Friday, January 28, 2011

My speech to the PAT Board, 1-28-2011

Good morning, Mr. Chairman, members of the Board, and Mr. Bland. Thank you for allowing me to speak. My name is Stuart Strickland, I am a regular rider speaking mainly for myself. Some of you may know me by my Twitter handle, @bus15237.

In the book Watership Down, by Richard Adams, one of the main characters is a rabbit named Fiver. He can see the future in vivid detail, but his dire warnings go unheeded because his visions are so unbelievable. Then exactly what he said would happen does happen, and the rest of the rabbits wonder why they didn't pay more attention to him sooner.

How do you do, everyone, my name is Fiver, and I'm here to tell you the world is ending. Port Authority gets roughly 60% of its operating revenue from the state, the state is looking at a $4 billion deficit, and the new state leadership has a track record of opposing transit funding. It is entirely possible that they may not fund transit at all. In my opinion, they want Port Authority to fail so they can replace it with private companies. They want the unions busted, and they want their private-company friends to make a profit off of whatever is left. If 60% of our funding is cut, 60% of our system is cut. Not 15%. Not 35%. 60%.

Port Authority needs to figure out how to get funding from sources other than Harrisburg, and that means county, municipal, corporate and personal sources.

My next comment is directed to the media. I want to thank the staff and management of Pittsburgh's TV and radio stations, and one particular newspaper, for giving Port Authority so much attention over the years, but keeping the public so misinformed about how transit is funded, and how the money is spent. At least 75%, probably more like 90%, of the people I talk with, have their facts wrong, and they got their misunderstanding from you.

I ride this system almost daily, and I think it works very well. I also think it should be expanded, not shrunken, so that when, not if, gasoline goes to $4 or $5 a gallon, we will still be able to move. Please, members of the Board, let's see if we can rise above the tide of political and media foolishness, and try to find a sensible, fair and equitable solution for funding transit. I have several ideas in mind which might be workable, if we can get a sensible, fair and equitable set of people to talk with me about them. Thank you again for your time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Why We Need a Day Pass

Wednesday morning, I knew I needed the bus pass. Normally my son takes the pass so he can go to school Downtown daily. I am not employed at the moment so he gets the pass. If I'm working, we can afford two bus passes. On days when I have travel plans, he gets to use cash or tickets, since he merely has to go in in the morning and back out in the evening, while I get the pass so as to make transfers easier.

Port Authority's fare policy does not allow for multiple transfers, and the 2010 TDP changes made these much more common. A trip to Crafton from my house, for example, requires three bus trips, not two. Three-bus trips are not difficult, but now do require paying the full fare twice. Four-bus trips require both two full fares and two transfer fees. Crossing a zone boundary adds yet another dollar. My total cost, $6.50 one way, compares to only $4.25 from the bus stop at the other end of my street. The difference is that double transfer. The fare is only $2.25 to go just from Downtown to Crafton.

My original plan for Wednesday was to run an errand in Crafton in the morning, return Downtown for a meeting in late afternoon, then go home in the evening, a minimum five rides: three full fare payments with two transfers, and crossing the Zone 2 boundary twice, minimum $9.75. Plans changed en route, however, resulting in a mid-day side trip to Squirrel Hill, and another quick trip out Liberty Avenue after dinner before heading home around 8pm. All in all, the day required 8 buses. Fare on all 8 would have been around $16.

Making all these trip and transfers was fairly easy. Not once all day did I wait more than 10 minutes for a bus. To me, this means the system works. Wherever you want to go, the system will do that for you. Also worth noting was that I spent $75 in six stores in three neighborhoods. Transit got me from store to store. Had I made the equivalent trip by car, I would have had at least $5 in gasoline, and parked the car five times, at least 3 of these for payment, if only at a meter. Had I looked ahead to such a trip, I probably would not have gone at all, or begged off the side trips.

One does not ride a bus. One rides the system. Sometimes it takes two buses, or three, or more, to get where you are going, and two or three to get back. My point is that by having a day pass as an option when first boarding, one must no longer be concerned with fare payment for whatever trips must be made. Charge a fair price for this. Not everyone is going to ride 8 buses, but neither should it be priced at merely a ride in and a ride back. Three maybe, or three and a piece. At $2.25 for a base fare, that would work out to about $7, which seems reasonable for the services provided. I expected to ride four or five, but it took eight, and three of those eight were after 7pm. In fact, all but the first two were off-peak.

In summary, not having a day pass keeps people from even trying to use the system, and makes it more difficult to use. The day pass takes the complexity and extreme cost out of fare payment, making the system inherently welcoming, and a clear alternative to using the automobile in the city.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Swim trunks and long johns

What better thing to do on the coldest day of the winter than to jump on a bicycle and tour the city's indoor swimming pools? That was precisely what a group of nine did on Saturday, January 22. This blog will document how we prepared for and carried out such a ride, at least from my perspective. While this blog post is rather long, the short version is that we did all that, and had a trouble-free afternoon of fun. Not only did nobody get frostbite, we didn't even get seriously cold. We winter cyclists know how to ride in cold, and this blog post will detail how we did that.

That morning, when dawn broke over Pittsburgh, the outside temperature was a frigid zero Fahrenheit. By noon it had warmed up to about 10ºF. The plan was to meet at Kiva Han coffeeshop in Oakland at 1:45 p.m., leave at 2 for the Oliver Bath House on the South Side, then visit the Sarah Heinz House on the North Side, which we understood was having an open house.

Preparing the Bike. Aside from normal preparations for riding anywhere, there was not much that needed to be done. I would have preferred to have a rack or basket to carry a small bag of clothing and a towel, but made do with a small backpack.

Preparing Clothing. Riding in the cold is not that difficult, but on a day this cold does require paying closer attention to the subject. Any exposed skin could be frostbitten, since cyclists move fast enough to induce their own wind chill without any help from a natural breeze. Face, ears, fingers, toes -- each requires special attention. For my fingers, I had two pairs of gloves on, covered by plastic newspaper bags. The plastic protected my fingers from wind chill through the porous gloves, as well as any snow or splash. For toes, the key is good circulation, as well as good covering, especially keeping skin dry, so nothing really tight-fitting. I started with a pair of wool socks to wick away any perspiration. These socks were covered by tall, thick socks, to eliminate skin exposure at my shins.

To a great extent, this setup worked quite well, though my pinky toes got very white by the time I got to the first pool. I also discovered that I was underdressed for my face. In particular, my chin suffered some. Obtaining a balaclava would be a good idea. For my ears, I at least had a thick head band that covered my ears and forehead well. Had I needed to bike the entire 12 miles from McCandless to Oakland, typically a one-hour trip, I might have had trouble with chin and toes sooner. But this in itself is instructional. Should I need to actually bike for a full hour in such conditions, with the knowledge gained from this experience, I will be more ready.

For my lower body, in addition to the swim trunks, I wore long johns covered by a pair of denim work pants. I made sure the LJs overlapped my socks. For my upper body, I had three T-shirts, one with long sleeves, as well as thermal undies. Note that all of this had to be taken off and stowed during the swims, then put back on afterward. All nine of us got pretty quick at getting this done, both places, both on and off.

Leg #1: Getting there. My trip there was done mainly by bus. First I biked about two miles to the Northway Mall bus stop, where I waited about five minutes for a bus. Being warm from the house carried me most of this distance, so I had little chance to get cold before boarding a warm bus for a half hour. Less than five minutes between buses Downtown also meant I did not get cold before Oakland. If anything, being dressed for zero but spending most of the time at 50 or better, I got too warm. Pulling off the helmet and unzipping the topside layers eased this problem.

The logistics of getting off a bus requires some preparation. Getting off Downtown, all I really needed to do was make sure I was re-zipped, re-helmeted and re-gloved, as I paid my fare upon boarding. In Pittsburgh, though, outbound fare payment is (usually) made upon exiting, which poses a problem in getting money out and wallet re-stowed and hands re-gloved in a hurry. To compensate for this, I made sure to let the driver know on the Oakland leg, two stops early, that I would be getting off shortly. I paid fare then, thus allowing me to get helmet, gloves, bags, etc. on before getting off. Getting off the bus and getting the bike off the bus rack itself was no different from warm weather travel. (Specifically, for natives, I had paid fare just after Bigelow even though I wasn't getting off until Craig.)

Leg #2: To the first pool. At Kiva Han, when we had gathered all we thought would be joining us, we rode as a pack on Forbes to Bellefield, then Fifth to the Birmingham Bridge. Of the nine of us, we had five guys and four gals, ranging in age from about 20 to about 60, a nice mix. Riding as a group, we took the lane since we were on multi-lane streets, as it is safer that way. Note also that with the recent snowfall (about 8 inches only two days earlier), the right edge of the right driving lanes were snow covered and very treacherous for cyclists. Thus, state law's "as far to the right as practicable" really did translate to "get left and stay left".

We arrive at the Oliver Bath House, a huge, ancient brick building just off East Carson at South 10th Street. The main problem we encountered was where to tie up nine bicycles. Two of us opted to lock to a utility pole stabilizing cable, while the rest managed to hook to a rail fence in front.

$4 later, we go to our respective changing rooms. Going from dressed for zero to almost naked took much less time than I would have thought, but within 10 minutes, we were changed, showered, and splashing in a warm swimming pool. While I left shoes, coats, helmet and glasses up in the changing room, I packed clothes and wallet in a couple of plastic bags I had the foresight to bring with me, and kept these with my towel on a bench by the pool, as did the others. We threw a small beach ball around, we played with a diving brick and various floaty things, and basically had a good time.

Leg #3: To the second pool. After about a half hour, maybe 45 minutes, we decided we'd had enough fun there and wanted to get to the next pool. Showered, changed back into travel gear, posed for a group picture, then back out onto the street. Standing on the sidewalk, we pondered over the best path to the Sarah Heinz House. 10th St Bridge? Jail trail? Armstrong Tunnel? South Side trail? Smithfield Street Bridge? Which streets through Downtown? Cross the Allegheny on which bridge? Not everyone was familiar with every path. Others were familiar enough but uncomfortable with some of the choices, e.g., the Armstrong Tunnel. We opted for Bingham St to South 4th to McKean St, through a gas station to a parking lot to Station Square, then under and around and up onto the Smithfield Street Bridge, continuing the length of Smithfield Street. A wiggle by the Convention Center put us on Penn, which we rode to 16th Street, where we took the downstream sidewalk to cross the river. From there, it was an easy minute to the Sarah Heinz House, where we found a modern bike rack, capable of holding our bikes and a dozen beyond.

Inside, we indeed found out there was an open house, but encountered a problem: Building yes, pool no, or at least it was restricted to parent-child pairs. Sensing a misunderstanding, the ladies at the sign-in desk said, "This sounds like a Charlie question" and motioned for a gentleman in his 40s or early 50s to talk to us. Sizing us up and hearing about why we came and how we got there (there were only seven of us at this point), I guess he figured he was dealing with serious adults, despite our choice of transportation. He OK'd the pool visit, provided we would take him up on a personal tour of the place. Sure! I know that among our crew were a architect, a couple of software people, a language specialist, and at least one in health care. Professionals of one sort or another, not exactly street folk. It was also getting toward the end of the day (close to 4:30 by this point), so Charlie kept the tour fairly short, yet showing us both the breadth and depth of various programs at SHH: gymnastics, robotics, basketball (with lowerable baskets for young'uns), music, art, and others. If I had $1,000 to hand them, I would. It's a really nice program.

This pool has one truly amazing feature: A climbing wall. I've never seen one in a pool, anywhere. The explanation was that the idea of a diving board was nixed when they were adding the extension to the building, but they knew they needed something, so found this climbing wall. Of course all the kids want to try it (and we did, too! It's awesome!), but in order to do so, each kid needs to demonstrate his/her ability to actually swim in the deep end, which is the whole point of having the pool, encouraging water safety and athleticism. See what you learn when you tour the area's pools?

By 5:45, we called it a day, and the staff wanted to leave soon after 6 anyway. In the locker room, we men were talking among ourselves along the lines of, this place is wonderful, how can we help them? It would be a great place to start or end a ride. We could help kids learn how to safely ride in traffic. We could help kids learn how to maintain and repair their bikes. They actually have some bikes in storage, but don't use them often. The need is there. Meanwhile, my own mental wheels were thinking, if they have kids coming from all over the city, not just nearby, how can I help them use transit to get back and forth? A lot of Pittsburgh City Schools kids have bus passes, so it would be a mere matter of figuring out how to get them there and then on toward home. That transit information thing again.

By 6:15, we were splitting up and heading our separate ways. I was going north, and needed 12A schedule info, which someone was able to look up from a cell phone. This might be the first time I'd ever done that from a cell phone, and the first time she had ever done such a lookup herself. I knew how to make it go once she got connected; she knew how to connect but not what to do. Again, information is everything.

Leg #4: The trip home. After unlocking, I had a five maybe 10 minute ride to Cedar at East North (Allegheny General Hospital), then a five-minute wait for the 12A. Very few people on the bus; in fact, I was the only rider after Ivory Avenue. I got off at Northway Mall, and 10 minutes later was home. It was a tad warmer on this leg of the trip, but not much, maybe 15 to 20ºF. Still cold out, still warm in motion.

Some take-aways from the day:
1) Cold was a factor in planning, but not in operation. It was a beautiful day, if you were prepared for the temperature.
2) Bikes plus transit can get you there and back, with the proper information.
3) Getting across town by bike probably took less time than by car, when factoring in the time and trouble to park.
4) Swarms of cyclists can descend on a place without causing significant trouble.
5) I for one learned how better to dress for seriously cold riding. And now I've told you.
6) Transit works, but all buses need bike racks. I used three of them today.
7) I would have used more money in gasoline and parking than I did in the whole day's other expenses. Bikes save money.
8) We have some amazing things to do around the city, if you bother to find them and try them out.
9) Never underestimate the amount of good clean fun that a bunch of sober adults can have together without spending a lot of money.
10) None of this would have happened if Pittsburgh's cycling community was not so awesome!

Another pool tour is planned for some warm Saturday!

Friday, January 21, 2011

Arlington VA's former car-free skeptics

Todd and Ross are two guys in Arlington, Virginia, who publish a video blog. They decided to see if they could both go a month without using a car. They succeeded. Here is their video, and a challenge: Can you?

"Passing the Torch" with Todd and Ross

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Stu's proposal for funding transit

Let's come up with a sensible method for funding public transit, shall we?

First, define the box we must think inside of for the time being. Constitutionally, no motor fuel tax can be used for any purpose other than road and bridge work. Financially, the state is broke, and must work to fill a $4 billion deficit projected for FY12. Politically, the incoming administration will hold to a no-new-or-raised-tax-or-fee pledge.

Second, absent any legislation enacted in Spring 2011 to take effect by July 1, Governor Corbett will include some figure for the Mass Transit Line Item in the proposed FY12 state budget, usually unveiled in mid-February. This figure funds the state subsidy for operating funds for the state's 36 public transit companies, big and small. In the case of Port Authority of Allegheny County, this number makes up about 60% of its operating budget. If the MTLI is kept steady or shrunken, PAT faces a major deficit of its own. Arguing over this amount has made headlines in metro Pittsburgh for each of the past almost 50 years. But if the state is broke, chances are excellent that the MTLI will be cut back severely. This could truly mean a death knell for public transit as we know it, under the current structure, resulting in a far greater service cut than the 15% agreed to for March or the 35% proposal that nearly happened in January. If 60% of the funding goes away, 60% of the system goes away, too.

There should be no argument over anything that I have said so far.

We can argue all day over matters of labor, management, productivity, quality of service, broken equipment, stranded riders, tunnel projects, and a myriad of other things. Sorry, but all that is off topic. Closer to the mark, we can further argue over whether transit is even necessary, whether it should be privately run, whether it should entirely pay for itself out of farebox revenue, how fares should be collected, whether there should be two zones, no zones, or 13 zones, and a myriad of other policy matters. True, all of those things are important, a couple of them vital to the topic at hand.

I am going to work from the following assumptions: (a) Yes, transit is necessary. It makes possible the functioning of commerce in a concentrated area, be it a small city like Williamsport, or a large one like Philly or Pgh. These commerce centers in turn enable the state to collect revenue from taxes, instead of that revenue being siphoned off into purely fuel costs that leave the state. (b) Some amount of taxpayer subsidy will be required. Few if any major transit systems in the first world function without some sort of taxpayer subsidy. Like any machine, a little oil here and there keeps everything else from breaking, and some tax money provides that oil to the machine called a city. (c) The fare policy will be changed from what we have now. The current system is unfair and costly, and provides a built-in disincentive to using transit at all. Whether taxpayer funded or entirely private, the current approach to cost recovery is bad for the transit business, and must be changed. (d) There should be a single zone and no cost to transfer. Pay to use the system, not each bus boarded. Make allowances for whole-day passes, and a time limit for the first fare paid, and the fare policy becomes inherently welcoming, thus providing a reasonable alternative to using the private automobile. (e) Whether operated by a government agency or privately run is irrelevant. Transit is necessary, it cannot cost an excessive amount to either its customers or its funders, and its cost to operate cannot exclusively come from the farebox. (f) The state should continue to subsidize transit state-wide, though not to the level as has been demanded or historically provided.

Now to some specifics. I will propose below a method for transit to be funded partially from tax dollars, while allowing elected state leaders to adhere to their campaign pledges. The solution is not to have the state pay for transit entirely, but rather by the political divisions where the services are provided. In short, taxes at the county level.

State lawmakers should pass legislation setting up transit districts. Each district would correspond to a region where transit service is provided. In the case of SW PA, that would be the 10-county region where several transit companies provide service to and through each other's areas. State law currently forces each county to fend for itself, creating arbitrary divisions in business areas. Three examples: Monroeville-Murrysville, Cranberry-Warrendale, and Bridgeville-Canonsburg. Replacing these per-county divisions with a structure that would allow for proper cost recovery without concern over county lines, would give transit a fighting chance to be cost-effective. If GG&C can do a better job in Bridgeville than Port Authority, fine, let them. If PAT can do a better job in Murrysville than WestTran, fine, let them.

State lawmakers should allow counties to set up a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax. While the PA Constitution, Article 8, Section 11A, forbids motor fuels taxes from being used to fund transit, this becomes a problem as more cars operate on something other than motor fuels, such as electricity, yet create just as much traffic and wear and tear on the roads as a petroleum powered car. Collect this tax, to be levied by counties, as part of the state vehicle inspection program, which requires annual odometer readings. Then send it back to the counties in proportion to the number of revenue vehicle hours of transit service provided in each county. More specifically, send it to the transit companies which provide the RevVHs in each county. If, say, Westmoreland Transit provided some of the service on US30 into eastern Allegheny County, then WestTran would get a proportional amount of that money. Note that this is self-correcting. As auto traffic increases in an area, it helps underwrite the cost of starting and operating an alternative to that traffic.

One good thing of Act 44 was to require transit agencies to operate more cost effective routes than in the past, and to be more transparent with the reporting of that cost-effectiveness. Keep this; improve on it if possible. Make this information more easily available. This will help to defray criticisms of tax money going to unproductive purposes. Whether publicly or privately run, taxpayers need to know their money is being used for a good purpose. Haters gonna hate, but this is less important than the truth.

In terms of level of taxation, I suggest one-third of transit's cost come from the farebox, one-third from county taxes, and one-third from the state. Compare this with PAT's roughly 25-15-60 shares at the moment.

So, there you have it. With these changes, GOP lawmakers can claim to have solved the funding problem without raising state taxes. Transit can operate in a more cost-effective manner, without regard to who runs it or in what county. In all cases, the consumer benefits. Fees are collected; services are provided. Counties that do not want to participate are not required to. Taxpayers in Galeton will not feel put upon to fund big-city transit. The state constitution is adhered to. Long-term funding problems are fixed, and a future problem (electric cars using the roads for free) is avoided.

OK, Harrisburg, go to it.

Stuart Strickland

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

One curve, two unrelated photographs

Perrymont Road in McCandless, which I walk 4 to 10 times a week, should be the poster child for the Suburban Road From Hell Foundation. Barely a mile long, it carries on average five cars a minute -- unofficial, but having lived mere feet away from it for almost 20 years, I can speak with some authority.

On any trip westbound, when I get to that first curve -- the eastern one about halfway between McKnight and Perry -- I always have to be very careful of eastbound traffic, as the majority of cars hug the shoulder -- never mind the white line -- as they traverse the curve. This, of course, is exactly where westbound pedestrians are supposed to walk. The speed limit on Perrymont is 35, the curve is posted 25, but 40+ is commonplace, and in a vehicle with good tires and handling it can be taken at 55 or better. The curve, not the straightaways, mind you. The straightaways are less an issue because pedestrians can usually see them coming.

On today's trip westbound, there was some fresh snow, enabling me to document my pedestrian problem solving skills for posterity, which I will now show you:

Upon hearing an approaching vehicle, I stepped sideways at least five feet. Note the left-most two footprints; that's where I stood. After the car passed, I walked back to the pavement to continue my trek. Yes, I am walking in the traffic lane. It is no less safe there. Remember, I am re-writing the rules here. Following the rules can get you killed. Do what I say, and what I do, and you will be fine. If there's no car coming, walk in the street. If there's a car coming, get WAY out of the way.

Got that? That's how you walk along a suburban road when there is essentially no shoulder. I walk it 500 times a year, all times of day, all weather conditions, from torrential downpours to sub-zero wind chill to blinding snowstorms to blistering heat. No matter. Between me and the bus stop is 0.8 mile of Perrymont, and that's how it's done. Of course I say this because there are 10,000 other roads just like it, with 10,000,000 other people who have to walk it. Or will.

On to Photo #2. Yesterday morning, I noticed cars turning around on my end of Perrymont. This usually means a wreck on one of the two curves, and I was not mistaken. This morning, as I walked along there, I had forgotten about it until I saw the debris not yet swept up or hauled away.

Ignore the clearly visible tire tracks veering left, which are the mailman's. Instead look at the tracks veering right, directly into scraping the guardrail. The car wrecked fully into the guardrail in the distance. Zooming in, you can see the black bumper still there, a day later. Those tire tracks point directly at the bumper.

These two photos were taken barely 100 feet apart, and about 35 of those feet are the width of the pavement. For what it's worth, this photo ...

... from back in September 2010, is also on this same curve. That wooden fence used to come all the way down to the driveway in the foreground, as StreetView shows. This pic is looking eastbound.

There is no easy answer to all this. We're talking about changing human behavior here, and that never works, especially with the word "should" involved. Yeah, people should slow down. Yeah, people should learn how to walk along roads that don't have sidewalks. Yeah, we should spend a bazillion dollars to improve walking conditions along a kajillion miles of such roads.

It all comes down to this: Cheap gasoline is not going to be an option in the probably undistant future. There will be a lot more pedestrians and bicyclists, not just on Perrymont but those 10,000 other roads you will surely be traveling. Get used to it.

If you are the driver, expect them. Slow down. Watch especially for curves such as these, as there are problems on both sides of the road. All accidents are driver error. You are the driver. It doesn't matter if it's a rolling trash can or a pedestrian on the edge of the road, you don't hit it. You have the control here.

If you are a pedestrian, know the rules, and know when to screw the rules. Sometimes the other side of the street is safer. Just getting five feet off the road, into snow, brambles, whatever, is the preferred option. Don't be afraid to bust up someone's bush or branch off a tree, either, if it's in the way of your path of travel. Their fault for not having it cut back.

Guerilla pedestrianism. Coming soon to a Suburban Road From Hell near you.