Friday, December 14, 2012

Unfinished post: The cause of the cause of death

N.B.: Perfection is the enemy of the good, and because of that, I have not posted at least four I've started in the past month. So, this one is the opposite, an obviously incomplete first draft, written in a single ride on a very fast O12 McKnight Express bus. It will probably take longer to type it than it took to write it. (It did, by about 3x, even without research.)

* * *

The Cause of the Cause of Death

This past week in Pittsburgh, a 53-year-old woman was struck and killed as she crossed the street. Three vehicles hit her. In a 25 mph zone. In a painted crosswalk. In broad daylight. How does this happen? Yes, the accident reconstruction experts will evaluate the cause of how this woman was killed, but nobody is looking at the cause of that: Why did this woman have to cross the street, and why were three vehicles there to run her down?

Actually, four vehicles were involved, including hers, as she was walking from the parking lot she drove to from her home that morning. It was easy to locate her home address and see what transportation choices she had. To say the least, it is enlightening.

The closest road to her home that has any bus service is _[Road A]_, requiring a walk of about a mile on _[Road B]. While I am not intimately familiar with that side of town, a quick look at _[Road B]_ on StreetView shows no sidewalk but a fairly wide shoulder, a couple feet of it actual pavement. No serious hill, moderate traffic speed (supposedly, posted [35 mph, check this]). It would have been physically possible to walk to that bus stop, but not at all pleasant, similar to my 0.8-mile hike on Perrymont.

More enlightening is that  _[Road B]_ itself used to have transit service, but no longer does. In fact, there was a bus stop only a few dozen yards from her house. Checking my bus schedule archives, and doing a rough sketch of her theoretical transit commute back then, she would have had a ___-minute, [one?]-ride trip [, requiring __ transfers]. This compares with my typical ride on the Perry Highway bus, which got me into town from about as far out, roughly 10 miles, but with one transfer I could actually get there faster. But the point is, she used to have a very short walk to a bus [that got her all the way into town].

[assumption: TDP consolidation] Port Authority revamped the entire route system in 2010, consolidating lots of suburban routes. Because of this, her right-past-the-house route was eliminated, requiring her to travel that [mile] to the remaining route. So she lost her quick and easy bus stop, and it was easier for her to drive the whole way than to figure out how to get the mile down the street. That poses the question, why are there not sufficient park-and-ride spaces available to make that option viable?

[need to research] Let's also look at the reasoning behind the consolidation. Port Authority's consultants, the Nelson\Nygaard firm, looked at the ridership and productivity on each route prior to making the changes that were adopted. How useful was this route in the overall scheme of things, back in the day? [If a transfer was necessary, how easy was it to do that? Was transit really an option, even with a bus stop yards away?] Or was this a route that never should have existed in the first place, one of many routes put there because of supposed demand that never materialized?

[assumption: Route cuts] Facing an enormous deficit, Port Authority eliminated 15% of its service in March 2011, on top of a 15% cut in 2007. In this case [verify this], she lost the quick and easy route in the March 2011 cuts. Here, I put the onus squarely on state GOP leadership for the past 10 years not to come up with a funding mechanism that kept the buses running. With transit cuts came more people driving, and hence more people crossing streets from parking lots.

Short answer: No bus to ride, and/or not easy to ride, so she drove. The bus would have dropped her off at ______, a very different walk from that from the parking lot on Smallman by 14th Street.

A similar analysis should be done for each of the other drivers. Why was anyone driving? The box truck I'll give a pass to, as he was on a multi-state commercial delivery. Everyone else, though, potentially had a transit and/or bicycle option. Not only should she not have been there to run over, there should have been nobody there to run her over.

Moral of the story: Lack of transit funding helped kill this woman. Get more people out of cars and into the transit system, and fewer people will die in crashes.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Soupaneuring Week #1: Subway in West View

Week #1, Subway in West View. Soupaneering #1, Subway in West View The day did not go well, so I was lucky to be able to pull this off at all. The original plan was to take off before dawn to pick up and drop Tag-O-Rama tags, and nab a better one for Wheelset of Fortune, then catch up on some writing while I had a bowl of soup somewhere, for a bike game hat trick, as well as get together with (an)other cyclist(s) for a group construction project. It didn't happen. By the time I was ready to go out, it was raining steadily, and I was ready for a nap.

With failing light but a break in the weather, I opted for the three-mile trip into West View, where several choices of both fast food and decent restaurants awaited. I opted for Subway, which had a choice of just two institutional soups. I chose the broccoli and cheese, with a side of a white macadamia nut cookie, and chocolate milk. Total outlay, less than $5. I worked on my writing project as I dined, then with it fully dark, returned the three miles home. Total, about 6.1 miles. It also continues an uninterrupted string of going someplace purposeful at least once each week since January 1, 2012.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Coffeeneuring #1 and Brave New World

Coffeeneuring is the practice of riding some distance on a bicycle for the primary purpose of imbibing in a beverage at a shop whose primary product is caffeinated beverages. Whether you ride two miles or 200 miles matters not, but you have to do it on your days off, and can only count one such trip in a calendar day toward several such trips over a series of weekends.

Today was my first trip out, a very short ride to check out a bicycle following a repair. Because I wasn't sure of the bike, and with there being no bus service to speak of on a Sunday for a backup, I played it safe and stuck close to home, riding only to Coffee Buddha, about 1.5 miles south on Perry Highway. My preferred shop, Perry Perk, is not open on Sundays, and I was anxious to try out this new shop.

To pass the time once I got there, I took a copy of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World with me to finish. Once that was done, I wrote the little essay that follows.

To imbibe, I invested in the Tea of the Day, an oolong blend that had some fancy name that I promptly forgot as soon as I walked away from the counter, and a yummy muffin whose name lasted about as long.


Just finished reading "Brave New World". I find in reading it that I put to use much of what I learned in past literature classes, notably Miss Harp's British Lit class in Spring 1976, my Shakespeare tragedies course at SUNY Geneseo, and my Chaucer class which, IIRC, I took the same semester as Shakespeare. To make the best sense of a work, one needs to study sources and backgrounds, understand where the story came from, and what was the world like at the time this was written. In 1931, the world was in depression, a nasty European war was just over a decade in the past, a nasty war was just about to get going in Japan and China, with unrest in Europe and Germany still. The TV had just been invented (1926) but commercial TV was still in the future (the first commercial would not be aired until 1939). Radio was dominant, including overseas broadcasts via shortwave. "Talking" motion pictures were only a couple of years old. Transportation: trolleys everywhere, cars taking over, rail was how you traveled between cities, no airlines to speak of yet, rocketry was the scientific frontier. Constant innovation in every form, everywhere. Women just got the vote in England and the U.S. in the recent past. Social stuff: The U.S. had Prohibition, recreational drugs were just being invented, penicillin had just been discovered. Political: We had socialism, fascism, and communism without the stigmas they have today, but we did have major political experimenting to try them out, in places like Russia, and as we were about to find out quite soon, Germany. The USSR's formation was well in the future. Meanwhile, Japan and China had monarchies whose forces were fomenting the next war.

I need to re-read (and read for the first time) much of Shakespeare, which is quoted extensively in BNW, sometimes in a direct quote, sometimes embedded in a phrase or thought. It's been 34 years since I made my way through Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Othello, and others, though I have never had the book far from my fingertips that whole time. But there are writings I never knew, like "The Phoenix and the Turtle", and while I've seen The Tempest, the acoustics were poor (an outdoor performance), I didn't much understand it. I know some scenes from many plays, having watched the annual monolog contest (, but that doesn't help with detailed understanding of all 36 plays, 154 sonnets, and various other poems, as quoted in BNW.

A banned book. Why? Probably all the sex; it's central to the plot. Nothing graphic, just the constantness of it, the idea that everyone's conditioned to copulate constantly with no preference to any one person, and no concern about childbearing, which is rare. Though the book was written decades prior to the Pill's invention, Huxley lived to know about it, and might have seen its effects before his 1963 death.

But as to banning the book itself: I can see both the wonders and the difficulty in reading this in a high school English class. That needs an essay in itself. To me, the issue comes down to one big unanswerable question. Kids who already have the ability to understand new ideas will find enormous ways to expand their minds, while those who have not will simply be horrified, thus begging the question, why learn anything? Are we doomed to all be Deltas and Epsilons, or merely wear green uniforms and perform mid-level tasks? Can only a few be Betas to get anything requiring thought done, and fewer still Alphas to figure out anything of consequence? Or is the Savage right, and the brave new world is itself a horror?

At the time of its writing, Huxley thought this might be 600 years in the future, but by the 1946 edition, he feared this might happen within the next century. Minus the methods of travel and a few other surface details, he might be right.


A couple of pictures, and a link to the video I took for part of the way there until my battery gave out.

Photo #1, the bike rack in front:

Photo #2, yummyfulness and a bike helmet.

And 5/6 of the trip there (yes, I know it's sideways, all the bike videos are):
And here's the rest of the ride.

Monday, October 1, 2012

What to tell a newcomer

We have a new guy at work. He's new to Pittsburgh, having just flown in here two days ago. He has no knowledge of the city, yet has to learn how to get back and forth to work. He also (so far as I know) does not drive, so has to get around via transit, or rides from co-workers and friends. His main task to do is to find someplace to live, since he is living in a motel on a day-by-day basis.

If this were you, just dropped in a new city, how would you function? Wouldn't it be helpful to have someone give you a quick primer? Especially in Pittsburgh, where topography is a major impediment to getting around, and few streets travel in a straight line for very long.

This is the email I prepared to help him.

Some ideas come to mind of where you might stay while you are here. I am assuming that you will be, for the most part, not using a car. I myself am about 95% car-free, using buses and bicycle to get around.

Pittsburgh has two major downtown areas – the “Golden Triangle” where we are now (surrounded on two sides by rivers, and an expressway on the third), and Oakland, about 4 miles to the east, where the two big universities (Pitt, CMU) and a lot of hospitals are located. In fact, by itself, Oakland is bigger than every other city in Pennsylvania other than Philadelphia and the Golden Triangle. Dozens of food and shopping choices, lots to do (especially when surrounded by 50,000 college students).

There are many hotels both Downtown and in Oakland. Getting here from Oakland by bus is quite simple, with at least 10 bus routes shuttling between here and there, for about a 15- to 20-minute trip.

North, there are two brand-new hotels near the two stadiums (Spring Hill Suites, Hyatt Place), either a free 5-minute subway ride, or about a 10-minute walk. Possibly your best bets. A very different type of hotel is The Priory, a five-minute bus ride, a 15-minute walk, but a bit far from the subway.

The T only goes north to the stadiums, and south. Buses go in every direction, and use buses-only roadways to get out of town in a hurry.

Near-South, there are hotels in Station Square (at the other end of the Smithfield Street Bridge, about a 10-minute walk) and at the south end of the 10th St Bridge (Holiday Inn Express, about a 20-minute walk, or 10-minute bus ride).

Farther out South, there are hotels near South Hills Village Mall, and about a half-hour trip on the “T” (light rail). Dormont and Mount Lebanon are a little closer on the same subway line, but I’m not sure about lodging.

There is no West. Well, there is, but near-West, there isn’t much in terms of places to stay that are also foot/bus-friendly. I am probably the only person in the office who has physically walked along every street within five miles of downtown (and bicycled them and used most bus stops), and working from that experience, you really don’t want to walk along some of them. The big danger is cars, not people, and the absence of sidewalks and lighting. As long as you stay in your room or even the hotel, you’re OK, but crossing a street in the suburbs (like the Parkway Center Best Western) is chancy, and walking a half mile along Mansfield Avenue is suicidal (Hilton/Doubletree in Greentree). They probably have shuttles, or you might be able to arrange a regular ride with someone, but my experience suggests that the easiest thing to do is just to live close, and get around on foot, to spend the least time, expense, and trouble in travel.

Farther out West, there are a bunch of hotels in Robinson, and about a half-hour ride on the 28X Airport bus. Like Greentree, though, crossing a street (like you would have to do to get from hotel to bus) is not recommended. I’ve done it thousands of times; for seven years, I used to work in Robinson. Not fun. Same issues as in Greentree, only six- to eight-lane streets to cross, not merely four-lane.

Farther North, there are four hotels along McKnight Road that I can think of. Very quick ride into town, maybe only 10 minutes for the closer three, 15 for the next one out, but again, you have to cross a major street on the way home. I’ve actually crossed at the points you would have to. Not as horrible as the one in Robinson, but still not real pleasant. The near three are Hampton Inn, Intown Suites, and Comfort Inn (just opened). The farther out one is Holiday Inn, which has the added disadvantage of being on top of a large hill. I call places like this Holiday Inn “completely inaccessible to human beings except by automobile”.

If your preference is being close, I’d go with either a place right downtown or the North Shore. Then Oakland, then Station Square or the 10th St Bridge choice.

The bus or T is $2.50/ride, $25/week for an unlimited-use pass, or $97.50 for the whole month, vs one taxi ride at about $15, also about $15 to park a car for one day.
See me if you need to get around, however you decide to do it. I also drive – both car and motorcycle – and bicycle everywhere, so can provide you with whatever information you might need.

Hope this helps! 

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The lesson of Pithole

Late July 2011, I took a trip by motorcycle to attend my high school reunion. Traveling by myself with no timetable to adhere to, I stuck to back roads and took my time. Since funds were limited, I eked out the best fuel mileage I could obtain, and succeeded. With my 250 cc bike, at one fill-up, I purchased 1.49 gallons of gas to travel 146 miles. Mission accomplished!

On my way back, the back roads took me to Pithole, Venango County, in northwest PA, site of an early oil boom town. In 1866-67, this was the third-busiest post office in Pennsylvania, after Philly & Pgh. The pipeline and the standard barrel were invented here, among other things. Riots and prostitution and sabotage, all present here -- big surprise, right?

But in a few short years, it was gone. Why? They pumped the place dry. A few tiny derricks remain, scattered around the hillsides for miles around, but at Pithole itself, nothing. What little petroleum those scattered derricks produce today likely would not support the daily travels of nearby Pleasantville, let alone any substantive amount of the region, state, or world.

It's gone. It's used up. Forty years before the first Model T Ford appeared, the oil from our first oil boom was history, and nobody has found any more there since. Almost 150 years later, we have other Pithole-like sites. We came, we drilled, we sucked it dry, we moved elsewhere.

Only one problem: We're running out of elsewheres. Just what does anyone plan to do when we've run all the big oil pools dry, too? Sure, there was a lot of oil under Texas and California and Mississippi once, too, but they are long past peak. So is Alaska. So is Egypt. Mexico, Venezuela, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, all are close to peak if not past it. Within a generation, the world's biggest producers will be net importers. When demand outstrips supply by any means of production, everywhere, does anyone have a plan?

Measure it however you like, drill everyplace you care to, but eventually, they will all be like Pithole: A big empty field where oil used to be.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Doorknob to desk

"Doorknob to desk."

I’ve been using the term for years, but what does it mean, really? The simple answer is that it measures my travel time, my commute, from the time I leave my house to the time I reach my desk, ready to do work. It’s what’s implied that makes it less simple. By employing this obvious simplicity, I reduce all the variables concerning travel time of one’s method of travel to a single integer.

Going by car? You had to scrape the frost off the window, shovel the driveway, stop for gas, find a parking space, and walk from that spot to your place of employment. Going by bus? You had walking time to get to the stop, some minutes to wait for it to arrive, perhaps make a transfer with its own travel and wait. Going by bike? Fill tires and secure load before getting underway, then lockup and maybe a quick wipedown or change of clothes upon arrival.

What it also accomplishes is to eliminate bias. As a transit rider, car commuters routinely ask, “How long does it take you to get here by bus?” Implied in that question lies a bias that travel time is of utmost importance. I want to respond with a question of my own, “Why would that matter?” But I reply with a simple question: "Of course going by car might take less time, but it also costs me $14/day to park, and I have better things to do with a couple hundred a month. What do you value?"

In offering an integer for my travel time by bus or bike, I often get the reply, “Ha! I can get here in only 20 minutes!” In so doing, they measure a best case scenario, and then only the time from the moment a tire hits a road to the time they pull into the parking lot, as if all that other stuff on both ends doesn’t count. But it does. Worse, the majority of people I’ve conversed with, hundreds over 20+ years, employ a best-case scenario that involves no traffic lights, no traffic, and traveling 10 mph over the speed limit.

Doorknob to desk, at or below the speed limit, with car prep, fueling, scraping, shoveling, and parking issues included, levels the playing field, making those travel times comparable.

What D-to-D does not do is attempt to compare the subjective values of differing travel modes. A transit user can take a nap, but a driver and cyclist cannot. A transit rider can skip the snow shovel, read a book, send a text, and get work done on the way, something a motorist cannot do. A bicyclist is getting a workout and pays no travel cost, but is subjected to the elements. A motorist has great comfort, but at an order of magnitude greater cost. Being subjective, each person will value all these differently, and that’s fine.

This one measure, though, merely reduces travel time to a single value. Do with it what you will. I no longer value the shortest travel time as important. For me, cost is a big factor, so is personal health. Changing my mind on these has let me look at life differently from when I was one of those maniacs behind the wheel. It’s only a number, but you have to start somewhere.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

H.C. Frick never foresaw this

I work in Henry Clay Frick's building in downtown Pittsburgh. The first Friday of every summer month, the Frick Art & Historical Society holds a(n essentially) free concert on the lawn of Clayton, Frick's mansion. Tonight, I traveled from one to the other, effectively replicating old man Frick's commute home. I bet he never figured to make the trip the way I did.

We would have started the same way. Here is the view from the elevator: Henry Clay Frick's office door, now the door to the company mail room, supply closet, and kitchenette. H.C. Frick's door I took the elevator down from 20 and walked out onto Fifth Avenue, just like he did. I then walked over to the Liberty/Smithfield parking garage, where I had the bicycle tied up, and rode over to Grant Street, by U.S. Steel Tower. In fewer than five minutes, the bike and I were on an articulated bus, an express trip out the East Busway. In 15 minutes, I was off the bus at Homewood Avenue, unmounted the bike from the bus rack, and descended the steps. Clayton is a mere three blocks from the busway station. In just a couple of minutes on the bike, I was here:

South view of Clayton, the H.C. Frick mansion, during The Bobs' concert, Aug 3 2012. Clayton, the Frick mansion

The trip from desk to (essentially) doorknob took only 38 minutes. I am guessing Frick himself never made it that quickly, and I wasn't even hurrying. In fact, I waited out lights at Wm Penn Way, Grant Street, and Penn Avenue, though I got the light at Thomas Boulevard green.

The truth be told, though, I don't know how Frick commuted. Possibly he had a driver to carry him back and forth on city streets. Maybe he used the trolley; I doubt it. For all I know, he had a private streetcar. I'm pretty sure he didn't do it by horse or bicycle, though he may have been able to drive it himself. He died in 1919. To this day there is a museum of antique cars on the Clayton grounds, worthy of a look to see how the upper-crust of Pittsburgh society got around 100 years ago.

Here are a couple of links about Frick:

Sunday, July 15, 2012

My July 13 2012 bike crash

Road rash
On July 13, I had my first bike wreck in quite a while. I do fall off or fall over from time to time, but not such that I get hurt. This time, I polished quite a bit of skin, though as far as I can tell, I didn't break anything. (Of course, I will never know that, since I am not going to get my hand X-rayed since I have no health insurance. But that's a rant for a different day.) All I care to do here is diagnose how this happened, and work through what it might mean.

The bike and I are both fine. Within a couple minutes of going sideways, I got back on it and rode the rest of the way home. The handlebar tape on the right side is chewed up a bit, and there's a scuff on the rear derailleur I don't remember seeing before. But it shifts, all the pieces are there, all the cables work, the wheel is not bent, and nothing was broken, as far as I can tell. I landed just about flat, on my hands, shoulder and especially chin. Minor tear on the left shoulder of my shirt; the right knee of my pants has a significant stain from whatever I landed on, plus a drop or two of blood from within. My right hand has a sizable gash, but does not hurt. My right thumb got enough skin chewed off to make it difficult to type and, um, take care of certain bodily functions. But I'll manage. The abrasion on my chin did not bleed all that much, mainly seepage from serous fluid. Even the laptop I had slung over my shoulder was undamaged.

Now 36 hours post-crash, pretty much everything is back to normal. I took a shower, put a bandage on my chin, and went about my evening as if nothing happened. About an hour after the incident, I was bouncing on a neighbor's trampoline while taking care of her dogs, and an hour after that, had to retrieve something from inside a dumpster. (We had a carful of newspapers to recycle, and in tossing the papers in, also tossed in a car part, so had to climb in to retrieve it.) I drove the car 20 miles just after this. Other than being hard to grasp anything with my left thumb, I seem to be in good working order.

OK, so what happened?

The short version is that a car passed me too closely. While it did not hit me, it passed closely enough that the air wave pushed me into a six-inch curb at a 30-degree angle, the bike went out from under me, and I went down. I never saw the car, though in the couple of milliseconds between when I realized I was off course and when I hit the curb, I registered that it might have been grey. There was barely time to realize I was off course, let alone correct that course, or glance up to catch a license plate, maybe nine-tenths of a second from air wave to curb. The car passed me with maybe 12 to 15 inches of clearance, instead of the required four feet.

Last week, I took a picture of a drain grate less than 100 yards from this spot, noting that there was a slot on the side of that grate wide enough to grab a narrow road tire. With that squarely in mind, I know that when I crossed that grate, I was squarely in the middle of it. The car passed me less than five seconds after that. But since I know my exact coordinates to the inch at that spot, I know that I was exactly where the law suggests I be when riding on the road: As far to the right as practicable. Any farther right, I would have been right on top of the curb. Any farther left, I would have been lined up with that open slot.

In general there is no reason to take the lane here. In retrospect, though, maybe I should start doing that, but to do so invites other problems, specifically forcing drivers to slow to my speed far more often than they now do. I'm not sure anyone is ready for that quite yet.

Moving on to possible motives on the part of the driver. I find it hard to believe s/he did not see me. It was 6:40 p.m.; sunset would not occur for another two hours. The sun would have been well to the left. The road at that spot points straight north. I had a light colored shirt on, though not my orange vest. I can only think of three possibilities: (a) There were two cars at that point, one in each northbound lane, and the driver in my lane chose not to slow to get around me. (b) The driver was occupied with a cell phone or changing a CD or some other distraction, and did not realize I was there. (c) The driver intentionally tried to pass me too closely. Had there been a shoulder, I would have merely veered off course and back on, but once I hit the curb, there was nowhere else to go but down. No, the driver did not stop. In cases (b) and (c), I would not expect the driver to stop. I went over so fast, I likely disappeared from view. In case (a), perhaps the driver thought I turned onto Manor Road, mere feet from where I went over.

So all this comes down to two things: First, driver inattentiveness (or worse). Second, road design. Why does Perry Highway have a curb? Is that really necessary? And why six inches? Also, why does Perry Highway have four lanes? It is posted 35 mph, but a significant portion of it beginning less than a mile south of this is only two lanes at the same speed limit. Being four lanes here allows drivers to exceed 35 more easily. The curb lane might go 35, but traffic speed in the inner lane is more typically 40 to 45, often higher.

This incident occurred less than 1/4 mile from my house, within easy sight of where I caught my inbound Perry Highway bus every day for close to 20 years. I am well acquainted with this piece of road. I've driven it thousands of times, bicycled it hundreds of times, and walked it hundreds of times, in the 21 years I've lived here.
On this particular trip, I had just bicycled four miles from the Perrysville Avenue park-and-ride lot, as I had just missed my McKnight bus, and did not want to wait 20 minutes for the next one. I guessed correctly when leaving my desk that I would be home by 6:45, and even with the tumble, walked in the door when I thought I would, thus proving that the O1 flyer and a bike ride was just as fast as a 20-minute wait for the O12 Flyer that would have gotten me four miles closer.

All of this leads me to make one conclusion: If we are ever to use anything but the car to get around, we need to change the whole concept of how we get around. Eliminate the curb lane on Perry as a driving lane; go back to it being a two-lane road. But leave the curb lane there, only mark it as a bike and pedestrian lane. Note that there is no sidewalk along here, either.

"Anything but the car" means that in order to make it possible to use anything but the car to get around, we need to change fundamental road design, and that means fundamental change in the concept of how we get around at all. Some of this is chicken, some of it egg, but the first thing that has to happen is changing demand. That means get on your bikes and ride, and stop driving cars.

Yes, even in the suburbs.

Monday, June 11, 2012

My comments on the P-G article on the June 8 transit protest

I posted a long comment on this Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article:

The comments had less to do with the protest, and more with Port Authority's long-standing funding issues. With only minor corrections, here is my post.


This is long: ~730 words, excluding this line. So, you can TL;DR it, or actually learn something. Your call.

I have read the article and all 14 comments so far. I see two patterns: One, a set of people who repeat the oft-repeated mantras of PAT mismanagement and union greediness. I can hardly blame them. There is a grain of truth therein, but they are only two factors in a hugely complex equation. The second pattern comes from people who have gotten very closely involved in the situation over the years (I've been in it over 20), and know how complex this equation is. What one commenter said is true: PAT did some serious house-cleaning, and a complete rearrangement of the routing system to make it more cost-effective, an exact response to the demands in the 2005 funding fight, and implemented in Act 44 of 2007. Look at the numbers: Ridership rose 6% despite a 15% service cut. Thus, if all you have to say is to complain about unions and mismanagement, you lose much credibility for any other point you try to make.

While it's true the city has half the population it had 50 years ago (2010=305K, 1960=604K), the county has changed considerably less in comparison (2010=1.2M, 1960=1.6M its peak). The real interesting comparison is to 1930, when all public transit was provided by private, tax-paying companies. County population was much the same, but far more lived in the city itself (city=670K, county 1.37M). The population in these outer areas was in dense communities with their own, smaller, privately run transit systems, which became part of PAT when it was formed. The problem came after suburban sprawl began after WW2, and continues to this day. If PAT made any truly bad decisions, it was to try to serve these sprawly outer areas. People became too spread out to make transit cost-effective, but had enough clout to demand the areas be served, so they got the service, and simply expected the taxpayer to pick up the tab.

If you live in a house built since 1950 or so, on a street that was built since 1950 or so, YOU are the problem. Since you moved 15 to 30 miles out, instead of staying in the city where your (great-)grandparents lived, you are expecting the taxpayer to fund the cost of both transit *and* all those wide, suburban thoroughfares for your cars to travel on. The state cannot afford to fix roads and bridges OR fund transit. Something has to give, and really both are (raising taxes to fix roads is a different argument, though intimately related), but transit is getting the headlines.

What's getting cut now? These outer areas, mainly, though inner ones like Troy Hill and Mount Washington are getting caught in the same net. The bigger problem is that it costs lots more per person to serve the outer areas, much more than can be recovered through fares. While that's where a lot of the people are, the jobs are Downtown. Those jobs provide the income for the people paying the bulk of the STATE's income tax revenue. So it truly is in the state's interest to help underwrite the cost of public transit. But will Governor Corbett and the GOP-led House and Senate do that? I'm guessing no; they're slaves to Grover Norquist, Roger Ailes, and Rush Limbaugh. It won't happen. We're screwed.

Move the jobs from Downtown to the suburbs? That will be an option for some employers, but it causes more problems than it solves. Sure, you can commute from Port Vue to Cranberry, Kennedy to Monroeville, Aspinwall to Southpointe, when your employer moves operations there, but who would want to? And all the resulting traffic from everyone else doing the same thing? No, losing transit service is only the headline grabber of the moment. The real problem will be when decisions are made *because* the buses are cut. People will move. Employers will leave metro Pittsburgh altogether. And surely, any national company looking to set up shop will simply cross Pittsburgh off the list of places to even think about.

Would you like a proposed solution? How about this? It would surely help if the "non-profits" chipped in. UPMC has 54,000 employees. If it just out-and-out paid $1K apiece for an annual bus pass for each of them, that's $54M of PAT's $64M deficit. Play with the numbers, get buy-in from other companies to do something similar, and you've solved the deficit problem without touching taxes. I'm waiting to hear a concrete suggestion from anyone else.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Musings upon my daughter's graduation

Eight hours ago, I was sitting in a football stadium, watching as my little girl, my youngest child, graduated from high school. In three short months, she will be off to college and starting life. But that is a blog post for another day. Right now is to reflect on how she got here.

North Allegheny is a huge suburban school district, with over 8,000 students. Maybe a sub-title for this post might be "Never anything but the car," as that aptly describes how NA works. Every child, every time he or she goes to school, every time a parent needs to visit the school, a car (or school bus) is involved. With almost no exceptions, nobody walks to school. Even those living in houses bordering a school's property are carted to school on four (or six) wheels. No sidewalks, no trail system, no bicycles, no bike racks, no public transit of any sort. It's all done by cars and school buses.

Whatever. It works. Six hundred forty-five graduates. Of them, 158 have grade point averages of 4.0 or better, and it's not grade inflation. These kids are well educated. My own daughter pulled a 3.8 GPA for third-tier, mere "with honors". These are the kids who got 600 on each section of the SAT -- when they took it in seventh grade as a placement test for some other program. This is the school district whose marching band is so good, it played in President Obama's inauguration parade, the only one in Pennsylvania to do so. Night after night for years, we "parental units" were called upon for homework help, and the resources I drew upon to provide that assistance were more what I learned in college than high school.

I look at my daughter and think, "What did we do right?" and the answer is, a lot of things, starting at birth, but even that is not the whole story. It's the district, and the ability for the automobile to provide the backbone of support, from kids who oversleep the alarm clock, to needing to be shuttled home after school, or carting an art project or large musical instrument to and from, to getting kids to another one's house for a study session. It also does not hurt that everyone in this district is well paid, lives in a huge house, and owns three cars apiece.

Nearly every child drives by 17. The district has two high schools, one for 9th and 10th grades, and another for 11th and 12, and the junior high has about 30 designated parking spaces for student parking. Yes, enough 10th graders apparently need to drive to school rather than take the school bus that got them to the same school the prior year, that space is provided for them. That is how embedded the car is in the North Allegheny culture.

I can only wonder if we've reached a peak of sorts. What will happen to this district when it no longer becomes feasible for each family to keep three cars on the road? Are we there already? I don't have to think too hard to come up with a smattering of families who have moved, houses foreclosed upon, or a parent left to take a job after a long period of unemployment. Even in my own case, I muddled through a few years of austere existence, pretty much unable to do little more than provide food, housing and heat, and that only because I had only one car and no car payment. If I had had to replace a car six years ago, I don't know how I would have continued to live here. You have to be rich to live in North Allegheny. I honestly don't know how everyone else manages.

Well, we will see what happens when the frog boils. I've been saying for a while that life will change, big time, when daily use of a car becomes unsupportable. The effects will be felt in areas like this much sooner than in walkable areas. It will be less a matter of "how do we make do with only one car?" and more "why would anyone want to live out here if a car is so necessary?" And when those choices are made on a large scale, the people who have said means will choose not to live here but somewhere else instead, and leave NA for those who have no other choice but to live "out here". This might be a generation away, maybe only 10 years. Thus, I write this down so as to take a snapshot, to preserve a glimpse of how good it was, and how good my daughter had it, when it all still worked.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Multi-modal commuting: Getting the motorcycle inspected

I truly use anything but a car to get around. I have not entirely rid myself of the four-wheeled beast, but I use it as little as possible. Feet, bike, bus, motorcycle -- all of these get me where I'm going, with little to zero help from automobiles.

As an example of how I put this to use, allow me to illustrate the process of getting my motorcycle inspected. It took a bit of planning and a bit of bus fare, but I was able to get the motorcycle to an inspection station, and pick it up from it, without needing to be driven or dropped off, and without unnecessary delays (such as having to walk six miles home or anything like that).

On Friday, I called the inspection shop and arranged to have it inspected on Monday. The problem here is that it is not possible to walk out of the shop and catch a bus into town. Crossing the street is somewhere between impossible and suicidal. You just don't. Nor is there any close bus stop by walking up or down the street. Nor is the bus service there all that great.

Solution! Use a bicycle! Of course, sure, ride the motorcycle TO the shop, and ride a bicycle FROM the shop. OK, fine, how do you get the bicycle TO the shop without using a car, or getting a ride, or walking six miles, or being stranded? One word: Planning.

This was the plan: Saturday, I planned to go on a bike ride in the city. I would ride the bicycle to the bike ride, ride the ride, then ride the bicycle to the motorcycle shop. There I would tie it to a post, and catch a bus home. This actually worked pretty well. Monday, I motorcycled to the shop, dropped it off, hopped on the bicycle, and biked the rest of the way into work. No bus fare necessary.

The motorcycle was inspected, and ready for me to pick up whenever. Note that I did not have to wait hours in a waiting area to get the work done. However, the shop closed before I was able to get it Monday, necessitating biking home. Tuesday, I used a bus to get close to the shop, and walked the rest of the way. This was not all that easy, as there was still a quarter-mile hike from the nearest feasible bus stop to the inspection shop. Nor was it all that pleasant of a walk, as oncoming traffic sped by at 50+ mph, and a parked pickup truck (a man working on a billboard) blocked the shoulder, forcing me into the driving lane, but I managed to live through it.

Once I got the motorcycle, I could then drive it the rest of the way to work.

* No extra trips
* No use of a car, ever
* No having to wait anywhere, except small amounts to catch a bus
* I got some exercise
* I was able to work in the drop-off and pick-up along with my regular movements
* I was able to do all the logistics myself, not relying on anyone to help me

Net effect, some simple planning, use of a bicycle, multi-modal travel, and thinking outside the box, allowed me to avoid use of a car where a car and additional help would have been what anyone else would have arranged.

Friday, April 20, 2012

On the new 4-foot bicycle passing law

A few weeks ago, a new state law, HB170, took effect requiring Pennsylvania motorists to allow four feet of room when passing a bicyclist on a roadway. This was met with a large amount of negativity towards bicyclists, from calls to ban them from streets, to outright threats to mow them down. Indeed, we do have police record of one such case of a motorist repeatedly attempting to run down a cyclist on a Pittsburgh city street. Clearly this is a serious matter.

Let us please dispel the hostility. First and foremost, this is about public safety, the ability for all of us to get from A to B, and arriving at B in the same condition as when having left A. I know too many people, several of them personally, who suffered serious injury or were killed, for simply going about their business while on two wheels, following all the rules. Twenty Pennsylvania cyclists died in 2010 after being hit by cars. This law was needed. It was not developed in a vacuum.

Let us please agree on what this law is not about. We are not talking about cyclists who do not obey the rules. We are not talking about cyclists who endanger other users of the roads, be they pedestrians, motorists, or other cyclists. We are not talking about those who blow through red lights and stop signs without a thought or look. A good many of us do follow the rules. Please allow us the respect we deserve, and let law enforcement deal with the rest appropriately.

Note as well that a lot more of us are cycling. Maybe it's the better weather, maybe it's the better economy, maybe it's $4 gas, maybe it's fewer and farther between buses, but a lot more people are on two wheels than there used to be. Really this is a good thing. They're doing you a favor! Every bike you see means one more parking spot available, one less car squeezing into a tunnel, and that much less demand for gasoline to drive your cost that much higher, sooner.

We cyclists do not want to cause you distress any more than we want to be injured. We would all be very happy to let you get by and go on your way, but it would help for you to understand what we are dealing with. The law says, and said already, that cyclists have to stay as far to the right as practicable, but this is subjective. The law also says, and said already, that we do have the right to use the road, and to take the full lane whenever necessary. You may not see the pothole, the pile of loose gravel, the tree branch, the dead raccoon, or the drain grate that can swallow our tires whole, but we can. We may also size up the upcoming curve and decide it is not safe for you even to try passing us, and make that choice for you. Getting in the left half of the lane is our prerogative, and necessary for our own safety. Whether you agree with it or not, you have to accept that, and respect our choices.

A second item you may not be aware of is doors. Many cyclists have been killed or injured because of plowing into a just-opened door of a parked car, or, in trying to avoid them, swerving into the path of a vehicle moving faster. Since parked cars are a hazard for bikes, we get left and take the lane, or should. In a narrow street with a lot of parked cars, as a motorist, you should anticipate this. If you are a cyclist, insist on it. Get left. Take the lane. They can have it when you're done with it, but right now, it's yours, and they are just going to have to wait. Motorists, there is no way to sugarcoat this. Accept it, get used to it, and stop complaining.

In slowing you down for all of five seconds, I appeal to your sense of fairness. The postal worker drives a little delivery truck, the garbage collector drives a big one. While making their rounds, you have to slow for a few seconds, and then get around them. You do not question the need for this. All we are asking is that you give us the same respect you give them.

One reason we do have so many cars is because this law did not already exist. We cyclists hear it all the time: More people would bicycle, if it were not so dangerous. It is dangerous, or is perceived to be, because of the absence of this law. I am 53, but have been riding on the road since I was 6. Your small child should be able to to ride on the road with a level of safety equal to that of an adult. This law seeks to eliminate that fear, at least so other adults can feel empowered to at least try using a bicycle from time to time.

Allow me to address some of the common opposition to the new rule.
  • Bicyclists do not pay for the roads, so should not be on them. Bicyclists are taxpayers, and taxes pay for the roads. At the local level -- boroughs, townships, cities and counties -- from paving to plowing to traffic lights, property taxes pay for most road maintenance. At the state and federal levels, there is a fuel tax that should pay for roads, but neither has been raised in years, it has never been indexed to inflation, and needs now far outstrip what those taxes bring in. You are not paying for the roads, either. Cars today also have better fuel economy than when these taxes were implemented, so we have more motorists using the roads, per fuel-tax dollar brought in. If motorists paid for the roads properly, we would likely be looking at a large increase in the gas tax. Taking some of the traffic off the roads lessens the need for taxes to be raised, to accommodate more cars, so each bike you see is actually saving you money.
  • Bicycles should be restricted to trails and parks. Allow me to make a comparison here. Should cars be restricted to using only superhighways? We all share that "last mile", so we have to get along.
  • Cyclists should have to be licensed and insured, and their vehicles registered. Anyplace this has been tried ends up costing government much more than any benefit obtained or savings gained. Also noteworthy is that the calls for this come from some of the same people who are arguing for smaller government with less interference in private matters.
What would help, however, is if all cyclists were educated in proper use of bicycles and roads, from childhood on up. What would also help is if all motorists were educated on proper use of cars and roads, from childhood on up. We as a country do neither. We do more to promote both bicycles and cars as toys, from toddlerhood on forward, and our driver licensing is the most lenient in the world. Yet we have created a world where we have become dependent on one toy to the exclusion of the other. All we are asking is to level the playing field, at least a little bit.

To reiterate: This is about people, not bicycles. People, and keeping them safe. That is far more important than a moment's inconvenience. Please, let's just get along.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Toward a way to pay for a transit system

For almost half a century, Port Authority of Allegheny County, metro Pittsburgh's public transportation system, annually faces the question of figuring out how to pay the bills for the coming fiscal year. Their accounting staff crunch the numbers, calculating salaries, fuel, pensions, repairs, health care, maintenance, etc., on the expense side, and fares, tax subsidy expected, and the odd nickel and dime from advertisements on buses, on the revenue side. By law they must make ends meet. Some years are easier than others. Recent ones have not been easy.

This year, the hangman's noose awaits. The governor is not going to ride in on a white horse and save the day. This governor and this legislature have decided it is not going to fund transit, and there's precious little hope things will change. "Can't fund your local transit system? Not the state's problem, we can't pay our own bills, let alone yours. Fix it yourself."

So, let's do that. Never mind Harrisburg. I hate to say it, but they might be doing us a favor. Maybe we should figure it out ourselves. That said, I herewith put forth a plan for doing just that.

A review of some facts, with very rough numbers:
* It costs roughly $330 million to run the system the way it was designed.
* There are about 100,000 warm bodies who ride the system, however counted. Call it 110K with the occasional riders, just to make numbers divide nicely.

$330M / 110K people = $3K/year for each of those bodies, if the entire system was paid for strictly out of fares. That is far and away too much for one person to pay to use a transit system. But just for sake of argument, that shows the scope of the problem. If no tax subsidy and no employer or university or company underwrote any cost, each rider would be out $3K. This is still cheaper than owning and maintaining a car, but not by much.

To make clear, I am talking about running the system as it was designed to run, before routes and runs were cut in March 2011. Drivers have the same wages and benefits as what they have under the current contract, or at least that number is the same, for sake of argument here. No cuts to anything.

The goal here is in finding an acceptable balance among fares, tax subsidy, ad revenue, and corporate and university help. Within the realm of tax subsidy, there are various potential levels. Right now it is being done entirely by state and county subsidy. Federal and city/municipal numbers do not enter into it. The problem has been that the state has routinely been asked to kick in 60% or better of the cost, and that isn't going to happen anymore.

Rather orthogonal to this discussion, it would help if more people decided to rely on the transit system on a regular basis. If there were 165K instead of 110K riders, the out-of-pocket expense would be $2K, not $3K, per person, per year. Because demand would be higher, so would expenses, but we'll leave the number crunching to the experts. Just accept that the overall cost per rider would be less, the more potential riders there are. That's a long-range goal.

Now for some bright ideas. I'll start with fare policy, then move on to revenue sources.
* Remove the zone system. Just one zone. It either pays to run a bus to the hinterlands, or it doesn't. (Edit: Port Authority did propose a premium on long-haul trips from the outer suburbs in 2010, and the idea has merit.)
* Revamp transfers to use a timed-expiration system. Pay one fare, use that for two hours, whether you ride one bus or five to get where you're going.
* $2 fare, whether you ride one bus or five in that two hours.
* $6 all-day fare, whether you ride two buses or 10.
* $1,000 annual pass, unlimited riding. $500/6mo, $250/3mo, $85/mo, $25/week.

The point of this is to support using a system which requires multiple trips to get from A to B. Make fare payment a non-issue.

Now for some revenue.
* I am expecting that 1/3 of the cost will come from voluntary fares, whether at the farebox or a prepaid pass. That's not far from reality. Easily within reach, no real change.
* Get another 1/3 from various tax sources. I would do it with real estate taxes, focusing more on land than buildings. That's less than we're getting now. The mix of taxes will have to change, and I'm being intentionally vague, but 33% instead of 65% of the pot from current tax sources.
* For the remaining 1/3, I expect companies to chip in, big time. We already have Pitt and CMU contracting to allow their communities to have unlimited access to the system.

To get this rolling, I would impose an avoidable tax on all companies, assessed on employee headcount. Without avoiding it, companies would pay $500 per year (numbers are negotiable) per employee to the county to help pay for transit; that's about $42/month or $2/workday. This can be avoided by arranging with the transit company to purchase monthly bus passes for their employees, using part of the employees' regular earnings but pre-tax. This way, the employee gets a pre-tax benefit, anyone in the family can use the pass if the employee decides to drive to work every day, and PAT gets the full value of the fare paid. Alternatively, the employer can simply buy the passes outright and give them to employees, taking a tax write-off on the cost of the fare paid. Federal tax law already supports this.

The main thing is to put pre-paid fare out on the streets in large amounts, preferably in the hands of people who might not otherwise use the system. In doing this, companies would come up with $110M. That's only about 110K passes; at least twice that many people work inside city limits each workday.

The real main thing, of course, is to pay for a transit system when the state will not.

This, I think, will get the job done, raising $330M annually.

We all know what we have to lose by NOT doing this.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

To the PAT Board, 2012-02-29

February 29 @5:27pm speech to the PAT Board and CEO Steve Bland

Honorable members of the Board, and Mr. Bland, good afternoon, I am Stuart Strickland, from McCandless Township, a regular rider of the O12 McKnight Flyer, 12 McKnight and soon to be cut 2 Mount Royal bus routes. I already lost my Perry Highway routes in the 2011 service cuts and so walk most of a mile each way to get a bus every day.

As every properly informed person in the room knows, PAT didn’t cause this problem, state government did, through its persistent refusal to accept that public transportation does require tax subsidy to run properly. As every properly informed politician knows, spending money on public transit actually earns money for the state in allowing the wheels of commerce to turn efficiently in the denser urban areas that generate most of the state’s revenues. But the misinformed and willfully ignorant are in power at the moment, so here we are.

What can PAT do? The short answer is to convince 50,000 people in Pittsburgh – who do not now use public transit – to drop $990 or $1,430 as I just did to buy an annual bus pass. Selling 50,000 passes would raise the $60 million PAT needs to avoid the cuts. That would do it, that would fix the problem, plain and simple, without any help from government.

This points out the real problem. In the last 30 years or so, 50,000 Pittsburgh families have abandoned transit, choosing instead to spend five times what an annual pass costs, to have a car instead of using a bus system. How do you reverse 30 years of that in two months? You don’t do it by threatening to cut service. But to emphasize, it is not getting 50,000 current riders to drop upwards of a grand on an annual pass, but 50,000 who are not paying fare now. It would also help greatly to reinstate the six-month pass, charging for five-and-a-half months, even three months for two-and-three-quarters, bringing the out-of-pocket cost down to that of an average muffler or brake job. And that’s who you have to sell it to, not riders, but people trying to keep two or three or four cars on the road, and going broke doing so.

In the short run, PAT can and should conduct more than a PR campaign, it needs an anti-BS campaign. There is so much misinformation out there that no rational conversation can take place without first undoing the misinformation, person by person, company by company. Selling thousand-dollar items on a potentially shrinking system requires a leap of faith. I took it, but I was already paying fare. Now to get 50,000 people to do likewise.

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to speak.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

My letter to Rep. Mike Turzai, and the first ConnectCard

New PAT annual bus pass & receipt

February 17, 2012

House Majority Leader Mike Turzai

Dear Mike,

What good is a job if you can't get to it? I disagree with your views about Port Authority. I speak as a rider and historian, one who studies transit systems worldwide. Contrary to popular belief, Port Authority is not mismanaged, its staff and CEO and union drivers are not overpaid, and it is run efficiently. Five or ten or more years ago you could probably say that, but not today; 10 or 20 years ago you could say their unions were to blame but not today. 

There is a simple way to solve Port Authority's problems and a simpler one. The simple one, which you will oppose, is to hand them the $50M more they need this year and every year. The simpler one requires you to do nothing legislatively, other than change your tune, and that is to encourage 50,000 families in the area who do not now use transit, to spend over $1,000 apiece to buy an annual bus pass (photo attached, with receipt, purchased Feb. 16). 50,000 passes at an average $1,200 apiece = $60 million. Problem solved, you didn't have to do a thing. Every single one of those 50K families will likely halve their transportation expense by using transit instead of a second/third car. In my book, that's pro-family, a major talking point for Republicans.

To get to that, you and the other Republican leadership, and your friends at the Allegheny Institute and KQV 1410 and the Tribune-Review and various talk show hosts, need to stop trash talking the Port Authority. The system works -- I ride it daily -- and it would work better if it didn't have a piano hanging on a thin rope over its head year after year. Their biggest internal problem is not unions but rather a shortage of white collar staff to administer information systems to make it easier for people to use the system to get around. As an example, in the fully operational pre-4/2011 system, I knew how to do a triple transfer from my home in McCandless just off Perry by Perrymont Road -- using a 9 Perry Hwy to O1 Ross Flyer to G2 West Busway to 32 Campbells Run, to get to school at the University of Phoenix campus in Robinson. Most people cannot figure this out, but they could if they had better information, which PAT could provide if they had the computer professionals to implement software systems, which they could hire if they had not had to reduce their I.T. staff in 2001, 2004, 2007, 2010 and 2011, and likely again this year, which they would not have had to do if they had been funded properly. Fund them, let them put the TDP-designed system in place (as required by Act 44, as requested by Republicans in the 2005 budget deal), thus making it convenient for people to get around using transit, and the system can grow itself.

PNC is building yet another skyscraper Downtown. It will house 3,000 workers, many of whom will be your constituents in the North Hills. It will have parking for 300. I don't think a couple hundred people living in your district are going to bicycle up Federal Street at the end of every day. (Try it sometime!) But how else are they going to get there? Already the O12 bus is filling to capacity at Showcase Park & Ride; I know because I'm five bus stops down McKnight from it and I'm already standing going into town, on the longer 60-foot articulated buses. You would cut this further? Privatizing the system will not fix that problem.

This constant fear of cuts, this constant "always going broke", reinforces the idea that transit is not reliable. Stop it! This goes absolutely counter to your efforts at job creation. Kill enough transit, big companies will leave Pittsburgh. Maybe some will go to Cranberry, but some may go to Charlotte or Cleveland.

Your anti-transit talk is NOT helpful. Change your mind or change your tune. Thank you.

Stuart Strickland