Archive for September, 2010

Who’s Overprotected? Street Conviviality


I sent a letter to the editor yesterday urging some new measures to improve pedestrian/cyclist/scooterist safety.  The occasion?  In one night, last Friday, three local people, one from each category, were killed when hit by a motorist.  And worst of all, all three motorists fled the scene, leaving the victims either laying in the roadway to be run over again, or laying off the road badly needing, but not getting, emergency assistance.  Two of the motorists were apprehended, due to great public diligence, and the third was known but was on the lam.

I made the point in that letter that the MADD approach — having the courts and police crack down a lot more — is already in place.  Cut, at least in the case of alcoholics, doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.  There are a lot of other driver infractions, less serious, that are also not being deterred by enforcement, primarily because 90% of police involvement is either after the collision, or in very contrived speed-traps, which must be away from truly urban driving conditions (intersections, pedestrians, merging driveways).

My suggestion was to get government to require all motor vehicles to have a device installed that would a) require the driver to identify him or herself (so those barred from driving would be stopped before getting the engine going), b) subject the driver to some kind of sobriety test, and c) track the driver through a GPS that would automatically detect infractions that would be subject to automatic fees (vs. fines that are much higher and subject to expensive due-process proceedings).  Such tracking would also move transportation planning from the medieval age of guess-work to one based on actual driver behaviour/demand.

I got to thinking, this morning, that there is another culprit: vehicle speed and design.  Because of private ownership of vehicles, in which each driver (pretty much) has his own vehicle, that vehicle has to be used for all kinds of trips, requiring this once-every-four-years-or-so purchase to meet an impossible list of varied trip requirements.  The result is a vehicle that is too large, fast, and ‘amenitied’ for the typical trip, but will meet each trip.  It’s like siting a new cottage: does it go just above the average water level, above the high-water mark for the previous year, or the high-water mark for the past 100 years?  Right.  It, like the car one buys, has to meet the most demanding conditions over its life (yes, the life of the car, not its period of ownership for the buyer, thanks to resale concerns).

So how does this get into overprotection?  Very simple.  Just as the car owner gets his car to have the qualities for all his thousands of different trips and ‘runs’ over a long period of time, so does the government get the occupants to benefit from supposedly high safety requirements.   The result is cars that protect passengers in a crash at highway speeds (a lot slower than the car, ironically, is capable of traveling).  This shell of metal and plastic might crumple strategically in a highway collision with another car of the same weight, but it is insufficient at both extremes: not enough if the other vehicle is either larger or going much faster, and overly rigid in a collision with something smaller and more delicate, like a human body, even at lower speeds legal in cities.

In other words, the car you and I drive is a threat to the people in built-up areas it shares the road with.  The driver is overprotected.  The result?  Those who travel in the presence of these cars have to counter the car’s overprotection with their own: either they avoid using such ‘vulnerable’ modes of travel, they change their routes to favour streets with little traffic, or their time of travel to avoid the worst traffic conditions.  Or if they are under the care of others, they will have their freedom of movement infringed.  The result is that the elderly are either housebound, or driving after the age when their driving skills are iffy.  And kids today, most agree, are overprotected.  They are kept indoors and are not even allowed to play in the front yard.  It is so bad that, if a child is struck, the parents rather than the driver is the object of public disdain.  Kids are getting not only obese but also not on good terms with the natural world, human and otherwise, as they move about only strapped into a car or in the tight grasp of an adult.

This calls for a world where cars are as shared as the roads, thanks to government licensing of carsharing organizations with vehicles that already have the driver-accountability devices installed and have a range of vehicles to better fit the variety of trip needs.  Such a scheme would create ideal conditions: city vehicles that are small, slow, and soft on the outside, as well as the inside; and drivers whose every move is recorded.  And with much more use of cars for ridesharing — thanks to both the car-tracking capability and much higher road/CO2/congestion fees that are coming — each driver will have several ‘back-seat drivers.’

The car isn’t the problem; our binding of each car to a particular driver is.   It produces too many cars, too frequent use of cars for trips short enough for walking or bicycle, too fast driving (speed gives cars their value), drivers who are accountable, and streets that are not convivial or conform to the city-purpose: “commerce without commotion.”


Emotions and Transit Technology


Jarrett Walker’s Human Transit blog ( has a defense of his position of BRT (bus rapid transit) and light-rail as competing technologies.  The critic suggested he was biased towards the first, because he doesn’t given enough weight to the superior ride of the latter, which he feels is outweighed by the flexibility of the former.  He then goes on to say that comfort is an ’emotional’ factor.

The criticism comes from ‘Carl’ of Seattle, a city which takes its transit serious, with a downtown tunnel and buses that switch between electric and diesel power as a result (to avoid trapped fumes underground).  Ottawa is about to get the tunnel, along with a revamping/expansion of its rail service (now diesel powered) to replace the BRT along part of its oldest sections.

Ottawa experienced the ’emotions’ of a debate over transit technology in 2006, during the most recent municipal elections (we are now in the middle of the succeeding one).  In that election, with coaching from the neophyte who beat the incumbent mayor, voters from the west and east ganged up on the south in a proposed plan to improve the current south-serving prototype  light-rail and giving it equal space on the surface in downtown (it now stops outside downtown).

The emotional part was two fold: 1) like Walker says, it is about ride comfort.  But I contend it was also about resentment.  The West, which is generally considered to be the best part of town (except downtown), was being ‘dissed’ by council for promising light-rail to the South before the West.  The West has more population along with its higher housing prices (and thus pays higher property taxes).  The latter recruited votes in the East to feel resentful too.

As to ride comfort, I agree.  But calling it an emotional factor is probably going to just evoke more resentment.  Walker’s ‘human transit’ title suggests that he gives more credence than most transit planners to certain intangibles.   Being bumped incessantly on buses traveling well beyond their ideal speed of 40 km/h is hard on the body (including the buses themselves), if you are standing or if you are a little older or are ferrying younger children.  Rail cars are descended from inter-urban travel technology and are sprung for faster speeds, in addition to their more integrated rolling surface (as a kid with a Canadian Pacific Railway father, we vacationed by rail, and I didn’t like the regular clicking of the rail joints).

Comfort is also one of gentle and gradual acceleration and braking, which again rail does better, especially now that buses are getting better brakes and acceleration to help speed service to cash-squeezed transit authorities.  The older riders and straphangers also appreciate the difference.

Finally, comfort is also about the width and presence of stairs at stops.  Got luggage or a laptop or a stroller?  You will like rail’s level platforms and wider entrances.

Since modeling, which Walker says he doesn’t do much, is about predicting human behaviour, it is important not to dismiss comfort so lightly, but to mix it with other factors, such as ‘transfer friction’ to get results that are true to what people do (which is based on their beliefs as well as current conditions).  People treat comfort as important; thus it has to be modeled.

Only when it isn’t given its due will the real emotion come out: resentment.  People don’t want to treated as cattle or as people who count only money, time, and exertion.  And when improvements are introduced, they don’t want to be ignored.  So many are ‘choice’ patrons, having a car sitting idle at home; and many who are ‘captive’ have real ailments that require a gentle ride.  The latter also can make quite a fuss, which will certainly show up in election results.

Michael Douglas and Me


Michael Douglas is facing the fight of his life.  It is in the form of a cancerous tumour at the base of his tongue.  He has been open about what it all means.

A doctor found a very similar tumour on my tongue seven years ago, almost to the day.  I survived, but it was somewhat of an ordeal. BTW, Douglas and I were born just four months apart in 1944.

Our bodies are our most intimate part of our hearths.  And keeping it healthy isn’t at all a new idea.  (My mother was a health educator.)  Douglas admits he drank and smoked, and assumes these practices caused his tumour.  In my case, I didn’t smoke and was a moderate drinker.  Of course these factors don’t control one’s fate; but they do influence it.  For instance, my father and his mother died of cancers (different ones), and two of my brothers have been diagnosed, also with different cancers: one beat skin cancer before mine came along, and the other has just had his prostate removed in his fight that began less that a year ago.  Family history is an important ‘pointer.’  I don’t know Douglas’s.

The only other difference is that my cancer was Stage III, while his is Stage IV, which means that besides advanced growth of his tumour, there are signs that the cancer has spread, probably to lymph nodes.  While I fought mine in Canada with our complete public health system, Douglas is in the US, which allows the rich to get far better care than the poor.  That might make our odds just about the same (my doctors gave me a lower, 70% chance of success).

I, too, had gone to my doctor earlier with symptoms, only to be assured that there was no problem.  The first was in April 2002, with a sense that my voice was changing, probably the result of stress related to a late night in a bar shouting to a group of people against competition from the sound system.  Then 13 months later, I had two consecutive mornings when I awoke with my mouth full of blood, which I had been ingesting during my sleep.  The first day, I was sent home with my fingers crossed; the second day, they ambulanced me to another hospital to have a bronch0scopy, as they thought something was happening with my lungs (this, after they quarantined me for tuberculosis, until tests eliminated that).   I stayed there for five days, being released with a sore throat that never went away, departing with a diagnosis of ‘bronchiectasis’ (sp?) which was an error they didn’t correct later in the summer, just after my third attempt for an answer proved successful, after my Calgary daughter said my voice was changing even more.

I would tell MS, if I could get through his ‘filters’ (which all successful people must have), that it was not too rough.  I had chemo and radiation every day for seven consecutive weeks, while he is taking some weeks off.  I did feel fatigued, but that showed up only with my slightly earlier bed time; I still went to work and did my chores and other things.

My appetite went south, as the opening in the throat closes down from radiation ‘burn,’ and I helped myself by switching to liquid ‘meals.’  I perhaps didn’t compensate enough, and still lost about 20 pounds (apparently less than most), half of which I gained back soon after treatments concluded.

There are some permanent downsides: I lost my ability to grow a beard in parts of my face (I now have a goatee).  One of the most memorable parts of the routine that preceded my treatment was the direction from a nurse to take a safety razor and shaving foam she was handing me and go into the toilet and shave off my beard just before I was to be fitted for a ‘mask’ that would be used to lockdown my head during each radiation treatment to ensure it was lined up right for the incoming electrons.  I had quite a struggle shaving off longish beard hair with that device.  They should have also provided an electric hair trimmer to shorten it all to a stubble, first.

The other permanent problem is the loss of 95 per cent of my saliva production.  That necessitated me getting preventative dental treatment (to bring all maintenance items up to snuff) and be outfitted with a ‘tray’ for flouride for my teeth.  This end-of-day ritual is with me still, as I have to compensate for the preventative benefits of saliva in my dental hygiene.

The daily chemo injections, while they didn’t last much beyond a half hour, did play havoc with the veins in my hand each day.  Even switching to a single lead for each week brought its own problems.  On top of this, you needed to have blood tests twice a week, so they could monitor how bad I was being hit, and whether I needed other help.  I did well, getting only a couple warnings to lay off bananas for a few days, as my potassium levels were high.

As I visited regularly with my doctors after the treatment ended (just before Christmas 2003) over the following months and years, I entered their office more than a little apprehensive.  I would have a few symptoms that I was worried about (but only once so much to insist on an extra such session).  It was with great relief that I got a ‘cure’ pronouncement in 2008.

Along with an unrelated matter of chronic pancreatitis, which, along with accompanying type-2 diabetes, has suppressed my weight, too, I am a fit 175 lbs on my 6-foot-2 frame, rather than the 215 lbs I carried for most of my adult life.  I am a bit of a health and fitness ‘nut,’ as I watch diet and use my legs for almost all transportation (thanks in part to our decision 16 years ago to sell our car).

I have not really shared much of my ordeal before, and that is part of why I am doing it now: it is not a common form of cancer.  I was asked in an initial-visit questionnaire whether I wanted to meet with other patients of mouth-and-neck cancers, and I said yes.  But I heard nothing.  When I asked one of the social workers, I was told that there were not any others in treatment who wanted to be part of such a group.

I am using my blog to share my story, rather than try to get my thoughts to personally to Michael Douglas.  That means it will be ‘out there’ for other people to get my experiences, and maybe to post their own experiences here.  Perhaps Douglas will help by using his considerable celebrity power to draw more attention to this form of cancer.

The mouth and throat are so important, as the means for not just our air, water, and food sustenance to reach the body (and to keep the three somewhat separated), but as our primary means of communications.  I was told that I didn’t really want to think about the third treatment — surgery — since it would, in my case, mean the loss of my tongue and my voicebox.  That probably is what MD is also facing.  Although my keyboarding skills are getting close to awesome, I would dearly miss hearing my own voice.