Strike Warning cancelled: DEAL IMMINENT

The Inquirer’s Paul Nussbaum is currently tweeting photos of elected officials and SEPTA executives congregating in advance of what appears to be an imminent announcement of a contract agreement. More as it comes over series the tubes.

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SEPTA/TWU Strike Kremlinology

The steady drip, drip, drip of signs and portents leaking out of this week’s round of negotiations between SEPTA and its biggest union have finally ended in a press conference that fills me with despair for entirely non-strike-related reasons.

The key bit is this: There will not be a strike next Monday. Election Day on Tuesday will go undisrupted. The earliest plausible date for a walkout is Monday, November 10th. And it is increasingly unclear whether we will actually go through a strike at all.

All day today, various Democratic officials were letting it be known that they had talked to TWU 234 and asked the union to keep talking through Election Day. If lower-ranking officials were making those calls, you know that Democratic City Committee Chair Bob Brady was working the phones hard, whether directly or indirectly. In any event, while we may never be privy to the exact details, we do know that it worked. In fact anonymous TWU sources being quoted in the media have begun waving giant flags that the union wants tensions cooled down, at least for now.

The parade of political posturing climaxed at the evening press conference, where State Senator (and a likely next Mayor of Philadelphia) Anthony Williams, who announced progress in the negotiations would mean at least a week’s reprieve, described the deal as “85% done”. That, of course, is a meaningless statement, which is in stiff competition with itself as to whether it is more abusive of mathematics or the English language. And it’s not the first time we’ve heard the charm offensive either: a deal was described as “close” not long after the contracts expired in April.

But even if the new rhetorical tone is more about allowing workers to save face even while they remain on the job, than it is about an agreement being imminent, I’ll still take it. There is no upside for anyone to allow the vitriolic brinksmanship that marked last Sunday’s strike authorization vote to continue. And TWU is still in a weak position.

City Branch Transit: the Transit Equity Express

Ryan Briggs wrote a story last week in Next City about the status of the City Branch, the ex-Reading legacy trench/tunnel stretching along Callowhill Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. His article was an excellent summary of the state of play, between those who would see the City Branch as part of a linear park that would also encompass the Reading Viaduct, and those who would see some form of transit there.

Let me be perfectly clear up front: I think the City Branch needs to be transit. I think making it a park is misguided, and completely redundant with efforts to make the Parkway a friendlier environment for pedestrians and cyclists. In the magic land of infinite money, I’d love to have light rail running through the City Branch as a North Philadelphia equivalent of today’s Subway-Surface Trolley Tunnel, but here in reality I recognize that the expense of restoring tracks on 29th Street and other major North Philly transit corridors is prohibitive, and this means that BRT options are much more likely, and I’m really fine with that.

But I’m worried. DVRPC has figured out, somewhat to its credit, that the expensive part of any below-grade transit project is the stations. (Or paying New York City prices.) But one of its proposals for how to deal with that expense when it comes to the City Branch is to basically turn the route into a giant roller coaster, rising up to street level for station stops before diving back down to the tunnel floor. If this makes no sense to you, you’re not alone. As Briggs himself put it later, “The DVRPC person I talked to had to explain it to me like four times before I really believed that she was seriously proposing that as a way of running the BRT line.” The necessity of repetition was not because Briggs is in any way unintelligent. My reaction to this report, is that I want to try out whatever hallucinogens have been slipped into the water on the 8th Floor of 190 N 6th St, because they’re obviously a lot of fun. Meanwhile, I don’t think building giant hills into our transit is exactly a winning cost-saving measure. Just… no.

The other idea they’re looking at makes much more sense, although it also has a ring of defeatism: not having any stations. Simply running express from Center City to 31st and Girard would be a recognition that this project is not about connecting to close-in tourist attractions along the Parkway, as the hoary appellation “Cultural Corridor BRT” implies. Instead, City Branch transit is about bringing farther out neighborhoods with poor transit service much closer to Center City. Take a look at this map excerpt from SEPTA’s Route 48, a high-ridership line that runs roughly parallel to the City Branch:

Route 48 through Fairmount
WHAT THE CRAP IS THIS

Route 48 runs 60-foot articulated buses. (They just started running shiny new hybrid-electric ones.) Do you think all those 90 degree turns through the narrow streets of Fairmount might slow down a bendy bus? Because if so, congratulations, you have an excellent grasp of reality. A reality that takes significant time out of the lives of the residents of northern Fairmount, Brewerytown, and Strawberry Mansion, every day. And because 29th Street is so far west, taking a crosstown bus or trolley to the Broad Street Line is often not a faster alternative for many 48 riders.

Route 32 map section
Route 32 is only slightly better.

Honestly, there exists no good option for surface transit to thread the needle between Eastern State Penitentiary and Girard College to the east, and the Art Museum and Fairmount Park to the west. The street grid is just too fractured and disjoint. By splitting Route 48 into an express route for Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown via the City Branch, and a local circulator for Fairmount on the surface, perhaps anchored at the Zoo, that can make transit a superior option and experience for both neighborhoods. Bringing Route 32 into the tunnel would also help that bus, which unlike Route 48 is poor-performing. The only thing I don’t like is separating the bus routes for Strawberry Mansion (predominantly black) and Brewerytown (gentrifying, but still majority black) from Fairmount (predominantly white), but after a lot of soul-searching and privilege-checking, I sincerely think that the split would benefit both, and that more of the benefits would accrue to the express riders, not the Greater Center City residents. People will object to the optics, regardless of the merits, but the real threat comes from keeping the everyday needs of poor and working-class Philadelphians, regardless of color, outside the sight of rich Philadelphians.

I think the equity argument, specifically the benefit gained from keeping the the city’s most and least privileged on the same vehicle, is one of the stronger arguments in favor of having mid-line stations, or even just one mid-line station, on a City Branch busway, at the bare minimum. I would recommend 23rd/Pennsylvania/Spring Garden/Eakins Oval as the priority, for access to the Art Museum and connections to Route 43, but I think I can easily be talked into an alternate location if presented with a good case.

But even if nobody can rummage around in the couch cushions hard enough to fund stairs, elevators, and platforms in the City Branch tunnel, which once saw 4-6 tracks and coal-burning locomotives, it’s still worth building, for mobility’s — and equity’s — sake.

An open letter to City Council, concerning MonkeyParking

To the Honorable Seventeen Paintmunching Knaves, Long May You Reign.

It has come to our attention that one among you, the Honorable William Greenlee (D-At Large), who has done the previously-thought impossible and distinguished himself from your ranks by his sheer dumbfuckery, has discovered the internet sufficiently to have heard of MonkeyParking. MonkeyParking is a smartphone app that proposes to monetize parking by facilitating payments from people who want to park cars in places, to the people who currently are parked there. Councillor Greenlee, who is as afraid of this as he is of anything else that might be termed “new”, wants to make it illegal in the City of Philadelphia. Much like a stopped clock twice a day, he’s right. This app is disgusting.

Of course, none of you are going to realize on your own that the only reason this app exists, is because our parking meter and residential parking permit rates are way the fuck too low. The existence of shit like MonkeyParking is the symptom, not the disease. So, let’s all review the basics of parking:

If there isn’t available parking for everyone, when and (about) where they need it, the price of parking is too low.

If there are lots of empty spaces, the price of parking is too high.

Free parking is fucking expensive… for you.

If people are willing to pay (more) money for parking, they are willing to pay that money to the City.

The way you collect the money people are willing to pay, is through meters and residential permits.

You Like Money.

YOU LIKE MONEY. MONEY IS GOOD.

(I can’t believe I have to remind you of that part so strongly, but… you’re really fucking bad at remembering it.)

So get on the stick, and jack up our low meter rates and pathetic permit rates already. You can even say with a straight face that it’s For The Schools, although it’s pretty clear that next to nobody would care one way or the other between the money going to feeding starving orphans, or Blackjack and Hookers. The point is people want to pay money so they can park their cars, and we should take their money. Don’t even bother outlawing MonkeyParking. Just stop enabling their business model through shitty policy, you chucklefucks.

My usual No Love,

-Michael Noda
-Sic Transit Philadelphia

Strike update: TWU signals no strike Monday, will play the uncertainty game

WHYY/Newsworks is reporting that TWU Local 234 will not strike against SEPTA immediately after its strike authorization vote on Sunday. Union local president Willie Brown will instead launch TWU’s PR campaign at a press conference Monday afternoon, attempting to convince a skeptical public why TWU is justified in walking off the job for the first time in six years. WHYY reports that TWU will not walk off the job before that press conference

There is nothing holding TWU to not walking out Monday night, should it vote to authorize a strike on Sunday. In fact, there is nothing that holds it to the word of the anonymous sources of WHYY’s story. But there are two major reasons to think that the story will prove accurate. One is that it would be a very odd thing for the union to miscommunicate to or burn a journalist so flagrantly. The other is an analysis of the union’s rational self-interest. The union creates minor disruption every day it could strike but does not, while suffering none of the legal or financial consequences of an actual strike action. On the other hand, if they walk out now, they risk alienating what little remains of its public sympathy, even in the pro-labor political environment of Philadelphia. SEPTA management is credited with a renaissance at the transit agency, and TWU still bears the black reputation of the many strikes it waged against SEPTA in the 1990s and 2000s. TWU is simply holding a weak hand, and needs to draw better support before a showdown with SEPTA. Good luck to them, I suppose. They’ll need it.

STRIKE WARNING: SEPTA City and Suburban Transit Divisions (TWU 234)

After working without a contract since April, Transport Workers Union Local 234 has called a strike authorization vote for 3:00 PM this Sunday, October 26th.  If it passes, and there is no reason to suspect that it will not, a strike may occur at any time afterwards.  This will be the first TWU 234 strike since October-November, 2009, and the second SEPTA strike overall this year, after the 24-hour Regional Rail strike in June.  In 2009, TWU maximized disruption by postponing the walkout for a few days after the strike vote, and then striking immediately after the World Series left town.

In the event of a strike, all bus, subway, and trolley service will be suspended.  Regional Rail service will still continue, as BLET and IBEW (the unions that struck last June) have agreed to contract terms with SEPTA.  (This removed the leverage that came from threatening a simultaneous strike of all divisions, possibly precipitating TWU’s move to an authorization vote.)  Other providers such as PATCO, Amtrak, and NJ Transit will be unaffected.

SEPTA management has finally given its standard signal of expecting a transit strike, and is preparing for massive crowds at Center City Regional Rail stations.

Keep an eye or ear on local news media beginning Sunday night, as SEPTA transit service may run or not run on very little notice, and prepare alternative travel arrangements accordingly.

Platform Screen Doors NOW

The new hotness today comes from the unlikely place of the office of City Councillor David Oh (R-At Large), who told free-tabloid Metro yesterday that South Korean company TIS Inc. wants to install platform screen doors on the Market-Frankford and Broad Street Lines.

Platform screen doors (PSDs) are an old and mature safety technology in Asia and Europe, but they have yet to see a major deployment in the United States, apart from a handful of airport circulators and the Las Vegas Monorail.  (The Honolulu Metro, under construction, will open with them in 2017.)  They often go hand-in-hand with driverless systems, since PSDs require a signaling system that can stop the train in exactly the same spot (to within an inch or two) every single time, and also remove the possibility of a person falling, jumping, or being pushed onto the tracks, which removes the necessity of having a person watching out to apply a (probably futile) emergency brake.  In addition to the obvious and well-promoted safety features, PSDs also keep trash and detritus off the tracks, which SEPTA would otherwise have to remove during the off-hours, or risk having it become fuel for a third-rail-sparked track fire.  In addition to the increases in reliability, PSDs also allow for more aggressive train-handling, which shaves time off of the schedule and makes everyone’s trip faster.

TIS’s pitch to SEPTA is that they will install PSDs on SEPTA’s platforms gratis, in exchange for the right to sell advertising on the doors to recoup their investment.  If this is true, even in broad outlines, then SEPTA should be looking to sign on the dotted line as fast as it can find a pen.  Because if subway frequencies are uncoupled from labor costs, then SEPTA can run trains as frequently as the signal system permits, throughout the service day.  Other writers, including Jarrett Walker and Emily Washington, have delved into the link between driverless operation, high frequency (especially high off-peak frequency), and higher ridership, but suffice it to say that having a train that shows up every 5 minutes or less is pretty much the ideal scenario for transit.  And if TIS weren’t offering to foot the bill, and there weren’t a slew of other things SEPTA needed to take care of before they break (trolleys, trains, bridges and viaducts, substations), I’d rank PSD installation as a strong candidate for #1 Capital Budget Priority.

The devil, of course, will be in the details.  The signal systems on the Subway and El might need upgrades to be compatible with automated operation, as might the control systems on board the M-4 and B-IV fleets.  There is also the slim chance that the system turns out to be buggy or just a lemon, like the CBTC system installed by AdTranz in the Subway-Surface tunnel years ago.  If that happens, which is unlikely, but possible, SEPTA would need an exit clause to tear out or replace the PSDs, without getting sued for TIS’s expected revenue from future advertisements.  Speaking of advertisements, some people will hate them, but they’re for a good cause, and are hardly as disruptive as renaming an entire station.

TWU 234 will also be a stumbling block, insofar as they can be expected to object to anything that is potentially the first step to automating any of their members out of a job.  However, automation, even driverless operation in daily service, does not mean the elimination of all train driver positions.  For example: trips in, out, and within train yards are typically always handled by humans.  Also, TWU leadership might want to talk to veteran operators among their rank-and-file about the psychological toll of being at the controls of a train involved in a passenger fatality incident.  Mostly, it will be worth whatever fight SEPTA and its riders have to wage with the TWU, to get to driverless operation. I hope it won’t require much of a fight, but if it should even precipitate a strike, so be it.  PSDs are the best improvement SEPTA can make for itself, its workers, and (most importantly), the public it serves.