Sunday, March 15, 2015

The misery of the long-distance suburban pedestrian

In retrospect, I should have called for a taxi. Before the night was over, I'd be in one, anyway.

This all started back in December, when I was rear-ended on my motorcycle. The bike was still functional, including all rear lights (held on now with a bungee), but needed repair at a dealer, and that was the problem. There are no dealers close to home, and none on a bus line. I could get the bike there, but how would I get back?

Snow, ice, cold, and excessive road salt (as dangerous to ride on as loose gravel) thwarted any attempt to get it fixed until the second week of March. I opted to work from home on Wednesday so I could do what needed to be done, and if I was lucky, get to the one bus back into town that went anywhere near that shop, if two miles could be considered "anywhere near".

I wasn't lucky, and my first mistake of three that made the day a failure was not having a backup plan. Delays in finding needed paperwork and getting the bike started after almost three frigid months put me at the dealer beyond when I could hike to that one bus. I had my work with me, so figured I could set up shop in a coffee shop or restaurant when I got to one, so the day itself would not be wasted. On that one point, things worked as planned, as I spent most of the afternoon in a Starbucks.

Wednesday was sunny and in the 50s, the fourth warm day after weeks and weeks of snow and cold. Water was rushing everywhere along roadsides and driveways, but the snow and ice pack was thick enough that much was still intact. This made for careful treading, picking one's way along the shoulder, where there was any, between snowbanks, ice-covered ground, running water, soggy gravel, swampy grass, broken pavement, and of course, oncoming traffic.

My second real mistake was underestimating the distance I had to travel. I figured two miles to the bus; it was over 2.5. I figured six miles from that corner to my house, or maybe it was nine (I tweeted both numbers), but it was over 11. All told, I hiked 14 miles, with a laptop strapped over my shoulder and a motorcycle helmet in hand.

Let me run through a guided tour, using Google StreetView to point out some of the finer details.

This is PA910 at Middle Road. I am walking on the left side, so have to cross this corner. The summertime view doesn't show the 5 gallons per second gush of meltwater coming down the side road as I make my way along that oh-so-wide shoulder, which, by the way, was about half that width because of chunks of ice. Oncoming traffic is supposed to be going 40-max, but was easily 50. Every fourth vehicle was a pickup truck, or larger. Easily six vehicles a minute. This 2.53 miles of PA910 took about 35 minutes.

Just another random spot along that first two miles. Imagine trying to ride a bicycle along here. This isn't some country backroad. This is THE main path across northern Allegheny County. Daily traffic counts are in the 10,000 range. There is never a break in traffic, either direction. Practically zero shoulder, either side. Tractor trailers once or twice a minute, both directions. There is no alternative path. It's flat and straight, for the most part. Ten mph over the speed limit is routine, 15+ typical, 20+ common, 25+ hardly rare.

About two hours in the Starbucks by 910 and 8 and I actually got a good bit of productive work done. I might have stayed longer but the batteries in both the laptop and the iPad were both down to near nothing, and I knew I had a long walk yet.

At one point, I noticed a lady getting off an outbound Meyers Coach bus and crossing Rt 8, not at the light, but at the gas station directly across from Starbucks. There really isn't any public transit up this way. That Meyers bus is the closest thing. Meyers owns the rights to bus service along Rt 8, a vestige of the early 1960s consolidation of dozens of bankrupt and failing trolley and bus companies. The company that had the Rt 8 service in 1960 didn't sell out to the county, and has maintained that Butler-to-Pittsburgh route ever since, now under the Meyers name. Had I been running an hour sooner, I might have caught that one mid-day inbound trip.

This, people, is what public transit on a major thoroughfare looks like when it has zero public support, only one trip in the middle of the day. And this lady had to dodge a five-lane thoroughfare mid-block to get to where she was going, which, I suspect, was a hide-and-ride at the Giant Eagle lot up the street. (Hide-and-ride: Like a park & ride, only in a grocery or plaza with prominent no-park-and-ride signs where your car is just one of the masses. If it doesn't stand out, and you park in a different spot every day, you can get away with this for quite a while.)

It was about here where I stepped into a driveway to send this tweet:
  • Walking PA910 is a bitch. Like Perrymont but faster traffic. No shoulder to speak of, ice & meltgush push you into the lane.

After climbing this narrow, nasty hill and getting safely across the intersection at the top, I sent this tweet:
  • My helmet is on my right wrist in case I need to push away from a jackhole who can't give me even 6" space.

This tweet was sent here.
  • Had to cross. River covering entire eastbound lane, incl berm. Grass next to it is a swamp.

However, that would not last long, as I felt more in danger from drivers who could not see me because they were driving directly into the sun. I could not move farther off the road, and there was noplace alongside the road to stand. That was when I sent this tweet:
  • Being on this side, the sun is in ppl's eyes, making it harder to see me. But past river now so back to proper side.

I had a problem coming down this hill. Again, water and ice entirely covered what little shoulder there was. Westbound traffic was stopped altogether because of a passing train ahead. Eastbound traffic, where I was, had noplace to veer to get around me. Now I was really in a pickle. What to do! Answer: Stand squarely in the center of the eastbound lane and *force* traffic to slow to 10 mph or less, then step aside in a spot where I could hop onto a slightly more stable chunk of ice. Once those few cars passed, then get back out into the lane and continue. I had to repeat this three times. It really takes some balls to face down traffic coming at you at 35 mph and have no intention of getting out of the way until they slow down, but what else was I going to do?  Stand in ankle-deep floodwater? Slip off the moving ice chunks and land directly in front of you? Hell no. Defy traffic. YOU WILL STOP. I waited until they got in sight, knowing the sun was shining right on me, stepped into the left tire track, *pointed* at them, legs shoulder width apart. Then when they slowed considerably, I stepped to where I could see I could get to safely.

And I'd do it again, if I had to. And I recommend the practice, should it become necessary. Safety first, and to hell with maintaining traffic flow. That's not important. Those people are stopped for a train. You will stop for me, same as if I was a downed tree.

Somewhere along here, I got the idea to figure out how wide the traffic lane was. In a lucky break in the traffic, I paced off 10-1/2 steps from white line to yellow line. That seems narrow. County maintained Perrymont Rd near my house has 10-foot lanes, and that seems narrow. This state road is only 10.5? This is the state standard? I'm not saying the road should be wider, but rather that the speed limit should be lower. 35 or 40 should be 30 or 35. And if that pisses people off, then tough. The roads aren't safe, and I don't care if daily traffic counts are 12,000+ along this segment.

Sent this tweet here:
  • Man picking up trash on opp side. I said thank you. He laughed & replied "Every little bit helps."

Sent this tweet as I approached this curve:
  • On PA910 like on Perrymont, drivers cross on the inside of the white line on a curve where it's blind. Only 10mph faster.

Toward 6:30, sun still shining, I reach Karrington Woods Drive, which I thought would take a nice little slice off the pointy corner I knew I would have to traverse if I stuck on 910 up to Babcock Blvd. As it turned out, it was over a quarter mile longer, as it curls and curves through suburban real estate carefully carved out to create the greatest number of saleable residential units. It also has sidewalks! But barely 200 yards in, I was greeted with this:

...and that would not be the only one. While many, even most, walks were clear, a few had made no effort all winter to move any snow. At the worst of these, the homeowner was just getting out of her car as I came past. While I did not say a word, I made abundantly clear that I was having trouble standing up on her still inch-thick icepack the width of her property and climbing over knee-deep snowbanks next to her very clear driveway. Not caring to make a scene any further, I did not yell or take a photo. Nor was I the only pedestrian, though I suspect the couple other people I saw simply used the street at that point.

Off of Karrington, onto Babcock, from here a straight shot toward home. This is a known cycling road, and I've cycled it myself a few times, though I'd never walked it. Walking it, though, brought back memories of those few times I'd been up it on a bike, and one of those memories was of a bunch of tree branches that stuck into the northbound berm about a mile out of North Park. I got to those trees on foot, and thought to myself, self, those trees are blocking pedestrian travel, and for the many cyclists, they're pushing them out into the lane where a lot of cyclists don't want to be. Howzbout we take care of that problem right here, right now. I also noted that "This Property Protected By" signs and posted signs were all over the place. Well, fine then. I'm not encroaching on your precious property, whoever you are, who apparently also has a quarter mile long driveway with numerous outbuildings. But apparently you have no concern for the people who have to travel past your property. So, we'll just do a little branch maintenance here. No reason to concern ourselves with the trouble of reporting you to municipal authorities for not keeping your growth cut back. In short, then, I spent easily five minutes busting off a couple dozen branches from the trees along this bit of road. Just as I have kept the growth cut back along Perrymont the many hundreds of times I've walked along it, and a couple of spots on Perry Highway. I sent a tweet that cyclists could thank me for the assist.

Once I got into North Park, I crossed to use the sidewalk on the west side of the road as there was none on the east side. Ingomar Road was closed to all traffic, so I had no problem crossing there. Continuing south, I encountered a downed tree nearly blocking the berm for all foot traffic. I was able to bust off a couple of branches, then pick the whole remaining piece and shove it over the guardrail, thereby allowing anyone to use the wide berm for walking or jogging. There actually is the remnant of a sidewalk along this bit of the road while still in the park, and I used it while it was there.

It got dark by the time I left the southern end of the park. I watched Venus begin to appear in the western sky, and a little later, faint Mars also appeared a bit below Venus. Jupiter was also bright, not quite overhead. The sky was quite clear. Then, just before I got to the Vo-Tech school, this deer stood opposite me, perfectly silhouetted against the backdrop of dusk.

Venus is bright enough in the picture above to show up in the full image, in the upper-right corner.

Once I got within sight of UPMC Passavant Hospital, I thought about the use of a 12 McKnight bus. It would gain me maybe a mile in a couple of minutes, and drop me off at my usual morning bus stop. Would it be worth it, if I could catch it? Worth running for it? The closer I got, the less enthralled I was with the idea. I had just walked nearly four hours, and this would save me, what, maybe 15 minutes? For $2.50 in bus fare? I didn't wait, and with each bus stop I passed, there grew less still any point in getting that ride. Now if this had been 2007, before the system started getting cut back severely, I would still have had an 11A trip at some point in the evening, from well out on Babcock. Ah well, it's long gone.

I could sense my legs tiring some by the time my usual bus stop came in sight. It was also getting chilly, as the meltgush was pretty much done by nightfall. It had been nearly four hours of continuous motion by this point, and I was as much bored as tired. That's when I sent this tweet:
  • 20:48 at my usual bus stop. Should be easy from here!

I got the light green as I approached, so jogged across as I usually do. Then this happened (two tweets):
  • JHK-5200 black SAV (suburban assault veh): Almost runs me over stopping 1-1/2 car lengths past stop line, then illegal no-turn-on-red.
  • So yeah, after 9 miles on foot, nearly get killed crossing with the light at the corner I use daily. Wearing a flashing yellow light!

At 9:10, I finally walked into the house and tweeted "safely home". Unfortunately the night was only getting started. I prepared myself a simple dinner, plugged in the laptop, checked on a couple of things at work, and was in bed by 10:30. What I didn't do was get anything to drink, the third big error.

About midnight, I awoke with a strange feeling. I've never barfed in a bed, partly because somewhere in the reptilian part of my brain, some wiring exists that senses things are amiss and gets me up. Hearing my wife and son talking downstairs, I went down and said "I don't feel well," then sat down at the dining room table. Next thing I knew, I was looking up at my son on the phone to 911 and my wife trying to ask me things. I managed to sit up and say the word "sick" to her. Then some other stuff happened. TMI. Anyway, 10 minutes later I'm strapped into a stretcher and put in an ambulance, the first in my adult life. I'm conscious, alert, coherent, talkative. But I repeated the [details deleted] in the E.R. the second my mouth touched a cracker, so it was no fluke. Three hours in there.

We have no car, and my wife rode over in the ambulance anyway, so there was no way home at 3:45 a.m. other than by taxicab. I had nothing on other than the PJs and T-shirt I'd worn over, and the hospital gown and a blanket. Not even shoes. And it had gotten cold! But 10 minutes and $12 later, I was back in my own house.

As one friend posted on Facebook, cross that one off the bucket list, and never do it again.

  • Conditions for pedestrians along Pennsylvania highways are unsafe by design. 
  • Speed limits are universally ignored, usually by a two-digit excess in velocity.
  • If conditions are bad in dry, sunny weather, any combination of dark, wet, bad weather, or ice, snow or water along the road, makes them magnitudes more dangerous.
  • Speed limits, even if enforced, are too high, designed to emphasize capacity over safety.
  • There really is no way to widen these roads to accommodate pedestrians or bicycles, and no money to do it even if it could be done.
I do not have any constructive suggestions. Don't walk there, don't bike there, don't drive there, don't live there. Do not use these roads. That's not much help, is it?

Monday, March 2, 2015

Ross Township Bike-Ped Committee thoughts, Part 1

I have high hopes for this newly formed Bike-Ped committee, which met for the first time on 25 Feb. That's tempered by their frequently repeated wish for bike lanes. I don't want bike lanes. More to the point, I don't want to waste our time and energy pursuing something that, while all shiny and appealing, does not accomplish our goal of getting people around on a bike safely.

Similarly, the ped folks want sidewalks. Problem with that is, doing that would require either widening the right of way or narrowing the travel area on most streets. That's a fail on multiple levels: The cost is high, physically the terrain makes it difficult, and people don't want to have to maintain something forced on them. More importantly, I don't think that it's achievable, at least not as achievable as other, simpler tasks which accomplish the same goal of encouraging walking and jogging.

The fundamental problem is that we want to backfit a 21st-century livability rubric onto a mid-20-century suburban sprawl street pattern. Most of the town was laid out with the understanding that 100% of all travel would be by automobile. Absent one, travel is difficult to impossible. And getting to that is exactly what we want to accomplish.

We are not the first township in such a pickle. I suggest we identify who has faced it already, study what they tried, and what successes and failures and experiences they had.

For my part, it would help if I identified some resources, and in general track down some of what I suggest above, to be shared with the rest of the committee:
* As described in the paragraph above, who has done this before, and how well did it work?
* Videos and other resources from I Am Traffic about bike lanes
* Places in Ross where I had negative interaction with motorists while on a bike.
* Places in Ross where I have had difficulty walking
* Access to trails in Ross, at least those I find likely
* A bit about invasive species, notably Japanese knotweed, and how it might be controlled
* Write up a summary of my 27 Feb run-in with a motorist on Perry Hwy
* Summarize my #fuckinghorn experiences from @bus15237 on Twitter
* About rolling back parking minimums. Where did that originally come from? How do you reverse that?

That would be a good jumping-off point for further discussion at the second and following meetings.