Saturday, November 13, 2010

Google Biking Directions is Very Responsive

With this kind of rapid response to user suggestions I bet Google's "Bike There" routes end up being pretty good in most cities. Google impresses me. I sent them a suggestion and they got back to me within the week saying they would check it out. They then updated Google Maps the next week and sent me the following email. (This was in June 2010, by the way).

Hi Herbie,

Google Maps has been updated to correct the problem you reported. You can see the update here, and if you still see a problem, please tell us more about the issue:  Link to view and/or reopen issue

Report history
Problem ID: A1CC-89C3-E0EF-7B06

Your report:
The directions suggest a route that is much more unsuitable for biking than an alternative route just near the one google suggests. I am not sure if this is out of the scope of your capabilities, but average daily traffic on Olympic (the road suggested) is much, much more than ADT on 9th, which is just North of Olympic. If I were giving bicycling directions I would suggest 9th.
Thanks for your help,
The Google Maps team 

Do folks out there know of other crowdsourced bike route databases? I'm intrigued by the idea, since lots of bicyclists I know choose their routes based on word-of-mouth. The complexity of the route data seems to resist an internet platform: for example, I'll get word that a certain street is good to ride on, except during rush hour; or vice versa - some streets aren't bad to ride on during rush hour because they are so congested; or I'll get word that I should avoid a street at night, etc. Nonetheless, I think crowdsourcing has been both effective and self-reinforcing in Google's case. I've noticed an uptick on Carmelita Ave. (near UCLA, parallel to the much crappier Santa Monica Blvd through Beverly Hills) in particular, and at least one rider told me she learned about the street through Google biking directions. But Google's routes are not openly crowdsourced, they're controlled internally. When I have time I want to learn more about true and open crowdsourced bike route programs and how they perform. Thoughts?

Also, how do folks out there think Google's "Bike There" option is performing in LA? What are places where Google really gets it right? Or wrong?

Hmm... and: Can we tell what Google's routing criteria are based on the routes it suggests? If they have some magic routing algorithm for bicycling I most definitely want to see it. My guess is that it (1) routes on city-designated bike lanes, paths, and routes, whenever possible, and has some tolerance for routing out-of-the-way (i.e. away from the shortest distance path) to get on them. It has some trade off between hilliness and directness built in. It knows major boulevards and avoids them. What else?

Sunday, November 7, 2010

LA Bike Plan: Pretty Unambitious Compared to Tacoma, WA and Des Moines, Iowa

Oh, the rewards of reading all the way to the end of reports without disregarding their appendices and addendums. I just found this fascinating figure in Alta Planning+Design's "Seamless Travel" study. (If you're wondering, the study concerns extensive bike survey and count data collected in San Diego County, and efforts to model bicycling and walking demand based on the data). Anyway, the figure:

(You have to click to enlarge because I couldn't get a large version to display properly with the way the blog is formatted. Source is here, final report, p. AD-1).

It's painful to hear the depressing story this figure tells about where Los Angeles is and where it is going. First of all we are second to Des Moines, Iowa (?) in our ratio of bikeways to roads. And - wow - our ratio is three times smaller than San Diego's, and San Diego is not what I would consider a bike-topia.  Worst of all, of the six cities in the figure, Los Angeles has the lowest aspirations of any of them. Our planned bikeway mileage is only 9% of our total roadway mileage.

I'm not sure where the 655 mile number comes from, though I'm sure Joe Linton could answer that question immediately. As most people know, Alta Planning+Design wrote the first drafts of the LA Bike Plan, so it's possible the researchers who wrote this study just called up the Alta staff in the LA Office and asked them for a number.

In any case, the LA Planning Department has now taken over the Bike Plan and they are now touting a new number: 1,633. This number is HUGE on the cover of the Bike Plan, and the implicit message is that 1,633 is a great aspiration, one that sums up the plan's commitment to making Los Angeles a more bikeable city. Now even if we put aside the many ways in which this number inflates the Bike Plan's actual commitments, i.e. the long story regarding how many of the miles are "proposed/infeasible/whatever" and may or may not require an EIR, even if we put all that aside, this six-city comparison illustrates that the 1,633 isn't all that ambitious. If we were to update this figure to replace 655 with 1,633, we'd get a 23% roadway coverage goal, which is still lower than Portland's. But that would be inaccurate and misleading since the 1,633 includes bike paths and routes, and those aren't included in this comparison. The true coverage calculation should only include bike lanes and bike boulevards. I'll exclude the "potential/infeasible/future study" bike lanes since the plan offers up excuse after excuse not to do them. This gives 66 miles of planned bike lanes and 642 miles of bike boulevards (specious! but I'll go with it). This total 708 miles of planned on-street bikeway network corresponds to a proposed completion factor of just under 10%. Even if we include the "speculative" bike lanes we only get a coverage of 16.8%.

Let me say that plainly. Even if the new Bike Plan is passed and we consider all the Bike Boulevards and Bike Lanes as legitimate planned mileage (which no one who has been watching the planning process closely would ever do), LA has set lower bikeway mileage goals than Des Moines, Iowa or Tacoma, Washington.

Now, to be fair, I have no idea what the Bike Plans in any of these other cities look like. For all I know their Bike Plans are also filled with speculative and "infeasible" mileage. We also don't know how LA would compare in a longer list of cities.

Anyway, I think this is a thought provoking figure. I would like to see a more extensive version of this figure, comparing roadway coverage in lots of cities. How do San Francisco, Boulder, New York, or Chicago measure up in terms of proposed completion factor? This is a nice metric.

I hypothesize that the year in which the city's Bike Plan was updated would be a significant factor determining the size of a city's ratio of proposed bikeways to roads. Bike Plans seem to have gotten more and more ambitious in recent history.

Still, perhaps all the back-and-forth over the categories of bike lane mileage has obscured the larger point that relative to other cities, this plan designates a very low percentage of the roads in Los Angeles as planned bikeways.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

LA Bike Plan: Hearing before the Planning Commission

[wow, I haven't posted here in a long time. There is so much to say about Canada and school and my new home in Angelino Heights but I've just been too sleep-deprived to say it. I'm passing on some comments I'll be making to the city, which I already made the effort to type up, in this post.]

The LA Bike Plan goes up before the Planning Commission tomorrow, and I'm writing to post what I plan on saying to the Commissioners. Some people want to fail the plan. I am not really on board with this. I got into a long back-and-forth with Joe Linton over the details, but what it really comes down to is my lack of faith in the power of Plans to solve bicyclists' problems. Like Joe himself said on Streetsblog today, I believe that most of what gets done or not done is a matter of politics and organizing, not plans. Plans aren't laws. They aren't enforceable. If cities want to totally ignore them, as far as I understand, they can. The accountability processes for planning are thus indirect and weak. If you don't like the content of a given plan or its execution, your recourse is to complain to elected officials who are actually accountable to the public. Otherwise, cities can disregard plans all they want.

I say this because a lot of the criticism of the LA Bike Plan has been about how it is "The Plan with no Teeth" and how there are a lot of lines on it but nobody believes they will actually become real bike facilities. Based on what I said above, I don't think that is surprising. No plan really has teeth. As a consequence I've shifted my thinking away from the notion that this Plan should address all the problems that bicyclists can face in LA. After three years of adding routes and tweaking policies and increasing the specificity of the plan, I now want to pass it and get on with the business of building quality bike infrastructure. We can use the specifics in the Plan to hold agencies accountable, and if that is not strong enough, we can use laws and elections, which are stronger than plans. I think this planning process has been a drain on advocates' energy and time and I want it to end. I think our time would be better spent using the political process, elections, and laws.

All that said, I am nonetheless joining forces with other advocates in demanding some answers and revisions to the Plan. For what I hope is the last time. I want to share these here.

------What I plan on saying tomorrow. Hope it will fit in the time limit!---------------

Hello. I’m Herbie, I’m an LACBC member. I live in Angelino Heights. I co-founded the UCLA Bike Coalition which submitted extensive comments on this Bike Plan almost a year ago. I’ve come here to ask some questions that get at the underlying problems that have plagued this plan.

I am saddened that I have to ask these questions because there is a lot in this plan that is good. The web of bikeways criss-crossing the city on the maps - that is good. The idea of bicycle-friendly streets with very little car traffic that novices can feel safe on - that is good. So many of the policies are good, and there are pages and pages of them. I especially support revising the mitigation requirements for development so that trip mitigation funds can fund bikeways instead of road widening (p. 81 of ch. 4). [editor’s note: It’s a reform I’ve called for ever since I heard about how much mitigation money NBC Universal would have to shell out to widen freeways and arterials. It’s nonsense to use “trip generation” formulas that assume a certain percentage of people will drive with no recognition of how infrastructure influences those decisions. People and development don't create the need for road widening. Departments of Transportation do.]

But there are disturbing questions that remain and that undercut bicyclists’ faith in this plan. I come here to ask these questions in earnest and I hope that Planning will answer them immediately at this hearing.

(1) Why is it so important to segregate the bike lane mileage into categories? What is at stake in making this distinction? Clearly, someone in the city cares about this, but who, and why? The Plan has preserved these categories after two years of bicyclists rejecting them. In each revision, the categories are tweaked to hide them further away in ever more opaque language. Planning needs to explain why preserving these categories is more important than responding to bicyclists’ repeated feedback.

(2) Another question for Claire. Can you clarify whether the Plan recommends EIRs for all of the “potential”/”infeasible” lanes? The language in the plan is unclear. The Plan’s MND says that “bicycle lanes currently identified as potential will require additional analysis (particularly impacts on traffic) pursuant to CEQA” (24). Since many people in this room suspect that Alta’s initial analysis showed that many of the lanes in those categories could actually be done Today without any CEQA review, bicyclists will not accept those lanes being written off as second-rate “potential” lanes. The truth is that these lanes could be striped today with no studies, so why is the Plan giving the impression that they somehow need to be studied? They were already studied in the beginning of this process by Alta and they were found to be immediately possible.

(3) Finally, where are the technical analysis documents from Alta? Bicyclists have filed Freedom of Information Act requests for these documents and we have not been shown them. It is unacceptable for an agency that serves the public interest to withhold information from the public. These technical analyses are neither confidential nor sensitive; they simply describe the car traffic volume and road widths on a given street and then calculate the feasibility of putting bike lanes on that street. This document is sitting in one of your (Planning’s) desks right now and you need to come forward with it. Withholding a technical document from the public is a scandal when your agency exists to serve the public good. 

If these three questions can be answered, and if bicyclists’ concerns about incorporating equity measures and adequately defining bicycle boulevards can be met, then I can wholeheartedly support this plan. 

I hope Claire (Bowin) and Jane (Choi) answer these questions immediately so that all of us can celebrate the really good parts of the plan, which are the many miles of planned bikeways, the pro-bike policies and the detailed five-year implementation schedule. Planning has worked with advocates on many of these items. I want to see that work move forward.

I think I speak for many bicyclists when I say that we are looking forward to keeping the city on track with that implementation schedule and seeing a really different biking environment in Los Angeles within the next five years.