Sunday, December 25, 2011

3,600-word rant on transit funding (Sep. 3, 2010)

Current mood: angry

I am a rider, only a rider. I am not nor have I ever been employed by Port Authority, any of its unions, or any level of government. I am here to set the record straight on where this financial mess came from, and what it will take to fix it, both this year and in future years.

Mainly I have an axe to grind with the amount of misinformation people have on this topic, followed very closely by Republican intransigence against raising taxes as fixes for this problem.

FY11 marks the 19th year I've been involved in Port Authority financial woes. I also found a newspaper from 1982 that, with some minor differences of the time, describes recent years' crises quite well. The point is, although the stakes are higher this year, this is an annual story because of the way state law is set up. We've managed to avoid the hangman's noose for a long time. No more.

It is not Port Authority's fault that we are in this mess.

Three sentences sum up the problem:
1) This is not a Port Authority problem but a Pennsylvania problem.
2) This is not a transit problem but a transportation problem.
3) This is not a spending problem but a funding problem.

If you have an objection to what's going on that does not nicely fit into the above set of sentences, you need to change your mind, as you are misinformed.

The problem is very simple. After years of arguing, in 2007 Harrisburg finally came up with a plan to fund highway and bridge repairs, and public transit. The money was to come from putting tollbooths on I-80. That required the Federal Highway Administration's approval, but that was denied, not once but three times. So now we're stuck with trying to find $472M, this year and every year. About half of it is for roads and bridges. About half of it is for transit. Port Authority's piece is about $27M of that state-wide $240M. (PAT’s actual deficit is about $47M, the rest being the usual uncontrollable increases in health care and fuel costs.) Solutions are needed for plugging both the transit hole and the highway hole. Not finding a transit solution means 35% of the buses running today cease to run in early January 2011, putting 500 Port Authority people out of work, and who knows how many thousand others who will have no other way to get to work.

Clearly we need to find a way to keep the system running. My complaint is that too much blather gets in the way of finding funding solutions, both from ignorance and stubbornness.

Over the past few weeks, in free moments here and there, I read the tweets of several dozen people who contacted Port Authority on its Twitter feed. I read all their tweets, not just the conversations with @PGHTransit. I wanted to take the pulse of the average Pittsburgher, especially in regard to the news of the pending cuts in January and the TDP changes in September. I was not pleased with what I found.

Nearly everyone has a minimal to zero understanding of the funding sources and processes that Port Authority faces each year. I know them quite well, having served on the citizen riders' advisory group ACTC (Allegheny County Transit Council) and the Save Our Transit lobbying group, for many years. I will not try to delineate them here, as that topic alone can barely be covered at the surface level in less than 1,000 words.

All that really matters is that we are probably stuck with these huge cuts, because the vast majority of people, who might actually pick up a telephone, pen or keyboard and contact their legislators about transit, will do the opposite of what's needed. I fear that the majority of people who do call will request that nothing be done, that transit be allowed to fail, or forced to fail. This is because most people are uninformed, misinformed, and misdirected. I trace much of this to the media, particularly talk radio, and long-standing methods of news reporting.

I am so tired of hearing the same old lame objections and finger pointing about Port Authority's annual transit funding problems. These objections get in the way of being able to talk about it intelligently. I want these objections to simply go away. Arguing from ignorance is inexcusable. If one of these is yours, close your mouth, open your mind, and learn. If your mind is closed, then just shut up. I refuse to offer an apology if this offends you. If anything, you owe an apology to the thousands of people who are about to lose their jobs for lack of a solution to this problem. Get out of the way so we can get at the meat of this problem.

Shall we begin?

I am tired of hearing that Steve Bland should resign, take a pay cut, blah blah blah. Steve Bland is not the problem, nor was Paul Skoutelas before him, nor Bill Millar before him. He's the man at the top. He makes $180K. Find 10 other people working in the region with 3,000 people working for them, supervising over $400 million in annual budgets, who do not make $180K. In the private sector, if you found 10 such people, they are making well beyond $180K. He is not overpaid. And even if you removed his position or forced him to work for free, you have only eliminated $180,000 of the $47,000,000 hole, or about 1/250 of the problem. Sorry, but there are not 250 Steve Blands on staff to fire. So, if this is your argument, get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing that the Board of Directors should resign, and a Board more amenable to figuring out a proper solution be put in place. Often this goes along with a request that the Board take a pay cut. First of all, the Board is not paid a cent. Second, they are not there to solve a problem, but to decide on a solution presented to them. Any other Board you put there is going to have the same set of choices. Any Board is going to have to decide how to make $280M in revenue cover a $330M expense. Answer: You don't. You cut. If you cannot understand this, then get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing about service problems. "My bus was late." "The A/C didn't work." "The seat cushions were on the floor." "The driver yelled at me." "It takes me three buses to get to work." This is off topic! This is not going to find $47 million dollars to keep the buses running! If this is the best you can do, then get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing about the cost of tunnels under the river, and how we should use that money to run the system. First, they're different budgets, so you just can't. Second, the tunnels are needed, regardless of what you think of them. We really should have built them decades ago when the subway was first put in. Third, the tunnels are almost done, so we may as well finish them. Fourth, people have become so soured over this project because of mainstream media misinformation campaigns (more on that below) that they cannot see that it truly is a good thing to have. Regardless, tunnel objections have nothing to do with the matter at hand. Bringing it up distracts from the real problem. If this is the best you can do, then get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of hearing demands that the Poured Drink and/or Car Rental Taxes are being misused, or should be eliminated, or why can't that be used to fill this hole, or something similar. I can understand some of this, as it isn't clear to most people. Transit is funded by a mix of local and state sources, in addition to farebox and advertising revenue. The drink and rental taxes provide part of the local share, and county property taxes provide the rest. The local share is needed in order for Port Authority to qualify to get the state share. If the local share wasn't there, the state money would not be obtainable. Here's the problem: The local money *is* there, but the state money is *not*. Finding about $240M in state money is the matter at hand. As to the drink and rental taxes themselves, the alternative was to raise county property taxes. However the money is raised, the local share is there. It's the state share that is in question. Can we please move on?

I am tired of hearing that bus drivers make six-figure salaries, are overpaid, blah blah blah. It is simply not true. Maybe someone from Port Authority's HR department would care to chime in with actual numbers, but I simply do not see how someone making about $25/hour can take home $100K. A full 40-hour week for 52 weeks at top pay works out to around $52K. In order to make $100K, someone would have to drive about 64 hours a week, 52 weeks a year. Who would do that? Do you think that management would even allow that? And even if that really was true, they earned it! When did it become reprehensible to knock honest, hard work? But back to the basics. Sure, $25/hour is decent money, but even that figure is misleading. That is the top wage. Many drivers are not at top wage. Still, there are plenty of other hard-working Pittsburghers making that kind of money. Stand down on Grant Street on Labor Day and watch the parade. Some make more, some make less, but they're part of our community. Their wages are buying your daughter's Girl Scout cookies. I don't begrudge them a cent, and suggest strongly that you follow likewise.

I am tired of hearing that PAT is mismanaged, corrupt, runs an inefficient system, and pays its people too much. I contend the opposite. Most of this criticism comes from people who have nary a clue as to how a transit system works, and never use the system themselves. I think I can talk intelligently about transit in general and Port Authority in particular, from working with the staff for almost 20 years, and relying on it daily for fully 20. Transit is my avocation. I study trends, know the issues, and understand the finances, the politics, the technology, the operating environment, and many of the people and the jobs they do. Sure I have disagreed with various decisions and approaches to things over the years, but in general, I know what they are up against, and often agree with their handling of things. No, they are not mismanaged, and they are not overpaid.

I am tired of hearing about Port Authority's supposed inefficient operations and duplicative routes. Inefficiency criticisms may have been accurate five years ago, prior to Act 44's requirement that PAT, and Philadelphia's SEPTA, streamline their operations and become more accountable. PAT did this. That was the whole purpose of the Transit Development Plan, or TDP. Those changes really are making the system more efficient, more attractive, even if the changes are irritating. The inefficiency criticism no longer applies. If this is what you are arguing, stop it right now.

I am tired of hearing about generous labor contracts in past years. What is that supposed to solve today? Management held the line during the 2008 contract negotiations like they never have before. It very nearly went to a strike. We cannot turn back the clock and re-negotiate 1995's contract or 1968's or any other year. We have what we have. Deal with it. If you insist on dragging past history into the current discussion, stop right now. We need solutions, not cold beef.

I am tired of hate radio. That's the best term I can use to describe talk shows which thrive on bashing Port Authority and all its shortcomings, real and imagined. Just like schoolchildren complaining about cafeteria food, it's human nature to bash a service for which there is no real public alternative. (Yes, you can bring a lunch. Yes, you can drive. That's not my point.) The talk shows make their living by provoking passionate arguments, always working from the negative. It gains listeners, which drives up the ratings and therefore pays the bills. If you do manage to call to get a sensible word in, you get laughed off the air, and the next five callers machine-gun you into a smoldering wreckage. There is almost no point in trying. After years and years of this goading, is it any wonder so many people have a negative view of Port Authority? It stinks, and is simply not fair. If your impression of PAT has been influenced by hate radio, and you have no interest in changing your mind, get out of the conversation, and shut up.

I am tired of the mainstream media's hateful coverage of Port Authority. Good news is no news, it seems, and the only stories deemed newsworthy are the negative -- wrecks, police activity, disputes with customers, disputes with labor, political wrangling, and anything that doesn't work or causes someone some distress. If news shows did not sell air time, this would be a very different world. If people could be interested in boring facts more than trouble and carnage, this would be a very different world. I, for one, live in a different world. I am fascinated by the boring and have not owned a TV or watched a news show in 16 years. Maybe that's why I have so little tolerance for all this anti-transit piffle. How about you do likewise? How about if you can't, then get out of the conversation and shut up?

I am tired of Republican intransigence on taxes. They vote as a block, and will not even consider any discussion of a new tax or a hike in a tax, no matter how small, and no matter what good it might do. In particular, if Governor Rendell suggests it, they respond as one with a resounding rejection of the proposal. They will fight you to the death to prove to you that 2+2=5. This is lunacy. We are talking about solutions to both the highway and bridge problem, and the transit problem. Permanent solutions. Remember what I said at the top? This argument goes on year after year? This is why. A proper fix to the problem comes along, and no matter how much sense it might make, since it's a tax, the answer is no.

The highway fix involves a fuel tax of maybe four cents a gallon. C'mon, four cents a gallon isn't even chickenfeed. Gasoline flips up and down 40 cents a gallon in any given month and you accept that. You spend four cents in gasoline driving around a parking lot to find a good space. Objections to that tax are groundless. They need to stop.

The transit fix involves a new tax, a vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) tax. You would pay $1 for every 1,000 miles your car traveled in a year, to be added onto either the registration or inspection fees, both of which you already pay, and both of which require your odometer reading. The typical car travels 15,000 miles, so $15/year. Again, this is hardly noticeable in the cost of operating a vehicle. You spend that much in gasoline in three days. If you really cannot afford that, you are already not driving the car. Assessing it would put to rest this entire argument. We have been arguing about it every spring for half a century! Imagine that, a permanent solution to a constant problem! Yet the GOP rejects it out of hand because it's a new tax. It's sickening. It needs to stop. We need a financially responsible solution, and we need it now.

I am tired of hearing the Republican call not to do anything until a new legislature is seated. This foot-dragging really means they intend to do nothing until they control the legislature when they can continue doing nothing for another two years. The GOP wants to kill transit. This is their way of making sure that happens. It's sickening. It needs to stop. We need a humane solution to the transit problem, and we need it now.

Lastly, I am tired of the Republican calls for privatization. This, of course, is what this whole argument is about. There is money to be made from the desperate. Kill enough of the transit system so that the only thing left actually makes money, and the vultures will dive in to rip the carcass to shreds and eat heartily. The rest of the system can rot. That's what the GOP wants, and by making 35% of the system go away all at once, they're likely to get exactly that. They WANT transit to fail so their taxi/limo/van service friends can make money off of you, more money than you now or will pay Port Authority. If you can afford a car (or cannot afford not to have one), fine, their other friends will sell you a car. If you cannot afford a car, and do not have a bus to ride, to hell with you. You don't matter. THAT is the Republican line.

There is not a transit system in North America, probably the world, that operates without some sort of public subsidy. It hasn't worked here since the 1930s, when it was all tax-paying private industry, and the only competition was the private automobile. Big industry owned the legislature then, too. That was when Western PA was the center of the oil, steel, and glass industries, and wasn't far from most of the rubber manufacture (Eastern Ohio), in short, all the components of the auto industry short of the cars themselves. The laws were changed back then to favor private transport, most notably the 1945 amendment to the state Constitution that prevented the gasoline tax and license and registration fees from being used for public transit -- again, to emphasize, all of which were private, tax-paying companies at the time. Of course the tables were tipped! Why ride all those rattly, falling-apart trolleys? Buy a car! All the political power favored all that heavy industry, which anyone can tell you dominated Pittsburgh for over a century and was then at its peak. By the 1950s every one of those trolley and bus companies was bankrupt. Government took over them all, merging them into the single, publicly subsidized creature we have today.

Life is different now. We don't have any oil here anymore, and precious little steel, glass or any other heavy industry, compared to 70 years ago. After decades of building ever spreading suburbs, people are moving back into the cities, are demanding better public transit, and using it when it's available. At the same time, growing numbers of people are concerned about pollution, traffic, oil imports, and various other tree-hugging topics. Deny it and lash at it and poke fun all you want, but it doesn't change matters. But to kill transit just when it's becoming more needed than ever? Simply reprehensible. Damn the Republican policies!

Some closing thoughts. I have worked in software for over 25 years, white collar work, primarily in information organizations. All my experience and education have been centered on information analysis, with particular emphasis on what happens in the absence of it. The staff side of Port Authority handles huge amounts of information, but has been badly understaffed for many years. In what way? Well, consider this: Many of the complaints about Port Authority, especially at the service level, can be traced to customers not having the information they need in a form they can use. This in turn comes from not having the technology systems in place to provide that info, which in turn is directly caused by lack of money. That technology also needs people to administer it, to make sense out of it, and put it to use. That simply does not happen, and to me the results are blatantly obvious. I could name four dozen ways Port Authority could deliver a better product, but it costs money PAT cannot ever seem to get. This constant strangling of transit operations HAS to stop so that Port Authority can provide better service, not by the number of buses on the street, but by the amount of information both in customers' hands and internally. That costs money, big money, in machinery, software and people. Think what good those cameras along the parkways have done for managing auto traffic. That was an 8-digit number of your tax dollars spent. How about doing transit the same favor? We need not to be arguing about this $47M, but rather for the $20M/year beyond that in order to provide the information riders need, and which would lure non-riders out of their cars.

C'mon, quit complaining about transit costs. One major intersection rebuild in the North Hills last year cost $16M, just so cars wouldn't have to wait so long at a light. One corner. That's your tax dollars, too. How many times a year do we re-spend that money in a different spot? How about a central fix? It's called a bus!

Stop the bickering! Just fund transit properly!

Stuart Strickland

Death of a butterfly (Aug. 22, 2010)

Current mood: sad

On my 30-mile bike ride today, I witnessed the following. I was riding along Babcock Blvd. when a butterfly flew across my path of travel, maybe 20 in front of me, passing from right to left. A car passed me at about that point. It was not speeding. At best it was moving maybe 30 to 35 mph. The butterfly was at about windshield level. I could tell that they were on a collision course.

What happened, though, was that they did not collide. The air current from the car blew the butterfly 10 to 15 feet in the air. From that height, it dropped like a rock, onto the pavement next to me as I rolled by. The best I can figure is that the air current broke the poor thing's anatomy in some way. I did not stop to investigate.

It just made me hate cars all that much more. Never drive your car, if you can possibly help it. You have no idea what damage you are doing, every time it leaves your driveway.

My testimony at the transit hearing today, 8/19/2010 (Aug. 19, 2010)

Current mood: determined

Good evening. My name is Stuart Strickland, and I live in McCandless Township. Thank you for the opportunity to speak.

I ride the Perry Highway and Robinson buses, both of which are eliminated entirely in the January cuts. Maybe I can bicycle 15 miles each way in January, since for me, buying a car right now is out of the question. I don't think bicycling 30 miles in the snow and dark each day is going to be a viable option for most riders, though.

Anyone who has been following this story with an open mind for almost 20 years, like me, knows that the real problem is in Harrisburg, not in how Port Authority runs its bus system. This hearing, like the ones I spoke at in 1992, 2001, 2002 and 2004, is merely a required step to provide riders with a means to vent. I doubt you have heard any responsible new ideas for finding $47 million right quick to stave off these cuts, and even if I could give you funding suggestions, it would be pointless, as they are not yours to implement.

I do have a message, however. There is one big thing PAT can and should do, and that is to properly educate the public what the real issues are and are not, and what PAT can and cannot do. I know you've tried to do this, but the message is not getting through to people. Would you like to know why? It is this:

The media and power brokers in this town have gone to great lengths, over many years, to misinform the public. Countering this is within your power. To go along with this, I further suggest PAT develop a tougher hide and a stiffer edge. I would love to see someone on staff, other than Steve Bland, go in front of a TV news camera after some politician or media mogul or blowhard from a think tank spouts forth some typical anti-transit blather and say "What you said is not correct and you know it," and then count by count, take them apart.

In 20 years of following Port Authority, I have never seen this happen. Instead, it remains silent or issues a meek press release. Get tougher, Port Authority. Stand up for yourselves. Tell the public what the real facts are. And that won't cost you a cent.

July 23 2010 Flock of Cycles (July 25, 2010)

Current mood: happy

The July ride was a little more subdued than the previous two. For one, it was a wicked hot day, with a heat index close to 100. For another, it was delayed both by Nick arriving late and me arriving late. My daughter managed to get there on time, but I was stuck with a no-show bus in Robinson. After a couple of quick phone calls, the decision was made to start without me, and I would join the group after a loop around Oakland.

Once fully underway, we had only about 20 riders, a couple fewer than the 30-some we had for the May ride. We had a nice stroll along Bayard, but one of the crew got a flat rear tire near a left onto outbound Ellsworth, so we sat a while as this got repaired. The Flock is a no-drop ride. We're friends; we help one another in trouble, as this was.

A second failure happened to Amy on Penn near Bakery Square, who was taking a borrowed bike on its first real outing since winter. Her own $5 church rummage sale bike has a significant mechanical issue (which didn't keep me from riding it on the May ride, and hundreds of miles since, though I have yet to fix it), so she borrowed a bike from a friend. This rather high-end machine developed a loose crank arm, and fortunately, someone had a tool to tighten it. +1 for having tools along. (*takes notes*)

Barely 200 yards later, after a water stop in Mellon Park, Nick developed yet another problem, a stuck chain on the high bike. This was just after someone, possibly him, hoped out loud we didn't have yet another problem. *snickers all around* But hey, the heat of the day was now off, and we were just out for a nice ride around town.

With all this bad mojo, we opted not to venture any farther east than Penn and Fifth, so headed back towards Oakland. We kept to a single lane, though not single file. After all, we're a flock of cycles in flight, not sitting on a wire. Fifth has plenty of lanes to go around, especially after Bellefield.

As usual, we got split at several lights, and as usual, we kept to our promise not to strand the crew in back. We've gotten pretty good at yelling to hold up in front in case of a split, and this does work pretty well. I for one am curious to go on another Critical Mass ride to see how well they communicate with one another. I haven't been on one since 2009.

Our travels took us over the Birmingham Bridge, then over to the Giant Eagle on the Sahside to get picnic supplies. We were in and out of there very quickly, maybe only 15 minutes, and the first thing we did was to chow down on some drippy once-might-have-been-frozen-but-it's-a-hot-day popsicles. Thank you, whoever bought these. They were wet and cold, right when we most needed wet and cold.

It was starting to get dim once we got underway, so on went the lights, front and back, as we rode East Carson to Hot Metal. As we approached the bridge, some of us stopped to talk to other cyclists in the area, and one decided to join us on the picnic. Great! The weather was now ideal, the sunset as seen from the bridge was beautiful, and we were all having a good time. Hot Metal to Jail Trail to parking lot, over the tracks, and on up the street to the Junction Hollow Trail.

We peeled off to cross the tracks one more time to get to Schenley Park Lake, where we joined the ducks for our picnic. Or they joined us. But we and they were often no farther than 10 feet away. We passed the food and drink around and talked about life and bicycles and what-all, and generally had a good time. One thing that got significant discussion was the ingredients list on Giant Eagle orange drink, which included brominated soybean oil. Just the name made some of us go "ack".

As usual, our ride was tricked out from beginning to end, including picnic, with tunes from the '80s and elsewhen. Just one boombox this time. I recall hearing "Venus" by Bananarama, just as we sat down to eat, with Venus itself very prominently visible in the western sky.

By 10 or so it was dark, and many of us were ready to call it a night. Amy and I made it back Downtown without too much incident. (We were trying to carry the leftover juice bottles but had no good way to tie them down, so ended up just carrying them.) She had never ridden the Eliza Furnace Trail, and it was fun to breeze along at a good clip, with the occasional bunny rabbit scurrying off into the grass. I know she was enjoying herself, then and on the ride, as she said so on several occasions. She was less sure about dealing with Grant and Smithfield Streets, as it was also her first time dealing with city streets in mixed traffic. There were not that many cars out, and we managed to hit every light red from Grant and First Avenue to Penn and Ninth.

The whole night we saw nary one drop of rain, but as we got off the 1D at Northway Mall about 11:45, we were treated to a spectacular light show, a line of thunderstorms about 50 miles north. Horizon to horizon, the clouds were lit up almost continuously. It made the last mile or so home go so pleasantly. We touched the door at three minutes before midnight.

Yeah, a great time was had by all.

My letter to PA legislators on transportation funding (July 24, 2010)

Current mood: hopeful

Dear [Rep. Turzai & Sen. Orie],

Regarding transit as well as highway/bridge funding, I hope you are not of the same mind as Sen. Kim Ward of Westmoreland County. Her recent remarks – “If these [transit] authorities were businesses, they would have to find ways to cut or to work more efficiently...” – indicate she is misinformed.

As you will recall, one of the findings of the Transportation Funding Reform Commission was agreeing with what Republicans had been saying for a while, that PA’s urban transit agencies indeed were in need of streamlining, and this became required under Act 44. Port Authority’s TDP route changes now being implemented are the direct result.

You will also recall PAT held the line in the 2008 labor contract negotiations like they never did before. That matter went to fact finding which sided with management; the union balked and very nearly struck, but was forced to relent.

If these are not the sort of changes Ms. Ward wants to see happen, what is?

As to the fix, for transit I suggest a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax of $1 per 1,000 miles traveled.
•    This is fair, in that the more funds collected in an area, the more that transit is needed in that area, even if currently absent.
•    This is equitable, in that it encourages transit use where available.
•    This is minimally regressive in that it amounts to less than half a tank of gas in a year’s time for most cars (15,000 miles/year = $15/year).
•    This is constitutional in that it is not a motor fuels tax or fee, per Article VIII, Section 11A, as amended in 1945.
•    This is easy to collect as it can be added to either the registration fee or the inspection fee, both of which already require odometer readings and a fee payment.

As for highways and bridges, when the 1945 amendment was passed, the reasoning was that their upkeep would be funded through fuel taxes. So, if it is not collecting enough to keep the roads and bridges fixed, either raise the tax, or require PennDOT to economize and streamline like transit is doing.

Please work with others in Harrisburg to get these funding fixes in place. While I am well aware of GOP pledges not to raise taxes (being a Republican myself), the responsible thing for your constituency is to make sure the right things get done.

Stuart Strickland

Not happy about rescuing a baby bird (July 6, 2010)

Current mood: grumpy

I helped in the rescue of a baby bird this past afternoon. I somewhat regret the effort.

The family went on a shopping trip to Soergel’s Orchards, and in the couple of minutes after getting parked, I was not sure which of the three or four buildings on the site the rest of them had decided to shop. When I did find them, they were not shopping, but rather trying to catch a baby bird on the verge of falling out of its nest in the ceiling of a porch.

It did fall, they caught it unharmed in a basket, and together with the cashier inside the store, tried to figure out how to return it to its nest. I did assist with positioning the ladder that was summoned, and gave tips for the one worker to practice reaching the nest, minus the birdlet, but it quickly became clear that this was not going to work.

Here’s the thing: The bird was a house sparrow. Healthy and unhurt, and maybe a week or so short of being able to fly, but still, a house sparrow. The right and proper thing to do with it was to summon a nearby cat, and help the cat. That did not happen. Instead, the cashier made a nest in a quart strawberry basket, placed birdlet in it, and set it on a ledge near the nest. Everyone was happy, including me for being able to help.

But I was not happy, for the cashier did not understand my comment about bluebirds. To wit: Where you have house sparrows, you do not have bluebirds. Soergel’s Orchards is ideal bluebird habitat, but is overrun with house sparrows.

House sparrows are a foreign species. Since their 1851 introduction to North America, they have decimated bluebird populations. As late as the 1920s, bluebirds were still as common as robins. By the 1970s they had all but vanished. Today only a few pockets remain.

Amy saw her first eastern bluebird, Sialia sialis, a couple of weeks ago, at the horse ranch where she helps out one day a week. They are marvelous to witness, as they seem to truly enjoy life. House sparrows, in contrast, are slum dwellers who mainly make noise, and make more of themselves to populate even larger sparrow slums.

Back where we lived in New Stanton, we annually helped several families of bluebirds fledge three or four nestlings twice a year. Every gardener wants bluebirds around. They help immensely with bug control, and are quite tolerant of nearby human activity.

Bluebirds can thrive with the right human help. All it takes are people who care for a set of dedicated bluebird houses, and who trap and kill sparrows.

Not all creatures are created equal. Bluebirds deserve to exist in North America. House sparrows do not.

Flock of Cycles, June 18 2010 (June 18, 2010)

Current mood: jubilant

I almost missed this ride because of a problem at work. I hoped I would leave by 5, but it was fully 5:40 by the time I was headed out, and I was on the opposite side of town. I managed to pull up at the ride barely by the 6:30 scheduled departure time. Turns out I would have been OK almost 10 minutes later because someone else was running late, too, and managed to send a message ahead.

Before the ride, I talked with maybe 10 people I already knew, and another half dozen who were new to the ride and/or new to the Bike-Pgh message board. That board is awesome. We meet and get to know one another well even before we meet in person. Rides like this provide the opportunity to do the latter in a safe environment, doing what we all like to do: ride bikes!

Dan W (dwillen) had the Flock Of Cycles T-shirts with him, and dozens of us were thus colorfully and identically decked out. The shirts themselves were designed on the message board by board participants. It's cool to see the fruit of your own ideas being worn by dozens of people in your midst.

Nick (ndromb) was there with his tall bike, and Dan (reddan) with his recumbent. No tandems or unicycles, though. The array of more-or-less regular shaped bikes was itself a sight to behold, and the subject of much conversation. Some of the people's acquisitions of new bikes and equipment was already known to board readers, but here was a chance to see it first hand. We are always trying to make the riding experience better for ourselves and one another, and what better way to do that than share that knowledge at a group ride?

After a quick explanation by ndromb as to what the ride was about -- a group ride that tries to follow the law -- we soon got underway from Downtown Dippyville (where all group rides seem to start) with a ride into Schenley Park past Phipps Conservatory, briefly onto Blvd. of the Allies, and a right into a residential area. I would say there were 40 to 50 of us.

As I write this, it's only 12 hours since we were riding, but already I don't remember the route. I was focusing more on the conversations I was having with fellow travelers. The people I rode alongside changed every few hundred yards, so there wasn't the ability to get into any deep, thoughtful conversations, nor is that necessarily wise, anyway. As the sole pilot of your own vehicle, you have to take care not to collide with fellow travelers, be alert for road hazards, and relay information up and down the line of cyclists: watch the big hole, wait up in front, car behind, etc. Lane changes, for example, are best done from the rear first. A left lane change on a four-lane street like Fifth Avenue, in preparation for a left turn, requires a great deal of communication through the line, and everyone must be in sync for people not to get hurt. It's not that hard, but it does take education and practice. Hence these rides. Learn by doing, and learn by having fun doing.

We met up with the Major Taylor Cycling Club, another group of dedicated cyclists. This is also where I met someone who was looking to meet me. I had already shared several ideas about commuter cycling with this person before I knew she was a she. That's another cool thing about the message board: gender is irrelevant. We're cyclists, and our experience has little to do with gender. Theoretically it shouldn't ever be relevant, but in practice that's not usually how it goes.

The MTCC crew consists of serious cyclists. FOC, by contrast, is a mix of people of widely differing backgrounds and abilities. They shepherded us through a set of streets in the East End and into Wilkinsburg. We passed the Hay Street station on the East Busway, the farthest east we got on the trip.

Somewhere in there, several youngsters on bikes joined us. They were awestruck by ndromb's tall bike, and wanted to ride with us. Cool! That's part of why we were out there, to bring a smile to people's faces. We slowed the ride so they could keep up.  Maybe four of them? It was a joy to have them along. They started back when we got back into the city proper, and not long after that, the MTCC folks also split off.

By the time we got to Forbes and Braddock, it was starting to get dark. It was also getting harder to keep the group together, as we'd been riding for quite a while by that point, and some were getting tired. We had our only significant accident shortly thereafter, primarily a mechanical failure. One guy's handlebars decided no longer to control the direction of the bike, and he went down hard. For maybe 30 seconds, the group took control of traffic on Forbes in the center of the Squirrel Hill business district. The rider turned out to be shaken but whole, and the bike was repairable and ridable. No parts of body or bike were left in the street. I was very happy that I'd rigged up a very bright light on my helmet, in addition to the one on the bike. With that quick inspection, we reopened the street to traffic.

A trip to the Giant Eagle on Murray Avenue was next. We decided to have a late-evening picnic on the Schenley Park golf course, and needed supplies. I bought a gallon of cider and some cups. Other purchases were a spur-of-the-moment charcoal grill, various things to be grilled, other basic things for a picnic. We loaded up the 25 or so bikes we had left (thanks to Tabby for carrying a gallon of cider on her bike rack, as I had none) and headed to Schenley.

Our arrival in the park did not go unnoticed. We were a virtual swarm of blinking white and red lights, all coming down the park drive in darkness. Three people materialized out of nowhere and came over to find out what we were about. I had visions of the three vampires in the first Twilight book joining the Cullens for a baseball game, minus the thunderstorm.

Food! Several of us were amazed to find that saltm513 had made a chocolate cake and carried it with her for the entire ride. Even more amazing, it held together pretty well for traveling over 20 miles of city streets on the rattly rack to a bicycle.

We ate, we talked, we shared stories. One significant problem was that since nobody smoked, nobody had a lighter to start the charcoal. I don't know how we got it going.

It was past 11 by the time we cleaned up and went our separate ways. This in itself prompted some logistics to deal with. Traveling as a large group has an element of safety, but scattering, we were groups of only one or two going any one way. I was able to ride with two others for a bit, but I only had to get to the car, on the other side of the park. Others had several miles to go on two wheels. I know of no catastrophes so far, so I'm hoping everyone made it home OK.

So, to all my new friends and people I've known on the board a long time, a big hello, and I hope to ride again with you all soon!

For the PA Transportation Funding hearing, June 18 (June 8, 2010)

Current mood: hopeful

This is an early draft of my written testimony on transportation funding to be given before Rep. Joe Markosek's public hearing on June 18. Comments welcome.


Though there is much to say, I will be brief. We are trying to find solutions to two funding problems, not one. Public transit cannot receive any funding from taxes on fuels or from license or registration fees, as per the Pennsylvania Constitution, Article VIII, Section 11A. Therein, however, lies the solution to highway and bridge funding. That is what those taxes are for.

By my calculation, with roughly 8 million registered vehicles in PA and a $240 million annual need, the highway/bridge need could be met by raising the annual registration fee from $36 to $66. The GOP will simply have to eat its words on not raising taxes or fees, as there is no other responsible way to make up that much money. Maybe they can close roads and bridges, or maybe they can put PennDOT under the same scrutiny and squeezes that transit agencies have been subjected to for years, but I doubt it.

Transit is a tougher nut to crack. One good thing that did come out of Act 44 was responding to the objections of the anti-transit crowd by causing PAT and SEPTA and other transit agencies to reinvent their systems, to be more responsive, to clean up their act, so to speak. They did that. Now it's Harrisburg's turn. Just fund it properly, as we pro-transit people have been saying all along. Raise taxes to do this, if necessary. My preference is a Vehicle Miles Traveled tax. This is inherently fair, as the more vehicle-miles traveled in any area, the more needed transit would be in that area. I believe it is also within the constraints of Article VIII.

In finding fixes to two problems, let's not try to fix three. Stop building new roads that we have to maintain! In particular, kill and keep killed any hope of funding the Mon-Fayette/Southern Beltway project, whose acronym is so aptly MFSOB. On the other hand, please DO find the puny amounts of money for improvements to bicycle and pedestrian projects which would lessen our need for primarily car-only infrastructure.

In closing, it is simply good public policy to turn away from a cars-first and cars-only mentality. Instead, adopt this approach: Fix it first, drive it last.

Thank you for your time.

The real enemy: Bad land-use policies (June 7, 2010)

Current mood: confident

I've been in Pittsburgh transit advocacy for nearly 20 years, and the more I get into bicycling, the more I realize the common enemy of both (if you want to think of it that way) is the automobile. More fundamentally, the biggest enemy is land-use decisions that cause us to rely 100% on auto use.

Bikes are not going to be the best option for everyone, but they certainly can do a good job of relieving overcrowding on transit in heavy use areas like the central city. This frees up transit for doing what it is better at, the medium distance hub-spoke trips to inner suburbs like Wilkinsburg, Bellevue, Crafton and Baldwin. Yes they can be biked, but it's just too far for the typical non-athlete to do daily, yet it's a short transit trip. Transit might not pay for itself going out here, but it doesn't take that much public subsidy to do it.

Farther out (McCandless, Moon, Monroeville), transit just cannot do the job in a cost-effective manner. Though hub-spoke travel time by transit may be comparable to the car, the subsidy is enormous and cross-suburb service is often non-existent. There are too few people spread too far apart. Cycling from out here essentially cannot be done except by the extremely fit or extremely dedicated, and takes considerably longer in most cases.

So, what to do? The proper fix is in Harrisburg and Allegheny County Council, encouraging land use and transportation funding decisions favoring non-dependence on cars.
Meanwhile, as I've been saying for almost 20 years, keep riding buses, and bicycle everyplace you can.

Bicycles, transit, and a gulf full of oil (June 1, 2010)

Current mood: peeved

Three news stories this week, seemingly unrelated, but are they, really?
  1. Local: Bicyclist killed by car while on way to work
  2. Regional: Public transit faces 20% service cut due to funding problems
  3. International: Gulf of Mexico oil gush still unchecked after six weeks

There is no cause-and-effect between any two, that much is certain. However, life is never simple, is it?

Let's start with the oil disaster. Beyond the inestimable environmental damage and the blame, guilt and lawsuits certain to come out of this, we have to ask the question, Why was this hole drilled in the first place? Answer: Our unending thirst for easy petroleum. This might be BP's hole, but they wouldn't drill if there wasn't money in it. Who do you think is buying all that petroleum? You and me, and all our friends and neighbors, that's who.

Question: What can you do to cut your consumption in half in a year's time?
Answer: Ride a bus, and ride a bike, to the exclusion of the automobile.

Let us turn our attention to the bus situation. Pennsylvania has underfunded its public transit systems for decades, and this year, all the grand hopes and schemes came crashing down. Harrisburg legislators have to come up with funding not only for transit but also highway and bridge funding. In the meantime, Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC) has to pass a balanced budget by the end of June. Being about 20% short on funding, they will simply cut 20% of the service. How will people get to work, if there is no bus to ride?

Question: How will you get around if there is no bus to ride?
Answer: Many will drive. The enlightened among us will use a bicycle.

Now, as to bicycling. I am sure that Don Parker's last words to his wife and kids going out the door on May 27 were not "I'll see you in heaven, as I'm getting killed on the way to work this morning." What will it take to make our roads safer for cyclists? Several things. Better roads, for one. Extra space on many roads is non-existent. That, unfortunately, is the rule, not the exception. All you get is a driving lane barely enough for two cars to get by, a stripe of paint, a foot of gravel or grass, then guardrail.

Second, better driver training. Whether suburb or city, most motorists do not know the rules regarding cyclists, and many view all cyclists with contempt. Third, better handling by police and media during accidents. Far too often, a bicycle accident is given little more credence than a road kill deer. Just complete the template, file the report, and move on to the next item of business. All of these must change, and quickly!

Finally, put this all together. The solution to cycling catastrophes is to remove cars from the road. Had that driver been on a bus or bike, the accident would not have occurred. Being on a bus or bike is also the ultimate solution to the oil problem, at least future ones. But we cannot get out of our own way, legislatively speaking, to remedy either the transit funding or the road design.

The solution starts with you. Never mind the service cuts, ride the bus anyway. Never mind the dangers, ride the bike anyway. Never mind politics, put people in Harrisburg who will fund transit and get the roads built and the laws changed so bikes can have a better time of it.

A Flock of Cycles (May 22, 2010)

Current mood: triumphant

Critical Mass bike rides were formed several years ago to drive home (please excuse the pun) the notion that bicycles matter, that enough of them, put together, can take over the street, much as cars do and have done with the road network for decades.

We've made our point. There is now a constant flow of cyclists in our midst, and depending on where you live, there might be quite a few of them. This has brought to the forefront another problem: Idiot cyclists. Not everyone adheres to the law, and many go out of their way to flaunt it.

The secondary effect is that many motorists now view cyclists with disdain, prejudging them to all be the idiots that make up the minority of our numbers. Critical Mass rides continue to exist, though, and a realistic argument can be made that, despite its flaws, it is still needed.

It is time, though, for a new idea, and tonight was its first ride: A Flock Of Cycles.

The pun on the 1980s music group, A Flock Of Seagulls, is entirely intentional, of course, as is the design we may yet put on a T-shirt.

Here's the deal: A Flock Of Cycles wants to drive home the notion that a large group of cyclists, large enough to matter, can adhere to the law while riding around in an urban area. We stop at stop signs. We stop at traffic lights. We do not block intersections. We do not cause panic to pedestrians. We try to stay together when a red light splits us, not by corking the intersection to let us all get through, but to have the front line wait until the light turns so the rear group can catch up.

And do all this while having a good time, chatting with passers-by and motorists stopped at lights and people out in their yards. Everyone liked the variety of bicycles, from the one recumbent to the two tall bikes. Two bikes had large, loud sound systems, each blaring music from the 1980s, including tunes from A Flock Of Seagulls. (And we turned the sound down when it mattered. We were being courteous, remember? But meanwhile we rocked out.)

We saw families out for a stroll and talked with them. We gave thumbs-ups to the many, many people who gave us thumbs-ups. Not a single time was any other finger displayed to us. We were nice to people. People were nice to us. Lots of honks. Lots of waves. A couple among us had decent cameras and took pictures of us rolling past; I will post links when I obtain them.

When it was all over, we adjourned to a neighborhood pizza place and chowed down.

Many of us knew each other primarily through the Bike-Pittsburgh message board, but had not met in person. My profile photo there is the same blue-sweater-and-bike-and-green-bus one I've used on Facebook and MySpace for several months, so quite a few people knew me on sight. A few of them I had traded messages with for some time but finally got a chance to talk with.

Then there was the ride itself. By someone's calculation later, we covered at least 22 miles of city streets, bridges, and a couple of paths. We crossed the Allegheny and Monongahela twice each. We hit neighborhoods in the East End, the North Side, and the South Side, as well as Oakland at least twice, but not once did we touch Downtown Pittsburgh. We did venture into Point State Park, where the assembled throng got into riding in a large circle for a couple of times around. This was amazing fun! When else would you have almost 30 sober adults all laughing and truly having fun together?

This is what happens when you have dedicated, educated adults trying to do good in the world. We might not change the world overnight, but we clearly started something here tonight. I really do hope it catches on!


Big slideshow here!

Bike-Pgh thread where this idea originated, starting with the photos posted post-ride.

Kent State, May 4, 1970 (May 3, 2010)

Current mood:moody

Eight years ago, on the 32nd anniversary of the Kent State massacre, I posted a series of entries to my old, dearly departed blog on the Telerama site. Fortunately I saved them on a hard drive, so can share this with you now. I had to make a couple of cosmetic tweaks so they would present nicely under MySpace, but no sense has been altered. All four pieces are now part of this post, so just scroll down to get to each piece.

I was 11 when all this happened, old enough to have a pretty good handle on the world situation, and Kent OH wasn't all that far from metro Buffalo NY.


Sometime in early 2002, an event that happened 32 years ago came to the forefront of my thoughts.  On May 4, 1970, unarmed college students were gunned down by armed troops on a college campus.  Four died and several were wounded.  How this happened, and what it means for the current day and age, seem every bit as viable an item of discussion as flying jetliners into skyscrapers.

Below are four offerings on the subject that have come from my mind and fingers.

The email:         Buzzards, gravestones and May 4

The poem:        Why Did You Die, Allison?

A short essay:   Teach Your Children Well

Some useful links: (contains an excellent chronology, and links to many other sites)

===The Email===
Date: Mon, 18 Mar 2002 15:00:35 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Buzzards, May 4, and gravestones

[ ... personal items deleted ... ]

On to headier topics.  We thought real hard about going to the Hinckley, Ohio, buzzard festival again this year -- enough so that I started looking at a map and wondering if there wasn't another way to get there & back than the couple of ways we've tried so far.  Well, just to the East of Hinckley, barely five miles off of the road we usually take, is the little town of Kent.  There's a college there.  A state college.  Looks a whole lot like Geneseo – a bitty town, the college is more than half the town, a couple dozen miles from anywhere.  Maybe you haven't been there, but you've been there.  Say the words "Kent State" out loud.   Now say the words "May 4, 1970" out loud.  My hunch is that you probably connect the two.  If you really know your American history, perhaps the words "Jackson State" and "May 14, 1970" ring similar bells, as the metal for the molds of those bells were from the same casting.

We didn't go to Hinckley, but I did enough advance reading to refresh my memory of what happened that day, 210 miles from West Falls, the day I turned 11-1/2. I kinda knew, as I'd intersected the info on various occasions over the years.  The last of the court cases was being argued in Pittsburgh when I hit town here in 1982 or so.  Then in 1990, the 20th anniv., with Gabe still a suckling infant, there was a local magazine article showing the gravestone of Allison Krause [see below], one of the four students mowed down by the Ohio National Guard.  On it was a row of small pebbles, small mementos of people who had come to visit and remember.  It was a local story because she was local.  She's buried in Churchill, PA, between Pittsburgh and Monroeville.

It was Allison Krause who, at a protest in Kent on May 3 at which she was involved in a situation concerning a lilac inserted in the barrel of a Guardsman's M-1 rifle, yelled at a superior officer, "What's the matter with flowers? Flowers are better than bullets."

I made a vow to myself that if I couldn't get to Kent, I'd somehow get to the gravesite and leave a pebble myself.  So I contacted the owner of the site & got directions.  (excellent site, BTW: piles of info, and a detailed play by play of the events of that weekend and hour, complete with many photos, especially of the final minutes).

As it turns out, May 4, 2002, is a Saturday.  And as it turns out, I have reason to go to Monroeville that day.  I'm planning on working in a little detour on my way there.  Right around noon.

On a slightly related vein, we [recently] watched a Disney movie, "The Color of Friendship".  Are you familiar with this story?  Remember the Steven Biko controversy in South Africa in 1977?  How about a U.S. congressman named Ron Dellums?  Dellums was Congress's point man on human rights in South Africa and the elimination of apartheid.  I don't remember it real well, but apparently the Dellums family, which is black, hosted a foreign exchange student that summer, who turned out to be a white girl from South Africa.  And hence the setting for the story.

We were in D.C. in January and visited the Smithsonian exhibit on Africa and the kids saw a bit about apartheid, about Nelson Mandela, about the whole 90%-black/10%-white-and-guess-who-rules thing over there.  So the kids I think got more out of it because of that.

Now with that as backdrop, I tried to describe to the kids how things are not as rosy here as they might seem, that the whole reason Kent State happened was because of arrogant politicians at all levels, right from President Nixon (who four days before decided to invade Cambodia), through a senator running for re-election in the primary on May 5 on a law-and-order campaign, on down to the mayor of Kent calling out the Nat'l Guard without notifying anyone.  The quick version: It can happen in South Africa (the police there had Biko in jail and killed him), and it can happen here (armed militia firing into a crowd of unarmed students).  The difficult part is in getting them to understand enough of it that they can make sense out of it, if there is any sense that can be made.

Well, I think I've said enough for one lunch hour.  Back to work...


===The Poem===

Why Did You Die, Allison?

Why did you die, Allison?
Nineteen-year-olds should not die of anything.
Why did you die?

Why do I care, Allison?
I was only 11, and now am 43.
Why should I care?

What were you trying to say to us, Allison?
“Flowers are better than bullets!”
What else could you say?

What can you tell my children, Allison?
That a pebble on a gravestone has value?
If only you could tell them again!

What did your parents learn from Auschwitz and Dachau?
That a government can be evil and kill?
What did they teach you?

What can I do to thank you, Allison?
You did not die in vain, since we do remember and learn.
Thank you, Allison.

===A Short Essay===
Teach Your Children Well

I’m not sure why this affects me so deeply.  I wept openly as I composed the Allison Krause poem.  I’ve so infrequently composed in recent years, I surprise myself at my strength of feeling and clarity of thought when I do.  I’d been lying awake in bed at 4 a.m., thinking about any number of things before Kent State came to mind, but when it did, I had to get up & find a pen.

But why this, why now?  Where is the lesson?  Am I as a parent to teach my children to stand up for what they believe?  Or am I to teach them that to stand up and speak against authority is to get cut down by M-1 rifles?  I would think the former; I certainly wouldn’t want to think the latter.  Specifically I would hope that they never get so paralyzed by fear of speaking against authority that they refrain from speaking out.

I want my children to know what happened there, to know what led to it, and what thinking went on in the heads of those who were in charge.  I want them to know that the students had a point of view that demanded being heard, and was ignored, or worse still, quelled with no thought given to listening.  I want them to know that it is a worse sin not to listen to dissent than it is to follow a crowd, and that it is a sin at all to follow a crowd when there is dissent to be given audition.

As with most tragic events, it took a combination of failures for the tragedy to occur.  Whether Kent State or Three Mile Island or Space Shuttle Challenger or any other event of a similar nature, it took the combined efforts of several parties either not doing their jobs or working at cross purposes.  Each tragedy is different.  But it takes the vigilance of someone to recognize the problem and speak out, never mind the consequences, to prevent such events from occurring.

The whole purpose of the United States of America is to provide an environment where freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom in general, should – should – go unquestioned, unchallenged.  Each new generation has to learn this, somehow.  It is up to us, the parental generation, to carry the lessons of our own generation, and those of our forebears, into the daily actions and thoughts of our children, in order that they do not repeat those mistakes themselves.  A large number of lessons were learned at Kent State.  Let us not forget them.

===One Photograph===

My take on the GOP plan to fund PA transportation (Apr. 13, 2010)

Current mood: confident

After Pennsylvania's plan to place tolls on I-80 failed, Rep. Rick Geist (R-Altoona) proposed an 11-point plan to fund the repairs on PA's aging bridges and highways, and ongoing mass transit systems. In my opinion, they're worthy of serious consideration.

Geist's plan:

Notable in the article is his mention that he knew the thing would fail back in July 2007. He's been sitting on this ever since. Here's my take on his 11 things:

  1. Public-private partnerships: I read this proposal top to bottom in November 2005 when he first proposed it. It doesn't mention transit once in about 80 pages. I'm skeptical and a little worried, but only because it's so complicated I don't know really what it represents.
  2. State police funding. This clearly benefits highway funding at the expense of the State Police. It is simply doing to them what they did to mass transit a long time ago: Get in line for the soup pot like everyone else.
  3. Design-build. I'm not sure what it does for money one way or another. I think it means "foundation upon which to build sweetheart deals". Has zero to do with transit. Not a show-stopper, though.
  4. Tolling I-95. This makes some sense. I-95 is a better candidate than I-80 for tolling. It would take a lot of pressure off of PennDOT to find a bazillion dollars to fix I-95, which will help PA figure out how to fix everything else that's falling apart.
  5. Turnpike payments to PennDOT. Good, necessary, responsible, even if a little messy.
  6. Turnpike commissioners. A political move, but not without a grain of reason. Lord knows the Turnpike Commission can't get any worse.
  7. Hiring out maintenance on certain roads. I don't see where this saves money, but it might, if only in reducing state payroll (read: pension liability). Again, zero to do with transit.
  8. Oil company franchise tax increase. This has long been needed. It will result in an increase in gasoline costs without being a politically unpopular per-gallon tax increase.
  9. Increase local transit match to 25%. Nice idea, and it might work. This did come from the TFRC (Transportation Funding Reform Commission), not the GOP itself. The devil is in the details, but I don't see this as a show-stopper. Also see the next item, which helps.
  10. Expanded local tax options. This makes a good bit of sense. Each county would be given some leeway in how it comes up with the tax money it won't get from the state. Personally, I think a realty tax would work better than a sales tax.
  11. Vehicle Miles Traveled tax. Saving the best for last, I really do like this one. It very nicely gets around the Constitution Article VIII Section 11A restriction on motor fuels. Tax the miles traveled. The most miles traveled will be done where the most need for transit is.

So, in summary, if the GOP came up with this, and there are no show-stoppers in it (which I don't see, though that first one worries me), then there might just be some sense in starting here. If the GOP is essentially on board with this, then this might actually get passed, and might actually work. I don't trust Geist, but he does know transportation, and transportation funding, and that has to count for something. He's a highway guy, but not scathingly anti-transit, like Punxsutawney's Sam Smith, or Cranberry Township's Daryl Metcalfe.

I'm pretty sure Geist sat down and thought about just this possibility, as soon as Act 44 became law, thinking "OK, go fight with the FHWA and see how far you get, but when you fail, come back and talk to me."

Post-Script: One little "gotcha" that came up is related to the oil franchise tax. Apparently that will enable the PA Turnpike to continue planning to build the MFSoB, i.e., the Mon-Fayette/Southern Beltway. Bad, bad, bad.

My proposal for a new fare-payment policy (Apr. 10, 2010)

Current mood: imaginative

This rather long essay is my own personal set of thoughts on how Port Authority of Allegheny County (PAAC, PAT) fare policy should be handled. Please wrap your minds around this, understand the depth of what I am getting at. I hate getting TL;DR'd. It's a complex idea. It has to be. But nothing could be more complex than what we have now.

Transit's biggest competition is the private automobile, and it is because of this that fare pricing models and relevant marketing should be directed squarely at getting people out of their cars. Equally important here is what the pricing models and marketing are not targeting: (a) the captive rider, and (b) the rider by choice. They're going to ride anyway, so don't waste any effort making it attractive for them. With what I will describe below, anything designed to make the fare payment system attractive for the non-rider will certainly be acceptable to them as well, if not outright desirable.

The key is simple: Make it intuitive, and avoid penalizing anyone.

Part 1. Eliminate zones and transfers. Pay to use the system, not each ride. Assuming a base fare of $2 (all these numbers are assumptions), that $2 applies to whether the rider uses one bus to get from Point A to Point B or four buses. Put a time limit on that $2, say two hours. If you have to get into a third hour, pay a third dollar. This simple formula will cover just about everyone's trip to work. Repeat for the trip home.

Part 2. Set a per-day limit.
For sake of illustration, let's institute a $5/day per-person maximum fare. This will make the system very attractive to people, and for the majority of riders, will be a no-delta in terms of fares. For low-income people who have to make at least one transfer each direction, this works out to be a slight benefit, but part of this is built into Part 1 already. Who this really helps is the people with insanely long commutes with three or more transfers, who would be hitting that three-hour threshold each way. Remember, we are trying to avoid penalizing people who use the system. The primary reason I can see not wanting to do this is homeless people who do nothing all day but ride buses. If it costs them $5/day to do this, that will keep a good many of them out of the system. For those who can afford to, Port Authority is at least getting $5/day out of each of them.

Recall that under the TDP arrangement, transfers will be required more often. Doing the above reduces that hit. Making the maximum daily cost a fixed fare allows the motorist not currently using the system to compare directly the per-day cost of transit vs. driving, be it from parking, fuel or whatever.

Part 3. Set per-week limits. Since there are five working days in most people's working weeks, the per-week cost should not exceed 5x the daily cost, so $25/week in this illustration. Customers who have six- or seven-day needs will thus not be penalized. This too encourages people to avoid getting or using the (additional) car, since their travel costs are already built into their five-day costs. Note that this is similar to the current cost of a weekly pass.

Part 4. Similarly, set per-month limits. Since there are 22 working days in most months (February only has 20), set the per-month max to be 21x or 22x the daily cost, or $105 or $110/month. Note that this is similar to the current cost of a monthly Zone 2 pass.

Part 5. Irregular usage. All of the above amounts to a course correction based on the current system, but the current system does not handle well the part-week rider, the part-month rider, or the person with irregular usage habits. The visiting relative in town from Friday to Tuesday would need two weekly passes, deterring buying any. Riders who pay for a Sunday-to-Saturday pass, only to find out they're being sent out of town Wednesday through Friday, and the rider who goes on a two-week vacation from the 15th to the 30th, and who thus lose half the benefit of buying a weekly or monthly pass, are penalized for their non-use of the system. This deters people from buying fare.

Therefore, the fare system needs to be able to detect non-usage of the system. The weekday rider who paid for a week's usage, Sunday to Saturday, and then doesn't ride from Wednesday on, ought to have those Monday and Tuesday uses treated as per-day usage, and carry forward the unused remainder of that weekly subscription to some future time. The current setup, which has a built-in "expiration penalty", keeps a lot of people from buying transit fare, and so in turn causes the system to seem hostile and uninviting. This in turn fosters the loss-of-ridership spiral.

Again, what you're trying to accomplish is to make the system simple, intuitive, inviting -- not complex, penalizing, hostile. The transit system needs to appear to be a clear, preferable alternative to the private automobile. In all cases, the fare system should appear to "do the right thing" -- be fair, not eat your money, not charge you for services not provided, and yet on the other hand to charge a fair price for services you do use. The system needs to be able to sell itself, needs to be attractive enough to sell itself. It's already far less costly to use transit than drive, but both scheduling and fare complexities promote that hostility. With a new fare system, we have the opportunity to remove a large piece of this hostility.

Part 6: Avoiding The Transit Paradox. To be avoided as best as can be accomplished is The Transit Paradox, to wit, that the more that people ride, the more it costs Port Authority to provide each ride, because even with the buses crammed full at rush hour, the fares do not and cannot pay the full cost of operating the system; service is added to handle the load, thus increasing the operating cost even more.

The point is to get people to buy fare, not get people to ride. Now we get more into marketing, which I consider more an art than a science. To avoid the Transit Paradox, get people to buy fare whether they ride or not -- while simultaneously appear to be not charging them for rides they are not taking. *That's what marketing is.* Marketing is creating a state of mind where people will pay $1 for a bottle of water identical to what they can get at a water fountain for nothing, and then throw half of it away anyway.

Owning and maintaining a car costs easily $5,000 a year, probably more like $10,000. An annual bus pass is currently $1,155 for Zone 2. Yet the perception is that transit is expensive, and for many other reasons is considered undesirable. Marketing can fix some of that, but the fare policy needs to be a piece of that, needs to do its own part of selling the idea of using transit.

The fare policy must encourage people -- non-riders especially -- to pay into potential use of the system, not actual use. Encourage long-term subscriptions: one-month, three-month, six-month, 12-month plans. People will (somewhat) happily shell out over $300 for one trip to the mechanic. You want to take that $300+ and give it to PAAC for use of the system for three months, and longer if not used in three months. Unanswered here are other objectives such as scheduling, timeliness, etc., so stay on topic, just deal with fares. Those other things matter but not in the current discussion. You want to get fares to be a non-issue. $300 is one car payment, or three months insurance, or a month-maybe-two parking Downtown, or one brake job, or two months gasoline -- OR -- forget all those things and use the bus for three months. Three months riding is equal to one of each of those other things ALL of which you have to pay for if you're NOT on the bus. So don't get that 2nd car, get a bus pass. Start off simple, $5/day, $25/week, until you get used to it. Stave off that car purchase or replacement as long as you can. That's the philosophy PAAC needs to get across, and to get it out to *non-riders* especially. Get them to buy into the idea of transit, 2 or 5 or 25 or 300 dollars at a time.

Rant on transit funding (Apr. 9, 2010)

Current mood: disgusted

This is from an email I sent yesterday, inquiring about my thoughts on why tolling I-80 failed. For those who missed the headline, Pennsylvania's plan to put tolls on I-80 was supposed to pay for much needed highway and bridge repairs statewide, and provide a reliable funding stream for PA's municipal mass transit systems.

* * *

I really didn't want to be a wet blanket, but I knew this was coming. This was the third attempt to make this happen, and the third decision was based on the same reasoning as the first and second: It just isn't legal to do what PA wanted to do.

Marilyn Skolnick is right, Act 44 was poorly written. It was agreed to by those who were fighting against it because they knew what the state wanted to do would fail. As it did. Three times now.

To me, it was a screw-up from the word "go", since it basically borrowed future money to pay for current operations. Now we're $2 Billion in the hole and no way to pay for what's already spent, plus interest, let alone anything going forward.

The right and proper thing to do is for Harrisburg to fund transit properly out of the General Fund, and raise taxes to do so. That Just. Ain't. Gonna. Happen. Hasn't ever happened.

Reason is not our friend. Reason falls on deaf ears. Those who are most deaf live in the northern half of the state, but not all. Listen to the so-called logic of leaders on the GOP side like Sam Smith in Punxsutawney, who I find it difficult to say anything about in the presence of a lady, and true nutcases like the rep from Cranberry Twp, Daryl Metcalfe. They always vote against transit. "Just plain mean-spirited" is the most churchlike language I can muster. They, and 80 to 100 like them, are what we are up against.

I've been in the midst of this debate since 1993. It's been going on for far longer than that. I have a newspaper from 1982 with a transit funding story that, if I showed it to you without the date, you would not guess is from nearly 30 years ago.

Please re-read my P-G opinion piece from 2004: Precious little has changed.

a bicycle love story (Apr. 2, 2010)

Current mood: mellow

This is my contribution to a collection of bicycle love stories now being assembled by a local writer [link].

* * *

The summer I was 9, I learned a major lesson in life: Bicycle=Transportation=Freedom. In doing this I also defied my parents and lost the privilege of using the bike for a while, but so what. A few lumps along the line are to be expected.

A local radio station (Buffalo NY) promised a picnic to anyone who wanted to drive all the way out to the ski resort area south of town. For most folks, this was 20 to 30 miles, but I was already well south of the city. My parents were adamant, no radio station picnics for me. But my sister broke her collarbone that morning, distracting their attention. I hemmed and hawed about it, wondering. Could I bike there? It’s only 10 miles. Nor was the route complicated, only one road, NY 240.

I went for it. Putting all 65 scrawny pounds of me on the 20” single-speed, off I pedaled. And I made it! It took maybe 90 minutes, but I made it! Problem was, as my parents had feared, there had been a drug bust and the event was shut down early. This was 1968, and they just knew there would be drugs. But what did I know, or care? Ah, the innocence of being 9.

The trip back was less successful. For one, a gang of kids who taunted me southbound didn’t miss me going north, and beat me up. Second, a parent of one of them, noticing the fracas and the strange bike, rescued me but also got my father on the phone. You can guess the rest.

But 15 miles on a 20” single-speed, at 9? The world was now open! Anyplace I cared to go, if I could get away with it, I went! Loving life meant riding freely, and I rode a lot.

High school years brought forth a unicycle, and before long I was unicycling four miles each way to school, a couple times a week. That repeated stunt got me a spot on the evening news one day. Later on, at college, I rode one wheel or two pretty much constantly. I think all that exercise is what has helped me stay relatively youthful. I don’t feel my age, and many say I don’t look it, either.

Now 51, I still consider myself free as a bird, as long as I have reliable wheels. No money for bus fare or gasoline? No problem. Just get on and ride.

Who says there's no humor in science? (Apr 1, 2010)

Current mood: amused

In honor of April Fools Day, Astronomy Picture of the Day has posted its annual photo-of-THIS-day:

Evidence Mounts for Water on the Moon

But don't forget:
Astronaut's Head Upgraded During Spacewalk
New Space Station Robot Asks to be Called "Dextre the Magnificent"
Americans Defeat Russians in First Space Quidditch Match
Hubble Resolves Expiration Date For Green Cheese Moon
Water On Mars
April Fools Day More Intense On Mars
A New Constellation Takes Hold (my personal favorite of the set)
Ski Mars!
Astronaut Kicks Lunar Field Goal

The archive actually does go back to sometime in 1995, but they didn't get into the humor back then. Even after they did, they didn't do it every year. Here are a few other interesting, though serious, April 1 APOD entries:
TIROS 1, the first weather satellite
Hale-Bopp and Andromeda
Comet Hyakutake, Big Dipper, and Observatory Dome

The 2001 and 2002 entries were revised for 2006 and 2007.

Non-Sexual Appearance of Breasts (Mar. 7, 2010)

From where I see it, this is one of those topics that drive at the heart of civilization. Women in this culture, and most others, are not treated equally to men, primarily because they are not allowed to show an areola or nipple. Anytime one does appear, it is illegal or considered immoral. Any amount of breast may be visible, in most cases, and be gotten away with. Anytime a breast does appear, this is equated with sexual allure, immorality, or both.

This is not right.

Let’s define more accurately the issue at hand. Men may take their shirts off and walk around most anywhere, and nobody cares. In several locations, the rule is simply “No shirt, no shoes, no service”, and this works reasonably well. Men know they have to put a shirt on to enter a restaurant, ride a bus, show up at the office, whatever. Perfectly reasonable. Aside from those places, it is also acceptable for a man to go around shirtless. Common examples: mowing the grass, nailing shingles on a roof, cheering on a team at a sporting event, walking the dog on a sidewalk, washing the car in the driveway. In none of these examples is sexual allure of a male even an item for discussion. It garners no notice. For women to be able to do exactly the same thing, and garner no notice, is the matter at hand.

Men’s and women’s bodies are different, but oddly enough, the nipple and areola on males and females, apart from the breast they are attached to, are more alike than different. Collections of photos exist, in quiz format [see comment below], where few people can accurately classify male or female from the image alone. While their function is very different, their at-rest appearance is not. When in use, a female nipple looks different from a male’s, true, but breastfeeding is a topic unto itself. Closely related, yes, but not the matter at hand. My point is that there is nothing special about the female areola and nipple that should, by itself, be that big a deal.

The breast itself, apart from the areola and nipple, between male and female, differs in size and shape, but not as much as one might think. A large number of women have breasts smaller than many males. One key is the pencil test. Can any person, male or female, hold a pencil under his or her breast? You might be surprised how many males can, and how many females cannot. Thus it is not right to classify the issue on breast size alone.

Let’s move on to sexual allure. In this culture, and many others, it is usually tolerated for females to appear in sexually alluring settings. A large percentage of advertisements which show women at all show them in some alluring pose. Sex sells, and always has, but whether or not this is right in and of itself is off topic. Similarly, it is often acceptable for women to be very forward with this allure, whether in photos or on film or in person, though this usually stops short of behavior leading to seduction. Seductive behavior, too, is off topic here. Allure, though, is a grey area, highly subjective, difficult to measure, and with different effects from person to person. A woman can be fully covered from neck to toenails and be alluring, or wear a swimsuit and not be, depending on many factors, and again, highly subjective in effect from person to person. Thus it is not right to decide this issue based on allure.

Next aspect: Distraction. Here, I make the allusion to what I call The 1959 DeSoto Effect. I am an old-car buff, and am especially fond of the automobiles of the tailfin era. If I am standing still and a 1959 DeSoto rolls by, I am likely to look at it very closely and mumble “my my my”. No harm done, no problem. If I am driving somewhere, and see a 1959 DeSoto roll by, I might still try to catch a glance at it, but if in doing that I cause an accident, it’s my fault, not that of the 1959 DeSoto. Now replace the old car with a young woman, clothed, and repeat the two scenarios above. No change, right? Right. Now replace the young woman, clothed, with one wearing sneakers, blue jeans, and nothing above. Same deal. Does anything change? Not a bit. Hence it is not acceptable to decide this issue based on distractability to others.

I’ve heard other objections to women being prevented from going shirtless. Sunburn and other maladies, for one. This makes no sense. Again, men go shirtless all the time, and while getting a sunburn or even a tan may, itself, be debatable in this age of thinning ozone layers, the decision of what body parts are to get some sun is ultimately a personal one, not one to be decided by government based exclusively on gender. Same with bee stings. If you go shirtless, you risk getting stung. So what? Again, a personal decision, not in the purview of governments. The government has no business saying you have to keep a bikini top on so that you do not get a bee sting.

Here’s another one: “If I took my shirt off, the guys would be all over me.” Don’t we already have restrictions on unwelcome contact? Is their drool any different if you had a top on? Nobody is asking you to take your top off, only that you not care if someone else does. The point is, it’s the woman’s choice, not the government’s. Some women are perfectly OK with sunning themselves or patching the roof without a top on. The more often it does occur, eventually the less novel it will become. The sooner we get from “oh my” to “so what”, the better off we will all be.

Yet another one: “But I don’t want my child to see that.” See what? That human bodies are, well, human? This is often the most strenuous objection, as well as being the least describable, and least defensible. Absent all the above factors – sexual allure, sexual aggressiveness, distraction, sunburn – the matter comes down to that people are different, and children, of all people, are always in wonder about that. My point: It may actually be helpful for children, small ones especially, to see female tops in all their different sizes and shapes. Variance is normal! Body acceptance is itself a topic requiring an essay, the short version of which is that children, in our current repressive environment, develop a comparatively narrow acceptance of body shapes. If they had more unclothed examples, we might as a culture grow more accepting of our fellow humans’ body shapes.

Last one: “But I don’t want to see that.” Here’s a simple solution: Turn your head, or close your eyes. We’re again talking about body acceptance here. Some breasts are ugly, just as some faces are. Deal with it. Your parents or someone in your past trained you to think that skin should not be seen. This is merely the 21st century continuation of the argument 200 years ago that women’s ankles or knees should not be seen. As recently as 80 years ago it was not common for men to be shirtless. Men gained the ability to remove shirts, and women got as far as the bikini, but we are discussing the logical conclusion to all that, that women are equal to men in all regards.

In no case here have I talked about anything below the waist. I do not challenge anything there. This discussion is strictly about dress above the belt. Pants and footwear are a given. Nor have I referred to anything so far as nudity. Nudity refers to below the waist. As shirtless males are not considered nude, similarly a female uncovered from the waist up is not nude or even partially nude. She is simply shirtless, or to use the preferred term, topfree. The term “topless” carries sexual connotations, and should be avoided.

Again, this entire topic has nothing to do with sex. It has everything to do with the absence of sexual themes. Anything a man is allowed to do, a woman should as well. It should be nothing remarkable for a woman to relax at the beach wearing only a swimsuit bottom. And by “woman” I mean any female over the age of 8.

So let’s have it so that women can mow the grass, nail shingles on a roof, cheer on a team at a sporting event, walk the dog on a sidewalk, and wash the car in the driveway, shirtless, same as the guys. This isn’t about showing off, it’s about getting along, and not caring what the other guy or girl is wearing or not. It’s about live and let live. It’s about treating others as you would have others treat you.

It’s about being human.

The first disco song I can remember (Feb. 24, 2010)

Current mood: cheerful

My son spends what seems to me to be an inordinate amount of time on the computer, much of it watching videos. I see no value in it most of the time. Every once in a while, though, he happens upon something truly amazing. This is about one of those times.

Flash back to early 1974. I was in 10th grade, and while I’d pretty much stopped buying 45 rpm records, I still liked my music, and instead sat next to the radio with my tape recorder. When a favorite tune came on, I hit the record button and captured it, including any disk jockey blabber, the end of the weather reports, station IDs, bits of commercials and all. I still have all those tapes, and if they’re still playable, I can hear snippets of what Top 40 radio sounded like back then.

One song I managed to capture was a piece of a disco recording, possibly the first song I can remember that could be called disco. It certainly didn’t sound like anything else I’d heard, and its novelty, as well as its entrancing beat, enthralled me. This was early 1974, before “TSOP” by MFSB, before “Rock the Boat” by The Hues Corporation, before anything by K.C. and the Sunshine Band, almost a year and a half before “The Hustle” by Van McCoy. It sounded like it might have been sung in Spanish, or maybe some flavor of Italian. Nothing that came close to any English words made any sense. Perhaps the closest I came up with was “freezing cold and ants in mine choose oh – all right!” At least the “all right!” was clear enough. Maybe it was just heavily accented English. Whatever, it was primarily played on one chord, with a heavy 4-4 beat and a brass band. I knew neither title nor artist, and could not find it in the record stores.

A few years later, at college, with the song still stuck in my head, I dug out Billboard magazine back issues on microfiche and went through the charts for early 1974. Nothing.

Decades pass. Someone invents the Internet, Google, Wikipedia and YouTube. And I come down the stairs one morning to find my son playing this song in a YouTube music video. That song! I hadn’t heard it in 35 years! (aside from the grubby cassette recording I’d last pulled out some years back)

Without further ado, here’s the video, and here’s the Wikipedia page. There's even (ahem) lyrics! Enjoy!

P.S. What the song is about is what American English sounds like to non-English speakers.