Two places for regular vehicle accidents: The Snake on Mulholland Drive, short underpass in Durham

I ran across stories recently about two areas that experience numerous vehicle accidents. Not just a few but dozens of accidents over several years. Here they are:

1. A short underpass, eleven feet eight inches, in Durham, North Carolina takes off the tops of a number of trucks. Watch here:

Though authorities have made efforts to prevent vehicles from running into the low-ceilinged bridge – which as blinking lights and multiple signs warn, has a clearance of only 11 feet and 8 inches – the demonic structure continues to ruin the days of incautious drivers. “After a 5-month ‘dry spell,’ the Gregson St canopener got hungry again in November and December,” reports the bridge’s devoted biographer, Jürgen Henn…

Note the counter at bottom – that last collision marked at least 67 violent impacts since 2008 at this miserable crossing. As to why nobody’s fixed the wretched thing, as explained before 1) a sewer main right underneath is blocking the lowering of the road 2) the railroad company that maintains the bridge has installed a crash beam, so the problem is covered from its end 3) the city has put up signs about the low clearance as far back as three blocks, so it’s covered from its end.

2. The Snake is at one end of famous Mulholland Drive, known for its views of Los Angeles. Motorcycles, in particular, seem to have a lot of problems:

On any given Sunday, The Snake is overrun by drivers and motorcyclists. They’ve been hitting this spot 30 miles northwest of Hollywood for decades, but it became a hot destination in the 1960s when Steve McQueen started blasting through Mulholland on his Triumph. The road’s popularity grew over the years, and even an aggressive crackdown on speeding and a temporary shuttering of the road in the 1990s did little to slow the The Snake’s popularity. These days it isn’t uncommon to see celebrities like Jay Leno motoring through in six-figure cars. But it’s the motorcyclists you’ll see most often…

Bennett says Edwards Corner is not a tough one. It’s an uphill bend with a constant radius and positive camber, meaning the road’s angle is steady and the surface is tilted inward. The riders who go down tend to hit the corner way too fast, realize they’re in over their heads, fixate on the guard rail, and slam right into it. Just as often, though, riders get too greedy with the throttle on the way out, causing the rear end to slide. Beginners and squids tend to jump off the throttle or lay on the brakes, causing the bike to go wide and forge a trail into the hillside. The skilled riders come down from speed before the turn, lean in, and roll on the gas after the apex — keeping their eyes on the exit the entire time…

Snyder’s videos show exactly how, in excruciating detail. A playlist of 79 clips shows every type of rider imaginable making every type of mistake imaginable. Lowsides on Harleys, highsides on Ducatis, and the occasional car crash. But through it all, there’s an air of camaraderie, with riders helping each other pull bikes from ditches as others slow incoming traffic and even sweep up dirt and debris to prevent another crash.

I spent 20 minutes or so the other watching a number of these 79 clips. Remarkably, most of the people in the accidents were able to walk away, even in the 2013 crash where a motorcyclist hit two cyclists.

In both cases, it sounds like drivers should be well aware of the dangers. In the case of the underpass, there are plenty of signs – though it is unclear how many drivers heed signs. In the case of The Snake, it looks like there are often people standing around, indicating something to pay attention to – though this might lead to trying to show off. Perhaps officials only have two means of recourse: (1) completely rebuild these sections or (2) close these sections all together if rebuilding is not possible.

Another remarkable piece of this: there are people willing to videotape all of these crashes and then make them available online.

Amazon’s future might be less about drones and more about operating its own trucks

The idea of Amazon using delivery drones attracted attention but one commentator thinks owning and operating its own trucks would be more feasible and important:

Ajay Agarwal knows Amazon. As a managing director with Bain Capital Ventures, he led a big investment in Kiva Systems, the warehouse robot company that Amazon paid $775 million for last year. Agarwal says that Amazon may be taking an ever-greater chunk out of the world’s brick-and-mortar retail sales, but physical stores still have Amazon beat in one key area. “What’s the biggest negative of Amazon? Returns,” he says. “It’s a royal pain…I feel like a daily, weekly exercise for me is breaking down boxes, doing returns, printing out return labels, etcetera, etcetera.”

But a dense network of Amazon delivery trucks could make returning unwanted items as easy as taking out the garbage. Unlike electronics or books, which most people shop for sporadically, grocery shopping takes place regularly and often. If Amazon Fresh takes off, that will mean frequent, predictable trips by Amazon trucks down residential streets. For every grocery order delivered, those trucks will have room for another return. “They take packages, and they take packages back,” Agarwal says, much like the milkman who in distant days not only delivered your milk but also picked up the empty bottles. “They control the entire infrastructure.”

That deep control has been a signature element of Amazon’s operations, from the first website visit to the moment an order leaves a warehouse. But that’s when Amazon hands off that order to a third-party carrier, typically UPS or FedEx. Such a concession must drive a control freak like Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos nuts — even if those companies have helped cement Amazon’s reputation for reliability by delivering on Amazon Prime’s promise of two-day shipping. With an army of its own trucks on city streets, Amazon cuts out the middle man. Meanwhile, returns could become as easy as handing a box back to the same Amazon driver who brought it in the first place…

But, he adds, Amazon must tread lightly. For now, the company depends intensely on UPS and FedEx to make its business work. At the moment, Amazon can’t make them angry. It’s telling that a day after Bezos revealed Amazon’s flying drone ambitions on 60 Minutes, which would also be a form of direct shipping, news leaked of UPS’ own drone plans, as if the delivery company was saying: “Don’t test us.”

Companies like Amazon like having control over the whole process for several reasons. One is that everything is then under their control. (Except the production of products which still have to be designed, made, and placed in Amazon distribution centers.) From beginning to end, they can set quality standards and track information. The other important part of this is cost and I’m a little surprised Agarwal doesn’t say anything about this. One appealing aspect of drones is that they remove the need to have people involved with the delivery of packages. In contrast, trucks require drivers and maintaining equipment. (This also doesn’t account for the need for Amazon, companies, and taxpayers to also support and pay for roads.) Could Amazon do trucking cheaper?

Maybe Amazon doesn’t care. Compared to other companies, Amazon seems relatively unconcerned about its profits. For example, see this opinion piece on “Why Amazon is a Lousy Business:”

Unfortunately, it’s not a great business.  According to Yahoo Finance, the company earned only a slim 1% operating margin during the last 2 years and a not particularly impressive 4% margin in 2010.  While there’s more to a business than just the bottom line, those are worrying numbers.

Jeff Bezos insists that he can turn on the earnings spigot any time he wants and is merely plowing money back in order to grow the business, but that seems thin to me.  Last year Amazon grew its top line 27%, very good, but not unusual for a technology company (Google, for comparison, grew 32%).

Drones, trucks, or otherwise, Amazon will have some choices about how to proceed with deliveries.

Observed in Manhattan: online shopping leads to more traffic

A graduate student in Manhattan argues that more online shopping leads to more traffic issues on the dense island:

Consider it this way: people around the world seem to have a travel time budget of a little over an hour each day. Before the rise of e-commerce, part of that time would have been spent in the service of purchasing goods. But if that budget remains fixed, then people today may simply buy something online, then hop in a car and go visit a friend across town. In that scenario, personal travel stays constant while commercial travel increases — a net gain of people and goods on the road…

Woodard’s case studies of the Gehry and three other residential apartments in Manhattan found the answer to those questions may very well be yes. Surveying the buildings for several hours at a time in the middle of the day, Woodard found that, on average, delivery trucks stayed parked for 21 minutes at a time, and two-thirds of them were double-parked. Extrapolating the data over a full day, in the case of the Gehry, that means delivery trucks alone occupy road space that’s not a true parking space for seven full hours…

Though Woodard’s case studies were never supposed to paint an exhaustive portrait of the urban e-commerce problem, they do underscore how little is known about it. One study from way back in 2004 estimated that delivery trucks cause nearly a million hours of vehicle delay each year, but the stunning grown in online shopping since then (and the fact that companies like Amazon are reluctant to release their data) makes any precise estimate difficult. Many experts consider this process of moving freight that final mile to be one of the biggest forgotten problems facing modern cities.

At the core of the problem is street parking. In a dense urban area like Manhattan, where few buildings have the luxury of freight docks or loading zones, delivery trucks have little choice but to park at the curb. That leaves passenger vehicles and delivery trucks to duke it out for precious street-parking space, which in turn leads to double-parking, which in turn leads to general congestion.

Interesting question and findings. How much do they apply beyond Manhattan, a dense place?

One issue not addressed here: how much do commerce companies bear responsibility for this congestion? Shopping online is often viewed as cheaper and more convenient but this analysis suggests there are some hidden costs that someone has to pay for. Roads are public goods paid for with tax dollars. If they are causing more congestion, could they bear some of this cost?

Some proposed solutions to the problem of 947,000 hours a year in traffic lost to parcel delivery trucks

Cities are looking into ways to better facilitate parcel delivery than having trucks park along the curb:

Over the last couple of years, urbanists have dreamed up a handful of new parcel delivery strategies. A number got a field test in Europe last year as part of CITYLOG, a project funded by the European Union to evaluate fresh ideas in urban transport.One of these new strategies, the BentoBox, works by shifting delivery truck activity away from peak driving hours. If congestion reduction is the goal, the ideal time to deliver packages would be late at night—but customers won’t likely be smiling when they answer the door. Named after a single-serving Japanese takeout tray, the BentoBox is a storage locker that can be loaded with parcels and then dropped off at a local docking station after hours. Customers in the area can access one of six subdivided units with a key the following morning…

TNT Express has its own program aimed at piloting urban delivery solutions. In Brussels, where the courier company delivers about 1300 parcels per week, three-quarters of those deliveries are already made using pedal-assisted electric tricycles. These small vehicles are more environmentally sound than large trucks and vans, and much less disruptive to traffic patterns when parked.

TNT is modeling a new distribution model for Brussels that it calls the “mobile depot.” In this system, which works similarly to the BentoBox, a trailer containing a large number of parcels is towed to a central location in the city during off hours. Parcels are delivered by last-mile drivers in small electric or human-powered vehicles. If a few of these mobile depots could be dropped in strategic locations around the city, package trucks, which currently use surface streets and highways en route to distribution hubs located outside the city, could be eliminated.

The “mobile depot” idea sounds interesting but it might be difficult to find suitable distribution sites within cities. This idea reminds me of the rail traffic problems in the Chicago area where the solution in recent years has been to keep moving distribution facilities to areas further away from the core of the region. But, new distribution sites could inconvenience certain neighborhoods or areas while providing a benefit to the city or region.

I wonder if this is similar to adding lanes on highways: if delivery trucks are taking up less space, will more cars fill the space?