I spent a little time this afternoon trying to get hold of data. I guess I have high expectations that the web should deliver what I want instantly; in the old days it would have taken a few days in the library to track down the data sets I needed, and then a few weeks waiting for it on inter-library loan. In some respects, things haven’t changed much, although now it just means you hit the paywall faster. Here’s today’s tale…

It began with a post by George Monbiot on how we’ll have to make cities much more dense if we are to cut down their energy needs. George then tweeted about a fabulous graph from the UNEP which illustrates the point nicely:

In which Toronto holds an interesting position compared to other North American cities. Anyway, someone then pointed out that this data is a little old – it’s based on a classic study by Newman and Kenworthy from the 1980’s. So now the hunt begins: is there an updated version of this anywhere, and if not, can I get hold of the data to create it?

Luke Devlin tweeted out a newer version, published in 2009, based on data from the UITP Mobility in Cities Database, which has data from around the year 2001:

However, this graph is pretty ugly, and has none of the cities labelled. So, methinks that would be easy to fix – all I need is the data. Unfortunately the database (on CD-ROM – how quaint!) costs €1,200. And I’d have to wait for it to arrive. Surely someone has this online for free? No? After all, I only want to use one indicator…

Okay, so the data hunt is on. Population density data is easy to get hold of – wikipedia has plenty of it. In exploring this a little, I find some wikified concerns expressed about the original graph, and a whole can of worms about how exactly you compute population density for a city (tl;dr: it depends where you think the city boundaries are).

A little more googling turns up a fascinating 2003 paper “Transport Energy Use and Greenhouse Gases in Urban Passenger Transport Systems: A Study of 84 Global Cities” (by the same Kenworthy), which has a graph of exactly the data I need:

But of course, it points me back at the same UITP dataset for the actual numbers. Darn.

Then there’s a UNEP report dated March 2011, “Technologies for Climate Change Mitigation – Transport Sector“, which uses the same data, but actually does plot the graph I’m after:

It’s a little better than the previous version, but still doesn’t label the individual cities (which one is Toronto??). And of course, although the report is dated 2011, it’s still the same 2001 dataset from UITP.

So where else might I get data like this? A little more googling and I hit what looks like the jackpot: An extensive list of resources on transportation statistics. Unfortunately, the only one that seems to have the transport data by city is the UITP dataset. Back to that paywall again.

In the meantime, I seem to have launch George Monbiot off into an investigation of the academic publishing racket, exploring why the results of publicly funded research is invariably behind a paywall:

I look forward to reading his blog post on that topic. Meanwhile, I’m off to track down someone on campus who might already have the UITP CD-ROM…

Update 4-Jul-2011: Chris Kennedy sent me his 2009 paper in which he did a detailed analysis for 10 cites, with an update of the density vs transport energy consumption curve. He tells me he has the energy data for more cities, but not the density data, as this is very hard to do consistently. Oh, and silly me – I’d already blogged this, together with Chris’ graph last year. Here’s Chris’s graph. He says “The logarithm of urbanized density has a statistically significant fit (t stat ) -10.26) against the logarithm of GHG emissions from transportation fuels with an R2 of 0.93 (Table 2). The logarithm of average personal income is statistically insignificant (t stat ) -0.35).” (p7299)

Chris also tells me the IEA report on the world’s energy, due out later this year, will chapter on cities, with an update of the graph.

As a followup to my post earlier this week about how dangerous cycling is in Toronto, I decided to take my camera with me on my daily commute. Over two days, I managed to take snaps of the many wonderful uses of bike lanes – it turns out these are incredibly versatile strips of land. Which means the city would be crazy not to maintain them properly, right? Eh? Oh:

Well, anyway. Here’s my ABC of the many wonderful uses of bike lanes.

Bike lanes are for: Ambulances, in case of accidents:

Bike lanes are for: Bi-modal parking, because sidewalks just aren’t big enough:

Bike lanes are for: Council vans, because there’s nowhere to park the fleet:

Bike lanes are for: Deliveries, so every store should have one:

Bike lanes are for: Excavating, to save us digging up car lanes:

Bike lanes are for: Free parking, just right for a quick bit of shopping:

Bike lanes are for: Going around, because we like the scenic route:

Bike lanes are for: Hydro vans, because mobile workshops are cool:

Bike lanes are for: Idiots, who swim against the flow:

Bike lanes are for: Junk piles, because trash is expensive to haul:

Bike lanes are for: Kerb repairs, a safety margin for the crew:

Bike lanes are for: Lorries, although Canadians call them trucks:

Bike lanes are for: Manhole covers, spaced carefully across the lane:

Bike lanes are for: “No stopping” signs, though nobody knows they’re there:

Bike lanes are for: On-kerb parking, which the police just happen to ignore:

Bike lanes are for: Patching practice, because road crews have to learn:

Bike lanes are for: Quantities of dirt, which are just too big for elsewhere:

Bike lanes are for: Rails. Streetcar rails. You never know when you’ll need them:

Bike lanes are for: Spillovers, because building sites are so small:

Bike lanes are for: Timber piles – look how much will fit:

Bike lanes are for: Unexpected doors, that open in your face:

Bike lanes are for: Very large scoops, just waiting to make more holes:

Bike lanes are for: Washrooms, because even cyclists need to pee:

Bike lanes are for: TaXis, they’re out there cruising for fares:

Bike lanes are for: Yellow diggers, and yes, that’s the second one today:

Bike lanes are for: Zooming along, on the few occasions they’re clear:

Note: All photos were taken by me, this week, on my commute to work, except for the taxi, as the one I was trying to snap drove away too quick (see: Taxi photo credit). Click the photos for bigger versions on Flickr.

I thought I’d write a little on cycling in the Toronto this month, partly because is Bike Month, partly because I’ve been reading up on idea of complete streets, and partly because Toronto has just introduced a bike share system, Bixi bikes, and I fear for the consequences of more casual riders on Toronto’s dangerous streets. And because I bike to work everyday and spend most of my ride thinking about how things could be better. Oh, and because getting rid of our car-centred transport system is a key climate mitigation strategy.

Toronto is an awful city to bike in. The city streets are entirely car-centric, with a few bike lanes added in as an afterthought. The thing is, I enjoy biking to work for much the same reasons I enjoy dangerous sports. I like the adrenalin rush, and I like the hyper-focus that’s necessary to survive as a cyclist in Toronto. I’ve been doing it for many, many years, ever since I used to bike across central London as a grad student. I’ve been knocked off my bike twice in 25 years of inner city cycling (once in London, and once in Toronto), with no serious injuries either time, but then I’ve had good training in defensive biking. I ride fast and furious, I know how to own the road, and I know how to anticipate and avoid risks.

But dangerous sports are dangerous. I certainly don’t like the thought of my kids cycling on Toronto’s streets, even though I’d love them to be able to bike to school. The problem is that while the city has been developing a network of cycle lanes, the whole design is wrong. Worse than wrong – I think Toronto’s cycle lanes are more dangerous than the roads that don’t have them. The problem is that they’re formed just by drawing a white line a few feet from the curb. Which makes them an idea space for taxis to stop, delivery vehicles to park, construction crews to dump materials, and so on:

Where parking is allowed, there’s no buffer zone between the parking spaces and the bike line, which means that car doors are a hazzard – a neighbour of mine spent months off work with a broken shoulder recently because a car door opened in front of him.

On streets with bike lanes but no parking, there are “no stopping” signs everywhere, which are universally ignored. This makes cycling much more dangerous – whenever the bike lane is blocked, cyclists have to weave into the main traffic lane, which is now only just wide enough for cars and trucks. Such weaving is more dangerous than cycling along in the main traffic lane all the time. I used to get angry about this, and swear at people who stop their vehicles in the bike lane. But eventually I realized this isn’t the fault of the drivers – it’s the fault of the bike lane design. Delivery vehicles and taxis have to stop frequently, and will always pull to the curb to do so. The bike lane actually encourages this – it’s the ideal space, just out of the main traffic lane, perfect for temporary stops. It’s like the people who designed the bike lanes have no idea about the theory of affordances: what they’ve done is create a strip of road that’s just perfect for drivers to pull over into when they need to stop to pick up passengers or to drop off deliveries.

What we need are physically separated bike lanes. Ones that cannot be used by motor vehicles, because there is a physical barrier to stop them. It’s great to see the Toronto Cyclists Union taking this up as a serious project, and the city has even commissioned a feasibility study, due to be completed later this month.

But that still leaves us with a few other problems to solve. One is that most schools in Toronto are not reachable by bike, because nobody ever considered how to support safe biking to school for kids. The other is that, no matter how the streets are designed, there’s no accounting for stupidity. I’ll leave you with this wonderful video to explain what I mean by stupidity:


3-Way Street from ronconcocacola on Vimeo.

Fabio sent me some pointers to upcoming conferences on IT and climate change:

Pity that two of them coincide! I guess this complements my earlier post on readings in Green IT.