Post Wreck Thoughts on 501, PTC, US Liability, and America’s Failing Transportation

I’m already looking forward to healing, obviously, and getting back on the bike. I look forward to riding back to King Street Station, getting on the train and handing off my bike for a station hand to rack on the train. Then rolling, minus a derailment, onward toward Portland to spend time with family and friends biking around town and enjoying one of the greatest, more human, pedestrian friendly, and foodie cities in this great nation. I don’t fear, fate has its hand in what it will hand me, but I can’t live with fear and worry, uncertainty, and doubt. I look forward and am beyond just thankful that I will live to ride this trip again.

In the meantime; Amtrak, Sound TransitWashington Department of Transportation (WSDOT), and Oregon Department of Transportation get y’alls asses in gear and get that PTC working, ensure those engineers really, truly, 100% know that line and please get this service running back at 100%! It’s too important to thousands of people to let falter!

New Information, Thoughts on PTC

As I should have expected, BNSF actually has the PTC up and running on their lines. Amtrak trains don’t have PTC on in cabs as far as I’ve learned. If anybody has more information about this please let me know, I’d love to get more details on the matter. I’ve started researching more about PTC too and trying to determine what exactly is the issue and complexity of the system beyond merely the cost. I know that’s as much a red herring as it is a legitimate excuse. PTC is in place in so many places on so many lines that there’s not a lot of functional excuse, except I bet there’s a lot of bullshit regulation and related bureaucratic mess in the way of the railroads getting this implemented.

The money, also something put totally on the backs of the railroads, hasn’t exactly been easy to invest in as they do have to stay sustainable (the freight railroads). Meanwhile, Amtrak which like all modes of transportation (cars, buses, places, etc) is entirely not sustainable from its current state of legislative ecosystem (meaning the way it must account for costs, revenue, systemic matters of stations, debt, etc).

Health Insurance, America Fails Americans Miserably

Another major issue here, that slams all transportation modes, is in insurance claim scenarios like this an incident is liable to entirely destroy a company that operates passenger service. In European countries people that are injured are covered under national health care policies and plans, and lawsuits and liability insurance help to rebuild and make the railroad (or airline, ship, or roadway) better after an incident. Instead in the United States, except for the cap placed by Congress in 1997, Amtrak has its budget wrecked by lawsuits and the need to cover people’s medical costs. Airlines suffer a similar fate if not careful. The problem is, there’s always accidents, but a passenger system shouldn’t be destroyed by lawsuits because of a singular accident, it should be fixed and rebuilt better, safer, and stronger.

In America, we simply do not do this anymore. Our actions instead tend toward destroying a large singular entity with litigation; such as Amtrak, an airline, or bus carrier, while with distributed incidents like the almost 40,000 deaths per year in automobiles, we simple push the cost back onto insurance and individual owners and purchasers. The latter works to perpetuate the most deadly of transportation modes (automobiles) while it defers, damages, and arguably makes the safer modes (buses, trains, planes, shits, etc) harder to operate, manage, and make safe. It’s a perverse and backwards effect that we get, but something that could be remedied with a simple fix.

Instate some form of national health insurance that would easily handle this versus a company or organization be decimated that is trying to build good, reliable, and safe way to travel. The fact we don’t have something in place for just basic, simple, and honest health and welfare in this nation is disheartening and decrease entrepreneurial activities of all sorts. The data shows this too, in tight correlation with actions in developed nations. We do better, have better business, able to build better systems (transportation and otherwise), and more if we had just the most basic of fundamental elements to fall back on in society. Simple single payer and a minor unemployment or injury welfare system would work seamlessly for this. Our current system however is 2x the cost and doesn’t do the job, but we have examples (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Netherlands, France, Germany, Japan, and many others) of how to do these two specific things at 1/2 the cost we currently do and actually having them be functional. Maybe we’ll get there one day, but unfortunately I’ve no hope of us succeeding in my lifetime.

On The Topic of Amtrak Safety

Amtrak has been notorious for unsafe activities along its lines. Much of that is conflict between Amtrak non-union and union employees. There has been cases where the union has even, or well individuals of the union, have even attacked prospective contractors that were going to provide service. There has been situations where the leadership has completely screwed over people in the union. I’ve studied the history and kept up with so many actions within the organization, that it’s hard to see which side would be the higher integrity side.

This of course conflicts with my own experience, as I know people in union and not in union at Amtrak that are top notch people. They work hard, they’re studious and have attention to detail. They’re safe and they work safe. But I also realize I have the viewpoint of operations in the northwest, which are very different than back east, and also different then down in California or the southeastern United States. Amtrak isn’t merely one big organization of singular work cultures. It is instead a giant Governmental quasi-corporation run around a faux demand for profits while working as a Government mandated transportation service that is built of what was many different corporate cultures. Why you may ask? It’s easier than one might at first see, but if we look at the history we know Amtrak came from the many railroads that used to run America’s massive, extensive, world class, and top tier passenger services around the country. Those cultures still eek through just a little in each geographic area and for respective trains along the lines.

How does one fix this? The NTSB issued some reports and Amtrak is slowly but steadily working on implementation. It’s important to note, like all transportation modes in America Amtrak is underfunded heavily for what it actually must do and how it must operate. Whatever the specific fixes are, the overall fix is that the non-union and union Amtrak staff must start working together to better focus on safety and ensure it’s actually part of the day to day operations. Instead, it’s currently something that is disregarded or ignored and this leads to these incidents. Nobody wants to incidents to happen, but they happen when this is how operations work. It must change.

America is Failing

We used to have the fastest trains, the best passenger service, at some reasonably good prices, in nice expedited fashion, that was routinely right on time.

Now, Amtrak barely putter along half the time. They’ve improved dramatically, but by comparison to European systems, even the one’s that aren’t top tier, like England’s or Italy’s rail systems, Amtrak trails far behind them in safety, quality of service, equipment, timeliness and related metrics. This comes from chronic under-funding from Congress and a blatant discrimination against rail service from mostly Republicans while Democrats fumble through managing Amtrak and fumbling through reasoning why Amtrak should have right of refusal over almost all of passenger service in America.

In Close…

That’s it for thoughts on the matter at the moment. In a future post I’ll talk a bit about the slim chance America has for improved service in the next 10-20 years. For now, I’m off to get some other things done, enjoy some Christmas time festivities, and simply be thankful that I’m alive today. Cheers, and merry Christmas, or happy holidays, to all.

If you’d like to learn more about Amtrak, and the convoluted insanity that is Government manipulated transportation in America, here’s a few starting points.

Passenger and Related Transportation Law, History & Info in America

Ranting about Bellevue, Washington

I had thought that literally nobody cared in the city of Bellevue. It’s a super dystopian vertical suburbia that is super creepy from anything other than the wheel of a car. Even then however, it’s pretty myopic in it’s worldview. I was super surprised at this twitter thread however and the great new material to sleuth through!

What transpired from that included a few gems from @theboobla. Then a bit later, after I was frustrated by needing to weed through stopped auto traffic through inclement environments I ranted again while I waited in some cartopian dystopian crossing.

…which led to…

Then the sleuth work actually got underway! Here’s some starter material on what looks like prospectively amazing infrastructure heading for Bellevue. This city could absolutely turn around it’s car-dependency dystopian myopic worldview with this and open the place up to a better future!

Which leads me to two of the leading blogs on all things transit & bicycle transpo ->

http://www.seattlebikeblog.com and https://www.seattletransitblog.com ! Both excellent sources of great information and news for the area.

 

Hawthorne Bus Island Fix

Where a bus island needs to be on Hawthorne, desperately.

@ Fremont,Williams, & Vancouver Intersection

This intersection needs a little help in the AM. It only continues to get worse too. Motorists beware.

Portland’s Better Blocks Broadway

Here’s a short review I did of the redesign. The bus island was something that really shows in this city how these should be implemented. Well designed and well built, we should have these as standard on almost all major roads with bus stops so there isn’t the existing conflict.

A Beautiful Ride into Portland and Tactical Urbanism Surprises

Today I rode into Portland as I’ve done thousands of times. Today I cycled across the Skirdmore Bridge over I-5, across Mississippi Street area and over to the Vancouver/Williams bike routes. As usual, at the hour I was riding into town there’s a decreasing number of people from the rush hour commute. A few cars, and 2x to 3x as many cyclists plying their way down Vancouver. I passed the New Seasons, made the red light and on through the hospital area onto the part of the route that is a gradual downhill for the next mile or so.

I cut over at Russel Street to the easier to navigate Flint Avenue. I rolled by the Ex Novo Brewery and looked over as a few people dropped of kids at the Harriet Tubman Middle School. I rolled around the parents as they attentively watched myself and other cyclists pass in the through area of the road. I always worry around schools since there are so many parents who tend to become distracted and run over their children, or in some cases pedestrians or cyclists trying to just go by.

As I rolled onward, still on the downhill segment of the ride I came to the mess of construction that has the Broadway Bridge closed to almost every mode (at some point or another it has been at least). Today it was closed to automobiles, streetcars, and any motorized transport, but one side was open for pedestrians and cyclists. So I entered the bridge and began the uphill climb to the west side of the bridge for the Broadway drop into downtown.

Since oncoming traffic lanes were closed to the bridge I went ahead and just veered to the left and cut over at Irving Street. I got a good view of the train station, looking majestic this morning with the wonderful blue sky for the backdrop. I zig-zagged over to Hoyt and then onto 3rd.

On 3rd the bike lane begins at Glisan and now continues all the way to Burnside, which is excellent to have a clear route like that. I continued toward Burnside, and as I came to the street the light turned green and I noticed orange traffic cones on either side of the bike lane. It looked a little odd, but as I rolled further I realized that they were labeled with PDX-trans-formation, which from Twitter I know is @PBOTrans. I rode through and had to stop though, because I wanted some pictures! This was the first time I’d actually found some of the tactical urbanism of @PBOTrans.

After I snapped my pictures I continued on, got some work done, finished several errands, and headed over to a coffee shop to wrap up some more work before the meetup tonight. While there I pulled up twitter to check out the account and lo and behold it seems that there were already a whole bunch of tweets and other people noticing them too! Here’s a few choice tweets below.

Fixing Greenways (or Bike Boulevards?)

Ok, so it seems the names change, so I will kick off this blog entry with a definition of what a greenway is.

Neighborhood Greenways are residential streets with low volumes of auto traffic and low speeds where bicycles and pedestrians are given priority.

Here is some more information on the Multnomah County Site. I’ve posted a screenshot of the map on that page below.

2016-03-12_17-05-24

There’s also a useful video, produced a good while ago, that explains when the bike boulevards became neighborhood greenways.

The goals of these greenways are simple: (PBOT description on the left, my translation on the right)

  • Reduce auto cut-throughReduce dangerous cut-through behavior unfamiliar with neighborhoods endangering people in those neighborhoods.
  • Safer cycling and pedestrian connectionsInsure motorists don’t kill more pedestrians, cyclists, and those in their homes (not joking, motorists keep running into stationary builds with people inside), and generally create safer ways to get where we all are trying to go.
  • Reduce auto speedsbecause seriously, slow down on neighborhood streets asshole. Whoops, that was a little aggressive, you get the point.
  • Help people cross busier more dangerous streets – Where streets are designed where motorists have killed people, improve the intersections and crossings to prevent motorists from killing more people.
  • Provide easier guides on the routeMake it easier to figure out where you’re going, even when you haven’t checked your google maps route.  😉
  • Provide more “eyes on the street”I think this means more people biking and walking means safer streets, as the data proves, as motorists tend to chill out when lots of people are out and about keeping an eye on their bad behavior. Or it just means more people are staring at the street. I’m not 100% sure about this one.

Ok, so now we have a shared understanding of what a greenway is and generally where they are in the Portland city limits.

But where are we now? There are problems…

A few events have taken place in Portland that have led to some pretty serious problems on the greenways that need to be resolved sooner rather than later.

First Event: There have been thousands upon thousands of new residents that have moved to Portland. Hello to all of you that have moved here over the last decade, welcome to the city! That’s all fine and dandy, this has had profound changes on the city – for better or worse – and the one big change I’d like to point out is that this influx of people have led to more people on the streets. It isn’t just cars, but all modes, however the mode taking up the most street space by orders of magnitude that moves less people are — drum roll please — cars, you guessed it. Because of this there is increased traffic. This leads to more people trying to take shortcuts. Taking shortcuts leads me to the next big event…

Second Event: This app called Waze happened. It’s great for the motorist stuck in traffic, but it enables the stuck like a pig in a cage driver to use the road system in a way it WAS NOT PLANNED TO BE USED. A motorist is NOT supposed to be cutting through neighborhoods (at 20mph or 50mph for that matter) to get from one highway or major arterial to another. But this app enables exactly that. It’s made once pleasant and low traffic neighborhood streets (i.e. greenways and such) into traffic sewer bypasses and cut throughs.

Third Event: The economy improved, yay! Good for us, good for you, good all around. It’s a good thing when the economy is enabling us to feed, eat and clothe ourselves along with enjoying life! However there is a dark side to this, because about 49% of trips into downtown Portland are not made by biking, walking, or transit, but by a single person in a single car, which creates a maddening and dangerous rush hour. Every single day the pollution skyrockets and the air quality decreases dramatically because so many people want to drive, drive, drive. So they do, and hey, we’re America land of freedom and stuff so we subsidize the hell out of that and enable as many people as possible to drive… but, a lot of these now employed people are out there driving, using things like Waze, moving here for work, and generally being a motorist sucking up a bunch of space in their private car and dirtying up the air in spite of the other 51% of trips into and out of downtown that are not done in such a selfish way.

So that is the root of our big issues. But now, how do we fix such issues? It’s actually super easy!

Solution #1: Diverters

Physical diverters direct auto traffic out of neighborhoods onto primary arterials where higher speeds and higher throughput of automobiles is possible. Instead of buzzing through neighborhoods for long trips automobiles are sent into the key automobile sewers like Highway 99 (MLK), Highway 26 (Powell), I-5, I-84, I-205 and other main drags like Hawthorne, Cesar Chavez, Rosa Parks, and others.

These diverters do this and make neighborhoods better for those that live in the neighborhood. Diverters make the neighborhood safer for the children, the elderly, and all the rest of us just walking along the sidewalks, biking down the street, crossing to the local neighborhood coffee shop, or otherwise.

Implementing these is the key, there are some, but we’re in desperate need of many more. So many greenways have no diversion and easily fall prey to Waze and turning into a car sewer. Recently my wife and I stopped biking toward our destination and returned home because of the incessant motorists passing (most safely, but some unsafely with unclear motive or going straight, turning, or whatever they’re doing). Many of the motorists were clearly confused about where they were going, how to return to the Interstate (Avenue or I-5) and were overall, clearly perturbed that they’d taken a cut through and ended up getting stuck and routed back toward the road they were already on – stuck in rush hour traffic.

I learned two things, one is that rush hour is not a good time to ride to a location for dinner or drinks unless you’re a confident and fast rider (then you’re just always ahead of the motorists anyway) and two, the bicycle infrastructure leaves cyclists in a position prone to aggressive motorists and motorists are in a position that they’ve put themselves in – in traffic stuck. So in the future, I’d love to see some diverters to keep those aggressive, confused, and perturbed commuting motorists out of the neighborhoods. In the end, it’ll help the motorists and everybody in the neighborhood.

 

Solution #2: Bikeways, Cycle-tracks (Euro style), and the like need expanded dramatically.

The west side is perfect and can easily take on cycle-tracks and bike ways. But so can downtown Portland and the inner east side (re: river to about 20th should be easy to implement). So far though we’ve fallen short of what we can accomplish. To insure that the greenways can appropriately feed the city and people can bike to and from safely, the greenways need connected by cycle tracks and bikeways. Without we will not be able to go much beyond what we have now. The 8 year olds to the 80 year olds won’t bike. Regardless of the stats, it is simply to scary on the roadways for the somewhat less confident riders.

To summarize, adding real cycle-tracks and bikeways to the major hubs we bike to, would enable the greenways to truly thrive. The planners know it, the stoned guy on the corner knows it, anybody that connects any kind of simple thoughts knows it! The question is, will we act on it as a city and get diverters put in place and get some real greenway connections into and out of the city core. The possibilities are numerous, the only action left is to implement.