Category Archives: science and quantitative analysis

Year of the Bird

Nature is made to conspire with spirit to emancipate us. Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

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I awoke before dawn in our tent listening to the music of the birds.  Owls were hooting in the dark, and coyotes yipped and howled.  The cranes roosting in the playa waters were noisy most of night. I bundled up and opened the tent flap.  It was freezing outside.  Stars were shining across the sky and a faint band of white light was glowing on the eastern horizon.  I lit the stove and heated water.  I looked around.  The backbone of the milky way arched overhead, the dark shapes of the mountains skylighted by dawn.  I poured the water over the coffee, cradled the cup, and sipped.  It was a great day for birding at Whitewater Draw Wildlife Area in Arizona.

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Whitewater Draw is a playa and wetlands in the Sulphur Springs Valley.  It was purchased by Arizona in 1997 to provide habitat for the cranes and other wildlife.  The cranes like to rest in the shallow waters at night, protected from bobcats and coyotes.  They fly out every morning to feed in the fields on bits of grain and corn that were left over from harvest season.

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Whitewater Draw has camping, which makes it easy to be out at the edges of the day when the birds are flying in and out.  Every morning and evening we walked on the pathways and decks with views of the playa.  At nighttime the stars reflected in the calm waters.  We met some great people.  One retired couple joked they had run away from their home in Alabama, and were taking their sweet time exploring the Southwest U.S.  Their plan was to not have a plan, just explore.  Another couple was younger and were taking a year off to travel.  Conversation flowed cheerily as we watched the birds glide, overlooking the watery playa and expansive valley and mountains beyond.  The small crowd of people Whitewater attracts is friendly and easy going.  Everyone was attuned to the language of the landscape, the beauty of the surroundings.

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I came home with questions to research.  I was excited to learn that 2018 is being celebrated as “the year of the bird” by the National Audubon Society, National Geographic, BirdLife International, and Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  It’s the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which has played a critical role in conservation of biodiversity.  The Sulphur Springs Valley is a good example of balancing human activities such as agriculture and conservation, and ecological stewardship, partnerships made to last.  It was good to see these birds considered, admired, and cared for.  I certainly learned a lot from them while I was there.

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If you take care of birds, you take care of most of the environmental problems in the world.  –Thomas Lovejoy, Biologist and Godfather of Biodiversity

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Resources and Credits (and cycling info.):
Thank you Mai at Sansai Studio for these wonderful photographs!  You can check out more of Mai’s work at her Instagram site:  https://sansai.photoshelter.com/instagram

The Whitewater Draw live, streaming crane cam!  https://www.azgfd.com/wildlife/viewing/webcamlist/sandhillcrane/cranecam/

The Year of the Bird website:  https://www.nationalgeographic.org/projects/year-of-the-bird/

We brought our bicycles with us.  What a way to experience the landscape! I plan on blogging about the riding there, but for now, here are maps, data, and pics from those rides, via Strava.
https://www.strava.com/activities/1353895700
https://www.strava.com/activities/1352328961

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A Complete World (Great Sand Dunes continued)

I think we will wind up as a healthier community because we had to come together to restore the aquiferGeorge Whitten, San Luis Valley rancher, quoted in High Country News

If most of the earth will be a Phoenix suburb by 2050 as the Onion sardonically conjectured, Great Sands Dunes and the San Luis Valley of Colorado will surely be one of the last outliers of unconfined space.  Mai and I visited there to celebrate the National Park Service’s 100 year anniversary, when the entrance fee was free.  We camped at Piñon Flats for a couple days and vowed not to use the car, exploring the park on foot and by bicycle.  At first I felt conflicted about taking the car option out but leaving it parked was a most liberating limitation.

mais-cycling-journey

The San Luis Valley is a broad alluvium perched at 7,600 feet above sea level. Mountains ring the valley, supplying the Rio Grande, which runs through it.  The valley’s area is about the size of the entire state of New Jersey.  The San Juan and Sangre de Cristo ranges shield the valley from storms, an orographic effect, resulting in an alpine desert making the river and aquifers so very important.  The scale of the San Luis Valley is so expansive the huge sand dunes seem tucked right in and don’t even make a dent in the enormous space.  The dunes are eroded mountains, carried and anchored by water, blown by the wind.  Although the dunes appear simple and austere, the ecosystem is rich, complex and sensitive, and the management plan was updated in 2000 to protect more of the socio-ecological system and diverse habitats.

bee-plant-by-medano-road

We cycled to the visitor center after setting up camp.  Gliding through the clean alpine air, sun pressing on skin, drove home the sense of awesomeness of this place.  The campground is perfectly positioned at the sand sheet’s edge with walking access to Medano Creek, the dunefield and upland trails.  Plus they have a campground store with everything you need, kinda.  We needed ice cream after our bike ride underneath the white hot sun, and the store had ice cream available.  A good arrangement for replenishing the mind, body and spirit.

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exuberance

Boundaries in nature are not always obvious.  The viewshed from the park into the greater valley is integral to understanding how resources are used to make a living here.  Circular fields on 160 acre plots dot the land.  These farms use center pivot irrigation–a technology adapted from the Great Plains–to supplement the sparse 7 or 8 inches of annual rainfall.  Although the scale of the agriculture is industrial, I’m encouraged by the steps residents are taking to integrate sustainability into every aspect of planning and operations.  Some farmers are experimenting with crops that are nutritious but use less water, such as Quinoa.  The Nature Conservancy runs two ranches adjacent to the Park, Zapata and Baca Ranches, in a unique partnership to conserve the water and soil that sustains quality life and stabilizes the land.

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Each morning we awoke before sunrise and walked.  Crossing Medano Creek and climbing up the dunes to observe the day’s first light pouring down onto the earth was spectacular.  When you walk into the landscape and immerse yourself, a whole other world reveals itself.

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The landscape exerts a certain pull on human hearts.   If you love this land, practicing conservation is true patriotism.  When it comes to experiencing our National Parks, conservation helps us see the benefits of encouraging walking and cycling in a new and clear light.  I’m glad we took the time to stay awhile and develop a personal rapport with this place.

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Resources:
http://www.oneonta.edu/faculty/baumanpr/geosat2/Dry_Land_Water/Dry_Land_Water.htm
Happy 100th Birthday National Park Service https://www.nps.gov/subjects/centennial/index.htm
#NPS100

The Quiet Catastrophe

Door to Door by Edward Humes book cover“He ultimately makes clear that transportation is one of the few big things we can change—our personal choices do have a profound impact.”  —book review of Door to Door

Edward Humes has a book out today called Door to Door. The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation.  There’s an essay introducing the book in The Atlantic.  A main theme is the high prices we are paying for cars.  Knowledge about the cost of cars is critical to understand, yet somehow it alludes our conscious grasp.  Jim McNamara, a sergeant with the California Highway Patrol, says the car problem is “massive but diffuse. Whether it’s climate change or car crashes, if the problem doesn’t show itself all at once—as when an airliner goes down with dozens or hundreds of people on board—it’s hard to get anyone’s attention.”
Here are some quick facts.

  • since 9/11 more than 400,000 men, women, and children have died on America’s roads
  • California Highway Patrol spends 80% of their time responding to car crashes
  • MIT calculates that 53,000 Americans die prematurely every year from vehicle pollution
  • Car crashes are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of 1 and 39
  • each week car crashes take American lives at a rate equivalent to four airliner crashes

What do we do?  Change our perspective on driving.  Status quo fixes like adding traffic lanes “only attracts more cars.  It’s called the rule of induced demand and it’s like trying to solve overeating by loosening your belt,” Humes writes.  We can start by taking driving more seriously. Gone are the days when driving seemed carefree.  Building local scale economies for food and energy and simplifying our lives helps.  Think of this as opportunity for innovation.

Resources:  Edward Humes’ website has several press releases on his new book.
http://www.edwardhumes.com/
Facts and quotes for this blog post are from:
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2016/04/absurd-primacy-of-the-car-in-american-life/476346/
https://hbr.org/2016/04/why-the-future-of-e-commerce-depends-on-better-roads

the good outing we had Sunday at Golden Open Space stays with me for days

good outings, like Sunday’s walk at Golden Open Space, stay with me for days.  Still snow on the Sandias

CenterLines, the Active Transportation Digest

CenterLines, the National Center for Bicycling and Walking’s biweekly news bulletin, covers current developments in the world of active transportation in North America.  It’s a one stop source for all things bicycling and walking and more.  If you’re just beginning to investigate active transportation, an experienced professional, or somewhere in between, CenterLines is a smorgasbord of opportunities, ideas, and ways to make new connections.  It covers research, policies, events, conferences, job listings, trainings, news and ways to get involved.  Here are a couple content examples from the most recent CenterLines issue published on March 23.

* Health Impacts of Active Transportation in Europe
This study measured the health impact of increased bicycling and walking in six European cities.  Increases in cycling to 35% of all trips improved health the most of all the scenarios analyzed in the study.  The research team concluded that “Increased collaboration between health practitioners, transport specialists and urban planners will help to introduce the health perspective in transport policies and promote active transportation” for substantial benefits.

* The International Mtn. Biking Assocation (IMBA) World Summit is in Bentonville, AR
November 10-12, 2016 Arkansas welcomes the IMBA summit, which gathers together mountain bikers, public land stewards, the business community and advocates of all kinds.  I was just in Arkansas visiting my grandmother and it is an incredible place to bicycle (blog posts here).  When IMBA came to Santa Fe in 2012 the local scene “got discovered.”  Certainly Northwest Arkansas will experience a similar recognition for their beautiful countryside and the way local communities have wholeheartedly embraced cycling as a way to explore the Natural State.

*CenterLines has a Quotes R Us section.  “Our ultimate goal is to improve the economic and environmental health of American communities and the personal health of the people who live there.  To achieve this, we will reconnect America with trails in the same way that railroads once connected people and places.”  –Keith Laughlin, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy President

CenterLines is free, published online and open to the general public.  It is a good place to start and come back to when you want to grow your understanding of the quickly expanding frontiers of the active transportation world.  The presentation is not flashy, but the content is deep, diverse, and leading edge.  The National Center for Bicycling and Walking is my Bike Org. of the Month for March 2016.  Keep up the important work that you are doing.  Arigato.

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Spring bloom outside of Mesa Vista Hall on the main campus of UNM in central Albuquerque

Focus on Bicycling and Walking

The US DOT blog ran this headline last week.  “Collaboration the key to improving pedestrian and bicyclist safety.”  It was announcing the release of a report following up on the Road Safety Assessments that were performed across America with a focus on bike and pedestrian safety.  Here’s the report:  https://www.transportation.gov/ped-bike-safety/pedestrian-and-bicyclist-safety-assessment-report

As part of the Safer People, Safer Streets initiative, the FHWA partnered with local agencies and stakeholders all across the country to look at pedestrian and walking conditions, and reported back on what they found.  Their holistic approach cuts across disciplines and agency boundaries, building new communities of practice.   This effort is a strategic realignment, placing people at the center of transportation, not any one travel mode.  Bicycling and pedestrian facilities are key components of a complete transportation system.

The Federal Highway Administration has been working to establish a strategic agenda for advancing bicycling and walking transportation.  They’ve been developing resources, building recommendations and initiating projects to foster conversation and raise awareness around biking and walking transportation safety, access and choice.  This report gives a narrative of the effort so far and discusses projects under development and next steps forward.  It is a compendium of tools and resources for citizens, professionals and managers.

Here are some excerpts from the report.  Page numbers noted are from the PDF file.  Check out Appendix 4 of the report for a full list of resources and tools for active transportation.

“The assessments for the Secretary’s initiative focused on building relationships.” (p16)
“During the assessment, participants observed cyclists riding on the sidewalk rather than on the roadway, which while not prohibited in that area, could indicate that cyclists do not feel comfortable biking on the street.” (29)
“Comprehensively addressing a problem may require more than one approach, including both engineering and non-engineering solutions.” (35)
“Many agencies have an incomplete picture of the extent of the use of and demand for safe walking and bicycling facilities.” (37)
Many roadway designs, whether constructed decades ago or quite recently, have prioritized driver comfort and safety over pedestrian and bicyclist comfort and safety.  Observed characteristics of disconnected networks for non-motorists included: Wide, multi-lane roads, without pedestrian facilities such as a median refuge or high-quality bicycle facilities, that contribute to high speeds and increase risk of exposure for nonmotorized users. (20).

 

Ethics in Driving

“Too often, bicyclists are treated as scapegoats for the consequences of negligent motoring behaviors.”  –BikeWalk NC on developing a culture of driving at a safe speed

The article the leading quote is from reminded me of a main barrier for promoting bicycling.  The State Traffic Engineer is quoted as indicating bicyclists should ride on the right edge of a narrow rural lane road.  The engineer’s guidance is opposite of what we know to be safe.  The League of American Bicyclists smart cycling guide advises “when a lane is too narrow to share safely, ride in the middle of the lane”.   What can we do about this discrepancy?

We begin with taking responsibility for making bicycling safety common knowledge.  Part of this process is releasing any prejudices that prevent us from acting on right knowledge even when we know it to be true.  Often times when people say conditions are unsafe for bicycling or walking, the unspoken part is that it is unsafe because of the way people are driving.  If we are driving and our braking distance exceeds the sight distance, we are driving too fast for conditions.  Driving too fast for conditions is a behavior that makes roads unsafe for all users.  BikeWalk NC concludes that developing a culture of safer speeds involves shifting the focus away from blaming vulnerable people using the road to raising the expectations for drivers.

This mindset for universal road safety is essential for those in leadership positions.  We can not afford for State Engineers to be aloof on safety.  When I first started talking to people about bike safety, I was shocked with how many people either had the wrong idea or denied the safety of bicyclists.  I spoke to a county supervisor and a board member of a bicycling advocacy organization that expressed the exact sentiment as this State Engineer.  Rather than blaming, we can simply begin by cultivating appropriate attitudes based on responsibility and safety.  Individuals changing can inspire confidence.  We have to change the way we think about driving cars by envisioning driving in a way that is compatible with bicycling, walking, and safety for all.

References:

BikeWalkNC is a cutting edge advocacy group.  I’m really impressed by the way they are leading the way through persistent challenges by fostering clear and constructive dialogue.  Thank you!

Clarifying That Bicycles May Use Full Lane

A published study uses empirical evidence to show that the “Bicycles May Use Full Lane” sign works better than the “share the road” sign for raising the perception that bicyclists are an expected presence on the American road.  While “share the road” was a well intentioned campaign, the ambiguity of the message decreased effectiveness.  Clearer is safer.   Here’s the study:  http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0136973

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The Bicycles May Use Full Lane sign is a standard sign in the Manual of Uniform Traffic Control Devices.  It may be used on any road regardless of speed limit.  It explicitly states a principle that is essential for the safe operation of a bicycle, and improves relations between bicycle and motorized traffic by educating the public that the road is designed to serve bicycle as well as motorized traffic.  For guidance on deciding when you should use the full lane, see this piece, “Where to Ride on the Road“.  It is from the excellent resource at azbikelaw.org/  and collates the best advice on choosing positioning from leading bicycling authorities.

The key is a person bicycling has a right and responsibility to decide for themselves where to safely position on the roadway.  Fundamentals of bicycle driving include being predictable, visible, following the rules for drivers, anticipating and avoiding hazards.  It is common for operating conditions to necessitate that people bicycling use the general travel lane.   This sign affirms that right.  The study says that “The Bicycles May Use Full Lane signage showed notable increases in comprehension among novice bicyclists and private motor vehicle commuters, critical target audiences for efforts to promote bicycling in the USA”.   It also draws attention to the web of benefits that a growing understanding and a healthier practice of bicycling allows us to connect to, including realizing greater transportation efficiency and cost savings, increased health, reduced stress on the road, greater mobility freedom, the satisfaction of using our bodies, the independence of self reliance, and a higher quality, more attuned life.

References:

Once again, here’s the study:
“Bicycles May Use Full Lane” Signage Communicates U.S. Roadway Rules and Increases Perception of Safety
More from azbikelaw.org on sharing the road.  This is where I first saw the study (Thanks Ed!):
http://azbikelaw.org/whats-wrong-with-sharing/
The study was done by researchers as NC State University.  They are conservation biologists & “work to unravel the drivers of environmental behavior on which global sustainability depends.”  Bicycling is the most integrative, multidisciplinary, holistically beneficial activity on the planet.
http://www4.ncsu.edu/~mnpeters/
A related post on the “Sharrow” lane marking:
http://azbikelaw.org/bicycles-may-use-full-lane-slm-mutcd-updates/
A related misperception is that bicycles may not delay traffic.  In fact New Mexico is one of 42 States that make it explicit impeding laws only apply to motor vehicles.  This means that people bicycling are permitted to move at speeds that are fitting and natural for their bicycle travel.
http://www.cazbike.org/bicycles-are-not-motor-vehicles-and-why-it-matters/