Low Angles, Wide Lenses: Define Me

I’ve been thinking of this one as “There are 2,434,311 people in this city….but I’m the only one choosing to take up space with this ridiculous SUV.”


“There are 2,434,311 people in this city….and yet through the magic of television I’m not sitting in bumper-to-bumper gridlock”

Turns out, the auto industry itself had a better name just waiting: “Insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed.”

That’s what internal market research concluded about the buyers of SUVs in the 1990s.  According to a 2004 article by Malcolm Gladwell (citing High and Mighty, an excellent read on the topic):

“’Sport-utility owners tend to be more like ‘I wonder how people view me,’ and are more willing to trade off flexibility or functionality to get that.’ According to Bradsher, internal industry market research concluded that S.U.V.s tend to be bought by people who are insecure, vain, self-centered, and self-absorbed, who are frequently nervous about their marriages, and who lack confidence in their driving skills.”

The funny thing is, the ad doesn’t present a picture all that different from that opinion.  Just with a slightly more positive spin and some soaring music.

Awww….There, there.  Think of all your cupholders!!

(P.S.  Gladwell has a theory on those cupholders, too)

Your Minivan Is Worse Than: Fire! Part 2: 2FIREZ, 2FURIOUS

Last week when I wrote that post about fire, I forgot that I had this buried in my archives of drafts meant-to-be-but-never-written.

You know that fun (read: stupid; read: I don’t think even they believe it, they’re just afraid of change) refrain you hear from opponents of road-calming measures about how the bike lane/bulb-out/crosswalk is going to kill Grandma because it’s going to keep the ambulance from getting to her in time?

I’ll hand it over to YMIWT guest commentator Tom Vanderbilt, author of the fabulous Traffic: Why We Drive The Way We Do and What It Says About Us.

…the risk of dying in a fire in the U.S. is roughly the same as drowning: In one year, 1 in 88,000, and, over a lifetime, 1 in 1100. The risk of dying in a car crash, according to the article, is 1 out of 6500 in a year. The risk of being killed while being a pedestrian? “A one-year risk of one in 48,500 and a lifetime risk of one in 625.”

Designing roads to meet some supposed emergency response criteria, for that dramatic last-second rescue, actually helps raise the risk of dying in a much more common way: In traffic.

Thanks, Tom.

So, it turns out not only is that blatantly wrong, but the roads that we keep as big, fast (see above) traffic sewers so all the grandmas won’t burn to death?  Yeah, they’re actually a serious danger to the firefighters coming to her rescue, too.

“The United States Fire Administration…cites motor vehicle crashes as the cause of death for between 20–25% of the annual line-of-duty fatalities. Motor vehicle crashes are the second highest cause of death for firefighters. The leading cause of death is stress and overexertion which accounts for approximately 50% of the fatalities”

Occupational driving injuries are a big deal.  If you drive for work, they’re a big deal for you, too. Most of us don’t get our hands chopped off in machinery anymore (though you might be shocked how much that still happens even in the US), but we do face significant danger from driving for work. The annual risk of dying in a road accident for drivers who average >25 000 miles per year is 1 in 7000, a figure comparable with coal mining and worse than the construction industry (Harris 2004).  Road traffic injuries cost US employers $60 billion annually, 

Shocked?  I hope not.  Some damn bike lane might keep the paramedics from rescuing you…


Your Minivan Is Worse Than: FIRE!


Literally.  Actually.  Car crashes are the leading cause of unintentional injury for kids.  And unintentional injury is the leading cause of death for kids from age 1 on.  Fires and burns are #6 and it’s not even close.

So naturally, when I saw this article, I assumed one of the ways would be GET THOSE KIDS OUT OF THE CAR!!!!!  Car crashes are THE leading cause of death for kids!  Not to mention driving your kids everywhere contributes to our physical inactivity problem!  Whenever possible, walk or bike to your destination!

Yeeah, okay, no I didn’t.  Because everyone knows loving parents move their kids to the suburbs and take them everywhere in the car.  Actually, not even a car.  An SUV.  I mean, if you’re a good parent.

For what it’s worth, I agree with the other recommendations.  Learn CPR–absolutely. Teach your child to swim–hey, that one addresses the second leading cause of unintentional injury death for kids!  A measly second, compared to the numbers cars are posting, but second nonetheless.


Install smoke detectors and have a fire escape plan–please do.  When we learned about fire safety plans in second grade I kept trying to get my parents to make one because even though we lived in a little ranch house, I didn’t know how to get my window screens out and they kept telling me not to worry about it and then I didn’t sleep for a month because I didn’t have the words to tell them “don’t worry” was not comforting and then I became a doctor who focuses on preventive medicine because I still don’t know how to work the screens in those windows, MOM!!!!

Ahem, where was I?   Ah yes.  Car seats…of course, if you’re going to put your kids in a car, have them in an appropriate car seat.

But our fears around this are so out of whack.  Stranger danger was/is a big factor in pushing kids into cars, but it doesn’t even come close (how pretentious am I, linking to my own blog post….). People are getting the police called on them because they let their kids walk to the park.  And yet we also are putting our kids in cars with strangers (whaaaaat?).

This week Kevin Klinkenberg had a fantastic post about, among other things, the “false dichotomy that cities and urban life are all about excitement, action and trendiness, while suburbs are essentially about what really matters – family, safety and cleanliness.” 

But the suburban lifestyle, which confines people to the car, condemns them to exposing their kids over and over, multiple times per day, to the thing which puts them at the highest risk for death. Privileging cars in crowded cities does the same to kids (and adults) even if they’re not the ones in the cars.

Look at those first two pictures again.  And really think: which one is more dangerous to kids.  It’s the latter.  You’d do anything to protect your kids from that big, scary housefire on top: you dress them in non-flammable clothes, you put in smoke detectors, you’d run back in there yourself to drag them out. Why don’t you feel the same way about the real killer?

Low Angles, Wide Lenses: Urban Living

Reeeeeeeally low and wide.  Low enough to capture the Walk Score of this location, which is 41. Wide enough to find anything that’s not a highway or a stroad within walking distance.

The New York Times on Sunday had an article about the dilution of the term “mindfulness.”  As someone who recently started practicing meditation and mindfulness–my intro happened to be through improv, not some corporate lifestyle guru,but I digress–and thinks everyone else should too, I definitely see this happening.  (As another aside, if I ever start my own wellness company, it will only have 3 components–getting people out of their cars, teaching them how to meal plan and cook, and teaching meditation.  Okay…and maybe flexible work schedules and quality childcare, but let’s not get too pie in the sky, here.)  And yet, we had a work session on it a few months back and the hapless chaplain trying to explain it basically described it as paying attention while you’re eating your cereal.  Fe’s not wrong entirely, but none of my co-workers walked out of that session talking about anything other than how they don’t have time to taste their cereal because they have to get their kids to school.

I was reminded of this apartment complex I saw over the holidays, which was hung with a banner heralding it the “best of urban living” in St. Charles, Missouri.

For those of you not familiar, St. Charles is an exurb to the northwest of St. Louis.  It is your generic car-dependent suburb (and, in my experience at least, the land of cookie-cutter white-to-light beige identical siding houses.  I seriously have no idea how you choose which house within which identical suburb to live in there).  More factually, it has a population density of 2,782 people per square mile and 5 major highways.   It was, in fact, according to the Federal Highway Administration, the site of the first interstate highway project in the U.S.  In that proud tradition, the complex itself is nestled between an interstate and a megaplex movie theater.  Oh, and there’s a gas station for your shopping!

In fairness, there is an Aldi half a mile away.  Which is theoretically totally walkable, but the route to Aldi looks like this.

Given that there’s no way to live in these apartments without owning a car–41 is still classified by WalkScore as “car dependent”–do you really think anyone’s going to choose to walk that over hopping in the car?  Of course not, which is why we Americans drive to everything even though most of our trips are under 2 miles (well that, and ‘murica).

I suppose it’s some sort of progress when language–in this case, the language of urbanism–gets co-opted by marketing.  It indicates where the pulse of what’s currently hip and trendy is.  As we have seen over and over again, for Millennials, it is certainly in more livable, walkable communities.  Yet, it runs the risk of diluting beyond recognition the original term itself.

Is anyone choosing to live in a place like that actually fooled by this “urban living”? Moreover, is anyone who is looking here really concerned about “urban living”?  There are a few suburbs in St. Louis with semi-nice, functional little downtowns.  St. Charles is not one of them.  Why use those terms, then?   My fearful, cynical side suggests that it is because of an inability in certain parts to imagine what actual urban living or walkability is.

But advertisers are cleverer than that.  Appealing to emotion to obscure facts is hardly a new move. According to this article, “In the 18th century, when the contents of the Anchor Brewery were being auctioned off, the auctioneer said: ‘We are not here to sell boilers and vats, but the potentiality of growing rich beyond the dreams of avarice.'”  In a neighborhood and country of disconnect and isolation and getting in your car to go any damn place, the idea that your apartment in a subdivision in an exurb is actually urban living where you’re going to walk to get your groceries or meet friends at a bar down the street is powerful.  Powerful enough to get someone to hand over a rent check by imagining this as “urban” living.
In another generation, this might have been sold as “pastoral” and “secluded.” Today, transit-oriented, walkable, or urban are the buzzwords.  Of course, marketers don’t give a crap about real changes towards walkability and urbanism. But they have the right tactics.  The tactics to reach into people’s brains and sell them on something–even something as unbelievable as urban living next to an interstate and a Quiktrip.
But we should not rest there.  There’s no reason to let people settle for calling something like this “walkable” or “urban living.”  So why not use their tactics to up-sell real urban living–walkable communities, bike infrastructure, bus rapid transit?  Appealing to it being good for you or for the environment is part of the story, but so often it comes off a little like nagging people to eat their broccoli.  Why not take a marketing approach and sell people on the image of who they’ll be with a new bike lane or complete street in the neighborhood?  It’s been working for Bigs Auto and Oil for years, getting people to ignore all sorts of ills perpetrated on them by these very companies while gladly handing over their money and defending their rights. Imagine a world where people thoughtlessly defended complete streets that way.  Only this time, the benefits wouldn’t be all smoke and copywriting.

A Word On Words: Accidents

“The public usually associates the word with an event, not with the damage that results.”

Erase it from your vocabulary.  Please.

As someone trained in public health, I loathe this word.  It implies an event is an act of God, unpredictable and unpreventable, something that happens by chance.  If you’re interested in a very thorough history of the word, this article provides details back to the 14th Century of its use in both a legal and religious context.  If you’re perhaps a little less interested, let it suffice to say it was a useful word before we had more rigorous methods of inquiry and all we could do was chalk things up to events falling from the heavens.  But it also shows a pattern of this word having been repeatedly rejected as a technical term–both scientifically and legally, due to its lack of meaning useful to those fields.  Instead, its persistence stems from the term’s usefulness in marketing and politics.

The problem with this word–which, not coincidentally is why it is useful politically–is that it stands in the way of progress.  As long as we term something an “accident” we don’t (and don’t have to) look any further.  “Things happen,” we say, “accidents happen.”  What can you do about things that just “happen”?

William Haddon, among many others, broke this down quite awhile ago now.  In 1968, Haddon, a public health physician with the New York State Health Department, developed a matrix of categories to assist researchers trying to systematically address injury prevention. The idea was to look at injuries in terms of causal factors and contributing factors, rather than just using a descriptive approach. A Haddon Matrix is a systematic way of thinking about the contributing factors to what might be termed (but never will again, right?) an “accident.”  The standard Matrix is 4 columns and three rows (though there can be a third dimension if you want to get fancy).   The rows represent time (pre-event, event, and post-event).  The columns represent categories of factors which contribute to the event: host (person to whom the event occurs), agent (the object or other person or other force doing the injury), physical environment, and social environment.  It organizes and makes systematic our thoughts about what might, in the 14th Century–have been considered to have dropped from the sky.  Below is an example Haddon Matrix for drowning.


So you can see, an “accident” is not an accident at all–it is, in fact, an event which occurs due to multiple decisions.  Decisions made at the time of the event, as well as those made way before, which set in place things like the physical and social environment in which the event occurs.

Now, one might stick up for the colloquial use of “accident” because it connotes an event which was not intentional.  Because the person did not premeditate to use their car to find that specific person and mow them down.  But again, this is unacceptable as a use for that word.

Ahmad Abu-Zayedeh didn’t intend to run over Allison Liao.  He didn’t know her.  But he did drive a car–having drunk two glasses of wine–in a crowded urban area a distance he easily could have walked (Which is something you never hear about: is there a reason?  Is there something we could have done to make someone like him feel more comfortable walking?).  And he did fail to yield to–or perhaps even notice–Allie and her grandmother in the crosswalk.  Was this something that just “happened”?  That nothing could be done to change it?  Absolutely not.  It was a predictable result of decisions made and the laws of physics.  Off the top of my head I came up with the following matrix, and I’m sure with a bit of research and more thinking, I could add more:

Haddon Matrix

So what other words can we use?  Crash, collision, wreck.  Perhaps “incident” or “injury” where appropriate.  If you’re in Australia, Wikipedia tells me you can call it a “car smash,” which I quite like.

In New York–in any city adopting Vision Zero–we won’t have real progress until we abolish this word.  And with it, the idea that car crashes are not fully predictable and preventable events which stem from decisions road users (and road designers and politicians) make every day. And with that, our identification with the driver who “will have to live with it” and “who didn’t mean to do it” because we’re scared it could happen to us.   Because the victims will also “have to live with it.”  And the victim could every bit as much be us–EVERYONE is a pedestrian at some point, even if it’s just to walk from your car parked in the closest spot to the door.

Your Minivan Is Worse Than: A Horse

Not this kind of horse, despite how Ford might want you to think of it.

A horse like the kind you take on the Oregon trail…and die….of dysentery.

I could never make it past this stinkin’ river…

It’s outdated.  It’s something that perhaps made sense at some point in our history.  But, increasingly, it doesn’t anymore.

I’ve read comments from car-centric thinkers here and there lately maintaining that cars are the “best” mode of transportation (so those “choosing” to walk/bike/take transit should stop their bellyaching about how little of the transportation system works for us).  Even disregarding the health issues, the socioeconomic issues, looking purely at it as a tool, it’s not.

It’s merely the most catered-to.  Cars were marketed to us to go faster and farther.  Our entire road system is all about moving cars as fast as possible (which might be why you think it’s the “best”). When you get there, years of zoning standards have ensured a minimum number of parking spots in most cities so that you won’t have to worry about where to park–so much so that there are up to 8 spots per car in some areas of the US.

But it is failing: the car is cannibalizing itself.  The more of us on the road, the less fast and far we go. On average, a car commuter loses 38 hours per year stuck in traffic. Less than 10 percent of our car trips are longer than 2 miles anyway, which is a distance at which the car hardly has any advantage.

On the other hand,  in 25 years, there will be 9 billion people living in urban areas, so there’s not exactly room for them to each be in their own car.  We can’t outbuild it: over and over we see the pesky little phenomenon of induced demand, where the more roads we build, the more traffic we create.  So have fun cruising down the open road….


Your car is the way of the past–the king of the 100-year reign of the auto industry and the highway lobby.  But things are changing–and they are set to change a lot more.  Hold on if you want, but eventually you might start to look a little silly.

Ride on, cowboy….


Low Angles, Wide Lenses: The Heroine Rides the Bus!

I don’t have fancy video clip skills.

There’s this show that’s been getting me through Mondays.  It’s called (eek) Jane the Virgin.

Now, ignore the title.  The first time I saw a subway ad for this show, I thought “Seriously?  That’s a real show?!?  Please, The CW…”

Ignore the premise, please.  Just, get past it–you’ll thank me.

There is much–much–that I love about this show.

It’s silly.  It’s earnest.  It’s tearing through bonkers amounts of telenovela-level plot ridiculousness at a rate I’m nervous it can’t sustain and yet the characters often just say what they want or feel in a way that is highly refreshing.

But one thing that struck me in particular is that Jane rides the bus. This really hit me at the end of the last episode when she storms out of *redacted*’s house.  As she reached for her bags, I realized I was almost mentally inserting her pulling out her car keys.

That’s when I remembered that she takes the bus.  I’m so acculturated to seeing characters get in a car and drive, even when it makes no sense (why are so many Seinfeld episodes about driving?) that I just assumed she would.

Now, surely this is done as a marker of her working-class status.  Jane is a very practical, mature 20-something daughter raised by a single mother, working in a hotel restaurant while attending college to become a teacher.  The telenovela star and the hotel magnate characters are taking the bus nowhere.  But at least, when Jane takes the bus, it’s just her transportation.  It’s not presented as miserable. There’s no “weirdos on the bus” moments.  There’s no “you know why they make the windows so big” speeches.  In fact, they mostly use her bus time as time she thinks about what’s going on.  Or maybe has text conversations with other characters.  That’s kind of how I use my public transit time.  And isn’t the freedom to do those two things one of the great things about transit?

I don’t kid myself that this is done as some sort of statement.  But it’s nice to see realism in how it’s presented.  This character—-is someone who very well might take transit rather than spend her precious money on a car, insurance, gas, etc.  And realism in that it’s not miserable–sometimes she runs to catch it, sometimes she has to stand because it’s full, but it’s just part of her day.

It’s progress.

Edited to add: Dammit, the next episode after I wrote this they gave her a car.  Well–watch it anyway.  It’ll make your Mondays happier.

Low Angles, Wide Lenses: Protector

You have to give it to the people behind this ad: they’re brilliant.  They get right up to the edge of acknowledging the burden of road traffic injuries, but in a way that makes a car seem like the hero.

Is this not the perfect example of “if you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation”? (I don’t mean to make this entire post Mad Men reference, but the shoe fits….)  The conversation should be cars vs. other safer, more sustainable forms of transportation.  But for years, they’ve made it about cars versus “safer” cars.  

“They survived” but if they hadn’t been in the car, or hadn’t had to spend so much of their time in the car, they never would have been at risk of a crash in the first place.  And that’s assuming those dents were made by other cars, not cyclists or pedestrians because I assure you, they didn’t survive.

Can you imagine if we advertised “safer” cigarettes by showing pictures of resected lung tumors?  Or “safer” asbestos by…I’m getting stuck on lung tumors here.  How about safer guns by showing pictures of spent, bloodied bullets?

This is every bit as ridiculous.  The question should be cars versus better forms of transit, instead they’ve successfully kept it cars vs. other cars.  

So they spoon-feed us some sentimental junk food like this:

And our society is so auto-normative that we don’t even ask questions.
The safest exposure is the one you never have–or the one you have only rarely, for long trips out to the country.  The safest driving is less driving.  That’s the conversation we should be having.

A real “lucky man”?  One who took the subway.

Walking Is A Joy

I’m feeling angry this week.  So I’m going to abandon the format of this blog–such as it is–and focus on the good.  I walk because it is a joy.

Too often, making the choice to bike or walk or take transit is viewed as a sacrifice.  As something you’re doing for you health, or the environment, or to save money.  But here’s the thing: I’m not giving something up.

I do it because I prefer it.  Now, part of it is that I understand the responsibility towards my fellow drivers, vulnerable road users, and myself that comes with operating a two-ton vehicle.  Quite frankly, no thanks.  Not only is it low-stress, it’s actually stress-relieving.  Time and time again, I’m stuck on something–a school project, a problem, how to word an email.  I get up and move my body and my brain frees up, too.  Before I even walk as long as I intended, I have an answer.

Not only that, but I enjoy the sights, seeing things at a pace I can process.  Understanding how the neighborhood is laid out, being surprised by seeing a new view down an alley I never noticed or (now that I’m in New York) revealed by scaffolding that has disappeared.  When I drive, all I know is the road and the route and I never really understand where I’m going–because I’m paying attention to the road and that going by, even at 30 mph, is all I can process.  Not just drivers–passengers too.  Family Friendly Cities had a lovely post about this just today:

Placing a child in the backseat of a car for even the most routine tasks such as the grocery store or school, robs children of the opportunity for exercise and to become familiar with their community and surrounding environment.  We think that by using an automobile to transport children we are providing them a wide range of access to the world but in actuality we limit their world to the familiar starting point (home) and the ending point, giving them little knowledge of the world and the wealth of opportunity that exists between the two.”

And there is so much to process–seeing a little girl run a block into the arms of her father as he left work (that happens outside movies!?!) in the Chicago Loop last spring.  En route to the grocery store a few weeks later, seeing, within a block, the difference in “running into” someone on the sidewalk (“Oh, hiiiii!”) versus the street; a 3-taxi collision where one guy was immediately hopped out of the car to curse the other guy out.  Listen, even if the first was doing the “I kind-of-remember-your-face-I-have-no-idea-your-name-hi” it’s still preferable.

It’s a joy.  I’m not a deviant for walking.  I don’t walk because I’m poor, or don’t have better options (though what of it if I did?).  I don’t deserve to die just for the aberrant act of walking.  No one does. On the other hand, everyone should get to experience the joy of walking safely.

Your Minivan Is Worse Than: Ebola

Originally published 10/26/14

That sound you hear?  That’s the whir of cranking up the old blog machine.

And what better way to orient ourselves that we’re in 2014 than Ebola?

I barely have the interest or energy to write this post because it’s been done so many times in the last few weeks.  Flu is worse than Ebola.  Obesity and heart disease are a bigger threat than Ebola.  And, of course, that Facebook favorite, the number of people who have died of Ebola in the US is lower than the number of people who have been married to Kim Kardashian.

But I’m starting here because, looking through all the drafts of this blog which I tucked away over the years while residency and boards and 3 moves and life intervened, this particular post was originally titled “Swine Flu” (How quaint!).

And that’s true.  According to this 2012 study, reporting how the death toll from the 2009 swine flu outbreak was “10 times higher than previously thought”  the toll may be as high as 201,200.  

As of this writing, the Ebola death toll is closing in on 5,000.  

And I say this not in the least to minimize either of those diseases.  They’re horrible.  I don’t want any of them.  I don’t want my loved ones to contract them.  I don’t want anyone to.  And we absolutely need to be addressing them.

But the death toll ANNUALLY from motor vehicle violence worldwide?  1.2 million.  Why no urgency?  Not only that, but a rush to embrace this killer in developing countries and to defend it in our own?  

When I started writing this, it was swine flu.  When I finished, Ebola.  As hard as it is to imagine now, in a few months or years it will be something else.  But the motor vehicle deaths will keep coming, unnoticed–and worse, accepted.

The governor of New York is jumping the gun ahead of the CDC, ahead of the White House, to do something about Ebola.  Where’s that passion, that leadership when it comes to the road traffic violence epidemic?  (with “Car-guy” Cuomo, definitely nowhere to be seen).   

It’s 2014.  Aren’t we going to do something?