Looking back, looking ahead: New Year’s roundup 2015

In the last night of the year, five things we’ll remember from 2014:

  1. The year of citizen action.  I have to admit, I wasn’t expecting much when Conrad Benner launched a change.org petition to get SEPTA to run the subways overnight.  But it worked, and now another petition has sparked progress on a second front, in Wilmington.  Can we look forward to more petitions working in 2015?  If the trend of well-informed riders asking for achievable, concrete, inexpensive improvements continues, then yes.  And we’ll keep you posted.
  2. Bridges needing fixing.  A once-in-a-generation maintenance project on the Ben Franklin Bridge has made this an annus horribilis for PATCO riders, but after the major work wrapped in the fall, it faded into the background noise of commuter complaints.  A much bigger splash was made by the I-495 bridge, and only by the grace of higher powers did that not end with a literal splash into the Christina River.  The traffic snarls around Wilmington started out on epic scale, but soon enough people found other ways to get around the closed bridge.  And when the bridge reopened before Labor Day, it was a reminder that, in an emergency, when you don’t have to worry about keeping traffic open, work can get done very quickly.  Something to keep in mind, or look forward to, as SEPTA prepares to replace the Crum Creek Viaduct.
  3. Communication über alles.  PATCO’s troubles finally forced it to copy SEPTA and start monitoring and responding to people on its official Twitter account.  (For the first day or so, whoever was working that desk was the unluckiest schmo in South Jersey.)  In the modern world, this kind of real-time interaction with customer service is a requirement, not an option.  (Hint, hint, NJT, hint, DART.)  SEPTA’s successful app for iOS was joined this year by a counterpart for Android, but its copious APIs continue to put SEPTA in a clear technical lead over peer agencies.
  4. Labor brinksmanship.  In the fractious relationships SEPTA has with its unions, the one thing we all thought we could count on was Regional Rail needing a very long lead time before a strike.  SEPTA turned that axiom on its head by deliberately provoking a work stoppage from the BLET and IBEW.  The first Regional Rail strike since the big one in 1983 only lasted 24 hours before President Obama could intervene.  That assertiveness set the tone for the protracted negotiations and mutual threats between SEPTA and its largest union, TWU 234, whose contracts expired in March and April.  TWU wouldn’t get a new contract until late in the night on Halloween, and it mostly just kicked the can down the road to 2016.
  5. Bringing the word to where people live.  Dear well-off suburbanites: If you drive through communities of the oppressed, you should be prepared to hear from them.  Just saying.

And five things to look forward to in the new year.

  1. SEPTA Key.  The future of fare payment is coming, and in addition to convenience, it’s going to open up a treasure trove of data about how people use SEPTA, and how to adapt the system to the riders’ needs.  Mmmm, data.
  2. PHL Bike Share.  It’s late, it still doesn’t have a sponsor, but when it comes, it’s still going to be a revolution in how we make short trips around town.  Spring can’t get here soon enough.
  3. The Papal Meltdown.  Not all of the news is going to be good.  When Pope Francis visits in September, the crowds on the Parkway are being predicted for the 1 million-2 million range.  That will overtax every road and every transit resource in the area.  Remember the 2008 Phillies parade and Live 8?   His Holiness is going to be even bigger.  Hope the planners are already crunching numbers to minimize the amount of agony going around.
  4. Don’t mourn, organize.  The 2015 municipal election cycle will provide a lot of good fodder for discussion.  For instance: the 22nd Street bike lane needs to happen, and Bill Greenlee needs to either stop resisting it or stop being in a position to resist it.  I’m not saying that Greenlee doesn’t know that a bike lane will save lives, and is insanely popular in his neighborhood.  I’m just saying he hasn’t done anything that would suggest that he cares.  Even if Greenlee wins re-election, Darrell Clarke, may find it necessary to throw Greenlee’s pro-motor-vehicle fetish under the (metaphorical) bus to preserve Clarke’s own chances of ever being elected mayor.  Good luck, everybody!
  5. Shiny new things with wheels.  SEPTA’s Rebuilding For The Future program and ongoing Amtrak equipment orders will mean lots of new, unfamiliar shapes will be in and around Philadelphia.  Although some of the new orders, like the SuperNova buses and the Viewliner II baggage cars, have already made their first appearances, many equipment orders will be either fulfilled or placed in 2015.  But while the railfans and busfans will have their fun, the real joy will accrue to the the riders, who will get faster, more comfortable, and/or more reliable rides out of all the new equipment.

It’s been a pleasure writing for you all this year.  See you in 2015!

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Whose roads? Our roads! An introduction to American highway blockade

As the country recoiled Monday night from the injustice of the non-indictment in Ferguson, something genuinely new happened. At first, here in Philadelphia, it was like any other of the sickeningly familiar outpourings of grief and anger that have motivated people into the streets before, with a large mass of people starting at City Hall and parading through the major streets of Center City: Broad, Market, South, Arch.

But then, as the marchers reached Old City, the protestors advanced onto an on-ramp to I-95, forcing Philadelphia Police to throw up a barricade at the top of the ramp. There is a large tangle of ramps in that area connecting local streets to I-95, I-676, and the Ben Franklin Bridge, so there were plenty of access points, but the PPD successfully managed to keep the protestors off the highway mainlines. This in contrast to what happened simultaneously in St. Louis, where protesters shut down I-44; New York, where marchers shut down the Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Triboro bridges; Seattle, where demonstrators shut down I-5; and Los Angeles, where I-10 and CA-110 were both shut down.

By the time dusk fell over America Tuesday night, the practice of invading or attempting to invade limited-access highways, had spread to protests in dozens of cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Dallas, Detroit, Durham, Minneapolis, Nashville, Oakland, Providence, Portland, and San Diego, to list the ones I could find news stories about in three minutes of Googling.

Blocking highways is a rarity in the arsenal of political protest in the United States, although it is more common in countries like France, and has played a critical part in the Occupy Central protests this year in Hong Kong. The experience from abroad shows that highway blockades are very effective at getting attention and achieving change. And now that it’s suddenly a nationwide phenomenon here, people are trying to wrap their heads around what it means.

The first thing to say is to reiterate a point Stephen J. Smith made on Twitter Tuesday night: “Reminder to urbanists watching highways being shut down: sometimes it’s not about you.” Nothing that follows should diminish the fact that the protests of the last two nights have been primarily about systemic racism, excessive force by police, and a judicial system rigged (with the consent of STL County voters) to make sure that Officer Darrell Wilson and those like him escape accountability for their actions. Those are important things, and it’s critical to not lose sight of them.

But sometimes, it’s about more than one thing, and there has to be a strong suspicion that this has become such a widespread tactic because of the resonances it holds with the particular case. Michael Brown was on foot, Officer Wilson was in a patrol car, and their initial encounter was a conflict over the extent to which the street is a public space. While walkable cities are certainly not immune to racism or high-handed policing, the particular sins of the Ferguson Police after the shooting seem alien to anyone whose mental model of bad, racist police comes from the NYPD, or even the LAPD. Charles Marohn’s article from August, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, points out that Ferguson is a town that is architected around the car, in a way that is guaranteed to immiserate its residents and turn its government against them. And in general, the message that things need to change seems to be more urgently directed at suburban drivers than urbanites, and the easiest way for urban residents to get that message in front of their faces is when they’re in their cars. The highway, unlike their homes in driving-only suburbs, is accessible.

The backlash has already started, at least if the comment section cesspools of local newspapers and TV stations are any indication, but backlash strongly implies that the strength of the protestors’ distress is coming through. In one incident, a driver in Minneapolis plowed through a crowd (on local streets), and there are already calls for that particular act of terrorism to be repeated. The thesis being presented, is that the ability of car traffic to flow freely is more important than any exercise of the freedoms of speech or assembly. (This is a related fallacy to the Ferguson PD’s assertion that, much as a shark must keep swimming to survive, the First Amendment stops working for anyone standing still.) I don’t know whether it’s my American identity or my humanity that recoils more at this sort of bullshit, but I do know that it should be strenuously fought, until a clear consensus has been established that this kind of thinking is immoral and vile. You’d think that this would go without saying, but apparently we aren’t there yet as a society.

So, going forward, what should aspiring blockaders keep in mind? A few things, starting with the fact that it is a hazardous action, even before considering those who would deliberately ram you. All of the successful incursions I’ve read about have also involved a handful of arrests. It’s more effective to set up a preliminary blockade with vehicles first, and then move pedestrians into the empty zone in front. A moving blockade, where a line of cars across all lanes slow down to 20 mph or so, might be more achievable at times like rush hour, but requires more in the way of pre-planning and co-ordination. And lastly, it’s not necessary to actually reach the road; if you simply force the police to close the road, or all of the ramps to local streets in the inner core, in order to contain your credible threat of incursion, that’s as good as blocking it yourself. I’m sure other tactical suggestions will surface in comments.

As I wrote on Twitter Monday night, this is a new reality in America, and I’m sure that, as a society, like with all new things, we will deal with its arrival very badly. But the genie is out of the bottle now, and even if we were inclined to put it back in, which we shouldn’t be, we couldn’t.

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.

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

Weekly Roundup: Pay as you enter, IBEW settles, police body cams, Greenlee may be a fool, and Previdi definitely is

Another edition brought to you by the World’s Worst Blogger:

  • In the end of an era, SEPTA has announced that, beginning on September 1, pay-as-you-leave will be abolished on the Suburban Transit routes out of 69th Street Terminal where it is currently the rule. This will standardize the entire SEPTA transit system on the more logical and familiar pay-as-you-enter rule, ostensibly in preparation for NPT. One hopes that it will be the precursor to other steps to bring further sanity to SEPTA’s fare system. Dare we suggest abolishing the $1 transfer fee and adjusting the base fare to compensate in 2016? We can recapture the efficiencies of open boarding at 69th Street while retaining the simplicity and sense of pay-as-you-enter by putting bus and trolley boarding areas at 69th Street inside the faregates. Think on it, SEPTA!
  • A SEPTA electrical worker participating in the Trolley Tunnel Blitz apparently misjudged the distance to the adjacent active MFL tracks, and was struck by an El train in the tunnel at 22nd Street Monday afternoon. The worker, who was rushed to Hahnemann University Hopsital with injuries to the head and knee, is expected to recover soon; the Monday evening rush hour, already disrupted by the Trolley Blitz, was snarled by an El shutdown, followed by single tracking around the accident site.
  • Speaking of SEPTA electrical workers, the IBEW local representing Regional Rail workers reached a tentative contract agreement with management yesterday. IBEW was one of the two unions that staged a 24-hour-long strike this past June; the other union, representing Regional Rail’s engineers, is still in talks, and is making pessimistic statements.
  • The eyes of the world are riveted on the absolute failure of policing in Ferguson, MO, where riots and police riots have ensued after the fatal shooting of a unarmed young man by police officer. The body camera that could have told us much about that initial encounter, instead reportedly sat in a box in Ferguson PD headquarters, as North St. Louis County police officers, like many around the country, are resistant to adopting them. Meanwhile, in a display of what policing should look like, SEPTA Police Chief Thomas Nestel thinks body cameras are the awesomest thing ever, and cannot wait until all of his officers are wearing one. Kudos, Chief!
  • The #SEPTAWILM petition is still going, having passed the 1,500 signature mark last night. And as petition starter David Curtis notes, the riders and potential riders already know that expanding off-peak Wilmington service is of mutual benefit to both Delaware and Pennsylvania: the ratio of petition signers from DE to petition signers from PA is less than 1.02:1.
  • As if the ongoing ad blitz and the swirling rumors of an imminent naming rights deal with Verizon for Suburban Station weren’t enough, Verizon’s archrival Comcast has found the name of its headquarters scrubbed from SEPTA signage throughout the concourse.
  • An extension of the 22nd Street Bike Lane from Spring Garden to Fairmount is being held up because Councilman Bill Greenlee’s office is afraid of numbers. Actually, maybe not, but that’s one of the more charitable interpretations. The space on the pavement for the bike lane is there, and it’s not taking away a legal car travel lane, just an unmarked, illegal, car travel lane.
  • Bob Previdi needs to shut up forever. The way to bring Amtrak into Suburban Station (and Market East!) already exists, and it’s called the free transfer onto SEPTA Regional Rail (Ctrl+F “Amtrak”). Quit trying to spend scarce money to fix something that isn’t broke, and especially don’t waste money trying to do something in hardware that is best taken care of in software.

SEPTA Regional Rail strikers ordered to return to work tomorrow

And just like that, it was over.

President Obama has created a Presidential Emergency Board to intervene in the strike by engineers and electricians at SEPTA Regional Rail, which forces both sides back to the negotiating table and forces the strike to be called off for the next 240 days. As the order is timestamped at 12:01 AM tonight, that will delay any further strike action until February 10, 2015.

While it is faintly possible that there will be lingering disruption as service resumes, service should be normal tomorrow morning.