Google Bike Directions: Part 2

Yesterday I blogged the story of using Google biking directions to travel from my house in Arlington VA to a friend's house in Springfield VA using Google bicycling directions to help me navigate.Cycling-mountain-biker

My second trip was to travel from this same friend's house in Springfield to the Whole Foods in Vienna. Unlike the first trip above, in which I was familiar with the first part of the route (and could adjust based on my knowledge), in this case I was completely dependent on the Google directions. I had never ridden in this area before.

In this case, the directions proved to be excellent, with one exception. The implementation of the directions presented some problems, but the actual route worked almost perfectly--taking me along mostly back streets and some trail connectors right to my destination. The major obstacles in this case were Route 50 and I-66. The crossing at Route 50 actually turned out to be better than expected, because there was a trail connector that Google Maps was unaware of that I noticed when I reached the intersection of Pickett Road and Arlington Blvd. I-66 was crossed on Vaden Drive, a back street that crosses the Interstate with no interchange.

The biggest problem presented by Google biking directions is that trail signage is typically so poor--or not designed the way street signage is--that it presents challenges for giving and following directions. At every single intersection of two streets, there is a street sign. It was simple to follow the directions: Turn right at XXYZ St. or left at ABBC St. At each of these points, I was virtually 100% confident that I was following the directions as indicated. However, each time I had to travel on a trail, I lost confidence, because the trails did not have signs like the streets. On this trip, even the trails with signs had different names than what Google indicated them as. The most disconcerting part was when I was traveling along a trail and would encounter an intersection or fork in the trail. Google does its best, but without any signage, it just states "Turn left toward Vaden Dr." or the like. If the cyclists doesn't know where the named street is, then there is no way of knowing what those directions mean. Thankfully it was a sunny day, so I could at least tell what direction I was going and could correlate that with the line on my map.

Google biking directions is a good tool for cyclists. If jurisdictions would now please put up signage that will help cyclists navigate those directions, it would make the tool work much better.

Google Bike Directions: Part 1

LastGoogle Biking  directions  screen shot week I had a couple of opportunities to try out Google's bicycling directions to travel to places I had never gone before. My experience with the directions was mostly positive, guiding me along routes that for the most part worked well. The problem of poor trail signage (not Google's fault), however, could have caused a cyclist to become temporarily lost. Here's the story.

I wanted to travel to a friend's house who lives just off Braddock Road in Springfield VA about one mile west of the Capitol Beltway (I-495). I live in Arlington VA not far from Seven Corners, about 8 miles away. I had never been to my friend's house before, so I asked Google to give me cycling directions there. What I look for in the directions is how it overcomes the major obstacles, in this case, Route 50 and the Beltway were two major roads I had to cross. Google did not have me cross Route 50 at the new pedestrian overpass at Seven Corners, which I think is a better option than what it showed me. It did, however, have me cross the beltway at the pedestrian overpass that is north of Braddock Road about 1/2 mile, which is definitely the best option. All in all, the directions were not bad. A less experienced cyclist might have found some of the roads--particularly Braddock Road--a bit daunting to ride on. However, the directions worked for getting me there.

All in all, Google biking directions is a useful tool, and I expect it will become more useful over time as Google--and users--improve it.

Monday's What's on the Web: Climate Progress

Starting today, every Monday I will highlight other bloggers or web contributors who are making important or interesting contributions to climate, sustainability, transportation or market transformation. Check back each week for another installment.

This week I highlight the blog Climate Progress and its prolific blogger, Joe Romm. Launched in August of 2006 and supported by the Center for American Progress (where Joe is a Senior Fellow) Climate Progress is an indispensable blog for anyone interested in the "debate," politics, science, media coverage and virtually every other aspect related to the issue of climate change. Climate Progress is very up to date, covering breaking scientific studies, media coverage, news, political actions etc., generally within a day or less.

Joe brings a strong point of view to the issue--a point of view that I share. That is, climate change is the most serious issue mankind is facing, and strong and immediate action must be taken. Joe takes pleasure in debunking and beating up on deniers and delayers. His knowledge of the science is deep and broad. He is the main contributor to the blog, although he also includes guest bloggers. Posts tend to be fairly long and in depth, sometimes including significant detail and always containing significant opinion.

Example titles include:
- Lugar and Voinovich float “half-assed” alternative to comprehensive climate and clean energy jobs bill.
- Must re-read statement from UK’s Royal Society and Met Office on the connection between global warming and extreme weather
- WashPost editorial: “If current trends persist, it’s likely that in coming decades the globe’s climate will change with potentially devastating effects for billions of people.”
- Report: Koch Industries outspends Exxon Mobil on climate and clean energy disinformation

Also, be sure to take in the comments. There are a number of commenters on this blog who add considerable insight and depth to some of the posts.

Flying Into the Volcano Dust

It's been front page news for a week, the Icelandic volcano sending up clouds of volcano ash, shutting down air traffic across Europe for more than a week and still disrupting it as this is being written. Our current course on addressing climate change (i.e., inaction) is the same as if air travel had just continued on as usual through the volcanic ash. When planes started falling out of the sky or landing with damaged engines, we could then get a good sense of the risk.

We did not continue business as usual with air travel in Europe when faced with a real but uncertain risk. In contrast, we barrel along--business as usual--changing our climate knowing that there are huge risks involved. Risks, in fact, far larger than those posed by the volcano and air travel thus far.

If the risk were only 1:1000 that a flight would crash due to volcanic ash, that would result in about two dozen crashes per day. We know the risk of catastrophic climate change is orders of magnitude greater than that, yet we continue to do very little to curtail our emission of greenhouse gases.

What is wrong with us?

Obama's Earth Day Message and Challenge

The White House released this video advocating that citizens across the country do their part to help in addressing our environmental problems.

Although President Obama claims that our environment is cleaner than it was 40 years ago on the original Earth Day, that is true only if you look at it from certain perspectives. Certainly if we include the entire earth (not just the United States), that would be absolutely untrue.

Check my Twitter feed for some of the changes that have occurred since that first Earth Day. Some are better, some are worse. Most critically, when it comes to the largest environmental issue of all--climate change--we have made no progress and are continuing down a very dangerous and potentially disastrous path. (Also see my Climate Decade in Review posts for more on what has and has not happened in the last ten years).

That said, I stand alongside President Obama in urging people to take action on Earth Day and every day.

Incorporating Green Residential Building into Residential Areas

As architecture and construction become more and more green, residential buildings that significantly reduce energy use and incorporate other environmentally friendly features will hopefully become more common in our urban areas. One builder in Arlington has created an innovative and effective green home in a residential neighborhood in the Westover neighborhood.

Builder Patty Shields of Metro Green Home built the home depicted in the drawing here. It is the first home in Virginia to receive a LEED Platinum certification from the US Green Building Council (USGBC).

This home was built on an odd-shaped lot that had not previously been built on. Due to its unusual triangular shape and small size, it required zoning waivers for setbacks and other requirements. As part of the overall project, Ms. Shields renovated the farmhouse next door, also incorporating significant green practices in order to gain approval from the county to develop this lot.

This house incorporates a modern architectural palette, which is in contrast with the ubiquitous colonials surrounding it. Roger Lewis of the Washington Post recently wrote an article discussing modern architecture for residential construction, which is generally shied away from for a number of reasons he mentions--particularly risk aversion to change. In this case, I believe the builder has been sensitive to the community, created a more modern home while pushing the envelope a little toward integrating more modern ideas into traditional neighborhoods.

More significantly, she took a holistic approach towards the sustainability aspects of the house, incorporating better design, materials, systems and components in from the very beginning (for details and lots of photos, see her web site). The home is also located in a walkable neighborhood one block from a bus line that serves Metrorail and about a 20-minute walk to the East Falls Church metro stop. The earlier in the process sustainability is brought in, the more effective and less expensive it is to incorporate. Intelligently designed green construction can cost very little extra or sometimes no more than traditional building, and energy cost savings virtually always swamp any additional costs. Getting local governments to put more muscle into residential construction programs could be a very effective way to make environmental progress.

Arlington has developed a Green Home Choice program to try to encourage builders to incorporate more sustainable practices in their new homes. However, it offers very little incentive: the only real one (and minor at that) is front-of-the-line plan review. Everything else is just informational or promotional. Commercial buildings, on the other hand, can receive significant density increases by meeting LEED certification levels. That said, Arlington's web site claims that they are reviewing the Green Home Choice program.

Montgomery County has taken a different tack. In 2008 they passed legislation that would require all new homes built in the County, starting this year, to meet ENERGY STAR requirements. However, the County Energy Code has not been updated to reflect this, nor does the MoCo Department of Environmental Protection mention it on their web site. DC also incorporated new energy codes in January of this year, but has no specific residential construction program. Nor do Fairfax, Loudoun or Prince George's Counties, as far as I can tell. New construction is down due to the current economic conditions. That might make this the best time to develop effective new building programs, so that they are in place and operating when new construction picks back up.

The home featured here at 5803 16th St. N. in Arlington sold last July for $1,175,000

Making Mining Safer With One Simple Change

The news of a tragic coal mine explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia has been front-page news for a couple of days. As of the writing of this blog, at least 25 miners were killed with four still missing. Investigations show that the owner of the coal mine, Massey Energy, had thousands of safety violations, including some serious ones related to venting.
(More blog posts: Democracy Now, Open Secrets, Political Animal, and Think Progress)

The company as a whole has paid fines and been cited repeatedly for safety violations. There is, of course, an outcry for stronger regulation. Clearly this mine was operating unsafely. Federal coal mine safety chief Kevin Stricklin said, "We know it wasn't operating safely, or we wouldn't have had an explosion. It's quite evident that something went very wrong here. All explosions are preventable. It's just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring."

So we know it was preventable, yet the coal mine company did not prevent it. Why not? I believe it was primarily because it's just not in their financial interest to do so. The monetary impact is much too small. After a 2006 accident at a different mine that claimed two lives, the company was fined only $4.2 million. That's small pickin's for an enormous energy company like Massey. The mine in question, Upper Big Branch has been assessed only $2.2 million in fines since 1995--for more than 3,000 violations! They have only paid $791,327. Massey is contesting $1,128,833 in fines and has delinquent fines of $246,320. (More here)

I would suggest a very simple solution that would almost certainly reduce accidents in coal mines to almost zero immediately: a $100 million dollar fine for every loss of life in a coal mine. No exceptions. No "Acts of God." Every loss of life exacts this fine. Injuries would have smaller, but still significant fines. The only way this policy could work in practice would be to make it without exceptions. As soon as exceptions start to be made, then the whole system gets politicized and eventually it unwinds.

If Massey knew in advance that a major accident could cost them $2.5-$2.9 billion dollars (which is what this accident would cost), they would have done the risk management calculations that showed investing in safety would be well worthwhile. They would pull workers out of dangerous areas when each one is worth a potential $100 million. I suspect coal companies would take out insurance against major losses like this. That's fine. Unquestionably the insurance companies would make absolutely certain that the risks are completely minimized. They would likely do a much better job than the mine safety regulators, because they would have no ties to the industry and would have a very sizable and direct financial investment in risk reduction. They would be all over Massey constantly, making sure their insurance policy would not need to be paid out.

In real life, it seems impossible that such a simple system could be put in place. Instead there will be more and more complicated rules and regulations put into place. In the end, though, unless much, much larger fines are imposed and upheld, the companies will not make anything more than cosmetic or marginal changes. If a company knows that its entire existence may be threatened by a major accident, then it will act accordingly.

Climate Decade in Review - Post 34: Larsen B Ice Shelf Collapse

January - March 2002 - The Larsen B Ice Shelf in Antarctica collapsed in the largest ice shelf collapse since satellite imagery began. The collapsed area was 3,250 square kilometers, approximately the size of Rhode Island, and averaged more than 200 meters thick (the thickness of a 50 story building).
Antarctica has been warming by about 0.5 degrees Celsius per decade for the last 60-70 years. This is much faster than the globe as a whole. Both the northern and southern polar regions are warming faster than global temperatures overall, which is consistent withwhat would be expected with climate being driven by greenhouse gas forcings (meaning that additional CO2 and other gases are the major cause of climate change rather than solar output or other causes).

Since the ice shelf was floating, this collapse will have no effect on sea levels (just as an ice cube melting in a glass does not change the water level.) However, as sea ice vanishes, it exposes the darker waters below to sunlight. Ice reflects the sun's rays back into space; sea water mostly absorbs them. This causes what is called an amplifying feedback loop. The more ice that melts, the warmer the sea gets, which causes more ice to melt, etc.--speeding global warming.

This is one in the series of "Decade in Review" posts on this blog that began in January 2010. These posts present climate-change-related events that occurred during the 00's, the warmest decade in recorded history.

Metro Capitalizes on Ubiquity of Buses to Provide Text-Based, Real-Time Traffic Information

Metro launches its new real-time, eyes-on-the-road, traffic texting service today, April 1, 2010. Metro’s recent budget woes have led the agency to pursue both cost-cutting and revenue-enhancing measures. It has also given the agency impetus to look at its strategic assets in new ways. By working with the consulting firm Nozirev, the agency identified its bus fleet as a potential source of new revenues. Metro buses blanket the area, particularly during rush hours, and can provide real-time eyes to traffic situations. (This post is an April Fool's post)

Through a sophisticated texting system, Metrobus operators will respond personally to specific requests for traffic information in their vicinity. This allows commuters to make decisions about what route to take, when to plan their trip, or whether to even bother getting out of bed.

The system is simple to use. Send the text “WMATA” to 96272 (WMATA). You’ll instantly receive the response, “Service requested?” Then reply with “RTRTT” for “Real-Time Regional Traffic Texting.” The response will read, “Are you sure you want RTRTT?” Reply with “Y” or “Yes;” the system will recognize either one and will reply with, “Location requested?”

This is where knowing some shortcuts can really help. You can try texting in something like “Rockville Pike Southbound near White Flint,” which may or may not be clear enough for the system to understand. Instead, by using the 2nd, 3rd and last letter of the street name and ‘N to indicate “and” (as in “Rock ‘N Roll”), you can be assured of a correct identification. Also, for the quadrants of DC, just imagine the map rotated 45 degrees counterclockwise to save a letter. This way, NW becomes W and NE becomes N, etc. Here are some easy examples:

- Georgia Avenue and Military Road, NW is simply coded in as: EOA ‘N ILY W
- Pennsylvania and Branch Avenue SE is easily identified as: ENA ‘N RAH E

Single letter and numbered street names retain their identity, e.g., 23rd Street is 23 and U Street is U.

Reactions to the new system have been almost universally positive. Jake Danvers, who rides the 32 bus on Wisconsin Avenue said, “It works great for me. My driver is telling all those car commuters to go some other way, and that clears the road for us. My ride is a good 2-3 minutes faster now. Also, it’s more exciting. Yesterday, for example, we sideswiped a BMW and knocked over a newsstand. Since our driver didn’t notice, it didn’t cost me any time on my commute. Also, I’ve noticed cars and pedestrians really stay out of the way of the careening bus, so there’s more room for us to barrel down the road.”

Prince William resident and long distance commuter Doris Morris also gushed, “Not only do I get right up-to-date information, the bus drivers’ text notes are often entertaining.” Metrobus has encouraged drivers to inject some personality into their texts as a way of personalizing the service. Metrobus 5A driver Vinny Soros is known for his salty language, with some texts like these:
“No f*&^@in’ way ur gonna b on time! LOL”
“That’s a s*@$tload of taillights up there!”

In contrast, Doreen Phillips, who drives the S2 likes to make biblical references:
“Pslm 37 - Be still in the presence of the Lord”
“Colssns 3:8 But now u must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, n filthy language from ur lips.”

A favorite among many commuters is Sokudo Wamatayi, a Japanese American originally from Brooklyn, who occasionally mixes in a relevant haiku:
“Blossoms of pale pink
Universally beckon

Relevant text information is retained for five minutes, so if another commuter requests information from the same location, they receive the retained text. This safety feature was designed to reduce distractions for drivers. Implementation studies showed that with this system feature, even the drivers with the busiest routes were able to focus on the road more than 70% of the time while still providing extremely accurate information.

Anyone can use the service without registration. Individual texts are $.50 not including costs from your service provider. Daily users, though, can register for unlimited service for only $19.95 per month. Visit

Photo attribution for crushed newsrack: / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0