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

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Riding shotgun on the morning commute

I suppose these things happen when you have been married for nearly 20 years. Sometimes you just miss the meaning of what you hear.

The Wife walked up behind me while I was working in my office last night.

"Are you doing anything special tomorrow morning?" she asked.

I admit that I immediately considered this a trick question along the lines of "Does this dress make me look fat?" What sort of special activities can a guy who works from home claim?

I told her, No. Nothing special. Just the usual.

"I thought maybe you'd like to ride downtown with me tomorrow," she said. "You could walk down to Starbucks at 16th Street and hang out."

"Sure. Yes. Well, maybe. I guess so," I said. I really was trying to get some work done.

Later that evening the wife mentioned that someone (for those reading who are not married, that translate as "You need to") needed to fax some documents to the insurance company so we could be reimbursed for a scooter The Kid used when his leg was broken.

"OK," I said. "Why don't I ride the bus in the morning with you and then get off at Morse and Arden. I can walk across the street to the OfficeMax and fax the documents from there."

I was quite pleased with myself for combining two Honey-Do tasks in a single trip.

The almost explosive you-don't-really-love-me response to that suggestion was the first clue I had that perhaps I had been clueless to what had prompted The Wife's invitation to ride with her to work.

"I don't want you to go with me," she said, and stormed off.

Ever notice how words echo when you are in the doghouse? The effect is disconcerting. You are trying to sort out what you missed, and it gets all muddled.

Eventually I wheedled out of the wife the source of her disappointment.

Normally The Wife works in Rancho Cordova. I drive her to a bus stop about two miles from our house. From there she rides to the Starfire light rail station. She then takes the train to Mather and from there rides another bus to work. It's a ridiculously convoluted arrangement, but The Wife dislikes driving enough to accept the inconvenience.

But this week The Wife is working downtown, which makes it possible for her to ride the No. 82, which stops less than 100 yards from our front door. She can transfer at CSUS to the No. 30 and arrive across the street from her destination. It's a nearly perfect commute. Nearly.

Tuesday, The Wife had been on the No. 82 minding her own business, trying to read when a guy sat down in front of her and turned around and said, "Namaste."

The Wife was wearing a brightly colored dress and a beautiful scarf around her shoulders. The guy apparently confused her for someone from the Indian subcontinent.

He repeated "Namaste," obviously expecting this exotic creature to respond in kind, but The Wife, who is half Japanese and half European mutt, just smiled.

Failing to get satisfaction, the guy turned his attention to a pair of Muslim women across the aisle, trying out an Arabic greeting. He didn't have much better luck.

Then a guy who looked to be in his 20s took the seat across from The Wife. He sat sideways in the seat with his legs in the aisle and stared at her. She tried to ignore him. He didn't say anything. He just stared.

The Wife swears she will never wear that colorful dress to work again.

When The Wife got off the bus at CSUS, the guy got off too. The Wife went over to a bench to wait for the No. 30 and the guy followed. When the No. 30 arrived The Wife boarded and took a seat. The guy boarded and again sat across from her, facing the aisle, and stared.

The Wife was about to get up and go sit closer to the driver when the guy left the bus.

"Yes, buses are like that," I responded when the wife first told me of her adventure on the bus, recalling the guy who chases co-eds.

By the time later that night that The Wife asked that I ride to work with her today, I had completely forgotten about her day's commute.

The palm of my hand slapping my forehead when I realized my error made an appropriately empty sound.

So today the wife dressed in less colorful clothes, and I rode with her on the No. 82 and then the No. 30. She sat by the window and I sat on the aisle. Not a single annoying rider appeared during the entire trip.

When we arrived at her office I kissed her goodbye and walked on to the Starbucks at 16th and P streets. I had a coffee and yogurt, did some work and then went back to my "office."

They wife thinks she'll ride to work by herself tomorrow.

Wanted: Transit Operator Awards -- and cup holders -- and bag holders!!

Here's a guest post from the wife

I meant to write the other day, about the driver of the 73 bus that picked me up on the way to Mather Mills Station one late afternoon last week. It was about 5:45 pm, the next stop on Data Drive was a timed stop, and we waited a couple minutes.

It worked perfectly for the driver, who got up and calmly strode to the back of the bus. There was a woman who had been yapping loudly about something with her boyfriend and the f-words were flying. I think there were a couple other people on the bus.

The driver was a tall, older black gentleman with a touch of gray and a ton of dignity; lean and straight as an arrow, to borrow a cliche. Quietly, slowly, he asked the woman where her stop was. Startled yapping, impudent, belligerent yapping. The rest of us peered intently at whatever was at hand. The driver - soft-spoken, but as firm as, well, a minister - asked her again where she was getting off. He did not need to say any more. The woman's tone changed. She well knew that the driver could simply put her off the bus, and she backed down, half-apologetically. We continued on our way in quiet.

I could hear the couple mumble and the boyfriend ask if she wanted him to "take care of him." But the woman said no because she needed the ride; she needed to be able to ride the bus.

The rest of the ride was uneventful. I tried to give the driver my most sincerely grateful "Thank You" as I left the bus at Mather.

Bless this driver and nominate him for Driver of the Month or Sustained Career Excellence, or something! He was not just having a good day. This gentleman has control of his route and we riders feel much safer that way.

I am impressed with drivers everyday and I see a lot of regulars who have a great relationship with the bus drivers. Even though society is going through some very hard times, it's all the more reason to recognize and reward excellence in service and performance.

Please actively promote driver recognition. As with other government workers, transit employees serve the public and the public needs to appreciate the workers and services a little more.

Now, I admit it's a little harder to get up close and friendly with the train operators. But I notice that the people who use the ramp tend to be regulars and can get to know the drivers if they choose.

After that bus ride, I got on the Sac Valley Station Train and at the Butterfield stop, a woman's voice, the train operator's, boomed over the PA: "The young man who got off of car 2 and got on car 3 - put your shirt on."

Thank you, again, RT, for these conscientious employees who keep transit comfortable and safe, as much as they can.

Monday morning, the 82 was stopped in the left turn lane at the intersection of Watt and Whitney. I looked up from my book hearing the driver talking to someone through the open door. She was talking to the driver of the car in the next lane. I don't know how he got her attention, but he said he was on his way to the stop and she was early. She said, "No, I'm on time, but don't worry, I'll wait for you." He said he was told 7:33 and she said cheerfully, "Yes, it's 7:32 and I should be there right at 7:33, but don't worry, I'll wait for you."

We waited as the man drove through the parking lot of the strip mall, parked under a bit of shade, and hobbled onto the bus with a cane.

Our drivers will stop and wait if they see you waving or running. I am quite sure they do not do that in SF or NY.

Next thing - cup holders AND bag holders on the bus! Under every window, a cup holder with a hook on the bottom for one's purse, shopping bag, etc. Yes!

Next - have a drawing once a month for a free monthly pass! Everyone who buys a monthly enters their pass number on the RT site with name, address, etc., and once a month someone gets a free pass. Market this with the cup holder for the commuters. How about a year's pass for $950?

Next - I was on a bus where a 30-something man rested his foot on the seat across the isle. OK, call me prissy, but I do not like people resting their shoes and sandles on the upholstery. It's bad enough that you have to look carefully at the seats to ascertain whether a spot is new or old. I was disappointed that the driver did not ask the man to remove his foot from the seat. I know my gentleman driver in Rancho would.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

RT-Key Performance -- Dismal

On Monday evening, General Manager Mike Wiley volunteered to skip his monthly Key Performance Report to make time for the crowds who wanted to rail against proposed fare hikes and service cuts. He was most likely happy to avoid the onerous task of delivering still another report about declining ridership and fare income falling short of expectations.

In May, the district experienced a double-digit decline in system ridership, the second month in a row of negative growth. And for the second month in a row, fare revenue was under budget, which has exacerbated the district's financial situation.

The report Wiley wrote but didn't deliver at the meeting attempts to put a smiley face on May's bad news by pointing out that systemwide ridership remains up 4.74 percent higher than last year. Conveniently ignored is the fact that in April that same statistic was 7.15 percent and in March it was 8.51 percent. At this rate, it won't take long for this statistic to go negative.

April's total ridership was down 3.62 percent. May's total ridership dropped a whopping 15.2 percent, with bus ridership falling 13.3 percent and rail ridership declining 17 percent.

"Last year's escalated fuel prices helped boost RT's ridership significantly and this year, the impact of a higher [un]employment rate and furloughs are finally impacting transit ridership," Wiley said in the report.

But that drop in ridership and the impact furloughs have had on state worker buying patterns has exacerbated the district's budget troubles. Fare recovery in May was below the district's goal by 2.1 percent.

"In the month of May," Wiley said, "RT's fare revenue was under budget by $755,000."

This follows April's fare recovery shortfall of $596,000.

Wiley continues to say the district could still meet or exceed the district's annual fare revenue goal. But that may be just wishful thinking.

Fare increases will arrive in September. But will they, like the fare hikes that took effect in January, fall short of raising the amount of money the staff predicts?

Before RT has a chance to answer that question, the staff will be back before the board in July to discuss service reductions that would take effect in January.

Yes, getting to skip that report was a thin silver lining to a dark and stormy night.

June 22 (May) Key Performance Report
June 8 (April) Key Performance Report
May 11 (March) Key Performance Report

Monday, June 22, 2009

Squawks and tweets

Sacramento Regional Transit's board of directors tinkered around the edges of a staff-proposed solution to the district's budget mess, but in the end accepted that fares had to be increased and services reduced. Only directors Roger Dickinson and Steve Cohn balked.

In September, the basic fare will increase from $2.25 to $2.50 and the discount fare paid by students and seniors from $1.10 to $1.25. Gone will be the central city fare, the shuttle service fare and the discount shuttle service fare. Basically, there will be just two fares -- full and discount -- and you'll have to pay that fare each time you board a bus or light rail train. The 50 cent transfer fee (25 cents for students and seniors) will be no more.

The result of these changes could have the odd of effect of increasing ridership, or at least increasing the number of trips by the riders who don't just get back into their personal autos. That's because the daily pass, which will remain at its current $6, will become an instant bargain for anyone making a roundtrip that requires a transfer. Forced to buy a daily pass, you may decide to take advantage of the "free" ride for the rest of the day.

Where the board balked at the staff's proposal was on the topic of limiting Paratransit monthly passes and taking back the lifetime free ride granted to people over 75 years old.

The staff proposed both increasing the Paratransit monthly pass from $100 to $125 and limiting the number of rides that could be taken in the month to just 15 roundtrips. Nearly all of the people who came to address the board during the public hearing were concerned with Paratransit, and the biggest complaint was the limit on the number of rides that could be taken.

Early on in the hearing, the board members indicated it was unlikely they would go along with staff on that idea, or with the idea of taking away the "lifetime" free rides the district had granted to seniors over 75 years old, but the staff had made it clear that any change in the fare proposal had to be covered by reduction in service worth the same amount of money.

That led to some old-fashioned horse trading. Director Bonnie Pannell wanted to save weekend service for her district's No. 54 and 65 lines by instead cutting the No. 63 route in half. The 63 will now connect with light rail, and riders who used to ride the 63 to City College will take the train instead.

In order to protect existing "lifetime" riders, the board dedicated the remainder of the savings from the No. 63, cut the No. 83 from half-hour to hourly service and threw in the potential revenue from an as-yet-to-be-approved parking fee at Watt/I-80, Watt West and Roseville Road.

The idea of dumping the staff's proposal to limit use of Paratransit monthly passes proved easier to deal with when the staff admitted that the 30-ride limit didn't have an associated cash savings value. Therefore, nothing had to be cut to cover the change.

This is not the last that will be heard on this topic. In late July, the staff will be back with a second round of service cuts. The question of how much will depend on whether the budget outlook improves. One possible source of funding may come from the Iraq War funding bill. That bill, oddly enough, includes a provision that would allow transit districts to use as much as 10 percent of their stimulus funds (RT will receive $14 million) for operating expenses. General Manager Mike Wiley said that if the president signs the bill, the money could be a significant help.

Below is my Twitter reporting from the meeting.


Friday, June 19, 2009

Balancing RT -- fares vs. service cuts

Sacramento Regional Transit's board will be asked Monday to decide whether to adopt a larger fare increase than originally proposed last month in order to accept a smaller reduction in bus service. But that won't be the end of the discussion. The staff has asked the board to hold a hearing next month to plan for the service cuts that will be necessary in January if the district's budget picture doesn't improve.

"Given the uncertainty and potential severity of January service changes, staff intends to notice all routes for elimination, so as to allow contingency planning with maximum flexibility," the staff report says.

RT had originally proposed to raise $1.8 million through fare increases and $2.2 million through service cuts to balance the 2010 budget. Monday, the board will consider $3.3 million in fare increases and just $700,000 in service cuts.

The basic fare will rise from $2.25 to $2.50 and the discount fare for students and the elderly to $1.25. The Paratransit single fare will increase to $5 and the monthly Paratransit pass to $125. More important, the monthly Paratransit pass will only be good for 30 trips.

The biggest hit will be taken by those people who rely on transfers. Today, if you must transfer from one bus to another to complete your trip or from a bus to a train, the transfer is an additional 50 cents. After Sept. 1, there will be no transfer discount. Each time you board a transit vehicle you will pay the full fare.

Some solace can be taken from the fact that RT is proposing to leave the daily pass fare at $6. Anyone who needs to board a vehicle three or more times in the course of a roundtrip will want to buy a daily pass.

The monthly passes and various stickers will remain at their current prices. The exception is the "Lifetime Pass" that allowed people 75 and older to ride free. That's gone. Those riders are back on the senior discount.

Here's the PowerPoint to be shown at the board meeting:

(Read the full budget and fare issue paper here)

In exchange for this larger fare increase, the service reductions have been reduced from the original 36 lines to just 11.
  • 5 - Meadowview-Valley Hi - Sundays/Holidays - Eliminate.
  • 36 - Folsom - Weekdays - Decrease service frequency from 30 minutes to 60 minutes.
  • 37 - Tahoe Park - 21st Avenue - Weekdays - Eliminate; Route 8 provides alternative service.
  • 54 - Center Parkway - Saturdays - Eliminate; Route 56 provides alternative service.
  • 65 - Franklin South - Saturdays - Eliminate.
  • 73 - White Rock - Saturdays - Eliminate.
  • 75 - Mather Field - Saturdays - Eliminate the 6:40 p.m. and 7:25 p.m. trips.
  • 140 - Ziggurat - Downtown - Weekdays - Eliminate; Yolobus Route 40 provides alternative service.
  • 141 - 3rd/16th Streets - Weekdays - Reduce to peak only service with 30-minute frequency.
  • 142 - 9th/10th Streets - Weekdays - Reduce to peak only service with 30-minute frequency.
  • 212 - 14th Avenue - 21st Avenue - Weekdays - Extend route south to serve segment of Route 37 from 21st Avenue and Bradford Drive, south on Bradford Drive, east on Vandenberg Drive, south on 79th Street, west on 39th Avenue, south on Wilkinson Street, west on Lemon Hill Avenue, and south on Logan Street to Stallings Drive
The board will also hear a proposal for a pilot program to test charging $1 a day for parking at light rail park and ride lots beginning in January. The unlucky guinea pigs will be customers of the Watt/I-80, Watt West and Roseville Roads stations. Security guards will be the primary enforcers. The pilot program will cost about $30,500 to implement. New stations could be brought into the program for $5,000 each. RT estimates that the Watt/I80, Watt West and Roseville Road lots could generate $300,993 in annual revenue. (Read the staff proposal)

The question of further service changes in January would come before the board July 27. While it is possible that a go, no-go decision by the board could be postponed until late September, the size and shape of the service reductions must be completed by Aug. 24 in order to accommodate preparing the schedule in September and driver bidding for routes in October.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Comparing futures


Board of Directors Expected to Approve Fare Increases and Service Reductions Proposed for September 2009

If you don't know what's coming, read the press release or this post or this post or this post or this post. It's endless. And it is depressing.

And it is in that context that RT's invitation for people to Provide your Final Comments on RT's TransitAction Plan! this Thursday is just so ... well, pathetic.

Join RT's General Manager and Planning team who will discuss the draft TransitAction Plan. Review maps and information specific to your community and provide your final comments on this new vision for transit in the Sacramento region.
  • DATE: Thursday, June 18, 2009
  • TIME: 5:30 p.m. - 7:00 p.m.
  • LOCATION: Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 829 I Street, Sacramento (East meeting room)

Industrial Workers of the World organizer Joe Hill coined a phrase that fits
Sacramento Regional Transit's vision for the future: pie in the sky.
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die.
We'll get TransitAction, alright -- in heaven after we die.

Now I have to explain. What's really, really bothering me is that no one, except maybe the staff at RT -- not the board, no way, but maybe some of the staff -- believe in transit's value. To appreciate what believing in transit means and requires, look at China:
Beijing will transform into a "public transport city" by 2015. In peak hours, the minimum departure interval for subway trains will be shortened to 2 minutes; the waiting time at bus stops will be reduced to 3 to 5 minutes; public transport will account for 45 percent of the journeys in downtown areas. (See this story)
Now I'm old enough to remember the wild promises of the former Soviet Union and the failures of that corrupt command economy. So maybe there's more than a hint of totalitarian hyperbole in the forecasts. Still, China is aiming for this in five years, not 25 years.

RT's TransitAction is service cuts and fare increases and pie in the sky, bye and bye.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Second Saturday on the bus

It's been awhile. It was nice. Well, it was a little scary on the way home, but, hey, as I told our friends, it's just something you sign up for when you become a transitarian.

The wife and I made a date with friends to meet at Chicago Fire Pizza in Midtown tonight at 5 p.m. We boarded the No. 82 for the ride to Sacramento State, where we caught the No. 30 to Midtown. Just like old times. I miss my old commute.

I also miss the free ride I get for taking a class or two at American River College. The student pass ends in May and the next one won't be available until after Aug. 5. I bought a daily pass, although that was gift of 50 cents to RT. The fare each way was $2.75.

I took my Kindle and the wife read her book. It sure beat dealing with traffic or looking for parking in Midtown.

At Chicago Fire our table of four ended up between two separate large CSUS graduation parties. Needless to say we had to wait until after dinner to chat.

We love the crowds and enjoyed walking around, but as 8 p.m. approached I was worried that our blue and gold carriage would turn into a pumpkin before we made it home. When I looked at the schedule for our return trip I figured the No. 30 leaving Midtown just before 8 p.m. would have plenty of time to meet the No. 82 leaving SacState at 8:18. Of course, I completely forgot about the traffic on J Street on Second Saturday. As the wife and I waited for the bus I kept looking in the distance for a sign of the bus and then at the clock on my cellphone. If we miss the No. 82 at 8:18, I explained to our friends, it will be 9:18 before the next No. 82 leaves SacState. They offered to give us a ride home, but the wife explained that there was no need. This is just what you do when you rely on the bus. We at least volunteer. For a lot of others, it's just how it is.

The bus finally arrived about 10 minutes late. We said our goodbyes and boarded. I asked the driver if he could get the No.82 to wait for us. I've been in the position before and I've had the driver call dispatch and send word to the other bus to wait. But this driver figured there was a chance he might actually get to SacState on time and -- thanks to a masterful job of catching a series of yellow lights and the good fortune of having just a couple of people to pick up or drop off -- we made it there with a minute or two to spare.

On the ride home from SacState, the wife and I took a seat near the front and went back to reading. A half-hour later I was engrossed in my Kindle when a woman got up from her seat and walked over and asked in accented English, "Where did you get that hat?" I was wearing my Ubuntu Linux hat and I told her I bought it online at the Ubuntu shop. I explained that Ubuntu was a variety of Linux, an operating system. I was about to explain the difference between Linux and Windows when the wife interrupted my geek babble to explain to the woman that it was something to do with computers. She smiled and explained that she was Zulu and was surprised to see my hat. "It means ..." she paused to translate and then said, "Humanity" and smiled. "Yes," I agreed, and smiled in return. I wanted to tell her Ubuntu's slogan is "Linux for human beings," but figured that probably wasn't going to be helpful.

The woman went back to her seat and a couple of stops later left the bus. Riding on, heading for home, I considered what a surprise it must have been for a Zulu woman riding a bus in Sacramento to come across a guy with a hat emblazoned with "Humanity" on his head.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

RT Needs A Music Video

Sacramento has talent. There's no reason why someone here couldn't create a nifty music video singing the praises of Sacramento Regional Transit like this one created by fans of BART.

Then again, we're talking about Sacramento Regional Transit. (Sigh.) Maybe a quick effort before the cuts arrive in September?

(For more about the video, see this post)

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Distasteful jobs

I'm not going to be attending Monday's Sacramento Regional Transit board meeting. At about 6 p.m. I'm going to be doing the work required prior to having a colonoscopy Tuesday morning. I'm not sure who will have the more distasteful job Monday evening, me or RT's staff.

General Manager Mike Wiley will report to the board that total ridership in April declined for the first time since last November. Ridership in April was down 3.62 percent compared with April of last year. The number of riders was also down when compared with March. The rolling year total -- May 2008 to April 2009 vs. May 2007 to April 2008 -- shows the district still 7.34 percent higher than the comparison 12 months.

Bus ridership in April was down for the third consecutive month, falling 2.29 percent in comparison with April 2008. The rolling year total shows bus ridership just 3.33 percent higher than the previous 12 months. Will these numbers fall of a cliff after September's service cuts?

While light rail ridership showed a slight increase from March to April, the total April ridership was 4.84 percent below the April 2008 total. The rolling year total shows light rail ridership up 11.57 percent.

More troubling, at least as far as budgeting for the coming year, is the fare recovery figures. While the district did 3 percent better in April, the 24.5 percent fare recovery was below the 26 percent goal for the year. The year-to-date rate is just 24.4 percent.

Wiley's April Key Performance Report puts the district operating revenue $4.2 million under budget. The fare revenue in April was $596,000 below budget targets and nearly $2.1 million below targets for the fiscal year. And fares are only part of the problem. The district budgeted $6.1 million in local subsidy funds -- i.e. sales tax revenue -- and received just 2.78 million. For the year, local subsidy funds are running $2.16 million below budget. The Total Fiscal Result: The district was $4.98 million in the hole as of April.

RT says the hole is too deep to fill by simply cutting expenses. As a result, some combination of services cuts and fare increases will be required.

On the agenda Monday will be the question of whether to set in motion a second fare increase this year. RT is proposing raising single fares by 25 cents to $2.50 and daily passes by 50 cents to $6.50. The "discount" fare would rise 15 cents to $1.25. RT is also considering either eliminating the free ride that people 75 years old and older receive or changing the qualification to 85 years old. RT would also either eliminate or increase the price of Paratransit monthly passes. Paratransit has suggested a third alternative: Limiting the total number of rides that the monthly pass would cover.

(Click to view readable size image) (View Staff Report)

RT has said it wants to limit service cuts as much as possible, but Monday night will see the first hearing on cuts that would eliminate nearly 10 percent of bus service. Here's the preferred choice, still painful but limited to routes that have alternatives for current riders:
(Click to view readable size image) (View Staff Report)

These changes would go into effect Sept. 6. But if the 2010 fiscal year budget still looks like it isn't out of the red, RT will begin looking at something from this below list for implementation in January 2010: