Monday, August 14, 2017

In what way can I help the BLM movement?

After reading a friend's thoughtful, well written introspective about the Charlottesville incident, with a call to action, I have to think, where am I with the Black Lives Matter movement, and what can and should I do to promote it? This blog post will serve as a second draft.

First, I am pretty sure I don't have any slave-holding cousins. My stock is only two generations removed from Canada, and prior to that Scotland, the north of England, and a bit of German. I'm about as WASP as they come. The problem is that though my lineage is free of white supremacist entanglements, my upbringing is not.

In my own lifetime, I went to a rural, all-white high school and a 95% white state college. At 18 or 19, I clearly was the product of an intolerant background. Had I not made a couple of strong, lasting friendships in college, I might have remained that way. To this day, most of my near-blood relatives have diametrically different views on this topic.

The details of when and how I evolved, and who helped, are irrelevant to this discussion. What matters is that over the years I became what those near-blood relatives refer to as a bleeding heart liberal and a social justice warrior. In my day to day life, that matters because my goal in life is to make it possible for people to do anything other than drive. That means improving public transportation. Owning and operating a car is darned expensive, but it seems black people end up living where the only reasonable way to get around is via public transport that is either inadequate or absent altogether, and costly to use what does exist. The economic injustice aspect of this needs its own explanation, which I do not care to enumerate here. All that's relevant to this discussion is I have been part of organizations fighting to better the lot of transit riders for close to 30 years. To me it is all too clear where the red lines were and are, and blacks are getting screwed. Specific things like the fare and transfer policies favor pass holding suburbanites. Being white myself, conversation with the people from these areas is often awkward because they see me as the do-gooder, the outsider, there to meddle, or just white and that's reason enough not to converse. Maybe they're right sometimes; it's hard to say. I haven't been as effective as I wanted to be, but that doesn't keep me from trying, caring, or understanding.

So what do I do? Posting on social media seems a waste of time, merely a chance to vent, to throw my lot in with the side of justice, without actually changing anything for the better. But I have no pull where it really matters, in places which provide that proper leg-up to those in need.

I suppose I need to settle back to what I do best, provide the support to the organizations I am involved with, and focus on using them as tools to help the afflicted help themselves. For me, those would be two or three specific groups. First: ACTC, the citizens' advisory group for Pittsburgh public transit riders. No problem finding blacks who ride transit, but the organization currently has its own issues, limiting its efficacy. Second: Toastmasters, helping people develop speaking and leadership skills, in this specific case, getting minorities to join and participate. In my experience, Toastmasters tends to attract mostly white male professionals. Not all clubs are like this, but many are. It's just how word gets out. Money, too, is a limitation, as it isn't free, and the dues are high enough to scare many off.

Third: The cycling community. Most of the bike rides I find myself on are overwhelmingly white. Is cycling just one of those things white people do and blacks avoid? A solution to that might be beyond my scope. Merely pointing it out and questioning it might be all I can hope to accomplish. Again, I don't know how to reach out, or to have them understand I am in a position to help, or even for them to understand that what I am offering is help at all. I fear we may as well be speaking different languages.

Within cycling, my specific purpose is to focus on law-abiding riding techniques, supporting commuting by bike. Here, though, the places many blacks live are very hilly, thwarting the very idea of cycling. This has a chicken-egg aspect to it, as the desirable level places have forced out anyone who can't pay the higher rent, so the ones who need the most help are already living where it is most difficult to help them. If a black dominated area is flat, it's also distant from where people work, so they bus instead. So whether because of steep grades or long distances, you don't see too many black bike commuters.

What I will not be is complacent, merely tweeting opinions and posting relevant stories. I do plan to act. I just do not know how best to provide that help.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Test-sitting a new bus

Every few years, Port Authority of Allegheny County, metro Pittsburgh's public transit system, orders an entirely new style of bus. When they do, it has been customary for them to invite their citizens' groups -- the Allegheny County Transit Council (ACTC) and the Committee on Accessible Transportation (CAT) -- to tour the bus and make comments.

There is more than a grain of sense to this. We are the end users, and no matter how much planning and research goes on, when all is said and done what often happens is that the Pittsburgh order gets built into a larger order with other transit agencies, some larger, some smaller, and maybe we like some of what gets added or deleted, sometimes not. But we do get one prototype bus shipped in. We, the end users get a good look at it, as do various drivers and mechanics at the garages, in their own time and place. After all, they as well as we will have to live with these beasts every day for 12 to 16 years, the typical lifespan of an American transit bus.

Monday 31 July 2017 was a gorgeous summer day, bright blue skies, 80 degrees, just perfect for checking out this 2017 model New Flyer Excelsior articulated bus. It was parked just beyond the regular boarding area for East Busway routes at the Penn Park station downtown. When I arrived, the bus and various dignitaries and staff were already there, looking it over. Interim CEO David Donohoe was there himself, giving it a test-sit and talking to staff, management, and a couple of ACTC and CAT members. I myself arrived by bicycle, and within a couple of minutes had checked out the bike rack. It was nothing extraordinary, the same sort of rack that's already on hundreds of buses. Nothing new here; the real fun was inside.

It helps that I had been on a couple of these tours before. In 1993, I toured new Flxible #2300, along with #2292, one of 10 Orion V buses with a different engine that had arrived only a couple months earlier. I missed getting to tour the 1996 Novabus prototype. I did tour the Neoplan 45-footers (1901-1940), which also involved a tour of the not-yet-completed West Busway, in July 1998; it dead-ended between Crafton and the Parkway West at the time. I missed the tour of the last Neoplan artics (3100-series, in 2004), but did test-sit the New Flyer articulateds (#3200, November 2008). Anyway, a lot of them over the years. In each of these, I learned to listen to the managers as they explain some of the thinking that went into the design decisions. The way to do this is to have an intelligent question or a relevant concern to point out, then just stand next to the right people and patiently wait your turn. Meanwhile, take mental notes.

One thing I pointed out was that there seemed to be a bit of an elevation difference between the main floor of the bus and the articulation joint, maybe a half inch. That's enough to trip over, and I mentioned this to someone. Fifteen minutes later, someone else pointed out the same thing to me, independently, so I went over to the same official and pointed it out a second time. This time, he came back with me to take a look at it himself. One thing that came of it was that he thought it might be possible to get the big rubber ring around the artic point ordered in yellow instead of black, so that it would stand out better. To be honest, that might be enough. But the fact that the concern got looked at at all was because ACTC was invited to have its say, and pointed out something top brass had missed.

I counted 52 seats, about the same as existing artics, and about the same as the 1900 series 45-footers that were retired a couple years ago. The artics will be used on heavy ridership in-city routes like the 61- and 71-series, the East and West Busway all-stops, and a few heavy hauling suburban routes like the O12 McKnight Flyer. We could probably use more than these will replace, as a lot of routes are full to bursting, but the net difference after the 2004 order of artics is retired will be zero or close to it. (The real problem is space; we just don't have room to hold 10 to 20 additional rolling stock, as I understand it. Find 30 acres closer to town than the old closed Harmar facility, and $250 million to build a garage, and then maybe.)

On to the tour. My video camera worked for about the first eight minutes of the visit. About half of that is walking toward the bus and trying out the bike rack; the other half is counting bus seats. Would have been nice to get another 15 to 30 minutes, but oh well. At least I could take pictures and tweet. Here is the video:

Photos I tweeted.

Some photos that Andrew tweeted: