Sunday, November 25, 2018

Coffeeneuring 2018, a summary

I need to get blogging again, and I need to get riding again. Despite getting a new bike at the end of the season last year, I don’t think I put 300 miles on it in 11 months. The annual Coffeeneuring Challenge gives me motivation and reason to do both. Coffeeneuring, for those unfamiliar, is riding a bike for some non-trivial distance, for the singular purpose of drinking a cup of coffee. The challenge takes place as the days are getting shorter and the air is getting colder, when people tend to put away their bikes for the season. Point being, of course, don’t! Get out there and ride, preferably someplace new. Then tweet or at least photograph proof that you went there and did that. Do that for seven weeks in October and November.

I take this idea one further, to hit seven of eight different areas around Pittsburgh. To me, there is no adventure in going to seven nearby coffee shops one town over. The idea is to explore, find out new venues, new roads or trails, new people to ride with, learn about neighborhoods and nearby towns you have not been to. To that end, in 2016 I devised a rough set of destinations.

1 - Near north: North of the Allegheny or Ohio Rivers, but without climbing a big hill or going any distance.

2 - Far north: North of the rivers, but up a big hill, or going some distance into the suburbs.

3 - Near south: South of the Monongahela, but without climbing a big hill or going any distance.

4 - Far south: South of the Mon, but up a big hill, or into the suburbs.

5 - Between the rivers: In the city. Getting east of the Blue Belt is #8.

6 - West: Anywhere south of the Ohio and west of US19 is a particularly difficult area to get to.

7 - Distant diagonal. McKeesport, Cheswick, Emsworth, are all close to a river but a long distance from the city.

8 - Far East: Similarly, anywhere east of the city line is an entirely different area from close-in city neighborhoods between the rivers. For purposes of category, I consider this anywhere beyond the Blue Belt, a series of roads that roughly denote the eastern edge of the city.

Ride #1 - OTB Bicycle Café, North Park (northern suburbs)

For me, since I live in what classifies as far north, I tried to pick a location that I had not previously biked to. I also got a late start, past 4:30 p.m. on a Sunday. Though I’d been out on the bike earlier, it didn’t occur to me to try to work in my coffee adventures as part of my travels. So much for planning.

Where to go? A good Plan B was the Panera barely two miles from the house. But I’d used that for my 2016 far north trip, and I ate there within the week. No adventure there.

Well, how about North Park? I had not yet eaten at the OTB Bicycle Cafe in the park, though I’d been to their South Side location many times. OK, that’s a plan. Nor had I biked to the park in a very long time, probably a couple of years.

Once there, I ordered a coffee, and since the sun was getting low in the sky, got my obligatory tweet sent while I could still see the lake. Dinner itself was pierogies and a pumpkin ale. It all tasted great and settled well. But with tip, the bill got darned close to $25. Can’t do that every day!

The trip back, it was starting to get dark, and was fully dark by the time I arrived home 20 minutes later.

The only unfamiliar road here was Babcock, strange in that the start of the unfamiliar part isn’t a mile from my house. Just that I never go that way.

Ride #2 - Between the rivers

This started as a 412 Flock ride. "Flock" rides grew out of Critical Mass rides a few years ago, and a core group of the original Flock riders meets at Dippy, the huge dinosaur outside the Carnegie Museum in Oakland. That day there were just three of us.

Of that, two of us headed for his book study group that meets at The Big Idea Bookstore on Liberty Avenue in Bloomfield. Turned out to be an enlightening discussion of witchcraft and witch trials in 17th century North America.

Also, tea. You cannot properly discuss books and their contents without a pot of tea on the table. [pictured]

My trip to the ride started, oddly enough, in a park. There wasn't enough time to ride to the ride from home, and parking in Oakland is always difficult, so I drove to a spot in Schenley Park, more than a half mile from our rendezvous point, but what's a half mile on a bike?

From Dippy, it was a fun little ride on Forbes, Craig, Bayard, Neville, Centre, and finally Millvale Ave up to Liberty, where we parked the bikes outside the shop.

After discussing witches and religious trends and political and world history for the last 400 years, we tied it up for the night. I reversed my tracks - Millvale, Centre, Neville, Fifth, Dithridge, Forbes sidewalk, library sidewalk, and back through the park to the car.

Ride #3, West End

I got out of work early on Friday, before 3. I had an all-night work commitment the following night, which was going to make any sort of bike trip over the weekend difficult, so if I wanted to complete this week’s installment of my Coffeeneuring challenge, it was now or never. The question was, where?

Retrieving the bike from the Third Avenue Garage, I noted with pleasure that Third Avenue now has a contra-flow bike lane, facilitating riding toward Grant Street. I would not have noticed that were it not for this trip to parts unknown. Then I biked south on the Smithfield St bus lane, now legal to bike on. It even has bike symbols between the words of “bus only”. Nice touch, whoever arranged and designed this.

Straight across the Smithfield St Bridge, ported down the steps, and rode through Station Square. I was still not sure where to head from there. Choice A was to go up the Duquesne Incline and find a coffee shop in Mt Washington (south up a hill). Choice B was to head west, out West Carson (west). That decision was guided by checking my lights and cameras. If anything was amiss, Mt Wash; all good, west. Once heading west, decide: West End or McKees Rocks? As I didn’t feel like dying on outer West Carson, I went with West End.

The first place I came to was the 412 Café on South Main at Sanctus. I wasn’t too hungry; I’d just had lunch an hour or so ago. But I’d heard good reviews of the place, so partook of a simple cup of coffee and a muffin. [insert tweeted photo here]

Ride #4 – Coughlin’s Law, Mt Washington (south up a hill)

For this ride, I only knew I wanted to head south. How far south, and getting what, I didn't care much. I found myself climbing Sycamore Street, one of the toughest hills in the city. This became a problem, as my chain was skipping badly, to the point where I nearly had to get off and walk. Somehow I found a gear I could climb in, though, and made it up to Grandview Avenue.

However, there are no coffee shops on Grandview, and precious few choices of any type. I ducked back to the main commercial street a few blocks away, and started scouting choices. There really wasn't much outside of gas stations and convenience stores, and I didn't really feel much like leaning against a brick wall and gulping down coffee from a styrofoam cup.

Where I ended up was Coughlin's Law, a trendy restaurant that ended up costing me even more than my OTB trip a month earlier. But it got me out of the traffic downtown (Thursday night Steelers home game), and got me some choice cider along with a huge meal.

Ride #5 – Crazy Mocha, South Side Works (south near the river)

This one was totally on impulse. I didn't feel like heading straight home after work one day, and the weather was decent except for being a bit breezy, so I rented a bike and headed out the Jail Trail. I wasn't sure if I would head out toward McKeesport like I did in 2016, or simply short-circuit that by picking a coffee shop on the South Side itself. I opted for the latter.

The trip out was fun! I flew like the wind! Turns out, as I discovered on the way back, that it was indeed a strong tailwind that pushed me along, as I fought a strong headwind all the way back downtown.

I didn't feel all that adventurous once I parked the bike, so landed at the Crazy Mocha on East Carson in South Side Works, a place I'd been many times before. But it fit the bill, so I got a brownie and a cup of coffee, pawed through my social media feed, and called it a night.

Ride #6, Tazza d’Oro, Millvale

For my sixth trip, I limited myself to either the North Where It’s Flat or Distant Diagonal. After losing all of last weekend to a weird work schedule and rotten weather which stayed unpleasant all week, I wondered if I would fit in these last two trips at all. Sunday morning dawned looking pleasant, though, but my initial plan to drive the bike to a different starting point as part of my food rescue mission got kiboshed by oversleeping.

The chain and drive train got oiled well after the Mount Washington trip, but I found out in my first half mile that I was still having trouble. This was going to limit my travels, but didn’t veto the trip altogether.

I made it almost to 30 mph on my way down six-lane McKnight, but even this wasn’t enough to stave off the haters who flew past me one or two lanes over, 10-15 over the posted-40 limit, complete with profanity and horns. Just verbal harassment, but good to grab plate numbers nevertheless.

Upon reaching Millvale, I debated whether to remain there or brave the railroad ballast to Sharpsburg. Millvale would be “level north”, Sharpsburg would be distant diagonal. As I hadn’t eaten lunch, and the brand new TdO was right next to me, that was an easy choice to make. Stop in and get some food.

Ride #7 - Anchor & Anvil, Ben Avon

Friday I had to work all day, and though I worked from home and the weather was great, it was nearly sunset before I even had a chance to get out the door. Saturday dawned with a downpour, nearly a half inch of cold rain before noon. Some places nearby had freezing rain, so I was almost ready to call the whole day a wash. But it warmed into the 40s after lunch and the rain petered out to a mild drizzle, so I said Rule 9, strapped the bike to the car, and went one town over to start my trip. (Between being hit in 2016, and dozens of horns and verbal abuse and many close passes, all within two miles of my house, I avoid the main road next to my house if I can.)

Where to go? I wanted to try a distant diagonal, but didn’t feel like driving anywhere beyond where my errand had me go, to West View, a mere three miles away. Good enough, though. Three miles from that is Bellevue, from which I could hit any of the Ohio River towns NW of Pittsburgh.

West View to Ben Avon is a pretty low-key ride, just rolling hills through the suburbs on what had at one time been a trolley line, so sight lines are good, the grades are manageable, and traffic speeds rarely exceed 25 mph. From Bellevue I knew I couldn’t get beyond Emsworth before I ran out of good road, but when I saw Anchor and Anvil Coffee Bar in Ben Avon, I knew I’d found my destination. Also not lost on me was that it was “small business Saturday”, so I was quite willing to spend a few bucks there.

Even better, they had Oram’s Donuts! If you’re ever in the NW reaches of Pittsburgh, you *have to* find Oram’s Donuts. Their store is, I think, in New Castle? Some ways up north. You have to look for them! Their cinnamon rolls will feed an army, or one very hungry person. I settled for a donut.

The trip back to West View was also uneventful. Not a single horn, holler or close pass.

Trip #7 in the books! And so is the challenge!

Friday, January 26, 2018

5 Musts, 5 Shoulds, 10 Like-tos for the new Port Authority CEO

A transit company can do its day-to-day work just fine without a CEO. The buses and trains run, stuff gets fixed or plowed or paid for, as appropriate, and existing projects lumber along to their eventual completion. Upper-level staff can do the routine directing to allocate people, materials and money. What the CEO does, though, is define that direction. She figures out what major work should get done. She makes the connections to keep the money flowing. She thinks outside the box, brings in new ideas, and sometimes has to say no. Some top staff can be placeholder CEOs, but what we really need is a visionary who can also manage.

I think we have that person in Katherine Eagan Kelleman.

We in the advocacy and advisory world must grasp this opportunity to work with the new CEO. What are those things that were asked for 20 years ago and just couldn't ever get done, for whatever reason, yet are still needed? What problems have never gone away? Now is the time to ask all those old questions again. Now is also the time to bring to attention that the world has changed, and we simply cannot do things the way we always used to.

Ask all the questions. Again. Only put some order to it. I ask of everyone to categorize them into "must-do", "should-do" and "like-to-do". I have my bigger wish list, and it's far longer than 20 items. But these 20 always keep coming back, 10 of those are big, and five of those are paramount. 

What are yours? These are mine.

Five Musts

1. A stable, reliable revenue source for the operating budget
Funding the transit system each year has been an ongoing problem ever since PAAC was formed over 50 years ago. We thought we had it solved in 1986, 1991 and 2013, only to see the legs of the stool kicked out yet again. For once and for all, solve this.

2. Peace between labor and management
We have one of the strongest labor unions in the country in ATU 85. This is fine if they’re happy. The customer suffers, the city and county and region suffer, if they are not. Get their leadership on board with any needed changes.

3. Management accountability beyond reproach
Love or hate Barack Obama, one thing he did right was to hold his staff to a level of professionalism such that there was not one firing, not one scandal, not one resignation, in his entire eight-year presidency. Do likewise.

4. Vastly better rider information delivery
The Achilles Heel of riding transit is not having truly usable travel information in a form and at the time it is needed. Not incremental but exponential improvements are in order. Think of it this way: Any use of a car where transit could get the job done is a failure of information delivery.

5. The respect of the ridership
Admittedly the most nebulous, subjective, and unattainable goal on this list. You will never get there, but you’ll know if you’re headed in the right (or wrong!) direction. Do the other 19 things and this will follow.

Five shoulds

1. Return to 24-hour service on a few routes
We had it on six routes with plans to expand to eight. One of the annual cash crunches killed this. Solve the funding problem and this will solve itself.

2. 50% ridership increase in three years
We have about 110,000 warm bodies who use the system daily. Decades ago, that was more like 200K. What will it take to top 150K?

3. Restore routes cut in 2011, along with complete implementation of TDP
The Transit Development Plan grew out of a 2008 study (Connect ‘09) at the behest of (urban public transit hating) state legislators in the FY06 funding fight, who insisted the system become more efficient, more cost effective, more responsive to riders’ needs. But because of the March 2011 cuts, the plan was never fully implemented. Solve the funding problem and finish this long overdue task.

4. A fifth bus division
Harmar Division was shut down in that same 2011 cut. But don’t rebuild Harmar. Site a division as close to downtown as possible, and run all that 24-hour service out of it, thus freeing the outer divisions to better serve the farther reaches of the county.

5. Rebuild the complaint system
“Dysfunctional.” “Black hole.” “Worse than useless.” Those are the family friendly terms used to describe it. How does any other system handle complaints?

Ten like-to-dos

1. Free fares
While resolving the revenue problem, aim high. Do it without paid fares. You are running a horizontal elevator system. Does a building landlord charge fares to get tenants and their customers to upper floors?

2. Vastly cleaner rolling stock
However we’re doing it, the floors and seats are usually disgusting, and are a lot of why riders jettison the system as soon as they are able. Yes, I know some buses are in motion 21 hours a day. Other cities don't have persistently filthy buses.

3. Revamp the lost-and-found system
Tying in with the dysfunctional complaint system, it’s not out of line to say that if lost articles are reunited with their owners, it’s a miracle. Sometimes it happens, usually it doesn’t.

4. Resolve debate over whether a bus is in service when on/off-road or cross-country
A long standing labor-management dispute. Several locations in the area have meager to no service despite a steady flow of buses going past. Operators won’t let them on because of this argument. Again, the rider suffers, and people use cars more.

5. Vast expansion of bike parking & bike rental at light rail, busway, and high-usage stops.
The world is changing. People use their own bikes, people rent bikes, and we may yet get a dockless bike share system. But hardly any of the high-use stops via any mode have a high capacity bike rack. Even neighborhood stops could use a two-bike lockup like the Three Rivers racks.

6. No-drop cell service on entire light rail system
Dead zones in tunnels and underground sections seriously discourage ridership.

7. Bicycle usage of the Wabash Tunnel
There is only one of the 12 routes to bike downtown from south of Mount Washington without either climbing an enormous hill or taking your life in your hands, and Port Authority disallows it, due to an ancient and arbitrary decision based on a bad design. Change the rule.

8. A more useful website. Specifically, less overhead, more substance, far faster.
Trying to use the website on a slow line or old phone is painful. Lose the glitz, pack an order of magnitude more information on it, and make it easier to navigate. How does any other system do this?

9. Return of 6-month farecard subscription, as well as 3-month, 30-day and 7-day options.
The six-month subscription was lost in the same FY02 crunch that killed 24-hour service because it was considered too costly to administer. With the move to electronic farecards and 16 years of technology improvements, this objection is no longer relevant. Similarly, a seven-day pass is not the same as a weekly. These could be bought in advance and given out as gift cards. The clock starts ticking the first day it is used and ends after six days later. Ditto 30-day cards. Think of a 7-day pass as valid from a Wednesday to a Tuesday, or a 30-day pass valid from the 14th to the 13th.

10. Seamless connections to nearby public transit systems, Amtrak, private carriers, and aviation.
Make it possible and even easy to transfer between systems from nearby counties, as well as aviation and Amtrak. Aviation: The 28X stops service long before many flights arrive. Amtrak: Trains arrive at horrid times, 5:30a eastbound, 11:30p westbound, when transit availability is meager. Everything else: It’s nigh impossible to move safely between an unused piece of the light rail system, the East Busway, the Amtrak station, Greyhound, a large parking garage, and Megabus's pickup stop by the Convention Center -- a distance of only 400 feet -- any time of day. Fixing any of this is going to cost money, probably a lot. Make it happen, and Pittsburgh becomes a beacon of intermodal travel.

I urge everyone to join the Allegheny County Transit Council, the officially recognized citizens' advisory group for Port Authority of Allegheny County. Contact me for details.