Monday, February 11, 2013

In drones we trust

In response to a post by Ta-Nehisi Coates on the drone war, a good few comments blamed American arrogance for the willingness to kill people half a world away by remote control. While anyone who has spent as much time in the United States has encountered American optimism and its darker side, a kind of shallow, pep-rally self congratulation, I think the drone program arises from the darer side of a different American attribute. Americans have the ability to face difficult facts, if not head on then at least in the choices they make. The dark side to that comes out in a pessimism and uncertainty that contrasts with the official sunny American self image. After seventy years of insisting on the superiority of their system over state socialism, the collapse of the Soviet Union still took the American establishment by surprise. Today, the obverse of that pessimism shows not in imagining an invincible enemy, but in an appreciation of the fragility of American democracy.

On September 7, 1941, the Luftwaffe visited upon London an attack very similar to 9/11 in its casualty count and material damage. They kept up that level of violence for 57 straight nights. In proportion to the British population of the time, over the eight and a half months of the "blitz", or sustained bombing of Britain, the Luftwaffe inflicted over a hundred times the 9/11 casualties. British confidence in the war effort stayed high. Winston Churchill stayed popular.

American commentators have made their doubts that American democracy could sustain such an attack pretty clear. A contributor to Jim Henley's web log Unqualified Offerings put it thus: "if the American people react the way that I fear they will, then we will be truly screwed." The use of drones looks more like an improvised response to a deep insecurity. American drone policy looks more like the outcome of a group of people groping for the best way out of a bad situation than calculated evil. Given uncertainty about the robustness of American democracy in the face of a determined terror attack, I would expect American politicians and commentators to accede, in a somewhat queasy fashion, to the Obama administration's drone program; pretty much what they seem to have done.

Americans share this combination of brassy self-congratulation and inner uncertainty with most other nations, or at least with most other nations that aspire to the status of great power. And today, the Americans have considerable reason for uncertainty: the rapid development of technology has changed human conflict. Toward the end of the cold war, policy makers on all sides used irregular forces and armed groups to do what government troops had once done. In this century, politicians and others use robot weapons to do what human fighters used to. We live in a world of melting rules and boundaries written on the water. American leaders, and the American people, and in fact all of us, should feel troubled and uncertain.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Electric bicycles

In the Toronto cycling community, electric bicycles represent a point of contention. Some people strongly support the inclusion of electric bicycles as regular bicycles for all city purposes; others vehemently oppose this.

I believe that two factors should determine the treatment of electric bicycles: pollution and safety. Where pedal bicycles can mix safely with electric bicycles, we should allow electric bicycles; where they cannot, it makes sense to prohibit electric bicycles. Likewise, the distinction between an internal combustion powered vehicle and an electrical vehicle should depend primarily on the emissions of the latter.

We have a fair bit of evidence regarding emissions levels from internal combustion powered vehicles; this evidence indicates that motorcycles, scooters and mopeds emit more pollution than cars. For someone looking for a low speed vehicle for limited uses, a strong environmental case for electric scooters over internal combustion vehicle does exist.

That leaves the critical question of safety. I see this as a two part question. First, can electric bicycles or electric scooters safely mix with regular pedal bicycles? Second, will we get better infrastructure if we build it for both limited-speed electric vehicles, or bicycles alone? Although I have found studies and a video investigation of pedal bicycle stopping distances online, I have not yet seen any controlled comparison of the stopping distances of electric scooters and pedal bicycles. The regulations and safety requirements for both vehicle types would appear to permit a wide latitude in brake quality and design, so I question whether such a study that addressed a well maintained vehicle would cover all the bicycles, electrical and other, that I could expect to encounter.

Both my own experience and observation of developments in Toronto over the past decade convinces me personally that wherever possible, the city should provide separated infrastructure for commuting cyclists and pedestrians. This conviction stems primarily from my own experience on multi-use trails, from the Martin Goodman to the West Toronto railpath, but it also stems from the cases of two fatal bicycle-pedestrian collisions over the past six years. This implies that, for cyclists, the desirable infrastructure will cater to medium speeds, those ranging from about 15 kph to about 40 kph. The actual speed range of electrically assisted bicycles and electric scooters fits into this range.

Better infrastructure, meaning infrastructure that people actually use, creates a self-reinforcing process: as more people ride bikes, the political support for cycling infrastructure increases and the social tolerance for the currently common acts of motorist on cyclist harassment diminishes. That in turn, raises the number of cyclists, and experience in other jurisdictions suggests that the rising numbers alone play a significant role in cyclist safety. I believe the question of including electrically assisted bicycles and electric scooters in cycling infrastructure turns in large part on three questions: if we adapt existing infrastructure or plan proposed infrastructure to accommodate electric bikes and scooters, will will people who now ride electrical bikes join us in pressing for more infrastructure construction? If we do not do so, and exclude electric and electrically assisted vehicles from bicycle infrastructure, will current electric bike riders convert to pedal cyclists, or will they just drive cars? Finally, will the annoyance factor some cyclists appear to feel at  sharing infrastructure with powered vehicles lead them to avoid such shared lanes or paths?