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.

Monday, March 20, 2017

My testimony on the Mon-Fayette before the Southwest PA Commission

Good afternoon, commissioners, and thank you for the opportunity to speak. My distrust of the PA Turnpike Commission dates to my great-grandparents' generation, who sold part of the family farm in 1937 to build the original Irwin-to-Carlisle segment of the Turnpike.

To this day, the road is an over-the-back-fence neighbor at my New Stanton house. (I was out there yesterday. It's now my daughter's house.) My Aunt Sarah, who was 29 when that deal went down, and I, lived together in the New Stanton house in 1987 when the Greensburg Bypass was under debate, and she noted then how similar the arguments were for building that extension, to building the original road 50 years earlier. Meanwhile, even in the 1980s and later into the 1990s and 2000s, I saw first-hand those same arguments for building each piece of the Mon-Fayette project. And now it's 2017, and here they are again.

The original road essentially killed the family farm as a viable business. That farm used to supply half of Greensburg with eggs and some milk. So much for economic development. If the Greensburg Bypass was to bring development to the New Stanton area, it didn't happen. They were still building Volkswagens out there when Toll 66 was approved. That fizzled, and Sony didn't last much longer. The site is still in use, but it would be foolhardy to suggest that building a huge road a mile away has helped it all that much.

So just remember, as its proponents ballyhoo all these economic benefits, that we've heard it all before, and it doesn't wash. If you're going to spend two billion dollars (that you don't have), spend it on stuff we know will work: Fixing local roads, improving public transit, and making it safer to walk across and along the streets in these old, industrial towns.

We do not need the Mon-Fayette project. Please vote NO on adding it to the TIP.