There is a certain happiness sighted when your bus comes along. It is of course a small specialized form of happiness and will never be a great thing.

-Richard Brautigan, The Old Bus

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Big Daddy on the bus

Finished Bill Boyarsky's slim volume on Jesse Unruh, the legendary former speaker of the California Assembly who transformed the Legislature from a part-time vassal agency, subservient to the governor, to a professional, co-equal branch of state government.

Boyarsky sets his goal in the prologue:

"By studying his life and the story of the institutions he built, we can learn something about why government worked so well in his era, when it served both the poor and the middle class through institutions carefully built by a California government that confronted issues remarkably similar to those Americans face today."
But that's just too big a bite of history to digest in 224 pages. As a result, the book's examination of those events seems at best cursory. Complicating matters is the fact that Boyarsky covered much of this era as a wire service and newspaper journalist. By combining his personal experience with the history he tries to tell, what results is a muddle of biography and memoir that doesn't satisfy either.

Much like my muddled personal blog book reports.

My mother was an active member of the California Democratic Council, an organization that Unruh felt was too elitist, too detached from the realities of blue collar Democrats. I find it an interesting omission that Boyarsky's discussion of the CDC fails to point out that the organization was the outgrowth of the "Stevenson Clubs" established during Adlai Stevenson's idealistic, but unsuccessful campaigns for president. We learn in the book that Unruh favored Truman over Wallace in the campaign to succeed FDR, but where was Unruh in the Stevenson campaigns?

Coming as I did from an environment of liberal CDC politics, I grew up with a well-developed dislike for Unruh's down-to-earth politics, a politics where the goal was to acquire personal power ‌in the pursuit of good works. It was this type of politics that created a "Big Daddy" who could promote civil rights and fair housing legislation.

Today, having outgrown that liberal cocoon, I better appreciate the art of Unruh's work. Both as Assembly speaker and later as state treasurer, Unruh gathered to himself great power. He then used that power to both personally enrich himself and at the same time to make changes for the betterment of those less fortunate. His campaign against the "greenmail" tactics that roiled Wall Street in the 1980s and his efforts to establish shareholder rights are examples of the good works Unruh accomplished while raking in more than a million dollars in campaign gifts from people who profited from California bond sales managed by Unruh's office.

Unruh was California's equivalent of the East Coast political bosses or Chicago Mayor Richard Daley: He knew the rules and how to play the game. In an interview with a Los Angeles Times reporter who sought to make something of Unruh's milking of campaign cash from Wall Street investment houses with business before the treasurer's office, Unruh said:
"[I] don't propose to talk about campaign financing. Your paper has written on it many times, and as far as I'm concerned we've been down though the list, and as a consequence, I've said all I have to say on that. Okay? Which is essentially that I don't like the way the game is played, and until we get some other alternative method, the only alternative to not using the present method is to lose."
And Unruh didn't like to lose.

Monday, December 24, 2007

See you next year

I'm going to be traveling in upstate New York until next year. I expect to return to blogging about my attempts to rely on Sacramento Regional Transit around Jan. 7, 2008.

Thanks for visiting, and happy holidays.


Friday, December 21, 2007

Assertiveness training

Do they still have assertiveness training classes today? Those were big in the 1970s at the dawn of the feminist movement as many women, trained to be docile and submissive, discovered they lacked the ability to assert their desires, needs and opinions.

The question occurred to me as I watched two women standing beside the bus in the mud on a street without sidewalks.

I'm reading a book about famed California politician Jesse Unruh. He was "Big Daddy" when the boys in the Legislature, far from home and family, were expected to play around and the young ladies on the staff were expected to play along. If nothing else, the book amply demonstrates the genesis of the feminist movement.

The meek young Asian lady on my bus clearly needs some of that assertiveness American women discovered in the '70s.

Today, the young Asian lady I wrote about the other day was joined by an Asian friend who also attends adult classes at Winterstein. They took a seat near the front of the bus.

When the bus crossed Hurley Way, the woman began watching out the window for the Amberwood stop while holding her hand near the stop request cord. She was frozen in anticipation.

I watch with my own anticipation from my perch in the first elevated row of seats in the back of the bus. The older woman who had helped her out the other day wasn't on the bus today.

As the bus lumbered down Morse toward the school, the Amberwood bus stop sign came into view. But instead of waiting until after the bus had passed the sign, the woman pulled the cord just feet in front of the sign.

"Stop requested," said the bus.

Stop delivered.

Wrong stop. What to do? And here is where the assertiveness training might have helped: "Oops, my bad. Next stop please."

But instead, the two Asian women looked at each other and then silently rose from their seats and walked to the side exit. They left the bus and stood by the side of the road, looking up the street to the school, each holding a bag of wrapped gifts for their teachers.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The day after a rather blustery day

We begin a day after we left off. Same route No. 82. Same newer style bus. But a different driver.

A meek young lady boards the bus. Today she is alone and takes a seat near the front. She slides to the bus wall, leaving the aisle half available for an anonymous rider who boards later.

The woman sits quietly, hardly moving, until the bus passes Hurley Way on its way down Morse Avenue to the Winterstein Adult Center at the corner of Morse and Northrop avenues. She is watching for landmarks. She isn't going to make the same mistake twice.

She looks out the window and then up at the display inside the bus that shows the date and current time and the next stop and then back out the window. Yesterday's public humiliation for pulling the "stop request" cord one stop early still stings.

Her head moves from the window to inside display to window at first slowly and then faster and faster as the bus rumbles down the street. The confession extracted by the driver has left its mark. Her anxiety is clearly evident even from my perch in the first elevated row of seats in the back of the bus.

Finally, the bus passes yesterday's fateful Amberwood stop, and she reaches for the cord. But before she can pull it, the bus announces, "Stop requested."

Across the bus from me another woman who takes classes at Winterstein, a woman more confident, more experienced, gathers up her belongings after requesting the stop.

As the bus pulls to a stop, the two women rise and exit.

The Winterstein Adult Center offers a range of entry-level career courses and classes for English learners and high school dropouts looking to earn their GED.

Most of the bus riders who get off at Winterstein appear to be immigrants. The meek woman is Asian; the more confident woman Hispanic. Several Eastern European matrons regularly ride the bus to the school. They are all part of the giant salad bowl that combines ingredients from around the world and serves up the latest iteration of what it means to be American.

These people work to fit in, even to the point of fretting about having mistakenly pulled the top request cord too soon.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

A Rather Blustery Day

Standing at the bus stop waiting for my bus to work, I was reminded of this Pooh story. At least, I was reminded of the English version. But even in Swedish, you get the idea.

Having made such a big deal about how standing in the rain was just fine for a transitarian, I get to do it at least through Thursday, according to the weather guessers. This is an example of karma.

My personal definition of karma: Every thought, word or deed plants a seed, either good or bad, that manifests itself later. This works for bus drivers, too.

The bus was traveling along Morse, headed for the Winterstein Adult School at the intersection of Morse and Northrup. A Winterstein student pulled the stop request, but didn't realize there was another stop before the school.

The bus stopped at Amberwood. The driver opened the door. He waited.

"Somebody requested a stop," the driver said.


"Who's getting off," the driver asked, his annoyance made clear by his tone of voice.

Finally, a meek voice from the very back of the bus admitted to the error, and the driver, having secured the confession of the miscreant, proceeded to the next stop, where a number of Winterstein students departed.

Perhaps, if the driver was paying attention to the events that followed, he noticed that he is not immune to error.

While driving down Northrop toward Fulton, a woman asked the driver which was the closest stop to Fulton. The driver, who is not the regular No. 82 operator, stopped at Jonas. The woman, who walked with a severe limp, was getting up to leave the bus and walk two blocks to Fulton when another passenger, a woman who regularly rides the No. 82, suggested that there was a stop closer. Sure enough, there are stops on either side of Fulton.

And if the driver failed to get the point, a short while later he rolled through the guy who chases co-ed's stop at Howe and Northrup with the "Stop Request" sign clearly illuminated.

"Hey, stop, stop," the guy yelled from the side door. When the bus did stop, the guy muttered "jerk" and gave the driver a quick middle-finger salute as he scurried off to work.

Finally, just to underline the point, the driver nearly missed the turn from Folsom into the 65th Street transit center. He had to brake sharply when he finally realized his mistake and was just able to make the turn using outbound traffic lane.

So, maybe a little sympathy or at least a little tolerance for the erroneous stop requests by adults taking classes at Winterstein might offer some karmic relief for the driver. That, of course, assumes a certain self-awareness, a measure of enlightenment, and that wasn't exactly in evidence on the run today.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fair Game on the bus

Finished "Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House," Valerie Plame Wilson's attempt at a memoir, an attempt that the CIA vigorously worked to undermine. Simon & Schuster, the publisher, had to resort to hiring Laura Rozen to produce a 78-page "afterword" that seeks to fill in some of the blanks left by the CIA censors. (See this post by Rozen.)

When this whole affair first started I was aghast that the administration would stoop to revealing a covert CIA officer's identity as a part of an effort to undermine a critic of the administration's march to war. Having read even the redacted description of Valerie Plame's work in the CIA, I am even more angered by what was done. But I am not surprised. After all, this is the same administration that has worked so hard to turn the Justice Department into an arm of the White House political machine, that has bent the environmental protection laws to favor mining interests and has turned the nation's energy policy into corporate welfare for the oil industry.

What's one spy's life and the damage her outing has caused to national security when there are political scores to settle?

There's more than a little irony in the fact that Plame was outed by the White House trying to stifle dissent. She was a strong supporter of the work to gather the intelligence on Iraq's nuclear program and other weapons of mass destruction.

Writing these pages in 2007, four years after the invasion of Iraq, and the evidence of the manipulations of intelligence and failures of the intelligence community prior to the war, it is easy to surrender to a revisionist idea that all the WMD evidence against Iraq was fabricated. While it is true that powerful ideologues encouraged a war to prove their own geopolitical theories, and critical failures of judgment were made throughout the intelligence community in the spring and summer of 2002, Iraq, under its cruel dictator Saddam Hussein, was clearly a rogue nation that flouted international treaties and norms in its quest for regional superiority.
The book contains full pages of material censored by the CIA. Since all of the material the CIA cut out is already in the public domain -- news articles, other books, even the congressional record -- one is left to suspect the political appointees at the top of the CIA still have a score to settle with a woman whose husband had the audacity to speak out. She is not even allowed to say how she met her future husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson.

Click on the image of Page 64 from the book for my favorite example of what the CIA felt safe to reveal.

Page 64

I have never understood the claims of supporters of the White House, who argued that Wilson's assessment of the Niger "yellowcake" evidence was somehow undermined by the fact that his wife worked as a CIA operative on WMD and played a role in getting him the pro-bono trip to Africa. Rozen expresses my own sentiments in the afterword:
It's not easy to understand how an unpaid week interviewing ex-officials in the second-poorest country on earth could be construed as a boondoggle by even the most avid political operative, and the nepotism talking point did little to neutralize Joe Wilson's fundamental and still-compelling claim: that the White House exaggerated the case for war to the American public. It's a claim that teams of CIA-led Iraq weapons hunters did nothing to dispel when they delivered their findings to Congress shortly thereafter that there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
Even with the redactions in her memoir, Valerie Plame Wilson comes across as a dedicated, patriotic public servant who served her country to the best of her ability, sometimes risking her life in the process. This is not James Bond stuff. This is the nitty-gritty work of intelligence gathering, the very necessary and very valuable effort required to ensure our national security.

That she was paid back in the way she was is just a crime.

In the book, she makes reference to a photo that appeared in TIME's 2005 retrospective focusing on "People Who Mattered." A photographer had come over to shoot her husband. When one of her twins wandered downstairs, she came after the child in her pajamas. She paused a moment, pushing her hair out of her face. The image captured speaks volumes about two people who stood up to an organized political attack.

Friday, December 14, 2007

A guy and his doll

The towheaded preschool girl arrived first, lifted into the bus by her father in a familiar demonstration of the parental weightlifting version of the two-arm cling and lift.

The little girl was dressed in pink shoes and pink pants and a pink and purple coat. Her shoulder-length wispy blonde hair was kept from falling in her face with a barrette. On her hands were pink knit gloves with purple flowers. She stared in amazement as only a child can. You could imagine that this was the first time she had been inside the big bus. Wow.

Her father showed his Sacramento State student ID with the bus sticker to the driver and then did the familiar parental herding maneuver that part pushes and part guides kittens in the general direction desired. Eventually the little girl was left standing in front of the first front-facing seat in the bus as her father took off his backpack. The acceleration of the bus departing the stop sat her down on the seat, and she scooted next to the wall to make room for her father.

The father looked as unsure about the bus trip as his daughter looked amazed. Twenty-something, short hair, glasses and wearing a black trench coat -- I've never seen him on this bus run, certainly not with the kid in tow. And, frankly, you don't see very many unaccompanied fathers with their children on the bus. An observer from another planet, might assume bus travel required a minimum of one mother, with the father an optional accessory.

The father rummaged in his backpack for some school papers and then read through them. The little girl sat quietly and watched the pageant as the bus stopped and started and people arrived and departed.

From my perch in the back of the bus I saw the girl ask her father something. This brought a smile to his face, and he replied. The last I saw of the pair, the father was putting on his backpack as he walked into Sac State with the little girl trailing behind.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Measuring bus drivers

I walked to the front of the bus after pulling the "stop request" cord. As the bus slowed and moved toward the curb, the driver closed her cell phone and said, "I hate when they ask me that."

I had no idea what she was talking about.

"How big is five inches?" she asked. "Guys know these things."

I smiled and considered that silently.

"No, no, not that. That's not what I'm asking," she quickly added.

I offered my estimate of five inches, holding my index fingers apart horizontally.

"Then, how big is a foot?" she asked.

"Well, it's going to be a little more than twice that," I said, and moved my index fingers apart. And then I remembered that my shoes are 12 inches from heel to toe and raised by right foot and said, "That's a foot."

I think she thought I was making fun of her question.

The bus stopped and the door opened. We said our goodbyes and I left the bus to walk home.

Who says riding the bus isn't interesting?

Tonight the guy who regularly drives this run from 65th Street to American River College had been replaced by a woman driver. There may be a rough outward similarity between tonight's driver and the one I wrote about yesterday -- both blonde, about the same age -- but as drivers, they are worlds apart. No, universes apart.

As I boarded the bus with a half-dozen other riders, a guy stuck his head in the door and asked when the next No. 87 bus would arrive. "Let me check," she said. She looked up the information while people continued to board. "That will be 6:30, hon," she said.

To people who don't ride Sacramento Regional Transit buses, that may not sound like such a big deal. Ask for information; get an answer. But it is rare that a driver will do that. More likely the driver will hand over the bus schedule book so the rider can figure it out for himself. But most often the drivers just say they have no idea, and some of those drivers make sure you appreciate just how much they don't care.

During the ride, a passenger went to the front of the bus, apparently to check whether he would be able to make a connection. She did some checking and told the guy it was possible. She'd see what she could do. But then when the bus reached the Kaiser Hospital timing stop she had to wait to catch up with the schedule. And at the Watt timing stop, the same thing happened.

"If I could get you there before then, hon, I would," she told the guy. It was a gesture of sympathy just as rare as the directions she gave.

I don't know if the guy made his connection. But when I got off I was sure his driver would give it a shot.

Some drivers really do deserve to get awards for their service.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Driving a bus and caring for riders

Last night I needed to make a quick grocery store stop on my way home. I had a choice: Go to Safeway at 19th and S streets and then catch light rail at 16th Street, or take the train to my regular bus and then go to Raley's at Watt and Marconi. The deciding factor? The choice of bus drivers.

There is more to driving a bus than, well, driving a bus. Some drivers make riders feel welcome on their bus, while other drivers just check your fare. But occasionally you have a driver who is so unpleasant that you just don't want to ride the bus.

Last night's choice came down to riding with a nice guy or a woman who lacks any people skills.

My first introduction to this driver occurred some time back. My outbound train was late arriving into the 65th Street station. Making matters worse, the inbound train was even later. Everyone transferring from the outbound train to buses had to wait for the inbound train to leave. By the time I was finally able to walk across Q Street, the No. 82 bus was starting to leave. I waived at the driver, but the bus continued to leave. Finally, I stepped off the sidewalk and stood in the path of the bus with my monthly pass held up in front of the bus windshield. The driver grudgingly stopped and allowed me and several other passengers to board.

I was willing to leave that be. Maybe she was having a bad day, like the one I wrote about when she was standing on her horn through most of the trip. But there's a pattern that just can't be ignored. On one occasion she snapped at a guy who had asked politely for some information. He rightly took offense and the situation got very tense before he finally returned to his seat.

Now she has come up with an especially infuriating tactic.

At the 65th Street station, buses enter the transit center from a side street off Folsom. The buses then stop at their designated stops and passengers transferring to light rail must cross Q Street to get to the station.

This driver skips the Folsom route and goes down 65th Street to Q Street. She enters Q Street and stops beside the train station. After all of her passengers leave, she drives to the far end of the transit center and parks next to the toilet provided for RT employees.

There is more than a little irony in the fact that I suggested to RT that all buses enter the transit center at Q Street to make it more convenient for riders transferring to the train. I was told that wouldn't work.

It is obvious that this driver's motivation to take the detour isn't the convenience of her passengers. By taking this route she can avoid dealing with the people waiting to get on the bus.

I appreciate that drivers are allowed breaks between runs. But most drivers park the bus at the stop, turn off the engine and let riders wait inside the bus while they walk over to the restroom.

Standing at the bus stop, stamping your feet to keep warm while watching your bus park 100 yards away is just not good for the overall thrill of riding Sacramento Regional Transit buses. To make matters worse, this woman routinely waits until after the official departure time before bringing the bus to the stop.

On Monday, I watched and waited and looked at my watch and counted the minutes as I tried to keep warm. When the bus finally arrived two minutes after its scheduled departure time, I boarded only to find a bus that seemed colder inside than outside. As the bus was leaving the station, a woman walked forward and asked the driver to turn on the heater. I didn't hear the actual response, but whatever the driver said sent the woman quickly back to her seat, now both cold and hot.

Maybe it was just a coincidence that the heater started working later in the run, when nearly everyone had left the bus.

What do I want? I want RT to invite people to tell them what makes a good driver. What special effort makes one driver stand out from the rest.

From 17 years of experience handling letters to the editor, I know that people only write when they are angry, not when they are happy. Unless RT asks to hear from riders, all they will get is disgruntled riders with tales like the one above. Without positive feedback to balance the overall picture, the negative reports can't be put in perspective.

And maybe if drivers such as the woman above were exposed to the "good" feelings that some drivers routinely generate, perhaps the drivers could better appreciate what they could do to make the ride more enjoyable. I've never driven a bus, but I'd be willing to wager that a bus full of happy riders is easier to drive than one filled with a sullen crowd.

But this idea won't work if the riders don't get some feedback. RT should publish a list of the "best practices" that the riders suggest each month. It could become a regular feature in RT's newsletter. Engaging the riders will make them feel that RT cares. That's important if RT really wants to stop the decline in ridership.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Richard Brautigan and The Old Bus in Germany

Are you from Germany and looking for something about Richard Brautigan's short story "The Old Bus" from his "Revenge of the Lawn" collection? Leave a comment explaining what brought you here. I'm curious.

OK. For the rest of you, let me explain. Each day, one or two people from Germany visit this blog after searching for "the old bus richard brautigan" on Google. My post, The young bus and the old guy, is on the first page of results but far from the top and obviously not authoritative on the topic. But still these people in Germany continue to arrive.

I'm assuming that there's an American Literature class somewhere in Germany that is using Brautigan. I'd love to know how the teacher introduces him to the class. He was my favorite writer in high school, but I'm at a loss to imagine why he would be of interest in Germany today and especially that particular short story.

As an aside that moves this post even more off topic, I want to say "Wow, that's neat" to the Google Translate people. One of the Germans who visited today used Google Translate to read my post in German. Here's the link to the German translation. What's fun here is the ability to click on a sentence and see what the original text said. If you don't like the translation, you can click on a plus symbol and add your recommended translation. Needless to say, I don't know anything about German and have no idea how accurate the translation is.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Transitarian Gore

I remember the first time I saw a news report years ago about a celebrity who arrived at some gala function in a Toyota Prius, making a point about the need to do what we can to reduce our personal environmental impact. Soon lots of celebrities were driving Priuses, and Toyota couldn't keep up with demand.

Saturday I was encouraged to see the small story in The Bee's World Digest: Gore uses Oslo mass transit.

OSLO, Norway -- Former Vice President Al Gore skipped the traditional airport motorcade and took public transportation when he arrived Friday in Oslo to accept the Nobel Peace Prize he shared for his campaign against global warming.

Gore will accept the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize he shared with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change at a ceremony in the Norwegian capital on Monday.

Longer versions of the Associated Press story included this:
Before his arrival with his wife, Tipper, Gore told his hosts that he would not need the traditional motorcade from the airport, preferring to take the high-speed and environmentally friendly airport train, and then walking to his downtown Oslo hotel.

"I use public transport when I can. It isn't always possible," Gore told The Associated Press while walking to his hotel. He said the train was much faster than a limousine, but that it was also a symbol of efforts to reduce pollution in hopes of slowing climate change.

"It is a gesture. It is also one of the changes we are all going to have to be doing anyway," Gore said about the need to change travel habits.

I'm not completely sold on Al Gore's new role as environmental guru. He is certainly profiting handsomely from it. (See this Dec. 9 TimesOnline article: A convenient £50m for green Gore.) But if Gore can convince more people that riding transit is a socially responsible, environmentally sensitive thing to do, then more power to him.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has been riding Gore's coattails, trying to get a little of that popularity that attaches to all things green today. Now that Gore is riding transit, one can only hope we'll see a similar transformation of "The Evil Transitator."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Curveball on the bus

Finished "Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War," by Los Angeles Times reporter Bob Drogin. This book details the story of an Iraqi defector who was the sole source of America's claim that Iraq possessed mobile labs capable of creating deadly biological toxins for bombs. These mobile labs were the keystone of Secretary of State Colin Powell's evidence against Saddam that he presented to the United Nations.

As Drogin explains:

Curveball's case occupies a singular place in U.S. history. After 9/11, critics complained that U.S. intelligence and law enforcement failed to connect the dots of evidence that might have prevented the terrorist attacks. But in this case, the CIA and its allies made up the dots. Iraq never built or planned to build any mobile weapon labs. It had no other WMD. The U.S. intelligence apparatus, created to protect the nation, conjured up demons that did not exist. America never before has squandered so much blood, treasure, and credibility on a delusion.

It was interesting to read this account of how the nation's intelligence community had failed to fulfill its mission at the same time that the reversal of the assessment of Iran's nuclear weapons program was in the news.

As Drogin explains:

As the rhetoric rose in intensity (in 2002), the White House pushed Congress to authorize use of force if Saddam did not disarm. Anxious Democrats asked to see the current intelligence estimate on Iraq. There was none. The White House had begun gearing for war without any strategic-level intelligence assessments on Iraq.

The next day, officials from the six agencies that collect foreign intelligence gathered at the National Intelligence Council office, at the other end of the hall from Tenet's suite at Langely. A National Intelligence Estimate represents the best collective judgment of the entire intelligence community. Preparation of an NIE, as it's known, normally requires six to ten months of drafts, debates, and more drafts. The deliberative process is designed to weed out bias and produce unvarnished assessments, regardless of whether they conform to U.S. policy. No other intelligence document is considered more important.

The council cranked out the Iraq NIE in nineteen days flat.

Compare that with this week's news reports concerning the new NIE that says Iran's nuclear weapons program was abandoned in 2003. The Iran NIE was in the works for more than a year. And, more important, when new information arrived, a full reassessment was done. Just the opposite occured prior to the invasion of Iraq. As more an more questions arose about Curveball, the Iraqi defector in Germany, the CIA specialists in biological weapons refused to consider that maybe a mistake had been made. Curveball's story about mobile biological weapons had to be true -- the analysts' reputations were riding on it.

As a Los Angeles Times report in The Bee about the Iran NIE noted, "As U.S. intelligence officials Tuesday sought to explain the remarkable reversal, they pointed to two factors: the emergence of critical new information over the summer, and a determination to avoid repeating the mistakes that preceded the war in Iraq."

One can hope that the difference between the NIE on Iraq and the NIE on Iran means the nation's intelligence community has returned to its proper job as an adviser to the administration and abandoned it's co-conspirator role.

If the Iraq war were not so tragic, the bumbling intelligence effort that started the war would be funny. Prior to the war during the U.N. inspections:

Analysts studying satellite imagery kept reporting Scud missiles hidden on farms. Each time, a U.N. convoy would race to the site. ... But the missile always turned out to be a rotating steel drum for drying corn. Or a poultry shed. "Chickens in Iraq are kept in a long, low half-cylinder coop," Casagrande said later. "We inspected a lot of chicken coops." ... Fed up with wild-chicken chases, Casagrande had a shop print thirty souvenir T-shirts. They showed the U.N. symbol over the words Ballistic Chicken Farm Inspection Team.

During the hunt for WMD after the invasion, an Iraqi tribal sheik approached the Americans and swore that Saddam's aides had buried a cache of biological weapons in farmland he owned. A CIA analyst named Rita took the bait. The CIA team searching for WMD went to the guy's farm with front-end loaders, mobile chemical and biological testing gear and emergency demolition and disposal teams. The crews dug out one enormous hole and then another. After nothing was found in the third hole, the CIA gave up. Drogin reports, "Rita drove back to see the sheikh two weeks later and discovered he had pumped water into the holes and filled his three new ponds with carp for a commercial fish farm."

I'll be on a spy theme for the next several books. I'm now reading Valerie Plame Wilson's book, "Fair Game," which touches on the same pre-Iraq war intelligence fiasco.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Oh, what happens when it rains?

While waiting in a drizzle for the bus this morning, it occurred to me that I know why people who oppose public transit say things like "Oh, what happens when it rains hard, which does happen?"

Now, if only a little splash of water could eliminate the racist agoraphobe demographic and the other transit naysayers.

I will keep a bucket of water handy.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

First one, then another and pretty soon . . .

The Los Angeles Daily News has a feature article that begins:

Two years ago, Simon Pastucha - an urban designer and planner for the city of Los Angeles - left his Mercedes SUV at the dealership and hasn't looked back.

But how does a professional with children and far-flung meetings survive in car-centric Los Angeles without owning an automobile?
Read the full article here and then come back. I lived in the San Fernando Valley before Interstate 405 replaced Sepulveda Boulevard as the commute route to Los Angeles. Back then, the Daily News was a throw-away paper known as the Green Sheet. (The front section and some other sections where printed on green newsprint.) I left and moved to Northern California well before the Los Angeles commuter rail started operating.

The guy featured in the Daily News article used to lease a Mercedes SUV for $500 a month. This is not a guy forced onto public transit because of "mobility" issues, unless you count the lack of mobility associated with gridlocked Los Angeles freeways. From a transitarian point of view, this is the perfect story. First one guy, then another and pretty soon you're talking about lots of people.

Which brings us to my favorite blogger du jour. He's the guy I ranted about in my "Dictatorship of the 33" post. He's the one who tipped me off to the Daily News article. I don't use his name or his Web address because I don't want to give him the satisfaction of knowing how much he annoys me. However, I think he offers an opposing view that illustrates the thinking (loosely defined) of transit foes.

He starts with a very telling headline: Living a Minimal Life Without a Car

And what is so minimal about life without a car? Well, according to this blogger, "This man and his children are hostages to public transportation."

I simply don't see it. I must confess that I don't think I could go completely carless. The guy in the article rents cars on the weekend when he needs one. But going from a two-car to a one-car family is more than possible, even with Sacramento's less-than-ideal bus service.

Probably most telling was the blogger's suggestion that a little rain keeps people from using transit:
Would you like to live his life? Oh, what happens when it rains hard, which does happen? Does he stay home from work? Does he rent a car? Dos he ask a friend to drive him into downtown LA? Or does he do all that walking in a heavy rain? Would you want him as a friend?
Sorry, but the last time I checked people are not water soluble. And, in any event, it is not as if transit riders sit on top of the trains and buses. They ride inside, which is just as dry as the inside of a single-occupant car. A hat and coat or an umbrella offer more than enough protection when not actually riding transit. And a hat and coat or umbrella are still required by the blogger when he drives to the mall and has to walk a half-mile to reach the stores.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Blog stats addicts anonymous

Hello. My name is John, and I am a stats addict.

Daily -- and much too often hourly -- I check the visitor statistics for this blog to see who is visiting -- I see you guys at RT at But what's most fascinating is why people who don't live in the Sacramento area stop by.

Yesterday, someone in the Ukraine searched Google looking for: reading in the bus is bad for eyes doctors

And, of course, what's the No. 1 Web site on the subject of reading on the bus and the potential impact on your eyes, doctor?

You guessed it: My blog post "Can I do it just until I need glasses?"

Gee, it's wonderful the way the Internet can connect people with the information they need.

Am I good, or what?

Monday, December 3, 2007

Bus Driver Appreciation Day

It was early in the No. 82's run from American River College to Sacramento State. It was the second stop after I boarded and took my customary seat in the very back on the driver's side.

The bus had stopped to let a couple of passengers board and was just pulling away from the curb when I saw a head bobbing up and down and a hand waiving just outside the bus. Someone was running to catch the bus.

"You have a runner," I yelled to the driver.

"Thank you," said the driver as he stopped the bus and opened the door to let the young Sacramento State student board.

The other day after the SACOG meeting, I was discussing Sacramento Regional Transit bus service with two women as we all waited for the next No. 30 bus. One of the women had absolutely nothing good to say about RT bus drivers and especially those drivers who arrive at a stop early and then refuse to wait for runners.

"I've been told by drivers that I have to be at my stop five minutes early," she said. "If I'm not, I'm out of luck. Drivers have refused to open the door when I was standing beside the bus."

I tried my Pollyanna act and told her of the time a driver waited while a passenger ran across the street to get change, but it was only a half-hearted effort to apply lipstick on the drivers who don't mind leaving people behind. After all, it had only been a couple of weeks since I last watched a driver deliberately leave someone behind even after he was told he had a runner.

It was nice to start my weekly commute with one of the RT drivers who cares.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Dictatorship of the 33

The Bee went out of its way Sunday to say how sensible it was for Placer County officials to read the poll numbers and abandon a proposed 2008 effort to win voter approval of a sales tax to pay for transportation funding. Missing from The Bee's editorial was any mention of the dysfunctional system of governance that allows a minority of the population to override the majority's desire.

Yes, the support for the proposal had declined from 70 percent to 58 percent. But were it not for California's ridiculous requirement that 67 percent of voters approve tax increases, the majority could decide the issue. Instead, 33 percent decide.

This provision doesn't protect the minority; it empowers fringe elements of the community. Take this argument against the tax posted on a local blog that praised The Bee's editorial:

"This proposed tax increase in Placer would have taken at least 18% off the top for union controlled, government run transportation, that would have been a deficit run system—made up for by general tax dollars...and if the unions decide to strike—as they have in LA, SF and many cities in California, Placer would have been held hostage by radicals."
The "18% off the top" this guy finds so objectionable is the woefully inadequate portion of the tax proceeds that would have gone to transit. Of course this guy doesn't want a dime going to anything but road improvements, but even a tax just for that wouldn't meet his requirement:
"Maybe the voters would approve a straight road fixing measure—if the most qualified, lowest price bidders were allowed to bid on the projects. Instead, due to union control of the process, the taxpayers would pay a premium to use union only firms. In a four billion dollar deal, upwards of one billion will go to higher benefits and wages for union members—that is one billion less to fix the roads."
Ah, yes, don't dare pay living wages when corners can be cut, when contractors are more than happy to take advantage of the hoards of less skilled workers ready to take these jobs. I'll bet this guy also has an opinion about illegal immigration and the jobs they take from Americans. But it doesn't appear to matter as long as he gets another gridlocked highway lane.

It was not sensible for Placer County officials to abandon efforts to raise money for transportation infrastructure. It was a depressing sign of the abysmal state of local government, victims of the dictatorship of the fringe 33 percent. I can only hope that voters in areas served by Sacramento Regional Transit will be more enlightened when tax increases are proposed to fund improvements to the system.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Happy Elf-ing Holidays

Friday, November 30, 2007

Your tax dollars at work. Do you care?

"Is this unusual, or is this how these things usually go?"

I smiled in response to the lady's question as I packed up my stuff.

"I have never been to one of these before," I told her. "I just came to see what happens."

Less than a half-hour after it started, the Sacramento Area Council of Governments public hearing to discuss the SACOG TMP 2035 plan and its EIR was over. At issue was a plan that seeks to map the transportation future of a six county region and in the process allocate $42 billion over 28 years.

That $42 billion represents about $13,000 for every man, woman and child who is expected to be living in the region by 2035. (More than 3.2 million people are expected to call the region home in 2030.)

So, with that much at stake, it was just a little surprising that the SACOG board couldn't muster enough members to satisfy quorum requirements. Of course, since only four people signed up to speak to the board it probably was just as well.

SACOG is in the middle of its "comment" period for this plan. The comment period opened Nov. 5 and runs through Dec. 20. Considering what's at stake, it would seem prudent for more people to pay attention. You can find out more about this planning effort and what has been proposed at

I had taken the bus from work to the meeting, and afterward I walked to J Street to wait for the next No. 30. Waiting with me was the lady who had asked me about the speedy meeting. In chatting with her, I learned that she had been afraid to ride buses until she took a class at Sacramento State on alternative modes of transportation. The class apparently included tips and tricks for riding buses. For instance, she learned it is faster to go downtown and then out again than it is to try to go across town.

The lady is still not at ease on the buses, especially at night. When the No. 30 finally arrived we boarded and she told the driver she wanted to get off at 29th Street.

This was one of the older buses where the driver has to call out the stops, and this was a driver who didn't feel that calling out the stops was necessary. I could see that with each passing stop, the lady was getting more nervous. Finally, she moved to the front of the bus and sat across from the driver.

"It's hard to see the intersections after it's dark," she told the driver. She then reminded him that she wanted to get off at 29th Street.

In the back of the bus, reading my book, I have never cared if the driver called out stops. Now I better understand why it is not just nice but necessary.

The driver stopped at the lady's stop. She thanked the driver and got off. I continued on to Sac State, where I waited for my connecting bus home.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lone Survivor on the bus

Finished reading "Lone Survivor, The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10." The book is written by Marcus Luttrell, a U.S. Navy SEAL who was the only survivor of a four-man team sent into a remote Afghan province to locate a Taliban leader.

I purchased this book because I wanted to learn more about Lt. Michael P. Murphy, the leader of the SEAL team. On Oct. 22, 2007, Murphy was posthumously awarded the nation's highest military honor, the Medal of Honor. This is the first Medal of Honor given in the Afghan War.

The Navy considers Luttrell's account, which he wrote with Patrick Robinson, to be an accurate record of what happened in Afghanistan. Murphy's father disagrees. At issue is what I feel is the key to why Murphy truly deserved to be honored.

On June 28, 2005, the four-man SEAL team had established itself on a mountainside overlooking a village where the Taliban leader and his soldiers were believed to be. But soon after they settled in, Afghan shepherds, two men and a teenager, drove a herd of goats right into their position.

"The hard fact was, if these three Afghan scarecrows ran off to find Sharmak (the Navy identifies the Taliban as Ahmad Shah, a terrorist in his mid-30s who grew up in the adjacent mountains just to the south) and his men, we were going to be in serious trouble, trapped out here on this mountain ridge. The military decision was clear: these guys could not leave there alive. I just stood there, looking at their filthy beards, rough skin, gnarled hands, and hard, angry faces. These guys did not like us. They showed no aggression, but neither did they offer or want the hand of friendship."
Luttrell says a vote was taken. One of the four SEALS said they should shoot the three Afghans. One SEAL said he would do whatever the others agreed to. Luttrell initially sided with killing the Afghans.
Mikey [Lt. Murphy] was thoughtful. "Listen, Marcus. If we kill them, someone will find their bodies real quick. For a start, these fucking goats are just going to hang around. And when these guys don't get home for their dinner, their friends and relatives are going to head straight out to look for them, especially for this fourteen-year-old. The main problem is the goats. Because they can't be hidden, and that's where people will look.

"When they find the bodies, the Taliban leaders will sing to the Afghan media. The media in the U.S.A. will latch on to it and write stuff about the brutish U.S. Armed Forces. Very shortly after that, we'll be charged with murder. The murder of innocent unarmed Afghan farmers."

I had to admit, I had not really thought about it quite like that. But there was a terrible reality about Mikey's words. Was I afraid of these guys? No. Was I afraid of their possible buddies in the Taliban? No. Was I afraid of the liberal media back in the U.S.A.? Yes. And I suddenly flashed on the prospect of many, many years in a U.S. civilian jail alongside murderers and rapists.
According to Luttrell's account, Lt. Murphy attempted to contact his team's headquarters, but they could not be reached. The decision was going to be theirs to make.

Luttrell said they eventually voted again with the same result. Lt. Murphy then addressed the team:
"Well, let me tell you one more time. If we kill these guys we have to be straight about it. Report what we did. We can't sneak around this. Just so you all understand, their bodies will be found, the Taliban will use it to the max. They'll get it in the papers, the U.S. liberal media will attack us without mercy. We almost certainly be charged with murder. I don't know how you guys feel about that... Marcus, I'll go with you. Call it."
Luttrell decided to let them go.
It was the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind, I had actually cast a vote which I knew could sign our death warrant. I'd turned into a fucking liberal, a half-assed, no-logic nitwit, all heart, no brain, and the judgment of a jackrabbit.
In a June 12, 2007, article in Newsday, Lt. Murphy's father, Daniel Murphy, called Luttrell's account a disservice to his son's memory.
"That directly contradicts what he told [Murphy's mother] Maureen, myself and Michael's brother John in my kitchen," said Murphy, who watched Luttrell on television but said he hasn't read the book. "He said that Michael was adamant that the civilians were going to be released, that he wasn't going to kill innocent people. ... Michael wouldn't put that up for committee. People who knew Michael know that he was decisive and that he makes decisions."
The SEAL team was attacked shortly after letting the Afghans go. At one point in the battle, Lt. Murphy decided he had to call for help. The U.S. Navy official Summary of Action states:
Moving away from the protective mountain rocks, he knowingly exposed himself to increased enemy gunfire. This deliberate and heroic act deprived him of cover and made him a target for the enemy. While continuing to be fired upon, Murphy made contact with the SOF Quick Reaction Force at Bagram Air Base and requested assistance. He calmly provided his unit’s location and the size of the enemy force while requesting immediate support for his team. At one point he was shot in the back causing him to drop the transmitter. Murphy picked it back up, completed the call and continued firing at the enemy who was closing in. Severely wounded, Lt. Murphy returned to his cover position with his men and continued the battle.
Fighting a war is never black and white. We ask warriors to follow rules of engagement. Choices must be made: What is the right thing to do? Life and death hang in the balance. Lt. Murphy was a real hero.

There is much to admire about Luttrell's dedication, especially after what he endured to become a SEAL. There is no question of Luttrell's heroism in combat. That he survived is a vivid demonstration of why the SEALS consider themselves the best trained warriors in the world. Luttrell's story of the Afghan villagers who risked their lives to shield him from the Taliban is amazing.

But Luttrell's book is filled with inane rants about liberals and the media, about how the war in Iraq was a necessary response to al-Qaida's attack on the United States and on and on. And I don't think I'm disappointed with the book just because I'm a liberal who works in the media.

I was hoping for something more like Dartmouth-educated Nathaniel Fick's "One Bullet Away: the Making of a Marine Officer." Instead I got an East Texas good old boy who clearly puts too much faith in talk radio and Fox News.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Dignity on the bus


At work I received an email with the subject line "Stuck on the bus." I get a lot of spam, but sometimes even spam can be interesting. But not this e-mail.

Below is a screen capture from the e-mail.

It is bad enough that one of the oft-repeated excuses people cite for not riding the bus is that they would have to associate with people who make them uncomfortable, but to have a right-to-life group use that cliche as a starting point for a discussion of stem cells is just unbearable.

And just what is it about that picture that is supposed evoke uncomfortable feelings? Is it the toothy grin on the blonde? The smug smirk on the guy with the glasses. Or it is the black man out of place in the front of the bus?

Is it any wonder that transit has a difficult time attracting "choice" riders?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Google Maps and Google Transit all in one

So I was wandering around Google Maps, minding my own business. Well, actually I was looking for a business that recycles computer printers and monitors. One location was Fulton and Arden Way and I wanted to see if I recognized the location.

I'm looking at the hybrid map -- the aerial photo with the street names overlayed -- and I notice little blue bus stop icons.

Huh? Bus stop icons?

OK. This is cool.

Now, I wouldn't take the icons literally. The northbound stop on Fulton isn't really in the center of the street. And the icons don't work at all resolutions. If you get too close to the ground or too far away they disappear.

But the real magic comes when you click on one of the icons. Up pops a list of the next time a bus is scheduled to depart this location.

This is real cool.

So I then went to Watt and El Camino to see what the map can do with a stop served by more than one bus. And, sure enough, when you click on the icon you get the times for all of the buses that stop there.

You can even do the same thing with light rail stops. Here's the 23rd Street stop on the inbound side.

Below is an animated image showing how Google Maps and Google Transit illustrate the 65th Street transit center bus stop.

This, of course, only works if you are on the corner with your wireless PDA or in a nearby office wondering about the bus schedule. For trip planning, go to Enter the starting address (2100 Q -- you don't need street or avenue) or intersection (21 & Q format) and sacramento (or Fair Oaks, etc.) and the destination address and city. You can set the arrival or departure time. The default is departing soon after the current time.

Assuming all went well and Google Transit found the addresses, you'll see several options, including a handy link to find out how to drive to the same location.

For my comparison of Sacramento Regional Transit's Web scheduling service and Google Transit, see this post.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Simple pleasures of riding the bus

A commute so ordinary and restful, burrowed deep in my book -- the joy of a transitarian.

The value of time is what you do with it.

I could have arrived at work a half-hour earlier -- maybe, most days, perhaps. But to what end? Rush for rush sake? Just to see how fast I can get from Point A to Point B? "Damn, I'm fast!"

But instead I read my book while someone else deals with traffic, worries about making the light, frets over the fool who weaves in and out of traffic seeking to pare seconds in time from his race to work.

Not every day goes this well. Certainly some days suck. But it's mornings like this that would convince anyone to give up "speed" for the calming joys of taking the bus to work.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Dreaming of cars and buses

The No. 82 bus today was the newer model with the elevated seats in the back. I took my regular seat in the first elevated row and removed my book from my backpack.

Seated in front and below me was a young man who was reading a free magazine devoted to car dealership advertisements.

"Huge closeout sale!" declared one page. "Your best selection!" promised another. The pages were filled with tiny photos and descriptions of cars and trucks and SUVs just waiting to be driven off the lot.

When I was a child I loved to look at the toy sections of the Sears and Montgomery Wards catalogs. All of those toys. The sheer wealth of opportunity dazzled. I knew my mother couldn't afford to buy any of them, but it was still a favorite pasttime. I suppose my fascination with the today's Fry's Electronics ads in The Bee are an adult extension of that childhood activity.

Looking over the shoulder of the man studying the car ads, it wasn't hard to imagine what he was thinking: "The first chance I get, I'm getting a car and I'm never going to ride a bus again!"

In William Burg's book about Sacramento streetcars, Birdie Boyles, who lived during the heyday of trolleys, told how she couldn't wait until she could get her own car and leave the trolleys behind.

And here I am trying to move against the tide, to bring people back to the bus.

A co-worker was discussing transit and Sacramento the other day. She had been walking with an acquaintance who had suffered a stroke and could no longer driver. She now takes buses everywhere. Her one regret, she told my co-worker, is that all of her friends look down on her because she rides the bus.

That, I told my co-worker, is the first thing that needs to change. Something must be done to improve transit's image, to make people believe it's something you would choose to ride.

But what people see and hear instead are stories about bad things that happen on light rail and buses. Over at that RT driver guy's blog, he has a post today about drug dealers who ride the Meadow View line, turning the train into a salon car for their business, working from Meadowview to Alkalai Flat and then back again.

I really wonder sometimes how much RT cares about its image. It is as if management believes its only job is to serve the disabled and those without other options, and therefore there's no need to try to attract others to use the service.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Sacramento's Streetcars on the bus

Finished reading "Images of Rail: Sacramento's Streetcars." This is the second of Sacramento writer William Burg's books that I've read while commuting to work.

The books are easy to read and full of photos that bring to life the history of Sacramento.

Talk about the "Good Old Days," look at the book cover photo. That's K Street around 1920. There are five -- count 'em, five -- streetcars on the four blocks between Seventh and Eleventh streets. Over on J Street, the No. 3 car started running 5:30 in the morning and kept running until midnight, and during weekdays the cars ran every five minutes. The idea of five-minute interval service is just too hard to imagine given the woeful state of Sacramento Regional Transit's service.

Of the two books, I enjoyed the streetcars more. And that's not just because I like streetcars. Burg's use of anecdotes from people who lived in the days of Sacramento's streetcar heyday are a lot of fun.

"Sacramento residents Al Balshor and Birdie Boyles both recalled taking the city street car to the New Year's Eve festivities on K Street in the 1930s, when streets were blocked to automobile and streetcar traffic between Fifth and Twelfth Streets. People promenaded through the closed streets, engaging in various forms of gaiety and revelry. Well after midnight, Sacramentans took the streetcar home."
After the discussion of the "Arizona Gang" in the Southside Park book, it was very easy to imagine the scamps tormenting streetcar operators.
"Jack Davis grew up near Line No. 1 and recalled a notorious prank involving the streetcar. By running up behind the car as it went by and grabbing the rope to the active trolley wire, one could yank the pole off the power line, stopping the car dead. This would naturally infuriate the motorman on the car!"
One of the most amazing photos for me didn't have anything to do with street cars. It was a photo of the outside of the Oak Park Theatre during a Saturday matinee showing of the Three Muskateers.

Look at all of those bikes!

I suppose The Sacramento Bee's reaction to the demise of the streetcars on Jan. 4, 1947, reflected the general feeling of the city:
"No longer will the motorman's clang of the warning bell, the shrill grinding of the metal wheels or the earth shaking gyrations of the lumbering cars assail your ears. Instead, the soft purr of Diesel motored passenger buses, their rubber tires caressing the asphalt in an inviting conspiracy of 'safety, comfort and convenience' will beckon quietly for your patronage."
The Bee's editorial concluded with an idea fans of the streetcars of old can all agree with:
"Maybe there is a great beyond to which all well behaved streetcars go when they pass on. And perhaps the old horse cars of yesteryear will be waiting with an understanding welcome in that Valhalla of public transportation's dilapidated souvenirs."

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Driving away transit riders

The article in The Bee that so annoyed me in my "A dark transit picture" blog post lingers like a foul odor.

In the Nov. 19 article, interim Regional Transit General Manager Mike Wiley is quoted suggesting RT may start charging commuters a fee – possibly $1 a day – to park in light-rail park-and-ride lots.

It is understandable why RT would focus on things like charging for parking and making people who get discounts pay more. That's something they can do. It's easy. But easy isn't the answer. In fact, easy is the worst thing Regional Transit could do.

RT needs more riders. Raising the cost of using Regional Transit will likely drive riders away, just as the recent fare hikes did, and making riding transit more expensive certainly won't attract new riders.

Regional Transit needs to work with local, county and state officials to place a premium on free and subsidized employee parking.

The state already has a law in place that requires certain employers who pay for parking and then offer it free to employees to provide a cash equivalent of the parking cost to employees who don't use parking -- to people, for instance, who use transit. Unfortunately, this state program is so limited that it only applies to 3 percent of 11 million parking spaces provided by employers statewide, according to a 2002 Legislative Analyst Office analysis.

Ending free parking is an important avenue for encouraging people to take transit. A 2000 survey of Bay Area commuters discussed in the LAO report found the price of parking has a significant impact on commuting choices.

"The survey found that while 77 percent of commuters drive alone when free parking is available, only 39 percent drive alone when they have to pay to park. Additionally, among commuters with free parking, only 4.8 percent commute by transit. By contrast, among commuters without free parking, 42 percent commute by transit. While many factors -- such as access to reliable transit service and travel time -- influence a person's commute decision, the magnitude of these differences suggests that the presence of free parking plays an important role."

The city and the county have a vested interest here. Getting people to carpool and use transit helps improve traffic congestion. In addition, the region and the state benefit from improvements in air quality produced by reducing the number of automobile trips taken each day. The existing parking cash-out law -- Capter 553, Statutes of 1992 -- was passed to address these very issues.

This is an area Sacramento Regional Transit should be exploring.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A dark transit picture

Yesterday, The Bee did its best to cast Sacramento Regional Transit in the worst possible light, including a selection of very dark photos of women alone on dark station platforms that left no doubt of their intended message. And the combination of the article and the photos was helped along by incompetent caption writing.

What's wrong with this back page caption: "Perris Williams, 19, waits for the light-rail train at the Meadowview station to take her home to the Elk Grove area."

Well, let's start with: Light rail doesn't go to Elk Grove or anywhere near what might be labled "the Elk Grove area."

The image of a woman waiting at night, alone, at the end of the Meadowview light rail line for a nonexistent train to Elk Grove certainly underlines the next sentence of the caption: "Critics of the transit system say it’s limited in range and inconvenient, factors that both stand as barriers to increased ridership."

Of course, no story about transit would be complete without a reference to "those people."

In a survey, three of 10 riders said they're uncomfortable at times on trains. The complaints include: People who smell bad, talk loudly on cell phones or swear, rowdy teens and the frequent absence of fare checkers to prevent freeloaders.
Three of 10 riders are uncomfortable -- at times? Can we assume that seven in 10 people are comfortable all the time?

The article stirred the nest of transit foes in the local blogosphere. One conservative political blog offered this "insight" before reprinting the entire aritcle:
Issue: In private industry when the consumers won't buy, the business closes. In government, they throw money tax dollars at problem.

1. Why won't the Sacramento government understand they are wasting tax dollars, or does it matter to them?

2. Will the voters throw out those who continue to throw money at a system that commuters do not want to use?

3. How much State money, tax dollars, are being wasted on this system?

4. City admits it is wasting Federal tax dollars on extension of system that won't be used.
I don't expect the newsroom to be an extension of RT's public relations office, but it would help if news articles at least showed some genuine familiarity with the transit service in the region.

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Coldest Winter on the bus

Finished reading David Halberstam's "The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War" while riding the bus. By my count, this is the 30th book I have finished since starting my daily commute by public transit in February.

This is Halberstam's last book. He had submitted the final corrections to the publisher just five days before he died in an auto accident in Menlo Park on April 23, 2007. The greatness of this book, the insight Halberstam brings to the topic, his skill as a journalist and historian, makes his death even more tragic.

It is important when exploring history to understand the context within which the decisions were made and the events played out, what the situation looked like to the people at the time. This book does an excellent job. I have read several books on Korea, but this is the first that offers a glimpse into the view of the communist Chinese, who were hungry for international recognition. There also was the tension between Stalin, whose tool North Korea's Kim Il Sung was supposed to be, and Mao, a division that American analysts failed to appreciate in their fixation with a supposed monolithic communist threat.

The Korean "police action," as it became known, is not the stuff Americans wanted to remember, certainly not while the victory of World War II still glowed.

In Korea, the world witnessed the sad state the U.S. military had fallen to, from its ill-trained and ill-equipped troops to its criminally poor leadership, starting with Gen. Douglas MacArthur. Here was a war in which the overriding theme was "the great bug out," the panicked retreat of American forces in the face of overwhelming forces, at first North Korean and later Chinese. And after MacArthur's victory at Inchon, the Marine amphibious assault that succeeded in turning the North Korean victory into a defeat, everyone succumbed to the fatal attraction of transforming the rescue of South Korea into a grander unification of all Korea, ignoring -- deliberately on MacArthur's part -- what would happen if China entered the war. The final stalemate -- "die for a tie" -- sealed the war's place in American history, a place on a dark, dusty shelf.

Halberstam lays out in detail the players in this drama and the forces that played on them. This is not a book fans of MacArthur will enjoy. But more important is Halberstam's ability to tell the story of the fighting on the front lines where amid the defeat there coexisted great courage.

[Corporal Berry Rhoden] heard Captain Bartholdi plead to Battalion for the right to release his men: "We cannot hold! Repeat we cannot hold! Our only chance is to disband and let every man get out for himself!" Rhoden had relayed Bartholdi's message, wandering if they might somehow be able to send another battalion to the rescue, or perhaps the Air Force could fly some extra missions at the last minute. That was the way, he remembered, it always happened in the movies. But not this night, not on the east side of the Naktong. He and his own men had fought valiantly, but they had started to run out of ammunition after only forty-five minutes of battle, so when Bartholdi spoke those final desperate words, pleading for the right to slip out, he spoke for Rhoden's squad as well. Back had come a voice from Battalion: "Hold your positions at all costs! You cannot disband. Repeat it is imperative to hold your positions at all costs! You must not disband!" Rhoden relayed that message to Captain Bartholdi, and received one last message from him asking for artillery fire or at least illumination fire. But neither was coming. Then both wires went dead. The North Koreans had obviously cut them. Soon Rhoden heard his end of both dead wires beginning to rustle, and he knew that the North Koreans were pulling on them, trying to locate Rhoden's position. So he cut the wires at his end. Let the sons of bitches pull on a wire that didn't lead anywhere. It was time, he decided to try to get his squad out of there.
Korea, when remembered in context, was an important war, a war that set the boundary for the much larger Cold War, which was then just starting. Speaking of the viewpoint of Korean veterans he interviewed for his book, Halberstam said:
They took pride in one additional thing: that if it had not been a victory in the classic sense, in some way what they had done had worked, because it was the crossing of an existing border in the Cold War; and because they had made their stand, it had not happened again."
This book is not a battle-by-battle replay of the confrontation. Halberstam has focused on battles at key points, interviewing survivors and telling their stories. The march of history from China to Korea and from Korea to Vietnam is amply illuminated. Of particular interest for me was the effect that Korea had on the Democratic Party. The resultant political requirement for Democrats to appear tough on communism lead President Kennedy to draw an unrealistic line in Vietnam, embroiling America unnecessarily in an entirely different fight.

This book is highly recommended.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

High school level blog

Reading Level I'm trying to decide if I should be insulted. I went to The Blog Readability Test and discovered I'm very readable for high school kids. Not exactly the serious thinkers I was hoping to reach. And then I realized that what the test really shows is that I write like a high school kid. Now that is troublesome.

So I ran the RT Driver guy's blog through the readability test. His score: Genius!

Now I'm really worried.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Guy who chases co-eds update

It has been nearly two months since we last heard from the guy who chases co-eds. Perhaps an update is in order.

The guy arrived today, as he always does, scanning the seats of the bus. He turns his head this way and that. He looks down at the nearest seats and then looks up to see the rear. I suspect his peripheral vision isn't very good with his glasses. He always holds the stanchions that run from the seat backs to the overhead handrail. He is very meticulous in his habits.

Pickings were good today. Every seat had at least one occupant, and several of those seats were occupied by women.

The guy tried his luck first near the front, plopping down next to a woman with dark brown hair. From my vantage point in the very back corner of the bus, I couldn't hear which lines the guy tried. I could tell he was saying something. And I could tell from the frozen position of the woman's head that he wasn't getting much if any response.

It wasn't long before he got up and started his slow walk toward the rear of the bus, looking this way and that, moving from stanchion to stanchion.

The back of this old-style bus has three benches, two facing each other on the sides and the back bench facing forward. On the side bus bench sat a young woman with blonde hair pulled back in a tight bun. Her expression is best described as scowling. And if anyone missed the point, she also wore a sweatshirt with the word "Moody" on one breast and on the other a picture of a ringing alarm clock and a very moody looking Tweety Bird.

"I know you," said the guy who chases co-eds. He pointed at the scowling woman and repeated, "I know you."

The scowling woman's expression did not change. She did not move. She did not look at the guy. She did not in any way acknowledge that this guy existed. She sat stone, scowling still.

There was a small space of bench next to the woman, and the guy leaned in that direction as if he might try sitting there, but even a guy as slow as this guy can read such perfectly sculpted body language.

The woman was cold stone still.

The guy instead took a seat across from her and folded his arms across his chest. He rode along like that for several minutes, his gaze wandering around the bus.

Eventually, he got up again and returned to the front of the bus. He sat down alone in the first front-facing seat, the one that folds up to make room for wheelchair riders.

I went back to my book, figuring the story was over. Most days the guy sits alone, not bothering anyone, but obviously wishing he could. He gets to his stop and gets off and everyone goes about their business.

But then a little later when the bus stopped I looked up from my book and watched as a young attractive blonde woman took a seat next to the guy. She immediately started up a conversation that included smiles and lots of eye contact.

The classic definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result. Sometimes even crazy people score.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The price of commuting to work (cont.)

Looking over the AAA Your Driving Costs brochure I noticed that when AAA first published its Your Driving Costs in 1950, driving a car 10,000 miles cost 9 cents a mile. That says a lot about what helped fuel the great suburban expansion. But it also says something about why people still commute by car.

According to the Federal Reserve inflation adjustment calculator, it is actually cheaper today to operate a car. The 2007 AAA estimate of the average cost to drive 10,000 miles is just 62.1 cents a mile. If the cost had kept pace with inflation, that 9 cents would be 77 cents today.

On the other hand, the price of a bus ticket has kept pace with inflation. I know from reading William Burg's book on Sacramento's Southside Park that the fare in 1870 for the first trolley in Sacramento was 5 cents, which was the price of a loaf of bread at the time. If we assume the fare was 10 cents in 1913, the earliest year the inflation calculator can use, that's $2.08 in 2007 and that's close to RT's $2 charge for a one-way ticket without a transfer. And, of course, the cheapest bread is still about the price of a bus ticket.

From a transitarian perspective, I can take some comfort in the fact that the price of gas has finally started to outpace inflation. The AAA brochure said gas prices in 1950 were 27 cents a gallon.  Adjusted for inflation, that would be $2.31 today.  Maybe today's $3.40-plus price will move some people to give transit a try.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The price of commuting to work

"Pump price near record," declares The Sacramento Bee in the biggest, blackest headline on the front page of today's Business section.

The average price of gasoline has increased 32 cents in the last month and 50 cents over the last two months, according to AAA of Northern California. The U.S. Department of Energy says the price could rise another 20 cents a gallon by December, according to The Bee's Dale Kasler.

That's a hefty increase in the cost of driving to work in Sacramento, where the Census Bureau says the mean travel time to work is 25.7 minutes.

Compare that with the increase in the price of my commute: Zero. Nada. Zilch.

It’s not like I don’t know the pain of filling up a car. The other day, I took my 1999 Dodge Caravan to get gas. This is the car I used to drive to work. Total cost to fill the tank: $57.94. Thankfully, I now only do this about once a month. I used to fill it up at least once a week.

My commute back when I drove was more than 22 miles roundtrip. If I were to go back to driving, here’s what it would cost me:

Five days a week of 22 miles roundtrip: 110 miles. I get four weeks of vacation and another week’s worth of paid holidays, so I’m driving at least 47 weeks a year: 5,170 miles.

According to the 2006 edition of AAA's Your Driving Costs, a source guaranteed to be friendly to automobile owners, the overall average cost of owning and operating a passenger vehicle is 52.2 cents per mile. This estimate of driving costs is based on what AAA describes as an extensive list of factors including the price of gas (and this, remember, is the price in 2006), maintenance, tires, depreciation and insurance. So the cost of just my commute of 5,170 miles would be expected to total a minimum $2,698.74 a year.

Regional Transit monthly passes are $85. I can ride as often as I want, including on the weekend, holidays, when I’m on vacation. Show the pass; get on the bus. It’s that easy. The annual cost: $1,020.

Not a bad deal -- even when you are talking about RT's limited service.

POSTSCRIPT: After I finished this post, I discovered that the 2007 Your Driving Cost is available and even includes the specific cost per mile for minivans.

According to the 2007 edition of AAA's Your Driving Costs, the total cost per mile for owning and operating a minivan and driving less than 10,000 miles is 69.2 cents per mile. So just my commute of 5,170 miles would be expected to cost at a minimum $3,577.64 a year -- three times more than year's monthly passes.

RT needs to do a better job of selling the benefits of riding transit.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Sometimes relying on transit just sucks

If I am going to be an advocate for transit, especially someone who encourages people to leave their cars at home and rely on Sacramento Regional Transit, then I feel I must be honest: Sometimes relying on RT just sucks.

It's not that I don't get to work. It's the little things, the thousand cuts I endure.

This morning I boarded my regular bus, the No. 82 that leaves American River College at 8:04 a.m. I had a substitute driver. Or maybe they've rotated drivers and this is my new driver. I can never tell. Anyway, I took my regular seat in the first elevated row in the rear of the bus and settled in to read my book.

The ride was uneventful until we reached Morse and Hurley. We stopped and picked up someone waiting at the stop. As the bus started to pull away from the curb I could see a young man running across Hurley, waving that he wanted to catch the bus.

"Hey, you have a runner there," I called out. Maybe, I thought to myself, the driver didn't see the guy. At least I tried.

The bus was no more than three feet from the curb and moving very slowly when the guy reached the bus. He was standing in the street right outside the door asking the driver to open the door.

The driver ignored him and drove off.

Several riders near me commented that the driver could have stopped -- should have stopped. It always bothers me when a driver does that. It left a dark cloud over me for the rest of the trip.

And then the driver rammed an exclamation point into my miserable bus ride.

The No. 82 is scheduled to arrive at the 65th Street transit center at 8:53 a.m., leaving plenty of time to catch the 9:03 train downtown. But today the bus pulled into the center at 9:04, just in time to allow the passengers to watch the train arrive and depart the station before the bus reached its stop.

If the driver had picked up the guy, I could have written off the extra 15 minutes that missing the train added to my commute. I would have considered it a fair trade, an example of transitarian values. But to have a driver abandon someone who wanted to ride, and then still arrive late was just too much.

But that wasn't the worst of it. Not from my transitarian view.

I walked over to where I normally wait for the downtown train. I had just pulled out my book and was preparing to read while I waited for the next train when my cell phone rang.

It was my son. He was calling from El Camino High School. He couldn't reach his mother, who works in Rancho Cordova. He was sick and needed to go home.

And what could I do standing at the 65th Street light rail station without a car?

The Sacramento Transportation Management Association offers an emergency ride home program. The TMA will pay taxi fare or rental car if you have an emergency or are sick and don't have a car at work to get home because you came to work by transit. But my employer doesn't participate, and therefore I was stuck.

This experience -- get a call from a sick kid at school, have to drop everything and take him home -- is one reason why I stopped riding transit back when my son was in elementary school. Now that he's a teenager, I figured it would be less of an issue.

It's a little more than 2 miles from the school to our house. I told my son he would have to walk.

I wasn't a happy transitarian.

Monday, November 12, 2007

PSR #07-1409 65th Street Station

Got a response to my question about why the buses enter 65th Street from Folsom rather than 65th Street.


Thank you for your inquiry about pedestrian safety at the 65th Street station.

I spoke with one of our Transportation Superintendents and the reason our buses do not go southbound on 65th and turn left onto Q Street is because of complications caused by excessive traffic on 65th Street. At rush hour, when the light rail train comes and the crossing guard comes down, traffic backs up on 65th Street all the way to the Folsom Blvd. intersection. Routing our buses this way would not only introduce more uncertainty into their schedules, but potentially expose them to unsafe conditions in a backed-up intersection. By turning left onto eastbound Folsom, our buses can clear the intersection safely and arrive at their destination at the scheduled time with greater consistency.

I also spoke with a Safety Specialist about your issue and visited the site with him. There are ADA compliant painted crosswalks both at the intersection of 65th Street & Q Street and at 67th Street & Q Street, i.e., at the east end of the bus area, which is what pedestrians should be using to cross the street.

Please also note that RT is currently working with a consultant team on a potential redesign for the 65th Street Station. Based on a presentation I attended about a month ago on initial design concepts, I know that pedestrian safety is one of the issues the project members are striving to improve. I am forwarding a copy of your inquiry, as well as this response, to Fred Arnold, our Director of Real Estate, who is not only RT's lead on the station redesign project, but also RT's representative on the 65th Street Redevelopment Advisory Committee.

RT thanks you for your concern and initiative in bringing this issue to our attention and we realize that jaywalking, running after trains, and other unsafe behavior is bound to happen and should be accounted for as best as possible. However, given the limited ways our buses can safely and reliably enter and exit this station, we will not be changing the alignment at this time.

Thank you again for your interest in Regional Transit.


James Drake
Assistant Planner
Sacramento Regional Transit
In the 10 months I have been traveling into and out of the 65th Street station, I have never seen southbound 65th Street traffic backed up to Folsom. Maybe it happens, but clearly not often enough to suggest that using 65th Street entrance would "potentially expose them to unsafe conditions in a backed-up intersection."

Mr. Drake and RT get consolation points for their timely response.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Light rail, the airport and the future of transit

Saturday, The Sacramento Bee asked the question Does light rail to airport make financial sense? Earlier in the week, Jude Lamare, president of the Friends of Swainson's Hawk, offered an opposing view to a Sacramento Bee editorial "Getting to the future / Transit plan is key to region's well-being." Each, starting from different points, suggests light rail to the airport is unneeded.

I disagree.

The Friends of Swainson's Hawk have the clearer case since their's is the immediate issue of whether the city of Sacramento should allow development of a parcel of land outside the urban services area that had previously been declared hawk habitat. The Sacramento Area Council Of Governments, which is responsible for regional transit planning, and RT, have jumped in on the side of the developer.

SACOG and RT explain (memo to Planning Commission):

The current Federal Transportation Bill will need to be reauthorized by Congress in 2009. We will want Congress to specifically list the complete Downtown to North Natomas to Airport (DNA) light rail line as a project eligible for funding in that bill. ... As the travel model information we have presented you clearly shows, the inclusion of transit riders from the Greenbriar project will significantly improve our argument. Conversely, if the City decides to reject that project now, even if it intends to reconsider its decision at a future date, our argument will be significantly weakened. ...
In addition, the developer has offered to donate the right of way and to build a station, a significant savings. But if Greenbrier remains hawk habitat, there would be no need for a station and the value of the right of way would be significantly reduced. Is SACOG and RT support of the Greenbriar developer's immediate plans and the potential influence of those plans on Congress' support of the project more valuable to the efforts to expand light rail in the region than the benefits that might accrue from remaining neutral on the Greenbriar project?

SACOG is currently putting the finishing touches on its look at regional transportation through 2035, and RT recently launched a parallel effort to revisit its 10-, 20- and 30-year plans. Expansion of transit envisioned in those plans will rely on voter approval of new sources of transit funding. Environmentalists should be transit's natural allies. Alienating them is not in transit's best interests.

The Bee should be promoting transit as an environmentally friendly asset and a valuable investment for the community. The distraction of the "financial sense" of one piece of a much, much larger puzzle just gives ammunition to those who feel all transportation ills would be solved with enough asphalt.

A local blog that routinely republishes the full text of material from The Bee, introduced The Bee's editorial by saying:
[I]f there is any reasonable weighting to what gets funded with local transportation funding, the bulk should go to improving the conditions for the form of transportation heavily favored by an overwhelming majority of people, cars: so lets upgrade and maintain our roadways and bridges.
Planning for the region's future needs to look beyond the horizon. Light rail to the airport is the last phase of a lengthy process. No one is proposing that light rail be built to the airport now. But the goal of eventually reaching the airport pulls the northern expansion of light rail, assisting in the redevelopment of the Richards Boulevard area, getting transit across the river and fulfilling the promise of a Natomas Town Center served by light rail.

The loss of Greenbrier's potential riders may have an impact of cost-benefit analysis of the final stretch of light rail to the airport, but abandoning the goal of reaching the airport will have a much greater impact on the entire effort to make transit an option for more people in the region.

The Bee editorial's view of the situation is exactly backward:
People like the idea of light rail to the airport. It polls well. The Sacramento Transportation Authority has said it is committed to having an additional transportation funding source in place for the county by 2012 that will raise an amount equivalent to a half-cent sales tax, or approximately $100 million a year. The new funding source almost certainly will require a public vote. The project most popular with voters is light rail to the airport. So planning for it is a political plus. But it's not enough to be popular.
If voters are to be asked to pay for expansion of transit, then those expansion plans must include popular options. Failure to do so only undermines the entire effort.

Environmentalists have not been consistent friends of transit. Their parochial concerns -- in this case hawk habitat -- always seem to trump the greater environmental good that making transit a more attractive option could provide. But then developers have shown little interest in transit and seldom can be seen to look above their bottom line.

As a transit enthusiast I feel as if I'm in the middle, voiceless, unrepresented. Transit needs to be something people choose to ride, not just the transportation option of last resort. That can only happen with expansion of transit options in the region.