Sunday, July 27, 2014

Critical Mass ride #1, July 2014: McKees Rocks Bridge

I call this C.M. ride #1 because, the night before the ride, I learned that there was a second C.M. ride being arranged, independent of this one. More on that in another post. On this ride, we took on the challenge of riding through a truck-heavy section of the city, and over a long, one-lane-that-direction bridge noted for its high traffic speeds. Our ultimate goal was to ride to Crafton, an inner-ring suburb to Pittsburgh's immediate west, and return to the city.

As on most C.M. rides I've organized over the past year, the idea was to investigate what the typical cyclist would encounter while riding in a legal fashion on common streets. We had a small group, eight at its largest point. While we were not out to tie up traffic or antagonize anyone, there is no way we could be ignored. We rode visibly -- light colored or reflective clothing on ourselves, blinkies and headlights on our bikes and/or helmets. We rode predictably -- signalling turns, taking the lane anywhere necessary, riding single file where called for. We rode responsibly -- we did obey the law, stopping for lights, signs, and crosswalks.

The short version: We did what you were supposed to do, and had no trouble at all riding almost 18 miles on busy streets and bridges.

We are getting better at capturing video of our ride. At least two of us had video posted within 24 hours of the ride, pointed both fore and aft. Links below. While I am happy that nothing serious happened, I am happier still, knowing that our ability is improving to capture evidence. If nothing else, the videos show that we do obey the law, and our method does work in ensuring cyclist safety.

I wrote most of the following as a post on the Bike-Pgh message board within an hour of the ride's end.

  • C.M. ride #1 was wonderful. We started with six riders, picked up a seventh before we got out of Oakland, and an eighth at the Science Center. Most of the ride was seven riders, though, as one dropped off at about the same point as the last rider started.

  • Amazingly little trouble on Chateau. I dealt with three times as much traffic on my pre-ride on Monday.

  • Most riders did not know about the new ramp from Chateau/Beaver/Island up to California/Marshall. Easily bikeable, and I think you can even get a tandem or trailer up it. YMMV.

  • California up to Termon was very quiet. The street is wide, the grade not too difficult, traffic speeds moderate, traffic temper calm.

  • We took the lane on the McKees Rocks Bridge. We must have been going close to 30, but even at that, two cars screamed past at 50+.

  • We were tailed down Island Ave in McKees Rocks by a cement truck whose driver was very calm and patient with us. Chartiers was a bit more challenging, as we got split up into at least three groups, and there was noplace to be except right in line with moving cars.

  • Windgap had a recent paving job, so was velvety smooth. Very little traffic, pleasant speed. Definitely a nice part of town to ride a bike along.

  • Ingram wasn’t too difficult. A couple of lights and signs and turns, but easily navigable, and drivers stopped at the same four-way stop waved us along.

  • Only a couple of us were familiar with Crafton-Ingram Shopping Plaza. Lots of choices of everything: grocery stores, drug stores, dollar stores, restaurants, fast food. We opted to hang for a few minutes at Dunkin Donuts. Refilled the water bottles here.

  • Steuben St headed inbound from there has one ginormous hill that took the group most of 10 minutes to climb. Despite that, we had zero trouble with traffic. The reason? No parking. The inbound lane is 25 feet wide.

  • We grouped together as a tight cluster to go through the West End Circle and ride West Carson. Very little trouble, and again, I am sure it helped that we had about 20 blinkies among us.

I should add more detail, but I think the voluminous video speaks for itself. We had two sets, first from me, a single, rear-facing camera, that ran fine until some point on Windgap Avenue. The second, from Colleen, captures both directions, after she joined the ride at the Science Center. At this writing, I am not aware of others, though I know at least one other rider (Yale) was video-enabled.

My set (copied from the BPMB thread):
Six videos, unedited. Thanks to Marko for helping me zip-tie my helmet cam to my bike rack. Zip-ties (which he had) and duct tape (which I had) fasten anything to anything and keep it there!

Video 1, Dippy to edge of downtown:
Video 2, Downtown to North Shore:
Video 3, North Shore to Manchester:
Video 4, Manchester to McKees Rocks Bridge approach:
Video 5, MRB to Windgap Ave:

Video 6 (brief): some of Windgap Ave:

Colleen had two cameras, and posted her videos on Saturday. She joined the ride at the Science Center, so hers overlap mine from there to Windgap, but also finish the ride, which mine do not. Both of hers also have audio, notably missing from mine. (My audio is on, but the camera is in a tight case, which excludes most sound other than rattles.)

Her front camera: Name: FILE0459
Start: Carnegie Science Center
End: California Ave at Dickson St

Name: FILE0460
Start: California Ave at Dickson St
End: The approach to the McKees Rocks Bridge.

Name: FILE0461
Start: The approach to the McKees Rocks Bridge.
End: Windgap Ave and Bellhurst St, about where my camera quit.

Name: FILE0462
Start: Windgap at Bellhurst
End: Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center

Name: FILE0463
Start: Leaving Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center
End: about to exit Station Square onto West Carson St

Name: FILE0464
Start: Smithfield St and Blvd of the Allies, downtown
The first 2:30 of this, we discuss the ride. Then we disperse.

Her rear camera:

Name: 09170004
Start: California at Marshall
End: starting onto the McKees Rocks Bridge

Name: 09320005
Start: on the McKees Rocks Bridge
End: Wind Gap Ave at Belhurst St

Name: 09470006
Start: Wind Gap Ave at Belhurst St
End: Crafton-Ingram Shopping Center

Name: 10020007
Start: C-I S.C. (all in the plaza)
End: Dunkin Donuts in C-I S.C.

Name: 10280008
Start: leaving the donut shop
End: halfway up the big hill on Steuben Street

Name: 10430009
Start: climbing the hill out of Crafton on Steuben St
End: on the access road into Station Square

Name: 10580010
Start: on the access road into Station Square
End: to the end of the ride at Smithfield at Blvd of the Allies

Most of the ride was within city limits. We also passed through McKees Rocks, Ingram and Crafton. Traffic speeds on the McKees Rocks Bridge are high, and motorists do not respect cyclists doing the speed limit. Chartiers Avenue in the Rocks was busy, with high traffic volume and poor riding surface. Windgap, a city neighborhood, has new pavement but few cyclists; I don't know why. Ingram was pleasant to ride in, with stop signs and lights seemingly at every corner. Crafton as well was trouble-free. The long hill out of Crafton on Steuben Street was a difficult climb physically, but no problem at all in terms of traffic, as there were no parked cars along the side, as on Brownsville Rd, giving us essentially a 25-foot-wide climbing lane. The West End Circle, though intimidating as it is built for high-traffic conditions, was surprisingly easy to deal with, as was West Carson Street from there to the Station Square driveway, normally a nasty, high-speed half mile. Our last street was the inbound traffic lane on the Smithfield Street Bridge, also featuring a lane wide enough for cyclists to have their own space, though most cyclists use the sidewalk.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, June 2014 ride: Brownsville Road

[unfinished, 8:30 p.m EDT., Sunday]

June 27, 2014, the largest CM ride in Pittsburgh in four years -- nine riders! We tackled riding through a difficult part of the city -- Brownsville Road through Mount Oliver, Carrick, and into Brentwood, returning via Streets Run Road, site of a cyclist fatality in 2013. We wanted to see why so few people commute by bicycle around here, and make recommendations as to how to improve cycling mode percentage.

CM has been almost non-existent in Pittsburgh since the law-abiding Flock of Cycles rides started in May 2010. Prior to that, CM rides had an air of anarchy common to many such rides around the world. No leaders, no plan, no guidance, no police help of any kind, and a general sense of lawlessness. The rides were successful in raising awareness, empowering people to get out on bikes, building alliances and friendships, and sharing information. All good, but the anarchy became more liability than asset, so when Flock rides began, almost immediately the momentum moved there, and worked for a common good. More recently, that sense of anarchy reinstated itself in the entirely separate Pittsburgh Underwear Ride, which now gathers four times as many as Flock, and double the largest CM ride I know to have existed.

The situation at present
All of this has led to a strong cycling culture, even in a town with monster hills and a brutal, four-season climate. Our local advocacy organization, Bike-Pgh, works with governments, businesses, engineers, and civil planners to make it easier to get around by bike, leading to a Bronze designation from the League of American Bicyclists. Clearly, we have a lot of good stuff happening here. Yet there is so much work to be done, because while cycling in some areas is easy, even preferable (the East End, Oakland, Lawrenceville), bikes are still a rare occurrence in others, and this is where a revived CM comes into play. As in the "old days" of CM (think 2007), we wanted to assert our right to use the public streets as if we belonged there, as indeed we do. So why is it so hard to bike south of Mount Washington? We set out to find out, and sure enough, we found out why.

The terrain
We wanted to explore the southern part of the city, but not the well-biked South Side Flats. We needed to get south of Arlington Avenue, which runs along the high ridge that runs parallel to "The Mon" (the Monongahela River). The best way there is South 18th Street, which snakes its way up the 460-foot hillside. It takes a cyclist 15-25 minutes to make that climb, 1.7 miles of continuous 7+% grade. That might be reason enough to dissuade any but the most hardy cyclists from heading south, but it gets worse. After Arlington, where 18th becomes Brownsville Road, the way south contains 283 more feet of vertical climb in only four more miles, at least to Wainwright Street in Brentwood, just short of the PA51 corner, where we turned off for the return trip to town.

That's not all. At present, pavement conditions along here are horrible, with potholes, patches, gravel from rain wash, and sunken longitudinal ruts that can knock a cyclist over into parked cars one way or traffic the other. Some of this road is to be re-paved in 2014, though we do not know when. This should help, as it has on other city streets with a high cyclist mode share, but right now it takes some guts to ride this regularly.

Beyond this, the traffic along here is not used to seeing bikes on a regular basis, as they do in the East End. Brownsville is one lane each way, with on-street parking on both sides, and with hills and curves everywhere, there is no spot along this road with anything but a double yellow line down the middle. While the state law requiring four feet of space to pass a bicycle is increasingly known, fewer know that a motorist may legally cross the double yellow to pass a bicycle, if it is otherwise safe to do so. Cyclists often ride in the parking lane, which is fine if empty, but often is not. Thus, this practice is not sustainable, forcing cyclists to merge back into moving traffic.

The route 
Part 1 - Oakland to South Side. The group started in Oakland, next to the huge dinosaur statue adjacent to the Carnegie Museum, then rolled through Panther Hollow between the museum and Carnegie-Mellon University to the South Side, where a second meeting point brought our contingent up to nine riders.
Part 2 - Climbing. We set out climbing South 18th Street, as described above. As we had riders of widely varying ability and equipment, from women in their 50s to a guy on a fixed gear, to men who spend their weekends climbing hills around Pittsburgh, we got fairly stretched out on the hill. We regrouped in the parking lot of a gas station at Arlington Ave to catch our breath.
Part 3 - Brownsville Road. The 4.25 miles south of Arlington consists of lots of ups and downs through Mount Oliver Boro (a suburb surrounded on all sides by the City of Pittsburgh), Carrick (a city neighborhood), and on into Brentwood, an adjacent suburb. We turned onto Wainwright Avenue, one block before a major intersection, Clairton Road. We had neither need nor desire to fight with that corner.
Part 4 - Downhill. We threaded our way through a residential neighborhood to a long downhill stretch consisting mainly of Doyle and Streets Run Roads. The 2013 fatality occurred on the latter, so we were curious to inspect that bit of road to try to reconstruct, first hand, what might have happened.
Part 5 - Back to the trail and the city. We were able to make a simple, seamless connection to the GAP (Great Allegheny Passage) trail, past the Hays eagle nest, and in a few short minutes, were back at the Hot Metal Bridge, where we thanked one another for a good ride, and parted ways.
Statistics. About 20 miles from Dippy the Dinosaur to Hot Metal. From MapMyRide: "This is a 19.3-mile route in Pittsburgh, PA. The route has a total ascent of 1,065 feet and a maximum elevation of 1,282 feet."

Some quick observations
* Motorists who rarely encounter bicycles do not know what to do when they do encounter one (or nine). Most simply slow down and/or give us the space we need. A few know about the passing rules, but fewer know about the crossing-the-double-yellow part.
* Few drivers understand what life is like on a bike, so do not appreciate that the safest spot on the road for a cyclist to be is fully in the lane. Hugging cars can get you doored. The side of the road is usually full of loose gravel that can cause us to fall, broken glass that can blow a tire and cause us to fall, carrion that can be big enough to dump us, as well as other hazards such as downed branches, and drain grates with slots in line with the path of travel. "As far to the right as is practicable," the wording of the law, means "as far to the right as can be safely put into practice", and that DOES NOT mean "as far right as possible at all times". It means we may legally "take the lane" and keep it until such time as we may safely pull to the right to release that lane to you so you can get by us easier. If this means you drive 14 mph behind us for a while, then so you do. Treat us like you'd treat a backhoe traveling down the street. They would be taking the lane, same as us, and going the same speed. We are not holding up traffic, it is that traffic is going 14 mph right there. We are traffic. Understand that, accept that, and life gets easier for everyone.
* On-street parking is a pain. We had the least trouble when we could use the curb lane for travel.
* Sidewalk parking is a pain. I can't imagine trying to walk along parts of this road on the sidewalk. Both on South 18th and Brownsville, there were parked cars either half on or fully on the sidewalk. In some cases, the sidewalk was being used as a storage area for wrecked cars at an auto body shop. Granted that bikes should not use the sidewalk (even if it is not a business district), but the presence of the cars would put people out in the street, too. This limits the usability of public transit.
* Speaking of which, there is an amazing amount of transit service along 18th and Brownsville. The 51 Carrick runs every 10 minutes until well into the evening, and the 54C runs along much of this, too. One has to ask, why do you even need a car if you live anywhere along here? This service level is almost as good as on the East Busway, and the Downtown-Oakland corridor.
* Taking a step back and considering the above, not using a car should be a goal to strive for in these neighborhoods, and identifying why people choose to, anyway, would be a worthy project. Plus follow-up.

Some specific issues
Many thanks to Colleen Spiegler, who recorded some of the ride with a fender-mounted, rear-facing camera. I wish I had been similarly prepared with a front-mounted camera.
* Video 1, South 18th from Mary Street to Quarry Street
* Video 2, South 18th at Quarry to Brownsville Road [somewhere in Carrick]
* Video 5, downhill on Doyle Road then Streets Run Road

Monday, June 2, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, May 2014 ride: East Carson out to Becks Run Rd

Our two-person Critical Mass ride tonight tackled East Carson Street between the Sarah Street merge point and Becks Run Rd, a most bike-unfriendly bit of road. Four cars passed us unsafely. Thanks to Dino Angelici, who knows this area better than I do.

I had long wanted to try a nasty piece of road like this. First, a brief description. East Carson through the South Side is a narrow, two-lane city street, where it's generally not possible ever to exceed the posted 25 mph limit. It widens a bit through the recent development known locally as South Side Works, on the site of a former steel plant. There, with turn lanes and much wider single lanes, 35 mph is not all that untypical. A bike lane exists for a short while. It is not particularly horrible.

Things get interesting the farther out you go. Sarah Street, which parallels Carson through most of the South Side, merges into Carson just as the road, also known as PA Route 885, develops into a moderate speed connector to the South Hills. The two outbound lanes are squeezed into a single lane, with 
neither shoulder nor sidewalk, but equipped with an eight-inch curb and various storm water drain grates. Here is a screen grab from Google StreetView:

Clearly a no-passing zone, and nowhere for anyone to go if there is any sort of slowdown, other than to get in line behind what's in front of you.

This was our challenge.

Fortunately, this mean piece of road is less than a half mile in length. The next traffic light is at Becks Run Road, which would be a pleasant destination, as there is an ice cream shop on the corner. Becks Run Road itself is a fairly pleasant climb into Carrick and Baldwin. But there is no real way to get there.

The only alternative means of getting to this point is to ride the Baldwin Boro Trail out to a gate in a fence, and scramble across a pair of live, high-speed railroad tracks. Trains are frequent, as this is the main line between Pittsburgh and the Baltimore/D.C. area, and far enough out of the city that trains are up to full traveling speed of 40+ mph. Crossing tracks is technically illegal, but that aside, if they're that frequent and that fast, it's not safe.

Now, as to the ride. Dino and I met at Dippy, the Carnegie Museum's full-size diplodocus carnegii statue, and rode out on Forbes, left on South Craig, left onto Fifth Avenue inbound, to ride side-by-side in one of the four lanes on Fifth, as allowed by law. This is not particularly difficult, not all that challenging, though being passed on both sides by traffic can be a bit unsettling to some people. It's posted 25, though, and the lights are timed to that, so traffic is not that difficult. It gets a bit more interesting after the curve at Robinson Street, where inbound traffic arbitrarily splits. I usually take the right split, as most of the cars slow to make a left onto the I-376 on-ramp, then the remaining traffic speeds up a lot. The only safe thing to do here is to take the right split and take the lane, where the downhill easily allows you to get to the posted 25 and then some.

We signaled a left, got in the left lane, and made a left onto the Birmingham Bridge. Again, for cyclists who feel confident taking the lane, there is no problem with this at all. If you hug the right side of the road, you will find it intimidating and difficult to make this turn. Once on the bridge, though, a buffered bike lane appears on the right, separating you from bridge traffic. Highly welcome bike infrastructure, even if it is only paint. However, there is an on-ramp from Forbes that comes up from the right, and cars have right-of-way over cyclists, so cyclists need to be prepared to stop, and rightly so. Sight lines are decent, though, so by checking at the right point, it is possible to safely fly through the yield sign at the crossing if no cars are approaching. On the far end of the bridge, similar to getting on the bridge, it is necessary to signal left and get over into the center lane. The right lane turns right onto inbound East Carson; we were going outbound. Really we should have gotten over two lanes,as the center lane becomes a right-turn-only lane a block later on Carson.

As stated above, Carson for the next 10 blocks is not too bad. Even at the Sarah Street merge point, it's still two lanes, outbound. It becomes miserable 100 or so yards later where that squeezes to one and the shoulder disappears. For the next half mile, you get what you see in the StreetView image above, and everyone is trying to go 50 mph.

We took the lane, two abreast. Almost immediately, we got a horn. Shortly thereafter, someone passed us. Note, this is on a gentle bend to the right. There is no way anyone can pass safely here. But a second did it. And a third. And a fourth. Dino and I were riding full-out, probably 25 to 30 mph. It's posted 35 (modified to say 85 on one sign). The fourth passing car came dangerously close to a head-on with a northbound car. I waved back a fifth when I wondered if the fourth might not make it. Wrecks aside, the last thing I needed was to get shoved into the hillside by someone who wouldn't make it.

Four-tenths of a mile later, we were at the ice cream shop. One of the cars that passed us also pulled in, not to argue, but to get ice cream. Really. They risked their lives to pass us to get to the ice cream shop maybe 10 seconds sooner.

That was with two of us. What if there had been four, or six, or 20? Or just one?

We are entitled to ride on the road. The trail to here is not an option. It matters not that we were getting ice cream. We may well have been wanting to head up Becks Run Road.

How do backhoes and other slow-moving vehicles manage along here? I don't drive out this way that often, but the next time I do, I might try driving at 30 mph and see what happens. The road configuration continues in this fashion for most of another mile to the Glenwood Bridge. We did not investigate further.

After our ice cream cones, Dino showed me the path across from the end of Becks Run Rd that leads to the tracks. We had to wait for a train. One had passed in the same direction while we were eating our ice cream, and another had passed while we were rolling through South Side Works. Busy tracks! Once across, we rolled our bikes along about 100 yards of track, downstream, until we found the break in the fence. Sometimes it's locked; this time it was not.

After a bit of pulling knotweed, Dino and I went our separate ways, happy that we'd tried this, with plans to try another one sometime soon.

I'd done zero planning for this, no Event in Facebook, no message board thread, no posters or anything. Next time, we'll have at least one of those three. In fact, it's up already!

Sunday, June 1, 2014

What an honest attempt at bicycle commuting looks like

Final numbers for May: 336 miles, including a couple of Saturday trips to the pharmacy on unicycle. Second best personal month ever!

This is what an honest attempt at bicycle commuting looks like. Each trip in or out of the city is 10 miles. Add in a few group rides of 10 to 15 miles. A few bus trips, a couple motorcycle trips, and one, ONE, car ride.

I tend to stay home on weekend days. The 11th, 18th, 25th and 26th -- Sundays and a long-weekend Monday -- I do not remember leaving the property. FWIW, June is off to a similar start. Another Sunday come and gone and I didn't leave the house.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Critical Mass Pittsburgh, February 2014 ride: Fifth and Forbes

Short version: Six riders biked from Oakland to Downtown and back, using Fifth and Forbes, and taking the lane. The ride was successful, and several lessons learned in both staging and planning. The weather was good, though cold. A good time was had by all. Now for the details. The first CM in Pittsburgh in almost four years was attended by only six riders, not bad for a day whose sunrise temperature was near zero Fahrenheit. CM disappeared after the April 2010 ride after several years of attracting crowds of 50 to 100. Most joined up with a newly created ride, Flock of Cycles, which is still going strong, but then as now, is more a fun ride than activist. The activist side of CM had largely proved its point, laying the groundwork for a groundswell of regular cyclists commuting to work, school, and other social activities. Most wanted to obey the law and yet have fun, and the defiant, anarchist side of CM wasn't doing it for them, was doing more harm than good. Yet a need still existed, then as now, to keep pressing for acceptance on regular streets. One of the most common needs is to get from Pittsburgh's two major central business districts, the Golden Triangle, where the rivers come together, and Oakland, home to two major universities (Pitt and Carnegie-Mellon) as well as several large hospitals and smaller colleges. Oakland alone draws more traffic than Harrisburg, Erie or Scranton. Plenty of transit service exists between the two, at least 10 parallel bus routes, and plans have existed for over a century to construct a subway or some other high-level transit system. But getting between the two, by bicycle, is not easy, particularly headed from Downtown to Oakland, which is slightly uphill. The purpose of CM, then, was to establish that cyclists can, in fact, use the main city street connecting the two, Forbes Avenue. We planned to ride as tightly together as feasible, the entire length of Fifth Avenue from Oakland, regroup in Point State Park, then ride through Downtown and back out Forbes Avenue, starting and ending at Dippy, the Carnegie Museum's life size Diplodocus (see photo). In so doing, we would have to deal with four-lanes-across Fifth through Oakland, a lot of bus traffic in the curb lane, all the while dodging some nasty potholes. Outbound, Forbes is two lanes for most of the way, but narrows to a single lane just past the Birmingham Bridge. Just past this, high speed traffic off the bridge merges from the right, which makes for a particularly challenging piece of the ride. This half mile stretch is also the steepest grade on the route, enough to dissuade most cyclists from even trying. The six of us got out on outbound Forbes for the two short blocks to Craig St, and almost immediately, within a couple seconds, nearly got hit by a large taxi van, one of the shuttle services (Pittsburgh Transportation Company #2035). *Sigh* We opted not to report it, as nothing serious happened, it was just one jerk driver, and we were as yet not a half minute into the ride. Easier to ignore and keep moving. Bigger fish to fry. We got split at the Craig St light, but the front three held up for the rest to catch up. I'm not sure how we'd handle that on a larger ride. Maybe we would have to cork, it just works easier that way after you get any significant number of riders. Or heavy marshaling work. We'll figure that out later. I was just amazed that we ran into that problem on the first turn of the ride with only six of us. Once on Fifth, we had smooth enough sailing, the biggest problem being dodging potholes. Buses were predictable, car traffic was pleasant, we were very visible. Van's bike was equipped with an extremely bright taillight, brighter than many car taillights, so brought up the rear. Fifth through Oakland requires one lane change, where it goes from four to three lanes westbound; not difficult to pull off, but might be tougher to choreograph with a larger group. Perspective from the front: It is difficult for a strong rider like myself to hold back, not race far out in front, and so lose the aspect of group criticality. I am used to gunning it through here, making it from Craig St all the way downtown in less than 15 minutes. It took us closer to 25 to make the trip as a group. Smiles from the crowd: Several onlookers noted the presence of a set of cyclists, possibly because we were there at all, possibly because we were so conspicuous with our bright attire and flashing headlights. An event (hockey game?) at Consol Energy Center induced some congestion and a lot of foot traffic, as did an ambulance working at one corner which had traffic stopped briefly. This facilitated conversation with people on the street and in cars. "What's with all the bikes?" was the question most frequently heard. "Just a group of friends out for a ride on a beautiful night," was our response. "Aren't you guys cold?" "No, not really, we're dressed for it." And so it went. Downtown, too, was busy but not jammed. Fifth through the Golden Triangle is two lanes across but narrows to one after Smithfield because of building construction. We were stopped more often than moving, mainly due to lights and other traffic. We fit in well. A left onto Liberty Avenue, two lanes westbound, also trouble-free, though it was useful to the group that I could predict where individual buses were headed and whether we would have to deal with them passing us, stopping, or turning. "That 61C will be making a left, so shouldn't be a problem, but that G3 over there is going the same way we are, so watch that one." Forewarned is forearmed. We had to wait at the light at Commonwealth, so entered the park as a tight group. This was and would be the breather, if we do this ride again, as planned. In warmer months, there would be porta-potties available, but not so yet, and the permanent facilities by the fountain at the point were not yet open. It was a gorgeous night, though, now just after sunset, so we took a few minutes down by the Point to warm our fingers, take a couple pictures, and collect our thoughts. For the ride back, we took Commonwealth, left on Liberty (again, me noting where individual buses were headed), then right onto Stanwix, which can be a bit tricky. It's a signaled turn lane, no right on red, with a lot of pedestrian traffic, so adherence to law would be a good idea. Then Stanwix, which we are on for only a single block followed by a left turn without a light. Some buses coming at us turn on Stanwix, some don't, and many have a stop there. As a seasoned rider, I never have a problem here, but getting a group through there might be tricky. It might really help to cork southbound Stanwix, just to make it easier if we had a sizable group. It might help to cork northbound Stanwix if we had a sizable group, just to get everyone across. Not a problem with six; just thinking ahead. Fourth Ave is a quiet street most of the time and has a signaled pedestrian crossing which slows traffic. That notwithstanding, it didn't take long before someone had to go screaming up Fourth at 40 mph. No harm done, but still, we shouldn't have to deal with that sort of thing. Otherwise, an uneventful trip up Fourth, which has a noticeable grade between Smithfield and Grant. No problems making the left onto Grant and right onto Forbes, though we did say goodbye to one rider here. OK, down to five for the tougher second half of the ride. Forbes out to Duquesne U is not too challenging, lots of traffic lights and bus stops to calm traffic. After Duquesne U, with south- and northbound traffic now split off (at the Armstrong Tunnel and Washington Plaza, respectively), traffic assumes a more determined feeling, now a headlong dash east to Oakland. Here, just taking the right lane works quite well. I did this same trip an hour earlier and also had little trouble. The five of us got separated in the one spot where we should have stayed close together, just after the downhill to the Birmingham Bridge. Forbes narrows to a single outbound lane on an uphill. It's a wide lane, but still substandard width. Riders who allow drivers to pass are asking for close passes and getting shoved into the curb. It would really have helped if we had stuck together as a tight group through here. This chunk of road needs some help. There is a small divider blocking access to a dead lane which would be super helpful for cyclists to use, but getting into it is tricky, and certainly would be difficult for inexperienced cyclists in low-light and low-traction situations. If cuts could be made, and cyclists directed to that, that would help cycling immensely. But even spread out, we didn't have any trouble claiming the lane. It might have been a different story if traffic had been heavier. The next difficulty is the dangerous situation of 50 mph traffic approaching off the bridge from the right. Whether cyclists are in the main lane on Forbes or the dead lane, they have to deal with high speed cars, and do it on an uphill. As an experienced, assertive cyclist, I know how to force my way into traffic, but this is a learned art, and not what anyone else does naturally. This is the crux of the ride. It's a spot where cyclists need to learn how to do this. It's a spot where individual motorists need to learn to slow down from 50 to sub-25 and expect to see cyclists. It's a major issue for traffic engineers to figure out how to redesign this merge point so that cyclists have a way to do this safely. That said, this is the weakest point of the current street system infrastructure. If this is not fixed, there will be no cycling traffic. The simplest thing would be a stop sign at the end of the ramp. The next simplest thing would be to enforce speed limits on the bridge so they aren't doing 50 to slow down *from*. We managed to regroup by the light at Craft Ave, a significant uphill, the closest thing to a tough climb on this ride, though short. It's also where Forbes becomes three lanes outbound, and traffic is always difficult. Lots of cars in the right lane are making a right onto Craft, and lots of buses going straight are pulling to the curb at the stop for Magee Hospital just after the light. As experienced road cyclists, we five had no problems here, but this would be a challenge for many others. Again, some road re-design would help here, and the bicycle contingent needs to be part of the discussion. Once past Magee Hospital, holding to the right lane is fairly easy, as bus traffic and cars stacking for turns onto residential side streets reduces right-lane traffic speed markedly as compared to the other two lanes. A mile and six lights later, we were back at the dinosaur. A quick debriefing, thank yous and good-byes, and we were on our way. A successful first ride accomplished! Some post-scripts: * On Sunday, in a snowstorm, I found myself again biking on Forbes through Oakland. Still not difficult in terms of traffic, though I did not have to deal with the piece from the Birmingham Bridge to Craft. * Also Sunday, having lunch with several other cyclists, I learned that many had not heard about it. Apparently Facebook, Twitter, and the Bike-Pgh message board is not sufficient to get such word out. * The Sunday ride featured an alternative to outbound Forbes, the use of the Fifth Avenue sidewalk from the Birmingham Bridge to Craft. Despite two inches of fresh snow, this worked pretty well. Getting to that from outbound Forbes would be troublesome, though.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Bus 5616 61C vs. the Flock

This is an open letter to Port Authority of Allegheny County, to be used by anyone who drives a bus, and the trainers of those drivers. It concerns an incident the evening of Friday, February 21, 2014, involving a bus and a couple dozen bike riders on the monthly Flock of Cycles ride. I was one of the cyclists.

The roughly 25 cyclists were riding inbound on Forbes Ave together near CMU in the right lane, and stopped at the light at Morewood. Two cars were in the left inbound lane. A bus approached, inbound 61C, bus 5616, and waited behind the two cars. A rider on the bus was already standing, waiting to get off. It's a "far side" stop, meaning the bus stop is on the inbound side of the corner.

The light turned green, the two cars in the left lane started, followed by the bus, whose male driver tried to get ahead of the lead set of cyclists and cut them off, so as to be able to discharge the passenger and board about four others who were waiting. The line of cyclists started off at a normal pace and got to the stop about even with the bus, making it impossible for the bus driver to cut off the line of cyclists. He was slightly into the right lane, making it a bit narrow for the bikes to get through, but not dangerously so, so it wasn't difficult for the line to pass. So he waited, and in about 15 seconds, the whole line of cyclists got past, he pulled in, discharged and boarded passengers, and then continued on Forbes, accelerating hard to try again to get ahead of the group.

A few hundred yards later is another inbound stop, opposite Hamburg Hall. There were 10 people waiting to board here. As before, though, this wasn't going to happen. There is a slight downhill here, and the group of cyclists had gathered quite a bit of speed. The bus, still in the left lane, simply blew off the stop, with 10 people jumping and waving and yelling, and several starting off running after the bus to try to catch it at Craig Street. They didn't; they ended up walking Craig St, too. I had stopped to tweet the incident (1, 2), and passed them on my way to catch up with the rest of the cyclists.

Here is what should have happened. Back before Morewood, the driver should have seen the group of cyclists. There is no way the driver did not see the cyclists. One guy had on a lighted jacket you could see from a mile away. That is in addition to every other cyclist having at least one, often several, flashing lights. Upon seeing that there is a group of cyclists, he should have realized that it was not going to be possible to get ahead of a group like that, and got in behind them. Had that happened, there would not have been a lane pinch for the cyclists at the Morewood stop, and being behind the group, there would have been no problem at the Hamburg stop. Everyone could have boarded and exited without incident.

Port Authority, please talk with this driver and explain the above. If trainers in particular do not understand this, I will be happy to come in and explain and discuss it in person. I am both a frequent transit rider and an experienced street cyclist, and while I haven't actually driven a bus, I sat in the simulator once, so have a pretty good idea what bus drivers can see.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Let transit management manage

Early this morning, I saw a tweet from someone complaining that a Port Authority bus driver went off-route and had to be helped to get back on-route by passengers. In so doing, this made the bus quite late, and one passenger was concerned about being late enough to get in trouble at work. I offered the observation that if a trip legitimately has to go off-route -- perhaps because of a fire or police activity -- the driver should announce it to passengers. That way, if ornery supervisors ask questions later, the story can be checked out.

That is not what happened here. The P76 driver really did miss a turn and got stuck in Parkway East traffic instead of exiting at the Wilkinsburg exit and wending his way to the East Busway like many east suburban express routes do and have done since the Busway opened in 1983. I don't know what happened; it's irrelevant. Whether proper training was at fault, or the driver was not qualified on the route, or was not paying attention -- whatever, doesn't matter. No excuse. But let's move beyond that. I'm not in the finger pointing business at that level.

What matters to me is that Port Authority is 15 years behind the times on being able to monitor things like this. In Spring 2000 at Pitt, I studied existing case histories of GPS technology installed on all manner of equipment, from snowplows to garbage trucks to mining equipment to farm tractors, all at least recording where the vehicles were at any given time. In the snowplow case, the municipality that was doing this was able to defend itself successfully against suits claiming the plows damaged parked cars.

My point: This was off-the-shelf technology in 1999. We couldn't get it and implement it because of funding battles over providing the service at all. From 1997 to late 2013, funding transit was the constant and often only topic of conversation.

With this technology in hand, any time a driver goes off-route, it is recorded. Even if it is not uploaded in real time, but merely gathered at day's end for later processing, having the data at all makes it possible for Management to do its job: Manage the system. Without this data, as they've been without it all along, it is not possible to detect errors like this unless someone complains, and most riders do not. If the complaint is phoned in, there is a well established "black hole" where complaints land, either never to be seen and acted upon by whoever can fix it, or seen and not acted upon, or seen and acted upon but never followed up on to indicate it has been handled. To the public, it didn't get fixed, even if it did, whatever "it" was. Even if the same problem occurred seven days out of 10 and each was reported, there was still no way to aggregate the reports and identify their commonality.

This is what Information Science is all about. This is why I went back to get my Masters almost 20 years ago. This is what I wanted to be able to do for Port Authority when I got out of school in 2002. Shortly after getting my degree, I lost my job the very same day Port Authority implemented a hiring freeze, June 20, 2002. Ten-plus years later, we are *still* having the problems I wanted to solve TWENTY years ago. In trying to solve them, I spent $15,000 of my own money on tuition in pursuing that goal. Can you perhaps sense the seething, searing heat coming off my fingertips right about now?

With this data, however, every instance can be recorded, and, if managed effectively, counted and tracked. The right questions can then be asked: Is this a per-driver issue, i.e., is it just one single driver with a history of such errors? Or is it rather a single spot where different drivers tend to make the same error? meaning perhaps PennDOT or the county highway department has a signage problem they need to fix. Or is it general to a class of drivers, for example that this happens only to drivers in their first pick? indicating perhaps that the training is unclear. Whatever the actual cause is, management cannot manage without information to work from, because for over 10 years they have not getting it, because money.

I have been saying publicly since 1997, and at ACTC meetings since 1999, and directly to PAT brass since 2002 in the form of public testimony and a 3.5" diskette, that Port Authority badly needs to implement a slew of technology applications. This is one of them, and to reiterate, this was not a new app 14 years ago. Buses long ago had GPS receiving equipment, so as to be able to show the next bus stop on a route while in motion, to riders inside the bus. However, they could not send that data back to HQ, for whatever reasons. Other reasons I was made aware of over the years was that it was a labor-management dispute, and that there was a patent troll who kept transit companies from actively using such technology ideas for commercial use. Some of this may have some validity. I don't care now; it's water over the dam. More than that: The rain that fell on Duluth has since flowed past the Bay of Gaspé.

But never mind that. We are finally getting some of that in place, at long last, with some of the buses running the P1 East Busway All-Stops route now being so equipped. Maybe in a year's time, we can finally provide some of that internal monitoring.