North America

The Holy Month of Sports Begins

For sports fans in Toronto, the end of March Madness is the signal for the holiest month of the year to begin. It is a sort of sports Ramadan: every night fans overeat while watching either a Leafs or Raptors playoff game. It is a bittersweet holiday, to be sure – the Leafs have not won the Cup since 1967 or even a playoff series since 2004, and the Raptors have never made it to an NBA Finals. But this year hopes are high, as both Toronto teams are possible contenders. That is, assuming the dominant teams in each league, Golden State and Tampa Bay, can actually be beat. And assuming the Leafs can finally get past their nemeses, Zdeno Chara and the Boston Bruins, in round one, which begins at the Toronto Dominion Garden in Boston tonight.

Of the 15 cities with franchises in both leagues, none has ever won a Stanley Cup and NBA Championship in the same year. This year, three or four cities may have a chance to do so: Boston, Toronto, Denver, and the Bay Area (Oakland and San Jose). If Boston were to somehow pull this off, it would then have won a World Series, Superbowl, Stanley Cup and NBA Finals this year!

But it is the Bay Area that has the best odds, of course. Not only are the Warriors the best team in the NBA, but the San Jose Sharks had this season’s second-best record in the NHL’s Western conference. These two teams are opposites, in some ways. Whereas the Warriors are aiming for their third championship in a row, which would be their fourth in the past five years and the last before they move across the Bay to play in San Francisco next season, the Sharks have long been considered (fairly or no) the NHL’s playoff “chokers”. They have never won a Cup and, despite being maybe the league’s best team in the past decade or so (perhaps only the Penguins, who beat them in the Finals in 2016, have been consistently as good or better), they have often been upset in the first or second round of the playoffs.

After another playoff letdown last season year, the Sharks added star defenseman Erik Karlsson to their roster during the offseason. This has given them probably the best defenseman duo in the league, Karlsson and Brent Burns. Burns is also one half of the best bearded duo in professional sports–the other half being his silver-haired captain Joe Thornton, who now leads the NHL in career points. Thornton is himself also part of a third duo that defines this year’s Sharks: the Big Joe-Little Joe one-two punch.“Little Joe” Joe Pavelski, the Shark’s top scorer, started the playoffs off the right way last night in a rematch against Las Vegas, getting the first goal with his face.

In contrast to these veteran contenders from California, this year’s Colorado franchises are stacked with young players. The Denver Nuggets, who finished second in the Western Conference, had the second youngest roster in the NBA this season, led by 24-year-old Nikola Jokic and 22-year-old Jamal Murray. The Colorado Avalanche meanwhile are the second youngest team to make the playoffs this year, led by 23-year-old Nathan MacKinnon and 22-year-old Mikko Rantanen. Jokic and MacKinnon both had breakout seasons – jumping from all-stars to likely superstars – but their teams could face tough matchups in the playoffs’ opening round, against the San Antonio Spurs and the Calgary Flames. The Spurs may prove they don’t need a Duncan, Ginobili or Leonard to succeed; Calgary may be Canada’s best hope of ending a 25-year national failure to win a Stanley Cup.

For Toronto and Boston, it will be only a week or two before one of the two cities’ hockey teams is eliminated. The Leafs and Bruins are playing one another in the first round for the second year in a row. Boston won last year’s series in seven games, scoring four goals in the third period of the final game. The two also faced one another in 2013: Toronto came back from down 3-1 in that series and took a three-goal lead late into Game 7 – including a two-goal lead with just over a minute left in the third period! – before losing to the Bruins in overtime in one of the biggest blown leads in playoff history. The Bruin’s captain Zdeno Chara (who, at 42, is a year older than Tom Brady and yet still nearly leads the Bruins in ice time) will be facing the Leafs in the playoffs for the fifth time this year. The Leafs will have now faced Chara five of the past seven times they have made it into the postseason, starting all the way back in Ottawa in 2001.

Another story going into this year’s playoffs how big markets have been struggling. Of the 11 teams in New York City, Los Angeles, or Chicago, the only three to make the playoffs will be the Clippers, Nets, and Islanders (not exactly these cities’ top-name brands). The Clippers will be facing the Warriors in round one. Brooklyn will face Philadelphia, which could be a raucous intercity rivalry yet will likely result in Brooklyn’s defeat. The Islanders, however, are finally back! They will have home-ice advantage in the incredibly loud Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where they won four consecutive Stanley Cups in the early 1980s, instead of in Brooklyn where they have been playing almost all of their regular season games. Despite losing their longtime top scorer John Tavares to Toronto in the offseason last summer, the Islanders finished second in a tough division, behind Alexander Ovechkin’s returning-champ Washington Capitals and ahead of the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin three-time-Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins.

Small market teams, conversely, have excelled both in the NHL and in the NBA this year. The Tampa Bay lightning dominated the league in the regular season, with 62 wins, the most of any team since the 1995 Detroit Red Wings. They may, however, be beatable: their top defenseman Victor Hedman is coming off a recent injury that was likely a concussion, and their opponent the Columbus Blue Jackets are going into the playoffs on a 9-1-1 (the third ‘1’ is OT losses) hot streak. The best record in the NBA also belonged to a small market, Milwaukee.

If the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks end up playing the second-seeded Toronto Raptors, it will be a rematch of their second-round series in the 2017 playoffs, when the Bucks lost to the Raptors in the final seconds of Game 6 after having carried out a 25-point comeback in the fourth quarter of the game.If, on the other hand, Philadelphia and Boston end up playing one another, it will be a rematch of last year’s hard-fought second round. All of these teams are of course rejoicing that Lebron James is finally out of the picture.

Indeed, the premier superstars of both sports, Lebron and McDavid, will be spending this year’s festive season with their families. So too, in fact, will the rest of us be spectating from afar; laughing, eating, and praying for a miracle.

 

 

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North America

The Three Card Monty: A Bus, Bike, and One-Seater Car plan for cities like Scarborough

One-seater electric automobiles may be on the rise, thanks to vehicle-sharing apps and range improvements in batteries. It is possible that these one-seaters will be a slothful and anti-social mode of transportation, like they are in Wall-E. Perhaps more likely, however, is that one-seaters will facilitate transportation that is actually more healthy and social than our existing four-wheel-dominated system. One-seaters may promote cycling, either via velomobiles (one-seater lightweight pedal-cars with an electric motor so that cyclists don’t have to break a sweat going uphill) or via the creation of more bike lanes in cities with relatively extreme climates (lanes which one-seaters would have mostly to themselves whenever the weather is not friendly to bicycles). One-seaters may also promote transit ridership, by making it easier to get to or from stations.

How then should cities prepare for one-seaters? While it would be nice if streets had three separate lanes for buses, bicycles, and one-seaters, this is not likely to be politically viable any time soon. Cities may need to be more creative, and more compromising, in seeking ways to promote one-seaters as an alternative for normal cars without unduly limiting transit or bicycle usage.

One possible way of doing this would be a sort-of seasonal three card monty, using a bus lane and an adjacent bike lane. When the weather is bad – say, during winter or a long heat wave – one-seaters would share the bus lane with buses and use the bike lane as a parking lane. This would allow a senior citizen to park close to his or her destination (or his or her bus stop), to avoid slipping on ice. It would also allow one-seaters to overtake buses at bus stops: if the bus pulls up to the curb at stops, a one-seater could pass the bus on its left. Similarly, it would give one-seaters the option of pulling over to let a bus overtake them.

When the winter or heat wave ends, the one-seater-parking lane would become a bike lane, usable by bicycles and one-seaters both. This would create less traffic for buses, at a time when the weather is nice enough to make walking to and waiting at bus stops a convenience. One-seaters and cyclists would however also be able to use the bus lane in order to overtake slower cyclists ahead of them, and to overtake buses at bus stops. Indeed, at times when buses do not run too frequently (nights, weekends), the bus lane would be left more or less open for one-seaters and the bike lane more or less open for bicycles.

It is true that bicycles would, comparatively, be the losers in this relationship. They would have to give up their bike lanes during the winter (or, in very hot climates, during the summer), and share them with one-seaters during the rest of the year. Nevertheless, given how few streets currently have bike lanes, cyclists might still benefit hugely from this relationship, particularly in climates in which bicycling tends to be a seasonal pursuit.

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Let’s use a real-world example of where such a system could maybe be effective: Scarborough, Ontario. Scarborough is a suburb of Toronto, where the weather and distances people travel can be difficult for cyclists in the winter – and often in summer as well.

Unlike Toronto’s other suburbs, the shape of Scarborough’s coastline is slanted, giving the city’s main cycling path, the Gatineau hydro corridor (image above, map below), a diagonal shortcut route through the fairly strict grid pattern of the city’s streets. In a few years this corridor will be linked with the city’s newest half-subway line, the Eglinton Crosstown. The hydro/cycling corridor already connects, more or less, to a another subway line (via a short offshoot), a hospital, a university, and, via the Don Valley, to downtown Toronto.

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Another, narrower diagonal hydro corridor, meanwhile, which nearly links up perpendicularly with the Gatineau around Lawrence East SRT station (which may eventually become a SmartTrack GO Train station, even if the SRT rail line is closed and is not replaced with an LRT along the same route), could become a shortcut route in another direction.

If one-seater lanes were built in these diagonal hydro corridors, and if a three card monty bus/bike/one-seater system were implemented on a number of Scarborough’s main streets intersecting these corridors, then the suburb’s transit, cycling, and driving might be significantly improved. Ideally, it will one day become easy to ride a bicycle or a velomobile from U of T Scarborough campus all the way to U of T in the heart of downtown T.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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East Asia, Europe, Middle East, North America, South Asia

Adventures in the Age Dependency Ratio: A Demographic Overview of the World

2008 was as significant a year from a demographic perspective as it was from a financial one. In 2008 the world’s age dependency ratio —  the number of people who are either younger than 15 or older than 65, relative to the number of people aged 15-65 — reached its lowest point. From a peak of approximately 77 in 1967, the ratio fell to a floor of 54 in 2008, a level it has remained at every year in the decade since. This low is not likely to be surpassed. The UN predicts that the ratio will rise again during the generation ahead, albeit at a far more gradual pace.

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The age dependency ratio is a useful, though obviously imperfect, measure of economic potential. The larger a country’s dependency ratio, the heavier the economic burden (to put it crudely) its working-age population may need to bear. The country with the highest such ratio in the world, Niger, with a ratio of 112, has a burden 1.12 times as heavy as those who bear it. The country with the lowest dependency, South Korea, with a ratio of 38, has a burden that is only about a third as heavy as those who carry it. The Gulf Arab kingdoms have even lower ratios than that (the UAE’s is just 18!), but only because they have so many temporary foreign workers.

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It is not surprising that a lower dependency ratio tends to correlate somewhat with economic success. Not only is a country with fewer dependents more able to invest its time and money in increasing its productivity, but productive countries also tend to have low fertility rates, which keep dependency levels low in the short-term (though not in the long term, when low fertility rates lead to small working-age populations). As such, a low dependency ratio can be both a cause and an effect of economic growth. Even the oldest country in the world, Japan, only has a dependency ratio of 66.5, much lower than those of the young countries within Sub-Saharan Africa.

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In recent history, the correlation between economic growth and age dependency can be seen most clearly in East Asia. China’s rapid economic growth has tracked its dependency ratio’s steep fall, while Japan’s stalled economic growth has tracked its own dependency ratio’s rise. China’s dependency ratio, which is today the lowest in the world apart from South Korea (not counting city-states or the Gulf Arab monarchies), was almost twice as high a generation ago, and only fell below the US’s in 1990. That same year, Japan’s ratio fell below Germany’s to become the world’s lowest other than Singapore or Hong Kong. A rapidly aging population has since made Japan’s become by far the highest in the developed world, however. Japan’s ratio has also risen higher than those of many developing nations in recent years, even than some of the world’s poorest nations, such as Haiti.

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Outside Japan, East Asia now has the lowest dependency ratios of any region, by far. Not only China and South Korea but also Thailand, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Malaysia, and even North Korea all have ratios between 38-44, the lowest in the world anywhere outside of the Persian Gulf. Indonesia’s too, at 48.5, is now lower than those of most countries in the world, while the Philippines, the major outlier in the region with a dependency ratio of 57.5, no longer has a high ratio by global standards either. This trend, however, is finally beginning to change. China’s ratio has begun to rise since 2010, prompting many to worry that the country “will become old before it becomes rich”. The dependency ratios of Vietnam, Thailand, and South Korea have also begun rising during the past several years. And Japan’s already high ratio will continue to rise quickly unless it finally decides to raise its extremely low immigration rate.

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The years 2008-2010, in addition to being when the global dependency ratio and the Chinese dependency ratio both reached their lowest levels, was also when the EU’s dependency ratio rose higher than that of the US, for the first time since 1984. The EU’s dependency burden has continued to rise relative to the US in the decade since, a fact that has perhaps contributed, at least to a minor extent, to the US’s stronger economic performance during this period. Indeed, at the risk of attributing far more significance to the age dependency ratio than is justified, I will also point out the fact that countries in Central Europe have enjoyed a much lower ratio and a much stronger economic performance than has the EU as a whole. Similarly, Canada has had the lowest dependency ratio and one of the strongest economies among rich Western nations in recent years. Ratios in Canada and Central Europe were particularly low during the financial crisis:

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Another intriguing case is Italy, which has a ratio that has been rising at fast pace since 2010, reaching the highest level in its modern history in 2017, at the same time as its economy has become perhaps the primary point of concern in European politics. A similar trend has existed throughout Southern Europe, with the ratios of Greece, Spain, and France reaching high levels in the years after 2010. Although it is actually France which has the highest dependency ratio of these countries, a result of its having a relatively large population of children, it is Italy which has their highest old age dependency ratio (population older than 65, relative to population 15-65):

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If we look at Europe as a whole, including countries in its surrounding region, we can see there is a divergence occurring between northern and southern countries. Northern countries such as Germany, Russia, and Poland, which have had some of the lowest dependency burdens in the world in recent decades, will see sharp increases in the years ahead because their largest population cohorts are approaching 65 years old and they have few teenagers approaching 15 years old. (An exception to this is Ireland, which has had a fairly high ratio because of relatively high birth rates, but is not likely to have this increase much going forward, as it has few people approaching 65). Mediterranean countries, in contrast, will have their dependency ratios rise more slowly, because they have more children or because (particularly in Spain) their largest age cohorts are now only in their forties rather than their fifties. Within the EU this is especially true of France, but it is even more true of non-EU Mediterranean countries such as Turkey and Tunisia. These countries used to have far higher ratios than the EU or Russia, but no longer do today.
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This fall in dependency in places like Turkey and North Africa is part of a greater trend, in which countries in the “global south”, particularly those outside of Sub-Saharan Africa, have recently seen their ratios fall much more quickly than countries in Europe, North America, or Northeast Asia. India’s dependency ratio, for example, fell below both the US’s and Germany’s in 2016. So did Bangladesh’s. (Pakistan’s ratio is falling too, but still remains high, around the level of Japan’s). Latin America’s is even lower; it recently became the lowest of any region, excepting East Asia. The major country that has had the most significant fall in dependency, however, is Iran:

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Of course, age dependency ratios are simplistic. They treat all people above the age of 65 and below the age of 15 as if they were the same, and all people between 15 and 65 years old as if they were the same. Yet if (for example) we were to change the upper limit of working age from 65 to 70, Japan’s dependency ratio would fall substantially as a result, because Japan’s largest age cohort today is 65-70 years old. If, on the other hand, we were to change the lowerlimit of working age from 15 to 20, many middle-income countries’ ratios would rise substantially. To address these obvious shortcomings, alternative measures of dependency have been created. Examples of these include the economic dependency ratio, health care cost age dependency ratio, pension cost dependency ratio, and prospective old age dependency ratio. For each of these measures, Canada is forecast to have the biggest increase in the decade ahead among significant OECD countries, while Italy and Britain are expected to have among the smallest increases.

A primary lesson that can be learned from the analysis of age dependency ratios is that the common “young population good, old population bad” view of countries’ economic prospects is a misleading one. In reality countries with young populations tend to remain poor, in part because the youngest countries in the world (in Sub-Saharan Africa) are much younger than the oldest countries in the world are old. It will still be a number of decades before aging populations lead Europe or North America to have a higher age dependency ratio than Sub-Saharan Africa. And even that assumes that no unexpected shifts in migration or fertility will occur.

What age dependency ratios do show is two big trends, both of which have to do with middle-income economies. The first trend is the emergence of what we might call a goldilocks belt, located between the aging populations of North America, Europe, and Northeast Asia and the youthful populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. South Asia, North Africa, and Latin America all now appear to be in the process of supplanting high-income countries in terms of having the demographic trends that are arguably most conducive to (or at least, indicative of) economic growth.

The second trend is that Northeast Asia’s dependency ratio, which has been the lowest in the world for a generation and probably played a significant role in helping the region emerge from a low-income to middle-income level, bottomed out almost a decade ago and is continuing to rise.

Taken together, these trends suggest opportunities for middle-income countries, particularly those countries located in or near to the Mediterranean and Caribbean regions, to increase their exports to developed economies, given the aging labour forces of developed economies and traditional exporters in East Asia. In contrast, these trends also suggest that there should perhaps be a greater level of caution regarding the younger, high-growth economies in East Africa, such as Ethiopia or Kenya, which have recently been among the favorites of some emerging market investors.

 

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Next Man Up: The Passenger-Driven Bus  

Busses can be driven by bus drivers, by computers, or by passengers. Bus drivers are the most sensible option, but are expensive in places where busses are forced to crawl along in traffic jams instead of getting their own designated lanes. Computers are the cheapest option, but are creepy and may not be ready to operate safely in bustling or wintry cities for many years yet, if ever.

The idea of having passenger-driven busses, however, has never even been discussed as far as I can tell. And probably with good reason, since the idea appears to be ridiculous. Ridiculous ideas are at least interesting though, so: let’s discuss how a passenger-driven bus might actually work.

The first step would be to create a bus so easy to drive that anyone with a driver’s license could do so without having to face a steep learning curve. Busses are already not so difficult to drive, so this is not really beyond the realm of plausibility, unlikely though it may be.

If buses were also to be equipped with a comparatively low level of automation — for instance, if the bus were able to automatically keep within its lane, pull up to the curb at bus stops, change or merge lanes when directed to do so, make turns at certain specified intersections, pull in to bus stations,  etc. – then operating a bus could perhaps become as easy as driving a car. If you were to give these buses their own separated bus lanes they might become even easier to drive than a car.

Express bus routes, which stop only at bus stations rather than making many stops along the way, would be easier to drive too, and might also help to entice passenger-drivers given that such routes would not take as much time to drive.

Alternatively, or additionally, if the bus simulations that trainee bus drivers already use were to become cheaper, better, and ubiquitous, many more people could learn to drive conventional busses.

The second step would be to create a service, a sort-of car-sharing app for buses, that would ensure that only designated drivers would be able to turn on the buses’ ignition and drive them. The driver would schedule a bus route from one bus station to another, and be paid based on how far or how many other passengers he or she drives. Upon arrival at the destination bus station, the driver-passenger would park the bus – or, perhaps, the bus would park itself – leaving it there for either another passenger-driver or a professional bus driver to use.

By doing this, the supply of bus drivers could be greatly increased, thereby allowing for more frequent bus services. It might, in addition, allow for cheaper bus services, since passenger-drivers might be willing to accept lower wages, as they would be simultaneously benefiting from being passengers as well as drivers. Ideally, passenger-drivers would not end up replacing or undercutting professional drivers’ wages, although of course it is plausible that they would do so.

One question, obviously, is how such a system could be profitable if the buses end up sitting unused for long stretches of time after one driver leaves and before the next driver arrives. The answer is that the system would not work in that case; it would only work if the supply of drivers was large and consistent enough that the buses would not remain idle for too long. Nevertheless, because paying drivers is such a large share of the cost of buses, they might be able to remain idle for some time at least before becoming unprofitable.

Moreover, steps might be taken to limit buses’ idleness or increase the utility of their idleness. Dynamic market pricing might be effective: whenever a bus becomes idle, the wages offered to passenger-drivers could increase in order to induce drivers to come and drive it. If nobody steps up to take the wheel even then, a professional bus driver could be summoned instead. 

Idle buses, meanwhile, might be able to serve as portable, air-conditioned or heated bus stops on streets which allow street parking or have bus turnouts, which could be useful in hot, cold, or stormy weather.

The concept of passenger-drivers might, however, be more likely to begin in carpools or vancabs or minibuses, rather than in full-sized buses. This is because there are so many more people who are able and willing drive a car than a bus, and because it is easier to park a car than a bus for times when the vehicle is idle. Lately BMW, for example, has begun to offer a combination car-sharing/ride-sharing service, intended for people who want to be ride-sharing drivers but do not own a car.  It is possible that in some cases this service will be used by passenger-drivers, drivers who are going to destinations they were already heading towards themselves.

Still, such a service would not have the same positive impact as buses. Carpools carry many fewer passengers and take up much more road space per passenger than buses. Buses – especially electric trolleybuses– can be much cheaper and cleaner than even the most efficient carpools.

The purpose of a passenger-driven bus would be to offer, in effect, a compromise between the affordability and scalability of computer-driven busses and the viability and desirability of human-driven ones. It would make use of the advantages of car-sharing and ride-sharing technologies – the ability to smoothly match the supply of vehicles and drivers to demand – but avoid their primary disadvantage; namely that cars, even carpools, tend to be extremely inefficient and costly compared to busses.

If the idea were to actually work, it would allow cheaper, more frequent bus service options to supplement (though hopefully not undercut) the more expensive existing bus services driven by professional bus drivers. And it might achieve this without the use of robots.

Okay, it’s true, this idea sounds crazy. (Though not as crazy as some). It is basically the transit equivalent of self-checkout machines at grocery stores.

…But then again, almost anyone can drive a bus, right?

 

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Bus/Bike Lanes: Can I Interest You in a Time-Share?

The idea of having shared bus-bike lanes has been raised in a number of cities, including Montreal. Not surprisingly, such lanes have tended to be unsatisfactory for both parties involved. People in busses do not like driving slowly behind cyclists. Cyclists do not like busses looming behind them.

What has not been tried, however (at least, as far as I can tell, according to Google) is a bus-bike time-share lane, in which busses get the lane when the weather is bad and cyclists get the lane when the weather is good. Such a lane might be a little bit tricky to sort out when the weather changes suddenly from good to bad (more on this in a moment), but in general it might work very well, since when the weather is bad most people do not want to ride their bikes much, whereas when the weather is good people are willing to wait longer at bus stops.

I imagine a bus-bike time-share lane working, perhaps, as follows:

  • During the three winter months, no cyclists are allowed to use the lane: it is a bus-only lane
  • During long heat waves, no cyclists are allowed to use the lane: it is a bus-only lane
  • In spring, summer, and fall, busses can only use the lane when the weather is bad (say, below 5 degrees or above 25 degrees, maybe adjusted for humidity, smog, shade, wind, rain, ice, etc.)
  • At times when the weather is intermediate (neither winter nor a long heat wave nor good weather), the lane works as a shared bus-bike lane. If, however, the weather gets very bad at such times (say, for e.g., above 30 and humid) busses can ring a special bell when there is a cyclist in front of them, forcing cyclists to pull over, stop, and let the bus pass.
  • Cyclists can check an app to see if, at any given moment, busses are using the time-share lane

Of course, a lane of this kind would not be ideal. No time-share in the history of humankind has ever been considered ideal. Better would be for every main street to have a lane for transit and another separated lane for cycling. But that would mean scoring big victories against cars, and this does not seem likely to happen anytime soon in North American cities, most of which have large suburbs and a lot of very hot and/or cold weather.

For such cities, having a weather-dependent time-sharing bus-bike lane may not be ideal, but it could still be an ideal compromise.

 

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Goalies and Garbage Time

Top Goalies Should Play More Games, But Fewer Complete Games (And Their Backups Should Be Better at Playing the Puck Than They Are)

NHL coaches treat their goalies like baseball pitchers from the 1800s: so long as they do not mess up, they get to play a complete game. Yet these same coaches also sit their goalies about one in four games on average, in order to give them rest. No goalie started in more than 64 games last year; no one has cracked 73 in a decade. Goalies sit out games even though, for some, the number of starts they get might be the difference between making or missing the playoffs.

Couldn’t these goalies start more games and get more rest by simply coming out of games once their team has built up an unassailable lead? An NHL team that is up by three goals going into the third period has a roughly 98% chance of winning*. Wouldn’t then, for example, be a better time to rest? Or what about a two-goal lead after the first period – giving you an estimated 80% winning probability – in order to allow the top goalie to start both games of a back-to-back ? Coaches would still have the option of putting the starting goalie back in the game if the score were to narrow. Backup goalies might even benefit too, since they would play on a more frequent basis (if only in relatively short bursts) rather than sit for a week or two between games.

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*[Obviously, this is just a generalization and rough estimate. In reality it depends on many variables beyond just the score, the time remaining, and whether or not it is a home game. Good teams, especially good offensive teams, will have a better chance of coming back than bad teams, etc].

The counterargument, or prevailing wisdom, would, I guess, be that goalies would be thrown off their rhythm if they were to be used in this way – perhaps especially backup goalies, who would be getting fewer starts than they currently receive. Or, that a goalie resting on the bench for a period or two at a time is not nearly as rejuvenating as is taking an entire game off. There may be a lot of truth to these arguments, but I am still skeptical that they justify the current system wherein top goalies will play hundreds of minutes of “garbage time” every season (to steal a phrase from the NBA), while also sitting out for more than a thousand minutes of close games.

The current system is perhaps especially questionable when viewed in comparison to the number of games that forwards and defenseman are allowed to play consecutively. Though goalies obviously play many more minutes than their teammates, still it might seem wrong that 39-year-old forward Patrick Marleau has been able to play in each of his teams’ past 777 games (taking an ice bath after the second period of each game in order to physically do so), whereas one of the most esteemed goalies, Carey Price, has already sat out 17 starts this season, even though his Montreal Canadians are in a tight wild card race. And Marleau is not the only iron man now at large: Phil Kessel and Keith Yandle are both also at 750-plus consecutive games and counting.

Of course, goalies still play more minutes in total than their teammates. Last season, the league leader in minutes among non-goalies, the perfectly-named defenseman Drew Doughty of the LA Kings, played all 82 games while also leading the league in average minutes per game, at 26 minutes and 50 seconds. Doughty was on the ice for 2201 minutes in total, 1476 fewer than his goalie, the also-well-named Jonathan Quick, who ranked sixth in overall minutes despite only playing 64 games. Another one of their teammates, Anze Kopitar, led the league in minutes by a forward (trailing 31 defensemen) and also played 82 games, for a total of 1811 minutes on the ice.

The best player in the league, Connor McDavid, played more minutes (1767) than any forward other than Kopitar last year. He too played all 82 games. McDavid’s goalie, Cam Talbot, led the league in starts, with 67, but only ranked fifth in total minutes, as their team’s struggles meant he was often pulled from games. Neither of their efforts was enough for the Oilers to make the playoffs.

The goalie who led the league in minutes, Connor Hellebuyck of the Winnipeg Jets, with 64 starts, 3 backup appearances, and 3966 total minutes played, played almost twice as many minutes as Doughty’s 2201. He also had the most wins (44), and the best save percentage of goalies who played at least 60 games. (The Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne, of the Nashville Predators, only played 59 games). Hellebuyck is again on pace to lead the league in minutes this season.

Out of curiosity, how does Hellebuyck compare with superstars in the NBA? Last season Lebron James, who has already played more career minutes than anyone else in the league, led the league in minutes per game and was one of only eight players to play all 82 games. Lebron was on the court for a total of 3025 minutes in the regular season, compared to Hellebuyck’s 3966. Since NHL games are more than 60 minutes long on average, whereas NBA games are shorter than 50 minutes, this means Lebron played close to as high a share of his team’s total minutes as did the NHL’s busiest goalie. By doing this he was able to carry a very bad team to the fourth seed in the East, on the way to the Finals.

Goalies might be wise to follow NBA stars in sitting out more during garbage time in order to play more during crunch time*. Sitting when your team is way ahead in the game is one way of doing this. But there is also the question of when to pull your backup goalie during games your backup goalie is starting. If your backup goalie starts a game and quickly lets in a bunch of goals, should you pull him to put the starting goalie – who is supposed to be getting a night off – back in? Even more interesting, if your backup goalie starts, plays decently, and the game is tied after two periods (for example), should you put in a Vezina-quality starting goalie into the game to play the decisive third period ahead?

*[This would especially be the case if goalies were more likely to get injured late in games when they are tired, or to experience an increased rate of wear and tear late in games when they are tired, or to get injured more in garbage time situations when the opposing team is desperately gambling for offensive chances in order to mount a comeback].


The Comeback Kid

 The most interesting implication of this way of thinking, however, is also perhaps the craziest; namely, the idea of having your backup goalie be just that: a backup-only goalie. More to the point, if your backup goalie is no longer actually starting many, or any, games – if, for example, even in the event of your starting goalie getting injured you rely not on your backup goalie to start, but instead call up your top prospect goalie who is getting regular starts in the AHL rather than languishing on an NHL bench – then what skills might you want for a backup goalie playing this new, more specialized role? One possible answer: have your backup goalie be a comeback specialist.

Since a backup goalie of this sort would be playing mainly, or only, at times when his team has either a solid lead (to let the starting goalie rest) or is behind in the score (because the starting goalie has been pulled), he should ideally be a goalie who is good at helping his team to mount a comeback. In other words, he should – all else considered – be exceptionally good at playing the puck when his team is behind in the score, particularly as his team becomes more desperate towards the end of games.

Such a goalie could be useful even in situations in which backup goalies currently do not play. Consider, for example, a situation in which your team is down by one goal, with five minutes left in the third period and an offensive zone faceoff following an icing by an opposing line that is tired from having just playing a long shift. Putting in your comeback specialist backup goalie at such a moment might be beneficial for a number of reasons. First, it would be more difficult for your tired opponents to dump the puck to get a line change in against a goalie who excels at passing the puck. Second, an aggressive puck-playing goalie might help your team score a goal in general during the remaining few minutes of the game*. Third, you would eliminate the risk of your starting goalie getting injured; a risk which would maybe be increased by your team gambling offensively to catch up, which could lead to more odd-man rushes and so, perhaps, injuries.

*[Also, if your backup goalie were later able to get to the bench for the extra attacker a second or two more quickly – or maybe even a half-second more quickly – than the starting goalie is able to (either by being a faster skater than the starting goalie or by being able to play further from the crease before heading to the bench than the starting goalie), this might help your team to score a 6-on-5 goal by making it more likely that the extra attacker will make it into the action before the opposing team has a chance to dump or clear the puck out of their own defensive zone.

…Indeed, to get even crazier here for a moment, what if this goalie were to sometimes attempt a back-and-forth strategy in late-game situations: for e.g., you pull the goalie with two minutes left when you are in the offensive zone, but, if the opposing team immediately clears the puck out of their zone, then you quickly put your goalie back in so that you don’t give up an empty net goal trying to gain reentry into the zone. If you pull your goalie early enough, you might perhaps be able to try this a number of times before the final minute of the game, so that your net might only be empty when your team is already in the offensive zone. Pulling your goalie early and temporarily might, at least, be a useful strategy to employ at times when the opposing team’s players on the ice are exhausted during an especially long shift].

Another example could be a short 5-on-3 power play when your team is down a goal late in the game. Putting in a goalie who can aggressively and excellently pass the puck could help your power play unit avoid wasting critical time on the 5-on-3, while also making it more difficult for tired penalty killers to get in a line change. To a lesser extent, this may also be useful in desperate 5-on-4’s.

A backup goalie’s puck-playing skills might also be well suited for the times when his team is well ahead in the score. If, for instance, the opposition begins to gamble more to create offensive odd-man rushes, passing opportunities for a skilled-passing goalie might open up. Or if the opposition becomes disheartened and begins trying to dump and chase more often, a puck-playing goalie might be able to help thwart some of these attempts. As such, a goalie who is used primarily or exclusively in situations when his team is either behind or ahead in games could perhaps possess puck-playing skills that would be useful in both of those types of situations.

Of course, this comeback-specialist-backup-only goalie plan might be a terrible idea. But the idea from which it is indirectly derived, namely that certain goalies should start more games than they do now, nevertheless appears to have merit. The question may not be whether some goalies should sit more in order to start more, but rather only who should do this and when should it be done.

 

 

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2 Radical Goalie-Pulling Strategies

In recent years there has been an evolution in the way NHL coaches pull their goalies. Goalies are now being pulled much earlier in games than they used to be. There has been no revolutionary change, however. Goalies are still being pulled at the very end of games. Once pulled, they tend to stay pulled until a goal is scored or there is a face-off outside of the offensive zone.

This begs the question of whether any radical change to the strategy of goalie-pulling could still be worth trying. Here are two such ideas:

  1. Pull earlier than usual in order to take advantage of exhausted opponents stuck on a very long shift

The risk/reward ratio of pulling a goalie might be far more favourable when an opposing team’s players are exhausted from being stuck on the ice in the middle of an especially long shift. 

There are five reasons this may be the case:

First, the ability of players to score into an empty net will decrease when they are exhausted. 

Second, you greatly reduce the risk that, immediately upon pulling your goalie, the opposing team will manage to clear the puck out of their zone before your extra attacker is even able to get himself involved in the game.

Third, the ability of tired players to reach the bench for a line change will decrease when the opposing team pulls its goalie. Typically, players that are exhausted by a long shift are able to escape to the bench either by having their goalie stop play or by getting a lucky bounce off of a missed shot, blocked shot, errant pass, or rebound, which then allows them to clear the puck out of their zone and complete a line change. When playing 5-on-6, however, the likelihood of a goalie being able to force a stoppage of play by making a save decreases, because the goalie’s vision is more likely to be obstructed and the shots that the goalie faces are likely to be harder to save. The likelihood of getting a lucky bounce also decreases, as there is less open ice and there is less likely to be a blocked or missed shot. Plus, even if there is a lucky bounce, it will still be difficult for tired players to clear the zone against six attackers. As such, the tired team may be unable to change lines, and so become even more tired, making the situation even more favourable for the trailing team. And, even if the tired team’s goalie does succeed in stopping play, the trailing team could simply choose to put its goalie back in net for the ensuing face-off.

Fourth, the willingness of players to even attempt to score an empty net goal will decrease the more tired they become.  The reason for this is that if such a scoring attempt fails, it will most likely result either in an icing (which will lead to an even greater tiredness imbalance between the two teams, especially now that there has been a rule change that prevents coaches from using their timeout after an icing) or in an odd-man rush (because tired players will be much less able to get back on defence).  As a result, rather than try to score, the tired team may instead focus on trying to get a line change in. During any such line change, the trailing team will usually be able to put its goalie back in if it wants to do so. 

And fifth, pulling you goalie can allow you to bring your own best offensive player fresh off the bench, at a time when your own players already on the ice are  likely to be somewhat tired themselves.    

As a result of these factors, I suspect that it would sometimes be in a team’s interest to pull its goalie earlier than it normally would, in order to capitalize on situations in which the opposing players are exhausted from being stuck on an especially long shift. The question is: how much earlier?

A related question is this: how many goal behind does your team need to be to make such a strategy worth trying at a given point during the second period? Most of the opportunities to score against tired opponents stuck on a long shift occur in the second period, because of the long change.

2. A “5.5-on-3”: introducing a goalie-defensemen hybrid during a desperate two-man advantage 

Most 5-on-3 power plays last much less than two minutes long, and on average the odds of a team scoring on a 5-on-3 only become better than the odds of scoring on a typical 2 minute 5-on-4 in cases where the 5-on-3 lasts at least a minute long.

So, not wasting time is crucial. If the penalty killers can kill time by dumping the puck down the ice, or if the power play wastes too much time trying to get the perfect shot (which they often do, as they know that if they do not get a perfect shot, the penalty killers might grab the rebound and dump it down the ice), then that 5-on-3 will be unlikely to score.

In this strategy, then, the goalie on the power play is pulled near the end of the 5-on-3,  and replaced with a “safety”: a player who stays near to his or her own empty net in order to protect against long empty net goals,  quickly respond to any dumped puck so as to minimize the amount of time the opposing team can waste, and allow his or her own team to avoid wasting time searching for the perfect scoring attempt. This “safety” specialist should excel at being able to serve, in effect, as a player-goalie hybrid.

As an added bonus, by quickly responding to pucks that are dumped or chipped out of the offensive zone, the safety will also make it more difficult for the penalty killers to change lines, which may lead the penalty killers to become fatigued in cases where they have been on the ice for a long time.

The goalie will be put back in the net before the 5-on-3 comes to an end.

In cases where the team is more desperate to score (if they are trailing late in the third period, for example), then this “5.5-on-3” strategy could also be used earlier in the power play.

 

A Hybrid Strategy 

There might also a be a useful hybrid of the two strategies above: A “5.5-on-4”, used in desperate situations against exhausted penalty killers.

Imagine, for example, that your team is trailing by a goal with five minutes left in the game, and is a minute into a power play in which the opposing team’s penalty killers are becoming tired. Ideally, you want to prevent these tired penalty killers from being able to make it to the bench for a line change. By putting in an extra “safety” attacker at this point, but positioning him in the neutral zone, you might be able to help prevent the tired penalty killers from being able to change lines, while still preventing the tired penalty killers from having an easy shot at an empty net.

Plus, having the extra attacker already on the ice means that you could have the option of having him quickly move up into the offensive zone for a conventional 6 on 4 or (once the penalty ends) 6 on 5, as the clock ticks away and your team’s desperation increases. So, for example,  you could try a 5.5 on 4 with a minute left in the power play against tired penalty killers, then a 6 on 4 with thirty seconds left in the power play against exhausted penalty killers, then either put your goalie back in or keep the extra attacker on for a 6 on 5 (which, if the exhausted ex-penalty killers are still stuck on the ice, could be useful even if there are still a few minutes left in the game).

…Yes, I realize how crazy that just sounded.

 

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