Friday, December 30, 2011

Ten goals for 2012

Concerning the bicycle, I thought about some goals I might aspire to achieve in the coming year. Without going too deep into it, these came to mind:
  1. At least once a week, January to December, go somewhere on the bike, if only to catch the bus at the end of the street.
  2. At least once a month, contact one elected official (any level of gov't, down to town council and school board) about bike safety, bike advocacy, street design, racks, whatever.
  3. At least once a month, contact one business or building owner about improving bike infrastructure -- racks, security, etc.
  4. At least once a month, go on a group ride. Group: More than riding solo.
  5. At least once a month, get someone seriously interested in trying to use a bicycle for basic transportation, who isn't doing it already.
  6. Log my miles in the Car-Free Calculator.
  7. Beat 1,000 miles. Maybe better stated, how early can I hit 1,000 miles?
  8. Complete my fleet, i.e., have every ridable bike ready to mount and ride off on a moment's notice.
  9. Equip every car I own with a bike rack.
  10. Acquire a growler from Pittsburgh's East End Brewing.
That's enough to start with, anyway.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The evil plan is working

What worries me about the possible transit cuts ("Port Authority braces for another slash to service; 35% reduction possible if funding doesn't increase") is that an influential set of people, whether elected or not, is smiling, leaning back in their chairs, and thinking, "Good, the plan is working."

State GOP leaders have been on public record since at least 2008 with plans for dismantling public transit as we've known it for almost 50 years (link). Every important decision since the Spring 2005 funding fight has fed into this possibility, though no single action overtly screams privatization.

Don't think it's not happening, though, and don't think they won't prevail. They are slowly killing off every piece of the system that cannot make money, and replacing old, undersized buses with new, high-capacity artics, all on the public dime.

Once complete, one more pen stroke will effect an ownership transfer to private hands, and the deep-pocketed puppeteers will get what they have always wanted: Total control of all existing public transit in metro Pittsburgh. They will pay its non-union drivers miserable wages with shoddy benefits, charge you $5 to ride, and expect you to say "thank you very much" for rescuing them from the horror they have painted Port Authority.

Check back around 2016 and see just how right I am.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The 168-hour no-car challenge

Cross-post from my old MySpace blog, now also on Blogger. Please read this. This one post is what inspired the name of this blog.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Halloween, transit, and numismatics

I have long been a coin collector, a numismatist, someone who studies money. Over the years, I've learned that developing an interest in coins helps a young person put to use all the info s/he is learning in school. It helps tie together all those disparate subjects, creating a common link among them all. Once a child has a love of learning, and a reason to want to learn, and good information sources, the world is larger for it.

My contribution to this, then, is the second entry in that list. Interest the kid in numismatics! Once a year, every October 31, kids come streaming to my door, asking for a handout. So I give it to them! Every year since I moved to my current residence in 1991, the kids got some sort of coin or coin-related thing, complete with an explanation of what it is, and a proper description on the holder.

This year, I am tying transit into my give-away in an off-hand way. I am giving out 1902 5-cent pieces, each of which is worth maybe a dollar, probably more like 60 to 70 cents. The printed note which accompanies each coin mentions that at the time the coin was made, it had more buying power than a dollar has today. Among the things that coin would buy was fare on the trolley. I figure it is also necessary to point out that nobody had cars back then.

My hope is that these kids, and perhaps their parents, will use the coin as a jumping off point for conversation. I make sure I personally talk with each kid, and each parent if present, to explain what it is and why I'm doing it. My name and address are on each note.

The toothrot will be gone in a day. The coin will be around forever. Even if they're only six or seven, they will be able to dig that coin out in a couple of years and maybe then start to put all the pieces together. The ones who have been around for a couple of years will have a small but eclectic set of coins. This year's handout was actually 2002's -- very few turned out that year because of weather -- but I doubt anyone would have been here for both years. I'm more concerned that I gave out 1909 "V" nickels in 2009, and try not to have the same thing too close together. The original plan was to buy 20 of something else, but a year of unemployment compelled me to implement zero-cost Plan B.

I invite everyone to come back for more information. So far, very few have, in any year. Nor do I do any follow-up, though I have run into an old neighbor who remembered, for instance, that I gave out the 1999 Canadian 25-cent circulating coin designed by a 9-year-old girl, in 1999. At the very least, it leads to positive relations with all families in the neighborhood with kids, and that's good enough for me.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

How I chose my house

N.B.: This is the second in a series of posts on what got me into transit, and like I said in the first post, this is not in chronological order. What matters is that this marked an important turning point in my thinking about using transit.

By mid-1991, I had been getting back and forth by two buses daily from Robinson Township in Pittsburgh's western suburbs to Monroeville in the eastern suburbs, every day for much of a year. My wife had just graduated from nursing school, so we moved out of our rental in Robinson and back full time into our regular home in New Stanton, some 50 miles outside Pittsburgh. For me, it simply meant re-joining the carpool for a 20-mile trip instead of busing 20 miles, while she looked for a job as an R.N. The gig she found was at Passavant Hospital, in McCandless Township in Pittsburgh's North Hills, which was fine with me, but New Stanton to McCandless was a 60-mile trip each way, so house hunting began in earnest.

We had a two-year-old and figured we would have at least one more in coming years, so schools were high on the list of needs. Secondly, she wanted her trip to be as short as possible. Thirdly, we lived with an elderly aunt, actually in a house the aunt had built for her own needs, so that had to be considered as well. Fourthly, I needed to travel to Monroeville daily. It was well established that I could bus to a waiting car, as I had been doing for the past year, so I made clear that wherever we ended up needed to be well served by transit. For me, this was paramount.

A brief recap: In 1990, we took the rental to be near her nursing school, but kept the New Stanton place since we owned it and knew the Robinson thing was temporary, and New Stanton to her school (actually in nearby Kennedy Twp) was an insane 90-minute trip with two tunnels each way, not something you are going to do with a nursing baby (the other meaning of "nursing"). We had four cars: the Volvo wagon we bought new in 1984, a 1984 Toyota Corolla we bought for economical people moving, Aunt Sarah's 1971 Pontiac, and the 1972 Chevy van I got from my family back in Buffalo. We lived in Robinson during the week, returning to New Stanton on weekends to do laundry, shop, pay bills, etc. I kept one of the cars, usually the van, at a park-and-ride lot in Monroeville (work being two miles from the P&R), and bused from Robinson to Monroeville every morning, driving the van back to New Stanton on Friday. Aunt Sarah kept her car at the New Stanton house. Thus we had one car in New Stanton, one car in Monroeville, one car in Robinson, and one car in motion. There were days I drove all four for one reason or another. My transportation costs were phenomenal, outside of the $60/month bus pass.

July and August 1991, we did some serious house hunting. Through the real estate agent, we had narrowed our search to a long list of about 30 properties. The parameters were school districts, bedrooms, and price. My homework was to figure out where the buses went.

Here is the critical information: I obtained a paper timetable for every route in the system, and a map of the metro area, and on a bus ride or two, at least figured out which buses went north, and sketched them on the map. Later that night, while my wife attended a meeting at a local school, I took my map and timetables, laid them out on the floor of a large, empty room, and figured out levels of service for all these routes. I tried to figure out how much rush hour service there was, how late into the evening they ran, and how much (if any) weekend service there was.

This was not easy. I needed to take into account many variants of each route. It was not good enough to have a bus stop sign 150 yards away from the house if only one bus a day went past it. It was also not good enough to have 50 buses a day go past the door if it was not in a school district that was under consideration. Even 30 buses a day in an area was pointless if the house was a mile and a half back into a curly-cue housing tract, as many were. I also noted that the Perry Highway route had a multitude of considerations -- it split three ways north of one corner, serving none of them more than a few trips each, but south of that there was quite a bit of service.

Using this knowledge, I was able to narrow the list to fewer than 10 choices, and marked them on the map. Sarah then worked out details with our agent as to when to tour them, toting along a baby and an elderly aunt when possible from 60 miles out, while I met up with them for the tour by simply driving from Monroeville instead of carpooling. Turns out, the house we eventually moved into, and in which I still reside, I didn't even see the inside of until we had signed the papers. It was good enough for everyone else, and it would not have been looked at at all unless I'd pre-approved the location based on proximity to transit and level of service. Even at that, I personally toured six of the 10, Sarah doing the footwork on the rest.

Now that I've been in the house 20 years -- longer than I've lived anywhere -- I think I made a decent choice. I learned that the little development I am in, while much older than the nearby sprawl, was built when there was an interurban trolley which had a stop 100 yards from the house. The trolley line, which has been defunct since The Great Depression, now serves as my bicycle path into the city. That's a blog post unto itself, though.

I am still unhappy, though. Service cuts in metro Pittsburgh have cut out the Perry Highway route altogether, and severely cut back service on the other routes nearby. I have a 0.8-mile walk just to get to a bus, on a road that lacks sidewalks, lighting, and decent sight lines. Most of my neighbors think I'm nuts for hiking the road every day, but hey, at least I was able to jettison three of my four cars after I moved here, and have saved easily $100,000 in maintaining vehicles in that time, enough to pay for the house. Who's nuts here, really?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Turning points in my thinking

When I think back on the events that guided my thinking in changing from a car-entrapped suburbanite to a car-eschewing suburbanite, a few specific instances come to mind. This is the first installment. They will not be in chronological order.

In June 1992, I attended a wedding in the San Francisco area. I had been to the area around Sunnyvale and Santa Clara a couple of times in recent years as a result of business trips, but had never had an opportunity to visit out there on a purely personal basis. My wife opted not to go, so I was essentially on a solo vacation for about three days. Since many others from my hometown were also flying in and staying in the same hotel, it was fun to just sit in the lobby and see who walked in. In short order, another girl I went to high school with happened by. We'd never been that close, but since I knew the area, it was useful to be able to explain how to get around and find one's way back to the hotel. She too had arrived a day early to get in a little sight-seeing, but had different agendas, which was fine. What happened afterward, comparing notes on our travels after we got together again after the wedding, made me realize how much having a car really gave us different experiences.

Sitting in my hotel room, I pawed through telephone yellow pages and maps and brochures, trying to figure out how to get to the BART system I had heard about, how to get to various points in San Francisco, and get back. This was 1992, long before websites were common. Even in Silicon Valley, while the hotel room may have had a dial-up plug for a portable computer, it was useless to me. I didn't own one, and even if I did, I had nothing to dial in to, and no sites to connect to with online data. Nevertheless, with the couple of phone numbers I did dial, I figured out how to drive to a BART parking garage in near-enough Fremont, and carried enough cash and small change to make any fare I might need for that, a cable car, maybe a bus or three, and get back. It wasn't easy, and I didn't have all the information I needed, but I had enough to have my adventurous spirit conquer any nagging fear, so drove the rental car to Fremont. In short order, I was singing merrily along at 50 mph on a BART train, reading a discarded USA Today. This was a world apart from trundling through Beechview on Pittsburgh's "T" at 12 mph, stopping every 250 feet.

As the afternoon progressed, I toured the Old Mint, hung off the side of a cable car, walked along the Embarcadero, dined at a little boutique, walked all over the place, and rode an overhead electric bus back to the Powell St BART station. I noted with amazement that it was a 10-car train, and had a stop for a huge stadium. A single person drove this amazing 0.1-mile-long machine, a tiny woman who went off duty at Fremont. In the brief conversation I had with her as we rode down the escalator together, she said it really didn't require that much effort. All the real work went into systems that controlled the doors, made the announcements, and prevented things from going wrong. Impressive, and I took a world of knowledge back to Pittsburgh with me.

My friend from high school, meanwhile, had also made a trip into San Francisco that day. Comparing notes after the wedding, I found out that she had dealt with slow-and-go traffic into the city, then drove down the length of Market Street by herself, looking at things as she went. She paid to park in a parking garage, did some shopping, then got stuck in stop-and-go traffic for 10 miles getting back out to Sunnyvale.

Who had the better experience? In cash alone, I may have spent just a bit more than she did between gasoline and parking and me having a few transit fares to pay. I also did a lot more walking around, whereas she parked and walked into a couple of buildings. She saw a cable car. I hung off the side of a cable car for six blocks. She went shopping somewhere in town. I had a beer, then walked around a park being serenaded by a guy in bagpipes wearing a kilt. She sat in traffic. I read the paper. I guess whatever floats your boat. But that disparity in experience was a thought I've carried with me as I've pushed for better transit in Pittsburgh for the last 19 years.

The real take-away was that I decided in advance to try using transit. This was long before I joined ACTC, but well after I was sold on transit, after I chose a house based on proximity to transit routes, after dealing with a nasty transit strike, and after starting to retire my fleet of old vehicles. The piece that mattered was that people have different experiences in a strange town based on how they choose to physically approach it. I could have been stuck in a car, stuck in traffic, watching the city go by, all while trying not to rear-end the car in front of me. I could do that anywhere. But I went out of my way to experience the city, sans car, and it made all the difference.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Choosing to be car-free in a new residence

It looked for a while there like I might take a job in Harrisburg, PA. It fell through, but the process moved far enough along that I went apartment hunting and talking to landlords. This also meant that I had to do a lot of the planning and decision making that normally leads to increased dependence on the private automobile. I was determined not to purchase a car just to take a job if I could possibly avoid it.

It started with a phone call in late August, a recruiter trying to fill a position, who found my résumé on the Internet. I get calls or emails like this almost daily, nearly always a position hundreds or thousands of miles from my home and family in Pittsburgh. For a variety of reasons I do not want to relocate, so I usually say no, but after being out of work 10 months, I was getting a lot less picky. At 200 miles, Harrisburg was too far to commute daily, but not that far that I couldn't come home weekends. Plenty of bus, train, plane and carpool options, too, besides the obvious solo drive on the PA Turnpike. With this in mind, I said yes, I would consider the position. In turn I passed an initial telephone screen, an in-person screen with a local recruiter, and a phone screen with the hiring manager. Based on this, I was invited to travel to Harrisburg for an on-site series of face-to-face interviews. These too seemed to go quite well, but I less desire to autopsy their decision and more want to examine what I planned, and did, and would have done further, had they said yes, for if they had, I would right now be too busy carrying out those plans to write down the planning process.

Right away, I knew that purchasing a car would be cost-prohibitive, no matter what they planned to pay me. I knew I was already looking at a car payment even without this job, but acquiring a second car just to hold this job was an expense I hoped to avoid. The first question I had, then, was where was this job? If it was in a downtown location such that I could bus or even walk to it, great. If it was a suburban campus totally inaccessible to humans except by automobile, that makes a serious difference. Indeed, if I think I can get this information out of the initial call, I do. All too often I can't, since either the recruiter has such poor English I'm lucky to understand anything at all, or they themselves are dozens to hundreds of miles away from the hiring firm, and have no idea what the place looks like. In this case, I was able to speak in conversational English and obtain the name of the company. In researching the firm, I discovered they had five Harrisburg area locations, three in the suburbs, but it looked like the HQ was in the city proper, a fact I verified the next time I talked to the recruiter. A glance at Google StreetView and a perusal of the CAT Transit (Harrisburg city) system map and individual timetables on their website showed there was some reasonable number of routes near there. On this alone, I knew a car would be a luxury I did not need, provided I could find acceptable housing.

It does help that I know a few things about history which might seem irrelevant but is anything but. Harrisburg is similar to a lot of Rust Belt cities in that waves of development occurred at roughly the same times. The original city was very compact, everything within walking distance, prior to about 1860. Population influxes between then and 1910, along with horsecar lines and early trolley systems, led to expansion of the area beyond what one could comfortably walk to, but still high density. Use of the automobile after 1920 and especially after 1945 led to suburban sprawl which continues to this day. To find the walkable, bicyclable, easily busable city, then, wherever it is, you have to locate the pre-1910 development line, and search there. This job site was already within those bounds, so that meant I could rely on buses, bicycles and feet to get around.

Next complication was work hours. You cannot ride a bus if it isn't there to ride, and I might have a 4 a.m. start time occasionally. Generally most cities, Harrisburg included, have zero all-night bus service. But how to know? All of this needed to be known very early in the game, so as to know whether to even consider the job, especially not knowing what the money situation was going to be. Back to CAT's website, checking timetables. Since no buses ran all night, I saw that combining bus and bicycle began to be increasingly desirable. The old city also looked very flat, again a desirable condition for a bicycle commute, though not a requirement, as amply demonstrated by cyclists such as myself in hilly Pittsburgh.

When it looked like this might really happen, I started looking for housing while still in Pittsburgh. I knew I needed to do as much research as I could from a distance, as I would have precious little time once I actually set foot in town to select something and make it official. Very likely I would travel there only one or two times beyond the interview trip before I was there for keeps. From the Pittsburgh end, since my family was staying put and I was expecting to come back every 12 days for a 2-day visit, nothing had to change. I knew I only needed a bohemian crash pad. I did not need a full-scale apartment. A mother-in-law suite, even a room upstairs of a single-family home, would do fine.

To get things rolling, I put status updates on Facebook and Twitter, and in short order I had a couple of people querying me for information and parameters. My headhunter firm contact also had a few suggestions. Many of these expected me to have a car and drive 5 to 20 miles, naming suburbs and neighborhoods to look into, and others to avoid. Interestingly, one of the areas to avoid was the one adjacent to the job site. Using Google StreetView, I poked around a few spots, but only Harrisburg's main arterials had been done so far. Still, aside from it looking like a 1920s era working class neighborhood, I saw nothing to scare me off. I looked on Craigslist and a couple of apartment hunter websites; all reiterated the $800 to $1,000 luxury high-rises and suburban apartment complexes. I thought to myself, of course those are going to show up in every search. People like me pop up all the time. It's a state capital. Lobbyists, interns, political staffers and journalists come here for long-term temporary stints just like me continuously. Build to the market, advertise to the market. Follow the crowd, follow the money. The system is set up that way. But I wasn't playing by those rules. I already had a house I was paying on. Every expense I would incur was a duplicate. Thus, no matter what they were paying me (a handsome amount, in early discussions), anything I could avoid spending money on was money I could put to better use elsewhere.

Finally I got through to someone, via a network contact, who understood that I only really needed bicycle storage, a refrigerator, and an Internet connection. Anything else could be obtained at a Goodwill store or garage sale. I actually considered taking with me nothing more than would fit in one checked bag on a Greyhound bus, not driving to Harrisburg at all.

But to actually find an apartment, once I landed in Harrisburg for the interview, I got the advice to walk around town in the couple hours between the end of the interview and my bus trip back. Start at the corner of A & B, walk toward X & Y, and look in windows for "For Rent" signs. Lots of houses might have an upper floor residence over a first floor office, all right in center city, almost in the shadow of the State Capitol building. In fact, that was a good rule of thumb: If you can see the Capitol dome, the place was probably OK. That I did, checking every side street and alley, the whole time carrying a suit bag and still dressed in my suit. Eventually I met a postman making his rounds. Postmen on a regular route will know what apartments are available. He pointed to two buildings within 100 yards but said, go around the corner to the Grayco Apartments, very hard to get into, but they're well maintained, the best place for the money. Five minutes later, a Grayco resident gained me an audience with the landlady. I gave her the story, and yes, they might have an opening if I called back next week. Sounded wonderful, and the price was ideal. It probably would have worked out wonderfully, and in my digging around I still had four other options.

As I write this, Harrisburg is being flooded from Tropical Storm Lee, the worst the city has seen since Hurricane Agnes in 1972. That particular spot is very close to the river, but stayed dry. If the job had come through and this place had flooded upon my arrival, I don't know what I would have done. Large parts of the city did flood badly.

Though the job fell through, not all was lost. I learned what apartments cost. I learned about making major decisions from a distance. I exercised my network well. I worked the system and later successfully bucked it.

The biggest takeaway is this: You can move to a new town and be car-less, but you need to do some work and especially to question the pre-made solutions.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bus bike racks, kind of a big deal

Pittsburgh's Port Authority of Allegheny County bus system announced last Friday (Sept. 23, 2011) that it had completed outfitting each of its buses with racks that can hold two bicycles. As one who's been trying to use the Rack-Ride-Roll system since its earliest days, I can provide some helpful perspective.

First of all, for many of us, bicycles are transportation, not recreation. Tools, not toys. Whether we own cars or not (a good many of us do not), or whether we even have driver's licenses or not (you might be surprised how many of us choose this, emphasis upon choose), the bike is an integral part of how we get around. Ignore our backstories. We bike by choice.

Occasionally we also use transit. Being able to combine the two worlds improves options for both modes of travel. Living some distance from a bus stop is less a problem when a bike can cover that distance quickly. Traversing nasty traffic, a big hill, or a long distance between work and home would be difficult on a bike but easy when the bus handles all that. The bus also proves handy on the day when the morning trip in has nice weather but the trip home is stormy.

Back in 2001, fewer than 1 in 10 buses had racks, but they tried to dispatch those that did on just a few heavily used transit routes. These routes also connected to a few of the regional trails that existed at that time. For me, since many of the rack routes ran out of the same bus garage as the non-rack-designated routes I used, it was a bit more common to see a bus with a rack, maybe 1 in 4, purely by chance. Thus I sometimes tried bringing the bike with me to the stop, and either using the rack if present, or just hiding it behind a handy bush. Needless to say, this was hardly adequate, and made a bike trip home much more likely than not.

Things began to improve in 2007 when new buses with racks began replacing old ones without. For me, odds became 3 in 5 that a bus would have a rack, leading to a lot more attempted rack usage. Several early experiments demonstrated that the idea had promise. I made bus-bike excursions to such far-flung destinations as Monroeville, Braddock and Squirrel Hill, with varying degrees of success. But even so, I got stranded routinely by having bus after bus go by sans rack, making me late and frustrated. As recently as Spring 2011, easily 1 in 6 trips system-wide lacked a rack. Racks were thus common enough to make using them attractive, but absent enough to be unreliable. Service cuts in 2007 and 2011 reduced service on many routes to only one an hour, so not being able to rack the bike often meant a very long trip home.

Now, nearly all buses are equipped. Only about a dozen out of 700 are still on the road without racks, most being old buses whose inspection expires in a few weeks, and which will then be scrapped.

The big deal is this: Even if you live or work a mile or two from a bus stop, you can use the transit system a lot easier now. You might be able to jettison a car. This can save you some serious money, perhaps thousands of dollars a year! Please try it out. The more we use it, the fewer cars are on the road, and that benefits everyone.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The motorcycle

A few months ago I purchased a motorcycle, a used Suzuki GZ250, a small road bike. I've had a motorcycle license since my teens, but had been off two motorized wheels since I moved out of my parents' house after college. After the FedEx job in 2009-2010, though, with its very long duration commutes, I felt I needed to expand my ability to get back and forth to work, since buying a car at the moment was out of the question.

But where to get one? I really did not want to spend day after day chasing all over to look at bikes. Turns out my daughter made the connection through a co-worker at her job who was contemplating a move, but did not want to have to move a motorcycle, too. The bike, her husband's, had been off the road a couple of years, and had been off the road several years before that because the woman he bought it from had dumped it after driving it only a few hundred miles. Consequently, here was this 10-year-old bike with fewer than 1,000 miles on it, looking for a home. Calls were made, I looked it over, we made the necessary arrangements, and here I am with a motorcycle.

It did need some work. The brakes were grabby from disuse. The bent handlebars didn't pass inspection but were repairable. Batteries do not age well. The gas in it was old, making it hard to start. Also, I needed a helmet. But by digging around on Craigslist and otherwise shopping for parts and repairs, I got the needed things done, including insurance and inspection. Most of the costs came out of a savings account I built up years ago for just such a purchase. After driving it for a couple of weeks on the odd trip here and there, I put some fresh gas in it and it ran much better.

In the three months it's been fully legal and operating properly, it has mainly stayed close to home. The helmet required a trip to the far south suburbs, but it performed fine enough on that trip that I felt comfortable embarking on a long trip. Destination: metro Buffalo, New York, for a high school reunion. Since I've been out of work for a while, I also hoped to take the opportunity to do some job hunting up there. If I got a job there, I could use the bike to commute any day it wasn't too snowy, and could stay with family I still have there.

Preparations made, I was able to pack a week's worth of clothing, tools and supplies to the seat and head north. A 250 is not designed for expressways, and while I could hit 65 on I-279, I did not feel comfortable spending all day at that speed. Thus I took PA Routes 8 and 89 most of the way north, stopping to purchase rain gear the day of the trip. Most of 8 is posted 40 to 50 mph, and I was quite happy rolling along at that rate. I only hoped to make it to the gathering before nightfall. That I did, though took the time to eat dinner on the shore of Lake Erie near North East.

I purchased gas at a tiny store in Amish territory, Buells Corners, on PA 89. The person purchasing fuel ahead of me pulled in with a horse and buggy, clearly not intending to feed it to the horse. The Amish do own some modern implements. They just don't use gasoline for transportation. You would not learn this as you screamed along I-79.

After the reunion party, with the one beer through and out of my system in all accounts, I drove the familiar roads back to the old family house, in the dark, as I had done many a time before. I really had not ridden at night much, but the headlight lit up the road fairly well, provided I kept to posted speed limits.

The trip back a few days later, I again stuck to two-lane roads, but chose a different path. I was somewhat hoping to stop in Jamestown, New York, for the Lucille Ball centennial celebration going on then, but made a wrong straight. Not a great loss; I more wanted to visit the historic ghost town of Pithole, outside Pleasantville, PA, site of one of the earliest oil boom towns. That I did see, and walked around a good half hour or more before getting back on the road for home.

I refueled somewhere around US 6. Imagine my surprise when I found I had used 1.49 gallons of gas to travel 146 miles. Can this be for real? As it turned out, that was a little bit high, as when I refueled after arriving home, averaging the two tanks together, I got 89 mpg. Still, that is amazingly good gas mileage compared to a car! I attribute the number to a combination of a small engine, low road speeds, and not trying to be in a hurry. I can feel how hard I am working the engine, and tried to throttle back to a point where I was still moving along pretty well at the lowest throttle opening. This often meant slowing down on hills, just as I would if I was pedaling a bicycle.

At this writing, I've put about 1,000 miles on the bike, about 500 of which was on that trip. It serves me well, though is still hard to start. I have yet to pull (check, clean, replace)  the spark plug. Chances are good that it's gummed up from disuse over the years and running on stale gasoline. It runs OK if I can get it running, but does sometimes want to stall. Still, it's reliable enough if I use it every couple of days.

All in all, it's a good alternative to dropping a five-digit sum on a car when I can least afford it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Philly Naked Bike Ride 2011

I became aware of naked bike rides years ago, possibly as early as I knew of Critical Mass rides, easily five, possibly seven or eight years ago. The reason anyone would want to is obvious for anyone who rides a bicycle on the street, cares about oil dependency, and doesn't have a headful of nonsense equating nudity with lewdness and indecency. As A and B and the absence of C all applied to me, it was only a matter of time before I began to want to do this myself someday. For readers who need a refresher, this spoke card from the ride sums it up well:

[image: PNBR 2011 spoke card; When I find the image I will post it here. Meanwhile, here's the text:
* We ride to RAISE AWARENESS about FUEL CONSUMPTION and the environmental impact of car culture.
* We ride to PROMOTE ECONOMIC SUSTAINABILITY as a way of life and a corporate responsibility.
* Why are YOU riding?


* Sunday, September 4, 2011

The Chicago Naked Bike Rides in 2010 and 2011 looked early on like they might happen for me, as did Philadelphia in 2010, but all came and went with me never leaving Pittsburgh. For Philly 2011, though, I resolved to try to make it happen somehow. The opportunity came, as all good bike ideas do, via the Bike-Pgh message board. Joe started a thread saying he wanted to go but lacked a ride. I added a comment saying I was in the same boat. A good friend from the Pgh biking community said she had injured her foot, & so couldn't drive, but her car was available for the borrowing if one of us could drive a manual shift. I can; I grew up driving manuals. Green light!

Once that was set, calls were made to friends and friends of friends to arrange two nights lodging for me, and we even picked up a third guy via Craigslist to help with expenses eastbound. All systems go, all we needed was to get me to the car. That was accomplished by me riding the bike from McCandless to Penn Hills Saturday morning. Twenty miles and one flat tire later, I make final arrangements for the car, load the bike, and head for Joe's place. An hour after that, with bikes loaded and a food stop, we headed east for real. Joe drove the Turnpike and expressways, but didn't feel comfortable rowing a manual through city driving, so I started and ended the trip. By nightfall, we'd delivered rider #3 in the heart of Philadelphia proper, and soon enough were holed up for the night at Joe's fiancée's place in the northern suburbs.

Sunday morning, Joe and I went over the bikes. I patched the flat tube so I'd have a backup. By 1 p.m. the bikes were loaded onto two cars (theirs to return that night, mine not) and we headed into the city to meet up with more friends and friends of friends. With a couple of brief stops to pick up more bikes and people, our cadre of seven or eight were rolling through the streets of Philadelphia, headed to the meetup location. This was not difficult to find, once we got there, as one guy was at the entrance to greet us – without a stitch on. His decoration: Painted on tire tracks across the whole of his torso. It did not take long to find body painting, medical and mechanical, and in general a lot of already naked people.

I chose to get some body paint myself. At the painting area, four people were happily scrawling words on people's backs and decorating faces and body parts. They were working quickly, since people were streaming in continuously. I doffed my shirt at this point and had “Can U C Me Now?” painted orange and black on my back.

By 3:40, it was already getting crowded. This park along the Schuylkill River had flooded during Hurricane Irene a week earlier, making the ground too soft and damp for me to sit on comfortably, so I strolled around to people-watch and tweet. Most people were up in the paved parking lot or the drier grassy areas above this. Of course there was no car parking; nobody arrived by car.

Cameras were everywhere, but the rule was, no pics without explicit permission of those being photographed. I took no pictures, but did tweet dozens of observations. Early on in the meetup mainly men were getting fully naked. Only a couple of painters and organizers could be counted among the few naked women at this point. Most of both genders were like me, peeling off the shorts just as the ride's start was imminent, though many women were topfree soon after arrival. Perhaps that's becoming more acceptable in general as time goes on. While I didn't talk to many people, those I did talk to were aware of topfree activities in New York City, though fewer were aware it applied equally to all of New York State.

One of my early tweets observed that not everyone is beautiful. Male or female, few people have an ideal shape, face or skin. Lots of people droop someplace or other. A few faces stand out as being glamorously attractive, but most of us are average. Many of us need orthodontic work, have crooked noses, knobby knees, spots and moles, unruly hair, various scars or birthmarks, cellulite, veins that stick out, and so forth. All those things that apply to the visible parts of clothed people also apply to the parts of people we do not normally see. Breasts droop too, and never the same way, sometimes not the same way on the same woman. Penises point at various angles from side to side, and no two of them dangle the same way. Unerect, the vast majority are fairly short, protruding only an inch or three. None of this matters on the regularly seen parts, and none of this matters on the parts visible in great numbers here today, either. Why so much attention is paid to stuff that does not matter is beyond me.

Sexuality was entirely absent at this ride. For all the strolling around I did for over an hour and a half, pre-ride, I did not see anything more than a love-check kiss, not one erect penis, not one lewd pose or movement by anyone of either gender. This continued on the ride itself once it got going. All we were doing was riding our bikes down the street with our clothes off.

Back to body parts, actually body acceptance. It's OK to be some shape other than supermodel beautiful. Most women's breasts really are not all that big, and maybe if more women actually came out for a ride like this, they'd see that. Probably half cannot hold a pencil. Is this the cause of so much feminine insecurity from middle school age on up? Not knowing what normal is? Not being able to accept all these shapes from fried egg to eggplant as normal, common, average? Why should you firetrucking care what shape you are? And if you don't firetrucking care what shape you are, why should anyone else? If all these people (not just women, though they're the most insecure in both quality and quantity) were to see several hundred of their own kind in a setting like this, perhaps they would become more accepting of their own bodies as well as the shapes of everyone else. Beyond this, I also observed that about 5% of men had breasts as large as 25% of the women. This whole topic gets far too much attention of exactly the wrong kind, and virtually none of any kind that's helpful.

As 5 o'clock approached, things began happening. The brass band and earlier string band stopped playing. Milling about ceased and bikes began lining up. Casual conversation evolved into whooping and cheering. And last but not least, a lot more flesh became visible. Shorts and bikini bottoms were stowed in packs or tied over seats. More tops came off, too. If we had 1,000 cyclists (at first-draft time I don't have even a semi-official count), then maybe 300 were entirely nude (except for helmets and shoes), another 300 were adorned with mere underwear, lingerie or swimwear, and 50 to 100 had something close to normal walking-around attire. The rest had on shorts. Over 2/3 of the women were topfree, though many were painted, taped over their breasts, or wore pasties.

Once underway, we barely moved. Pedaling was difficult because we weren't moving fast enough. I quickly learned that while actually riding nude is not a problem, for a male (for me, anyway), there are, um, operational issues with getting on and off the seat, especially a high seat like on the road bike I was on. Certain body parts are normally tucked and held in place by clothing, but here were free to hang and to get caught on the front of the bike seat. With a little practice and care, this was soon remedied, and was not a problem the rest of the ride, but those first 200 yards or so were a learning experience. 'Nuff said.

In the first mile, we rode along a blocked-off street through the park and had the street to ourselves, but were soon in traffic. At that first corner, traffic came to a standstill, since they had to make a left at the closure, and there was no turning across over 1,000 bicyclists, naked or not. Even if they could, there was the question of whether they would want to, since the cars' occupants were clearly enjoying the spectacle of so many naked cyclists. On our other side was the Schuylkill Expressway, which also appeared to be having serious traffic issues. Both the shoulder and the right-most traffic lanes were lined with stopped cars, and the left lanes were slowing. Indeed, the opposite direction's traffic was slowing, too, possibly to gawk at the stopped westbound traffic. It would have been hard to see us from that distance. Lots of horns, cheering and cameras from all directions!

We crossed a bridge and were in the city proper. People were everywhere. I was about 2/3 back in the pack, not trying to garner any specific attention, and succeeded at this. I saw nobody I recognized, cyclist or pedestrian, and never once heard my name.

Among the crowd of cars and other vehicles were two city-tour buses. Whether or not their occupants had any advance notice of the ride, they sure knew about it then! Many of the spectators had bicycles, and received urgings from us to join them. I saw one young woman do just that, quickly peeling down to bra & panties and swelled our throng by one more. She was not the only one, I am sure.

Since I've never been to Philadelphia, I don't know streets or neighborhoods, so much of the ride was a blur, and much of my focus was on not colliding with other cyclists. With streets so narrow, and there being so many of us, very often we were reduced to one-pedal operation, the other foot propelling us along on pavement, skateboard style. I had the additional problem of carrying my backpack on the handlebars, since my back was occupied by a message. This made braking difficult, but again, we rarely got any speed that couldn't be slowed by putting a foot down. I could, however, squeeze my little squeaky horn, and did so profusely. One thing a naked bike ride is is noisy!

Ride marshals were visible by having bikes equipped with orange pennants on white poles mounted on the rear axle. Aside from directing traffic at corners (again, with much police help), they urged us to stay in our traffic lane, since often we were on two-way streets. Downtown Philly still has streetcars – old-style PCC cars, in fact (last used in Pittsburgh 12 years ago) – so crossing tracks is a common thing to do. One thing I was happy to see was that no part of the ride paralleled tracks, i.e. we did not have to cross tracks at a narrow angle, only perpendicular. To do so is not safe.

Thousands rode, tens of thousands watched and cheered us on. Exactly one man had cross words for us, that I was aware of, anyway. By himself, 50ish, a bit overweight, white (well, except for the red face), employed, dressed like a blue collar worker would on a day off. He chewed us out, had a swearing rant going the entire time he was in my view. I don't know what his specific problem was, but clearly he didn't like us. Eh. One.

A few turns later put us in the Fifth Street Tunnel, about as long as Pittsburgh's Armstrong Tunnel, but with a downhill and uphill, in addition to a small curve at the beginning. Unlike Armstrong, it's possible for a bike to pull out of the way of traffic, but not enough space to ride apart from traffic. The one tweet I sent mid-ride was keyed from the side of this tunnel. It's short enough that I had signal at least where I stood. The echo chamber effect here provided indescribable noise and joy.

There were maybe two places the entire ride where I could get into top gear range and sail along with a good bit of speed. One was on Market Street, one of Philadelphia's major cross streets, as we approached City Hall. Here, we were able to spread out across four lanes that were otherwise devoid of traffic. It felt most wonderful to feel the breeze everywhere!

Toward the end of the ride we descended a grade for a few blocks. From 2/3 to ¾ back in the pack, it was possible to see the size of the throng. The largest ride I've seen a picture of in Pittsburgh was the 2010 Keg Ride, which approached maybe 800. This was bigger. The front of the pack had made a right turn, but even so we were three blocks long, two lanes wide, and packed together so tightly it was hard to stay apart. In the few hours since I began writing this, I'm told the estimated size was closer to 2,000, and I believe it.

Just before the end, climbing a mild grade, we passed a wedding reception. Many of us were just walking by at this point, so the partiers all got a real good look at us. I'm sure the happy couple and everybody else at that wedding will remember that reception for a long time.

Then it was over. There was no specific endpoint, just a large plaza at an intersection with an assortment of restaurants. They must have known we were coming – even if some of those already eating there were not – for they seemed ready for a throng such as ours. I joined back up with Joe, his fiancée, and friends, we locked up the bikes, and walked around looking for a place to have dinner. For a good long while after the ride, naked people were everywhere. We chose an eatery with outdoor seating, and even though we had re-donned pants (a requirement for being served, a reasonable request), we left shirts off, including one of the women. She felt quite comfortable doing so. As we all had spent the day together and now dinner and the evening as well, nobody else had any issue with it, either. It's rather un-amazing how normal and natural it felt. Actually it's hard to describe the absence of any thought or feeling about it. We just sat and talked and ate, nine people wearing three shirts. Of the other three women, one had on a bikini, one a boa and a mere shell of cloth, the third a wife-beater. I don't remember precisely, it was unimportant. As it should be. I only remember tweeting that I don't think I'd ever had dinner with a topfree woman I had not previously met.

Following dinner, on our way back to the bikes, we noted a party going on at one of the other establishments at this plaza. A couple dozen still naked folks were dancing to a strong beat. Dancing is an understatement; bumping and grinding is a better description. I don't know if I would have wanted to be there, but I think I would have enjoyed seeing more than 20 seconds of this, walking past. Watching people interact is always fascinating regardless of what they're wearing.

We walked our bikes the 12 blocks to the after party in the same fashion we ate, sans shirts, including her. It was dark; few noticed and nobody cared. Apparently it was well known through the city that the event had taken place, so the “so what” attitude prevailed. As it should.

My final concern was trying to remove the paint from my back. It came off easily enough, but I wanted to ensure I had it all off before I used my host's towel to dry off. The solution was to shower once as well as possible, inspect in mirror, then rub the missed parts while still wet, rinsing off in the shower one last time. I suppose if you had a friend to help, this would be easier, but I was not thus blessed.

Tired, fed, showered, and alone but still awake (everyone else having gone to the after party), I ended the night by starting to write this down. All told it was a wonderful day, a wonderful event, with wonderful people. I wouldn't mind doing it all again sometime.

* * * 

Comment #1 below is there for Facebook's benefit. When I link this post to Facebook, it will use the contents of the first comment as the summary, regardless of who wrote it.
Comments #2 and 3 are my Twitter stream from the afternoon, pre- and post-ride.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

For the 12-year PennDOT plan

This is my submission to PennDOT's 12-year long-range plan.

* * *

My comments more concern policy than any particular project. Since the stated purpose of the transportation program is "to produce and maintain a more efficient and effective transportation system that facilitates the movement of people and goods," (1) looking forward 12 years, long-range policy will be my focus. Large policy changes require many years to bring about, but have to start somewhere. I hope, right here.

For three generations, at least, we have built roads: more roads, big roads, wider roads. Always, we expected that more, bigger, wider roads will bring about that efficient, effective transportation system we care so much about. Always, we expected that fuel will be plentiful and inexpensive. Pennsylvania, birthplace of the petroleum industry. And ribbon cuttings are fun! Are you with me so far?

That's changing.

The Energy Information Administration (EIA) is the part of our federal Department of Energy which functions as our watchdog for energy supply. The International Energy Agency (IEA) is a consortium of 28 countries' watchdog agencies on energy supplies. Each produces an annual report predicting future petroleum supply. Also, for well over 10 years, various conservationists and other tree-huggers have warned of the possibility of "peak oil" (2), the idea that our ability (every country, collectively) to produce oil would reach a peak. Many, including both the EIA and IEA, ignored or debunked these concerns. That has changed. In 2010, both the EIA (3) and IEA (4) said not only that peak oil is a possibility, but that it has already happened.

We may not be running out of oil anytime soon, but we cannot pull it out of the ground any faster.

However, developing countries like China, India and Singapore are adding huge numbers of cars to the world fleet, 10 to 20 million a year (5). Understanding what will happen as a result does not require a college degree: Flat to declining supply, increasing demand. Over the long term -- say, the 10 to 12+ years of this PennDOT plan -- fuel prices will rise. Sure, you can drill as many wells you care to in the Arctic, the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands, etc., but that only stabilizes supply, and only for a few years. We have no control at all over world petroleum demand.

Fuel prices tripled from 30 cents a gallon in 1970 to $1 in 1980, and tripled again between 2001 ($1.30) and today's close to $4. If fuel realistically can approach $12/gallon in today's dollars, unquestionably people are going to drive less. Suburban expansion will cease. Freight shipment via interurban trucking will become less cost-effective. We will no longer require continued expansion of interurban and intra-suburban roads, as we've done for the last 65 years.

The game is changing. Do not deny this.

Policy changes requested:
(A) Stop building big roads, and stop widening existing highways.
(B) Concentrate instead on fixing the existing infrastructure.
(C) Make it possible to get around using anything but a car.

It is your job to set policy recommendations. The status quo of the last three generations cannot be expected to continue. Long-term changes have to start somewhere, sometime. Here and now would be wise.

Thank you for listening.

Stuart M. Strickland

(2) Udall, Randy. "When Will the Joy Ride End? (1999)"
(3) "EIA: Hard Core Peak Oil Forecast"
(4) "International Energy Agency says 'peak oil' has hit."
(5) "China contributes nearly half of global auto increase last year"

Saturday, July 9, 2011

No George Bailey moment for me

In the classic Jimmy Stewart movie It's a Wonderful Life, banker George Bailey, in a fit of depression, decides he's worth more dead than alive and contemplates jumping off a bridge. Though I've fought the gloomies a time or two myself, and know I'm well insured, I have no plans to call it in early and off myself.

This further extends to my propensity to ride a bicycle in traffic on a regular basis. No, that's not a death wish, it's a cantankerous streak. I'm out there to make a point, to inform people about cycling. I want people to see me. I want people to know that some of us do use bicycles to get around. I want to be seen in the less likely places, the suburbs, the shopping malls, busy multi-lane thoroughfares. The more people see me and others like me, the less likely they will see another cyclist as strange and unusual. The more that drivers see another cyclist on the road with them, especially in an odd place or at an odd time of day or weather condition, the more accustomed they will get to dealing with that.

To some extent this is an ambassadorial tendency, a desire to set a good example for cyclists. To a similar extent it is also a badass tendency, a willingness to get out there with an in-your-face-ness, in essence saying too bad that I'm slowing you down four whole seconds on your headlong rush at 15 over the posted speed limit like the majority of drivers do.

Whichever the case, I do it more effectively as a breathing cyclist than as a spot on the pavement. If I do end up as moosh, let's just say it was not what I had planned.

Friday, June 17, 2011

My comments on the SPC 2040 Plan

The Southwest Pennsylvania Commission (SPC) is the metro Pittsburgh area's official municipal planning organization (MPO). This means that any major transportation project in the nine-county region in this corner of the state has to be cleared through them if it is to receive any federal funding. SPC also is required to develop long-range plans from time to time, and each time they do, they request public input.

Today was the deadline for public input on their draft long-range transportation plan, the 2040 Long Range Transportation and Development Plan for Southwestern Pennsylvania. I did not have time to do a blow-by-blow analysis of all 263 pages of the PDF document. I did have time to express my philosophical approach to what I think the world is going to look like by 2040 and how we should plan for that. To that end, this is what I sent them.


I think it is safe to say that if "peak oil" has not already happened -- and the experts say it HAS already happened -- then it certainly will by 2040. Combined with rapidly rising petroleum demand from China, India and other developing nations, chances are 100% that the cost of gasoline and diesel fuel will rise far beyond what it costs now, in that time, as measured in dollars constant to 2011. The actual pump price will be even higher, sooner, when fuel related costs in turn push up the cost of everything else.

In short, we are soon going to be at "peak car". The future is simple: fewer cars, less driving. If gas goes to $10 or $20 a gallon in 10 years, are we really going to be driving all that much? No, we're not. And yes, gas WILL cost that much by 2040.

With that as backdrop, I believe that any long range transportation plan has to reflect this simple mantra: Stop building roads, just fix what we have, and start making it easier to get around by anything other than an automobile. Bicycles, buses, pedestrians. There will be a lot more of that, and a lot less driving.

* Major new roads: Just stop. Nothing. No more. None.
* Additional lanes to existing roads: Precious few.
* Fix what's broken. The money will come from NOT building major new roads and additional lanes.
* Start thinking about FEWER driving lanes, more room for cyclists. I think the buzz word is "road diets".
* Sidewalks: Yes. Anything that gets built or fixed, needs a sidewalk, or at least a walkable shoulder (free of washouts, poison ivy, 2" deep mud, etc.)
* Pedestrian crossings at intersections: Yes. Lots of these.

Have you ever heard of "The Popsicle Index"? Think of yourself as a parent, allowing your 8-year-old child to walk to the store to buy a popsicle, and return, unassisted. What is your comfort level, as a percentage, that the kid will get there and back, safely? Aside from boogeymen jumping out from behind trees, the biggest fear is being hit by a car. That right there usually brings down The Popsicle Index in an area significantly, and that right there is squarely in the sights of long-range transportation planning. If we as a region cannot let our kids walk around without getting killed, then we as transportation planners are not doing our jobs.

I think I've said enough. Stop building roads! We need bicycle infrastructure, we need public transit infrastructure, we need to stop making it easy for cars to speed, and we need to be able to get around without needing a car in the first place.

OK, your move. Thank you for listening to my spiel.


Stuart M. Strickland

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Planning public transit (an old blog post)

Have a look at this post from my old MySpace blog. (Don't worry, it's not MySpace itself; I ported it from there last week. I also updated all the links.) It describes how different the transit experience is for several people who are geographically very close.


Friday, May 13, 2011

Funding transit: Stu's plan

Prefatory note: This post attempts to serve three purposes. First, PA Governor Tom Corbett has formed a Transportation Funding Advisory Committee whose purpose is to recommend ideas for both transit and highway/bridge funding. Second, a formal committee of Allegheny County (PA) government is soliciting suggestions on fixing the transit funding dilemma at a local level. Third, a group of transit planners and activists in various cities, using Twitter to contact one another, is pooling ideas for transit funding. This is my entry for all three.

In placing before you my ideas and suggestions for transit funding, I need to make clear the beliefs that guide my thinking. Following that, I will point out the likelihood of our having to live with this transit funding plan for an extended time. Next I will describe my tax plan, along with suggestions on how to sell it to elected officials and also the general public. Let us begin.

Belief #1: I believe transit keeps money in the state while automobile use causes it to leave. This should be fairly obvious, as most gasoline used in PA does not originate from PA petroleum, as it once did. Transit dollars are primarily spent locally, through salaries, wages, benefits, parts, supplies, advertising, etc. While buses obviously do also use petroleum, the "passenger-miles-per-gallon" figure for transit buses is still much higher than single-occupant commuter automobiles. Thus, encouraging transit and discouraging car use benefits the state economy directly.

Belief #2: I believe the Energy Information Administration (of our own national government) and the International Energy Association (consortium of 28 nations), each of which concluded that the world has passed the point of "peak oil": that no matter now much may yet be down there, and no matter how many wells we drill or where we drill them, all of humanity cannot extract it any faster than we were able to in November 2006.

Belief #3: I believe $4 gasoline will soon be viewed as cheap. Since many Third World countries like China and India are increasing their populations of automobiles at an amazing pace, we Americans are now competing for that same now-stagnant (and soon to decline) stream of petroleum. Gasoline may seem expensive at $4/gallon, but an inevitable, inexorable price rise is only getting started.

Belief #4: I believe road expansion should cease entirely. If we cannot afford to maintain the road system we have now, we should not be building more.

Belief #5: Regarding the constant political battles over transit, I believe the turmoil deters people from wanting to try using it. I believe the battles must cease entirely if we want transit to succeed.

The problem before us now is to implement a funding formula to sustain public transit systems -- Port Authority of Allegheny County here in metro Pittsburgh -- in a mere 12 months. This might be considered short term in the overall scheme of things, but what we implement will likely be with us for many years, even decades. It's been nearly 50 years since public transit as we know it got a makeover, almost 70 since the last major tax policy change was implemented. In 1945, the Pennsylvania Constitution was amended, in what is now Article VIII Sec. 11(a), restricting motor fuels taxes to paying for highway and bridge maintenance. While this seemed to make sense at the time, it helped kill the privately operated, tax paying, public transit systems of the time, causing them all to go bankrupt over the next 20 years. The resulting government takeover created the single, county owned and operated, transit systems we have today. Whatever we come up with, we need to realize that for the next 10 or 25 or more years, we will have to live with the system we are now putting in place, and it will be in a world that does not use much gasoline, compared to now.

Consider those three thoughts together: declining world petroleum supply, increased world demand for petroleum, and a tax system now based on petroleum usage. The world as we have known it for four generations will be replaced in the next generation. The game is changing, and any proposed solution that does not accept that will not work.

To that end, my primary solution is only partial, not intended to be a complete answer to all our funding problems. Do this, but do other things too that might work. There are four components to this, each of which will require legislation in Harrisburg, if only to enable the counties involved to do it for themselves:

(a) I recommend a Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) tax, in addition to the various forms of fuel taxes. Using numbers obtained from PennDOT (!/PennDOTNews/status/64051033332125696), assessing $1 per 1,000 miles traveled would bring in $88 million annually. Since PennDOT already tracks odometer readings and collects money through both the vehicle registration and inspection programs, assessing this should be fairly easy.
(b) Once collected, the funds would be allocated to the counties in proportion to where the vehicles are registered. The public transit agency or agencies in these counties would directly benefit.
(c) Set up transit districts where many counties and agencies share a common transportation need -- such as the counties surrounding metro Pittsburgh -- and apportion the funds within that district based on the number of weekday revenue hours provided by each agency.
(d) I leave it to the politicians to decide on a multiplier other than $1 per 1,000 miles traveled. I recommend $5.

The next problem is selling this idea to legislators, apart from the public as a whole. The reality of the political climate is that Republicans do not want any new taxes. This must be sold to them on the basis of its being an update to an existing tax. Here's why: A growing number of cars are either hybrid or all electric, and as fuel prices rise, this is liable to become more pronounced. Whether a car's motive force is powered by petroleum, electricity, solar panels, hydrogen, or a wood-fired steam boiler, it's still a car, and contributes to traffic congestion, and wear and tear on the roads. More importantly, much of the time, its use competes with public transit. The more that drivers can use transit instead of a car, the better able transit would be to pay for itself. The commuter who uses the car for the "last mile" -- from transit stop to home -- will pay a much smaller VMT than one who commutes the whole way by car.

Fuel taxes will still be needed, as this is how roads and bridges will be maintained. This was the specific intent of the 1945 amendment. If the existing fuel taxes do not provide enough revenue to keep our roads and bridges in good repair, then raise the tax. If this cannot or will not be done, then close some roads and bridges. The simplest, most effective change would be to change the fuel tax from a per-gallon to a per-dollar basis.

The VMT, not being a motor fuels tax, would be constitutional for funding transit, and would provide the most revenue where also exists the most need for transit. It is also self-correcting. Say, for example, 10,000 additional cars were registered in Elk County next year, each driving 10,000 miles annually, then Elk County would have $100K more a year to implement or expand a transit system to alleviate the congestion all those cars would cause, and in so doing, avert or delay spending lots more money to widen roads and bridges to handle such traffic.

The final problem is to sell this to the public. For that, I propose developing an online game -- perhaps a couple -- to help people visualize these ideas along with competing and often ill-conceived, functionless, or even counterproductive suggestions. My inspiration for this is a New York Times online app accompanying a story on how to close the federal budget deficit, both near term (2015) and long term (2030) ( The first of two games would be similar to that.

I also suggest another, more complex game, that would appeal to the higher thinkers in our midst. I envision an app that takes a few variables under the player's control -- e.g., fares paid, taxes paid, driver salary/benefits, different types of taxes -- as well as a couple of variables not under player control, such as fuel taxes, and unemployment levels. Bar charts would indicate the number of people stranded without transit service, total taxation, and the amount of money leaving the area in fuel costs. Another could indicate the amount of structural deficit not yet eliminated. A GIS-enabled map of Allegheny County would get lighter and darker according to the areas served or stranded by transit routes and the level of service provided on them.

Under this would have to be a fair amount of programming to display the map and all these variables. However, the greater difficulty would be in quantifying the effect of all these variables into a formula. Perhaps APTA or a transit-friendly think tank already has such a game that could be adapted for Pittsburgh's specific needs. Still, being able to see what happens under various scenarios may prove essential in selling this to the greater community, especially if explanations, definitions, links and other documentation are built into the games at various decision and display points. We cannot and will not convince the willingly close-minded, so don't try. Focus instead on those with open minds.

With all that said, it is only a suggestion, a plan, a hope. I cannot expect to be taken so seriously that my ideas are just dropped into place without challenge. I do hope, though, that my precepts are taken seriously. Some may doubt me, but I think it would be impossible to prove me wrong.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Empty buses my foot

The plan this morning was to attend an ACTC committee meeting, followed by the Port Authority Board of Directors Stakeholders Committee meeting, but because of a last minute change in plans, I ended up doing something much more important: I rode a bus home. Let me tell you about that bus ride.

8:45 I check the timetables at the Wood Street T station and verify that an outbound 12 McKnight would be due in five minutes. Excellent. I've caught this bus, or its predecessor 12A McKnight Shopper, hundreds of times. Off to 9th Street at Penn Avenue I go.

8:50 A gaggle of people are waiting, but as this stop is shared by several routes, I did not think much of it, merely verified that the 12 had not yet gone. A couple of minutes pass, but not enough to be of any concern.

The bus shows up at 8:54, within the five-minute window for timeliness. It does not remain that way. Bus 5003 has a mechanical problem, the rear door won't open, but that's not the real problem. The bus is jammed to capacity from its inbound trip, and to my surprise, all nine of us waiting at that stop board here.

From here, let's pick it up from my Twitter stream, verbatim. This was all documented as it happened. All I've done is to timestamp the tweets that I did not already key in a timestamp. (Quick primer on Twitterese: bc=because, inb or ib=inbound, ob=outbound, w=with, wo=without.)

8:54 12 ob 5003 9St at Penn Av. 9 of us boarding packed bus. Packed bc 1st ob stop wo discharging (much of) anyone ib. Easily 50 aboard.
[Translation: Boarding an outbound 12 at 8:54, bus 5003, at the corner of 9th Street and Penn Avenue, Downtown Pittsburgh.]

9:00 Inb riders trading stories of O12s passing people up. This 12 isn't to the point of refusal but IS uncomfortable bc rear door won't open.

9:04 42 boarded at the Liberty & 7St stop. 9:02 crossing Penn. Almost 10 minutes late, partly bc of overcrowding bc of reduced trips.

9:07 The extended dwell time was partly due to the bad door, but getting 50 people off and 50 other people on at just two bus stops is bc cuts.

9:10 Throw a detour in there and we're now almost 15 minutes late. 9:10 Cedar at ENorthAv.
[Note: That trip of the 12 is due at E North & Middle, one block later, at 8:57. ]

9:13 One off, 6 more on. This is nuts. People are yelling to move back but it's jammed back there, too.

9:17 If a wheelchair rider showed up, we'd have to pass him up. There's almost no room for another standee let alone a w/c.

9:20 On East St at Venture. Squeezed two more on. Weird Al Yankovic, we hear ya. Baytree St, yet another.

9:22 I am jammed against the left front wheelwell so I have a perfect vantage point. Ivory Av, one more on.

9:25 Lady mid bus wants off. Actually 4 people. Dwell time at that stop was on the high side of 1:50.

9:28 Red Lobster stop dwell time 1:25.

9:29 Flowerama stop, about 30 seconds. I can see the back of the bus now.

9:31 Nhills Village, still 12 standees.

9:35 Ross Park Mall. Still 10 standees approaching mall.

9:38 23 off at mall. One standee but lots of seats. 17 still on board.

9:44 Northway Mall, almost normal. Someone sitting in traffic on McKnight would look in & wonder why Port Authority runs half-empty buses.

9:55 2 off at Kane, 4 at McIntyre Square, I'm next at Perrymont, 5 left. Empty buses indeed. Recall that the inb trip was at capacity, too.

10:14 Home. Blog post underway, hope to have it up by lunchtime. 80-minute trip from 9St/Penn, normally 57 by bus & foot on this route.

That's the blow-by-blow. Take a look at that. There was not a missing bus prior to this. At least 51 people got on at two stops Downtown, as counted by me, who could see every head getting on and off through the one operable door. That is vastly different from similar pre-cut trips, which were busy -- often to standing, but not to capacity even before crossing the Allegheny.

The peak load for that trip, by my count, was 61 people. The actual rider count would actually be higher because some got off before others got on.

The trip was mighty uncomfortable. With 61 on board and 39 seats, that means 22 people were trying to hang onto whatever was available, and on the 1999 Neoplan low-floor buses, there isn't much to hang on to in the front half of the bus.

People were standing in front of the white line because they had to. This also occurred on the inbound O12 I was on earlier, and likely occurred on the inbound trip of the 12 I boarded. Three trips, three technically illegal loads. There's something wrong with this picture.

Note that this is a morning outbound trip! The primary direction of travel in the morning is inbound. There is no earlier choice. The prior trip left town a full hour earlier, 7:50.

By the time we got past Ross Park Mall, the load had thinned to the point where, had someone looked in the bus from a car sitting in traffic, because of the low-floor design of the bus they would not have seen a lot of people, yet there were still 17 people on board. I am certain that some of the public thinks nobody rides the buses because they don't see anybody on them. Those most likely to think this are those who most often see a bus when sitting in traffic near the outer terminus.

The bus was seriously delayed by being overloaded. Dwell times -- the time the bus is stopped to board or deboard a passenger -- are commonly 20 seconds for a couple of people. Being stopped for 40 seconds is unusual. We had to stop for up to two minutes on several occasions. The bad door was a factor Downtown, but it did not impede the inbound trip, as it was only four minutes late arriving Downtown, perfectly normal.

The problem is a lack of service. Sixty-minute headways are not enough for the 12 McKnight, either direction.

I had the sensation that I was riding a third-world transit bus. This is not the third world. Why are we trying to make it so?

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Our intractable transit problem, and a solution

This blog post is in two parts. Part 1 states the problem. Part 2 states the solution.

Let's start with Part 2.
* The voice of the people must be ignored, as the people are misinformed.
* The voice of the government must be overruled, as wrong-headed beliefs are in control.
* The power of the media must be nullified, as it does more harm than good.
* The voice of labor must be heard and heeded, but they are not wholly in the right.
* The plans of transit management are roughly accurate, but like labor, not wholly in the right. More they are incomplete than incorrect.
* Ignore labor-management disputes. Just give labor what they want. It's the cheapest and simplest way.
* Different taxing structures must be put in place, and quickly, and against the will of the people and their representatives. See first two bullets.
* Revenues to fund transit must increase $30 million to $50 million annually, locally, beyond what the current taxing structure now brings in.
* All cut bus routes and trips must be restored, including the full TDP implementation.
* Beyond that, $20 million additional must be spent to implement information technology improvements that will make the system more usable by everyone.
* Not to act to do the above is worse, as we will lose a system that actually does work. See first bullet.

That is the solution.

Now let's move on to Part 1.

One time back in college, the dining halls had a fly infestation. Flies around trash are nothing new, of course, but that one month, they were out of control everywhere. I'll spare the details, save one. Someone painted a sign saying "Welcome to [X] Dining Hall! Order sh*t. Can 10,000,000,000 flies be wrong?"

No, indeed, ten billion flies are not wrong, but that doesn't change the fact they fed on sh*t, and the sh*t was both plentiful and of excellent quality. It was not possible to enjoy eating, so pervasive was the cloud of flies. And with that as intro, we turn now to public transit in metro Pittsburgh.

It is simply not possible to discuss this topic in a rational manner at any level with any significant number of people. The vast majority of people with an opinion on the topic got it from the media in some manner, with the most opinionated set coming from hate ^H^H^H^H talk radio. Most opinions come from a fairly narrow set of sources: PAT staff. Union leadership. The Allegheny Institute. A political party machine, either one, any level.

Everyone thinks themselves right. Everyone has a piece of the story. I alone have no serious ties to any party yet am properly informed by all that matter.

Probably I pigeonhole well, too, though in the past year I have tried to consider all sides. I took a good bit of heat from various quarters following the many blog posts I wrote over the last year. (List of links: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22) Some of that criticism indeed was accurate, enough so at least that I now try to listen more and speak less.

With the political machinery returning to its annual routine, and the dreaded cuts now in place, it is time to return to the matters at hand. Wounds are raw, and the salt shaker is near. Add to that the sheer number of badly misinformed and highly opinionated people, and what you get is a constant pointless argument.

I am at a loss. Reason is ignored. To do any more than I've done is to resemble a child having a temper tantrum. Government reps of both parties are not only not helpful, they are anti-help. The media is worse, feeding us even more sh*t while smelling blood and circling for some imminent pending kill. Democracy as a viable form of government can only work when the populace is educated, and that isn't happening here. How's your German? Wir sind gefickt. [translate]

Friday, March 25, 2011

Transit, football, and pots of soup

Pittsburgh is crazy about football, and it's a good analogy for the transit situation. Both teams are trying to move the ball from one end to the other and score points. Yay, the union scored a goal! Yay, management upped the score! Go team!

In football, however, nobody cares about the condition of the ball. Players jump on it, throw it on the ground, kick it all over the place, and it often flies through the air, landing out of bounds. Who cares about the ball!

In public transit, riders are the ball. Nobody cares about the riders, really. We're kicked and pushed around just like the football. How different a football game would be if, instead of a leather ball, it was played with a pot of soup. Carry that soup pot and jump on it all you want, but don't spill the soup!

To this end, I do not care if there's a union, nor do I care if there's a Port Authority. I just want to have a bus to ride! They're both spilling the soup when they argue.

However, there are really three sides to a football game: Officials! Officials, in this case our elected representatives, really decide what happens. They don't so much spill the soup as spoil the soup. "No you can't add ingredients." "Yes, you must add paprika and I don't care if you hate paprika." Right now they're saying, "No, you can't plug in the burner under the pot."

Enough already! We riders want our soup. We do not want it spilled. We do not want it spoiled. Figure it out! Don't spill our soup!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Point-specific timetables, an example

So simple, yet so complicated: Catching a bus [written 2008]

A half minute ago, laptop in hand, I boarded my bus to the local public library. It was an unamazingly commonplace activity, free of any problem or annoyance.

But it wasn't that simple, for I used a bit of self-developed technology I wish everyone had. The simple part was that I just checked the bus time on the hand-built schedule I affixed by magnet to the side of my refrigerator, and made sure I walked out the door by that time.

Point-specific timetable posted on refrigerator door

Yes, that seems simple, but consider what most transit riders face. All they have to work with is a printed bus schedule, which merely tells you when the bus passes certain points. My "value added" is to calculate the time the bus passes my stop, build in the walking time between my house and that bus stop, then back up four minutes as a buffer.

I call my creation a Point-Specific Timetable, or PST for short.

All in all, for my particular bus stop, for that bus route, going that direction, I need to subtract nine minutes from the time on the printed timetable for their timepoint nearest my house. That timepoint is only 500 feet farther away, but since it's downstream of my stop, my bus passes my stop earlier than that one, so I back up one minute. Then, as I said, subtract my four-minute walking time, and subtract another four minutes to be sure I get to the bus stop before the bus does. That's for the outbound trip that gets me to the library.

For inbound trips, I also subtract nine minutes, but the numbers leading to that amount are different. First, I need to cross the four-lane road the bus travels. This might mean waiting for the pedestrian signal, or at least for traffic to clear, so I build in a fifth walking minute. Second, since I am now downstream of that timepoint, I don't need to factor in that "upstream" minute. However, it is not enough to warrant building in a minute of travel time for the bus. Thus four minutes walking, one minute crossing, and four minutes buffer, again for a total of nine.

In this particular case, at around 9:40 I glanced at the PST on the fridge, which indicated a must-leave-by time of 10:05 for the next library trip. OK, I thought to myself, that gives me 25 minutes to pack up the overdue library books, zip up the laptop, grab my wallet (with bus pass and library card) and cell phone (which doubles as a watch), and maybe even throw a load in the washing machine, before throwing on my coat and heading out the door.

I did all that, and when I got to the stop sign at the end of my little street, about one minute into the trek, I was pleased to see that it was 10:06. I arrived at the stop at 10:08, so I must have walked a little faster than usual. Still, I was there in plenty of time. The bus came along at 10:13, just a minute early by my figuring, but since I'd built in four minutes lead time, it didn't matter.

I waited just about five minutes, a comfortably short wait. Any less, I would have worried about missing it. Much more, I would have grown impatient.

The point of it all was that I was able to use my little PST tool to plan when to leave the house in order to catch the bus, and also to give myself enough time to prepare properly for the trip. Since the tool has the must-leave-by times figured out in advance, I don't have to figure it out. Bing bing, glance at the chart and the clock, all of two seconds, and I have all the information I need to make a snap decision.

Perhaps some really experienced transit riders have built all this into an internal clock, but most people are not experienced transit riders. Even for me, it really does help to have a tool that makes transit so much easier to use.

My plan is to equip every home in America with their own PST so that everyone can use transit as easily as I do. This would help lessen our dependence on foreign oil, and also allow taxpayer subsidized transit systems to pay their own way.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Living with only one car

[Editor's Note: While porting my old MySpace blog over to Blogger/Blogspot, I ran across this post I wrote in September 2006. Since it fits so well with the point of my current blog, I am copying it here, pretty much verbatim.]

186 ways to live with only one car.

Current mood: hopeful

I may change the title of this later; I only picked "186" out of the air; when I first posted this there were only two. My point is, so many people feel they have to have two, three, four, more cars in their possession. And for 12 or more years, my family of four in the middle to outer suburbs has lived with just one car.

The bone I wish to pick is that people bad-mouth public transportation, and would gladly fork over $5,000 a year or more, per car, to keep the additional car(s) on the road, while the cost of buying monthly passes (in Pittsburgh) runs well under $1,000 a year. I don't deny you need one car, especially in the suburbs, but if I can make do with only one, I don't see the necessity of having three or more. And I myself used to have four, for a three-year period, and three for over a decade.

So, here is a running list of methods I use to get along just fine with only one car. Note, the number an item has may change, as I add to or modify entries in the list; i.e., the numbering is automatic.

  1. Use the telephone. For example, rather than drive to the hardware store to buy a new mop head, first find out if the store actually has that style of mop head.

  2. Walk to the store. Sure, go to the store, but do so under your own power. Yes, even if it's a mile away. Every Point A (starting point) and Point B (ending point) is different, and not every A-B combination will work this way, but a lot would work better than you might think.

  3. Spouse taxi. You don't have to get *all* the way home. Call a family member just before you get on the bus & say "I'll be at Such & Such Plaza at 7:50. Can you meet me there?" Better still, set this up in advance (e.g., "I'm not sure when I'm leaving, but it'll be somewhere around 7 or 8. I'll call you, OK?").

  4. The shopping trip. Let's say Dad works, Mom has to make a grocery run, Dad takes the bus to work, Mom has the car, Mom doesn't have time to go shopping. Solution: Mom calls Dad at work, gives him the shopping list, Dad takes bus to grocery store, does the shopping, and Mom shows up with car and checkbook. It gives both some flexibility in travel time, and lets them both decompress a little in a neutral space.

  5. Half a taxi run. Junior needs to go to play practice or some such thing. Parent drives him there, to get him there on time. He takes a bus home since he doesn't know when he'll get done.

  6. Halfway home with friend. Let's say that where you're going to or coming from has virtually no bus service, but there's decent service near a friend's house. Take bus to or from the friend's house (esp. if friend is going to the same activity), and ride with friend in friend's car to/from the activity's location.

  7. The other half a taxi run. As above, Junior needs to go to play practice or some such thing. Parent is not available to drive him there, so he takes a bus. Parent has a pretty good idea when he'll get done, and is then available so can go to pick him up.

  8. Park & Ride. This one may seem obvious to some, since Park & Ride lots exist in many communities, but for those for whom this is an unknown term, it works like this: You drive from your home (presumably with poor transit service) to a parking lot nearer to your destination (presumably with good transit service), and use the public transit system the rest of the way to your destination.

  9. Get to know and like your neighbors. Not exactly a "duhhh", as a large number of my neighbors don't know a large number of the others nearby. But if you're going up and down the street on your way to/from a bus all the time, you get to be a familiar face. From time to time you strike up a conversation. You may even (I hope) get to know and like them, and they will do likewise.

  10. Reciprocal favors. Working from that, offer to run errands for them. They in turn may be able and willing to run errands for you.

  11. The dual-departure time problem. It's "open house" night at the kid's school, but one spouse has to leave the school at a different time. One can take a bus from school, the other one drives. Or the non-driving spouse catches a ride from another parent in the same neighborhood.

  12. Two commuters, one destination, two commute times. Granted, this one requires creativity. Spouses "A" and "B" work in the same place but different shifts. The short answer is that "A" buses to work and drives home, while "B" drives to work and buses home. Of course it's rarely that simple, and the specifics of each case make it maddeningly difficult to make any general suggestions useful, but you have to consider it try-able, and just make it work.

  13. Two commuters, one destination, slightly differing commute times. Again, spouses "A" and "B" work in the same place but their shifts overlap, so the previous suggestion is not workable. Absent other major factors (such as one having to get kids off to school), and dealing with just the commuter issues, the car's best use is to move the person where the transit service is the slowest or poorest, and let transit handle movement of the person where transit does the most general good due to parking costs or congestion delays. Probably this means some sort of mid-commute handoff.

  14. OK, that's thirteen. I will add to this as time goes on.

Of course, as a final item, it is not acceptable to use the thought "I don't know when the buses run or where to get on/off" as an excuse not to use the bus. Learn!