Friday, January 18, 2008

A Drinker-Friendly Port Authority

Yes, the drink tax is a bit controversial:
It all adds up to one prediction: these taxes will not last longer than Onorato's term, whether it ends in 2011 or he leaves early to run for Senate or Governor. The focal point of anybody getting his job will be repealing this tax. So Port Authority better use this money while it lasts to improve ridership.

How can it do that? Well, maybe by catering more to the drinkers that will now be funding it!

Some current reasons why drinkers should ride the bus now:
  • Don't have to find a parking space on the South Side!
  • Drink up! You aren't driving!
  • Low floor buses, so no difficult steps to stumble up!
  • You don't have to tip the driver!
Ok, but there's plenty of reasons drinkers would not ride a bus after a night on the town. I have a few suggestions to alleviate those problems by looking at the 54C, the route that connects the colleges and the bars on the South Side:
  • Friday schedules. Right now, buses have separate Monday-Friday, Saturday, and Sunday/Holiday schedules. This does not make sense for buses that would be used by bar goers, since Friday buses to the South Side and the Strip would be more popular due to the weekend. Port Authority knows this, since the 54C route runs much later on Saturdays (Leaving South Side for Oakland, last bus is 12:49a M-F, 2:24a Saturday.) Instead of adding more trips to every weeknight, how about adding them just to Friday nights when they'll be busier? It might even allow for small curtails of service of other nights.
  • Move last bus closer to last call. Staying at the bar until they kick you out on a Friday night? Sorry, the last bus left 70 minutes ago. And on Saturday? There's just one departure, at 2:24a. Yep, waiting on East Carson Street at 2:00am for 20 minutes.
  • Run short trips for partygoers. Hey, I don't know when the 54C is crowded, but my guess is that between the Strip and the South Side it's way more popular than when it continues to the North Side or Bon Air. On weekends, reduce the length of the route from 1hr to 30min for some trips by making the popular spots of the Strip and South Side as turnaround points. This would allow for some more frequent service.
  • Bus info at shelters. These people will be new riders, unfamiliar with the system. Everyone constantly makes calls for schedules and maps at shelters. A 2005 City Paper article showed some of the issues, including the fact that Port Authority does not own the shelters. Perhaps publicizing the number for Let's Go on Bus Stop signs would do the trick?
  • Deals with local establishments. Ok, this is not going to happen easily now that the drink tax has made the Port Authority the enemy of bar owners. But hopefully some would be willing to keep some schedules and passes on hand to give to patrons wanting to save on cab fare.
A lot of these ideas may sound like the UltraViolet Loop bus that ended in 2004 due to lack of funding. According to this old schedule, when was the last run from South Side to Oakland? 3:09am. Damn. According to this City Paper report, the bus had a lot of overlap with the 54C and really wasn't too popular until after midnight. It also ran year-round, when a seasonal service might have helped save money during summer break for colleges.

I think that by adding some later trips with a bit more frequency on Friday and Saturday nights could help bar goers swallow the tax a bit more easily. Of course, there probably are other areas that increases in bus services on weekends could help, but I'm only one man Port Authority. Figure those out for yourself.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Pittsburgh Transit Blog Roundup

Time again to check out what my fellow bloggers have to say...

Amtrak in Pittsburgh and The Amazing Chris Guenzler

If you live in Pittsburgh, you might never think about taking a train. Yes, there still are Amtrak trains that serve Pittsburgh. Two departures and two arrivals daily:

Pennsylvanian to Philadelphia and New York
Capitol Limited to Chicago or Washington D.C.

Sounds pretty useful, right? Maybe not. The Pennsylvanian leaves once a day at 7:20am to get to Philadelphia by 3:25pm and NYC by 4:54pm. And that's if it's on time. The railroad from Pittsburgh to Harrisburg is not owned by Amtrak, so freight trains hundreds of cars long can slow down the route. And going to D.C.? Train leaves at 5:45am to get there at 1:30pm. Going the other way to Chicago means an 11:55pm departure to get there at 8:40am. According to Amtrak, last night's train departed at 1:03am. and arrived 25 minutes late, probably due to the same concerns over freight.

But even with its delays and longer travel times, there's something alluring about rail. Maybe its the history. Maybe it's the enormity. Maybe it's a link between old and new. Whatever it is, railfans make a hobby out of spotting, photographing, and collecting everything there is to know about trains.

Chris Guenzler takes it one step further. He has ridden every mile of Amtrak at least twice. Including historic trains and commuter rail, he has totaled over 1,000,000 miles. He rides one train by his home out and back nightly. He has kept track of every train he rides and keeps a box in his room of timetables and tickets from his travels. His website includes pictures and stories of every trip he's made. What cars were on the train, what he ate, what he listened to, everything.

The stories also tell of Chris's other obsession. A story from 1993 tells of Chris being thrown off of the train in New Orleans due to drunkenness. Experiences like that one led Chris to go sober in 1995 and use his train riding as a way to stay on the wagon.

It's really an amazing story for those who love alternative transportation, and his travelogues are concise but interesting journeys of America and beyond. His stories might even make you get up early to catch that 5:45am train to D.C.

Here's to the railfans! [raises a Coca-Cola in the air]

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Lets Go! Automated Bus Information System

Many may not know about Let's Go!, an automated system developed at the Language Technologies Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. The system, which received federal funding in 2002 and first went online in 2005, offers bus information for Pittsburgh via an automated voice recognition system. It's a really useful system, and I'm going explain some of its quirks here.

First of all, you can reach the system 24 hours a day by calling 412-268-3526. Please note that busy signals sometimes occur. Calling the main Port Authority phone number (412-442-2000) after hours will also transfer you to the system.

According to the system, only the following routes are available:

28X, 54C, 56U, 59U, 61A, 61B, 61C, 61D, 61F, 64A, 69A, 501 (which was eliminated last June)

I'm skeptical of that list, which is also given by the Port Authority when it refers you to the system. I have been able to get information on 71A, 71C, 71D, and the 500. I even received information about the 77F.

To try it out, give a call. It'll ask "What can I do for you?" Answer by saying where you are and where'd you like to go, or what bus you'd like to take. All of the following questions work:
  • I'd like to go from Oakland to the Pittsburgh Zoo.
  • I'd like to go from Oakland to the Airport.
  • I'd like to go from Forbes and Morewood to Murray and Forward.
  • When's the next 61C?
Most will be followed by questions, such as "Where are you leaving from?" "Where are you going?" and "When would you like to go?" A wide variety of answers work, whether they are intersections or neighborhoods. You can also say any time you'd like to depart, whether it is tonight at 9pm or Thursday at 11:30am. Asking about Saturdays and Sundays does give you information according to those schedules, but I have not tested Holidays. And it understands you saying "NOW!" by responding "I think you want the next bus. Is that right?"

Sometimes you have to repeat yourself. Sometimes it even seems to get something right and then asks again. Some tips for avoiding this are to speak clearly and concisely. If you don't understand what it is saying, say "What?" and it will repeat itself more slowly. Say "Start A New Query" when it goes down the wrong path.

Another problem is that your origin and destination must be on one route. This means the system does not handle transfers. It also does not handle walking: a query for Fifth and Morewood to Squirrel Hill came up with no options. The correct answer would have been to walk one block on Morewood Avenue to Forbes Avenue, where the buses go to Squirrel Hill. So you have to have some knowledge of the system before calling, unlike Google Transit which figures out walking and transfers for you.

Even with its problems, the system is very useful, and a great number to put into your phone when Google Transit isn't handy. It's great to see the Port Authority use the talent of a local university to help their customers. Please note that the information is from schedules, and does not adjust for weather, traffic conditions or detours.

Another system also developed at CMU is MyCMUBus, which has a better number (1-866-MYCMUBUS) but only offers information for buses between Oakland, Carnegie Mellon University, and Squirrel Hill. It has limited use, but if you take a 61C between Oakland and Squirrel Hill you'll see it's a large constituent of riders.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

A New Year (And More 28X Service!)

Hello there. Once again, sorry for the lack of posts over the holiday. I have a lot of posts on tap for the new year, including:
And of course late-breaking news on transit here in Pittsburgh and around the world as it happens.

- Post-Gazette reports on the triple whammy that took affect Jan. 1st: more money for buses, drinks, and rental cars. You know, talking to friends, I'm starting to worry that a tax that people encounter often like a drink tax may turn some off to supporting public transit. I hope I'm wrong.

- On a small note, more 28X service has been added again for returning Pitt and CMU students. And Port Authority put the times online in a PDF this time! Progress!