Saturday, October 25, 2008

And nobody wearing a three-piece suit

Jonathan Richman, a musician who inspires adoration in even the hardest of hearts, has a wonderful ditty on his album Jonathan Goes Country called "You're Crazy for Taking the Bus."
The song masterfully sums up the bias one encounters when telling friends about taking the Greyhound, that much maligned transportation option of last resort for many, with lines like,
Modern Lovers (his band): You're crazy for taking the bus!
Jonathan: Well, I'm crazy then, so, what's the fuss?
ML: Two whole days on that stinking bus!
J: Yeah, and I sleep fine
You take the plane, and I'll take the bus this time
I'm with Jonathan on this one. I'm a regular Greyhound rider, and it's a damn shame their system is so outdated and inefficient that lots of estadounidenses consider it unusable.
Illustrative anecdote: we're going up to the bay area next weekend to enjoy the Flaming Lips' new movie, Christmas on Mars, with friends on Halloween (side note: oh, yeah! You bet your ass I'll be costumed). My dear good friend is driving us up there, but we're going to take the bus back. Having discovered last year that it is extremely unwise to take the Greyhound from the station in Skid Row because it stops a few more times in the city before actually hitting the freeway, I was trying to find out how close the North Hollywood Metro stop is to the Greyhound station there. The two are just a few blocks apart, as it turns out.
While using Google Maps to search for the stations, a Yelp entry on the North Hollywood Greyhound station showed up, and, ignoring my brain's pleas to stay away from that seething pit of exhibitionist ignorance, I clicked. And I discovered that multiple idiots made posts (with humorous intent, no less!) about how the people on the Greyhound, including the drivers, are smelly jerks.
Now I'm not into smelling other people, don't get me wrong, but I think bashing those who are forced (that's right, they probably don't have other options) to use this bus system, I'll just say it, using Yelp to bash poor people, is absolutely disgusting.
If you get on the Greyhound and expect to encounter stockbrokers, models, and whatever other glamorous professionals, you will be sorely disappointed. It's a (relatively) cheap way to get around, and you may have to interact with (or even sit next to! gasp!) poor people. So I'd say you should prep yourself for that and enjoy the human beings around you instead of using Yelp to display how much better you think you are than the gross, stinky bodies on the Greyhound.
Adding to the jerkstorm, Bobby discovered that right now when you do a Google search for Greyhound the autofill suggestions all involve the tragic incident in Canada that happened this summer. I'm sure that just confirmed people's assumptions about how awful the bus is.
Around the time of that incident, I took a Greyhound from DC to Atlanta, and again from Atlanta to Chicago. The highlight of the first trip was when our bus broke down in South Carolina and I spent two hours at a truck stop. Check out this gem of a t-shirt message I found there:

Now that's social commentary!

The highlight of the second trip was hanging out in the Indianapolis station at 3 am. I'm not being sarcastic here, I do consider these unpalatable inconveniences on the Greyhound valuable experiences (even if at the time I'm not so appreciative).
Anybody who is content to feel contemptuously toward the "undesirables" of the U.S. shouldn't take the Greyhound, but anybody who is interested in finding out about the lives of many, many estadounidenses should take a ride sometime. Many riders I've encountered are embarrassed to be on the bus, let's not make it worse for all of us by perpetuating this ridiculous bias.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Loud, Atmospheric Talker Broadcasts Backwardly Aboard Train

Riding down from LA to Santa Ana last week, I overheard some silly chatter on an Amtrak train. Seated somewhere behind me was a raspy voiced man speaking loudly in a regional accent about the thrills of Branson, Missouri, and I think some kind of country music festival there. He assured the man he'd accosted and started barking at that this theme park in Branson called Silver Dollar City was a real good time. I enjoyed listening to this talk, I liked the way his voice sounded when he said "Silver Dollar City," and I continued listening when the man started discussing Brazil with another neighbor who happened to be Brazilian. Silver Dollar City has a friend in Brazil, it turns out, a man who "ran from the law" some years ago and has acquired millions down south. Hmm. Slowly the conversation turned to the quality of the Brazilian's English. Silver Dollar City complimented him on it; you see, the first thing the outlaw had done when he landed in Brazil was take lessons in Portuguese. And really, thought Silver Dollar City aloud, you must learn the language of the country you're living in. Here you find lots of people who don't learn English, Silver Dollar City kept on, and that's somehow annoying to him.
Personally I find it annoying when ignorant folks loudly broadcast their narrow views in public spaces, but I decided not to confront Silver Dollar City on it.
Meanwhile, a little old lady had settled herself next to me. I didn't think much about her until a train attendant came by and reminded me that Santa Ana was the next stop. Taking this as an entré to conversation, the little old lady started telling me in Spanish about her visit to Orange County to see family. She has a little spread in Cuernavaca, and was on her way back down. She was happy to share this information with me, and I did my best to understand her fluent remarks. Leaving my seat, I wished her the best, and with a final "adios" I looked pointedly at Silver Dollar City and headed away.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Wildfire Season is Upon Us

The Santa Anas are blowing, the fires are growing, and I'm trying to remember that I'm a grown up now. Ever since I was a kid the fall wildfires here have terrified me, the apocalyptic coverage in media and the red glow on the horizon were enough to convince me that I would burn up the next time I heard a firetruck blare its siren. Good thing I don't live in one of the outlying subdivisions that put themselves in harm's way.
My neighborhood got a kick in the face last week when someone or several people doused a homeless man in gasoline and set him on fire. This man, who Bobby and I had seen several times since we moved to K-Town, had been living on his corner for about ten years. What lurks behind the busy façades of the apartment buildings in my neighborhood? What is happening that would cause this horrible act? Figuratively this incident shows the deadliness of cars (the assailants drove up and got away in a car, plus there's the gasoline factor) and the forbidden nature of our streets. Use the street, risk death, the murderers proclaim.
I am so sorry that this individual inspires more emotion in me now that he is dead than when he was alive. I did not give him anything when we walked by, all I did was mentally note his huge, swollen, bare, dirty feet, and wonder why he didn't have shoes on. I also remarked on his smell. The inhumanity of this crime inspires guilt in all those who come upon it, and that's why I'm writing out this inventory of my own thoughts.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Pleasant Surprises at UC Irvine

More and more often I find that people I might have dismissed as uninterested in bicycling and transit lifestyles are actually intrigued to hear about my work.
Last night I met the other participants in a community-based research workshop I'm enrolled in, and after listening to all their project descriptions I felt a bit defensive about my project with the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition (LACBC). Most projects involved social justice activism for the poor in OC and LA, and I wondered what my colleagues would think of my work in bicycle activism. After all, bicycling does get associated with the bourgeois classes in some cases; for instance there was a long discussion on this spring where many bicyclists responded to dismissal of their activity as privileged and out of reach to the poor (tried to link to it, but it didn't work).
Of course, the whole reason I am focusing on sustainable transportation is that I firmly believe that our mobility (or lack thereof) plays a huge role in our lives, affecting every other area. It is a concern for social justice that drives me to advocate for better streets for pedestrians and bicyclists. But I know that this doesn't hit the same empathy chords that working with homeless mothers does.
Here's the first pleasant surprise: several people in the room were bicyclists, and everyone seemed interested in my project.
Further surprises: Today I visited the Parking and Transportation office at UC Irvine, intending to find out why there aren't bike route signs between the Irvine train station and the campus, why there isn't a shuttle to that train station, etc. Guess what, they've got four (!) employees working on alternative transportation. I spoke with one guy for a while about the obvious commitment Irvine has to bicycling, even if there are still gaps in making the city an easy ride for commuters versus recreational cyclists. Then we swapped specs on folding bikes, as he's considering getting a Citizen for super cheap, like a third of the price I paid for the Loose Goose (which is a Dahon Speed). UCI also has a bicycle advisory group. And there's an OC bicycle coalition. As for the Irvine train station, they do not have a shuttle in place but there are two zero emission vehicles parked there for use by the university. They were put in place by some experimental lab here. It sounds like they don't have the logistics for these vehicles figured out, like who would get to use them, but I'm impressed anyway. Looks like it's leads city for this little investigator!
Last surprise: Strida folding bikes are much cheaper in Korea. I saw one in the, er, flesh today in the UCI bookstore, and its owner told me he paid about $400 for it in Korea. Here there over $800. He is quite happy with his orange triangle.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

OCTA's Inconsistency

My commute via train has been largely enabled by the establishment of Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA) route 473, which runs between UC Irvine and the Tustin Metrolink station. My morning commute works wonderfully: the train drops me and the bus scoops me up. I've never had to wait for the bus in the morning, it's always waiting when I get to the station.
The afternoons have been a bit different. For some reason the buses do not leave UCI on schedule, arriving and departing willy nilly. Today I called OCTA up after I'd waited until 4:07 pm for a bus due at 3:55 pm. I'd been waiting at the stop since 3:45 pm, so it probably didn't sneak past me. Using my patented friendly, "I'm confused" approach, I asked if perhaps the posted schedule was inaccurate. No, the nice lady on the other end of the line assured me, the schedule was correct; she would check with the dispatcher.
A few moments later she informed me that the bus had left on time, but they could not get the driver to pick up the radio. AWOL bus? Little explanation was given for why or how a dispatch center could lose contact with a driver. It reminded me of the news I read recently about the pilots falling asleep over Hawaii. They were also difficult to contact.
Lo, directly after I said goodbye to OCTA, there came little 473 along curvy Campus Drive. I asked the driver if he was driving the 3:55 pm bus or the next scheduled bus. And there the intrigue began, at 4:11 pm!
The driver disagreed with the dispatch account, claiming that he left the yard late because they did not have a bus for him to drive. He said that "the window" had lied to me, and that they had "more work than drivers." Leaving aside the question of why they would have to search for a bus if there was a shortage of drivers (and not buses), he was very polite and I find this scenario quite believable.
So who do I trust? The customer service line or an unusually composed driver?

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Cars Make Strangers Hate Each Other

In case you didn't notice, driving (especially in So Cal?) turns the nicest people into aggressive bullies. It's one thing when you experience this from inside another steel cage, but when you are on the outside, as a pedestrian or bicyclist, it really hits home. Each intersection is another landscape of people pushing forward, menacing you, itching to get from parking garage A to parking garage B.
We borrowed a friend's car the other day to move some stuff from my mom's garage (thanks Mom!) to our new apartment in LA. We'd traveled around 80 miles, with a long stopover in Irvine so I could go to class, and we'd just unloaded the car and gassed it up. It was ready to hand back over, and what a relief! Driving on the 5, 55, 405, and 101 in one day is exhausting, not to mention the hell of parking and making left turns and all that crap you drivers do constantly. Ugh.
Anyway, we were driving over to give the car back when we inadvertently got involved in a bike-car crash. We stopped to turn right into an alley, blinker on, when a bicyclist who'd been closely following us passed on the left and got hit by a car passing in the opposite direction. Much confusion ensued, including the driver of the other car reversing unnecessarily and crushing the bicycle wheel more and hurting her own leg. Fortunately the bicyclist was not squished! She came through okay, with some bruises and a lot of adrenaline.
In the end, it seemed what happened is that the bicyclist and the driver both saw each other and both pushed forward aggressively. The bicyclist thought she had enough space to pass between the cars, and, finding that she did not, stopped when the car got too close. The driver, however, did not stop, and squeezed the bike between her car and our borrowed one.
While I would not pass between two cars the way that this bicyclist did, and ultimately it seemed like the blame for the crash fell on her shoulders, I was disappointed to find that the driver of that oncoming car did not stop when she saw the vulnerable bicyclist. She treated that person like another car, an opponent to be intimidated by her oncoming velocity. In LA we need help; we need to learn that human beings on foot and on bicycles are not just other cars.
Yo no soy otro carro, yo soy un ser humano.

Riding from the Irvine Train Station to UCI: It Can Be Done!

Having obtained a map of Irvine's bike routes from the UCI Parking and Transportation Office, I was all set to get from the Irvine train station to UCI on Wednesday. Since I have class late on that day, I figured it would be fine to ride a midday Amtrak train down to Irvine instead of taking my usual early morning Metrolink train to Tustin station. It's a bit complicated, see; UCI is near two train stations, but one, Tustin, is only served by Metrolink commuter trains. The other, Irvine, is a stop for Metrolink and Amtrak trains. Despite the greater number of possible train riders using Irvine station, my school has arranged a shuttle only from Tustin station. So, if I want to use Amtrak trains I must ride my bicycle from Irvine station to UCI.
Enter the blazing hot fires of hell! It was a difficult ride not because I was bullied by cars, but because of the heat wave. However, it did not help that the many off-street bike paths in Irvine lack proper signage. I'm very glad that the city has developed such an impressive network of bikeways, but it does make one's ride a little more taxing if one must constantly try out different spurs of path to figure out which one continues in the direction indicated on the map.
It's rather shameful, also, that UCI has not had signs installed to guide riders from the train station to campus. Yet another unfortunate example of my school's overwhelmingly automotive mindset.
Another quibble: Irvine's lovely bikeways map does not distinguish between flood channel trails, which are legitimately off-street, away from car traffic, and glorified sidewalks where you ride along next to traffic. Really there's quite a distinction here, from a rider's perspective. So, Irvine, if you're listening, please add more signs to the trails so that I don't have to hoist my overheated body off my bike every so often and check the map to make sure I'm not heading in the wrong direction. Thanks!
Next time I do this ride, I will make sure to bring lots of water and give myself plenty of time to do the ride. It's about an 8.5 mile ride, and even in the heat and with all my backtracking I did it in one hour, so in the future I could probably do it in 45 minutes or less. Such as it was, I arrived late for a meeting with my adviser, who was so impressed by my lobster-red face that he told my other adviser about it. Oh yeah!