Sharing the Road in 1906

The other day I saw a link posted for one of the most interesting transportation videos I have ever seen. It is about an 11-minute video of a trip down Market Street in San Francisco in 1906 before the fire/earthquake. From what I have read about it, someone filmed it with a camera placed in front of a street car that was moving down the road. One of the thoughts I had as I viewed it is that this is a perfect example of how many forms of transportation share a road. There are a multitude of pedestrians, bicycles, street cars, motor vehicles, and horse-driven vehicles moving everywhere. While it is very interesting to watch how everything interacts, I can't help but wonder how many accidents and injuries were experienced. And I wonder how efficient it was. 

I also found out someone filmed the same journey in 2005. It is interesting to watch both and compare how transportation has changed and how it has remained the same in 100 years. What will it be like 100 more years from now?

(Here is the link to the film in case the embed below is not working: and here is a link to an article with more information about the actual film:


Here is the 2005 video:


Create Your Own Bridge While the WashDOT Builds Theirs

There's a reason I bring up the Washington DOT every time I give a presentation about using social media in public works. They were early on the scene to realize how much social media could assist them in public relations, and they've done a great job figuring out how best to engage the public. And just when I thought they couldn't possibly get any cooler, they come up with an innovative bridge building initative to help people understand and take part in the process. 

The way it seems to work is that as pontoons for the actual bridge are constructed, the Washington DOT posts materials people can use to construct their own representative pontoons. They also have videos showing the transport of the actual pontoons to the jobsite. The activity offers the public an interesting and interactive way to better understand the bridge and what is actually taking place on the jobsite. Here's the description of how it works from their site along with a photo of one of the templates that can be used to construct a pontoon.

"As we complete the construction of each pontoon and bring them to Lake Washington, we will post new templates here. Each pontoon is individually named according to its location within the final bridge structure. Simply print, cut along the indicated lines and then fold your pontoon for final construction."

Washington DOT Pontoon Template


Kinect, Robotics, Highway Safety, and Saving Lives



There's been a lot of talk about the use of Kinect and robotics. Yes, people have figured out how to use Microsoft's awesome gadget to manipulate robots. And Microsoft even has a Robotics website and development toolkits for this purpose. But so far, most of the demos I have seen focus on using robots to help with housework or serve as a companion. Not that this is bad, but I wonder if anyone has been looking at the use of this technology in public works. One of the first applications I'd look at is using it to assist flaggers in highway construction work zones.

Out of the almost 33,000 motor vehicle fatalities in 2010, 576 were in a work zone. While some education of the public and workers and improvements to the layout and set up of the work zone can help reduce this number, there's not much that can be done to help deaths of flaggers. Between 2003 and 2010 a range of 6 to 19 flaggers were killed in the U.S. each year. Unfortunately by the nature of their job, flaggers are stuck having to stand in close proximity to traffic. And there's only so much they can do to protect themselves from a driver who loses control of a vehicle for any reason. 

There's been some efforts to enhance visibility of the flagger or replace the human with a mechanical device. But from what I understand the mechanical device is not always a full solution. But while discussing this dilemna with another engineer, we started wondering if the Kinect/robotic solution could be implemented here. The robot could be designed to maximize visibility and it would remove the human from any danger and possibly even allow the human flagger to be placed in a better position. The human would no longer have to stand in the hot sun or freezing weather and could perhaps even be stationed somewhere that gave them a better view of the work zone and traffic. However, it would still be their judgement and training and movements behind the robot's operation.

Here's a video with a demonstration of someone using a robot to cut a banana. Sure it's a far cry from flagging in a work zone, but hopefully it conveys the possibilities. So all you programmers out there looking for an awesome use and product application for Kinect driven robotics, how about creating the robotic flagger and save some lives!? (And you can learn more about work zone safety here: The National Work Zone Safety Information Clearinghouse)



House Transportation Bill: The Only Logical Solution




I work at the bottom of the transportation food chain. At this level, we have some very basic needs. Each year, we need to fix roads, and we need to find the money to do so. And for the first time in my career, Congress seems to be considering a transportation bill that might just address these needs. Now, I've read all the articles condemning the bill and prophesying impending doom. But I don't believe any of these have been written by anyone actually managing transportation systems for an average community. They are written by journalists, politicians, organizations, bike and ped enthusiasts/supporters, transit supporters, planners, and members of the general public. Their complaints against the bill seem to stem from their hatred of roads and gas and their love of transit and bike/ped facilities and some from their reliance on the non-road programs funded by past bills. And while I might agree with them that roads and our reliance on gas are non-sustainable and antiquated, I cannot ignore that the majority of the public depends on our road system and wants us to fix roads.

The very basic fact of this situation is we currently have a population highly dependent on cars and roads for movement of people, goods, and services. Past transportation bills did not focus on the support of this system. Instead they took money paid by the users of this system and used it to pay for systems supporting bikes, peds, transit, museums, streetscapes, etc. I realize the reasoning behind this was that somehow by building all these other facilities we would offset the negative environmental impact of the road system. And while these other improvements did help offset some impacts and increased our quality of life, they did little to remove our reliance on the road system. Instead past transportation bills have depleted our user fees and left us with a crumbling road system that has been neglected too long with no way to pay for fixing it. 

So it appears Congress has somehow figured out what all of us having to actually manage the road system have always known: if we are going to rely on the road system, we need transportation money to fix the roads. Just try to imagine if tomorrow you woke up and the roads were gone and all we had were bikes and transit as it exists today. How would you get to work? How would your kids get to school? How would your garbage get picked up? How would the grocery store where you shop get their product? How would an ambulance get to your home? If the water pipes broke in your home and you could not fix them, is the plumber going to ride his bike to your home pulling a cart with his tools? Whether we personally use roads or not, we all rely on roads. And as long as we do, can we really afford to ignore their repair?

The other problem Congress seems to be addressing is the gas tax issue. We have been losing revenue from the gas tax due to more efficient cars and less use of gas by the public. Congress does not want to raise the gas tax because that would be highly unpopular, and hopefully they realize that is not a sustainable solution even in the short term.  Now, I am not even close to being very knowledgeable about how the whole energy ecosystem operates so I am looking at this from a very basic viewpoint. But it seems they have decided that if they can't raise taxes, they need to increase the public's use of gas. The only way that will happen is if gas prices fall. So it makes me wonder if this drilling provision is to increase the gas supply which could lead to a lowering of the prices. I realize there are probably other incentives and reasons for them to allow drilling, but those are unrelated to the gas tax.

While I am not supportive of the drilling provision, I can see why they would choose this route. Congress has ignored moving forward on the study of an alternative to the gas tax so any other solution would take too long to implement. Some alternatives also have the potential to be a disruption to the public and auto-related industries. So perhaps the drilling ended up as the most obvious solution to them for the moment. I am not sure there is another expedient solution other than raising taxes. And I've not heard any other solutions from the opponents of the bill.

It's somewhat ironic that the bill's opponents want Congress to enact the same old legislation that pays for all the non-road components with the money generated by the use of roads, but they don't want to pay to sustain the roads. That simply is not sustainable, and those of us working at the bottom knew eventually this would fall apart. It appears we are finally reaching that point. But because I share the opponent's frustration with our reliance on gas and roads and I enjoy and support bike/ped/transit facilities, I would prefer to see the opponents channel their passion and energy into making a real change. We need to admit the old way of paying for the non-road systems is not sustainable. And complaining about roads and urging Congress to neglect their repair is not practical. If we don't want our tax dollars supporting roads, we need to remove our reliance on them. And the only way to do that is to develop an alternative. We have a tremendous opportunity at hand to move forward and work together to create a well thought out infrastructure that is sustainable, efficient, more economical and friendly to the environment. A good start is to accept we need to unfortunately spend money to fix the system upon which we now rely and shift our focus to urging Congress to support the research and implementation of a new system that will meet our needs at all levels. Meanwhile, I'll go back to figuring out how to pay for fixing the 100 miles of roadway in our little community of 20,000+, but with a little more hope on the horizon.





Is the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card Really a Good Idea?

Wastewater Basin

As a member of the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), I regularly receive information and notices proclaiming their annual "grading" of our nation's infrastructure. There is even a website to promote this effort: My opinion on this might not be popular with my colleagues, but frankly I have never thought this report was valid or a good idea. Finally after reading a LinkedIn thread about how engineers get no respect and a related link criticizing the annual report card, I decided to share my thoughts, as an engineer, on this public relations effort.

First of all, imagine going to the Infrastructure Report Card website as an average citizen – not an engineer. On the site there is a listing of all the different categories of infrastructure we are responsible for designing, building, and maintaining such as water, wastewater, dams, bridges, roads, parks, etc. Not one of them has a grade above a C and the average is a D. Now imagine going to the medical association's website and seeing a listing of items for which they are responsible such as cancer, common cold, fractures, etc. and a related listing of grades. How would you feel about the medical profession if they gave themselves all C and D grades for those? Because on the face of it, that is how it looks to someone who is not involved in the industry – engineers are grading themselves for the work they do and the infrastructure for which they are responsible, and can't manage to get above a D average! Then we wonder why we get no respect!

Now, I realize those responsible for setting up this effort would respond by explaining that no, it's not a grade on our efforts, but a wake up call that government is not giving us enough funds to adequately build and maintain the infrastructure. Because that's what this is really all about, trying to convince legislators they need to funnel more money into infrastructure. But I don't think it's working, and it should be no surprise why not. If I was funding work by a group and the reports kept coming back every year that the work was underperforming, I would start asking some questions such as why is your work failing, what progress is being made with the funds, and what else can be done besides throwing more money at it? 

As an engineer, I am well aware of the need for funding, but as one who has worked in a severely economically depressed city for many years, I also realize that part of my job as an engineer is to figure out how to get the most from the money we have and explain to the elected officials the trade-offs for the different funding levels. Because that is what engineers are supposed to do best – analyze a problem, figure out solutions, attach dollars to them, and let elected officials decide which level of service they want. Then we build the best system we can with the money we receive.

In the last city where I worked, I would have graded our infrastructure efforts as an A because by working together, we were often able to figure out ways to get things done at a very acceptable level with very few dollars. If you drive through that community today, just about every road is in great shape while the neighboring community, whose coffers were always filled with millions more tax dollars than ours, has a proliferation of crumbling roads. This shows that while money is an important component, a successful system also requires people in government working together and making the right choices for the public good with patience and understanding of the goals and the ability to implement creative solutions.

And my past employer is far from unique – the fact is that many cities have systems that are well managed and maintained. I can't imagine anyone traveling across the U.S. coming to any conclusion other than the infrastructure in our country is very good. The true measure of success is demonstrated by the fact that the majority of us make it to work each day without even thinking of the roads we drive on, the water we use to get ready for work, the wastewater system that disposes of all the water we use, the stormwater systems that prevent any rain from keeping us from traveling safely, etc. So the real question is, how are we really measuring this grade?

I get the impression ASCE determines this grade by assuming a life for our assets and assigning a replacement cost then comparing that to funding levels. And because these levels don't match the replacement costs, we must be failing. The flaw in this is that just because something like a water main is more than 50 years old does not mean it is at the verge of imminent failure. But according to ASCE, if politicians don't give us money to rip it out at year 51, that main drops to a D. I've worked in cities where mains were 120 years old and were still delivering water to homes and businesses with no breaks or signs of failure. That's not a D, and it is irresponsible as an engineer to lead people to believe that it should be replaced strictly based on its age. Yesterday an engineer with a national consulting firm told me that in their experience they've noticed the older a main gets, the less chance it actually has of failing. And based on my experience, I agree. We also heard from that engineer and another at a different national firm, that most water main failures are occuring in mains built in the first few years after World War II because there was a decrease in the quality of materials at that time. And I can't understand how anyone can assign a life to PVC water main pipe since we don't have enough experience with it yet to really know how long it will last. Based on all this, it appears age is definitely not the only factor in determining the need for replacement.

So while it is a good idea to have some report of the state of our infrastructure, let's not fabricate the data just to get more business for our profession. And let's not use a grading system that leads people to believe we are all failures at the job with which the public has entrusted us. Instead we should choose to use an accurate and reasonable method of identifying and assessing our assets and reporting the actual projected costs to keep up with the management and maintenance of our system. Because no engineer I know really believes the Infrastructure Report Card is an accurate reflection of our nation's public works systems, it's not achieving the purpose for which ASCE has developed it, and most of us are not too happy that an organization representing our profession is falsely leading people to believe we are failures at our jobs.


Look Out! Driverless Vehicles are on the Horizon

After writing the other day about Google's car and the promise it holds for the future of our transportation, I was sent an awesome article written by Thomas Bamonte titled Information Becomes Infrastructure: Remaking the Highway Operating System in the Era of Smart Cars. Throughout the article, Bamonte, past general counsel for the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority, highlights many of the issues we will have to consider and the challenges we will have to face and solve as driverless technology spreads across the land. He also discusses many of the benefits to be realized by this innovative system and suggests possible funding mechanisms. It's definitely a must read for anyone working in the highway industry in any capacity.