Monday, 24 November 2008

Book cover

How exciting! I just got the cover proof for my first textbook, Research with People. This is an introduction to designing and carrying out human research. It aims to cover every discipline which involves human study - psychology, medicine, economics, etc. etc. - highlighting the common themes which run across them all. Clearly you'll need several copies.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

First Watch: 2008

I have a long-standing beef with First Group, and the government that gives them a licence to print money. I've just had a look at their latest annual report and was unsurprised to see that their rail profits have risen yet again, to £120 million pounds from £108 million last year. And I have to stress that this is profit, not turnover.

The thing is, this is the second year in a row in which the government has allowed First to issue fare increases greatly above inflation. Who are you working for, government? I mean, really?

Friday, 3 October 2008

A (red) herring in the shower

A few days ago I was asked by Tom Vanderbilt, author of the very readable and interesting book Traffic, to write a piece for his blog summarizing my thoughts on bicycle helmets (thanks, Tom).

Karl McCracken has written some interesting words on the subject as well today. The thing I'd like to pick out of his post is the issue of showers. Like Karl, I have again and again heard people say "Oh, I'd love to cycle to work but we don't have any showers so I can't." Let's have a little look at this, shall we?

When I was doing work on how drivers overtake bicycles, I needed somewhere in Bristol to store my bicycle between testing sessions. I called Sustrans and asked them if they had somewhere I could keep my bike. "Yes, we'll find somewhere," they said. "Just turn up."

When I arrived, where do you think was the one place in the building - a building where everybody cycles to work - that was unused? The shower. And sure enough, that's where the bike was stowed.

Item 2. Last year I attended a meeting at the CTC's headquarters in Guildford. Again, this was a building where everybody cycles to work each day. I saw their shower, and I don't think it had ever been used once.

I think we can learn something from this. Here are two buildings in which the whole staff cycle in every day, and in neither is the shower used. It is clear that showers are a red herring. Like bad weather, they seem a huge concern to people who do not cycle but, after only a little experience, everybody realises it is just not the issue they thought.

So heed my words, people! Of course you'll be a little sweaty the first couple of times you cycle to work because you're not fit! Give it a fortnight and it will no longer be an issue. My workplace is on top of a mountain and I've never showered after getting there. If I have been a little sweaty, simply rubbing it off whilst it's still wet is all that's needed to avoid any smell. And cyclists: spread the word. We need to fight this barrier by showing people that it's just a non-issue if they will only try.

Or could it be that people know showers aren't really an issue, and use a lack of showers in their workplace as a way of justifying a no-longer-acceptable preference for driving? Oooh, what a cynical thought.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Res ipsa loquitur

I'm not the most classically educated person on the planet. Indeed, my school only really taught football. But I had to chuckle when I saw the following on a review of an iPhone game on Apple's App Store:

I don't get it - at the time of writing this, there are 3 top-rating reviews, but the app has ZERO downloads. This is not the only app with such a dubious rating profile, so as always "carpe dium" - buyer beware!

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

What's changed, behaviour - or the willingness to talk about it?

The University of Bath, who graciously stick a few quid into my bank account each month, have just completed a large survey of how people get to the campus. The headline finding is that between 2002 and 2008 the proportion of staff driving to the university has dropped from 69% to 58% and the proportion of students driving has dropped from 29% to 12%. Proportions of people catching buses, walking and cycling have gone up.

So does this represent a dramatic shift in behaviour? I hope it does, and that's certainly how the university will perceive it. But this is a campus whose many and massive car parks are groaning, despite being greatly expanded in area since 2002, and where the buses do not appear any more full or numerous than they did 6 years ago. This all leads me to suggest an alternative interpretation for these findings: people who drive are no longer as willing to discuss it as they were in 2002.

If you regularly do something 'wrong', would you take the time to complete an optional survey on that behaviour? How about if you do something perceived as virtuous? It just seems quite likely that these days, a cyclist or pedestrian is more likely to fill in the survey - and thus receive a little glow of satisfaction from talking about their sustainable travel habits - than a driver who will more likely receive a little twinge of annoyance at yet another attack on their habits. So the survey captures a greater proportion of the cyclists and pedestrians than the motorists, which creates an illusory shift in travel behaviour.

Unfortunately, I can't see a solution to this which doesn't involve obliging people to take part in surveys. But as short-distance car-use becomes less and less socially acceptable, we'll have to expect to see more bias of this sort creeping into transport surveys. And we need to be very careful we don't interpret this as people driving less and cycling more!. Mark my words, this mistake will happen.

Of course, if I'm correct in my interpretation, we might try to read these figures as showing that driving to the university is 100 * (1-(58/69)) = 16% less socially acceptable amongst the staff than it was 6 years ago, which is at least a small victory!

Friday, 27 June 2008

I am a scientist...

I've spent the past two weeks taking part in an event called I'm a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here. This was funded by the Wellcome Trust and was all about forging links between professional scientists and school students to further the students' understanding of science and remove a lot of the mystique that surrounds the area.

I was in a knockout contest against four other scientists - two cancer researchers, a chemist and a cosmetics researcher. Over the fortnight students from around the country bombarded us with questions about our work (and ourselves!), and we took part in many frantic live chat sessions where we were grilled mercilessly and made to defend our work in short snippets of text. They voted somebody out every few days.

And the result of all this is that after a week of eliminations, yours truly has been chosen by the students as the winning scientist. I win £500 for science communication - woo-hoo! I'm very surprised: I really thought one of the cancer researchers would get it (not only did the students clearly see cancer research as really worthy, but they were both much nicer than me in the chat sessions!).

But tempting as it is to gloat about winning, I see this as a victory for psychology rather than me. From the questions I was asked (which you can read if you look at the website - log in as a guest and choose GCSE 2 from the menu at the top), it was clear this was an area that the school-aged students simply hadn't been exposed to, and which they found really interesting. School science teaching is rooted in the 'big three' of physics, biology and chemistry, and these are massively important subjects. But there is clearly an appetite for psychology amongst the students too. Already hugely popular as an A-level, it's time for a lot more schools to start offering psychology at GCSE too. If nothing else, it surely would act as a powerful way of keeping girls interested in the more scientific end of education.

Saturday, 21 June 2008

Segways and the law

Here's a cutting I ripped from the painfully inoffensive Metro newspaper a few weeks ago. It's about the House of Lords - Britain's strange, unelected upper chamber - discussing whether Segways should be legal. I love this story, because there are clearly so many layers of untold story behind the scenes...

Lords: Give green light to Segways
Scooters known as Segways should be allowed on the roads, peers said yesterday. The electric two-wheelers got the backing after peers tried them out.... Segways are used by police and the public in parts of Europe along with the US. There have been concerns here about safety. But [Liberal Democrat] Lord Redesdale said: 'I drove one straight at Earl Atlee and failed to do him any damage at all.'

Doesn't that last sentence just reek of disappointment?

[Edit: I just found the whole debate here. There are a couple of words missing from Metro's report... "I drove straight at the noble Earl, Lord Attlee, with his consent, and failed to do him any damage at all - unfortunately!" I was right about the disappointment!]

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The family minibus

I have a neighbour who regularly travels with his wife and their two children. To move the four of them around, he bought a minibus with 20 seats.

'Why have you done that?' I asked, choosing my words carefully. 'There are only four of you - wouldn't a car make a lot more sense? It would take up less space and use a lot less fuel.'

He gave me a level look. 'But once every six weeks it's my turn to take my son's football team to their match. I need a vehicle with 20 seats.'

'Er, okay. But why not buy a normal car and just hire a minibus on the odd occasions you need one?' I asked. 'It would be a lot cheaper, and probably easier for you.'

'Oh, who can be bothered with that?' he replied, and stomped off.

Okay, so this neighbour is fictitious, but I've had almost exactly the same conversation with many people, with the only difference being that the numbers are all 5 times lower. There are so many people who buy a car with five seats primarily to move one person around. When challenged, they always point out some achingly unusual event as justification ('What about when I need to take rubbish to the tip?') I mean, what's that? Twice a year? Three times?

As plans for congestion charging force us to think about the consequences of our travel more and more, it is the sheer bone-crunching illogic and irrationality of this thinking that drives me crazy. Cars are fundamentally badly designed in various ways (e.g., their need for huge slurpy soft tyres to stop them flying off the road), and one of their basic design faults is that they take up the same amount of valuable road-space to convey one person as five. As I've mentioned before, people are going to have to realise that if they travel alone 95% of the time, it is better for everyone - including them - if they get a one-person vehicle and hire something bigger on the odd occasion they need more space. It's such a shame that we're going to have to go through masses of congestion and heavy-handed legislation to make people act rationally. Bah.

Monday, 9 June 2008

Yellow lines

, originally uploaded by Alex Craven.

There has to be a better way to manage parking than these eyesores.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

How much work do we each do?

I was pondering just now on road haulage. Lorry drivers are in the news a lot at the moment, and I was thinking about how lorries are quite a limited and old-fashioned approach to the problem of moving things around, as each of them can carry only a trifling proportion* of the freight that needs to be shifted (1,810,000,000 tonnes in 2006, just within the UK; if you were faced with a really big warehouse holding 1.8 billion tonnes of stuff and were asked to move it all, would you ever say "You know, I reckon about half a million trucks, each with its own driver, will be the best way to do that"?).

Anyway, given that we can best understand things if we quantify them, I thought I'd work out what proportion of all this freight each lorry moved on average. So using government figures I calculated:

effort = 100 * (amount of stuff moved / number of vehicles used to move it) / amount of stuff moved

which simplifies to:

effort = 100 * (1 / number of vehicles)

which told me that each lorry moves just 0.0002% of the freight. This presumably is why there is such a staggering number of them these days, either clogging motorways by overtaking one another at microscopic speed differentials, or clogging the A36 when I'm trying to get to work. Anyway, before I could do anything useful with this train of thought, I got distracted and realized we could generalize the approach like so:

effort = 100 * (1 / number of workers)

and started doing this with other professions where statistics on the amount of work and the number of workers are easily available. So here's what I've got so far, using the numbers of teachers, police officers, fishermen and GPs on the one hand and the numbers of school children taught, crimes committed, fish caught and people who might get sick on the other :

Teachers: each teaches 0.0001% of the children
Police officers: each investigates 0.0008% of the crimes**
Fishermen: each catches 0.0077% of the fish
GPs: each looks after 0.0029% of the people

Make of this what you will, but there does seem to be a case for paying teachers 8 times less than police officers, even before we factor in the relative danger :o). Oh, and well done you fishermen.

Any suggestions for other professions?

* Compared to, say, trains
** Or, alternatively, polices 0.0008% of the population if you prefer

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Road Injury Severity Map of England

Here's something curious. Using the Department for Transport's road accident statistics for 2006, I calculated road accident severity figures for each county in England. The DfT's accident figures include a Killed-and-Seriously-Injured (KSI) statistic, which is the count of the most serious road injuries: those leading to... well, death or serious injury. For each county, I divided the number of road accidents with a KSI outcome by the total number of recorded accidents. The reasoning was that the higher this ratio is, the more severe the outcomes of that county's road collisions tend to be and, in one sense, the more dangerous that county's roads are.

The statistics I computed gave figures ranging from just 5.6% of road accidents having KSI outcomes (in Plymouth, where it seems most road accidents tend to end okay) to 23.7% (in North Yorkshire, where almost one-quarter of all road accidents lead to someone being killed or seriously injured). I then normalized these values to lie on a scale from 1 to 100, converted these into saturation levels of the colour red and filled in the counties on a map. Yes, it took a few hours.

The map reveals a few points of interest:

* We have to work in call centres, but at least we don't get squashed too badly - Former heavy industrial areas around Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and the Potteries stand out as having quite low accident severities.

* Leafy suburbs, dead bodies - the affluent south-western corner of Greater London suffers quite a lot of serious road accidents. It's so tempting to make a link to all the SUVs...

* Mad Crazy Viking Berserkers - North Yorkshire and the East Riding. One in four road accidents in North Yorkshire has a serious outcome. My father lives there. I'd like him to move away now.

* Wiltshire and Northamptonshire are really dangerous - I live in Wiltshire! Can everybody take more care please?

* Odd pockets of safety - Plymouth wins here, but there are other counties that stand out from their neighbours: Surrey, Rotherham, Newham in London.

Sadly, these statistics aren't broken down by county for Wales and Scotland. However, overall Wales is at a similar level to Southampton and Coventry, with just under 11% of road accidents having a KSI outcome. Scotland is somewhat worse, and with 17% of all road accidents ending in death or serious injury is similar to Essex and East Sussex.

My hope in doing this was that novel insights might reveal themselves if I looked at the accident data in a new way. I wondered if there would be a North/South split, or patterns that follow motorways. Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge here is the suggestion of more serious road accidents in rural areas. (Most notably, wherever there is a city that has separate figures from the county that surrounds it -- Reading in Berkshire, Leicester in Leicestershire, Poole in Dorset -- the city always has a lower accident severity score than the surrounding county.) This seems on the face of it to support the idea that higher levels of road crowding and reduced speeds are good for reducing the severity of road accidents, although we must also consider other factors specific to rural areas such as twistier roads which give poorer visibility, and possibly higher levels of drink-driving. But then we have to explain why Devon and Cornwall -- perhaps the most rural and twisty-roaded counties -- aren't particularly bad.

Like all good data explorations, this raises more questions than it answers, but I think it shows the value of looking at data in novel ways.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Drinking and driving

During a commercial break on television last night I saw two adverts in quick succession. One was for vodka. Vodka is great stuff, but the advertising can't tell me this. It has carefully to ensure that no images or messages are used which might make me see it as enjoyable, because this could make me, as a blubber-minded member of the public, use it irresponsibly. And in case there's any lingering doubt about how much I'm not supposed to enjoy the vodka, the advert is plastered with the slogan "Drink responsibly" and points me to a website where I can learn how to drink less.

This advert was followed by one from Renault, selling a car which plops out noxious pollutants, is built to exceed the legal speed limit and is quite capable of killing innocent people. It was marketed with lots of exciting images of the car being driven wildly and ended with the slogan "Serious Fun". You can watch it, if you like.

Isn't there an inconsistency here? Alcohol: most people people enjoy it but it can cause harm if abused = constant warnings and can't be marketed as making your life more fun. Cars: although some people enjoy them, they cause harm when used normally = no warnings, and the marketing can promise sex and fun in return for using the product.

Surely the time has come for car companies to go where the drink companies have gone? Renault could have an advert which focuses solely on some minor aspect of the product's design -- the shape of the gearstick, for example, with resolutely no mention of how people might feel when driving the car. It would then display warnings like "Please enjoy the Twingo responsibly". Naturally oil companies should carry similar exhortations in their commercials too. And of course, both types of advertiser should direct consumers to websites where they can be helped to spend less money on the the products of the people paying for the adverts. Just a thought.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Fuel Prices

Those of us working in transport know that, despite what the public feel, the real cost of motoring is really much lower than it used to be. The Guardian today have an analysis of what fuel really costs, which shows this pretty clearly (and fuel is only one part of the falling cost).

If, like me, your memory extends back as far as the 1970s, you should know all this to be true. Look at car ownership and use prior to... ooh, let's say 1987: a typical person owned a second-hand car and used it fairly infrequently, and the cost was a major factor in this behavioural pattern. Today the same typical person has a brand new black pickup truck and uses it to go everywhere. (Okay, I know not everybody has a black pickup truck, but it does sometimes feel that way. I can't express how much I loathe those ridiculous Nissan and Mitsubishi pickup trucks and the morons who buy them.)*

Sure, part of this is the greater availability of credit, but still: go back 20 years and there was no way the average British working person could have afforded to drive in the manner they do now. And what's the cost of public transport done whilst the cost of motoring has fallen? Yes, you've guessed it...

* Edit: Is anybody else annoyed by the names these moronmobiles have? What sort of inadequate feels the need to drive a vehicle with 'Warrior' or 'Outlaw' slapped on the side? My suggestion: everybody who drives round with 'Warrior' written on their vehicle should be pressed into the army and sent off to Afghanistan, everybody with 'Outlaw' can be lynched and everybody with 'Animal' gets sent to a zoo.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Kitten in a basket

Kitten in a basket, originally uploaded by drianwalker.

Monster loves this basket, even though (a) it's clearly too small for him and (b) there's a larger basket right next to it.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Fashion non-victims?

Well, here's a surprising thing. It seems I inspired the design of this hat:

They could at least have given me a citation! Bloody fashion designers...

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Ticket touts

We have some odd ideas about ticket touts in this country. Yet again there is talk in the news of banning their activities. People say things like:

[we see] tickets block-booked by people whose sole aim is to sell on at a profit

But why should tickets be so special in this regard? I'm no economist, but surely they are a scarce commodity whose value will be affected by their scarcity? If there are enough people willing -- indeed, eager -- to pay a thousand pounds to watch Led Zeppelin play a concert, then surely that's a valid price for a ticket? Nobody makes a fuss about other rare items being sold at high prices. And here's an amazing secret: well-known shops like Sainsburys, Woolworths and M&S -- they all bulk-buy goods with the sole aim of selling them on at a profit! Lordy! Quick, to the barricades...

Don't get me wrong: I'm not in favour of what is really quite a grubby, squalid and exploitative trade, but let's please be consistent. Either people explain why concert tickets are qualitatively different from any other good traded in the marketplace -- company shares and houses, for example, which are routinely sold at prices bearing no relationship to their worth -- or they shut up and accept the fact we live in a country with a more-or-less laissaiz-faire approach to business. At least, until such time as we establish a Socialist people's empire (with me as its king)...

Thursday, 17 April 2008

The numbers game

Just now, I heard our dog scrabbling around in the next room. I went in to find him with his snout reaching for some papers I had left on the table (his self-appointed mission seems to be to chomp every piece of paper -- and every pen -- in the world: he's clearly taking his inability to read very hard. Either that or, given that he was trying to eat a receipt, he's in the employ of the tax authorities*).

As I ejected him from the room I said 'I want you both to leave that receipt where it is and to get out of this room at once!'. In saying this, it occurred to me how odd the word 'both' is: why do we have this word that captures 'two-ness' but no equivalent words for other numbers? I guess we can say 'just' and 'only' when we're talking about one thing:

I want you just to leave this room

but what about when there are three things? Surely there should be a word like 'thrith'?

I want you thrith to drop that paper, get out of this room, and go to your bed!

And so on, with numbers for four, five, etc. So what's the deal, philologists? Why the hell is there this huge gap in our language? What are you doing when you should be sorting this stuff out?


Tuesday, 25 March 2008

David Cameron and cycling's mixed messages

So I suppose I'd better say something about the supposed scandal of David Cameron's cycling. The thing is, all the hullaballoo surrounding his riding really reminds me of some issues I've been mulling for quite some time regarding the terribly mixed messages given to cyclists in this country. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

  • Cycling down a one-way street is dangerous - unless it happens not to be. Cameron was slammed for this, but I know of various one-way streets which are officially one-way to all traffic except for bicycles, which can go both ways. I use a street like this in Salisbury all the time. So is cycling down a one-way street safe or dangerous?
  • Cycling on the pavement is dangerous - unless there is a small blue sign with a cyclist and a pedestrian painted on it, in which case suddenly cycling on the pavement becomes safe. So is cycling on the pavement safe or dangerous?
  • Filtering up the left-hand side of stopped traffic is dangerous - unless there is an Advanced Stop Line (which nobody can see), in which case it is safe. So is filtering on the left safe or dangerous?
  • Cycling is a healthy and non-polluting travel mode and it is officially supported and promoted - except of course it isn't really officially supported, at least not in a sense whereby the government provides any realistic legal protection, road priority or infrastructure.

I think the clear message here - and particularly with regard to the first three points above - is that a range of cycling activities are terrible and dangerous and a menace to society... unless they get official sanction in a particular place, at which point they magically become safe. Central and Local Government can't have it both ways. They can't on the one hand chastise cyclists for, say, riding the wrong way down a one-way street whilst on the other hand designating one-way streets as open to cyclists as a way of cheaply increasing the amount of cycle provision they have. It is all a question of mixed messages and it's no wonder nobody is happy.

Of course, some people might point out that what we are seeing is a special kind of flexibility for cyclists - places where it has been deemed safe for two-way cycling are opened up and places where it is deemed dangerous are kept one-way, for example. The thing is, if this is the official approach (and I don't believe it is) then this is still a mixed message as the approach is simply not applied consistently.

The current approach, which constantly sends mixed messages about cycling to all road users, fosters danger and resentment - which in turn fosters further danger. What we all need are consistent policies. Is cycling down a one-way street safe or dangerous? If it's safe, make it universal; if it's dangerous, ban it. This is the approach applied to all other road-use, after all. Because despite some of the terrible and ill-informed stereotyping that has been thrown around in the past few days (in a way that would never be allowed about people's other lifestyle choices, I might add), the vast bulk of cyclists are law-abiding and just want to travel safely and efficiently. They don't want to have to constantly travel around asking themselves 'Now is it safe or dangerous to ride here today? Where's the little magic sign that'll stop me hitting the pedestrians...?'

Saturday, 22 March 2008

Best. Spam. Ever.

I hate spam. But if it means young women are going to return to using the word 'Fie', as suggested by this item I just received, then I'm totally torn!

Saturday, 1 March 2008

A mention in the Economist

I just got an email from our university's Press Office to say my work on how drivers' overtaking behaviour gets more dangerous when a cyclist wears a helmet was mentioned in a recent article on risk in The Economist. It's interesting how that project of mine has been viewed and used by different people. One of the main findings was that a behaviour intended to reduce risk (putting on a bicycle helmet) might paradoxically increase one's overall level of risk because drivers react to its presence by changing their behaviour. I've seen this finding used in many discussions -- some people find it a curious datum, others feel it backs up their own experiences, and some people loath my findings, usually because they are starting with the 'common sense' position that bicycle helmets must be a good thing.

But I've also seen that research used in broader contexts. Indeed I've seen it used in relatively extreme right-wing libertarian writing to justify an argument for having no state intervention in people's day-to-day behaviour. It just goes to show that when you do research and put your findings out into the world, you can never be sure exactly what's going to happen to them.

But for all that, I have to say that it's very satisfying that work of mine is being used by people. It's just a shame that any use of one's research by people who are not themselves professional researchers "doesn't count" under our government's Research Assessment Exercise. Academics writing in endless circles about one another's work is "good research"; a grand theory which excites everybody but then proves to be completely bogus after two years is "good research", as there will be lots of papers supporting it, then a second raft of papers slamming it, giving the high number of citations that research assessment focuses on to a large degree. But studies which excite the public, lead to media discussion or even change public behaviour for the better don't count as having had any impact at all -- our research is only "good" if other academics write about it. But we'll moan about that another day. It's far too sunny a Spring day for caviling now. I'm off to walk the dog instead.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Car sharing: why can't we think beyond cars?

Car sharing is in the news again as various cities look to ease congestion by reducing the number of cars with only one person in them (four out of every five, according the the BBC report).

The BBC's article includes someone from the AA trotting out the most common objection to car-sharing, which is that it obliges people -- who often won't not know each other well -- to adjust their working patterns so they start and end work at the same time. With the sorts of jobs so many people do, this isn't possible. Therefore, people conclude, car sharing cannot work.

What a staggering lack of imagination! Why on earth don't people see that there are any number of solutions that just don't involve a car at all? It's pretty odd, when you think about it, that people spend so much time travelling alone in vehicles designed to carry five, and which fill up the road just as much to carry one person as their full complement. You wouldn't book five seats in a cinema if you were going there alone. So why don't people consider single-occupant vehicles, such as scooters and motorcycles, more often? Again, it has to be that the car is so amazingly dominant in our collective psyche that their use is totally habitual and alternatives, despite their being plentiful, much cheaper and logically more appropriate, simply never occur to people. So everybody carries on using completely, wildly, infuriatingly inappropriate vehicles to get around and our cities get less and less pleasant and accessible.

Or is it, to build on a conversation I had last night, something to do with labeling? Perhaps most people do not consider a motorcycle, for example, because they simply cannot conceive of the label 'motorcyclist' applying to them? Answers on a postcard, please.

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Slippery manhole covers get the push, and not before time

Whilst cycling over the years, I've had quite a few close calls with manhole covers. When wet, or polished to a mirror-finish by thousands of passing cars, these can be as slippery as... well, I can't think of a colourful simile: as slippery as something really quite slippery that definitely shouldn't be in the middle of the road, is what I'm getting at.

One of the big problems is that because all manner of pipelines and conduits follow the same courses as the roads, manhole covers are particularly prevalent at junctions: they meet one another underground just as the roads meet one another on the surface. This is a nuisance, as junctions are already a threat to vulnerable road users and we don't need them to be made any worse. Slippery bits at a junction are a particular hazard as the turning forces make cycles and motorcycles ever more likely to fall.

In 2005 I carried out the Oxford and Cambridge Cycling Survey, and the responses we received were full of reports of people coming a cropper on manholes, so I'm very excited to learn that slippery manhole covers could soon be a thing of the past across Europe. But it's really interesting to consider why they have existed as long as they have. The clear explanation is that small slippery spots on the road just don't pose a threat to cars - if one wheel is on a slippery spot, the other three will compensate - especially on modern cars with clever traction controls that will quite literally compensate for the lost grip under one tyre. Since cars aren't affected by little slippery spots, Mr Average Public has never seen them as an issue.

When you ride a single-track vehicle, however, such as a bicycle or motorcycle, I can assure you that small slippery spots on the road are really quite a big deal. It's pretty difficult to escapable the conclusion that the problem would have been sorted decades earlier except that it was a problem only affecting minority road-users. It's one more reason why everybody should have to spend a few months cycling before they are allowed to drive. Yes, my friends: that's the master plan and I'll explain it another time.

Friday, 8 February 2008

Sheldon Brown

I've just learnt from the CTC's newsletter that Sheldon Brown has died. If you don't know who Sheldon was, then all I can say is you have probably never repaired a bicycle. For years Sheldon's website has been the first port of call for anybody seeking answers to difficult or esoteric questions about bicycle building and maintenance. And what they found there was practically an encyclopaedia of incredibly well-informed material which Sheldon shared selflessly with the world. There are probably thousands of people internationally who have learnt the difficult art of wheelbuilding at his virtual knee. Surely nobody in the last decade has dealt with a tandem without seeing what he had to say about the subject first.

Sheldon was intelligent, witty and wonderfully eccentric. And with his interest in language he would, unlike my spellchecker, even have appreciated my spelling of 'encyclopaedia' in the last paragraph. He'll be much missed. Thanks for everything.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Car parking: I'll just leave this speedboat here

I've got a really big wooden crate -- it's a little over 4 metres long and just under 2 metres wide -- and it won't fit in my house. I'm the only person who gets any benefit from my having this crate -- indeed, my ownership of the crate is actually bad for you. I didn't really care about the fact I had nowhere to keep the crate when I bought it; I wanted it and so I got it anyway. So now, because it won't fit in my house, I'm just going to leave it in the street. It'll block half of the road, but so what? I need somewhere to keep my crate and that's where it's going.

If you heard me say this, you would quite rightly brand me a selfish bastard who deserves to be beaten soundly with rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail until I learnt a little civic responsibility. But hold fast! What if, instead of a crate, it was a saloon car I was talking about? A car has exactly the same dimensions as my crate, but you'd think absolutely nothing of my saying "I don't have anywhere to store my car and I knew this when I bought it, but I'm just going to leave it in the street where it'll block half the road".

Parking cars is a topic which, more than most, gets people angry (certainly more than the World Bank's policies or the invasion of Iraq, as far as I can see). I've been dwelling on the subject since, about a year ago, I had an email from somebody wanting my expert endorsement for a policy of greater freedom for motorists to park where they like. This got me thinking, and I soon realized that car parking is a nice illustration of the bizarre level of freedom given to motorists. (I turned down the request, incidentally.)

Because here's the question: why should I be allowed to own a car if I have nowhere to store it? I am not permitted the same freedom to store anything else on the road. If I own a caravan, or a speedboat on a trailer, I am obliged to have off-road storage facilities for it. If I want to place a skip outside my house when doing building work I have to take great care that this hazard is brightly lit and removed as soon as possible. These are all relevant comparisons, as skips, caravans and speedboats on trailers are all are more-or-less the same size and construction as a car.

You might at this point be thinking that you pay about £100 a year to tax your vehicle, and that this sum makes cars different from all these other items. This argument is fallacious in so many respects that I think I'll devote a whole post to it soon. For now, let me put it this way: I pay masses of tax every time I buy a bottle of whisky, but I can't thereby expect the State to provide me with a shelf to store it on or a glass to drink it from.

So I'm left unable to see a rational reason why I should be allowed to own a car when I have nowhere to store it, leaving me with no option but to dump it in various bits of the civic landscape. I'd be genuinely grateful for any suggestions.

Edit: To offer one more important comparison, I used to live on a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon canal. As anybody who has ever tried to buy one with know, it is impossible to own a boat on the inland waterways without either proving you have somewhere to keep it, or issuing a solemn promise that you'll keep on moving indefinitely without leaving it at the canalside. Our canals are a public transport resource just like our roads, but apparently the rules are very different...

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Coco Pops: So chocolately they even turn your marketing department into imbeciles

The Co-Op, which, like me and Anna Friel*, has its origins in Rochdale, is my favoured vendor of milk, bread and other stuff when I wish to be served by school-aged people with no social skills. I was in there just now and whilst browsing the breakfast cereal offerings -- YES YES I'm about to cross the line into grumpy old man territory, but trust me: you'll do the same when you hear this, even if you're currently a woman -- my gaze happened upon a packet of Coco Pops. On the front was a reference to their latest marketing gimmick, a badge saying "COCO POPS WITH WARM MILK: IT'S SIMPLE! SEE BACK FOR INSTRUCTIONS".

My body went into spasm, as though I were electrocuted. It was all I could do not to gnaw on the shelf or punch the woman who had not thanked me a moment earlier when I moved aside for her. I was fighting the overwhelming urge to grab the packet, hold it in front of me and shout "OF COURSE IT'S SIMPLE! IT'S COCO POPS AND WARM MILK! WHY THE COCKING HELL WOULD YOU IMAGINE I MIGHT NEED INSTRUCTIONS TO MAKE IT?!". My anger only rose when my trembling hands turned the packet over to reveal that yes! indeed, there were detailed instructions on how to prepare your child a bowl of Coco Pops and warm milk. I mean, come on: it's hardly a sodding Bouillabaisse! It's Coco Pops... and warm milk - the entire recipe is right there in the title. Are we to believe that without these instructions people would be standing around in their kitchens, warm tears of humiliation trickling down their cheeks as they turn to their children and chokingly admit that after five hours of experimentation with mysterious Oriental spices and toasted giraffe dung, Mummy can't seem to crack the recipe for the legendary dish known only as "Coco Pops and Warm Milk"? I have a pretty dim view of humanity, but apparently I'm Mother Teresa compared to the people at Kelloggs, who see us as a nation of inbred simpletons which, faced with a child asking for "Coco Pops and warm milk", would go into the kitchen and return with a buttered leopard or something.

And the saddest thing is that Kellogs may well have a point. Given they know more than anyone how staggeringly unhealthy Coco Pops are, and given they know how many are fed to children each day, they probably have a better picture than most of us of just how dumb people are.

It was the least I could do to buy every packet on the shelf, better to keep them away from those less educated. That'll teach those hounds at Kelloggs a lesson.

* The phrase "me and Anna Friel" should in no way be taken to imply that Anna Friel and I constitute a couple, or that Ms Friel is even vaguely aware of my existence. Although had she found herself lonely and unexpectedly single and living in York back in her Brookside days, things might have been very different.**

** Almost certainly not true.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Apple's philosophy

I wanted better to understand existentialism, so I looked it up in Apple's dictionary/thesaurus. It seems whoever wrote the entry didn't have a fully developed grasp of the theory either. Or did they? Was their cryptic allusion to a note that clearly doesn't exist a challenge to me, reminding me that existentialism is all about us creating our own meaning in life rather than finding it from others? Were they telling me that by demanding ready answers from a piece of software rather than thinking of them for myself, I wasn't ready to have those answers? Was this a wake-up call, calling for me to re-evaluate my intellectual life?

We'll never know: In the end I used a different thesaurus. I mean, it's Friday, people, and I don't want my computer challenging me more than is strictly necessary.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Don't watch Newsnight on Monday...

...unless you want to risk seeing me talking about Shared Space road design principles. Shared Space is the intriguing idea that traffic management is best handled with as little regulation as possible -- no traffic lights, no road markings, no pavements even -- and it's something I've had my eye on for quite a while as it claims to offer considerable benefits to the more vulnerable users of our roads. Indeed, the approach promises towns in which everybody gets to where they want to go faster and with fewer accidents. It sounds great.

My position, which I hope comes across after the interview is edited, is that Shared Space is a very intriguing idea but that it urgently needs a proper evaluation to tell us whether or not it really works better than the current approach. The problem the Shared Space advocates face is the two curses of road planning. The first curse is that authorities and town planners tend to be very conservative and often won't try new things, sticking to rigid road-design guidelines which are handed down from above and which, in many cases, are essentially based on little more than guesswork.

The second curse is that new developments in road design or usage are hardly ever evaluated properly: when somebody tries something new, it's not often the effect of the innovation is properly measured. So let's have more science and less blind faith: that's my basic argument (and not just as regards road design). BBC 2, 2230 on Monday 14 January.

On a more awe-inspiring note, I entered a great email discussion this morning in which Michael Carley and I decided there really should be a product like Bovril, but pork-based and from Germany. Here's how I imagine the advertising might look...