Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Broken Promise on Mercer

Everyone hates the Mercer project. Activists campaigning for district-based city council elections attacked it as a symptom of the at-large council's downtown-centrism. Meanwhile, everyone hates an enormous parking-lot of a road, no matter how they're trying to travel along or across it. And it's an expensive parking-lot of a road -- no matter how much money we spend, “Mercer” will still be a code word for bad traffic, and we're spending a lot of money on it.

Complete streets rules, however, require that projects like this take into account bike and pedestrian access. Since bike and pedestrian routes across Aurora in the vicinity of Mercer and Broad were so horrible before the project started, almost anything would count as an improvement. So there's some promise at least. The removal of the worst parts of Broad Street and an Aurora underpass with sidewalks that are more than an afterthought will be great improvements when they're finished. And what's the plan for biking through east-west in the corridor? Instead of trying to build a cycletrack along the expanse of Mercer, plans called for a route mostly along Roy. OK, so it'll use a cycletrack along the expanse of Mercer for a couple blocks to get under Aurora, and east of there Roy will turn into Broad for a block and then Valley as it runs south of Lake Union Park, for reasons that I'd describe mostly as historical -- anyway, I'm going to call it the Roy route for the rest of this post.

The Roy route looked pretty good in the plans' overhead views. Not a centerpiece of our AAA (All Ages and Abilities) bike network, perhaps not always a ride full of delights, but a reasonably direct and safe way to get from A to B. In fact, by these standards, the lines drawn on the ground today are already pretty good. The temporary version of the Aurora underpass path is a little tight, and on the wrong side of Mercer for people riding through, but considering that it's an active construction zone, it's not so bad.

So what's the problem? Two things, and without fixing them the Roy route just won't live up to its potential to sew up the fragmented neighborhoods all the way from Fred Hutch to Lower Kinnear.

  • Signal timings. Too many of the signal cycles, particularly at 9th Ave N and Westlake, are way, way too long. Maybe, maybe, this can be justified during peak hours as a way to maximize vehicle throughput on Westlake. Personally I don't think any possible throughput that could be gained extending cycle lengths from kinda long to extremely long is worth delaying the bike route or pedestrian access to the park and bus stops... especially because the peak-hour queue for Mercer often extends past Valley. I think prioritizing pedestrian, bike, and transit access over vehicle throughput aligns with the city's stated policies. But even if SDOT disagrees about the relative value of peak-hour vehicle throughput, there is no possible justification for these cycle lengths off-peak, when there just isn't much traffic trying to use Westlake at all. If Seattle wants to develop a jaywalking culture, this is how it will develop a jaywalking culture.
  • Construction closures. There's a lot of construction coming to this corridor in the next generation or so, especially east of Aurora. If the Roy route is going to fulfill the promise of a pedestrian/bike route in the Mercer corridor, it must be continuously open, both ways, all the time. Currently construction on a building has closed the route eastbound for a single block between Westlake and 9th (it hasn't just closed the bike lane, it's actually closed the street to eastbound traffic generally). There's not really a great detour route, and the lousy one that exists (taking Dexter north to Aloha, crossing Westlake at the north crosswalk after a stupefying wait, and taking one of the various paths through the park) isn't indicated. The closure of sidewalks and crosswalks has had typical effects also, especially at intersections with long signal cycles and especially near bus stops. Making the Roy route one-way for a block is, for people biking, just like making Mercer one-way for a block would be for people driving, and the city needs to start thinking about it that way when it issues construction permits.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Seattle BMP Implementation plan!

So, now, a clearer look at what the Bike Master Plan's lines on a map will actually mean for the next five years. Here are the big takeaways for me:
  • It's weak in West Seattle. This isn't all that surprising, as the BMP has always been weak in West Seattle, but this plan throws it in relief. The two greenway routes in the eastern residential neighborhoods are great, but there's little help in here for access to businesses in Alaska and Admiral Junctions, and little help for getting between the junctions (and adjacent hilltop neighborhoods) and low-lying destinations (primarily the bridge and Alki). These connections are menaced by a junction without a name, the junction of Fauntleroy, Admiral, and the high bridge, and that doesn't look to change.
  • It's not totally clear that a plan has cured SDOT of opportunistic bike planning. Opportunism is a problem when it becomes a game of, "We'll build bike access where there's room," rather than, "We'll build bike access where we need it." Nothing in this implementation plan looks like the great routes needed between the U District and three key destinations to the south: downtown, Capitol Hill, and the Central District. There's growth coming to Northgate and Alaska Junction and still these are places the bike network goes to die. And we've continued to allow retail, entertainment, and even residential incursion into industrial areas like SODO and Interbay while transportation planning remains exclusively freight-oriented.
  • Paging Mr. Newmark, we'll have some missed connections. Northeast Seattle is probably the worst. The recent NE 75th St bike lanes stopped just short of Roosevelt to the west and 39th to the east, and will stay that way. New lanes on 130th make it to the Interurban but stop at I-5, a few blocks short of both Roosevelt and lanes on 125th. The 68th St greenway will end into nothing at both ends, even though it's just a few blocks from other routes. Elsewhere, the plan for existing ROW on 6th and Airport to extend a good bike route south from the end of the SODO trail is fine, but what happens in the east-west jogs? In particular, the jog on Spokane from 6th to Airport? There isn't a lot of room among the highway ramps... and this is a route filling one of the biggest gaps in our cycling network, so it's one we really should get right.

    EDIT: There are a few things to be happy about regarding connections. The plan includes work on N 34th and Fremont Ave in Fremont, an opportunity to fix some of the awkward turning situations at 34th/Fremont and 34th/Stone, to patch a short gap in the Interurban Route, and to improve wayfinding between the Interurban Route and the Burke (or even to suggest alternate Interurban Route connections for people that find Fremont Ave too steep).

  • Neighborhood greenways will prove their worth in SE and Central Seattle. What's awesome about the plans to blanket these parts of town with greenways is how easily they connect together, at simple side-street intersections, while separated arterial routes require more complex connections.
  • Don't sleep on the suburbs. During BMP discussions some people expressed concerns about planned routes near the edges of the city, especially the southern edge near Boeing Field -- "Will these routes be useful if they drop off at the city limits?" Yesterday I saw some new bike lanes out the window of the train on the way home from mountain biking and went down to check 'em out this morning. Tukwila has recently built a half-decent bike route using East Marginal Way, parts of Boeing Access Road and its ramps, and Airport Way, and they're waiting for that connection from Seattle that, by this plan, won't be complete until after 2019. It turns out Tukwila's lanes really lose a lot of their usefulness because the connection north into Seattle is so bad. The ball is really in Seattle's court when it comes to connecting to several neighboring cities, especially to the south, where routes are affected by the SODO gap as well as gaps closer to the borders.

Monday, April 7, 2014

A more interesting anti-Pono screed

Yeah, I'm talking about Pono, the silly $400 audiophile music player that makes the typical silly audiophile claims about why it's better. I could write a typical anti-audiophile screed and denounce their marketing copy as pseudoscience. I already did this on a G+ post and feel sort of silly about that, not because what I wrote wasn't true but because it wasn't very interesting. I have much more interesting things to say about the Pono than, Your claims are silly and you should feel silly!. Here they are:

  • Pono might actually sound better than your phone. But less due to the expensive hardware in the Pono than the expensive hardware in your phone. The worst audio fidelity problems encountered in the real world are much more prosaic than those Pono talks about in its ad copy. One of my old computers, the dearly departed talkingcookie, suffered from noisy interference in audio I/O during hard drive, mouse, and keyboard activity. This sort of thing is caused by simple board layout and shielding problems that could just as easily occur on a phone. If I had to guess, though, iPhones have probably never had this problem.
  • Pono is Prius-shaped. Some people have commented on Pono's weird triangle shape, speculating that it wouldn't fit well in your pocket. They weren't buying one anyway. Driving a Pontiac Aztek sets you apart as someone that bought an ugly car. Driving a Toyota Prius sets you apart as someone that bought a green car, at least to people soft-headed enough to think the environmental difference between a Prius and a typical car is anything but incremental --- fortunately for Toyota Americans are notoriously soft-headed about cars. To those that are soft-headed about audio fidelity the Pono's wacky shape sets them apart as discerning, and fortunately for Pono Americans are notoriously soft-headed about music.
  • Pono isn't straight-up elitism, but it's sideways elitism. Neil Young said something about wanting to take the experience of listening to music back to his beloved 1970s. In the 1970s the parts of the audio chain the Pono represents really made a difference. They were the quality and condition of the vinyl disc and of your turntable. Today the other parts of the audio chain vary as much as ever: the mixing and mastering of the music on one end, and on the other the amplifiers, speakers or headphones, and listening environments. But the fidelity of the record from the master copy to the DAC is solid for everyone. This must gall the elitist, who subconsciously sees ubiquitous access to high-fidelity audio as desacralizing it somehow. If there's a case to be made that recorded audio quality is worse today, it's about the loudness war, and how the listening environments of loud cars, buses, and trains have contributed to it. Of course the Pono doesn't try to elevate the living room as the preferred environment to entice tomorrow's engineers to master for nice, quiet spaces. It instead promises flat frequency response (hmmmmmm...) no matter what kind of lousy headphones you're using (their ad copy elsewhere dares to utter the word earbuds, so... hmmmmmmmmmmm...) by virtue of its... low output impedance? Well, I said I wasn't going to harp on the pseudoscience, so...


(EDIT: formatting derps)

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Do you believe in conspiracies?

So there's a poll about conspiracy theories that is asked of Americans, by Public Policy Polling, with at least the veneer of procedural propriety. Among the questions: was the moon landing faked, is global warming a hoax, is Obama the damn Antichrist, and... “Do you believe the Bush administration intentionally misled the public about the possibility of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to promote the Iraq War, or not?”

We-e-e-e-lllllllll... one of these things is not like the other, right?

How do I answer this question? Am I a lefty conspiracy nut or a sane moderate adult? Was I a lefty conspiracy nut in college (when this all went down, for me), and a sane moderate adult now that I'm almost 30 (WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT WAT)? Was Bush involved in some sort of plot that led people off to die just to enrich its profiteering members pockets? Probably not. But I think something happened sort of like what happened with the (currently stuck) Deep Bore Tunnel in Seattle.

Tunnel supporters (oh, geez, here Al goes on another tunnel rant) decided they wanted a deep-bore tunnel built before they set out to make a case for it. They knew the existing viaduct wasn't seismically sound and needed to be replaced. They knew it couldn't be rebuilt in similar form because it wouldn't meet building codes or highway design standards. These are near-indisputable facts, and no amount of future-nostalgia for the viaduct will make them go away. They believed they needed a full limited-access freeway in that corridor; that's an opinion I disagree with (at the very least, I think it's a bad assumption to go in with), and I think it's really the crux of the matter. All the rest of the questions flow forth from there. They believed a surface-level freeway or a cut-and-cover tunnel would be too temporarily disruptive to public waterfront access and existing businesses; these are widely popular opinions and I agree with both. At that point, the only option is to build a tunnel, and the task ahead is to sell it.

The way they sold the tunnel is through studies. Good leaders involved in a sound decision making process would have started the study by determining goals and needs. This process would have identified many important needs that really will be met well by the planned work in the Highway 99 corridor: providing vehicular access to the Port of Seattle and industrial district from the city at large, reconnecting the local street network across the highway between Lower Queen Anne and rapidly-growing South Lake Union (the tunnel wasn't necessary for this, but it's kinda part of the plan), providing a legible route for Highway 99. It also would have identified needs our plan doesn't readily meet: ensuring fast, reliable, and direct mass transit access between downtown Seattle and southern and western corners of the city, maintaining the pedestrian network of Pioneer Square, managing surface traffic in downtown and SODO, providing a bypass of downtown Seattle congestion for long-haul traffic in the corridor that actually carries such traffic (I-5, the reasons for which could fill a whole blog post), addressing all our environmental goals, and being fiscally responsible. Phew, that's a lot of stuff the tunnel sucks at — and I only really disagree with supporters on one thing!

But the studies weren't designed to find how to meet our needs, they were designed to sell a freeway. The metric placed above all others was vehicular travel time between Green Lake and the Port of Seattle, a race designed to be won by a freeway tunnel with few exits between these points and none between Mercer and Yesler. The necessity of a pure limited-access freeway seemed self-evident without examination to most people, and was never effectively challenged. Studies and arguments showing that a non-freeway alternative met our full slate of needs better than the tunnel, for less money, were dismissed without official acknowledgement, in ways that stifled discussion. Cascadia prides itself on open government, but what we saw was a farce of that: advisory votes on confusing measures without any real discussion of what we needed and why. I don't think that's a nefarious conspiracy, but it's bad leadership and bad decision making that ultimately misled all of us, public and leaders alike.

Similarly, the Bush administration determined it wanted to invade Iraq before building a justification based on WMD. It had a number of reasons it wanted to go, but the WMD case was considered likely to gain support in the media, so the administration assembled what evidence it could find (including the erratic and evasive behavior of Hussein's regime when pressed) and presented it widely. It wasn't a back-room conspiracy; it was put together by people whose various earnest reasons for wanting to replace Saddam Hussein were no secret. The public case was disingenuous and held together by wishful thinking. I'd say wishful thinking for a war is pretty perverse on the face of it, but if you believed in the rest of the case for invasion (as many Americans did and continue to do) you'd continue to support it (as many Americans did and continue to do).

So when the WMD evidence turned out flimsy this didn't change the opinion of many on the war (though the experience of being a country at war did, which could fill another blog post... by someone else). In Seattle, when new traffic and tolling revenue projections showed the tunnel in a worse light, this didn't change a lot of people's views on it. WMDs were never really the leaders' reason for war, why should they determine the people's acceptance of it? Because the media ran with that narrative and wanted to hold the administration's feet to the fire? Even that didn't matter much; people that opposed the war all along simply had a loud new ally, and people that supported it got to exercise their well-earned skepticism at the media. In this age of polarization few were left in the middle aside from that very media, trying desperately to hold together a common narrative, being duped badly, acting as stupid as it looked (that could fill another blog post).

Back on topic... I don't think that's a nefarious conspiracy, but it's bad leadership and bad decision making that ultimately misled all of us, public and leaders alike. Do I believe the Bush administration intentionally misled us? To Public Policy Polling, as I read the question, you can put me in with those that believe in the New World Order and Reptilians: a true conspiracy believer. And not as crazy as all that, either.