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!

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Why there is no love for ATU 85

As we get into the thick of the annual fight for transit funding, it is worth noting to Port Authority's largest labor union that they are working from a position of weakness, and I do not mean the anti-transit politicians in Harrisburg.

In the April 2010 pick, Port Authority made what they called a clerical error concerning the West Busway's Bell Avenue Station stop. The information that went to the drivers said it was discharge-only inbound, pickup-only outbound for the new G2 route. The information that went out to the public said it was a full-service stop, i.e., pickup and discharge both directions for the G2, which at the time went to Robinson, bypassing Carnegie Station. It was full-service for the G1, which at the time was the only route which went to the end of the Busway at Carnegie, like the 33X and 100 it replaced. Also, unlike the G1, the G2 went to Oakland, so for Carnegie riders working in Oakland, boarding a G2 at Bell was the only real way to get there. Both the G1 and G2 were new in that pick.

Somewhere in the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) Port Authority has with Local 85 is the stipulation that management may not alter a route after the pick is made. Immediately upon the pick going into effect, the discrepancy made itself known, and within a day, management had made it clear to the drivers that Bell was to be full service for both G2 and G1, both directions, case closed. Labor did not like that.

While this all boiled down to a labor-management dispute, it was the customer who suffered. From the first Monday of the pick, down at Carnegie Station at inbound rush hour, G1 trips were loading to the point of refusal, making people try to board half-empty G2 trips at Bell. In non-peak periods, when there were waits of up to a half hour for a G1 to come along, G2 trips came at least as often, passing up waiting riders. For the entirety of that pick, some drivers refused to provide full service. Even into June, I witnessed inbound G2 trips where the bus was stopped to discharge a passenger at Bell, and the driver refused to allow a waiting passenger to board the bus.

Here is what I do not get. While I do understand why there was a dispute, I do not understand why the union felt it had to fight it, i.e., why the union did not simply say, "You know, you're right. The customer is better served by making Bell full service for the G2." Did they? No. They did the opposite. They caught management's clerical error and tried to force them to hold to the letter of the CBA.

This gained the union no love from the riding community. More than once, I was asked, and had to think myself, "Why must the union harm riders?" Fine for them to protect workers from things that would cause them injury, rescue them from unfair discharges, and work to get them good pay and benefits, but not when they force willing paying would-be riders to stand in the rain with the bus stopped and the door open. That is simply not right, no amount of explanation by labor can make it right, and we are long past the point of apologies.

With this in mind, Local 85 needs to realize that they are now up against something far larger than what they perceive as bad management. Even among transit supporters, it is hard to root for an organization that has made life miserable for riders.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Prisoners and Buses and Bikes, Oh My!

Let's say you were convicted of a serious enough traffic infraction that you lost your license for a year and got 90 days in jail. Once released, how would you hold a job, assuming you do not have a support system to shuttle you to and from work? How would you shop for food or do any other activity that requires a location change? This essay will expound upon the idea that you cannot properly be rehabilitated back into society without also providing you with the ability to transport yourself to and from gainful employment without a car or driver's license.

To wit: It is in the People's interest that you be given instruction in use of public transit, and in the safe, proper and reliable use of a bicycle in any weather condition. Reliable here is defined as, no matter what the weather, you will reliably get to work on time, using the bike and bus.

To my way of understanding, not only are both modes needed, but additional topics come into play, such as how to use transit availability to choose a residence location, and advanced topics like grocery shopping while biking and/or busing. The recipient needs more than to be handed a bus schedule and maybe a second-hand bike. Bike mechanics should be part of it, from basic maintenance like patching a flat and oiling a chain, to more complex things like adjusting brakes and gears, and being properly fitted for a bike. To accomplish this, the releasee would be assigned a coach, who would work with him one-on-one, to help him learn to ride safely in traffic and at night, how to dress for the weather, how to use the bus racks, and pick routes that work best for cycling from A to B.

What would this cost? Speaking in round numbers, let's say that if it costs $100/day for the upkeep of a prisoner, then it would be worth it to the public purse to spring the guy a few days early, and put that money toward the first two months bus fare, and a decent second-hand bike that they would learn to fix themselves. If they participate in rehabilitating the bike, they would develop a sense of ownership they might not get if just handed a brand-new big-box-store bike that won't last a year.

So, again speaking in rough numbers, $200 pays two months bus fare. $300 buys him a Free Ride bike and lots of help. $300 more buys him necessary accessories like lights, fenders, a lock, a helmet, a backpack. At $100/day, that might spring the guy eight days sooner. What good does it do the prisoner, or society, to have him in there 90 full days, vs. 82 with eight days of bike fitting, repair, equipment, and on-road training, and learning how to get around via transit?

Given our current rates of recidivism and unemployment among the formerly incarcerated, in my opinion, doing this would be beneficial to society. Of course I cannot answer all questions in a 500-word essay, but I think I can raise the question.

Monday, February 7, 2011

The real cause of Egypt unrest

While U.S. media has focused on the nature of the civil unrest in Egypt, wondering how soon Hosni Mubarak might step down and who or what might replace him, little has been said about the root causes of all the commotion. This matters on a couple of levels there, and has major consequences for our way of life here. Maybe not in 2011, but soon enough.

Egypt, like most of the Arab world, has some oil. Not oceans of it like Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, but enough to export. It also has a growing population. Unfortunately, being on the edge of a desert, Egypt has to import much of its food, some 60% of its wheat.

For most of its recent history, Egypt exported a lot of its oil, using the profits to subsidize the cost of its internal use of fuel as well as a lot of its food supply. This has worked pretty well, until quite recently. Egypt has run into a tipping point of sorts. First, oil production has hit a plateau; they can't extract it as fast as they used to. In short, they've hit a peak. Lots more down there, but there's a limit to how fast you can pull it out of the ground, and they've hit it. Chances are pretty good that future production will continue to plateau, or even decrease.

Second, that growing population now uses as much petroleum as the country produces. The problem with this is that there is now not that much to export. While future use may result in Egypt being a net importer of oil, the more immediate problem is that the loss of that export revenue puts the government in a bind. No exports, so no export income, so no way to provide price supports for both food and fuel.

The government decided to prop up fuel prices, letting food prices seek their own level. Food prices naturally rose -- greatly -- setting off the civil unrest.

Do you see where this is going? The easy oil is gone, or soon will be, at the levels we all seem to want it, on a world-wide level. Even the Arab producers are becoming net importers. When everyone wants oil, the price will naturally go up, and I do not just mean Egypt. I mean all of us.

Tell me again why you have three cars in your driveway?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

From a Sept. 2008 email: Privatization is coming

I came across this email I sent to someone on ACTC on September 18, 2008. With trivial modifications, I share it with the world, as it contains several still salient points.

Re: Mustio/Turzai on transit costs

How to pronounce Mark Mustio's name: Like "musty odor" without the final "der" sound. Weird, but it works.

Mike Turzai, who's my State Rep, represents Bradford Woods, but the district includes McCandless. In fact, his office is in McCandless, barely a mile from my house. It's right next door to Northland Library, an easy walk from an 11C ride (assuming you can GET to an 11C, which takes an 11D or 500 ride during the day), or a LONG walk from a 12A, about a mile and a quarter along Cumberland Road, headed west from McKnight. Hillvue Lane is the road going up into the back entrance of Northland, a block south of Cumberland. CCAC North is another quarter mile south on Perry Highway.

The two of them are cooking up a plan to de-monopolize transit in Allegheny County. As you described it, you're right, routes like the 51C, the EBA, the 61C, probably the 13A, would be kept, since ridership is high. Cross towns and lesser routes simply won't be kept, which will strand a bunch of people. Routes like the 6C do OK in ridership, but don't pack the buses, and so do not make much money. 11C the same. It's been cut way back since I moved out here.

What these guys don't realize is that, unlike what they're saying, Port Authority's spending is NOT out of control. Well, let me clarify that. What costs they CAN control are NOT out of control. Costs they CANNOT control ARE out of control: Fuel. Health care. Past commitments to future pension contributions. Those concepts do not make for good headlines, but they are reality. Those headlines especially do not sell to the Trib's/KQV's fan base.

Of course, what I've been saying (and saying and saying and getting tired of saying but I gotta keep saying it) is two things. First, that if you can get 50,000 warm bodies to buy fare and ride the system every day, who are not doing that now, the spending deficits go away. Of course some costs will have to go up as a result of putting more buses out there to meet demand, but that will actually make the system easier to use since transfers will be shorter and headways will decrease, each of which in turn will cause more people to want to use the system. The system grows itself. This is all accomplished by making the system easier to figure out how to use.

Which brings me to the second point. This is done by spending money on software and technology. That money is not being spent now, anywhere near as much as it needs to be, and what was spent years ago is being wasted because there isn't anyone available to administer that technology because they've all been laid off. Web site improvements, for instance. Delays in getting new fareboxes in place. We've had GPS on the buses for eight years but still cannot track where the buses are, because that part of the package was not purchased (it was off-the-shelf stuff in 1999) and there's nobody in the I.T. department who can implement it even if we had it now. If we had that piece, you could check on your cell phone to see if the bus you're trying to catch has already passed you or not. All of that is 1997 technology, and we're NOWHERE near getting it, because all we want to do is cut the system. Chopping it into pieces will make it all that much more difficult to implement even if we do get the money and the manpower.

Short version of the above rant: Trash the Mustio/Turzai idea.