Friday, January 26, 2018

5 Musts, 5 Shoulds, 10 Like-tos for the new Port Authority CEO


A transit company can do its day-to-day work just fine without a CEO. The buses and trains run, stuff gets fixed or plowed or paid for, as appropriate, and existing projects lumber along to their eventual completion. Upper-level staff can do the routine directing to allocate people, materials and money. What the CEO does, though, is define that direction. She figures out what major work should get done. She makes the connections to keep the money flowing. She thinks outside the box, brings in new ideas, and sometimes has to say no. Some top staff can be placeholder CEOs, but what we really need is a visionary who can also manage.

I think we have that person in Katherine Eagan Kelleman.

We in the advocacy and advisory world must grasp this opportunity to work with the new CEO. What are those things that were asked for 20 years ago and just couldn't ever get done, for whatever reason, yet are still needed? What problems have never gone away? Now is the time to ask all those old questions again. Now is also the time to bring to attention that the world has changed, and we simply cannot do things the way we always used to.

Ask all the questions. Again. Only put some order to it. I ask of everyone to categorize them into "must-do", "should-do" and "like-to-do". I have my bigger wish list, and it's far longer than 20 items. But these 20 always keep coming back, 10 of those are big, and five of those are paramount. 

What are yours? These are mine.

Five Musts

1. A stable, reliable revenue source for the operating budget
Funding the transit system each year has been an ongoing problem ever since PAAC was formed over 50 years ago. We thought we had it solved in 1986, 1991 and 2013, only to see the legs of the stool kicked out yet again. For once and for all, solve this.


2. Peace between labor and management
We have one of the strongest labor unions in the country in ATU 85. This is fine if they’re happy. The customer suffers, the city and county and region suffer, if they are not. Get their leadership on board with any needed changes.


3. Management accountability beyond reproach
Love or hate Barack Obama, one thing he did right was to hold his staff to a level of professionalism such that there was not one firing, not one scandal, not one resignation, in his entire eight-year presidency. Do likewise.


4. Vastly better rider information delivery
The Achilles Heel of riding transit is not having truly usable travel information in a form and at the time it is needed. Not incremental but exponential improvements are in order. Think of it this way: Any use of a car where transit could get the job done is a failure of information delivery.


5. The respect of the ridership
Admittedly the most nebulous, subjective, and unattainable goal on this list. You will never get there, but you’ll know if you’re headed in the right (or wrong!) direction. Do the other 19 things and this will follow.


Five shoulds

1. Return to 24-hour service on a few routes
We had it on six routes with plans to expand to eight. One of the annual cash crunches killed this. Solve the funding problem and this will solve itself.


2. 50% ridership increase in three years
We have about 110,000 warm bodies who use the system daily. Decades ago, that was more like 200K. What will it take to top 150K?


3. Restore routes cut in 2011, along with complete implementation of TDP
The Transit Development Plan grew out of a 2008 study (Connect ‘09) at the behest of (urban public transit hating) state legislators in the FY06 funding fight, who insisted the system become more efficient, more cost effective, more responsive to riders’ needs. But because of the March 2011 cuts, the plan was never fully implemented. Solve the funding problem and finish this long overdue task.


4. A fifth bus division
Harmar Division was shut down in that same 2011 cut. But don’t rebuild Harmar. Site a division as close to downtown as possible, and run all that 24-hour service out of it, thus freeing the outer divisions to better serve the farther reaches of the county.


5. Rebuild the complaint system
“Dysfunctional.” “Black hole.” “Worse than useless.” Those are the family friendly terms used to describe it. How does any other system handle complaints?




Ten like-to-dos

1. Free fares
While resolving the revenue problem, aim high. Do it without paid fares. You are running a horizontal elevator system. Does a building landlord charge fares to get tenants and their customers to upper floors?


2. Vastly cleaner rolling stock
However we’re doing it, the floors and seats are usually disgusting, and are a lot of why riders jettison the system as soon as they are able. Yes, I know some buses are in motion 21 hours a day. Other cities don't have persistently filthy buses.


3. Revamp the lost-and-found system
Tying in with the dysfunctional complaint system, it’s not out of line to say that if lost articles are reunited with their owners, it’s a miracle. Sometimes it happens, usually it doesn’t.


4. Resolve debate over whether a bus is in service when on/off-road or cross-country
A long standing labor-management dispute. Several locations in the area have meager to no service despite a steady flow of buses going past. Operators won’t let them on because of this argument. Again, the rider suffers, and people use cars more.


5. Vast expansion of bike parking & bike rental at light rail, busway, and high-usage stops.
The world is changing. People use their own bikes, people rent bikes, and we may yet get a dockless bike share system. But hardly any of the high-use stops via any mode have a high capacity bike rack. Even neighborhood stops could use a two-bike lockup like the Three Rivers racks.


6. No-drop cell service on entire light rail system
Dead zones in tunnels and underground sections seriously discourage ridership.


7. Bicycle usage of the Wabash Tunnel
There is only one of the 12 routes to bike downtown from south of Mount Washington without either climbing an enormous hill or taking your life in your hands, and Port Authority disallows it, due to an ancient and arbitrary decision based on a bad design. Change the rule.


8. A more useful website. Specifically, less overhead, more substance, far faster.
Trying to use the website on a slow line or old phone is painful. Lose the glitz, pack an order of magnitude more information on it, and make it easier to navigate. How does any other system do this?


9. Return of 6-month farecard subscription, as well as 3-month, 30-day and 7-day options.
The six-month subscription was lost in the same FY02 crunch that killed 24-hour service because it was considered too costly to administer. With the move to electronic farecards and 16 years of technology improvements, this objection is no longer relevant. Similarly, a seven-day pass is not the same as a weekly. These could be bought in advance and given out as gift cards. The clock starts ticking the first day it is used and ends after six days later. Ditto 30-day cards. Think of a 7-day pass as valid from a Wednesday to a Tuesday, or a 30-day pass valid from the 14th to the 13th.


10. Seamless connections to nearby public transit systems, Amtrak, private carriers, and aviation.
Make it possible and even easy to transfer between systems from nearby counties, as well as aviation and Amtrak. Aviation: The 28X stops service long before many flights arrive. Amtrak: Trains arrive at horrid times, 5:30a eastbound, 11:30p westbound, when transit availability is meager. Everything else: It’s nigh impossible to move safely between an unused piece of the light rail system, the East Busway, the Amtrak station, Greyhound, a large parking garage, and Megabus's pickup stop by the Convention Center -- a distance of only 400 feet -- any time of day. Fixing any of this is going to cost money, probably a lot. Make it happen, and Pittsburgh becomes a beacon of intermodal travel.


I urge everyone to join the Allegheny County Transit Council, the officially recognized citizens' advisory group for Port Authority of Allegheny County. Contact me for details.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Coffeeneuring 2017 #1, 22 Oct, Cold Stone Creamery, Aspinwall

Off to a late start this year due to both schedule and equipment problems. My main bike is out of service, and Bike #2 is limited to shifting only the front ring. Since this makes biking in traffic difficult for me, I am employing the use of a car for the first time. For the first time in over 20 years, I have a car for my exclusive use. This will at least let me vary my starting points.

For Trip #1, I drove to Millvale, parked the car and headed upstream on two wheels. This is an improved trail for only a quarter mile, then over a mile of rough railroad ballast. Today's excursion also featured a railroad construction crew which blocked 90% of the passable space. Nevertheless I was able to get by them by dismounting and walking the bike on the far side of their equipment. They didn't even look at me.

A bit later I was in Sharpsburg, and took the opportunity to explore some of the back alleys near the river. Later, I tried to find a cut-through under the Highland Park Bridge, close to the railroad tracks, but was not successful, if only due to having to stop to pull a wire out of my gearset. I had to backtrack some, in so doing finding a back way to the entrance to the Boy Scouts' Camp Guyasuta, but alas I did not find a simple, level way to Aspinwall.

Once in Aspinwall, I figured I'd traveled far enough to qualify as a proper coffeeneuring excursion, so scouted out a place to consume such. Water Works Plaza offered several possibilities, as did a few spots in the village. When I got to the end of the plaza, though, I considered the hour and the sun angle, and so opted not to try to get to the next town upstream.

Cold Stone Creamery was the most appealing of several options. A quick check verified that they did indeed have coffee ice cream. I picked out something decadent and sealed the deal.

Since I am off to a late start this year, I am going to have to double up on some weeks. The real trick will be getting these trips in such that they are not part of my routine commute.

The trip back to the car was uneventful, though I did find the level way back next to the tracks that I couldn't find earlier. It really cannot be ridden in its current form, as it is loose ballast. Boy it would be nice if that could be set up as a direct bike path.

The last little bit of fun was finding a new set of tire-eating drain grates. Seems every time I try to go someplace new, I find another one of these. In this case, three, all at the same corner in Sharpsburg. We're fast coming up on 10 years since I started tracking these. Coffeeneuring helps me find more of them! Is that a good thing?

Monday, August 14, 2017

In what way can I help the BLM movement?

After reading a friend's thoughtful, well written introspective about the Charlottesville incident, with a call to action, I have to think, where am I with the Black Lives Matter movement, and what can and should I do to promote it? This blog post will serve as a second draft.

First, I am pretty sure I don't have any slave-holding cousins. My stock is only two generations removed from Canada, and prior to that Scotland, the north of England, and a bit of German. I'm about as WASP as they come. The problem is that though my lineage is free of white supremacist entanglements, my upbringing is not.

In my own lifetime, I went to a rural, all-white high school and a 95% white state college. At 18 or 19, I clearly was the product of an intolerant background. Had I not made a couple of strong, lasting friendships in college, I might have remained that way. To this day, most of my near-blood relatives have diametrically different views on this topic.

The details of when and how I evolved, and who helped, are irrelevant to this discussion. What matters is that over the years I became what those near-blood relatives refer to as a bleeding heart liberal and a social justice warrior. In my day to day life, that matters because my goal in life is to make it possible for people to do anything other than drive. That means improving public transportation. Owning and operating a car is darned expensive, but it seems black people end up living where the only reasonable way to get around is via public transport that is either inadequate or absent altogether, and costly to use what does exist. The economic injustice aspect of this needs its own explanation, which I do not care to enumerate here. All that's relevant to this discussion is I have been part of organizations fighting to better the lot of transit riders for close to 30 years. To me it is all too clear where the red lines were and are, and blacks are getting screwed. Specific things like the fare and transfer policies favor pass holding suburbanites. Being white myself, conversation with the people from these areas is often awkward because they see me as the do-gooder, the outsider, there to meddle, or just white and that's reason enough not to converse. Maybe they're right sometimes; it's hard to say. I haven't been as effective as I wanted to be, but that doesn't keep me from trying, caring, or understanding.

So what do I do? Posting on social media seems a waste of time, merely a chance to vent, to throw my lot in with the side of justice, without actually changing anything for the better. But I have no pull where it really matters, in places which provide that proper leg-up to those in need.

I suppose I need to settle back to what I do best, provide the support to the organizations I am involved with, and focus on using them as tools to help the afflicted help themselves. For me, those would be two or three specific groups. First: ACTC, the citizens' advisory group for Pittsburgh public transit riders. No problem finding blacks who ride transit, but the organization currently has its own issues, limiting its efficacy. Second: Toastmasters, helping people develop speaking and leadership skills, in this specific case, getting minorities to join and participate. In my experience, Toastmasters tends to attract mostly white male professionals. Not all clubs are like this, but many are. It's just how word gets out. Money, too, is a limitation, as it isn't free, and the dues are high enough to scare many off.

Third: The cycling community. Most of the bike rides I find myself on are overwhelmingly white. Is cycling just one of those things white people do and blacks avoid? A solution to that might be beyond my scope. Merely pointing it out and questioning it might be all I can hope to accomplish. Again, I don't know how to reach out, or to have them understand I am in a position to help, or even for them to understand that what I am offering is help at all. I fear we may as well be speaking different languages.

Within cycling, my specific purpose is to focus on law-abiding riding techniques, supporting commuting by bike. Here, though, the places many blacks live are very hilly, thwarting the very idea of cycling. This has a chicken-egg aspect to it, as the desirable level places have forced out anyone who can't pay the higher rent, so the ones who need the most help are already living where it is most difficult to help them. If a black dominated area is flat, it's also distant from where people work, so they bus instead. So whether because of steep grades or long distances, you don't see too many black bike commuters.

What I will not be is complacent, merely tweeting opinions and posting relevant stories. I do plan to act. I just do not know how best to provide that help.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Test-sitting a new bus

Every few years, Port Authority of Allegheny County, metro Pittsburgh's public transit system, orders an entirely new style of bus. When they do, it has been customary for them to invite their citizens' groups -- the Allegheny County Transit Council (ACTC) and the Committee on Accessible Transportation (CAT) -- to tour the bus and make comments.

There is more than a grain of sense to this. We are the end users, and no matter how much planning and research goes on, when all is said and done what often happens is that the Pittsburgh order gets built into a larger order with other transit agencies, some larger, some smaller, and maybe we like some of what gets added or deleted, sometimes not. But we do get one prototype bus shipped in. We, the end users get a good look at it, as do various drivers and mechanics at the garages, in their own time and place. After all, they as well as we will have to live with these beasts every day for 12 to 16 years, the typical lifespan of an American transit bus.

Monday 31 July 2017 was a gorgeous summer day, bright blue skies, 80 degrees, just perfect for checking out this 2017 model New Flyer Excelsior articulated bus. It was parked just beyond the regular boarding area for East Busway routes at the Penn Park station downtown. When I arrived, the bus and various dignitaries and staff were already there, looking it over. Interim CEO David Donohoe was there himself, giving it a test-sit and talking to staff, management, and a couple of ACTC and CAT members. I myself arrived by bicycle, and within a couple of minutes had checked out the bike rack. It was nothing extraordinary, the same sort of rack that's already on hundreds of buses. Nothing new here; the real fun was inside.

It helps that I had been on a couple of these tours before. In 1993, I toured new Flxible #2300, along with #2292, one of 10 Orion V buses with a different engine that had arrived only a couple months earlier. I missed getting to tour the 1996 Novabus prototype. I did tour the Neoplan 45-footers (1901-1940), which also involved a tour of the not-yet-completed West Busway, in July 1998; it dead-ended between Crafton and the Parkway West at the time. I missed the tour of the last Neoplan artics (3100-series, in 2004), but did test-sit the New Flyer articulateds (#3200, November 2008). Anyway, a lot of them over the years. In each of these, I learned to listen to the managers as they explain some of the thinking that went into the design decisions. The way to do this is to have an intelligent question or a relevant concern to point out, then just stand next to the right people and patiently wait your turn. Meanwhile, take mental notes.

One thing I pointed out was that there seemed to be a bit of an elevation difference between the main floor of the bus and the articulation joint, maybe a half inch. That's enough to trip over, and I mentioned this to someone. Fifteen minutes later, someone else pointed out the same thing to me, independently, so I went over to the same official and pointed it out a second time. This time, he came back with me to take a look at it himself. One thing that came of it was that he thought it might be possible to get the big rubber ring around the artic point ordered in yellow instead of black, so that it would stand out better. To be honest, that might be enough. But the fact that the concern got looked at at all was because ACTC was invited to have its say, and pointed out something top brass had missed.

I counted 52 seats, about the same as existing artics, and about the same as the 1900 series 45-footers that were retired a couple years ago. The artics will be used on heavy ridership in-city routes like the 61- and 71-series, the East and West Busway all-stops, and a few heavy hauling suburban routes like the O12 McKnight Flyer. We could probably use more than these will replace, as a lot of routes are full to bursting, but the net difference after the 2004 order of artics is retired will be zero or close to it. (The real problem is space; we just don't have room to hold 10 to 20 additional rolling stock, as I understand it. Find 30 acres closer to town than the old closed Harmar facility, and $250 million to build a garage, and then maybe.)

On to the tour. My video camera worked for about the first eight minutes of the visit. About half of that is walking toward the bus and trying out the bike rack; the other half is counting bus seats. Would have been nice to get another 15 to 30 minutes, but oh well. At least I could take pictures and tweet. Here is the video:



Photos I tweeted.

















Some photos that Andrew tweeted:


















Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Denver Street Steps

In the summer of 2006, my son took a four-day class at Pittsburgh Filmmakers, located at the time in the building on Melwood Street just off Baum Blvd. I accompanied him on the trip there, as we were going by bus and I was not sure of the path myself. Since I myself was not taking the class, I had a couple hours each morning.

I asked the lady at the reception desk whether there was a faster way to get to the location other than the circuitous method we had used; I think we had used the 81B Lincoln (now the 82) and walked up from Centre Avenue. She replied that yes, there was a bus that dropped off up by the Craig-Bigelow split, but that didn't save much since you still had to walk all the way around Craig and Baum. But there was an unusable alternative, a blocked staircase that made a beeline from the corner to the building.

Blocked, as it turned out, by inch-thick poison ivy vines and other major overgrowth. It had been decades since anyone could walk through here easily. But since I had several hours at hand with little else to do, and the promise of being able to enjoy the fruits of my own labor within a day or two, I set to work. My tools at hand: a couple of discarded grocery bags, and Stone Age tools.

It took all that first morning, but I did get it to where you could see from one end to the other. As good a cleanup as I could manage, and I was done for the day. On day two, I got the rest of it pulled out and thrown over a cement block wall into a small lot full of wrecked cars. At the time, Mayor O'Connor was in the midst of a "Redd Up Pittsburgh" campaign, so I contacted the office and let them know there was a mound of poison ivy branches to pick up. One more pass to pick up just plain junk, and the steps were clear.

Once a year since, I revisit those steps to tidy up my work. It only takes 15 minutes, once a year, to keep the ivy pulled back as well as the rest of the undergrowth and trash.

In 2015, the City of Pittsburgh embarked on an inventory project for all of the city steps, all 700 to 800 of them. I assisted with the project on several steps in the Fineview neighborhood on the North Side. Dozens of others did likewise. We observed conditions of usability, overgrowth, deterioration, railings, cracks, and other matters. The city has since used this data to assemble a plan for repairing them. Of course there is far more to do than the city can accomplish in a decade, let alone a year, so figuring out which to do first requires human input. Thursday 28 July 2017, the city held an event to gather that input, which I attended.

Afterward, I filmed this little video, showing what Denver Street looks like now. I had not been here yet in 2017; I don't think I got there in 2016, either. The couple years of growth shows that the poison ivy is indeed coming back with a vengeance. I plan to present the city with my little story here and the video, in hopes that someone else can take up the adoption process, whether it be city crews or simply another concerned citizen a little closer than me, 12 miles away, who can devote 15 minutes a year to keeping that growth down.

Friday, July 14, 2017

New York passing laws

In some ways, I'm glad I don't live in New York anymore. I would be breaking the law every time I got on a bicycle. NY is one of those states that *require* cyclists to ride on the road edge.

Sorry, NY, your law is wrong. Cyclists should have explicit permission, and be expected, to use the entire driving lane by default. PA has the right idea, explicitly giving motorists the right to cross a yellow center line to pass a bike, if visibly safe to -- same as crossing a center line to drive around a fallen tree. If you can see to pass safely, go ahead and pass. If you can't, you wait until you can.

But NY expects cyclists in the lead to yield to motor traffic behind them. That's just wrong. And generations of motorists and cyclists alike passively accept this. I do not. I'm in front, you're behind me, I don't care if there's a 40 mph difference in our travel speeds. The fallen tree sure doesn't care.

Cyclists *may* release following traffic to pass them with a "straddle pass", by moving to road edge and allowing cars to pass more easily by moving partway into the opposing lane. That technique is called "control and release", and is very effective for maintaining a balance of traffic flow AND cyclist safety. But still, the cyclist gets to decide, not the motorist. The cyclist can see whether the road edge is safe; the motorist cannot. It is neither fair nor safe to require cyclists to ride unsafely, such as between a road-edge hazard and a car passing too closely.

I don't know how you get state law changed. But if I end up in NY for any length of time, you can darned well bet I will be advocating for the law to change, and riding the way I feel most safe.

Friday, March 31, 2017

My proposal for functioning Bus Rapid Transit in 2017

I presented this in front of the Port Authority Board of Directors at their 31 March 2017 meeting.

I am glad to see that PAAC, the City, and others have finally published a formal proposal for some sort of Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) project. That BRT is on the table at all is because the PAAC Board killed the last light rail extension to Oakland proposal in 1996, and that itself was over a decade since the previous failed attempt to build it. Half a human lifetime is a long time to wait for a transit improvement.

Unfortunately I hold little hope for the plan as written. There is so much infrastructure to construct, and so many political and engineering hoops to jump through, it may well be another decade before a single rider can board. We can do better and we can do it soon.

In short, instead of dithering over lane configurations, propulsion modes, station designs, forced transfers, and a thousand other details, you could have a functioning plan in place in a matter of months. Implement at least part of the Connect '09 plan to run "R" routes in conjunction with the existing 61- and 71-series routes. Use existing equipment, routing, and stops. Do not eliminate any existing routes, though modifying headways would be necessary.

For example, for the 71A, which runs 15-minute service much of the day, run the R-equivalent trip alternating with the regular 71A trip. The routing would be identical for both, but inbound after Centre and Negley, the R would stop limited times until the edge of downtown -- Aiken, Craig, Bellefield, Atwood, Robinson, Kirkpatrick, and Stevenson, then every stop after Diamond Street. Outbound, after turning onto Forbes, stop only at Stevenson, Kirkpatrick, Robinson, Atwood, Bellefield, Craig/Centre, and Aiken, before resuming local service at Negley. Timing, run a regular 71A at :00 and :30, run an R at :15 and :45.

Everyone will still have a one-seat ride to downtown. Everyone who still needs the every-stop service will still have it. The riding public gets the rapid service they've waited decades for, and they have it within a year. While I'm sure there will be a learning curve, it should be minimal. Just like the fine folks of Bridgeville and McCandless can distinguish between 31/G31 and 12/O12, respectively, I'm sure the residents along the chosen R corridors will learn quickly enough.

Meanwhile, plans can still continue for installing traffic signal hold-green technology, modifying travel lanes, constructing pre-pay stations, special rolling stock, etc. None of that is on the critical path to a fast bus, and none of what I am proposing needs the approval of anyone outside this room.

Implement this for one 61 and one 71 route in 2017, and commit to running them for one full year. I think you'll find it will work well, and if it doesn't, you can call it quits without having built or rearranged a thing.