Category Archives: Motoring

Ticket off

Parking meter in Salem - picture from Henry

Henry e-mails:

“Perhaps this is too obvious: parking meters; and I mean modern digital ones, enforce arbitrary limits on how much you can pay for at a time (4 hours). Is this to share the enjoyment of democratic parking (at a dollar an hour), or some social engineering ploy to force productive members of the workforce to enter the valet service economy, and thus a reminder of the fact that if they work harder, they could afford a driver?”

Tongue-in-cheek aside, there is something unhelpful, to some extent manipulative, designed into a lot of parking ticket machines (as well as some other vending machines). Take a look at the following machine I photographed this morning in a shoppers’ car park in Pinner, Middlesex, UK:

Ticket machine in Pinner, Middlesex
What's the excuse?

What’s the excuse for the ‘No change given – Overpayment accepted’ policy? It’s not as though it’s technically too difficult to give change: these aren’t mechanical penny gobstopper machines from the 1950s. Sure, it would make each machine a bit more expensive to include the change-giving function, but so what? If every one of the hundreds of people who park each day paid, say, 5 pence extra the cost of the more expensive machine would be recouped within a week or two, surely?

Of course, the real reason for the ‘no change given’ policy is that many customers who arrive at the machine without the 50p + 20p (or other combinations needed to make 70p) will put in £1 instead. Thus for a certain percentage of customers, the machine receives 1.43 times the revenue it ought to. I don’t know how many people overpay, but the point is, none of them can underpay. The system is asymmetric. The house always wins.

Does the car park operator (in this case Harrow Council) factor the extra revenue it receives from forcing overpayment into its projected revenues from the machines? Do they record how many people overpay, and use that statistic to plan next year’s budget? Or is overpayment treated as an ‘unexpected’ windfall? Or perhaps, just perhaps, without the overpayment the car park would make a loss?

Any more examples of awful ‘no change given’ implementations, or related anecdotes, musings, etc, much appreciated!

Using trees to encourage safer driving

Image from New Urban News, by Eric Dumbaugh
Image from New Urban News, by Eric Dumbaugh

Ryan G Coleman kindly sent me a link to this very interesting New Urban News story, ‘Research: trees make streets safer, not deadlier’. The gist is that roads planted with trees cause drivers to put themselves in state of greater alertness, which makes them generally more cautious about driving and generally slow down:

“Proposals for planting rows of trees along the roads — a traditional technique for shaping pleasing public spaces — are often opposed by transportation engineers, who contend that a wide travel corridor, free of obstacles, is needed to protect the lives of errant motorists…

[However], Eric Dumbaugh, an assistant professor of transportation at Texas A&M… looked at accident records and found that, on the contrary, wide-open corridors encourage motorists to speed, bringing on more crashes. By contrast, tree-lined roadways cause motorists to slow down and drive more carefully, Dumbaugh says.

Dumbaugh examined crash statistics and found that tree-lined streets experience fewer accidents than do “forgiving roadsides” — those that have been kept free of large, inflexible objects. He points to “a growing body of evidence suggesting that the inclusion of trees and other streetscape features in the roadside environment may actually reduce crashes and injuries on urban roadways”…

Dan Burden, senior urban designer for Glatting Jackson and Walkable Communities Inc. in Orlando, notes that there is research showing that “motorists need and benefit from tall vertical roadside features such as trees or buildings in order to properly gauge their speed.”

The article goes on to mention the ‘Shared Space‘ work of Hans Monderman, Ben Hamilton-Baillie and others, which includes removing road markings as part of a wider scheme to change the perceived emphasis of an environment and, again, put drivers into a state of greater awareness. From the BBC article on the ‘naked road’ experiment in Seend, Wiltshire:

“Motoring psychologists and urban planners seem to agree that, overall, “naked roads” appear to have a positive effect on motorists…

“This approach draws on behavioural psychology involving the way drivers respond to their surroundings,” [Ben Hamilton-Baillie] says. “It removes the sense of security provided by barriers – such as kerbs, and traffic lights. Instead of relying on the street system for security, drivers are forced to use their reactions.”

According to Mr Hamilton-Baillie, the removal of a psychological safety net encourages drivers to exercise caution and restraint. He believes that the lack of clear markings encourages drivers to slow down and mingle with pedestrians, forcing them to make eye contact with one another.”

Why are these techniques so much better than this kind of thing?

As so often, I feel it’s better to put users of a system into a state of mind where they are actively, intelligently thinking about what’s going on, and how they can respond to dangers or risks in the environment, than to remove that option for awareness or action planning, and deliberately force them into a state of ignorance of the risks ahead just to compel them to slow down. The driver in the tree-lined or Shared Space road situation can read the road ahead, and adjust his or her behaviour based on the risks that are perceived, whereas just blocking drivers’ vision so they can’t read road hazards ahead and must therefore actually come to a stop, does much less to help safety, and instead merely causes frustration.

Speed control designed to help the user

A keyboard with a customisable extended character pad that I modelled back in 2000 - this was done in an early 1990s UNIX version of AutoCAD, and it shows!

Something with an interesting ‘forcing function’ story has been right in front of me all this time: the QWERTY keyboard, developed by Christopher Sholes and then Remington, with the intention of controlling the user’s behaviour. Until typists became proficient with the QWERTY system, the non-alphabetical layout with deliberate, if arbitrary, separation of common letters allowed the maximum typing speed to be slowed to something approaching writing speed, which reduced the amount of keys sticking and thus benefited both the manufacturer (less product failure, fewer complaints) and the customer (less product failure, less irritation). It also locked users who learned on a Remington QWERTY typewriter into staying with that system (and manufacturer, at least until the patents expired).

Whether or not QWERTY is a real example of market failure (in the sense that it’s an ‘inefficient’ system which nevertheless came to dominate, through self-reinforcing path-dependence, network effects, lock-in, etc), it’s an interesting design example of a commonplace architecture of control where the control function has long become obsolete as the configuration becomes the default way of designing the product.

Would designers today dare to create anything so deliberately idiosyncratic (even if clever) for mass consumption? (Systems that have evolved collaboratively to create complex, powerful results, such as UNIX, probably don’t count here.) The individualistic interfaces of some 1990s modelling software (e.g. Alias StudioTools, Form Z, Lightwave) which required a significant learning investment, were presumably designed with making the user experience easier “once you got used to it” (hence not really architectures of control) but have increasingly fallen by the wayside as the ‘standard’ GUI model has become so commonplace.

Today’s architecture of control is more likely to be something more robust against the user’s adaptation: if for some reason it was desirable to limit the speed at which users typed today, it’s more likely we’d have a keyboard which limited the rate of text input electronically, with a buffer and deliberate delay and no way for the user to learn to get round the system. Indeed, it would probably report the user if he or she tried to do so. Judging by the evidence of the approaches to control through DRM, such a wilfully obstructive design seems more likely.

Returning to the idea of slowing down users for their own benefit, as commenter ‘Apertome’ points out on Squublog:

“One way in which some such designs [i.e. architectures of control] can be GOOD is when mountain biking – a lot of times, they’ll put a tight curve before an obstacle to force you to slow down.”

Note how this is a somewhat different practice to deliberately reducing visibility at junctions: using a bend to slow down a rider before an obstacle does not impede riders who are already travelling at a lower speed, while it makes the higher-speed riders slow down and hence keeps them safe, whereas wilfully removing sightlines at roundabouts would seem in many cases to work to the detriment of drivers who like to assess the road ahead well before the junction, and force all to stop instead.

Deliberately reducing visibility at road junctions

Countess Roundabout, A303, Amesbury, Wiltshire, England (Image from Google Earth)

An increasing trend among road planners in the UK is the use of fencing, hedges or banks deliberately to reduce visibility at certain junctions, especially roundabouts (traffic circles), presumably with the intention of forcing drivers approaching a roundabout to slow almost to a standstill every time, even if the roundabout is empty. This SABRE thread has some interesting examples and discussion of individual cases (including the Countess Roundabout on the A303 – above image from Google Earth*).

I can understand the safety reasoning – and this genuinely is an architecture of control with intended social benefit – but in many places where it’s applied, I believe it to be flawed. One of the main features of roundabouts as originally introduced was that they allowed non-discriminatory free flow to any traffic which was unopposed, i.e. if nothing’s coming from the right (UK) you can proceed without actually having to halt: all roads meeting at a roundabout have to give way to whoever’s already on the roundabout. It’s the ultimate in both deference and empowerment.

By removing drivers’ ability to respond by assessing what’s happening up ahead, you reduce the amount of information available, which apart from sheer frustration, must in many cases have deleterious safety implications.

For example, I drive a low car with a relatively long bonnet. If there’s anything in a lane to my right when waiting at a roundabout, I already either have to wait until that has gone, or nose out gradually, just in order to see what’s coming and whether or not I can proceed. It’s awkward and I don’t like it. Adding high fences to the central reservation forces that situation on every driver.

As ‘PeterA5145′ notes in the SABRE discussion:

“…improving sightlines generally tends to reduce collisions at junctions. You wouldn’t deliberately engineer a road with lots of blind turnings just to make people take more care, would you?

It is nonsense to assert that slower automatically means safer.”

*This image is probably from before the fencing was put up – if anyone has a more recent one showing the fences, please let me know!

‘Carmakers must tell buyers about black boxes’

A traffic jam in south London, 2002

According to Reuters,

“The [US] government will not require recorders in autos but said on Monday that car makers must tell consumers when technology that tracks speed, braking and other measurements is in the new vehicles they buy.
Continue reading

Dilemma of horns

Night time

I was woken up (along with, I expect, lots of others) at about 5am today by a driver sounding his/her horn in the road outside – an arrogant two-second burst – then another replying (perhaps) with a slightly feeble one-second tone. I don’t know why; there are often a lot of horns during the day as there’s a level crossing which seems to generate a lot of frustration, but there are no trains passing through at 5am. Anyway, I went back to sleep and had various, fitful dreams, but not before thinking that’s where an architecture of control would be useful: a time-related horn interlock function, only allowing use of the horn during hours when it is legal. In the UK, that would be from 7am – 11.30 pm.
Continue reading