Monday, April 21, 2014

A preventable and tragic death: Some Lessons

Google maps view. 
Black line is the route of a cyclist riding the 
rail-trail, south to north. Ms. LeBeau was riding
 north and crossed the tracks 
at the crossing just S. of Zia.

On Saturday morning, April 19th, Suzanne LeBeau, an avid cyclist, was killed when she rode her bicycle directly into the path of the southbound Rail Runner train at the point where the Santa Fe Rail Trail crosses the tracks just south of the Zia Road rail crossing. According to discussions with a Journal reporter, she was travelling northbound on the rail trail, which jogs briefly east to cross the tracks and then continues north on the west side of South St. Francis.

Commenters to a local TV outlet claim she was wearing some sort of headphones or earphones. This has not been confirmed by the ongoing police investigation. Presumably if earphones were present, they will be discovered.

Also relevant is that rail trail runs parallel to S. St. Francis at that location and approaches from behind the train station. A cyclist riding north at that point will be screened for a while and then looking at the sides of the lights and crossing arms in a large and busy intersection. The cyclist will also be looking directly towards the southbound train. Although we are told "...the (Santa Fe Police) department stated that the railroad barrier arms, safety lights, warning sirens and the train’s horn were all activated and working properly..." readers must note that there are in fact no barriers or safety lights whatsoever at the actual rail trail crossing used by cyclists!

We will never know everything that happened on Saturday to cause this tragedy, as Suzanne is not here to explain it. My condolences go out to her family and to the train engineer, who was powerless to stop events.

Are there lessons here for cyclists, municipal planners, and facility designers?

First, the cyclist must always maintain his or her situational awareness and anticipate hazards. We must constantly be asking "what can happen at this intersection or crossing and what will I do about it". Whether the cyclist was wearing headphones is less relevant than how a cyclist compensates for the loss of critical sensory information under potentially adverse conditions. Darkness, cold (requiring headgear), high winds, and other inclement situations can compromise one's sensory safety envelope and require adjustment. Distracted riding, or riding with a lot on your mind can be perilous as it takes away your ability to sense and evaluate danger.

Secondly, the design standards we require for trails should be comparable to those for an immediately adjacent roadway -- if there are barriers and lights for a busy roadway, why not for a key rail trail crossing at that very busy intersection and for the same reasons: we anticipate people will need advance warning of conditions at a busy intersection or crossing. Indeed, this is not just any trail, but a major part of Santa Fe's offroad bicycle network, made necessary because many of its major roads (and especially its state-managed highways such as St. Francis Drive) are decidedly bicyclist-unfriendly, thus requiring off road workarounds. In this context, it is not clear to me why a cyclist should fail to benefit from some sort of warning light or barrier system similar to that enjoyed by motorists. This is especially true because a cyclist arriving via the Rail Trail is riding at right angles to the barriers and warning lights. Is it possible that this reduced visibility coupled with background visual clutter did not give the warning that the designers assumed?

Some of this discussion goes to the very heart of defining the roles of the cyclist and the government in maintaining roadway safety. We have to balance personal responsibility with an appropriate government role in building safe, well-engineered facilities. Let's reexamine these roles today, and not let Suzanne LeBeau die in vain.

The author, me, has been heavily involved in cycling advocacy for a quarter century. I am a League Cycling Instructor, board member of the Bicycle Coalition of New Mexico, a member of the Los Alamos County Transportation Board and while a member have contributed to the 2005 Los Alamos Bike Plan and 2010 Complete Streets ordinance. I am currently chair of the LANL Traffic Safety Committee, While president of the Hawaii Bicycling League, I assisted in the creation of the Honolulu Bicycle Master Plan (1999).  Having said that, the comments above are mine alone and are not endorsed or blessed by any of those entities. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Creating Jobs: Is It Really Business vs. Government?

43rd District GOP candidate Vincent Chiravalle and others, one here have recently batted back and forth the idea of job creation and whether Government is involved in a constructive or negative way. I think both sides miss the point a little, or perhaps their letters are not long enough to elaborate.

First off, its rather hilarious to think that in little Los Alamos County, government does not create jobs. Without that 900 pound Federal gorilla in town redistributing other people's tax dollars (Vince and I both work there), "...the woman who does your nails, the local organic farmer, artists and musicians, your landscaper and the restaurant owner..." would not even be here. Perhaps a feed store and a general store, and if it had not been moved, a small private school would be all that would exist on the Hill. Indeed, New Mexico's economy is quite dependent on public sector, i.e., government jobs and indeed there are legions of stories about overregulation and public sector faceplants to be found.

But in the bigger picture, it has to be a fruitful collaboration of good government and good business practice that creates an advantageous environment for an economy to grow. Reliable and state of the art public services and utilities, high quality public education, fair taxation to provide essential services, and laws that provide a good regulatory roadmap to guide the private sector while ensuring the pubic and its land are protected against short-sighted goals that create long term costly side effects, are all essential ingredients for a robust and sustainable economy. Business, in turn, has to provide a good product and act in a way that instills the trust of the public and its work force, both in its products and business practices. It also has to make enough money and endure a tolerable amount of red tape if we want Joe's Business to want to stay in business rather than voting its feet! The purpose of elections is to air out the competing public interests that inevitably arise in these discussions, let the competition of ideas give us better solutions, and let the voter decide on priorities.

Let's stop putting black and white hats on people and institutions. There is too much to do in the 21st Century for us to be arguing over cardboard-cutout adversaries. Meanwhile, I thank Vince, Geoff Rogers, Stephanie Garcia-Richards, and any other candidates I've forgotten, for giving us good people to choose from in the coming 43rd District election. Plus, I thank all the local businesspeople for providing us the services that make Los Alamos a great place to live and work.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Bring On the Essay Contests!

My initial thoughts on reading in the Daily Post that the local Right to Life organization was sponsoring an essay contest among LA Schools students to see who could write the most compelling anti-abortion essay were decidedly sour. But, I think we might be on to something useful. Not that we need to have local special interest groups encourage young people to circumvent meaningful thought, but perhaps we need a real, live opportunity for our students to have a public essay contest writing about current affairs, but from a more neutral, thoughtful perspective. Good writing demonstrates good thinking and both are important to good citizenship. So here are some ideas for topics, starting with the obvious:

1. I just discovered that I/my LA Schools girlfriend am/is pregnant out of wedlock. We have both been accepted to top ranked universities. Once we get over the initial panic, what will our thinking be as we decide what to do about it? Who will we talk to? What values will help us decide what to do next?

2. Holy Pueblo Complex Gun Show, Batman! What does the 2nd Amendment REALLY say about our right to bear arms? What original source documents can we read and understand to figure out the context of the Founders' text? Did the Supreme Court get it right in Heller vs. D.C.?

3. Mom and Dad's paychecks aside, what is/are the role(s) of nuclear weapons in the 21st Century world?

4. Now that Mom and Dad bought yet another SUV, how serious is the problem of human-induced climate change and what if anything, should individuals and government do about it?

5. How can we sustain ourselves in an increasingly water-limited Southwest? What government and individual decisions need to be made and implemented?

6. How shall we manage illegal immigration?

7. What should economic development look like in Los Alamos?

8. First Amendment vs. First Amendment. As a for profit business owner with strong religious beliefs, can I withdraw health coverage from my employees if the coverage compels me to pay for procedures that violate my conscience?

Students would be limited to essays of roughly 1000 words or less, depending on what the Schools English teaching staff tells us is reasonable for a given grade level. A relatively unbiased (if there is such a thing) panel would judge the essays on the basis of lucid and grammatically correct writing, persuasiveness, and the documentation and credibility of any factual assertions. Points of view that are offered with the previous qualities intact will be judged without bias.   The winners and first runners up would receive a check and would read their essays at a public forum. Perhaps the two local newspapers could sponsor this, and round up volunteers as judges.

Let's make lemonade out of this lemon.