Thursday, March 31, 2011

redesigning Port Authority's bus service (Feb. 25, 2007)

While Port Authority of Allegheny County plans to eliminate over half of its bus routes in a cost-cutting move, I am aware of an independent plan that will actually provide better service with the cut-back service hours than is currently provided with full service.

The key to all this is in changing several key assumptions about how service is implemented. What we have now resembles a bicycle wheel -- one hub (Downtown) with many spokes, i.e., bus routes, going out to the farther reaches of the county. Some routes have lots of service; many have sparse service; plenty of them have less or no service on Saturday, and plenty of those have less still or no service on Sunday.

The independent plan would not simply cut routes, it would reimplement ALL service. There would still be several routes going Downtown, each with very heavy service, but the majority of routes would not go Downtown. Instead, they would provide at least one bus an hour, seven days a week, to every significant corner of the city and county, transporting them to hubs outside the city, usually a shopping mall, where one can transfer to a Downtown-bound bus.

Areas that already have heavy demand, the three dozen routes that form roughly half of all service hours today, would see no significant reduction, and may in fact see a service increase, but only on their heaviest used segments. On the outer reaches, hourly shuttles do the work. Weekday express routes continue to exist, though not as many as at present.

Transfer fares would be simplified, employing the one-fare/two-hours principle being put forth as one of the fare proposals. You pay to ride the system for two hours, whether you ride one bus or six. In my opinion, Port Authority should have made that change many years ago.

The only downside I can see to it is that it would be a major change, and everyone would be confused. That can already be said, however, about the current cutback plan. Indeed, the current operation has too much complexity, with very few routes adhering to one routing pattern and running with clockwork regularity. More than a couple of routes employ 10 or more routing patterns; a couple use more than 20. Not so in the independent plan -- one route, one pattern, once an hour (at least), every route, seven days a week, and many of them well into the evening.

Clockwork scheduling. Simplicity in routing. Service to just about every neighborhood, with a five-minute walk or less for a healthy adult, maybe 10 in the farther-flung areas. And all this with fewer buses than we have now.

It's definitely worth considering. Stay tuned for more.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

I've seen 15 out of 240 movies (Feb. 20, 2007)

Current mood: amused

SUPPOSEDLY if you've seen over 105 movies, you have no life. Mark the ones you've seen. There are 239 movies on this list. Copy this list mail, go to your own myspace account, paste this as a note. Then, put x's next to the movies you've seen, add them up, change the header adding your number, and click post at the bottom. Have fun!

(x) Rocky Horror Picture Show
() Grease
() Pirates of the Caribbean
() Pirates of the Caribbean 2: Dead Man's Chest
() Boondock Saints
() Fight Club
() Starsky and Hutch
() Neverending Story
() Blazing Saddles
() Airplane
() Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

Total: 1

() The Princess Bride
() AnchorMan
() Napoleon Dynamite
() Labyrinth
() Saw
() Saw II
() White Noise
() White Oleander
() Anger Management
() 50 First Dates
() The Princess Diaries
() The Princess Diaries 2: Royal Engagement

Total so far: 1

() Scream
() Scream 2
() Scream 3
() Scary Movie
() Scary Movie 2
() Scary Movie 3
() Scary Movie 4
() American Pie
() American Pie 2
() American Wedding
() American Pie Band Camp
() American Pie Naked Mile

Total so far: 1

() Harry Potter 1
() Harry Potter 2
() Harry Potter 3
() Harry Potter 4
() Resident Evil 1
() Resident Evil 2
() The Wedding Singer
() Little Black Book
() The Village
(x) Lilo & Stitch

Total so far: 2

() Finding Nemo
() Finding Neverland
() Signs
() The Grinch
()Texas Chainsaw Massacre
() Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning
() White Chicks
() Butterfly Effect
() 13 Going on 30
() I, Robot
() Robots

Total so far: 2

() Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story
() Universal Soldier
() Lemony Snicket: A Series Of Unfortunate Events
() Along Came Polly
() Deep Impact
() KingPin
() Never Been Kissed
() Meet The Parents
() Meet the Fockers
() Eight Crazy Nights
() Joe Dirt

Total so far: 2

(x) A Cinderella Story
() The Terminal
() The Lizzie McGuire Movie
() Passport to Paris
(x) Dumb & Dumber
() Dumber & Dumberer
() Final Destination
() Final Destination 2
() Final Destination 3
() Halloween
() The Ring
() The Ring 2
() Surviving X-MAS
() Flubber

Total so far: 4

() Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle
() Practical Magic
() Chicago
() Ghost Ship
() From Hell
() Hellboy
() Secret Window
() I Am Sam
() The Whole Nine Yards
() The Whole Ten Yards

Total so far: 4

() The Day After Tomorrow
() Child's Play
() Seed of Chucky
() Bride of Chucky
() Ten Things I Hate About You
() Just Married
() Gothika
() Nightmare on Elm Street
(x) Sixteen Candles
() Remember the Titans
() Coach Carter
() The Grudge
() The Grudge 2
(x) The Mask
() Son Of The Mask

Total so far: 6

() Bad Boys
() Bad Boys 2
() Joy Ride
() Lucky Number Slevin
() Ocean's Eleven
() Ocean's Twelve
() Bourne Identity
() Bourne Supremecy
() Lone Star
() Bedazzled
() Predator
() Predator II
() The Fog
(x) Ice Age
() Ice Age 2: The Meltdown
() Curious George

Total so far: 7

() Independence Day
() Cujo
() A Bronx Tale
() Darkness Falls
() Christine
(x) ET
() Children of the Corn
() My Bosses Daughter
() Maid in Manhattan
() War of the Worlds
() Rush Hour
() Rush Hour 2

Total so far: 8

() Best Bet
() How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days
() She's All That
() Calendar Girls
() Sideways
() Mars Attacks
() Event Horizon
() Ever After
(x) Wizard of Oz
() Forrest Gump
() Big Trouble in Little China
() The Terminator
() The Terminator 2
() The Terminator 3

Total so far: 9

() X-Men
() X2
() X-3
() Spider-Man
() Spider-Man 2
() Sky High
() Jeepers Creepers
() Jeepers Creepers 2
() Catch Me If You Can
(x) The Little Mermaid
(x) Freaky Friday
() Reign of Fire
() The Skulls
() Cruel Intentions
() Cruel Intentions 2
() The Hot Chick
() Shrek
() Shrek 2

Total so far: 11

() Swimfan
() Miracle on 34th street
() Old School
() The Notebook
() K-Pax
() Krippendorf's Tribe
() A Walk to Remember
() Ice Castles
() Boogeyman
() The 40-year-old-virgin

Total so far: 11

() Lord of the Rings Fellowship of the Ring
() Lord of the Rings The Two Towers
() Lord of the Rings Return Of the King
() Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark
() Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
() Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Total so far: 11

() BASEketball
() Hostel
() Waiting for Guffman
() House of 1000 Corpses
() Devils Rejects
() Elf
() Highlander
() Mothman Prophecies
() American History X
() Three

Total so Far: 11

() The Jacket
() Kung Fu Hustle
() Shaolin Soccer
(x) Night Watch
(x) Monsters Inc.
() Titanic
(x) Monty Python and the Holy Grail
() Shaun Of the Dead
() Willard

Total so far: 14

() High Tension
() Club Dread
() Hulk
() Dawn Of the Dead
() Hook
(x) Chronicle Of Narnia The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe
() 28 days Later
() Orgazmo
() Phantasm
() Waterworld

Total so far: 15

() Kill Bill vol 1
() Kill Bill vol 2
() Mortal Kombat
() Wolf Creek
() Kingdom of Heaven
() The Hills Have Eyes
() I Spit on Your Grave aka the Day of the Woman
() The Last House on the Left
() Re-Animator
() Army of Darkness

Total so far: 15

() Star Wars Ep. I The Phantom Menace
() Star Wars Ep. II Attack of the Clones
() Star Wars Ep. III Revenge of the Sith
() Star Wars Ep. IV A New Hope
() Star Wars Ep. V The Empire Strikes Back
() Star Wars Ep. VI Return of the Jedi
() Ewoks Caravan Of Courage
() Ewoks The Battle For Endor

Total so far: 15

() The Matrix
() The Matrix Reloaded
() The Matrix Revolution
() Animatrix
() Evil Dead
() Evil Dead 2
() Team America: World Police
() Silence of the Lambs
() Hannibal
() Red Dragon
() Hannibal Rising

Final Total: 15

Now ......

put "I've seen __ out of 240 movies" in the subject line and repost it

Monday, March 28, 2011

Shoveling driveways, chipping ice off cars (Feb. 15, 2007)

Current mood: chipper

I guess I should count myself lucky, not feeling particularly sore after spending most of Wednesday shoveling out all or part of five driveways. We had about five inches of snow on Tuesday, followed by a quarter-inch of freezing rain, followed by another two or three inches of snow by mid-day Wednesday.

My next door neighbor, who works down the road less than a mile, needed to go to work at 7 a.m., but the overnight freezing rain made it impossible to get into the car at all, let alone try to clean it off in any short amount of time. Since our car was under a carport, we (I) drove her to work. Later in the morning, though, it took three of us to bash and chip our way into that car, and though I wasn't keeping track, I was told it took us most of an hour to do so.

Chipping one's way into a frozen over car is a bit of an art form. The tool of choice was a wooden shovel handle. The trick is to break the ice, to make it "spider web", without breaking any glass, wearing out or breaking any tools, or scratching any paint. My method was to hammer at the ice with the handle, but not so hard as to do any damage to the car, just a strong tap. I wasn't trying to break the ice, just spider it, then move along a couple of inches and do it again. I concentrated on the separation between driver door and roof line, making sure I went around the entire outline of the door. Once I had fractured (but not removed) the ice all the way around the door, I hammered kind of sideways, using diagonal blows, until some of the fractured ice started to chip off. From here on, I changed tools to a regular ice scraper, but using more or less a pulling motion rather than scraping, aiming for an inch or so into the ice pack, away from the space, pulling toward the space.

Eventually this worked. I was making better progress solo than the two others were together. I hip-checked the door, spider-webbing the ice on the door itself, allowing access to the door handle. With the pole of the shovel handle I busted my way all around the door until I saw paint. From there, I was able to pry the door open. With a couple of good hard slams, a whole lot of ice came off.

With the car now running and the heater on full (recirculating so as to warm up the interior faster), it was only a matter of time before we got the whole rest of the car cleaned off. I did ensure, though, that all the mirrors were clean. Mirror glass is a lot more delicate than window glass, so my ice-chipping motions were no stronger than what one would use to crack an egg. Steady, slow, woodpecker style, with the corner of the plastic scraper, off it came.

Since my neighbor is from a warm-air region, I took pains to explain that just because you could see out one window and the mirror, you really weren't ready to travel just yet. All that ice must have added 300 pounds to the weight of the car. With traction iffy at best, the last thing one needed was the momentum of all that extra ice weight to try to stop or get around a corner. Steering itself was difficult, even with good tires. That said, we cleaned all the ice off the car -- hood, roof, body panels, lights, grill, the works.

With the car cleaned off, we then went around the neighborhood doing driveways. Motorized tools were useless, with that thick ice layer mixed in.

Before I describe my strange method for snow shoveling, you have to understand my snow-clearing background, learned from growing up in the Buffalo NY snow belt region. It was fairly common when clearing a driveway to have to move snow above and beyond a snow pile taller than you. Since the amount of snow to shovel was frequently measured in feet rather than inches, there is just no way one can do it the way most people operate a shovel, leaning over and lifting with one's back muscles. It's absolutely necessary to be able to shovel for hours on end, all the while sending snow up and over the aforementioned taller-than-you pile. Snowblowers were helpful early in the season, but not after you got beyond the five-foot level. They could get up that far, or over far enough, but not both.

What I do is stand in a lunge, feet maybe shoulder width apart, but one a full step ahead of the other. One leg does the lifting, the other acts as a pivot, and the snow goes directly over my head, straight back, up and over. I cannot see where the snow is landing, though I do verify that whatever wind is present is working with me, not against me. Arms (bicep muscles in particular) do a lot of work; my back does nothing. Depending on the need, I can send snow eight feet up and/or ten feet sideways, or both. Small shovels work far better than large ones. Snow shovels are next to useless except to plow with. But over and over and over and over, using no back at all, the driveway snowpack disappears.

It probably helps that I was the original 98-pound weakling. I was five-seven and 115 when I graduated from high school, by which time I'd logged hundreds of mornings clearing our driveway. There's no way I could clear snow the way the big guys did, using their backs. Not to brag, but here I am, rapdly closing on age 50, and I cleared the bulk of the one driveway today, 15 feet across and 80 feet long, of that ice and snow pack. Hour after hour, just plugging away, knowing how to lift only what I can, and sending it just as far as needed, using just the right size shovel, but doing it thousands of times. I wasn't even that cold, and I was never out of breath.

I'm a little stiff now, nine hours after hanging up the tools for the night, but not sore. I am, however, a little homesick for Buffalo. My sister tells me there's four level feet in the yard back home.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My testimony on Port Authority's service and fare proposals (Feb. 9, 2007)

February 8, 2007

Port Authority Fare and Service Proposals
345 Sixth Avenue
Pittsburgh, PA 15222-2527

This will serve as my written testimony concerning the proposed fare hike and service cuts. There are three separate parts to this; please consider each separately, as each one is relevant, each is significant, and none has anything to do with either of the others.

The three parts are:

1. Fare-change proposal: Go with the flat-fare proposal.
2. Remedy for two lost routes: Suggested 11D extension along Gass Rd to replace 11F and Camp Horne 16B
3. Comments concerning lost sales, and what should be done to remedy this.

Part One: Fare proposal.

Absolutely, definitely, go with the flat-fare choice, as proposed. This really should have been done a long time ago, at whatever rate of fare. Many riders require two, three, or even more changes to get to and from work, each direction.

I can show how, under the current fare structure, a recent trip taking my two children to an Oakland medical appointment did truly cost a minimum of $20 in fares. Under the flat-fare plan, it would have cost $6, at most $12.

In essence, this changes the idea of paying fare from "paying to ride one bus" to "paying to use the system for two hours" – a long overdue improvement.

Part Two: Suggestion to remedy two lost routes.

As proposed, the 11F West View is to be discontinued, as is the Camp Horne Road extension of the 16B Brighton. Meanwhile, the early morning 11D Perrysville does not service West View Plaza. Since the stores of West View Plaza, as well as those near the Camp Horne extension, are places of work as well as shopping, it makes a good deal of sense to provide service both to and from them, on at least an hourly headway between early morning and late evening.

Specifics: For certain outbound 11D Perrysville trips, proceed to West View Plaza (WVP) as is done now, but not end the route there. Instead, exit WVP via left onto the Center Avenue access road, left onto Center Avenue (now 11F routing), right on Cornell, left on Highland, right on Gass Road, straight onto (becomes) Ben Avon Heights Road. Stay on this road to Home Depot and Giant Eagle. The distance from WVP to Camp Horne Road is 3.0 miles. (See diagram on last page.) Inbound would be the reverse.

Reasoning: Anyone living in the Gass Road area served by the 11F would not be stranded, mid-day, and inner-city residents needing to get to work at either of the Giant Eagle stores or Home Depot could do so. Gass Road residents who worked or wanted to shop at the Camp Horne stores would actually be able to do so whereas they cannot do so now. Inner-city residents near the 16B needing to get to work could transfer near Federal and North to an 11D, or use the (now-500) 16C to West View and transfer there, depending on their proximity to either other line. On the headsign, it may help to designate these trips 11D/F Perrysville-Gass Road / To Camp Horne Road.

Part Three: Lost sales.

By "lost sales", I refer to the massive ridership loss to private automobiles over the last 25 years. In brief, I've determined through my own research into U.S. Census records and other government sources that roughly 80,000 more Allegheny County households own two cars than did so in 1980, and roughly 30,000 more own three or more than did so in 1980. In that time, Allegheny County's population has changed comparatively little.

A car, any car, every car, costs thousands of dollars per year to own and operate. Just in insurance, one pays close to or in excess of the cost of an annual transit pass subscription. (I myself pay $661.30/year for car insurance, comparable to the current $660 Zone 1 annual pass cost.) Add to that the cost of gasoline (10,000 miles / 20 mpg = 500 gallons x $2.50/gallon = $1,250), maintenance (easily $1,000, whether oil changes, a new muffler, or fuzzy dice to hang from the mirror), monthly payments (easily $250/month x 12 = $3,000), not to mention parking (for many this is free), and you're looking at well over $5,000/year for most any car, for most any owner.

When compared side-by-side with transit in this way, then transit is the clear winner. Why pay $5,000/year for transportation when $60 to $75/month (x12 = $720 or $900) will get you around? So why do so many more County households have two, or three or more, cars? Because they don't know how to use transit! More to the point, it does not occur to them to use transit, and so they don't put any money into the system, instead spending five to ten times as much to own and maintain multiple automobiles.

This matters greatly! If each of those now-two-car households purchased an annual Zone 1 pass, Port Authority would annually have over $52 million more to work with. The now-three-or-more-car households' purchase of an annual Zone 2 pass would annually put nearly $25 million into the transit system. That $77,221,100 is not going into the transit system each year! Those "lost sales" very nearly equal the forecast $80 million deficit!

What to do? Pretty much what I said at the September 9, 1992, Ross Township hearings on that year's transit cuts, and the 32-point list of suggestions accompanying my June 2, 2002 testimony on that year's transit cuts: Make it easier to use the system!

The single greatest reason People Who Do Not Ride Transit do not ride transit is because they do not know how. Beyond that, the learning curve is extremely steep, and unforgiving. You can't just give them info and hope they'll figure it out. Your business depends on getting them on board, getting them where they're going, and having them smile at the end of the journey.

What I would do is make transit information an order of magnitude more accessible – inescapably, embedded, maybe even unwelcome (in the same manner that detour signs on a highway are unwelcome, but they must be there, and they must work, else you land in the river because the bridge is out). Make it impossible to get or give directions anyplace without also having the transit option available. Every store, every apartment building, every company's how-to-get-here directions, every advertisement for a public activity, should be equipped with transit directions that are easily enough understood.

I know how to do this! I personally live with only one car, which my wife has most of the time, so I must get around by bus. Even as an experienced rider, it still requires a lot of figuring out to conduct my daily errands by bus. Ultimately, it saves me thousands of dollars annually, money I use to improve my family's quality of life. Ask me for help!

Thank you for listening.


Stuart M. Strickland

Proposed 11D/F Camp Horne Extension shown in blue (W. View Plaza shown in red)

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

KQV 1410 editorial on privatizing public transit (Jan. 16, 2007)

Current mood: cheerful

On Jan. 12-14, 2007, KQV Radio 1410 here in Pittsburgh ran a strongly worded editorial [see second comment below] suggesting that our public transit company be run by a private company. I sent the following response to the station on Tuesday, January 16. A couple of days later, I was invited to come to the station and tape this for broadcast. It was aired on January 23, 2007.


As a regular rider of Port Authority Transit, I take exception to station manager Robert W. Dickey's editorial suggesting transit be privatized.

Port Authority's funding problems really began with a series of legislation in the 1930s and 40s that tipped the transportation playing field clearly against the private, tax-paying transit companies of that era. It took 20 years, but by the early 1960s every one of those private transit companies was going broke or already bankrupt. Government takeover rescued them, and state subsidies made up for those deficits for a while, but the tip continued and continues still. Now the discrepancy between means and needs is more than the political power brokers in Harrisburg are willing to pay.

You never hear about PennDOT running out of money. It has a different funding structure, a dedicated, self-renewing funding source in the gas tax, which, I might add, absolutely cannot be used to fund transit. On the other hand, transit has to start from zero every fiscal year, and cannot end with a deficit.

Port Authority is not mismanaged. For 12 years, I was a member of its citizens' advisory board, the Allegheny County Transit Council, one year as its president. I got to see the books, know the process, watch it operate, and fully understand what PAT is up against – namely, rises in fuel, health care and pension requirements, coupled with flat income, and prevention from running a deficit. The only thing you need to know about its doing a good job is to count the national transit industry awards it has received. There have been many.

On some of the lesser issues, Mr. Dickey, you are just plain wrong. The articulated buses are the most efficient way of moving large volumes of Pittsburghers on high-demand routes like the EBA. Full-wrap ads are used to cover the many and varied pre-painted-message buses. And finally, for all your editorials about the over $400 million North Shore Extension, you've been silent about the over four billion dollar Mon-Fayette toll road.

I speak from the personal experience of riding 15,000 buses in 15 years, routinely eight trips in a single day, all the while owning and driving a car, and previously owning four cars. The system works very well if you care to figure out how to use it. And therein lies the real solution. Since 1980, while the area's population has stagnated, U.S. Census figures show that 110,000 county households have added a second or third car. If each of these bought an annual transit pass subscription, at a cost close to just the insurance on each car (never mind payments, gasoline, parking or repairs), Port Authority would have its $80 million, the system would be growing, service for everyone would be excellent, and everyone who retired the now-extraneous car would be able to save five grand every year, like I did.

Bottom line, private transit companies cannot succeed without first rolling back the anti-transit legislation from 60 to 70 years ago, including a State Constitutional amendment. If you are not willing to do that, stop trying to destroy the good thing we do have.


Here are the numbers, which actually came from Census and other federal agencies. (I'll get you the URLs and research titles, if asked.) The 2006 figures are projections using the "=TREND" function in Excel.

MSA 0 Vehicle Households

1 Vehicle Households

1980 1990 2000 2006 1980 1990 2000 2006
New York







Los Angeles














Washington, DC







San Francisco















Pittsburgh 214,207 151,751 125,087 92,386 375,351 353,498 357,546 347,888

MSA 2 Vehicle Households

3+ Vehicle Households

1980 1990 2000 2006 1980 1990 2000 2006
New York







Los Angeles














Washington, DC







San Francisco




































































123,720="" align="right">
















San Diego







St. Louis





















Pittsburgh 295,460 325,816 356,954 375,272 104,189 116,183 126,913 133,941

So I crunched some numbers. Here are some differences:

2 Vehicle Households
3+ Vehicle Households

1980 1990 2000 2006 1980 1990 2000 2006
Change since 1980
30,356 61,494 79,812
11,994 22,724 29,752
Change since 1990

31,138 49,456

10,730 17,758
Change since 2000



That would be 109,564 total added-vehicle households from 1980 to 2006.

Assuming the one-to-two-car households bought a Zone 1 annual, $660, and the now-three-car households bought a Zone 2 annual, $825, that works out to $77,221,122 in "lost sales" to Port Authority.

Pretty darn close to that $80 million deficit they're talking about!

And sure, what the heck, I'll tell you my insurance costs: I have a mid-sized 1999 American car, two drivers (married, over 25), no wrecks or tickets, limited tort option, through a big-name company you've heard of, and I'm paying $661.40/year. How does that compare with anyone else out there?

Full disclosure, though: I had to shell out $29.95 last week for a new pair of sneakers, which I consider more a transportation cost than a clothing cost. I have to do that a couple times a year. How does that compare with anyone else out there? (When I worked, I kept a couple of pairs of good shoes at work, but that's a different story.)

Monday, March 21, 2011

The difference between an agreement and an oath (Jan. 11, 2007)

Current mood: awake

I had a "driveway moment" a bit ago. Well, not exactly a driveway moment, more like a "two in the morning and I can't sleep because I have to hear that clip again" moment.

A couple days ago on NPR, there was a story about leaking critical information to the press, involving Daniel Ellsberg, the man whose leaking of The Pentagon Papers in 1971 helped to change America's perspective of the Vietnam War. He apparently popped up unexpectedly last week at a hearing in Washington D.C. about leaks, and faced down the panel speaker who said "leaks are bad".

The specifics concern the difference between agreements and oaths. The panel speaker said he swore an oath to secrecy when he took the job. Ellsberg, in a Q&A session, said he signed many agreements to secrecy while holding the same job 35-odd years ago, but that the oath he swore was to uphold the Constitution.

A mighty important distinction, indeed. Oaths trump agreements.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

20 to life for a murder that may never have happened (Jan. 6, 2007)

Current mood: hopeful

When one man murders another, you usually have a corpse. The assailant usually has a rap sheet longer than he is tall. There usually is a weapon. There are usually witnesses. The Medical Examiner issues a death certificate stating cause of death. Lacking any one of these things, it's hard to get a conviction for murder, harder still to have the conviction upheld, and harder even still to get the maximum sentence.

I am personally aware of a case, though, that defies all logic. I say personally because I have visited the man in prison, and knew him for 15 years before the sequence of events occurred to put him there. His case lacked all of those things.

Bill Seifert was happily married, a father of four small children, gainfully employed, with no criminal record. He owned his home near Buffalo NY, paid his taxes on time, and was a pleasure to hang around with. He was a friend of my father's, lived a couple of miles away, and was frequently over at the house. I had a friend who lived across the street from him and babysat his kids. He had no enemies. He was never threatening.

There was, however, bad blood between him and his brother Mark. They had an altercation outside someone's car one night that resulted in a busted taillight and a police report. Bill was heard to say, "If you do something like that again, I'll kill you!"

At least months, possibly years later, Mark disappeared. His burned out car, a 10-year-old clunker, was found 30 miles away on a rural road. There were signs of a struggle nearby, but no weapon, no bullets, no shells. And no corpse. Around this same time, Bill, whose job was to service billboards, had a board to work on in Georgia, so loaded his van and hit the road. When he returned, the police arrested him and impounded the van.

The case against him went something like this: Bill owned a recently cleaned gun. He had something red in the back of his van that might be blood. He was absent from the area when Mark disappeared. He had the motive of threatening his brother. He was familiar with the country road where the car was found. And that's pretty much it.

The biggest problem at his trial was the lack of a defense. Since he was gainfully employed, he was not appointed an attorney so had to get one himself. He knew only one, a family friend who happened to specialize in real estate. This lawyer had never tried a criminal case, let alone a murder defense. The defense case consisted primarily of the defendant and one character witness, his mother.

There was no weapon clearly linking him to the crime. There was no corpse. Twenty years later there is still no corpse. There is no death certificate, either.

The second biggest problem at his trial was his jury. This was documented in The Buffalo News by one of the jurors a few months after the conviction. I'm not talking about a quote in an article, but a four-page-long essay written by the juror in the paper's Sunday glossy news magazine. Apparently, the circumstantial evidence was explained in enough detail to sway 11 jurors, who similarly were unswayed by the absence of any compelling defense. The holdout, the article's author, went along with the rest because of the blood in the van, which was not dated, nor shown to be human, let alone that of the victim. I'm not even sure that it was shown to be blood.

Most importantly, the jury wanted to get done so they could go Christmas shopping. It was an early Friday morning in December, and they were Downtown. I am not making this up; this came straight from the juror's newspaper account.

The appeal failed in large part because the judge appointed to handle it did not recuse himself from the case even though he was part of the original case.

The victim, meanwhile, never did appear. Corpses don't hide that well. Shallow graves dug rapidly alongside I-95 in the dark of night, as was supposed to have taken place here, show up eventually. In 23 years, none has.

Note especially that there was no D.N.A. evidence mentioned above. That tool did not exist at that time. The jury went exclusively on circumstantial evidence, which itself was suspect and even contrived. Certainly the scenario was contrived.

Unlike Bill, the supposed victim had a shady history. Mark was a practicing homosexual, a known drug user, and was only marginally employed. In early 1984 when all this happened, AIDS was rampant primarily in the gay community. What I figure happened was that Mark found out he was dying of AIDS, and had only a short time to live. He thus saw a way of getting back at Bill for that altercation, so staged the disappearance himself. He then silently left Buffalo, moved to San Francisco, joined its thriving gay community under a different name, and died of AIDS there without anyone in Buffalo ever knowing.

Of course, I cannot prove that story, nor can anyone prove me wrong. The story holds no less water than that of the prosecution, which put a possibly innocent man in jail for 20 years.

This weekend, the New York State parole board will consider Bill's release. It's about time. He is a Quaker. He doesn't believe in violence.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Why I favor the flat-rate fare hike proposal (Jan. 3, 2007)

Current mood: exhausted

Today (Jan. 3, 2007), the Port Authority of Allegheny County, the public transit system in the metro Pittsburgh PA area, announced major service cuts and a fare hike. While I will deal with the service cuts and the reasons for the fare hike in a different blog entry, I want to make clear why I favor one fare hike proposal over the other.

The following was originally written in August 2004 when I needed to take my two children to a routine medical appointment in the Oakland part of the city, after picking up one from a daytime activity on the North Side, and then return home -- all by bus. The high cost of multiple trips by transit is a matter of little concern when fare hikes are discussed. The complexity of paying for such trips is beyond belief, even when one has all the money needed.

Adopting a single-zone, flat-fare system would simplify matters immensely.


Our complex and costly fare system: A Case Study

October 13, 2004

One day a few weeks ago, I had to plan a very difficult itinerary. With no car, I had to get myself and my 15-year-old son from my McCandless home (Zone 2) to the North Side, pick up my 10 year-old daughter, travel to Oakland for medical appointments, then get home. For someone with a car, this is a breeze, assuming no problems in standing (North Side) or parking (Oakland). By bus, however, there are three problems:

#1: Planning the trip;

#2: Planning the fare payment;

#3: The sheer cost of the trip, as compared to a car.

I wish to use the fare payment on this trip, especially the planning of this trip, as a case study in how complex it is to plan such a trip, and how costly it is for the transit-dependent rider to go about daily life. In so doing, I will pose a couple of "curiosity points", in which I as an experienced rider with a full understanding of the system's fares, routes, stops and functional rules, find it quite easy to use transit, but a less knowledgeable rider will be caught short – in money, time, options, and patience – often more than one of those at a time.

The cast of characters here is:

Myself, an adult with a monthly Zone 2 pass.

Gabe, essentially an adult with full-fare Zone 2 tickets.

Amy, a half-fare child with half-fare Zone 2 tickets.

Just for starters, I wonder how many people even know that the latter fare instrument exists.

But it is not enough to merely plan how to make the stops. There are other steps involved, other contingencies for which one must be prepared. Those choices, were they to come up, would change, in some cases markedly, how much one would pay, and in what way, and under what circumstances. Since the following plan was developed with this in mind, I will include some of that thinking as I proceed with the plan.

Step 1: Gabe and I board an 11C Perry Highway at Rolshouse Road, Zone 2.

Me: Show Zone 2 pass.


Hmmm, first a question: Will the weather be nice or lousy? If it's nice, we can walk from Federal Street to Brighton Road, to avoid paying additional fare, plus we could use the exercise; call this Step 2A. If not, I would rather we hop a 17B|16B|16F|500; call this Step 2B.

If no transfer: Pay Zone 2 ticket upon entry.

If transfer: Pay Zone 2 ticket AND 50 cents, upon entry, and ask for a transfer.

On the other hand, looking ahead, he will need a transfer for the trip from North Side to Oakland, so buy the transfer anyway.

No, you cannot purchase two transfers to be used in sequence. The first and third trips are full fare.

[1/03/2007 NOTE: This would change under the flat-fare proposal. The entire trip could be handled with one, at most two, fare payments per child.]

Exit the 11C at Federal Street just after the turn from North Avenue.

Step 2A: Since the weather is nice, we can just walk to Brighton Road.

Step 2B: Since it's raining, we need to cross the street and wait at the stop at Federal and Metropolitan for a 16B|16F|500. No 17B at this stop, though all four routes are available by standing in front of the Garden Theater. (That's OK, we'll wait at Metropolitan. If you don't know the area, trust me, you don't want to wait there for a bus with two children.)

Exit that bus at West North at Brighton. Since we are now outbound and it is prior to 7:00 p.m., we pay upon exit.

Me: Show Zone 2 pass.

Gabe: Give operator the transfer.

Step 3: Taking Amy under wing, we cross West North to wait for a 500 to get to the medical appointment in Oakland.

Step 4: Board the 500. Since we are now inbound, it is pay-enter.

However, Route 500 has a special, additional rule, affecting those who ride the bus through Downtown. Since one normally pays upon exit heading away from Downtown, in order NOT to pay twice, one has to request a free fare receipt upon boarding, and paying, heading toward Downtown. The fare receipt is used to get off the bus later. This is not a concern if one has a bus pass.

Me: Show Zone 2 pass.


If 2A was used, give operator the transfer. Also request a fare receipt.

If 2B was used, now we have a problem, since all we have are Zone 2 tickets.

Choice 4A-Gabe: Pay the full $1.75 fare, but not purchasing a transfer. Also request a fare receipt. I wonder how many people forget to do either of these.

Choice 4B-Gabe: Using a Zone 2 ticket, purchase a full Zone 1 fare and a transfer. I wonder how many people even think of this as an option. Also request a fare receipt.

Choice 4C-Gabe: Just pay the Zone 2 ticket and either neglect or disregard or forget the fare overpayment.

Choice 4D-Gabe: Pay the full $1.75 fare, plus 50 additional cents for a transfer.


Choice 4A-Amy: Pay the half-fare 90 cents, but not purchase a transfer. I wonder how many people just put in an even dollar.

Choice 4B-Amy: Using the half-fare Zone 2 ticket, purchase a child's Zone 1 fare and a transfer. Also request a fare receipt.

Choice 4C-Amy: Just pay the half-fare Zone 2 ticket and neglect/disregard/forget the fare overpayment, but do get a fare receipt,

Choice 4D-Amy: Pay the half-fare 90 cents and 25 additional cents for a transfer.

Step 5: Exit the 500 at Fifth and Bellefield in Oakland.

Me: Show Zone 2 pass.


Let's assume a fare receipt is in hand. Alternatively, the operator remembers that we boarded on the North Side and does not request fare payment. Otherwise, we are in a fare dispute. I wonder how common an occurrence this is, too.

If 4A-Gabe was used, hand operator the fare receipt.

If 4B-Gabe was used, hand operator the fare receipt -- NOT the transfer. I wonder how often this mistake is made.

If 4C-Gabe was used, hand operator the fare receipt.


If 4A-Amy was used, hand operator the fare receipt.

If 4B-Amy or 4D-Amy were used, hand operator the fare receipt -- NOT the transfer.

If 4C-Amy was used, hand operator the fare receipt.

Step 6: Board a bus to go back Downtown, with intention of making a connection to an 11C or 13C to get home.

Route planning note: There are three stops that can be used.

Stop A: Walk to Fifth at Bellefield to board {71A|500|71C|71D|100}.

Stop B: Walk to Fifth at Tennyson to board {61A|61B|61C|501|67A|67F|67J|71A|500|71C|71D|100}. A farther walk but a shorter wait.

Stop C: Walk to Bayard at Bigelow to board the fastest trip Downtown {77C|78C}, 12 minutes vs. 20 to 22 minutes, plus delays. A very short trip, but very little service.

Back to fare payment.

Me: Show Zone 2 pass.


If 4A-Gabe was used, hand operator the transfer. Call this Choice 6A.

If 4B-Gabe was used, it will now be the ideal situation in which to use a "reverse transfer". Pay 50 cents, and have the operator either punch the Zone 2 ticket or tear off a corner. The Zone 2 ticket will be used on the trip home. Call this Choice 6B.

If 4C-Gabe was used, again employ Choice 6B.

Choice 6C would be to pay another Zone 2 ticket and request a transfer, just as in 4B.

Choice 6D would be to pay another Zone 2 ticket and NOT request a transfer (forget/disregard/etc.).


Same choices available as for Gabe, but with half-fare tickets and cash amounts.

Exit bus Downtown.

Step 7: Board 11C/13C and ride until the home stop at Perrymont Road.

This will be a pay-leave, if it is still prior to 7 p.m.

Me: Show Zone 2 pass.


If Choice 6A was used, pay a Zone 2 ticket.

If Choice 6B/6C was used, pay the punched/corner-torn Zone 2 ticket.

If Choice 6D was used, pay another Zone 2 ticket.


If Choice 6A was used, pay a half-fare Zone 2 ticket.

If Choice 6B/6C was used, pay the punched/corner-torn half-fare Zone 2 ticket.

If Choice 6D was used, pay another half-fare Zone 2 ticket.

Now let's add up what got spent. All of the above assumed that sufficient cash was on hand to make exact change when necessary

For me, it was easy: All I needed was the Zone 2 pass.

For Gabe, at minimum three and possibly five Zone 2 tickets were used.

For Amy, at minimum two and possibly three half-fare Zone 2 tickets were used.

In terms of cash:

For me, none was required.

Gabe would have needed {Step 1: 50c; 4D: $2.25 6B: 50c} from $1.00 to $3.25 in either all quarters or quarters and half dollars.

Amy would have needed {4A: 90c; 4D: $1.15; 6B: 25c} from 90 cents to $1.40, all in small change.

All told, prior to making the trip, I would need to be sure to have handy my pass, five Zone 2 adult tickets ($12.50), three half-fare Zone 2 tickets ($3.45), and somewhere from $1.90 to $4.65 in small change.

The whole trip, not counting the pre-paid cost of the pass, is about $20. If cash fares were used for me instead of the pass, make that over $25. By car, that would have been: zero to park in the small lot on the North Side where we picked her up, at least $1 in quarters at an Oakland meter, and at 40 cents a mile for 28 miles, for a total of about $12.50. Maintenance issues aside, the driving family pays half what the transit dependent family pays. Never mind that the time involved in making this trip by bus far exceeds that of the equivalent trip by car.

[1/03/2007 NOTE: Under the flat-fare proposal, Gabe's entire fare would have been $2, perhaps $4 if the appointment took a long time. Amy's would have been $1, perhaps $2. The entire trip would not have exceeded $6 beyond my pass.

All issues of fare receipts, transfers and making change would never have existed.]

Now consider that, for a substantial number of people, the above scenario is a daily occurrence. Note also the number of cases where overpayment is done, out of convenience ($1 for a 90-cent fare, Zone 2 tickets when a Zone 1 will do), out of neglect (forgetting to buy a transfer), out of not knowing any better (not thinking to buy a transfer), or out of fare disputes (fare receipts on the 500, or the little-known reverse transfer). I feel safe in guessing that a substantial number of underpayments also occur for similar reasons.

Does anyone reading this now understand why a fare hike is so significant to low-income people?

Of course, it certainly helps to have a pass. Having an even more modern fare instrument such as a barcoded pass or a swipe card would make it even that much easier, provided that the riding community can be persuaded to use it. For reasons I have not as yet understood, a large number of transit dependent riders pay full cash fare, or with zone tickets which amount to the same thing. That, however, is best left to a different discussion.


End of discourse

Thursday, March 17, 2011

2007: the year we will decide to respect public transit (Dec. 31, 2006)

Current mood: hopeful

For far too long -- at least three generations -- Americans as a class have looked upon public transit as the poor stepchild, used only by those who cannot afford a car, or some sort of stupidity. Just to compare, think of the ego boost of such phrases as "big-block Chevy", "check out my new ride", "You're 16 now? Are you driving yet?" Cars dominate our culture, and not to have one, and not to use one, somehow denigrates one in others' eyes.

I dedicate my life to the concept that one does not need a Hummer or a 'Vette or a Caddy or even a Prius to indicate that one is a real person, a patriotic American. It is not, or need not be, necessary to commute with a car, nor even to own one (or two or three). In my circle of friends are several who never have owned or even driven a car, and in no case do I consider their lives limited, or some lower class of life form.

In my own case, my family owns only one car, on the bumper of which is a sticker that says "My other car is a Port Authority bus. Support Pittsburgh public transit."

We will never conquer our dependence on foreign oil unless and until we decide to use transit to get around instead of personal automobiles. Not that we need to get rid of our cars, just not drive them.

In absolutely every instance of needing to get from A to B, we need to ask:

  • Can the need for this trip be accomplished without actually traveling somewhere?
  • Can this trip be accomplished under our own power (walk or bike)?
  • How can we accomplish this trip by use of public transit?
  • What can we learn from taking the trip by transit about how to get around by transit next time?
  • What can we learn from not taking the trip by transit about how to get around by transit next time?

Transit is demand driven. Service might get better if we use it. It won't get better unless we use it. Service will get better if a whole lot of us regularly use it. By this I do not mean merely commuting at rush hour by transit, though that will help, but to somehow make use of it at other times, in particular the off-hour trip, the mid-day trip, the evening trip, the one-way trip.

I cannot count how many times that someone uses a car to make a two-way trip where someone else nearby is making an almost identical trip by car. At least one of them could carpool, or at least one of them can take a bus for the return trip.

Another thing we Americans as a class need to get over is our fear of everything and everybody. It starts young, admonishing children not to talk to strangers -- often a good thing, I'll admit -- but the fear grows as the kids do, and we end up not knowing how to trust or who to trust, the kids eventually become parents themselves, and repeat the process. Do this for three or four generations as we have and we become, as we have, a nation of fearful people. Having a government that rubs our noses in it at every turn only exacerbates that feeling.

I reject it all. I ride buses everywhere, in all parts of the city, at all times of day and night, and talk with everyone. Guess what! They're people, just like me! People are funny, friendly, helpful, generous, just like me! Whether they just got out of the bank associate vice president's chair to commute home, or just got out of jail to go home, they're all looking forward to what the evening and the next day brings. I know, because I've sat in the same bus seat with both at one time or another.

So, plain and simple, fear not, get on a bus as often as possible. Learn how to do it. Learn TO do it. And the next time you have to change residences, choose to be near a bus line so that you can use a bus if the need arises!

Buses are not for the lower classes, they're for all classes.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Time for Flat-Price Gasoline: $4/gallon, 24/7/365 (Dec. 19, 2006)

[Pre-Script: Probably should say $6 today. It's $3.69/gallon as I copy this, Mar. 13, 2011.]

Current mood: thoughtful

Yeah, you read that right, four bucks a gallon, tomorrow if we could do it at all, but I am not talking about an inflexible $1.50/gallon tax. (Gasoline is about $2.50/gallon as I write this.) This is a tax that would flex up and down daily with politics, weather, spill disasters, regional variations, and whatever else causes the price of fuel to wander all over between $2.01 and $3.51/gallon, so that gas is always $4/gallon, no matter what, and no matter where you are.

The tax money would go -- exclusively -- to paying down the $8.6 Trillion national debt. [March 2011 update: about $14 trillion.] The interest alone on that debt costs every U.S. citizen over $1,000/year, separate and distinct from any federal spending on anything. [2011 link update: interest here, population here; as of March 13, 2011, it's $1,331.14/person, based on FY2010 interest.]

As with everything, the devil is in the details, but one thing needs to be made clear: The tax would go down as pressure rises to raise prices, and go up as the pressure reduces. It would need to be assessed both at point of supply (tanker from overseas, pipeline across border, or well-head here) and point of sale (retail gasoline, wholesale suppliers to fleets, etc.). If you want to think of it either as the federal government controlling prices, or nationalizing the oil industry, I really don't care, but I am advocating neither approach. All I want to see is an unchanging price and a variable tax, with the funds paying down the national debt and not a cent toward the federal budget. As it stands, debt service makes up somewhere near 10% of the current budget. Eliminating that debt will thus eventually reduce all other federal taxes by somewhere near 10%, assuming all else stays the same.

Over the space of 20-some years, the national debt will be paid down. As this occurs, phase out the tax. However, over the next couple of decades, the world oil supply will begin to dwindle, which in turn will drive up the price of crude on a permanent basis. As this occurs, the tax will need to rise inflexibly, irrespective of debt retirement.

A formula would need to be determined for how often a change to the base tax should be considered, and for how much. As a rough figure, I would say no more often than every three months, and then only in increments of 10 cents in either direction. As a model, think of the Federal Reserve meeting quarterly to determine whether to change the Prime Interest Rate. They do this to control the flow of money, and to constrain the possibility of inflation.

Oil reaches refiners according to futures contracts. When you hear about Sweet Light Crude selling for $62.07/barrel, the phrase often left off is "for delivery on [future date here]", usually about four to eight weeks out. I won't attempt to explain the futures market system here. Just accept that the contracts would all be bought by the federal bureau, and the product sold back to the refining system at the much higher, but flat, rate.

Similarly, the refined product would be subject to price controls at the end-user level. The product would be universally available to the retailers, but at a federally-mandated fixed minimum price, with that tax varying daily. I'm loath to get too specific on the mechanics here, the point being that I want to eliminate panic-driven price rises. Gas is $4/gallon, regardless.

Why $4? Well, why not? We lived through the post-Katrina price spike in September 2005, and aside from the screaming, there was no real serious shortage, and no significant change in consumption. Of course, anyone who cared to pay attention noticed that the oil companies' profits were unbelievably large, far out of proportion to a fixed profit margin on a product with a changing raw cost.

Whatever price it is, we get used to it. We always have. I can remember 30-cent gas in the 1960s, and drove on 50-cent gas in the 1970s. Its price has always been irrelevant to daily life, though without exception we scream when it rises. Making it $4 eliminates all screaming in one fell swoop. Scream once, scream loudly, and get it over with.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Gripe Of The Week: Stranded shopping carts (Dec. 16, 2006)

Current mood: annoyed

You see them everywhere: Shopping carts sitting in the parking lot, far from the "Place carts here" spaces. Often they will be adjacent to spaces for the handicapped, which I can understand, but seeing those does not annoy me, nor do the ones that congregate by the plaza bus stop. It's all the rest.

I learned at a very young age that you take the cart back to the store, no matter what the weather, no matter how hard someone is crying, no matter how much of a hurry you're in. Just like anything else, if you got it out, you put it back. It may also have had something to do with my father cursing for seven solid minutes about the idiot whose cart rolled 100 feet across the parking lot before clobbering our car as we walked out of the store, leaving a scar on the side that cost close to a thousand dollars (in today's money) to repair.

Every parent knows that the kids love to push the shopping cart in the store. My own kids, as soon as they were capable of walking through the parking lot without Daddy needing to hold their hands, were instructed to grab a cart and bring it in, just like Daddy was doing, and add it to the line of carts outside the store. This in itself was inherently safe, as a child pushing a cart is a whole lot less likely to run in front of a car, or to be missed being seen by a driver.

One hidden aspect in all this is money. Someone gets paid to push carts in, of course, but that person could be doing something else to help customers, like opening up another register so we can get out of there faster. Those pushing devices the bigger stores have also cost money to purchase and operate, which comes out of what you're paying at the store. So don't bitch about long lines or high prices if you leave carts in the lot.

I always bring carts in. I don't know why everyone else doesn't, any more than I don't know why everyone doesn't return the carts they took out. I chalk it up to laziness, I guess, a desire to park as close to the store as possible, as well as selfishness, a desire to get out of the place as fast as possible. So sorry ... tough friggin' luck ... bring in the cart!

On Friday, I unicycled to the plaza about 3/4 miles away, and much to the amusement of fellow shoppers, unked two carts back in from the lot, before making my trip to the bank. The carts I brought in were in the handicapped spaces, which I feel is doing a courtesy to them, since they probably can't help it. Same goes for the carts by the bus stop. If I bus to the plaza, I bring in any carts by the bus stop.

Most of the time, though, I'm in the car. As I pull into the lot, I never park close. Instead, I choose the space nearest the cart stranded the farthest out, and if the kids are with me, instruct them to bring in any others stranded, or at least get them to the cart-parking space.

So, someone please explain to me, why everyone else cannot do that, too? Please reread the first sentence of Paragraph 2 before answering.