Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Veeriku-Näituse-Downtown: A Functioning Pedestrain Highway in Tartu

Tartu is not the best place to move around on foot.  Although not a big city in terms of population, large business areas are impractically far for pedestrians, and there are few convenient options to cross roads, the river and the railway even in the urban core.  It also seems like the municipality has little clue what makes pedestrians thrive in the city.  But Tartu has examples of rather well functioning solutions.  One of these connects Veeriku neighborhoods over Näituse street to the inner city.  This route includes many such details that make a street a place where people thrive.  It also includes a number of obstacles, many of which can be easily fixed. Let's start from Veeriku.

A number of streets merge at the far end of Näituse making it the shortest route to downtown for many residential neighborhoods.  There are not too many cars and the sidewalks are of adequate width and quality.

 Far end of the Näituse street.  The sidewalks are wide enough and good enough here given the moderate number of cars.

 Unfortunately, the sidewalks turn less-than-adequate rather soon.  Up to the railway crossing, they are muddy and too narrow.  This is partly because of broken pavement, and partly because of the potholes in the roadway.  The situation might be acceptable for an unimportant street but not for such a central "pedestrian thoroughfare."  These problems are easy to fix by widening and improving the pavement.
Näituse street approaching the railway crossing.  The walkway suffers from broken pavement that renders it rather narrow on rainy days.
The first real bottleneck is the railway crossing.  One can easily see two problems: first, both ends of it are muddy and unpaved, and second, the sidewalk is too narrow between the tracks.  In places, the walkable width is only about 0.5m, far too little for this much walked route.  The main roadway is very close to the walkers with virtually no separating barrier in-between, but as the rails are not suitable for driving at full speed, the pedestrians are saved from the worst of the motorized traffic.  Fortunately, it is plenty of space here to widen the footpath.  Note also that as only the left-hand-side of Vaksali street (when looking toward the inner city) has a pedestrian crossing, that side is perhaps more important than the other.
Näituse street railway crossing.  The sidewalk is too narrow, and of too low quality at both ends.  It can easily be widened here.

Across the rails, the street is beautiful, tree-lined and with a separate footpath.  This is very nice.  The pavement is of sufficient quality for walking (but not for cycling).  My main complaint here are the parking cars: too often they occupy a substantial part of the walkway.  This may be acceptable for unimportant streets, but on such a major route the motorists should show much more respect for pedestrians.
A car on the sidewalk on Näituse street.  For most walkers this is a little obstacle but it substantially disturbs cyclists.  Note that there is enough space in front of the car to move it out of the walkway.

The final part of Näituse street, down from Kastani, suffers from somewhat narrow sidewalks.  Fortunately, a lot of pedestrian traffic heads to the other areas and cars are slow.  Further downhill, behind the wonderful Kassitoome, the sidewalks are just ridiculous.  In the lower end of the Baeri street, the right-hand side is far too narrow even for a single walker, and often cars are parking just next to it.
A sidewalk that is just plainly too narrow. Baeri Street.

The same is true around the Krooks pub: both sides are too narrow given the large number of pedestrians here.  In this place the street is substantially more important than in the beginning of our walk as it also connects Tähtvere and Supilinn neighborhoods with the downtown.  Wider sidewalks are needed.

Jakobi street in front of Krooks pub.  The sidewalks are inadequate and pedestrians are forced to stay very close to cars.  One should narrow the roadway, give more space to walkers, and install a speed table here.
The last obstacle, Jakobi-Lai crossing, recently got an adequate solution, although I was in favor of shortening the turn radius instead of installing the traffic islands.

It is rather easy to fix many of the existing problems. At the further end of Näituse street, one could simply widen the pedestrian area and pave it adequately.  There is plenty of space for it.  In the inner part of the city, this is not possible without squeezing the motorized traffic somewhat.  It is acceptable in my opinion, even in front of Krooks. One can remove one or two parking lots at the upper side of the street (these can potentially be moved over to the lower side) and widen the sidewalks on both sides by 0.5m.  This would roughly double the walkable width and make it a much more pleasant place. It is also a good idea to install a speed table to slow down cars driving so close to pedestrians.  Finally, parking on pedestrian areas must not be the default option.  If really necessary, one should take all the possible measures to avoid obstructing pedestrian traffic.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Splitting states: Donbas and Scotland

I am often not happy that "territorial integrity" and "sovereignty" are considered valid arguments against separatism.  I think that regions should have an option to separate from the country they are part of, and eventually merge with another country. This also applies to Crimea and Donetsk.  But such a separation must fulfill a number of criteria.

First, the decision must be democratic.  Democratic decision is not a hasty referendum.  It is a long open process where the idea of independence is brought up, pros and cons discussed, and more-or-less stable opinion formed.  I don't know what might be a relevant time scale here but I suggest a few years at minimum.  It is definitely more than a few weeks.

The democratic decision also means the media is free to report, and all people are free to express their opinion.  If some parties cannot do it because of threats, abductions and killings, the process is not democratic and the results of the related referendums questionable.  Potential separatists should be very much interested in demonstrating to the outside world that the support they claim does not "grow out from the gun barrel".  Unfortunately, in Eastern Ukraine they rather demonstrate the opposite.

Gunmen at Simferopol airport
A bad example of separatism.  "Little green men" at Simferopol airport, 2014-02-28.  Crimea was literally taken at gunpoint, no negotiations with Ukraine were conducted.

Third, separation must be negotiated with the former mother country. In general, a region that strives to independence is eligible to a share of the national assets (including the military ones) but should also inherit a part of the national debt.  On top of that, one has to agree on thousands of everyday details like cellphone rates, bank transfers, public pensions and education certificates.  All this must be ironed out, preferably some of it already before the independence referendum, to give the voters a better picture what they are choosing between.

None of these criteria were followed in Crimea and in Donetsk. That's why I am against separatists there—not because of the Ukrainian territorial integrity.

English-Scottish border
A road to another region with raging separatism.  No checkpoints, no gunmen here. 
But we also have good examples of separatism.  Scotland will vote on independence on Sept 18, 2014.  This date has been put forward one-and-a-half years in advance after a debate that has lasted for decades.  All pro-independence politicians realize that eventual separation goes hand-in-hand with long negotiations with the (rest of the) UK, and no-one is proposing to set up checkpoints at Tweed river.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

What makes good bicycle tracks

I have already written here that most bicycle tracks in Tartu are of unacceptable quality.  Too often they are not direct, not smooth, and in places too narrow.  As it seems, the planners do not understand the basic needs of cycling.  Here I explain a little.
Bike track in Aarhus, DK.  It is smooth, and it goes straight across the junction.  The same priority rules apply both for cars and cyclists.
First, safety is important but not all-important.  I have seen claims that safety is almost the sole characteristic of the bicycle traffic. This is simply not true.  Bike tracks are not (just) about safety. They are about a combination of safety, accessibility, smoothness, and speed.  If safety were the all-important requirement, we would never cycle, never walk nor even drive small cars.  But we do.  We accept a low risk of injury if this helps us smoothly to get where we want to go.

Junction of Riia and Raudtee streets.  The bicycle track ends here abruptly at a guardrail (center).  The cyclists are supposed to take a sharp turn right, then left, cross the street at pedestrian speed, and continue on a very narrow sidewalk (right).  It is a safe but very inconvenient solution. A car lane at the same place (left) has neither abrupt turns nor other obstacles.  As the street goes downhill, cyclists can easily achieve speeds here comparable to those of cars.
In order to improve the biking conditions, one must plan the lanes with this suitable combination in mind.  If cycle lanes are very safe but the ride will not be fast and smooth, people will not choose cycling (or choose to cycle elsewhere).  In practice, the picture is complicated by the heterogeneous preferences by cyclists.  Broadly, kids and slow rider prefer safety, fast riders smoothness.  But it is perfectly possible to cater to all of them in most cases.  Usually it is achieved through street hierarchy—slow speed is enough inside a city blocks but large thoroughfares should allow full speed cycling (at least 30km/h).  Cyclists are exactly like motorists from this aspect.
Left: bike track between Maarjamõisa hospitals and University biomedical center.  Except for a few curbstones, this stretch is adequate for short-distance connection inside the university campus.  Due to it's location, it cannot be upgraded for high-speed connection between different parts of the city.  Right: bike track next to a major thoroughfare, Võru street.  Unlike cars, cyclists are supposed to yield at the small sidestreet and take an inconvenient turn just after the junction.  This is a place where the track should be upgraded to allow full-speed cycling.

Second, road users are always interacting and have to adjust to other road users.  This is partly achieved through planning of roads and junctions.  It is important to realize that adjustment is costly, usually involving breaking and speeding up again, and often maneuvering.  Current cycle tracks put too much of these adjustment costs on cyclists.  The tracks almost never go straight across intersections, even at the main thoroughfares, often forcing bikes to slow down to walking speed in order to cross curbstones and take sharp turns.  Second, instead of dedicated bike lanes, cyclists are often expected to ride on pedestrian walkways.  This is an acceptable solution only if these are wide and not crowded.  The most critical points are typically bus stops, turns around street corners, and areas near pedestrian crossings.  Sidewalks in these places are often narrow, visibility low, and many people standing and waiting.  Now compare this with the car lanes at the same stretches.  Those almost always retain their width, there are hardly ever obstacles like curbstones, and they go straight across the junctions.  Most of the the adjustment costs are shifted to cyclists and pedestrians.

Seems like the planners mainly follow two aims: the lanes must be safe, and the motorists should not bear the adjustment costs. Unfortunately, this leads to unusable cycle tracks.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Bicycle Lanes in Tartu

The last decade has seen a number of dedicated bike lanes built in and around Tartu.  Unfortunately, their functionality is rather limited. Below I explain why.

There are different cyclists.  In the one end we have slow local riders like children but also adults pedaling only a few blocks.  At the opposite end are regular fast commuters who move distances around 10km.  (I ignore bicycle racing and related issues here.)  Below, I explain what are the main problems with the existing lanes, in particular for the commuter group.

Junction of large roads as it ought to be: Nordre Ringgade crossing Nørrebrogade in Aarhus, DK.  The bike lane is just at left of the photographer, the markings are visible on street.  Note the lane is straight, and there are no curbstones.
First, the bicycle lanes should be straight.  The lane should be free of pylons, traffic lights but also pedestrians, and avoid unnecessary sharp turns.  In my opinion, this is the most problematic side of the current lanes.  All too often they are bent away from the street at junctions, and the bend typically includes a combination of a sharp turn, high curbstones and a
guardrail.  Hence one cannot cycle at typical speed for faster riders, 20-30 km/h, even along the major thoroughfares (like Võru street or Räpina road).
This is how it works in Tartu.  The guardrail works as a barrier and does not allow unhindered cycling.  But note the ongoing construction further down—the bend on the car lane is being smoothed out.  Junction of Tartu-Ülenurme road and Kuslapuu street (right).
Note that one almost never encounters such obstacles on car lanes.  It is also a safety issue, making cyclists less visible and rendering the right-of-way unclear.  Similarly, the existing cycle lanes almost never allow full-speed entry and exit.  Fast riders, notably out-of-town, cannot take sharp turns.  Hence the short dedicated tracks are seldom usable—the tiny gain in safety does not justify a large loss in speed.
Junction of large roads done wrong.  This is right-turn-lane of Aardla street joining one of the main thoroughfares, Võru street just ahead of us.  Note that just on this picture, cyclists are supposed to cross two curbstones and take a 90-degree turn on a rather narrow lane.  The only way to cross this junction at typical bike speed is to stay away from the bike lane.
Unfortunately, I have not experienced any improvement here over the years.  Even the newest tracks, like the one along the Räpina road, expect too much maneuvering and yielding from the cyclist.  Note that straightness is less of an issue for slow-speed local riders.  Hence the current quality of the track network may well cater for that group.

Second, the lanes should be direct and broadly follow the shortest path between the main destinations.  This is often a thorny issue as the shortest paths are typically occupied by large streets. For instance, neither Riia, Narva nor Võru streets have any dedicated cycle lanes despite offering direct access between large stretches of the city, and being often considered too dangerous for biking.  The suggested alternatives, Kesk street next to Võru and the way over Näituse street to reach Maarjamõisa hospitals, are substantially longer.  Directness matters for everyone, despite their distance and speed.

Third big issue is evenness.  Even street surface is a must.  The most problematic point here are the curbstones, but also the overall profile of the lanes.  A high-quality bike lane should not have any curbstones in the first place.  Second, the surface profile should be smooth enough.  If certain sections must be lower (for instance, to facilitate driving across the sidewalk), one should smoothly lower the lane level along a longer stretch.
Junction of a major thoroughfare, Võru street with a sidestreet.  Note three problems here: the surface is not smooth enough even given sunken curbstones; the curbstones on the street side cannot be crossed at all, essentially cutting the width by a third; and finally the profile is too steep even behind the curbstone.
Finally, particularly on the older roads, the quality of pavement is also an issue.  Fortunately, here a clear improvement is visible over years.  Evenness matters more for fast riders, but the curbstones also hurt the slow ones with small wheels, like children.

The final issue is the lane width.  In general, the lane should permit for two cyclists to ride next to each other.  This is especially important with children (the parents want to "cover" the street side), or for overtaking slower cyclists.  True, such 1.5-2m wide lanes are not feasible everywhere.  But one should avoid unnecessary bottlenecks.  Far too often the guardrails, traffic lights, and improperly installed curbstones narrow down otherwise adequate lane.
Bus stop done well.  Nordre Ringgade, Aarhus, DK.
Bus stop not done well.  It expects too much maneuvering in a narrow section of the bike lane.  One of the main thoroughfares in Tartu, Võru street.
A specific problem is posed by bus stops.  These are frequently located at a particularly narrow section of combined sidewalk/cycle lane where the shed and waiting people also take up space.  Bus stops require extra wide, not extra narrow lanes.  Inadequate width hurts more the fast riders.
Nordre Ringgade crossing Aldersrovej near Trøjborgcenteret.  All done well: no curbstones, the cycle lane retains it's width, and the profile is smooth.


Virtually none of the existing cycle lanes around Tartu follow these standards.  The quality has been improving from the perspective of slow riders but for long-distance cyclists the lanes are simply inadequate.  Realistically, I would recommend the planners the following:
  • Rename the current cycle lanes to "cycling-enabled sidewalks". Permit cycling there given one does not endanger pedestrians.  For faster riders, permit cycling on the car lanes as well.
  • Understand the different types of traffic.  Lanes for slow-speed riders need not to follow the same standards as high-speed thoroughfares.  Think what kind of traffic is dominating on certain streets.
  • Most importantly, before designing the next traffic project, learn about the capabilities and requirements of cyclists!  Bike lanes are costly, and if not constructed properly, they may be more of a hindrance than help for cyclists.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Managing Forests for Everyone

The forested private land is largely managed as a profitable asset—the harvesting, planting, and other management is done from the viewpoint of the landowner.  As is often the case, this approach leaves a number of other interested parties with little say about their environment.

Mature forests are an excellent recreational landscape.  They also form a habitat for many species.  Forest near Kaagvere, Estonia, in December 2013.

Forests are a major component of landscape and environment.  This means there are many people (but also other living organisms) with stakes in the forests.  Below, I focus on recreational landscape users, but most of my arguments are valid for the other users as well, including the non-human ones.  The main problem lies here—while landowners profit almost exclusively from logging, the others will mostly enjoy the landscape where the forests are left intact.  (I will ignore such interest groups who profit from logging, such as forest industry.) This is a textbook case of negative externalities.

The most straightforward solution is to let all the recreational landscape users pay the landowners according to their valuation of the intact forests.  Obviously, such an income flow will cease after the forest is cut, and will count as a cost of clearcutting.  Unfortunately, this approach will not work—it offers a perfect opportunity to shirk and hide your private valuation, and it would be extremely costly to locate the landowners and to pay each of them a few euros every time you walk through the forest.  It would also put all the burden of adjustment to the recreational visitors.

A public-sector version of the same idea would look like this: determine the average value of various types of landscape, and pay the landowners accordingly, but only if they maintain it in that particular state.  Such rules can also take the form of individual contracts between the government and landowners with no new legislation introduced.  The payment should be financed through some sort of general taxes, such as payroll tax.  This approach is technically feasible.  Here landowners win, the society bears all the burden.

A third option is to introduce the same reform while shifting the burden to the landholders.  The government taxes the land according to "non-likeability" of the landscape.  If the property is not suitable for recreational use, you pay a lot.  If it is a nice natural area open for everyone, you pay little.  If forest is cut, the land tax increases accordingly.  (In case of well-functioning financial markets, this is equivalent to logging tax.)

This proposal is not free of problems either.  As all the burden is shifted to the landowners, this leads to falling land prices and hence a decreasing property value.  Second, the "non-likeability" is hard to determine.  It is possible to evaluate certain types of landscapes, but not everything. Even more, the policymakers need simple rules to avoid misunderstandings and too much potential for corruption.  Third, it does not take into account the potential value of the landscape.  Some landscape types are inherently more valuable, and even more, we can only enjoy what is at a reasonable distance from us.  The value of places far away is smaller.  The correct approach is not to tax the "non-likeability", but the difference between the potential and the current value.  Can policymakers handle that?

Middle-aged temperate forest in Northern Europe.  The left-hand side of the road is scheduled to be cut soon.  (And sorry for the cellphone photo...)
Pulling the three ideas together, I think a reasonable way forward is to combine the second and the third possibility.  One should differentiate land tax according to a simple scale of landscape value, for instance forest age.  Young forests (0-15 years) will be subject to high taxes, the mature ones (100+) will have low tax.  This data can be collected and handled.  Second, the municipalities should buy recreational land and also make contracts with the landholders to stipulate mutually best management.  This combined approach would shift part of the costs to the landowners, and part to the society. The taxes should be established step-by-step over many years.  However, although feasible, this policy is not free of problems either—the landholders around rich municipalities (big cities) win while those far away loose.