Collecting data to see if cyclists break traffic laws more than drivers

Cyclists and drivers often do not get along but which group breaks the law more? Some researchers are hoping to find out:

These questions about sociology and infrastructure point to a more nuanced picture of what’s happening on city streets than most heated rhetoric — darn law-breaking bikers! — allows. Marshall, who co-directs the Active Communities Transportation Research Group with Kevin Krizek, wants to research this scofflaw behavior, why people say they do it (drivers and cyclists alike), and when they don’t.

As part of this research project, they and Ph.D. student Aaron Johnson and Savannah State’s Dan Piatkowski are running a survey that they hope will gather broad data on all of our behavior (go ahead and help science out here, even if you’re not a cyclist yourself).

Most of us, whatever mode we travel, break the law at some point, Marshall points out, whether we’re driving five miles over the speed limit, or crossing the street against the crosswalk. And yet, we tend not to treat lead-footed drivers with the same disapproval as cyclists who ride through stop signs, even though the former behavior is potentially more publicly harmful than the latter. Which raises another question: Are cyclists really more prolific scofflaws than drivers anyway?

More data on the scofflaws inside all of us could potentially help create safer streets, even, Marshall imagines, more productive public debate about how cars and cyclists coexist. There is some evidence, for instance, that cyclists may be less likely to ride the wrong way down one-way streets and more likely to wait at red lights when they’re given dedicated bike paths. This would make sense for a number of reasons.

I would like to think that having more data would solve the issues and help both sides look at the situation more rationally. However, I suspect both cyclists and drivers might prefer more anecdotal stories that privilege their own perspectives. People on the roads tend to get angry with the people right in front of them rather than with abstract groups. However, the data could be used to change the infrastructure – more bike lanes? more regulations for cyclists? Roads with no markings or separation from the sidewalks? – which then might have more direct effects.

Revival of urban conservatives in Southwestern cities?

Politico suggests that urban conservatives may be making a comeback in a few Southwest cities:

Squint, and you can see that Mesa is just one of several places where Republicans are creating a new model of conservatism for the post-Tea Party era, through an appealing blend of fiscal pragmatism and no-nonsense competence. Across the country, Republican cities are building new infrastructure and even embracing trendy liberal ideas like “new urbanism”—all while managing to keep costs in line and municipal workforces small and cost-effective. As the great, Democratic-run cities across the country—Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles—face fiscal calamity, America’s conservative cities are showing that there’s another way…

While Mesa has long pursued the lightly regulated development patterns that one would expect from the wellspring of Goldwater Republicanism, change is afoot. Over the past several years, the city has begun embracing development that’s downright trendy, and implementing policies that will make it more like Portland, Oregon, than Orange County, California…

The flair for new, pedestrian- and transit-friendly development extends beyond downtown. All through the city, Mesa is pursuing development policies that are downright crunchy. The city is undergoing a “road diet,” cutting one six-lane road to two, expanding sidewalks and adding bike lanes. “[We’re] trying to set the table for a more pedestrian-friendly environment,” says Richins, who has served on the City Council since 2008. A sprawling new park, adjacent to where the Chicago Cubs are building a new spring training stadium (another development that Smith spearheaded), has recently opened…

While it’s willing to make investments, Mesa is also lean in ways that more bloated liberal cities can’t boast. Take the City Council. Despite Mesa’s hefty population, council members are part-timers who have day jobs in fields from education to copper mining. City leaders also pay themselves considerably less than those in other cities do. Mesa City Council members make only $33,000 a year, and the mayor is paid only $73,000. (And those salaries represent the fruits of a big raise: Before last year, city councilmembers made less than $20,000 a year and the mayor earned only $36,000.) By contrast, as of 2012, in similarly sized Fresno, the mayor made $126,000; city council members brought home nearly $65,000. In neighboring Phoenix, meanwhile, the mayor makes $88,000 and city councilmen earn more than $61,000.

In fact, Mesa is lean all around. The entire municipal workforce stands at only about 3,200 people, down from approximately 3,600 before the recession, and only the firefighters and police officers are unionized. (The school district is separate from the city.) The city doesn’t hand out the fat union contracts that make infrastructure projects in blue states so outlandishly expensive (and thereby reduce support for infrastructure spending, period). During the Great Recession, when area construction companies were reeling and desperate for business after housing starts had fallen off a cliff, the city inked a number of extremely cost-efficient deals—literally building three firehouses for the price of four.

And the article goes on with brief descriptions of conservative moves in Oklahoma City, Indianapolis, and Colorado Springs. But, while the story of Mesa sounds interesting, this is the problem with such an article: how do we know that these cities are representative of other American cities or of a broader social movement? They may be representative but the article doesn’t give us enough information to know. In fact, the opening of the story makes it sound as if it is strange enough to find even one conservative city, let alone four. So, which is it: are these cities really rare or are there lots of cities like this?

If I had to guess, here is what I would put forward: if you grouped big cities in some different population categories (say 1+ million, 500,000-999,999, 250,000-499,999, 100,000-249,999), you would find more conservative versus liberal cities as you move down the categories. While I don’t have the time to look into this right now, this would be a fairly easy hypothesis to test.

The median college loan debt: $12,800

Growing calls for ways to deal with college loan debt can lead to a statistical question: just how much does “the average” college student owe? Here are some of the figures:

Meet Kelli Space. She went to Northeastern University to get a degree in sociology. And she graduated in $200,000 of student loan debt. In the economy’s newest trillion-dollar crisis, she is the 1 percent.

Kelli is not the face of America’s student debt problem. Among the 37 million people in this country with student loans to pay off, the median balance is $12,800. A whole 72 percent of borrowers have less than $25,000 left in debt, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

No, students like Kelli are the rarities, the white rhinos. Only about 5 percent of borrowers owe more than $75,000.

The key figures for me: the median is $12,800, meaning that half of people with student loans have less than this figure, half have more. Yet, nearly three-quarters of those with loans have less than $25,000 to pay off. Only 11% have more than $50k in debt.

So why do we keep hearing stories about those who owe mega amounts of money? Perhaps we might think of them as canaries in the mine shaft, students who show how bad the college finance system might be today. But, on the other hand, the statistics suggest that these students are rarities, people who have unusual debt. From these anecdotal and relatively rare stories, it seems like there is a pattern: a student goes to a prestigious school banking on the name of the school to pay off. (One common argument you will find online is that the major should be blamed – this usually puts more creative disciplines, the humanities, and subjects like sociology at the center of blame.) But, the name doesn’t always pay off, the student can’t find a good enough job to start paying off these debts, and the interest just continues to grow.

Overall, we need to work with the statistics more than the anecdotes: most college students do not have more than $25,000 of debt. This is not a small amount but it can be tackled (though the economy doesn’t help).

How do we know if there is a small house trend?

One summary of 2011 makes a provocative claim: “How Small Spaces Trumped McMansions.” The problem: the review has little to no evidence to back up this claim.

Here are ways we could know that small spaces really trumped McMansions:

1. Look at the average size of the new American home. This has indeed dropped. But this doesn’t necessarily mean Americans are buying small or tiny houses, just smaller new homes. And McMansions have been on the decline for the last few years, not just in 2011.

2. Look at how many small or tiny homes are sold. I haven’t seen any statistics on this nor do I know if anyone is actually compiling this data.

3. Look at whether there is an increase in media coverage of small or tiny homes. I wouldn’t be surprised if this did happen in 2011 but this means a change in media coverage, not necessarily a shift in people’s actions.

4. Look at what builders say they will be building in the near future. Builders seem to think the trend is downward but again, I don’t think most of them are really building small houses, just smaller.

5. Look at whether small or tiny homes are drawing the attention of our best thinkers about homes (architects, designers, others) and government officials. Perhaps this has happened but some data would be nice.

Overall, we need some more data about this possible trend. I think there is evidence that McMansions have been on the decline but we need more data about small houses.

Measuring the popularity of tiny houses

I enjoy looking at pictures of tiny houses, those abodes with around 100 square feet. Perhaps it has something to do with my interest in home designs or my liking of cozy places or thinking about how Americans are finding alternatives to buying large homes.

But it is difficult to get a handle on exactly how many people like these houses or actually decide to buy them. One thing is sure: it is a small number of people. But this story suggests the number of people interested is on the rise:

Tumbleweed’s business has grown significantly since the housing crisis began, Shafer said. He now sells about 50 blueprints, which cost $400 to $1,000 each, a year, up from 10 five years ago. The eight workshops he teaches around the country each year attract 40 participants on average, he said…

Since the housing crisis and recession began, interest in tiny homes has grown dramatically among young people and retiring Baby Boomers, said Kent Griswold, who runs the Tiny House Blog, which attracts 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a day…

Gregory Johnson, who co-founded the Small House Society with Shafer, said the online community now has about 1,800 subscribers, up from about 300 five years ago. Most of them live in their small houses full-time and swap tips on living simple and small.

Johnson, 46, who works as a computer consultant at the University of Iowa, said dozens of companies specializing small houses have popped up around the country over the past few years…

He said his small houses, which sell for $20,000 to $50,000, are much cheaper than building a home addition and can be resold when the extra space is no longer needed. His company has sold 16 houses this year and aims to sell 20 next year.

These numbers are small – and anecdotal. Even with this rise in popularity, there are still few people interested in selling or buying tiny houses. Are there enough people here to declare that there is a “tiny house movement”? Why not include figures about how many people have joined Facebook groups having to do with tiny houses?

While the popularity of these homes might be indicative that more Americans are interesting in downsizing, the better figure to look at is the average size of the new American single-family home. Taking into account national data, this figure dropped this year and suggests that houses across the country are becoming slightly smaller (or at least reversing the trend of always getting bigger).