Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Time to raise the speed limit on Route 3

Speed limits are good things.  Speed limits make our roads safer.  The Massachusetts Highway Department, in its 2005 “Procedures for Speed Zoning on State and Municipal Roadways,” makes this highly persuasive argument. “The principal benefit of properly established speed zoning is to provide a means for police officers to apply enforcement to those who do not conform to speeds considered reasonable and proper by the majority of the motoring public. Public opinion will be on the side of the police who are enforcing a reasonable maximum speed.  The former federally mandated 55 mile per hour national speed limit on the Interstate System clearly shows that an unreasonably low speed limit is neither enforceable nor has the long term support of the general public.”

So, why is the speed limit on U.S. Route 3 still set at 55 miles per hour?

Clearly, the current speed limit on Route 3 cannot be supported by the procedures for setting speed limits outlined in the state’s own document.  According to the state, “a prerequisite to establishing speed regulations… is a comprehensive engineering study.”  The goal of the study is to “establish a speed limit that is safe, reasonable, and self-enforcing.” 

The engineering study is based on the assumption that 85% of people, left to their own devices, will drive at a safe and reasonable speed over a stretch of highway.  The people who are flying past 85% of the traffic are the drivers who are not conforming to a reasonable and proper speed, and should be subject to police enforcement.  The state procedures manual explains that, “this method is based on numerous studies that indicate that the majority of motorists are prudent and capable of selecting safe speeds.”  The state further explains that this method “is the national standard for establishing safe speed limits.”

State procedures for speed checks specify measurements on “average weekdays at off –peak hours and under ideal weather conditions.”  As a Route 3 commuter, I don’t have the radar gun or laser gun specified by the state engineers for the purposes of collecting data on vehicular speed.  However, I do have a car, and I can sit in the middle lane, choose a speed, and observe the traffic around me.

Driving 55 miles per hour in the middle lane of Route 3 makes one feel like a boulder in the middle of a stream.  Cars, trucks, school buses, practically the entire world is moving right or left to avoid the mid-stream obstruction.  It’s easy to tell that you are not traveling faster than the federal standard of 85% of the other drivers; you are lucky to be traveling faster than two percent of the drivers on the road.

Speed up to 65 miles per hour, and you are passing some slower drivers, but you are also being passed by an equal number of drivers.  I suspect that 65 miles per hour is somewhere in the middle of the distribution of highway speeds, nowhere near the 85%ile requirement for setting a speed limit.  You need to speed up to about 75 miles per hour before you get the sense that you are one of the faster cars on the road, and still there are enough people passing to think you haven’t cracked the 85% threshold.

Clearly, the Route 3 speed limit does not conform to state and federal standards.  While this is the most egregious case in the Commonwealth, it is not unique.  The state legislature adopted a 65 miles per hour maximum in 1992, following the repeal of the nationally-mandated 55 miles per hour limit. The state bureaucracy, however, did not see fit to raise speed limits.  The legislature forced the issue in 1996, when it enacted legislation that set the speed limit on 400 miles of highways to 65 miles per hour.

At that time, Route 3 was left off the list of highways for legislative intervention because it was still a narrow, four-lane road that threaded its way between lots of rocky obstacles.  Since then, Route 3 was widened to six lanes, the rocky median has been removed, and we now have a road with wide lanes, gentle curves, and expansive sight lines.  Despite its extraordinary design, the road is stuck with an unreasonably low speed limit that is neither enforceable nor has the long term support of the general public.

A legislative remedy is at hand. A bill has been introduced by Representative Sean Garballey (H-914) and Senator Kenneth Donnelly (S-1734) to add Route 3 to the list of legislatively-mandated 65 mile per hour zones.  Given the state bureaucracy’s refusal to follow its own procedures for setting a speed limit on Route 3, this legislative action is necessary to allow safe and reasonable drivers to conform to a more reasonable speed law.  Let’s hope the general court acts on this common-sense legislation soon, and brings some regulatory reasonableness to this important highway.

IMAGES:  A 2005 Massachusetts Highway Department interoffice memorandum, recommending a 65 MPH speed limit on Route 3.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Solving the Designated Hitter problem for MLB

MLB is looking at realignment. Now that inter-league play has become a part of the game, MLB is looking at balancing the leagues and divisions.

Right now, there are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, 16 in the National League and 14 in the American League. There are six teams in the NL Central, four teams in the AL West, and five teams in the other divisions. NL Central fans don't like this (you need to beat out five teams to win the division), and it makes it easier for an AL West team to win the division (you only need to beat out three other teams).

Even numbers are important when building a schedule, as you need two teams to hold one game. If there are an odd number of teams, one team must be left on the sideline on any given day. That's why you can't just move a NL team to the AL, balance out the divisions, without changing the schedule.

You could have an odd number of teams in each league if there is at least one inter-league game on any given day. Instead of a cluster of inter-league games in the middle of the season, there would need to be a minimum of 162 inter-league games spread out across the year. Mathematically, each team (assuming two 15-team leagues) would need to play a minimum of 12 inter-league games to make realignment work. (Presently, in the American League, each team plays 18 games. In the National League, teams play from 12-18 inter-league games, for a total of 252 inter-league games.)

Some folks hate inter-league play, and I understand their arguments. However, I see the benefits, as Cubs-White Sox, Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels, Giants-Athletics, and other cross-league geographic rivalries are good for the game. I also hate 10:05 p.m. starts on the west coast. As a loyal fan of our Red Sox, I am happy when we play the Cubs, Pirates, Phillies, Nationals, or any other NL team where it's easy to do a quick road trip to see my beloved team. Besides, as a lefty progressive, it is certainly green to replace trips to the west coast with games against more local rivals.

More east coast games? Less travel to the west coast and fewer 10:05 p.m. starts? What could be bad? What's the problem?

The DH.

Yes, the Designated Hitter rule in the AL makes things difficult for AL teams in NL ball parks. We truly can't make inter-league play work if there are two sets of rules. You can't build an AL team around a DH if you can't use him for six, nine, or twelve games (or more) during the season.

National League fans, however, have a valid reason for resisting the DH. National League games are filled with double switches and all kinds of interesting strategy surrounding a pitching change. They are right. It's lots more fun to watch a game when pitching changes have an impact on the lineup.

My solution is a modified DH rule that would apply to both leagues.

Instead of the current rule, where the DH position substitutes for the pitcher's position in the lineup, let's have the DH substitute for A pitcher. Simply stated, as long as the starting pitcher is in the game, the DH can bat for him. Once you remove the starting pitcher from the game, the DH who was batting in his place is also out of the game.

There are lots of potential impacts to the game by having a modified DH. The trend in many AL teams, where the DH is a way to rest a position player, would be supported by the change. Chances are, if you have a really good DH, you would put him in the first slot on the batting order, giving him more at bats in a game. There are lots of other potential implications for managerial strategy, and I think the game would be better for the change. In both leagues.

So, let's get the Modified DH movement going!

Sunday, May 30, 2010

We have the technology - Why doesn't the MBTA use it?

Thursday night, we were returning home to Arlington from a Red Sox loss to the Kansas City Royals. I took out my iPhone and looked at a most wonderful app called Mass Transit to check the schedule for the 77 bus from Harvard to Arlington Heights. The bus was scheduled to depart at 11:03, and we were pulling into Harvard Station at 11:00, so it looked like the transit gods were in a better mood than the baseball gods.

As we exited the train, these excellent T digital displays (complete with clocks) were just flipping from 11:00 to 11:01, flipping at the same time as my cell phone. Piece of cake. A very short walk to the busway, hop on the bus, and we will be home to see the painful report on the local news of our choice.

However, as we walked through the turnstiles, we could see the 77 bus passing through the busway. The bus was gone before the T-clocks flipped to 11:02. The next bus was 11:16. We were now stuck with a 14 minute wait for a bus.

The 74 bus to Belmont came through the busway. It was scheduled to leave at 11:00, and I am sure the half-dozen people who came off the 11:00 Red Line train and boarded the bus were delighted that their bus was three minutes late.

This gave me some time to stand there and play with the Mass Transit app, and I quickly did a little math. The 77 bus runs at a 13 minute interval, but the Red Line runs at a 12 minute interval. The loudspeakers in the station announced an inbound train, and an Alewife bound train came through at about 11:12. The people on that train wandered up to the bus platform. At 11:17, a 77 bus appeared in the busway and the people on the platform filled the bus.

Here's my public policy question. If my iPhone can tell me the schedule, and the T technology can send an announcement that a train is entering the station, why can't we bring the two technologies together to coordinate the buses with the trains?

First, let's look at the 13 minute headway silliness on the 77 bus. If the trains run every 12 minutes, why do the buses run every 13 minutes? All this does is put the schedules so badly out of sync that some folks might be lucky and wait a minute or two for the bus, but others are condemned to a 12 minute wait.

If we put the bus on the same 12-minute headway, here's the wonderful thing we can do. We can calculate the time the outbound train is scheduled to arrive at the station, add three minutes for the walk to the platform, and time the buses to provide an easy and convenient transfer.

Meanwhile, up at the bus layover area, the same computer that sends the notification to the passengers on the platform could also send a signal to the bus driver. Train leaves the station, buses are called, and they pick up the passengers who just walked off the train.

For the buses with longer headways, the buses could leave on a multiple of 12 (or the interval between trains). With this kind of coordination, an Arlington passenger could actually calculate whether the best option would be to connect with a 77 at Harvard, an 86 at Davis, or a 79 or 350 at Alewife. A Burlington-bound rider could actually calculate which outbound Red Line train he needed to be on to connect to the 350 at Alewife. A new Green Line station at Route 16 in Medford would be much more useful if buses to Arlington and Medford were coordinated.

And so it goes for the rest of the system. Quincy, Forest Hills, Wellington, Wonderland, all could be more transit-friendly, and less dependent on parking garages, if the buses were aligned to the trains.

It doesn't seem to be a terribly difficult problem to solve. So why don't we actually do this?

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Blue England

Have you ever been to Piscataquis County, Maine? It is one of the largest counties (in area) east of the Mississippi River. Baxter State Park and Moosehead Lake are in Piscataquis County. Despite its huge size, this county has less than half the population (17,235) of Arlington. Piscataquis County is the only county in the six New England states that was carried by John McCain. (Yes. That means Barack Obama carried every county in New Hampshire.) McCain won Piscataquis County by 355 votes, 4,785 4,430. Consider there are 67 counties in New England, and Barack Obama carried 66 of them. McCain carried a tiny county by 355 votes. Welcome to Blue England.

New England elects 22 members of the House of Representatvies. With the defeat of Christopher Shays in Connecticut, all 22 members will be Democrats. This is amazing, when you consider that it wasn't long ago when New England was the most reliably Republican region in the country. In 1932, New England provided four of the six states (ME, NH, VT, CT) voting for Herbert Hoover over FDR. (The other two states were PA and DE.)

Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. The rise of the Republicans as a predominantly socially-conservative and southern party conflicts with the socially-tolerant but frugal nature of New Englanders.

If the 2008 elections prove anything, good old New England common sense seems to be spreading. Not only are we solid blue, but the colors are running south and west. How far? Here's two examples.

If you have ever driven south on I-95 toward Florida, you know the signs for South of the Border start appearing after you pass Washington. This famous tourist stop is just south of the North Carolina-South Carolina border. According to Google Maps, it is 816 miles, more than 13 hours of driving time, south of Arlington. If President-Elect Obama maintains his lead in North Carolina, South of the Border will be at the bottom of the first exit on I-95 in the first red state you encounter on your southbound trip.

If south isn't your preferred direction, you can head west on I-90. Head west and you will be driving through beautiful blue Obama states until you reach Brandon, SD. It's the first town in the first red state on that westbound trip. It's 1,545 miles and about 24 hours west of Arlington.

It's nice to know the next president, and the majorities of both houses of Congress, share our values. I look forward to some good old-fashioned Blue England common sense reflected in our new government.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Making history

This is an emotional and historic day. I keep looking back to 1968, the last time our nation was on a terribly wrong track, and it seems that we lost lots of hope for America with the loss of Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. Today, I can feel that hope, that the dreams of the past were merely dreams deferred.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

The Cohen-Langhart Effect

The polls show Barack Obama leading by a large margin in Virginia, and is flirting with a lead in North Carolina.

What's going on here? The Democrats have nominated a pair of liberals, neither of them are southerners. These states have large military populations and a history of voting for Republicans in presidential elections. North Carolina elected Jesse Helms to the United States Senate in 1972, 1980, 1986, 1992, and 1996.

It may seem counterintuitive, by my hypothesis is that the military population is a significant key in this shift. Despite John McCain's military service, and his outreach to military voters, could there be some other effect that is moving this population toward Obama?

Could there be a Cohen-Langhart effect?

It may seem counterintuitive, by my hypothesis is that the military population is a significant key in this shift. Despite John McCain's military service, and his outreach to military voters, could there be some other effect that is moving this population toward Obama?

On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, ordering "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."

As a result, we have a military that has become a the most colorblind meritocracy in the nation. It's the norm to live in an environment where rank, not color, defines hierarchy, where people routinely work and live with people from diverse backgrounds, and where looking up the chain of command involves people of many colors.

Racial lines have faded in the military to the point where rates of interracial marriage are significantly higher in the military than in the population at large. At the conclusion of the Clinton administration, this included Defense Secretary William Cohen and "First Lady of the Pentagon" Janet Langhart.

Barack Obama is a candidate to become Commander in Chief, and the military looks at a son of an African father and white mother and sees nothing unusual. While he doesn't look like any of the dead presidents, he does look like someone who belongs up the military chain of command.

When we count the votes, look at individual precincts and exit polls, I suspect we are going to find that Barack Obama will do very well among a military population that has traditionally been GOP-friendly.