allowed to purchase one. (Smart)

In Canada we have very wide lanes.  Our lanes are much wider than our vehicles.  Most vehicles will have an extra 1-2 meters of space beside them in their lane.  Its hard to estimate exact distances while driving on the freeway, and no I'm not walking out there with a tape measure.  We also (at least in the lower mainland of BC) have this annoying habit of making roads wide enough for 2 lanes and then not putting lane markings on them. So where you could safely have people passing each other allowing for a smoother flow of traffic, you have this ambiguity.

Or there might be times where you want to restrict people from passing to make a safer stretch of road, or where you could have a bike lane that is then swept clean where bikes would be safe to travel with less interference from cars. Often there is just a single lane and then there are 2 lanes, with no sign or warning. the dotted lines come out of nowhere, making the road and the traffic on the road unpredictable and therefore less safe. Plus if you need to increase the capacity of a road, a can of paint is a pretty cheap way to improve your road’s carrying capacity.

So this post feels like a plane circling in the air looking for a place to land, and I think it will have to be a work in progress.  It holds some examples of the need for design, but isn't really a comprehensive treatment... yet.  

Share your ideas in the comments below.




Thursday, April 2, 2009

Trucks in Rush-Hour Traffic

Today was the "most exciting" carpool moment in commuting I've had in the last 6 years.  Following a flatbed semi with a double trailer I noticed a pilot truck down the bank in the center of the freeway with the driver standing in the bed of his truck.  Just then the truck in front of me locked up his brakes, producing clouds of smoke while his trailers tried to stop with the cab.  Fortunately reactions kicked in and the other drivers and I were able to get stopped without incident.  As the adrenaline worked its way out of my system I thought again that there must be some ways to make our roads safer by controlling how trucks and cars share the road.

The truck ahead of me was driving in the fast lane, and had been for 7 miles...

[caption id="attachment_475" align="aligncenter" width="369" caption="(flickr credit: C.P.Storm)"](flickr credit: C.P.Storm)[/caption]

The good and bad of Professional truck drivers

I have a love-hate relationship with the commercial truck drivers on the road while I commute.  

For the good, they are generally better drivers than the people in the cars.  Professional drivers often don't get the consideration they deserve (which would make their jobs easier and less stressful).  Because of their experience, training and the weight of their trucks, they tend to be patient and less impulsive. They perform very well in traffic and goodness knows many of these drivers are being watched with the "1-800 watch my driving" stickers and GPS logging.  Sitting higher in traffic they often have better perspective than other drivers.  Truck drivers are often proactive in traffic, using their rigs to smooth out traffic, turning potentially dangerous stop and go traffic into steady traffic (which queueing theory leads us to understand should improve the overall throughput of the highway).  Often they can administer a unique kind of justice with the massive size of their trucks, returning the shoulders to their intended purpose from the "impromptu kamakaze right hand passing lanes".  The professionalism is necessary because of the greater responsibility truck drivers have to keep their heavy vehicles and heavier loads from squishing families in mini-vans.  

Normally "truckers" are great, but there are certainly a percentage of truckers whose impatience, indifference to human life, or incompetence regularly puts the lives of other drivers at risk.  One day a truck travelled all the way from 176st in Surrey to Mt lehman in Abbotsford in the fast lane, which is a distance of 35 Km, then got out of the fast lane to exit the freeway.  I've seen poorly adjusted brakes for empty or full trailers result in an impaired ability to stop in time.  I've seen trucks blowing tires and not even noticing (or deciding that stopping isn't their best option) despite the obvious risk of flying steel belt radials on the freeway.
I'm interested in what strategies could be employed to make our roads safer within the bounds of our current transportation infrastructure. 


Recording devices to help drivers obey traffic laws

I recall seeing on a trip to Europe that commercial buses and trucks at that time had a recording device (some use paper disks) which tracks the driver's speed, stops, breaks, sleep and other items relevant to safe vehicle operation.  In any participating country, police can ask to see the record (paper disk), and can fine the driver for any infraction in the last 3 days, regardless of which country the driver was in when they committed the offence.  It is remarkable to observer how obediently the trucks and buses follow the posted speed limit and other regulations.  An environment is created where the rules apply whether there is a police officer in attendance or not, and as the driver of our tour bus explained, the fines imposed by automated systems like red light cameras, follow the license plate and then the driver themselves.

Most trucks I see on the freeway are driving close to the posted speed limits, others (like the dump truck with trailer that passed us doing about  140KM/H) need to be fined out of business and off the road for the safety and reputation of the other "good" drivers.  No I didn't get the license because it was covered in mud. 


Treating Trucks Differently

First of all; Trucks ARE different.  Trucks are;

  • slower to accelerate or climb a hill.  In rush hour traffic, trucks appear to be the rocks in the stream with the cars being the water flowing around them.  

  • more intimidating if they choose to use their size and weight to "force" a lane change where it really shouldn't take place.

  • generally travelling farther than other traffic

  • more likely to throw rocks up at car windshields than other vehicles. (I suspect tire tread and weight is a factor)

  • prone to kick up far more spray (reducing visibility) on wet roads, in rain storms and in loose dry snow

  • big and reduce visibility by blocking the view of vehicles travelling behind them. 

  • heavier, harder to stop and much more deadly if they

  • driven by drivers who typicaly have more training and experience than the rest of us.

I've observed three really useful strategies for "treating trucks differently";

  1. The first strategy I've see involves encouraging trucks to use some roads and cars to use others.  Many cities have signs indicating "truck routes" and other signs indicating that only trucks making local deliveries are allowed on certain streets.  In industrial areas, where corners are wider to allow for the special turning needs of the trucks, cars are the minority.  Because cars and trucks typically don't mix, many of the issues that emerge when they mix are avoided.

  2. The second strategy I observed in Washington, Oregon & California, where they have a lower speed limit for trucks.  The trucks are in the right hand lane (except to pass) abiding by a speed limit which is adequate, but 5-10 miles/hour slower than the cars.  There is something predictable about trucks being on the right while other traffic flows past on the left.  This ensures excellent visibility for the cars because the trucks are not impeding their vision.  

  3. The third strategy I observed was in Germany on statutory holidays like "Fathers Day" when law requires that all transport trucks be off of the roads.  "It is because so many more people are travelling for the holidays was the explanation offered by our bus driver".  Every road side pullout or rest-stop was full of trucks, pennants draped across the front windows, drivers discussing European Football and catching up on sleep.  

[caption id="attachment_476" align="aligncenter" width="300" caption="(flickr credit: austrini)"](flickr credit: austrini)[/caption]

Perhaps those strategies have their place in British Columbia in the Lower Mainland.  I think that our current highways require trucks and cars to use the same roads to go to the same places, so separate routes may not currently be feasible.  While a lower speed limit for trucks might help trucks behave more predictably, I know all too well what happens when one driver gets stuck climbing a hill...  everyone tries to pass, and here there are only two lanes so the problem snowballs and both lanes slow right down.  It won't be a complete solution to our problem.  I think however that the third solution might have merit if it were applied to rush-hour.

A suggested solution for improving rush hour traffic on the #1 highway in the lower-mainland is to create a time when cars can move without having trucks on the road.

In the past 40 years zero lanes have been added to widen the freeway.  Our capacity to move traffic has not grown with the population and the traffic.  Peak load on the freeway (6-8AM and 3-5PM) occurs because people must arrive at work within a limited time-frame.  The absense of truly viable transit or any form of commuter rail in the South Fraser corridor means commuters are in cars. We must reduce the number of vehicles travelling on the freeway during rush "hour".   The transport of many non-perishable goods in many cases is date sensitive and not time sensitive.  Did the lumber arrive at 7PM or 3PM?  It is still usable lumber.  So truck traffic in many cases could be loading and unloading "at the dock" during rush hour, and then hitting the road as the commuters come off of those roads.  If we were to regulate that commercial trucks could not be on the road during those hours, suddenly the "truck/car" dynamics would be gone and the roads would be largely homogenous and less full.  Clearly there is more definition work to be identified.  Where do the in-coming trucks "wait" if they arrive from outside the lower mainland? Chilliwack from the East or South Surrey from the USA?  What trucks if any are exempt.  are the 3ton cube trucks fine, but 18wheelers are out?

This may not be the idea that solves the interaction of commuters and heavy trucks during rush hour in the lower mainland of BC, but we need to do something... maybe several things to make life more reasonable for car and truck alike, in the interests of safety and efficiency.

Thanks for listening.  I'm interested to hear your ideas.