(Unedited) Podcast Transcript 351: The Rules Require Death
This week we’re joined by Dr. Megan Ryerson, UPS Chair of Transportation at the University of Pennsylvania’s Weitzman School of Design. Dr. Ryerson joins us to talk about her research on cognitive workload, measuring the stress of cyclists at intersections. We also chat about transportation during the pandemic, the uneven power dynamics in traffic safety between cars and bikes/pedestrians, and how safety and an inability to navigate are access restrictions.
Jeff Wood (43s):
Dr. Megan Ryerson. Welcome to the Talking Headways Podcast.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (1m 19s):
Thanks so much for having me
Jeff Wood (1m 21s):
Well, thanks for being here before we get started. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (1m 24s):
Absolutely. I’m the ups chair of transportation at the university of Pennsylvania, where I’m an associate professor of both city and regional planning and electrical and systems engineering. I’m a trained engineer and now a professor, both of urban planning and engineering. And, you know, with that combination, I’m really motivated to come up with new perspectives and new methods and models, really for solving the most pressing transportation planning and engineering problems that we have, like safety and the equity.
Jeff Wood (2m 1s):
And how did you get the transportation bug? I mean, what was the initial impetus for thinking about these issues? Was it something that happened when you were little or was it going to school and figuring out you could do these things? How did that come about?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (2m 13s):
So when I was an undergraduate in engineering, I chose engineering because just always loved math and science. And as an engineering student, actually at the university of Pennsylvania, I took an environmental engineering course. And in this environmental engineering course, we did a series of projects about routing garbage trucks and how the routing of garbage trucks affected air quality and then how that affected the lives of the residents. And that was such a moment for me where I said, I can take my love of math and network modeling and optimization, right.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (2m 54s):
And link it with this living network that is directly impacting people’s quality of life. And that was it. That was my junior year. And I knew from there that I would be a transportation engineer.
Jeff Wood (3m 11s):
That’s awesome. And professor two classes just started what’s that been like in the pandemic era specifically?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (3m 17s):
It is a downright joy to be in the classroom. Again with my students, I will say Penn was very proactive and it feels as safe as can, can be. You know, it is a little funny to look out and see to lecture through a mask and, you know, have my students all in masks. But the way I feel about my children’s elementary school, everyone’s doing it cause everyone wants to stay in person. So with all the sort of bizarreness, it is just wonderful to be in the classroom. Transportation is meant to be experienced a few weeks ago. We did a SEPTA tour with step to CEO, Leslie Richards, you know, 15 students came out, you know, first thing on a Friday morning because the transportation system is right out our door.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (4m 8s):
And we’re really craving that connection, not just to each other, but to the transportation system in the city.
Jeff Wood (4m 16s):
Did you get a quick overview of the new renaming system that they’re planning?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (4m 21s):
I’m actually, I’m working on that project a bit cool in a way finding study with the same eye tracking glasses that I used for the safety research that we talked about, basically looking for pain points, moments of stress when people were navigating the most complex intermodal stations in order to help SEPTA form, where they put their new science, what their new science might say, how they might guide people through the transfer experience.
Jeff Wood (4m 56s):
Oh, that’s really cool. We’ll get to that in a second. I also wanted to question about in the pandemic, you know, what stood out to you in the transportation world specifically over the last year and a half, that’s got your interest or at least kind of got your attention from something maybe that got tweaked, something that maybe changed maybe some new ideas that have been coming out. Is there anything about the pandemic that has become struck? Your I’m gonna use the word fancy, but that’s the right term.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (5m 20s):
You know, one thing that really struck me in the pandemic is how, when we plan transit, we need to reframe our thinking about who we are planning for when the pandemic hit. All of the news stories were, you know, no one’s taking transit or, you know, regional rail ridership is really low. It’s not true that no one was taking transit, essential workers, lower income populations, vulnerable populations never stopped taking transit and continue to take transit. Right? So really saying no one’s taking transit is really a coded way of saying that, you know, higher income riders, that transit agencies are kind of notorious for chasing.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (6m 8s):
We’re not taking transit. And to me, I just think it’s a moment to plan transit for who needs it, plan transit for who we can really improve accessibility and quality of life for, with new lines and new services, focus on urban distribution and neighborhood distribution rather than this, you know, old fashioned, you know, radial commute. So that’s one thing that really struck me about the pandemic. Another thing is in the air transportation context, which is where I spend some of my research time and you know, where I have a lot of expertise and in the air transportation context, we also kept hearing the narrative or the question of when will air travel, recover, when will air travel recover.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (6m 55s):
And I spent a lot of time writing about why don’t we want to recover to what we were. We had a system that served, you know, maybe the top 20% of our population, if that creates tremendous externalities in terms of local air quality for the mostly low income neighbors of airports and, you know, also greenhouse gas emissions and a system that’s really planned around just generating as much air travel as we can. And this sort of vague concept of economic development without really thinking about who are the residents, what would be the forms of inter-city mobility that would be best for them, right.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (7m 47s):
That they could afford that can take them to places that they want to and need to go and so on. So I also think that it was a real moment to say, you know, we need to plan intercity transportation, not as air transportation forcing, right. But rather to think about the needs of the populations that we’re serving.
Jeff Wood (8m 11s):
Well, it was really interesting to me to see in other countries, like in France, for example, they’re starting to write laws where they forbid trips that are short, that you can take through the TGV and a high-speed rail. So they’re actually starting to proactively write laws that prohibit the trips that are shorter on airplanes to kind of cut out some of those impacts, which is really interesting for me to see as well.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (8m 31s):
Yeah. I think that I’d love to see us focus on having air transportation, what it does do, what it does best, which is these long trips, right. That you can’t take on any other mode and really think about the potential of a more intermodal transportation system, right. But we have these big agencies and they’re almost set up to compete rather than collaborate, right? FRA FAA, even within the FAA, the airports are competing, right. We have so much competition within our modes and across our modes that we haven’t really taken a step back and said, what if we had an interest city transportation planning agency that actually was thinking about doing the most good with mobility and accessibility rather than planning the modes.
Jeff Wood (9m 21s):
I like that idea a different modal paradigm as it were from an agency. It sounds really good. Another thing that happened during the pandemic was there’s a lot of data that shows that auto collisions were higher, even though there was less driving. I think that that was another thing that stuck out to me. I don’t know if, did you pay much attention to that statistic as well?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (9m 39s):
Definitely did. Congestion is an access restriction in some negative ways, but also in some positive ways. And what we saw during the pandemic was that when we alleviate urban congestion, drivers can drive faster. Right. And we know that speed kills. And we had the compliments of more people walking and biking because it was one of the few things that a, you know, a person could do. I’ll say, as an aside, our neighborhood parks, they were all closed. Right? So with my children, we would just go out for walks and bike rides because there was really nowhere else to go for recreation.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (10m 25s):
And you have more and more people out walking and biking on the streets. And then you have the drivers with a newly unimpeded road network. And so they’re driving a lot faster. And so it was a real recipe for an increase in collisions.
Jeff Wood (10m 40s):
What’s the main driver nowadays for transportation safety policy. It seems like that is kind of indicative of the policy overall, which is automobile ING over, maybe some other modes. Maybe another question would be like, how do we measure safety now? And how are we impacted by the rules that are made federally or locally that relate to safety policy on our roads.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (11m 4s):
I want to answer with a small visualization and then get into the policy, right? And so it’s this morning and I’m walking my, my children who are under the age of 10 to school and we can take two different routes, right? One route has a crossing where I’ve seen drivers routinely blow through the stop sign. The sight distance is very bad there, cars parked all the way up to the stop line. It’s not an excuse. They still stop at the stop sign, but the sight distance is bad. And drivers routinely blow through the stop sign. The other route does not have that. It has crossings with better sight, distance and so on.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (11m 47s):
So we always take the route with better sight distance, even though it’s slightly, slightly longer, but the way that the city and the federal government and all of our sort of transportation, planning and safety planning fields, the way that we conceptualize safety is by counting crashes, even, you know, even you and I were discussing this increase in crashes, right, is counting crashes, counting of metric, we know is KSI killed and seriously injured and counting these different, these different factors. But this has a lot of shortcomings, right? So I just told you this story where my family avoids an unsafe intersection now to be morose, but because we don’t cross that intersection, we don’t have the opportunity to be struck at that intersection.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (12m 38s):
So if I were to look at a hotspot map, a map of counts of crashes, you know, plotted throughout the city, that intersection might not show up because it’s so notorious in my neighborhood. People don’t cross there, they cross elsewhere, right? So we have this very sort of biased approach of thinking about safety. I’d also like to say that it, it really also creates this mindset, that safety is crashes and, you know, urban transportation safety is really a feeling of perception. Do I feel like I can get across the street, excuse me, the street safely, do I feel safe, biking from my home to my office and this lack of safety in a perceived way really can create another access restriction.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (13m 35s):
Right? There are certain ways that I won’t walk because it’s unsafe. There are certain people who won’t bike at all in the city because they don’t feel safe doing so. So to me, it’s really on us to think about safety from almost an accessibility perspective. Can I get from my home to where I want to go on a range of different modes? And do I feel like I can take those modes? Do I feel like I can walk to, I feel like I can bike because it’s safe or not, rather than just looking at realized crashes and using that as a proxy for safety.
Jeff Wood (14m 19s):
Yeah. And it’s, it’s kind of frustrating cause w I mean, we’ve talked with folks from, from lacto. We talked with folks talking about the Emmy TCD, and it’s frustrating to think about kind of how the rules are required death. I mean, that’s kind of a rough way of saying it, but you know, the idea that somebody has to be killed intersection to actually make change. It’s frustrating. And I think that it’s a weird way to make rules. And that’s the way it kind of a lot of transportation rules. I mean, the 85% rules the same way, you know, the 85% of the people were speeding. Then you worry about the thing when you should actually think about it. Also brings up a kind of an idea that, that you think about a lot, which is the near misses, right? The idea of connecting things that aren’t relayed to through statistics through, you know, the ways we usually measure things, but those, those near misses.
Jeff Wood (15m 5s):
But I know that for a lot of the folks that listen to this show, a lot of the folks that are friends of mine that are in transportation planning, it’s not just that they see the data, but they also experienced this. They experienced the near misses and they take it personally themselves. But it’s also hard to push back on that kind of regime that goes for the KSAs, as you said.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (15m 23s):
Absolutely. I think a few years ago, I found this statistic that there are 20,000 near misses for every, you know, reported and counted crash. Right? So that alone tells us that crashes are not telling us safety in a comprehensive way because we’re missing out on 20,000 other unsafe interactions for every crash. We know that crashes tend to occur when there are multiple factors in play speed and maybe a distraction and maybe weather and so on. So I like to think of near misses as you have some of the ingredients, but, you know, one, one last ingredient, wasn’t there to make a crash, which is great, right?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (16m 12s):
And it was a near miss, but still had that one other factor of been in play you’d have a crash, right? So it’s clearly critical that we account for near misses in our estimation of, and thinking about safety. But if we can’t get complete crash counts, right, it’s hard enough sometimes to get a really complete count of crashes, it’s even harder to count near misses. However, as an urban cyclist, I am certainly impacted by the time I biked down, you know, Cambridge street in Philadelphia and narrow street and, you know, car buzz to driver, excuse me, buzz by me at a very high speeds, you know, yelling at me.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (17m 1s):
And I felt incredibly unsafe. And now I think twice about biking down that streets, right? I mean, these experiences color our perception of urban transportation safety, and it’s just anecdotes, right? It’s just anecdotes right now, you know, no actual data or agreed upon processes to account for this kind of perception in our safety planning
Jeff Wood (17m 29s):
And some of those near misses result in reverse crashes. And what I mean by that is I remember one time in college, I ran cross country and track, and obviously we were out running on the road. So a lot around the school and we’d get into near misses all the time where somebody would pull out from a driveway and stuff. And then oftentimes one of my teammates would kind of bash on the hood of the driver and then call their coach. And then, you know, he’d say, I understand, but you can’t do that and all this other stuff. And so you kind of get admonished for being the one that was almost killed by a car, but those kinds of, I call those reverse crashes where the cyclist or the, or the runner, whoever else just gets so mad that they bash on the person’s hood. I think it’s a common feeling for many cyclists and pedestrians that want to take that step to at least to let the person know that they were putting them in danger.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (18m 14s):
I think that’s such a great point. And I think that it, it really underscores how the power dynamic at play in safety is, is very stark. And the more vulnerable populations are, the more vulnerable sort of actor in a particular exchange is still the one who’s responsible for safety. And I know for me, you know, I’m a, you know, a woman cycling alone when a driver buzzes by me in high speed, I don’t yell back. I pulled to the side because it is not, it is not worth it to put myself in that kind of position.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (18m 59s):
I’d like to take the opportunity to link that to just people feeling safe in their own neighborhoods as a woman, whether I should have to be art or not. You know, I was taught to be very careful walking around at night. And you know, now as a grown adult, I still am very careful walking around at night. I’ve heard reports from my students, particularly from different ethnic backgrounds that they don’t feel safe walking in certain neighborhoods. I heard from my Asian students that they didn’t feel safe walking around after the pandemic because you know, some of them or their friends that had been yelled at, you know, certainly my students of color have reported that they don’t feel safe walking around in certain environments.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (19m 42s):
And, you know, I just think that all of these concepts are linked, right? So, you know, I will not walk around at night because I don’t feel safe. You know, as a woman walking around at night, everybody else gets the right, who is wielding more power, right. Gets to move around in an unfettered way. Whereas I’m home. I’ll link that to the other concept that my nine-year-old twins ask every morning, if they can walk the two and a half blocks to school by themselves. And I say, no, because I’ve seen too many drivers blow through stop signs. And I feel that they’re just a touch too young to understand that nuance, they are being robbed of responsibility of autonomy that they’re really capable of because people with more power in the transportation system, the drivers right, are being irresponsible.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (20m 46s):
And I think that that has a lot of linkages to our ability to move through the city in a safe way.
Jeff Wood (20m 54s):
It also ties into your research as well. I’m going to kind of jump into the cognitive workload work. What is high cognitive workload in itself? And where did the idea come from
Dr. Megan Ryerson (21m 7s):
In fields and its diverses surgery and education and air traffic control? There is the idea that high cognitive workload is related to stress and is related to errors. So I’ll give an example from air traffic control. If simulation, after simulation was run and found that if their traffic controllers are responsible for more than X flights, a certain number of flights in a certain situation based start to drop information. And they’re more likely to, you know, give a command a little late or something like that.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (21m 55s):
And the idea that if we have too much on our minds, then we’ll start to make errors, right. Is the relationship between cognitive workload and stress in surgery too. Right? There’ve been simulations with surgeons where they examine the workload to see if an error is made in a surgical context. So I thought that I could borrow this idea for urban transportation users, for walkers, for cyclists, and say, where during your journey, why is your cognitive workload the highest?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (22m 40s):
Where were you taking in a lot of information such that if you had to react quickly, or if you had to react quickly, maybe because the driver turned into you or there was a surprise pothole or a pedestrian walked down in front of or whatever it is that maybe it would be harder to react in that situation.
Jeff Wood (23m 8s):
How does that impact cyclists and pedestrians particularly? I mean, there’s that reaction, but we talked to professor Justin Hollander last week at Tufts. Who’s using eye tracking software for stress in the built environment related to how people perceive buildings. And we talked a little bit about, you know, anthropomorphizing buildings and what people respond to and what makes them stressed in an urban environment. And that’s just kind of a two dimensional thing, general stress in the environment that you’re in while hugging that type of thing. But then you add in this third dimension of vehicles coming at you or traffic or other people, and it makes it a whole other ball game. How much more does that add to the stress of a pedestrian or cyclist adding this other dimension?
Jeff Wood (23m 51s):
We’re already stressed by the built environment because it’s not really built in a way that’s functional for us generally. How do you deal with that third dimension of the two ton vehicle that might be lurking?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (24m 1s):
So I’ll say this, there have been a few pedestrian and cyclist workload and safety studies in simulation environments and in labs and answering questions like can a pedestrian make it safely across in this amount of time? Does the cyclist see this sign? You know, or, you know, how do they behave in this kind of environment? I felt like if I’m going to estimate safety from a cognitive workload measure, I have to be out in the field.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (24m 42s):
I have to have the cyclist experience, the actual interaction with traffic, because that is such a critical part of the urban cyclist experience. If it were just us, there were just cyclists on the road, it will be a completely different environment. And all of our stress is that 98% of our stress is about being hit by a car or a truck. And so to me, being able to measure where that threat of a possible interaction crash with a car truck and how that influences the amount that you have on your mind and the amount that you have to take in that, that was a critical component of my measuring safety.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (25m 38s):
And I mentioned that because I wanted to be in the fields and I felt like it was critical. Our sample was comprised of people who feel safe being urban cyclists. And so we didn’t just randomly pull from the public and put people on a bike for a first time and slap a face camera on them and say, go, go bike. It was people who felt comfortable to very comfortable biking in the city. However, we, you know, we did a lot of data science and analysis behind the data and normalized everyone’s data to their own baseline.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (26m 20s):
And to me, something that was so interesting that came out of that was that even if you’re a very experienced cyclist and I’m a very new cyclist, we had our most stressful high workload moments in the same locations. So to me, the takeaway from that is it’s not the, it’s the infrastructure and why that’s so important is that a lot of movements like vision zero and other movements are really focused on education. And that’s great. And I’m not saying we should not do safety education, but we can’t just do safety education.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (27m 1s):
We have to design, we have to actually get out there and design safe infrastructure, because even my most experienced cyclists, we’re having these very stressful moments when there was a lot to take in when there were a lot of potential interactions.
Jeff Wood (27m 20s):
Well, let’s go into that measurement idea. I mean, you gave cyclists eye tracking glasses and gyroscopes together, biometric data on the intersections that they’re riding through. What specifically tells you if they’re in stress from the data that you’re taking in. Cause you, you mentioned, I mean, you, you set a baseline, you get everybody’s data and everybody’s data is different, but how do you get the baseline? And then how do you measure where everybody gets on the same page at that specific intersection where it is stressful?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (27m 48s):
So we chose four different variables to indicate stress. And this was based on, you know, that previous literature I had mentioned air traffic control literature, you know, literature from surgery and so on. And these metrics were related to eye movement and head movements. Basically, if you’re moving around a lot, it is correlated with having a high workload. So for each individual, we charted out there for stress variables throughout the course of their ride. And we chose to plot to analyze the top percentile of those movements.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (28m 30s):
So basically in what locations did you have the top 10% of your movements? And that way, my top 10% in your top 10%, they might be quite different if you look at their actual numbers, but they are our most extreme responses, right? And so that was the way that we isolated the extreme responses. And what we found was that out of our 39 subjects, their extreme responses all took place in the same location. And it was particularly stark because there was a new protected bike lane that had breaks.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (29m 14s):
And so everyone’s stress went very, very low when they were in the protected second, and then it would spike out of the protected segment and then it would go back low. Then they’d have to make an unprotected left and it would spike. And, you know, you could just, as a cyclist, I expect this, but to see it in hard data from 40 pretty different people, cycling was quite a dramatic and telling
Jeff Wood (29m 45s):
Now you’ve put on the glasses and you’ve written the course as it were, if you don’t have them on or afterwards, did you find yourself kind of mentally ticking, whether you were having a response after you went through the process?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (29m 59s):
So the first thing I’ll say was I also had the reverse, which is that I’m putting, I put the glasses on and I thought, oh, I’m going to be so aware that I have these glasses on and I’m going to act differently. Two minutes later, I’m biking. Just the way that I do in the city, because instincts kicked in, right? You’re not focused on I’m collecting data. You’re focused on not getting hit by a car. You’re focused on getting to where you need to go. And I know this to be true because the glasses have audio. And my students told me that I yelled the bad word at a driver. So I definitely forgot that I was marrying the class students.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (30m 42s):
I got to hear that as they were watching my video later. And you know, absolutely now that I’ve done this study, you know, as I cycle around, I think a lot about this is a moment where I feel, I feel a sense of calm. This is a moment where I feel like, you know, I’m taking in so much information signs, bad roadway conditions, you know, vehicles coming from, you know, different angles and so on. I’m also afraid, right? Because there’s so many different possible things that could happen here. So absolutely I have that experience as I cycle.
Jeff Wood (31m 20s):
Now, another question I have is you talked about air traffic controllers using kind of a similar kind of measurement. I’m also, I think they do it for drivers in certain instances, how would a drivers response sitting inside of a two ton vehicle, four ton vehicle, if it’s like an SUV differ from say like the cyclist and pedestrian response. I mean, I know that you haven’t done this research maybe yet, but do you think it would be a different response and are we overdesigning roads for that car response versus the more vulnerable users are response
Dr. Megan Ryerson (31m 50s):
Our roadway system and all of the guidelines for how we design roads, they are based on driver workload and driver line of sight, right? And so driving simulators and eye tracking glasses and driving simulators, this is a very common way that we approach road design and we approach road safety. And I think even FH GWA has a driving simulator and there are a number of universities that have driving simulators and study these in vehicle experience. You know, I think that there are some limitations between the simulation environment and the actual environments.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (32m 33s):
Like you said, when you’re driving around a two ton vehicle, your mistakes have significant implications. And you know, when you’re driving a simulator, they don’t, and you can try out other things. All of our roadway design guidance is based on driver line of sights and what can a driver see my, and really all about the driver experience. And so if we’re focused on the driver experience right then absolutely where over designing roads, making sure drivers are comfortable, making sure their workload is in high, right?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (33m 16s):
What, what makes your workload high narrow lanes, right? A lots of different pedestrian, cyclists, and so on. And it makes you go a lot slower. Right? And you know, when we focus on things like driver workload and minimizing that we have wider lanes, right? We have, you know, no cyclists allowed or cyclists only on the side and, you know, very controlled access for pedestrians and so on. And it’s led to this roadway system that we have, even in some of the Neto guides, when you look at the design for protected bike lanes, if focuses on increasing the driver’s ability to see the cyclist and that’s, that’s it, the design of this bike lane helps the drivers see the cyclist like this, right?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (34m 11s):
Not, it’s not about the cyclist’s experience. It’s about the driver not hitting into the cyclist because they can see them. And that’s certainly an important aspect of safety. I certainly want that to be considered, but it shouldn’t be the only thing that is considered, right? Because then automatically the cyclist is the vulnerable one that needs to be responsible for their own safety. And we just need to make sure the driver can see the cyclist rather than saying, well, if the roads are more narrow and the drivers will go slower, it will naturally reduce our likelihood of an accident itself.
Jeff Wood (34m 55s):
It’s so interesting because you kind of have to put yourself in the shoes of the vehicle or mode of travel. So if you’re in a car, you want to increase the amount of workload because you want people to slow down. I mean, we know this from narrow streets, the way, you know, in the older parts of Philadelphia, I’m sure there’s many cobblestones and other places and you know, that people go slow. Whereas cyclists, you’re trying to kind of reduce the workload because you are trying to be protective, but also have safety involved. And so that changes the paradigm of how we design streets and roads. As you mentioned, how would you kind of redesign a safety agenda around those specific ideas, such that we’re actually focused on the results of better safety looking at all those variables, rather than just, like you said, the line of sight for automobile users, right?
Jeff Wood (35m 48s):
Like what would be the first thing that you did or what would be a safety agenda that you would design using this information that you have? That’s so powerful in determining whether people are overworked or underworked.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (35m 60s):
Right. I think that the sort of first order of business would be including workload and stress maps for pedestrians and cyclists, in addition to crash maps and, you know, really thinking about what are the roadways, this segment of, of roadways, where non-motorized modes, cyclists, pedestrians are having their most stressful moments to layer on top of that. I really like what you said about, we want to decrease workload for cyclists and pedestrians, and we want to increase workload for, for drivers, right?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (36m 40s):
Because then they pay more attention, right? So if we have maps of high workload for non-motorized users, for pedestrians and cyclists, can we then look at those segments of roads and see how we can increase the workload for drivers? Right. Can we make the lanes narrower here? Can we add protection to this bike lane and, you know, physically restricted area that sends that signal to drivers to be more careful, right. Can we, you know, bump out the curves, all of the things that are in the neck DOE guide that slow down traffic because they caused the driver to have to be more aware, right?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (37m 26s):
So it’s really a linking of where are the locations that are inciting stress and workload for our most vulnerable users. And how can we design interventions that reduce their workload. And part of reducing that workload is significantly slowing drivers speed and increasing driver awareness. When I see a driver on their cell phone, which I live in Philadelphia is nine out of 10 drivers. I think about workload a lot, because I think this driving task is so easy for you, that you can look at your phone and it shouldn’t be, it should be more aware for sure.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (38m 14s):
Right. But if they’re only concerned about their own personal safety, well, they feel like they can, this is an extra thing they can add into their workload mix. That’s a real problem, right? That they have that much mental capacity while they’re driving to look at a phone. And so we need to think about how are we designing our roads, such that they command the attention of the drivers, because they’re not going to see that cyclist, even if the site distance is good, if they’re on their phone, because it’s so easy to drive down this road.
Jeff Wood (38m 53s):
Now I’m starting to think about how you would implement such a program of trying to get all those measurements, because, you know, nowadays we’re doing all kinds of things. I mean, we’re trying to get air quality impacts in specific streets, not just whole census tracks, for example. And you know, there’s cars driving around that are measuring that. And, and those types of things, it’d be interesting to see how like a region or a city, a transportation agency of some sort would just kind of figure out how to put this into practice and, and implement it by taking all these measurements. Have you thought about that in terms of like how you could systematize that to actually get results so that you can implement
Dr. Megan Ryerson (39m 29s):
Jeff Wood (39m 32s):
Of course you have. You’ve been thinking about this for a long time.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (39m 35s):
It is a very big research agenda of mine, which is, you know, we have exciting results, but to me it’s just the beginning. Right. And so, you know, one of the things I would like to do is how can we link very specific land use and geographic features to the experienced workload. So I have colleagues to do image processing and so on. And so how can we link data about the urban environment that we pull from these images and link it up with our workload data, because then a city can just say, I have streets with these features, right. And how does that relate to workload?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (40m 16s):
Because collecting the state of the equipment to collect this data, it is not a small undertaking. And so, you know, I very much wants to democratize this, but I’d also like to say that, you know, sometimes I say maybe we should talk to people. And, you know, I think a lot about the example I gave about my kids walking to school, right? Their data isn’t captured because they don’t walk to school by themselves because I don’t feel safe. But if somebody came and said, what are your urban transportation issues in this neighborhood? Right? I’d say any drivers blow through the stop sign, right? That the street is over-designed parking is allowed up to the stop line and so on.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (40m 58s):
Right? So my kids don’t have a safe crossing. That’s something that’s really hard to have come out in the data. But if we put more stock into qualitative data, I think we could learn a lot.
Jeff Wood (41m 12s):
So what’s next for you in this process of, you know, changing the world and how we see transportation safety. What’s next, what’s the process for you going forward?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (41m 22s):
I love it. I have two areas of emphasis here with changing urban transportation safety. And the first is changing the way that we conceptualize safety. And that’s through talking to people like you, you know, writing perspective pieces, talking to my colleagues, going to conferences, and just trying to get us out of this safety is crashes and crashes, our safety kind of perception. And instead, really encourage a focus on the individual, right? So that’s the one area that’s hard because that’s changing the culture of a field that has existed for 70 years.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (42m 10s):
However, I will say it’s been really exciting to go back to some of the earliest safety literature and read that people scholars were thinking about this. We’re saying we need to measure the perception of safety, but they didn’t have technology. They didn’t have eye tracking glass. They didn’t have any of this. Right? So the field evolved in such a way that the easy to collect variables ended up being our design variables. And then we’re designing around those easy to collect variables. Right.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (42m 50s):
And so, right. I almost feel like my goal is to get us back to some of the 1970s, early 1970s literature about safety before there was widespread data collection that said, look, we need to look at the perception of safety. The second is to use the metrics that I’ve developed now to really diagnose our infrastructure. So I actually have already collected the data on a before and after project of a brand new bike lane that went in, in a part of Philadelphia. We collected eye tracking data before the bike lane went in. Then we got the same participants to come back a year later and do the course now that there’s a protected lane put in.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (43m 38s):
And so it’s almost like a study and epidemiology when you have a group and you give them a treatment and then you see how they respond afterwards. I like to think of this like a safety intervention, right? How did it change the behaviors of my group of cyclists? I think this is really great because right now, when we put in a new safety intervention, no way of evaluating it, you can’t say there was one crash the year before, and this year there were no crashes. So we did it. We solve safety, right? You can’t do, you can’t do statistics on ones and zeros, but we can evaluate the change in workload.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (44m 20s):
And I think this is a really powerful way forward for this method is being able to evaluate the efficacy of different designs.
Jeff Wood (44m 32s):
My last question, you mentioned earlier doing wayfinding for SEPTA, and I think that’s really fascinating. We had folks on who did the wayfinding for London legible London as well as Seattle. I mean, they did a lot of qualitative work. They did a lot of asking people, kind of looking at where their eyes went, those types of things. And obviously those are the types of things that you’re focused on. How will this help the legibility of transit systems, wayfinding, pedestrian, wayfinding? How does that kind of interact with the research that you’re doing with intersections and on street? This is off street. It’s a different realm to a certain extent. I’m curious how those two are connected,
Dr. Megan Ryerson (45m 6s):
Right? So, you know, as much as I think of safety as an access restriction, I think of the inability to navigate as an access restriction as well. If you’re afraid to transfer at city hall station, because you’re afraid you’ll get lost or not going to take transit or to have a miserable experience, particularly if you’re a member of a vulnerable population, if you have a miserable experience transferring, you might not take transit again. And then that becomes completely inaccessible to you, right? And that’s a real, that’s a real problem. And that’s a real loss, right? So I think that broadly safety and wayfinding and navigation are very linked methodologically.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (45m 51s):
They are also linked. We had participants execute different missions in SEPTA stations, and then we collected all their raw data from the eye tracking glasses. And again, we look for these peaks, these moments where they’re looking around trying to gather information, right, experiencing stress. Another stress marker is people dilation. You have to be careful with it because our pupils also dilate in the light. So that’s why we couldn’t use it outside. But inside we could look at pupil dilation in conjunction with the other eye movement and head movement variables to find these really stressful points.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (46m 33s):
Another thing we’re able to do with the glasses is we’re able to follow someone. I mentioned the audio, right? We’re, we’re able to watch someone’s video afterwards and literally have the experience that they are experiencing. The technology shows us exactly where they’re looking. I mean, a hundred times per second, that the circle bounces around. And one thing we saw for example, was there was one sign that everybody looked at and then they went the wrong way. So that sign is in the right place and giving completely confusing information. Right? And I was able to bring that to the design team and say, the way this arrow was pointing, the way this phrase is worded, or someone is really confusing, this is something to revisit.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (47m 20s):
So that’s how we sort of merged the methodology and the concept to inform wayfinding. That’s
Jeff Wood (47m 27s):
Really fascinating. I’m looking forward to seeing more, where can folks find you and your work if they want to kind of catch up on more information?
Dr. Megan Ryerson (47m 36s):
Wonderful. I am the founder and director of a research center called the center for safe mobility. I would encourage anyone to visit safe mobility.org. I have my recent research, you know, highlights of the members of my team. And so on. Also as a faculty member at the university of Pennsylvania, I have a academic page with some links to some of my talks and articles and so on. And I welcome anyone to visit me there.
Jeff Wood (48m 6s):
Awesome. Well, Dr. Megan Ryerson, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.
Dr. Megan Ryerson (48m 10s):
Thank you so much for having me