Britain doesn’t have an Americans with Disabilities Act

Great Britain doesn’t have an Americans with Disabilities Act. Now, you may say, why would Britain care about Americans with Disabilities. What I mean by this are that conditions for those with disabilities in Britain seem much harsher than in the US. In particular, I will note the public transport system, especially the rail system.
To be clear, Britain does have a
Disability Discrimination Act of 1995. It is just that the requirements that are made of extant systems are much more modest than the US.
The reason I note this is not, fortunately, because anyone in my household is physically disabled, rather because as I and my wife take our 2 year old son out in a stroller, we notice problems that just don’t appear in the US. In part this is because we don’t use public transport much in the US, but if we were to use rail transport, there would be an elevator to get to the platform at every station. Even where it would not be difficult to provide a ramp, a short staircase is often the only alternative. Sometimes, a long staircase is required, leading to the stroller carry (which is easier than unbuckling and rebuckling, especially if our son is sleeping).


A quick review of the TfL Underground map shows the extent of the problem, only stations with the wheelchair have lifts or are level with the ground.
One could argue this is about economic efficiency, retrofitting hundreds of stations would be expensive. But the relevant value here is not efficiency but equity and inclusion, if economic efficiency were the criteria, one would make almost no accomodations for the disabled.
This is one more case where the buses beat the trains. Buses are a short enough step that manipulating a stroller is not too difficult. They also have better accomodation for wheelchairs than trains, though in four months here, I have only seen one wheelchair on a bus.
“Barely hospitable” is the phrase my wife uses to describe London. Many Underground patrons are quite helpful in lifting one end of the stroller while one of us has the other, it is the infrastructure that is not designed for anyone who who is not fully mobile.
Most of the sidewalks do have curb cuts, though the rough surfaces make wheeling along them less than optimal, but not impossible.
Finally, one must ask about the omnipresent urban slogan: “Mind the Gap”. Why can’t trains and platforms be level? London has had over a century to get this right on even the deep-tube lines. I understand that the trains in the deep-tubes (e.g. Bakerloo, Piccadilly, Northern) differ from those on the older (e.g. Metropolitan, District, Hamersmith & City) lines, but how hard could it be to make the stations level with the trains they do serve, to minimize if not eliminate the gap. For all of the human energy devoted to installing Mind the Gap signs and making the everpresent announcements, rectifying the original problem would have been warranted, and probably less expensive.

The Trouble with TRB

The Transportation Research Board , a unit of the National Academies, hosts an annual conference in Washington, DC every January. This year attendance exceeded 11,000 (both professionals and academics), so I was told when attending last week. It overflows three of the largest hotels in the city, and so must from some respects be seen as a success.
One trouble that TRB has is quality control. The organization is divided into committees. Some committees have strong leadership and a high volume of paper submission (with a scarce number of slots), and so are able to exert quality control on the papers that are presented at the conference and ultimately published in the Transportation Research Record. Other committees don’t, dragging down the average quality, and discouraging some from submitting research to TRB.
A second, related problem that TRB has is its low citation rate compared to other journals. Few papers published in other journals cite articles published in TRB.
An advantage that TRB’s publications have is their open-ness, I retain full copyright on anything published there, and TRB doesn’t make the same claims on my intellectual content that some for-profit publishers do.
However, TRB has yet to make its publications freely available online, continuing to produce paper copies and charge for electronic copies (except to those participating in the conference).
There is no faster way of increasing availability of content, and making it useful, citable, and thus cited, then making it freely available online. The physics community has learned this with, a e-print archive, described here. TRB would be a perfect host for a similar institution in transportation research, if it could only find the imagination to host a free, publicly-accessible pre-print archive (basically the conference submissions, but other papers as well), that was properly indexed. The physics journals accept papers that are hosted on arXiv , so later publication is not a problem.
The journal Transportation Research Record is a separate problem. Credibility is established through history. It is not that most TRR papers are wrong, just that they are not given credit because TRR does not act as an effective enough filter against the mundane. In part this is because TRR tries to be all things to all transportation, each committee gets its slots. Other journals within transportation tend to specialize, while TRR’s sister publication Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences is much more selective, though relatively general within the sciences.
It should be noted that PNAS “is notable for its policy of making research articles freely available online to everyone 6 months after publication”, which helps increase readership and citations.
TRB staff seems to be compaining of recent budget cuts. Without discussing other aspects of the organization, but focusing on TRR and the conference if the organization cannot obtain value from the research that thousands of volunteers produce (for free) and review (for free), and could be distributed for free (minus some server and bandwidth costs), while charging over $200 per head for a conference attended by over 11,000 people, something is wrong in its management structure.

Prison overcrowding is just a queueing problem

According to an article from 5 years ago, BBC NEWS | UK | Prison overcrowding ‘at crisis point’. Apparently it still is: BBC NEWS | UK | UK Politics | Jail system in ‘serious crisis’.
This “perpetual crisis” is simply a queueing problem: There is an arrival rate of prisoners (how many people we jail), there is a departure rate (how many people we release), and there is a storage capacity (how many we keep behind bars). To relieve this perpetual crisis, we can
1) reduce arrivals
2) increase departures
3) increase storage, either by adding capacity or making better use of the space through double or triple bedding.
The various strategies have been tried, reducing arrivals most notably last week when the beleagured Home Secretary (Attorney General/Secretary of Homeland Security more or less for US readers) was chastised by a judge who refused to jail a paedophile because of a memo from the Home Office about prison crowding.
Capacity will take some time to expand, especially given the inaction to date.
We could increase departures, but then prisoners would not serve their full sentences (and we know that prisoners who are safe to release after 7 years must somehow remain very dangerous after 6 years and 364 days).
The problem in thinking about this is the implicit (and wrong) assumption of inelasticity of demand, if we changed the cost, we would get just as many prisoners.
So how about pricing? Charging prisoners for their stay would probably not work, most can’t afford it, and we would have to send them to debtor’s prison.
Maybe we could charge someone else.
Prison cells are a scarce commodity, valuable to the communities seeking to send more of their own into the slammer. Each community (via their judges) would administer a “prison budget”. The judges could bid on cells in an auction (envision eBay), perhaps a Dutch auction, for each of their potential prisoners, the highest N bidders get to imprison their least favorite baddies. There would of course be different classes of prison cells, and a certain number enter the market each week (e.g. 5 cells of maximum security with a 6 year stay, 19 cells of medium security for a 3 year stay). We might even get an options market, and trading between communities if the match didn’t work. Prisons could transform security levels to better match market demand. It shouldn’t take too long for a new equilibrium to emerge.
This might open up the option for new suppliers to enter the market, driving down costs. I don’t know the legal nicities of this over here in the UK, but in the US many states have private prisons, and one could easily see the least dangerous baddies condemned to an underperforming Motel 6 instead of prison.
Communities would reveal through this process which crimes they really dislike based on how much they are willing to pay to imprison different people who committed different crimes.
Just a thought.

The Oyster Gotcha

A nice blog post (via The Transport Blog): The Oyster Gotcha – Software Reality on some of the other problems with London’s Oyster card system. As wonderful as it is, it is a user interface problem par excellance.