Tag Archives: Pittsburgh pabulum

Public vs. Private Transit

Peter McFerrin, a research analyst for Brookings Institute that published the now (in)famous Missed Opportunities study about transit in US , writes at length about the opportunity for private transit in suburban areas in this article published on The New Republic.

And to an extent I do agree with Mr. McFerrin –private transit initiatives can provide a sound alternative to public transportation. The organization I belong to, ACTC, agreed that to allow a private local provider Lenzner Coaches  to replace the service lost as a consequence of Port Authority ‘s recent cuts. The reason why we voted for this alternative service was that since as long as we represent the riders’ interest and we consider the typical rider on those routes a private alternative will be better than none].  And, it is my guess that, unlike the New York pilot program quoted by Mr. McFerrin, Lenzner is running a profitable service.

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Political Campaign versus Social Marketing

        This blog post is the result of an idea that sparked at a conversation over a wine glass during the happy hour that followed the Organizing 2.0 meeting in W.PA. (The hour became hours and the last discussion group broke apart around 1 am in the morning).

            It all started as a debate on how a proper campaign should be organized.  The canvasser shall go door to door and discuss the specific issues each community member does have and build around that. It is not an yes or no type of questionnaire because the canvasser needs to understand the community beyond statistics and appearances in order to provide the campaign organizer with the information that will be used later to build a platform for a specific candidate. Now, that is exactly what I learned about ten years ago from the British women, the political leaders teaching us –young women and potential political workers from East Europe. Yet, two weeks ago, at the discussion table I looked contradicted.

          No, I was saying, you already have an ideology and you need to identify those specific issues that are relevant for it – even more you need to identify the specific community members who already understand the benefits of the particular solution you suggest for these particular sets of issues. Because you need to build relationships with these people and you need to invest in their leadership qualities as they will be the ones promoting the solution… But I was no longer looking at community organizing as a political campaign organizer, but as a social marketer.

                 As a political campaign organizer you are selling a person to voters – a political candidate. What we want to know is what his potential voters need and expect from a legislator.  After you will help to build a platform that answers their specific needs and the third step is to return to the community in question to show people how this platform will answer their needs and meet their expectations.  So do not blame politicians for failing you after elected. First , these specific community needs will change as population ages , economic conditions change , the civil issues at hand do change…And so will a politician’s platform.  

        Plus when you sell a political leader the currency is votes – someone’s specific need may be ignored if a majority support is not perceived. For example let’s take what Republicans learned about Medicare – you can mess with universal, government funded health insurance as long as you do not mess with the universal, government funded insurance of your electorate. Even if your electorate seems to be unable to comprehend that they are benefiting from a universal, government funded health insurance plan when opposing its general counterpart. A politician will only address an issue as long as it will not lead to a dramatic loss of votes. [1]

     As a social marketer you already know the solution. Most times the solution is supported by significant professional research, you just need to sell this solution to community members when they grew (up) used to belief  the solution is fundamentally different. For example , when selling  “transit”  as a solution for transportation issues such as transportation funding,  congestion, travel time, pricing, economic value and so on you may need to address first your target population’s belief that the above issues are always solved by a free market car industry and by increasing mobility. [2]

       It is not much different from selling them an energy efficient washing machine to solve their electric bill issue. It is just harder because you need to reach a deeper level –   you need to change what a person believes.  When selling energy efficient washing machines all you need is to convince that the model you are selling will save them enough on the electric bill to be worth the higher price tag. Because your customer already believes that the solution to his/her electric bill issue will be an energy efficient washing machine. He may doubt that the particular model you are selling does consume a lot less electric and thus it can effectively solve his issue. What you change is this person’s Attitude.  When selling transit to Pittsburgh residents as a way to improve travel time and reduce congestion, you must change their Belief that the solution will always be better mobility when in fact is better access.


[1] There are exceptions but those are few and far in-between

[2] This explains why is so much harder to sell transit in the United States.

My Rights as a Pedestrian

A recent article on Grist explainin  “Why are we (Americans)  so angry at the gas pump “– Because we have no choices- notes that suburban sprawl makes impossible (or at best impracticable) other transportation means such as walking, biking or taking public transit.  We do have to drive to work, shopping, doctor, the kids soccer games ,family events, church and so on… So even with a gas efficient vehicle at $3 /gallon we’ve already spent a big chunk of our budget at the pump, if gas were $8.50/gallon as I understand it is now in UK , we’d probably had to stop eating because we would either be unable to afford a trip to the store, or if we put the gas in the car there will be  nothing left to purchase groceries.

the first phase of several projects planned to improve the Route 65 Marshall Avenue Interchange

            One of the solutions pointed in the Grist article mentioned above: limit sprawl from now own, rebuild within urban boundaries with higher population densities.  Shorter distances will make all these options such as walking possible again. Agreed! But we need to do better, and there is something else we need to do first: we need to revise our outlook on accessibility. In many cases it is not distance, but lack of access for cyclists and pedestrians turning away most Americans living in suburban areas who may consider walking instead of driving.

            And our priorities are so skewed that , even in the old city neighborhoods  where pedestrian pathways survived the last six decades, we tend to ignore the fact that their role is not ornamental  but quite pragmatic.  Yes, people do walk on those sidewalks –especially when they are the pedestrian path to a bus route. So really, what were they thinking when they put up this sign?

I am unable to tell you what exactly where they thinking, but I can tell you how to fix it. You can file a complaint with Penn DOT here: http://www.dot.state.pa.us/penndot/districts/district11/d11ccc.nsf

Why file a complaint?

  • Because Penn DOT through their local district is actually required to supervise and in certain cases approve every step of the project in order to comply with FHWA Work Zone Safety & Mobility Rule (23 CFR Subpart J)
  • Because Penn DOT’s specifies in its Publication 46 that, when designing even a temporary traffic control plan, a contractor is required to provide bicyclist and pedestrian accommodations:

Para (c) Do not expose bicycle and pedestrian pathways to unsafe conditions…”, and obviously if your pathway is blocked therefore forces you to step out in traffic you are exposed to an unsafe condition.

  • Because we need to remind Penn DOT that their pedestrian friendly policies are nothing if they are just ink on paper.


WE have the same rights as Pedestrians as we do as drivers!

Bad Bus Day (rant) -original post July 15th 2008

In the previous post I covered a little bit the topic of bus accommodations for  bulky object with wheels in Germany. So I could not help to recall some old bickering on the wheelchair accommodations offered by Pittsburgh buses ( wheelchairs are the only bulky objects with wheels they will allow in a bus )

This story I wrote in July 2007 covers the unfortunate story of a wheelchair bound rider who ended suspended halfway between the ground and the bus floor:

“I am trying to pay my debt and it had become increasingly difficult (not that I am the only one in this situation). When they asked me to work some overtime, I volunteered even some more hours in…SO, today I was supposed to be in at 9am (instead of 12pm).

But as it was said, Tuesday there must be three bad hours.

The first bad hour :It started yesterday evening when I realized I must have caught a cold or something. I decided to go early to bed and take some acetaminophen based cold pills. It worked last night, I got in that drowsy state and felt great, but unfortunately the drowsy effect did not vanish in eight hours as supposed, but lingered with me in bed . I got up for a late start and dilly-dallied in the shower and left my house so late that:

The second bad hour: I missed my bus. I called in and told my boss I’ll be half an hour late counting toward the overtime I volunteered. Got in the next bus and made it just in time for my connection. For a minute or so I thought my luck had changed. But it did not:

The third bad hour: One passenger in a wheelchair. The driver gets the platform out  – you know, the one that is supposed to raise him at the floor level, and it gets stuck. Yes, the poor guy was stuck right in the middle, at the second step level. He could not get out and he could not get in…
I did felt bad for that man and his wheelchair. But I felt even worse for me, I was 45 minutes late to work –and that was half the time I volunteered to work over my schedule. Do you think they’ll ask me again? I am afraid they won’t. “


The Village

When I was in graduate school, one of my classmates, who had an undergrad sociology degree, told us about this village in Romania he had to visit and study [1]. The village, somewhere in the hilly Sub-Carpathian region was able to preserve its wealth during the communist years. People had orchard gardens surrounding their houses that couldn’t be nationalized; they sold fruits in the free farmer markets for generations and made a decent profit for all those years. Some were also shepherds, another private enterprise that prospered in spite of the communism, as no one cared to track the growing herds as they moved from lower to higher pastures and back, part of the traditional transhumance customs.The prosperity of the inhabitants of that village was apparent in the size and quality of their homes, the richness of furnishing and decorations inside, their ability to develop their individual septic sewage systems. From this point of view, it was as five decades of communism never happened. Yet, something was lost – their civic conscience. The roads between houses were crumbling in disrepairs, the common grounds were abandoned to weeds and wild vegetation, the common forest resources were often abused and whilst each afforded and individual septic system, it never crossed their minds that a systems of aqueducts and sewers would’ve been more efficient.

The Country

The United State reminds me of that village. Pennsylvania reminds me of that village. The Pittsburgh Urban area reminds me of that village.

The United States economy, even after the recession, still justifies the greatest expectations for individual prosperity. But when it comes to civic wealth, or common wealth, the United States is constantly sliding down in what it has to offer to its citizens.  As in that village, Americans are richer or potentially richer than every other nation. Yet the roadways are crumbling, the education system is underfunded, public transit services are shrinking since the sixties, public libraries close doors and millions of people cannot afford the most basic healthcare services.

Now I do not know how to explain the state of facts – no place in the United States suffered through five decades of that totalitarian regime called communism. But perhaps is the opposition, the fear of a communist like regime that made people to reassert their individualities to the point that they forgot they are all residents of the same Civitas. [2]

And if civitas sounds foreign , or old and forgotten, let’s try Commonwealth – common wealth. This principle of commonwealth does not try to make the rich people poorer, but stresses a well known historical fact. When only a few individuals can enjoy a region’s wealth, its resources and the products of the community’s hard work, their prosperity will not last long. Because the handful of wealthy people will drain those resources and they will force everybody else to revolt or leave.[3] Plus is the Christian thing to do.[4]

The State

Returning to Pennsylvania, to Western Pennsylvania to be more precise – the value of common wealth and the needs for a civic conscience became even clearer in the light of the last budget cuts. As the newly elected state governor bragged about the potential wealth from shale gas extractions he also started to cut down funds for all civic programs and projects.


State colleges and public schools. The impact is not limited to education quality for children from families with low and middle class incomes. As the state university with the largest campus in Pittsburgh saw its budget cut in half started to evaluate those expenses that can be cut. One expense is its yearly contribution to the local provider of public transportation services, the Port Authority of Allegheny County in exchange for free rides for its students and employees.[5]

The Port Authority, which saw its own funding shrink during the last years, struggles to avoid crippling cuts without going over budget. Hopes to see more funding coming its way are low, the whole transportation sector suffers from lack of funding. And that means not just fewer buses or fewer new roads, but also unsafe bridges and less work for civil engineering and contractors, therefore less business opportunities for local small businesses. [6]

Of course the state government has to deal with a billion dollar budget shortfall. Of course they have to cut down expenses. Of course they believe that taxing shale gas extraction to fund public transportation, state colleges, roads, bridges etc.  is bad for business. They tell us that taxing shale gas extraction – as they have told themselves – will lead investors to lose their interest in exploring this new resource of wealth. Even if I would not doubt their statement, how does keeping the shale gas business justify the loss of bus driver jobs, tuition paying students and research possibilities, local civil engineering and contracting businesses?

Because the Commonwealth, Civitas is not about welfare as Temporary Assistance For Needy Families and Dependents. It is about the subtle foundations, the framework on which the wealth of the community is built. And a wealthy community holds more possibilities for individual wealth.

Deficit Causes

One can blame it on the high costs or retirement benefits for public transportation and state employees. One can blame it on the recession. One can also blame it on the misadministration of wealth by the state and local governments and argue that, for this reason, the wealth should stay in the hands of those who are able to exploit it. Which could very well be, and in fact some actually are out of state companies, out of state investors or out of state workers exploiting the local resources, i.e. shale gas. Companies, investors and workers who have no interest to invest in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania.

And  no one will be wrong, all of the above are justifiable explanations. But no one will be right either. Because the root of our problems lays on the fact that we had lost our civic conscience, we had somehow forgotten that we are all citizens of the same Civitas.

This has to be the correct explanation, lest is no other way for me to understand why the wrong solutions are sought in all the wrong places.


 [1] I cannot recall the name of the village. I can recall the name of my classmate in case you want to track him down and verify the authenticity of the story

[2] Civitas. Civitates: « concilium coetusque hominum jure sociati « (Cicero, Somm.Scip. ) =a political community sovereign and independent.  Linguistic root for the word “civic”= regarding that community.Source: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/SMIGRA*/Civitas.html

[3]That is something even roman emperors knew when they gave free corn to the residents of the City.

[4]” Surplus wealth is a sacred trust which its possessor is bound to administer in his lifetime for the good of the community.” Andrew Carnegie

[5] http://bit.ly/gOWUmf

[6] http://www.bizjournals.com/pittsburgh/print-edition/2011/04/15/engineers-prep-for-bridge-funding-drop.html?ana=fbk