Saturday, 24 October 2015

Governments have the most interesting data. Today: MOTs

There's a new web site., which lets you type in any registration and make of a car and get its entire MOT history. Excluding cars < 3 years old, this means you can get the effective history of a vehicle.

This is fascinating, especially when you use it to look up the history of a vehicle you've sold on (*).

What is equally fascinating, is what is shows about things you can get away with. In particular, holding wing mirrors on with masking tape is not an MoT failure.

You can also get away with: tyres nearly worn down, steering in trouble (wheel balance?), suspension in trouble, exhaust corroded, small damage to your windscreen.

You actually have to wait a year, get those front tyres below the 1.6mm limit as it rubs slightly against the wing of the car before they say "no, time to fix the toy"

By May 2015, this car (WP53JVM, for curious), fails because bolts are missing on the wheels.

Now, you can argue about wing mirrors, suspension, etc. But driving around with bolts missing from your wheels? That's not just cause for keeping the car in the garage, that should be cause for arresting the driver for some offence related to driving in a way to endanger everyone nearby.

Anyway, it's interesting data, and you can get it for any car.

Which means you can now do some interesting data-science projects —including some which would be something schoolkids to do as "maths in the real world" projects.
  1. Look at all your friends' and neigbours' car histories and see whose is the one most likely to cause a crash. Then make a note of who never to accept a lift from, especially at night, in the rain or winter conditions.
  2. Do a census of the entire history of all cars in your road over 3 years old, counting the pass/fail ratio as well as numbers of advisory issues. Then repeat this for other parts of the city, to determine the different vehicle quality statuses of the region.
  3. We've always asserted that cars in montpelier only need wing-mirrors for the MoT. Does the data imply this?
  4. Use the historical mileage data of cars over four years old and use this to determine the average annual mileage of cars in the same streets. Is the MOT failure rate proportional to the miles across all parts of the city, or are some cars continually failing even with short mileage? Those are potentially the vehicles driven more around the city.
  5. Using that historical data, have the miles driven by residents increased or decreased after the RPZs were rolled out? What about people who don't live in an RPZ yet have jobs in the city centre or nearby?
  6. When buying a car, look up its history. It is a sign of a car that is maintained, or one neglected?
  7. Look at some lorries. Is their failure rate better or worse than other vehicles? What about vans?
The scariest thing to consider is this: the MOT certifies that a vehicle was considered safe by MOT standards for one single day. The car above could have been driving around with broken windscreen wipers, failing suspension and missing wheel bolts for 364 days before it failed its test. After being fixed, it now has another 364 days for its brake pads to finally wear too thin, tyres to wear out, those coil springs to finally corrode through.

Drivers like these are potentially some of those who complain about cyclists "not having MOTs on their bicycles". Well, with drivers like that, who cares about the state of the cyclists' bikes, other than whether or not both their brakes work? Because they aren't what you have to worry about, whether walking, cycling or driving. It's the people driving round the city in a VW golf with underbolted wheels, worn brake pads, failing suspension and defective windscreen and wipers.

To close, then: a competition for the weekend. Pick a car you see ~ 10 years old, put in its history and find out exactly what it's been failing MOTs for. We want the most dramatic reasons -and so far "missing wheel bolts on two wheels" is it.

(*) Actually it wasn't that vehicle, which was WP53JVO. Getting the last digit wrong turned up what must been another of the last batch of MkIV Golfs to leave the VW dealer.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Bristol's 2015 Bike Survey. If its so wonderful, why do twats swear at you for cycling?

Sustrans have just published a 2015 survey on use and opinions on cycling in Bristol. This is available as a PDF for anyone who still prints things, and, on Page 2, comes with a sepia tinted photo of Our Glorious Leader for anyone who hasn't seen him recently.

Lots of people will be praising this, so we'll be ruthless and go the other way.

First issue: where do the numbers come from?

There is a full PDF of the methodology, which is what all surveys need: Something to back up the dataset. This shows that the Bristol survey was a phone survey of 1100 people, selected by random dialling, and quotas to match demographics in the area, then some 300 booster surveys to find cyclists who have real opinions on the cycling facilities.

One of our team members got a survey call, so we know two facts about it
  1. It was made to a landline. It therefore implicitly excludes all households without landlines. Ofcom's figures would imply that excludes 15% of the UK population from the survey; there's no data for Bristol itself.
  2. It was conducted mid-afternoon on a weekend. This may lead to selection bias towards boring people who don't have lives, parents stuck at home with children included.
What we don't know is how wide the survey went. Did it cover the bits of S Gloucs that is the part of Bristol full of people who hate speed limits and residents parking? Or did it only cover BRS and Avonmouth?

Second issue: why be so positive in the interpretation

Here's the negative view of Page 5
  1. 28% of people don't "like to see people out and about on bikes". Cyclists: these are the people shouting at you.
  2. 32% do not believe things would be better if people in general rode bikes more.
  3. 26% do not believe that more people riding bikes would make Bristol a better place to live and work.
  4. 46% do not believe that things would be better if friends and family road bikes more.
  5. 52% do not feel that they should ride a bike more.
  6. and from p10: 30% of residents would not like to see more investment in cycling in Bristol.
This may be excessively negative, as the PDF doesn't differentiate "no" from "don't know". All we know is that it is not positive. But lets go for the worst case here.

Over a quarter of the sample set in the survey don't like to see people cycling. More than half don't feel that they should ride a bike more. And, nearly half (46%) don't even want to see friends and family riding bikes more. Maybe because that would create an inconsistent view of cyclists as outgroup vs friends-and-family. We don't know —the data isn't there.

What we see then, is a divided city.

Now, what other bits of the survey are interesting?

P10: bike routes

Notice the popularity of traffic free cycle routes and protected bike lanes amongst all current and potential users.

Notice the complete disdain for shared pavements amongst non-cyclists and experienced cyclists alike. The fact that even the "don't ride a bike but want to" group don't like shared pavements shows how the two-track route policy in the UK, "magic paint on the roads and shared cycle pavements" doesn't even deliver for the people who would like to cycle. Time to knife the baby there.

Similarly: nobody likes bus lanes except for experienced/regular cyclists. Even there, ask them "do you like to be stuck behind a first bus in full early morning black smoke mode" or "do you like to have a bus right behind you?". These are details we'd like to know.

P11: demographics

Older people are under-represented. The pie chart doesn't actually show the number of respondents who cycle vs. the demographics of the city as a whole, so it' not that useful. Let's assume that yes, there are less elderly people. Look at the pie chart next to it. ~50% commute, some (2%?) to school and then 4% to college or university. We're going to take a guess here, but you won't see many of the 55+ going to school or college, or in the 65+ range commuting. You'd expect to see a reduction. More interesting, the smaller 45-54 range (14%) vs. 35-44 (23%). 

The 16% of of people riding bikes who identify themselves as black or minority ethnic —the same as for the city. This is interesting, as it implies the claim that cyclists are all white middle class men is not true in Bristol. But we still see 69% of cyclists identifying as male vs 31% female, showing significant gender disparities in a city where the percentage of sexes is approximately equal. And there is no income related data to look on that axis.

Between 2013 and 2014 the number of trips made by bike increased by 4%

What does that mean? That the percentage of all trips made in the city increased by 4% in one year? Or that in 2014 the number of bike journeys was 1.04 times that of 2013? And if so, how does that compare with the percentage increase in: car journeys, walking, train and bus? More? the same? Less? We need more context for that sentence to parse it correctly.

P13: Metrobus

"with the Metrobus giving hard-pressed commuters even more travel choice, our roads will become even less congested, and better for people on bikes and walking." Someone paid sustrans to write that. Because it should be "with the Metrobus making cycling harder in the city, our roads will stay a congested mess, and while it is being built the centre cycle-crossings and Create centre bridge have gone"


There is nobody in any of the 30-40 photos looking wet. This is an unrepresentative sample of Bristol days. We'd have expected waterproofs to be visible and needed in at least 25-30% of them.

p8: routes

There's 116 miles of "bike route", "79 miles traffic free", and "1 mile of protected bike lane". 27% of people live within 125 metres of a cycle lane, track or shared use path. Well the survey showed that everyone thinks shared use paths are worthless, and "bike route' is vaguely defined here. Presumably it includes anything painted on tarmac, which is effectively meaningless.

Page 12 follows this up with some assertions that 1/3 of morning rush hour traffic is bicycles, and that Gloucester Road has comparable numbers to the railway path. Here is Gloucester Road outbound at 16:30 on this very weekday. As such, it's not something we've been saving for a special occasion, simply a normal weekday, with here the passenger of WU56JKV swearing at the cyclist as they go past.

The driver appears to be concerned that the cyclist "was in the middle of the road" while cycling past the parked cars and the road junction where the traffic island means that the middle of the road is the place to be. They were clearly concerned enough to shout "get to the fucking side". The fact that they'd wound up the window when next passed shows that they hadn't expected to be passed again, as they had to go to the effort of winding it down to make more hand gestures later.

As for the reason for the abuse, "middle of road" was it, though they seemed unable to proceed even after the cyclist had expressed their apologies and invited them to go ahead. It's almost as if they were, to use a phrase, four fuckwits without a fuck or a wit between them.

  1. You can't see it in the photo, but the front tyre was pretty much smooth on the outer 1/4 of the tyre. Tapping the reg# and make (ford) into the MOT history site shows the MoT is due soon, and they have a history of bald tyres. We'll check back in a month to see if that tyre earned a failure. If not: they've had to suspend it.
  2. At 0:33 you can see that one of its brake lights is dead. This is a defective vehicle.
  3. Given that they stay in the same position from 0:33 to 1:33, a minute at a red light, perhaps it is their frustration at having to wait so long which is leading to their anger management issues.
  4. Note how everyone in the vehicle hates the cyclists being there. These are all from the 28% of people that don't like to see people out and about on bikes.
  5. As this is after 16:30, anyone parked in the bus lane is illegally parked and can earn tickets; its generally the buses that suffer the most from parked cars, but you can see a few times where the cyclists have to swing out.
  6. The GPS route map may be accurate, but the speedo is clearly confused, has some bad weighted-moving-average parameters, or at least one of the GPS satellites has just fallen out the sky while still broadcasting its position.
  7. The actual Strava numbers for this segment time that cyclist as 19.7 mph, top 100 of the 3500 riders logged, fastest of October to date. In a 20 mph zone, this is not someone you have to wait for.
  8. That intermittent bit of paint on the side of the road is probably 2 miles out of the 79 miles of bike route, and definitely part of the kind of cycle lane which 27% of people live with 125 metres of.
The last is interesting, as it says "is that all you can do?", "how does this stop cyclists being sworn at", and "what would the numbers be if the 75 cm path didn't keep disappearing under buses and vans at corners?"

Regarding the passenger of the car, we're going to try a new experiment today. Report them to the ASPoliceWest and ask for a caution for abusive behaviour or a section 59 ASBO. The ASBO strategy is to see what excuse they will make up for not issuing one, as they can't cite court costs, leaving only "we don't think swearing at cyclists is antisocial". Let's see, shall we?


We're seeing a polarised city here, one shown in both the survey results and today's field test of a ride up Gloucester Road, —a road the survey calls out as a success, but which we document as "par for the course".

It'd be interesting to know the postcode split of the like to see bicycles/hate to cycles answers, and their demographics. While there appears to be an ascendant movement to cycling in the city, the anti- forces are a significant number and do form a noisy minority — not just swearing away at passing cyclists.

Saturday, 17 October 2015

Autonomous vehicles: Google are the new British Leyland

After spending a month with our strategic partners in a privatised-PCSO state, you soon get fairly used to the sight of Google autonomous cars. There's two types, the original Lexus models, and the smaller kitty cars. The latter are clearly designed to avoid scaring people witless that machines are taking over the freeway. It's as if in Terminator, the T1000 had been dressed up as a telly-tubby after being beamed back in time. Sarah Connor and compatriots would have been so busy saying "Oh, isn't it cute" to notice they were being shot to pieces by Skynet.

Maybe google should buy a kitty car and paint it up like Schwarzenegger in the final stages of Terminator & see whether it gets cut up less: an interesting little field trial.

So what's like to drive round town when there are these things on the route?

Here is one spotted during a morning commute on El Camino, the road where bus lanes are being opposed as autonomous cars will solve all problems.

It is legal to use a phone while stationary, so this photo was legal. However, the photographer is clearly not paying attention. Nor are the two googlers in the lexus, as they chat to each other -but they don't need to.

Which promises a wonderful future, were it not for the fact that Google's entire computer infrastructure is built on the decision that rather than spend lots of money for hardware that doesn't fail,  just buy cheap boxes and let the software deal with the failure rate. For example, whereas even your home network store can be "RAID-5" for redundant data storage, Google's filesystem, GFS, just stores three copies of your photos and re-replicates a copy if one of them goes way or gets corrupted. That is: google accept things to fail and hide it from the user. Similarly, anyone who has ever owned a Google Nexus phone will know that they're as unreliable as a mid-1980s Mini Metro. A couple of months ago, Google shipped an update where the flash and the photo taking were out of sync. The flash went off, then the photo was taken after the flash had gone. What kind of QA process lets that out of the door? Unless they used the Volkswagen strategy, "detect when you are testing the phone and have the camera work", or their test image was a black object against a black background, detecting flash/snap synchronisation failures during the test process should be trivial. Which implies google did near-zero testing, but instead pushed the patch out over the wire -to their own Google Nexus phones- and then waited for complaints to come in.

Can you trust these people to build cars? Cars which are all required to reach their destination with their payload alive, rather than ones where its OK to have 99.3 percent arriving, and a paper "Failure trends in large self-driving car populations" of esoteric interest to those who work in computer hardware? Cars when you want things co-ordinated like the camera and the brake pedal, so it it sees a lorry coming it will stop in time, rather than 15 seconds too late?

It's not just that they're just out of their depth, they've made it a fundamental tenet of their system architecture: things fail, get over it. We'll hide it the server software, while client side we'll just push out an update once we get bug reports coming in.

Which means anyone who owns a google car would be reluctant to accept that update; you'd wait a week to see if The Register was warning of bugs in the steering or braking systems before you hit the "accept" button on a patch, that is, unless you wanted an emergency fix to some problem like "doesn't recognise oncoming HGVs"

Not in our photograph, to the left of our photographer, is someone in a Tesla-S electric car. These are the status toys of the electric world. Not toy cars like the nissan leaf, but performance luxury vehicles where the electric feature is not just to keep costs down on the commute, or to allow you in the car-sharing lanes when on your own, but to show off, "my facebook stock is up and I can afford to be smug".

The driver of the Tesla is not only looking down at their phone, they appear to be falling asleep while they do it. Every so often their head jerks up, not in the "I'd better look to see if the lights have changed" style, but in the "I'm falling asleep but shouldn't" style. Whatever their friends are up to on Facebook, it's not interesting enough to keep them awake on the commute.

So which future do we have to look forward to?

  1. Self driving cars from a company whose view on what reliability constitutes "acceptable" is on a par of what British Leyland thought in 1978.
  2. Non-autonomous electric cars driven by people who can't even stay awake long enough to read messages on the phone.

This is the future —and either way it's pretty bleak.

Saturday, 10 October 2015

The spectator discovers sectarian Bristol

Once every 18 months, the Spectator magazine covers Bristol with an article. This is something we residents we have on our "things to look forward to" list somewhere between "Shopping in Asda Bemmy on a Saturday" and "getting stuck on the M4 because there's a rugby match scheduled to start in Cardiff soon".

This year we are blessed with many opportunities to get stuck on the M4. We are also graced with the latest spectator article, Bristol, the European capital of green nannying and bureaucracy.

Here are the opening three paragraphs:
I am stuck behind a big yellow recycling lorry in Bristol, which this year became the UK’s first European Green Capital. It is collecting food waste from the special brown bins we have to use, and the stench is horrendous. Behind me are about another dozen cars and, sad to say, I fear that not all of them have turned off their idling engines.  
Squadrons of recycling vehicles invade every day, blocking our narrow Victorian streets and causing misery and mayhem — starting with the school run: ‘Dad! I’m going to be marked down for a “late” again!’ ‘Sorry son, but these teabags mustn’t be allowed to rot in landfill. And besides, we have our city’s green status to consider!’ 
I am not against recycling — just the extreme methodology the city has adopted. Bristol is now so over-the-top with it all that bin day involves five or more different bins collected by three separate diesel–powered lorries. And I have a theory about why these mobile compost heaps insist on working through the morning rush hour: it is all about our city’s war on the car.
Mr Miserable then actually goes on to make the point that Bristol has gone from being the city of ganja and Trip-hop to one of painted road regulations, blaming "green city europe" for it. Well, he may have a point. Certainly there is a visible split between those people who were happy with "The way thing were" and the progressives,. The "way things were" brigade are still sulking over the (last) rework of The Centre, the loss of the rickety flyover, and probably even the loss of the road over College Green. Notice how roads are the key source of resentment. Similarly the progressives are full of hope that with an RPZ and 20 mph limit all those people sulking about stolen roundabouts will suddenly choose to cycle happily to work.  Well, the sulkers won't be doing that out of ideological reasons, even if their GP says they need to do it for their emergent Coronary Heart Disease and Type II Diabetes.

Ironically, both groups have lots in common: they all think Bristol being "european green city" is taking the piss, and that Metrobus is a disaster in the making. Nobody anywhere can be found to defend Metrobus except bus companies, and the engineers in WoEP who find designing continuous bike routes too boring to bother with.

Anyway, on a standard of the Spectator's usual coverage, no worse than usual, and it doesn't laugh at us rural folk who live outside the Home Counties.

What is irritating though, is the whole theme of those quoted paragraphs. He has spent a fifth of his article citing being stuck behind a bin van on the school run with the other parents as evidence for the council's "war on the car". That's it: stuck behind a bin van.

Now, nobody likes being stuck behind the rubbish or recycling lorries, but here is a key aspect of them:
they come on the same day every week
Admittedly, whether it's a brown and recycle week or a black-bins-too week is a mystery to all, but that is addressed, as everyone does, by sticking them all out on the street. Any that don't get collected can be left there for the following week. Because, as noted, they will be back exactly seven days later, except around Christmas and New Year -but there, as a gift to the parents, the council allows them to take off three weeks worth of school run, so the schedule is irrelevant.

Because bin day is so regular, you soon learn which days the lorries come out on the rat-runs between your home and school, which means remembering the 1-2 days a week when you have kick your child out of bed a bit earlier and say "we need to go to school now, get up you lazy bastard".

But no, clearly Anthony Whitehead never remembers to do this on the morning after he (hopefully) helped stick the bins out. Which implies its more a war on "lazy and forgetful parents".

Having failed to learn a useful strategy for avoiding being late one day a week "get out of the door 10 minutes early on bin day", he is instead stuck in a line of cars trying to compose his magazine article.

This is where he makes his second fatal mistake. At the moment he realised that he was blocked in, and that he wasn't going to get the child to school in time, instead of foaming off at the council or writing an article for the Spectator, he should have put the handbrake on, turned round to the child and said "get out of the car and walk from here".

Because that is the real split in the city; those who drive their kids to school and those who don't. For a parent driving their child in to suddenly say "get out and walk" is as unthinkable as anyone who works in Clifton using public transport to get there.

Yet still the council tries to force families to walk their kids to school. And it's a war that's been going on for decades

Here is a shocking video showing hordes of children forced to walk to school -even those whose parents are important and own more than one car.

Listen to their happy laughs over the birdsong! Look to how their irresponsible parents let them scoot ahead to the next junction, rather than holding them tightly by the hand on the dangerous journey from the front door to the back seat of their Euro-6 certified crossover SUV. Note the road closures from Ninetree Hill to Freemantle Square, and the later one just before Colston School -and see how they have killed off the traffic-flow-enhancing through traffic. Observe the near-complete lack of traffic apart from a white builder's van, en route to a wage-earning job, one car going up Cotham Brow and a bus.. Note specifically, the presence of RPZ paintwork in the Kingsdown and Cotham North zones are preventing any of the workers Bristol depends on from driving round in circles until they can see a free corner to park on.

All these children are being deprived of the opportunity to snapchat their friends from the back of Crossover SUVs stuck behind bin lorries! All their parents are deprived the opportunity to show off the size and ostentatiousness of their land-barges, hence provide any form of visible wealth to indicate the social status of their offspring! You can't see who is poor and who can afford a car! And long term -these children will grow up as yet unable to grasp the core tenant of Bristol: you need a car to get on.