Monday, January 24, 2022

Post-snowstorm shoveling trip, MLK Day 2022

 Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., stressed service to others, among many other things, so on my day off, to honor that, I took it upon myself to grab a snow shovel and help Pittsburgh dig out from a 7" snowfall that occurred overnight.

I had ideas of biking into town, but opted not to, mostly because I wanted to turn in a proper snow gauge reading from 7am, and leaving earlier would interfere with that plan. I wasn't on a schedule, though, so leaving at 7:40 was just fine. Carrying a snow shovel on a bike would have been adding that much more difficulty, and walking in 7" of snow was difficult enough.

The real motive for the trip, however, was that Sarah wanted me to find her an N95 or KN95 mask, in preparation for her trip downtown later in the week for jury duty. I had four offers for help with this, but went with the friend who lives off of Wilkins Ave in Squirrel Hill. The trek at hand, then, was to get to friend's house, pick up masks, and return home. All else was up to me.

Rough itinerary

Part 1: McCandless morning

I took the house's better shovel. If you recall my Christmas 2020 post, I prefer to use a flimsy old plastic shovel for most snow clearing around the house and driveway, but for bigger jobs, a newer, much sturdier shovel. That in hand, I hoofed it the most of a mile to McKnight Road. I made no attempt to clear anything on the way there. Once I got to McKnight, I made quick work of the remaining snow in the bus shelter on MKnight at Perrymont. Indeed, it looked like there's a heater under the cement slab, as it was clear and dry, whereas everything around it had either the 7" from overnight, or a ton of half-frozen slush. In any event, I shoveled a notch out to the driving path, a path back to the bottom of the Perrymont sidewalk, and the not-a-sidewalk along McKnight down to Perrymont.

With that done, I traveled a hundred yards south to the bus stop at Malibran, in front of the gas station. There, I cut a notch in the snowbank at the edge of the parking lot, and shoveled a path down to the bus stop sign.

McKnight at Perrymont bus shelter


McKnight at Malibran, path from gas station to bus stop



Part 2: Downtown morning
I exited the 12 at the first stop downtown, 9th and Penn. There used to be a pizza shop here, and the proprietor was pretty good about clearing the sidewalk. But shop and building are gone, so I knew nobody would clear this. As I exited the bus, I shoveled a brief notch in the snowbank so I could get off, which was used precisely one second later by someone waiting to get on. I proceeded to shovel about 50 feet of sidewalk between shelter and the actual stop, and cut a second notch where a following bus might stop to discharge passengers.

9th Street at Penn Ave, bus shelter and 50 feet of sidewalk near the stop


My primary purpose in coming downtown was to clear the sidewalk in front of what once was the Smithfield Café, between 7th Ave and Strawberry Way. This never gets shoveled, so after one day and a frigid night, this becomes 100 feet of unwalkable ice rink. So I got to it, clearing one shovel width from the parking garage down to the first storefront that looked occupied. This took some work, as it was already getting pretty packed down. I managed to get a second shovel width for most of that length, as well. I took some care not to make much noise around the homeless people's tent set up in one abandoned storefront. As it had gotten down in single digits overnight, I wondered how they were faring, but did not inquire. Anyway, when I was done, I stopped in at my office to thaw and dry out. Also got some actual work done and a bite to eat from the small self-serve cafeteria downstairs.

Smithfield Street in front of the closed former Smithfield Café


Part 3: Downtown noon
I had a reason to come into the city, and a rough time when I was expected at that spot. Around noon, I packed up my gear and started to head east. Before I crossed Fifth Ave, I took a moment to cut out a notch in the snowbank where the 67 Monroeville and some other routes stop, outside 3-PNC. Along came my 71D, so shovel in hand, I boarded and headed for Negley Avenue.

 Fifth Ave inbound bus stop between Wood and Market Streets
Then caught an outbound 71D bus to get to SqHill/Shadyside

Part 4: Squirrel Hill
Attempted a bit of the South Negley sidewalk but it was too much
Shoveled sidewalk in front of a couple houses on Wightman St
Helped a man on Fair Oaks who was shoveling

The 5Av/Negley stop was similarly a hip-high snowbank bordered by a yard of slush on the street side, and packed snow on the sidewalk. As I did with 9th and Penn, I backed up to where a second bus might open its doors, and cut a notch there, as well as where the rear door of the front bus would be, and the front door. Also cleared the sidewalk that entire length, all the way down to the intersection.

Fifth Ave at Negley, sidewalk from the rear of where buses stop up to the corner


South Negley Ave has an enormous hill off of Fifth, and while I ascended the sidewalk, I watched two cars attempt it. One bailed early, one later, when they realized they were not going to make it to the top. A minute later, a four-wheel drive pickup flew up the hill like it was a drizzly evening in June. I attempted to clear a bit of sidewalk in an area where there was no homeowner to clear the walk, but it was too much, and I was barely on time. 

Up Negley, over Dunmoyle, down Wightman, over Fair Oaks, a bit of Wilkins, and left onto Beeler, and the purpose of my mission was accomplished. On the way, I improved a couple of sidewalks where someone had made an honest attempt to clear a walk but gave up, and also helped another man clearing his walk. Did this a couple places on Beeler, too. 


Part 5: Oakland before late lunch

The most fun scene I saw all day was four college girls hauling snow from the sidewalk and nearby street into their driveway, and packing it down. They were building a ski jump! Their driveway was just long enough and steep enough that they could get up a bit of momentum, and with their little snow bump, gain a bit of air for a split second. They were having a grand time, and so was I, watching them as I cleared off a sidewalk I otherwise had no interest in. Sorry, no photo.

Shoveled sidewalk in front of a house on Beeler where someone had started but not finished shoveling

Here is where my snow-cleaning project got serious:

  • Helped a man shoveling on Beeler at the corner with Forbes
  • Shoveled out the crossing on both sides of Forbes at Beeler
  • Shoveled out a bus stop on Forbes next to the CMU parking garage
  • Cleaned up the crossing across from the end of Craig St by Carnegie Museum
  • Crossed Forbes, cleaned out a slot to get to the Forbes at Craig inbound bus stop
  • Cleaned out slots by the double bus shelters on the outbound side of Forbes by Carnegie Museum


While digging out a slot by the shelters, I found a CMU student's ID card in a snowbank. She probably dropped it in the snow getting off the bus. It took maybe a minute to find her on Facebook, and a minute later I contacted her on Messenger to get it back to her, and she replied right away. Thinking she would run right over, I said I'd be in the Subway having lunch, and to just look for a snow shovel once she got inside. As it turned out, she couldn't get away right then, so I ended up taking the ID to the CMU campus police station on Filmore. I figured that was the safest way to get it back to her without waiting until evening to leave Oakland.

Part 6: Oakland after late lunch
After leaving the Subway restaurant on Craig, I again went into shoveling overdrive:

  • Cleaned up a bit of sidewalk in front of a closed store
  • Cleaned up the crossings on Filmore and Dithridge, both southbound and westbound (both sides)
  • Cut a notch in the snowbank on Bellefield at Filmore
  • Cleaned up the crossing on the other side of Bellefield across from Filmore
  • Removed snowbank at Fifth Ave at Bellefield, outbound stop
  • Cleaned up pedestrian crossing at Fifth and Tennyson, cathedral side
  • Cleaned up pedestrian crossing at Fifth an Thackeray, same side

Then caught a 67 Monroeville downtown and thawed out at office for 2nd time


Part 7: Downtown afternoon

Before I left the city for the day, one more stint at making downtown more walkable:

  • Cut notch and cleaned up outbound Liberty at Sixth Ave stop
  • Removed major slush buildup across Sixth Ave at Liberty, three places:
  1. 1 - Before trying to cross Sixth
  2. 2 - By the island in the middle of Sixth
  3. 3 - Once getting across, next to the T station


  • Cut notch and cleaned up pedestrian crossing of Liberty toward 7th St
  • Cleaned slush out of the way on both sides of crossing Wood Street at Liberty
  • Cut notch and cleaned up pedestrian crossing of Liberty across from Tito Way
  • Cleaned path across the end of Strawberry Way

Then caught a 12 McKnight to head home. It was getting too late to get photos by this point.

Across the end of Strawberry Way at Liberty Ave.



Part 8: McCandless afternoon

One more little effort before I hiked Perrymont to thaw out, get a shower and eat dinner:

  • Cleaned up the first spot of the day, the approach to the Perrymont bus shelter
  • Started to clean the sidewalk on the north side of Perrymont but it was too much


All told, I did at least 30 spots in one form or another. Shoveling notches in snowbanks, clearing sidewalks, or removing snow from sidewalks. Would that 50 more people did what I did! Not expecting money or even a gift, just doing good for neighbors, friends, co-workers and total strangers. We're all here and we all need to get around safely.

  • Continued home

Sunday, January 2, 2022

Icycle Bicycle 2022

Some people do the Polar Bear Plunge on New Year's Day, jumping into the freezing cold river, if only briefly, but Pittsburgh cyclists traditionally do the Icycle Bicycle Ride. I'm not sure when it started; must be at least 20 years ago. I've ridden most years since 2009. Regardless of the weather, cyclists show up and ride around the city as best as conditions allow. If there was a two-foot snowfall, anyone who made it there at all would push their bikes through the snowbanks. That hasn't happened in anyone's memory, but they'd do that if they had to.

Jan 1 2022 presented little challenge beyond a steady drizzle. It wasn't even that cold, 50s F (10+ C), more typical of early April, but apparently enough to dissuade a few riders. Total turnout was 15-20, only two women, though we had at least two first-time riders. The route isn't difficult, no hills, little troublesome traffic, though we were on a few busy streets. 

Why do this? The most significant reason, for me at least, is that I can say I rode somewhere in calendar 2022, and in January, when many bikes are gathering dust, waiting for a warm day. I do ride 12 months a year when conditions allow, so this at least gets those boxes checkmarked. Beyond that, any group ride is worth showing up for. Meet new people, share news with old friends, discuss commonalities and differences in our collective bike experiences around the area, find out if anyone has anything interesting planned. I also like to compare equipment -- what do others have that I do not and how is that working for them? What do I have that others don't and how is that working for me?

Once we get underway, I like being with others, especially if someone else is leading. I may learn new paths, shortcuts, where to turn off a trail to get to a bridge or major street, and vice-versa. Most of these are not on any GPS system, so you just have to experience them to know where they are and go. I know the area pretty well, but even I picked up a couple of pointers or noticed road configuration changes, to file away in my head for next time.

The route was simple enough. Starting at REI in South Side Works (which was open at 10am, unlike some past years), straight down East Carson, past Station Square, out West Carson, up the ramp to the West End Bridge (the only hill on the route), right lane on the bridge, ramp to the casino, past the Science Center and both stadiums, River Avenue, a couple quick turns to get up on the downstream sidewalk of the 16th St Bridge, Penn Ave through downtown, through Point State Park, around the Point (group photo! I'm on the far right), out through the Mon Wharf (river level aaalmost up to flooding it but not quite) to the Smithfield St Bridge ramp, to the Jail Trail, over the Hot Metal Bridge, and back to REI. I didn't measure it but it felt like 7 to 8 flat miles.

There were a couple of surprises.

  1. The Jail Trail recently developed a serious lake close to downtown. I sent in a 311 request to have the storm drains checked for leaf clogs. I'm not even sure where those drains are; there are no markings or posts. It was easy enough to find the ones not under water, but none have paint symbols on the adjacent concrete wall.
  2. At 11:25, we didn't hear a loud boom, heard across the region especially south and west of the city. Many in their homes did, including quite a few farther east than where I was. The initial hypothesis is that it was an exploding meteor, as no point explosion or earthquake was reported. A weather satellite did note a flash over the Pittsburgh area at that time, supporting the idea of a meteor. Rain and clouds obscured visibility of anything in the sky.
  3. Less a surprise, more a plan, I rode wearing sockless, open-toed shoes. This proved helpful when I traversed the flooded trail, where the water was pedals deep. My feet did not get overly cold, as I feared could happen, but I don't think I want to try it at temperatures any colder than 50.

Anyone else desiring to try this next year, or joining any group ride at REI, if you must drive there, your best bet for parking is under the Birmingham Bridge, accessed from the end of South 18th Street. It's a quick, three-minute ride from there to REI, parking is free, and no need to search for a spot, unlike trying to park on a street near REI, or a garage.

A few of us then adjourned to Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh for lunch and conversation, as we have done in past years.

All in all, a very pleasant start to the new year, as was intended!

Friday, December 25, 2020

A brief primer on clearing snow

Christmas Day 2020, Pittsburgh awoke to three or more inches of snow, and it continued lightly falling through much of the day. One of my wife's presents was a battery powered leaf (and snow) blower, which she tried out immediately by clearing the back steps down to the driveway. It worked fine, but she didn't clear the 70-foot walkway out to the mailbox. I did that one by hand later in the afternoon, when the snow had tapered off a bit, though not ceased entirely. Along the way, I took a few pictures.

[picture 1: porch and broom]

Here is what I started with, just a dusting on the porch, and maybe an inch on the steps. The broom was the weapon of choice here.

[picture 2: steps half cleared]

Once I got the snow off the first couple steps, I remembered that the snow came down after an hour of sleet and freezing rain. At this point, I did nothing with that, only removing the layer of snow atop it. To be honest, I might leave it like this. That crusty stuff is not slippy. If it were glare ice, such as from exclusively freezing rain, that would be unavoidably slippy, but this crusty stuff provides a decent amount of traction, and who's to say there isn't glare ice underneath it. You can step on it and not slip.

[picture 3: all the steps cleared]

For the bottom couple steps, some of the crusty ice brushed off with a bit tougher brooming. A later pass with a square spade might clear it entirely.

[picture 4: a bit of brick sidewalk]

This shows how much snow came down since mid morning, when Sarah used the new toy to blow it clean. This square foot of brick took maybe 10 seconds with the broom, the same as was necessary with the blower.

[picture 5: five feet of sidewalk]

Using only the broom, I cleared the three or four inches of snow off the sidewalk, not trying to do too good a job. Gabe's footprints from going out to get the mail last night, when there was only an inch of snow, are clearly visible. His weight packed down what little snow had fallen by that point, but this alone shows, it doesn't take much to start an ice pack under a bit of traffic. Total broom time at this point, maybe a minute, and that's being generous.

[picture 6: snow shovel]

My snow shovel of choice was a neighbor's throw-away 15 years ago. The handle is broken, and the cheap plastic blade is quite fragile. To me, this is the ideal tool. Because of its fragility, I cannot push it very hard, and therefore cannot push myself very hard. I take my time, not trying to dig too heavily into what snow is at hand. If I have a foot of snow to clear, I just stand in one place and only peel off 3-4" at a time until I get to bare ground. Here, there is only about that much, so I think I can just use it as a snowplow. This shovel works marvelously as a plow. (I later did most of the driveway via plowing with this shovel, in only about 10 minutes.)

[picture 7: 10 feet of sidewalk]

The first use of the snow shovel was to re-clear what I had just broomed. I plowed another five feet, then used it, scraping sideways, to get rid of Gabe's footprint-packed ice packs, and also any remaining snow off the edge of the brick. This as well took only a minute or two. 

[picture 8: 60 more feet of sidewalk]

Snowplow time! All I did here was plow the snow. Every four or five feet, I would need to take the shovel and actually lift the snow out of the way, but this entire length took less than two minutes, and hardly raised my heart rate at all, no more than climbing a couple flights of stairs.

[picture 9: our yard critters]

The sleet, freezing rain and snow toppled our yard decorations. The fans to keep them inflated are still on, and I suppose I should go back out to set them back upright, but let me finish writing this first. (Gabe came out and took care of this, minutes later.)

[picture 10: use of the broom]

Starting over at the staircase end of the walk, I cleared the walk with the broom a little better. This was the most strenuous part of the work, and also took the longest. What I was doing here was knocking down the deep snow alongside the walk, so I could move the broom vigorously across the entire width of brick. What's left at this point is almost bare, dry walk. 

[picture 11: finished walkway]

Finishing the above to the end of the walkway, by the mailbox and street, took a full five minutes. What I was trying to accomplish here was to remove, as fully as possible, any H2O in whatever form: snow, sleet, packed snow. Fortunately there was no ice directly on the bricks, so this is about as close to just after an August rain as you're going to get. It is not at all slick, unless your shoes are slick. Pro tip: If you're going to be walking after a snowfall, wear good shoes. You wouldn't drive a car in the rain with slick tires, right? What are you expecting, every sidewalk to have heating elements embedded in them?

[picture 12: aftermath]

During the 20 or so minutes I was outside, it continued to snow lightly. You can see there is a trace of snow on the bricks, which had been swept clean in picture #4, above. Once this snow ceases entirely, I should be able to go out and sweep, or blow, this clean again with little difficulty.

What else I should do is get out the square spade and clear off the remaining crusty ice and snow off the back steps. Update: This happened about an hour later.

But in none of the above do I need to use salt. In my opinion, far too much salt is thrown on sidewalks, far too often. The point of shoveling is to remove moisture before it freezes or is compressed into a condition that makes it unwalkable. Get rid of the snow while it's still fresh. Get rid of any frozen water of any sort before it melts and re-freezes to make it unwalkable. Get rid of all upstream snow that would blow or melt onto the walk. If there isn't any ice that can't be scraped off easily, and there isn't any snow left that will become packed into ice, and there isn't any source of snowmelt that will flow back onto the walk, then there is no need for salt. Stop using salt. Clear your walks fully first.

End Rant!

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Never mind fault, nobody is looking at the real problem

The Washington Post ran a story a few days ago about a fight between a cyclist and a motorist on M Street in the District, a four-lane street. Apparently, the cyclist was in the right lane, the motorist came up behind and honked, the cyclist took offense, the motorist grabbed the guy's bike, and the cyclist responded by clobbering the driver with his U-lock, sending the guy to the hospital to get 18 stitches. Lots of other stuff involved (drugs, a non-functional ankle bracelet, lots of stuff involving race).

After reading the story and about a hundred comments, the one thing everyone missed is that a driver came up behind a cyclist on a four-lane street and honked at the cyclist. All else is downstream of that.

The cyclist was legally in the lane. Ignore for now any inebriation. Not relevant to the upstream issue. Cyclist was biking slowly, as if that mattered. It doesn’t matter if the cyclist was totally stopped. Four-lane street, you change lanes and go around, regardless of what the obstruction is. That’s what four-lane streets are *for*.

I will assume the driver was at or below the speed limit. I have no reason to think he was speeding, though my own experience from 10 years of on-street cycling tells me that 50% are 5 mph over, 10% are 10 mph over, and 1% are more than 15 mph over. But even if he was at or below 25, there’s no reason for him to lay on the horn. Just silently change lanes and go around.

Not doing that started the chain of events. So, why’d he honk instead of changing lanes? There’s the fundamental problem, never mind everything else. That is what every cyclist deals with on a constant basis, whether city, suburb or rural. Drivers simply do not know what to do when there’s a cyclist ahead. Cyclists are startled or annoyed, or scared out of their wits when this happens.

We have a cyclist who lives in the same area as where I bike occasionally, who’s regularly been in the news for being difficult when approached from behind. At the base of it, he’s right for insisting on lane control, but he’s been known to block cars trying to pass legally, and once brought rocks into a courtroom to pelt anyone he disagreed with. So, yeah, there are some idiot cyclists, but that does not excuse motorists who didn't just go around him, thus triggering the bad interactions.

I blame state departments of transportation for not educating drivers what the rules are. If everyone had to take a written exam every four years when renewing their license, and had to show they know what the rules are regarding interaction with bikes (and motorcyclists, horseback riders, pedestrians, motorized wheelchairs, etc.), maybe we’d see less of this.

We will only get significantly greater cyclist mode share, and have a hope of reducing the nation’s carbon footprint, if we can reduce driver stupidity on this.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Bicycle goals for 2019

It’s 10:47 p.m. on New Year's Eve, so I’ll scribble down some ideas off the cuff. I won’t refer back to my similar post from 2012, but instead start over. (Though it was fun to re-read that entire thread!)

1. I know I am riding less than I was, since I work from home a lot, and often don’t leave the house for days in a row. So a good goal would be to have at least one purposeful ride per week, somewhere.

2. The biggest problem with traveling downtown is poor to non-existent bike parking in downtown buildings. Steel Tower has only 16 slots for a population of several thousand workers, 2 PNC doesn’t have a single indoor rack for a 34-story building. Trying to get any of this rectified would be wonderful.

3. Toward riding in traffic, trying again to get local cops to be able to use radar for speed control.

4. Toward driver licensing, trying to require better driver education through implementing a written test at each license renewal. I don’t care if we hand them the answer key along with the test, so long as they pick the right answer and sign their name to it.

5. Toward my own situation, improve my indoor storage space and set up space for the bike stand I got for my birthday.

6. Clean out the trash. I have about 10 bikes I either don’t ride or can’t ride. I need the space, and frankly most are little better than scrap, or are clearly scrap.

7. Continue participation in Walk//Bike Ross, Walk Ride North Side, Walk-Bike Shaler, and Bike-Pgh to further the cause of cycling on a community basis.

8. Similarly, set up or assist someone else with setting up a McCandless equivalent to Walk//Bike Ross. I have ideas for defining a set of on-street paths for getting from one place to another within McCandless without having to deal with its high-capacity, high-speed stroads.

9. Ride my 29″ unicycle in group rides. It worked really well on the one Underwear Ride.

10. Finally properly resolve my Rule 9 problem. I’ve never found rain gear I like that actually works.

That’s enough for a half hour of thinking. Howzbout yinz?

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.