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.