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Archive for the ‘Public transit’ Category

Just a week ago, I got my first radio interview: I talked for 20 minutes with Marielle Smith, the producer of Energy-Wise.  The short segment played Monday morning on Newsradio 970 KFBX (and perhaps the other local Clear Channel stations).  We covered:

  • Our denied pedestrian right;
  • The social aspects of pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods and cities;
  • The need for and convenience of destination-rich, mixed-use neighborhoods;
  • The benefits and challenges of bus ridership in Fairbanks;
  • Problems with, and suggestions for, Fairbanks’s city planning; and
  • Reasons to prefer light rail to buses.

The interview is broken up into Part 1 and Part 2.  If those links don’t work, go to KFBX’s podcasts page and scroll down to Energy-Wise, episode 13.

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At a very happy dinner party on “Thanksgiving Eve”, each of us was invited in turn to name something he or she was grateful for.  It would have been rude of me to hog the floor for the sake of being thorough, so I kept mine fairly brief.  I’m going to expand on it here.

I think it’s common in Fairbanks — probably in the entire country; I’m unsure about other nationalities — to believe in the ideal of the self-made man.  In comments on the News-Miner website, people often deny the need for social programs (or even much sympathy) for the unfortunate, since the most difficult of circumstances can be gotten through by those of good character: certainly they pulled through tough times by their own grit, without help from anybody.

Hogwash.

Did you hitchhike?  You can be glad for the kindness of those who picked you up.  You can be glad that the car’s construction was built to some government standard of safety.  You can be glad for the civil engineers who designed the streets and roads.  You can be glad for traffic laws, as well as for both those who create them and those who enforce them.

Did you scrounge food from the refuse of a restaurant?  You can be glad that there are regulations about how the food-service industry must operate to provide safe food.  You can be glad for the agencies that exist to enforce those standards.  You can be glad for the medical and other scientific professionals from the present to back ages past for the research underlying the standards.

Did you sleep in an abandoned building?  You can be glad that the building was built to code — if not up to current code, at least it was probably built to some code — elsewise you might imperil yourself each night, if you even found the building standing.  You can be glad for building inspectors.  You can be glad for the work of the architects and engineers who have hammered out these codes over decades, if not centuries.  (Though I recognize that the study of architecture itself has been around since time immemorial.)

No, no, you don’t get away with saying you’ve done it all yourself and live in no man’s debt unless you’ve lived off the grid since your youth: fashioning your own tools, building your own dwelling, and hunting and harvesting your own food, all without any of the goods and services civilization brings.  (Even then, you might be glad for smokejumpers.)  But, more likely, you are in everyone’s debt, as we all are, omnes omnibus.

I’ve certainly never had to live such a spartan life: I’m lucky to come from a family well enough off (as most are), and to eke out enough of a living (as most can), to embrace the city’s material goods, like plumbing and electricity, and its cultural goods, like schools and libraries.

One of the civic goods I’m grateful for is the bus system — part material good and part cultural, I suppose.  Fairbanks is widely spread out: not only do many people choose to live far out of town where a car is every day required, but even in town I doubt there is any one neighborhood where all life necessities and civic needs can be met on foot.  (As I’ve said before, car ownership is our own unofficial citizenship tax.)  Without the bus system, many would be cut off from job prospects, church attendance, access to government, and even grocery shopping.

My own circumstances are not so dire.  Through a series of gratitude-worthy causes that I won’t recount here, my wife and I are lucky enough to own one car and to have use of another through the cold half of the year.  We can pay the citizenship tax, though we’d have less of the “scraping by” feeling if we didn’t have to.  So when I’m grateful for public buses, I’m grateful for a luxury (though it’s perverse that we should have to consider buses, not cars, the luxury).

Particularly:

  • Though my wife and I continue to pay monthly insurance on both cars, we are spared nearly all the cost of gasoline for one car.  Plus, there’s less risk of getting in an accident and needing car repair.
  • I get twenty to twenty-five minutes of down time each way.  Most of the time I read, but I’ve been known simply to think, and sometimes (especially on the way home) to snooze.
  • Watching the variety of company is fascinating.  Like most people, I see a fairly homogeneous group of people at work, at church, and among my friends.  But bus ridership cuts across professions, religions, and subcultures.  I enjoy the window into how other people live and think.

So I’m glad for the drivers — both for the training and skill they bring to the job, and for their having a temperament that allows them to do that work.  The vigilance they exercise every day, in driving safely and in making their scheduled stops as promptly as possible, would exhaust me.

I’m glad for the work of the Borough Transportation Department.  Their staff has to train drivers, designate the routes, budget for all the services, maintain and repair the buses (and other vehicles in the department), and keep a comfortable, dignified transit center.

I’m glad for the City of Fairbanks Public Works Department, for street-sweeping, snowplowing, and all manner of street maintenance and repair.

I’m glad for the Borough Assembly, which approves budgets for the Fairbanks North Star Borough and allocates money to fund transit operations.  For FY 2009, the Assembly allocated over 5.7 million dollars to the Transportation Department, under the critical eye of the often tax-averse Fairbanks-area public.

I’m glad for the property-tax-paying public, who for FY 2009 are shouldering nearly seventy percent of the Borough’s budgetary burden.  Of course, this includes most people, since even renters indirectly pay some portion of their landlord’s annual assessment.

It is true that many people would like to have their property tax lowered or eliminated, or would like to have their civic contribution steered toward something other than public transit.  Therefore, I’m glad I live in a culture where — more or less — cooperation is valued, public goods are embraced though they may not benefit each individual, and caring and kindness are considered not only personal virtues, but public virtues too, and are part of our civic mandate.

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One of the pleasures I’ve had since resuming bus ridership a couple of weeks ago is seeing the buses so full.

Last winter, I took the bus to work every day.  Usually, there were no more than five people on the bus at any one time, including me and the driver.  On the ride home, the bus was often half-full.  (Or was it half-empty?)  There were always seats available.

But for the last two weeks, I haven’t boarded the bus to work with fewer than twelve other passengers on board.  The buses (at least some models) have 32 seats, and I find they are usually half-full from downtown to UAF.  And on the way home?  Crowded, crowded, crowded!  If I take an early bus, it’s perhaps only half-full.  But if I leave at five o’clock, nearly every seat is taken, and sometimes there’s standing room only.

This morning, for the first time, I saw a man on the bus who looked very well dressed — that is to say, he looked “high class”.  Okay, it was hard to tell for sure under his black wool trench coat, but it was a nice trench coat.  Both his graying hair and his white beard were neatly kept.  He carried a briefcase.  He got off at the Butrovich building, so I took him for a UA Statewide administrator, though he could have been heading for the G.I., too.  Him I was especially glad to see.

Why am I so delighted to sit on crowded buses among higher-class passengers?  Truth be told, it’s not because of the pollution that my fellow would-be drivers aren’t causing — although that’s something to celebrate, too.  And it’s certainly not because I anticipate better conversation out of the well-to-do.  I’m happy because the bus is starting to be more of a social leveler, bringing together a wider variety of ages, races, educations, and incomes.  And that’s important.

How many people of another social class, or race, or educational level are you likely to meet while at work?  Probably few.  How many in your home, barring your own parents or children?  Very few.  And how many while driving alone in your car?  Absolutely none!  For much of our days, most of have no chance to rub elbows with people who seem unlike us, because we lack space in which this can happen.  Our stratification and our isolation dim our understanding and dull our sympathies.

I recall, growing up in Anchorage, some ordinance involving expanded bus service came up before the municipal assembly (I think), and Mayor Tom Fink, speaking against it, said, “Everybody I know drives a car.”  Well, wonderful.  That really spoke more to his own social class and his own isolation from others, than it did to the actual state of affairs.

If the privileged leaders of our community — if our City Council and Borough Assembly members, our captains of industry, our professors, the members of our Chamber of Commerce — got to ride the bus every day, and to rub elbows with their fellow citizens of all classes, no such ignorant statement could escape their lips without consequence.  And I expect it would be much harder for us all to hold on to our prejudices.

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Why I miss the bus

It’s summer now in Fairbanks. This is the season almost all of us love: the city turns green, and we feel like we’re living in a garden. The sun scarcely goes below the horizon, and we’re hit with a daylight-induced mania. We can garden, canoe, and comfortably spend time outdoors.

I’m a bicyclist. Though not yet hard-core enough to bike all year — it does get quite chilly here — I manage to ride for the warm half of the year, roughly mid-April to mid-October, and it makes me happy to get out in the sun and to use my body nearly every day.

But I’m not quite happy.

This morning, I looked at the side of my bed and saw the book I’m reading: The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I tried once as a nine-year-old to read it; it seemed boring. So now I’m giving it another shot, and it seems much better. However, there doesn’t seem to be the time I want for it.

From wake-up to departure, I’m eating breakfast, reading the news, preparing my lunch, showering, and getting dressed. At my lunch hour, I’m usually too tired to read much; it’s easier to nap. From arrival at home to bedtime, I’m playing with my kids, eating dinner, washing dishes, and putting kids to bed (though sometimes I’m at meetings instead). By bedtime, I’m able to read, but not in quantity: usually, after a few minutes, the book falls out of my hand as my head lolls over to one side.

What I really miss is the time I spend on the bus during winter. Between work and home, it’s about a twenty-five minute trip either way — so, by taking the bus, I secure myself forty to fifty minutes of reading every day. Even with that, I often felt that my progress through books wasn’t speedy enough. But now? I’ll be working on The Hobbit for a month, maybe two. There’s a good chance that I’ll lose whatever pacing the book has and start to find it boring — just because I can’t read it fast enough.

I know, I know: it’s all about my choices.  To make more time for my reading, I could choose to skip the local newspaper, or spend less time with my wife and kids, or forego personal hygiene.  Obviously, I could give up biking and take the bus again, but — let me be plain — when you face a lengthy, forbidding winter like ours, you’d have to be a complete jackass not to spend as much time as outside, during our beautiful summer months, as possible.

I’m not looking for something to scrape out of my schedule to make time for reading.  What I really want to convey is this:

  • One major advantage of riding the bus — that is, aside from the money you can save on car payments, gasoline, parking, repairs, tire changes, and the inevitable tickets — is that it gives you time to read. Not audiobook “reading”, but the kind that demands your imagination, allows easy re-reading, and invites contemplation.  If you are already spending half an hour twice a day to warm up your car, scrape your windows, drive, and park, then consider taking that hour back as a time when you can read just for yourself.

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UAF’s Rasmuson Library is going through a strategic planning process right now, and my department — Alaska and Polar Regions — is doing its own as part of that process. One thing I’ve been reminded of is how long-term vision gets too easily sacrificed (if it’s even conceived) for short-term feasibility. And I don’t know what to do about it.

One of the bright spots of the Rasmuson, the jewel in our crown, is the archives. (For those who are not researchers or librarians, an archives is a collection of non-current records of individuals, families, and organizations, and may include personal papers, government records, photographs, and film. Archives are essential for doing original historical research.) We have around four linear miles of archival materials on shelves, not to mention the vaults where our audio and film recordings are kept. Our archives makes us one of the premier institutions worldwide for arctic research.

There are some collections an archives can count on getting as a matter of course: for example, the university is required to leave some of its institutional records there. But a great part of our archives comes from voluntarily donated collections. Our donors must be able to meet with our archivists and to bring in their collections — which means they must be able to get to us easily. And that’s the problem.

The popular opinion seems to be that the folks at Facilities Services, who govern parking, are a bunch of bloodthirsty jackals who will ask you to open a vein for a parking permit and will turn your grandmother over to the Taliban if you run afoul of their meters or regulations. (I take no position on this, except to say, I feel sorry for them, since they are apparently mandated to operate on a cost-recovery basis, covering all their operations with fees and fines.) There is now no free parking on campus. Whether this is just or not, it makes it hard for our donors to reach us.

As APR discussed its piece in the strategic plan, people began referring to “the parking problem”: namely, that the shortage of parking, not to mention the absence of any free parking, made it difficult for donors to get to our offices. (Apparently, the members of a local historical group have an understanding that they should not visit our archives, because it is so difficult.)

I conceived of it differently: as a transit problem. To my mind, if frequent, reliable public transit were offered in the Borough, our visitors, including our donors, would rarely need to drive to us. Of course, for there to be such transit, we’d need greater Borough funding to buy more buses, expand the coverage of routes, pay for drivers, et cetera. Greater Fairbanks sprawls out all across the Tanana River Valley; the coverage by public transit required to get just the more-populated areas to the university could require major public investment, and it certainly wouldn’t happen overnight.

In contrast, parking policies can be changed overnight. And that’s the solution my department is going for. I think we’ll work through proper channels to attempt to designate one or two parking spots near the library as “invited library guest only”.

I’m not upset that we’re pursuing the parking solution. It only makes sense. But I’m disappointed (not surprised) that nobody else seemed to think of our problem as part of a greater public problem — or, if they did, as a part of a problem worth tackling. We’re certainly willing to say, “Let’s take the parking issue up with the chancellor.” Why couldn’t we, with other departments, ask the chancellor to address the future of public transit with the Borough Assembly?

I like self-reliance. I like individual initiative. But transportation, of which parking is only a small part, is a problem we grapple with all over Fairbanks. A long-term solution to our various transportation woes is not possible when we try to solve these problems at the small organizational level. Paradoxically, the best way for organizations to be self-reliant is to band together for region-wide changes — so they can be free to grapple with the problems that really matter to them.

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If you read the News-Miner on March 24, or their editorial the next day, you’ve probably found out that Ice Alaska is planning to move our beloved Ice Park south of town, to the Tanana Lakes Recreation Area.

Currently, I’m just close enough to walk to the Ice Park. It’s in the range of 30 or 45 minutes away — which is walkable on a not-too-cold day — and much closer to those who live near the pedestrian bridge outside Pioneer Park.

But will anybody — anybody AT ALL — be able to walk to the Ice Park when it’s at Tanana Lakes?

Has the Borough arranged for convenient public transit that will take people there and back? Currently, the closest bus to Tanana Lakes is the Purple Line, which reaches Cushman and Van Horn about 10 minutes after leaving the Transit Center. That puts the nearest stop over a mile away — about 20 minutes’ walk for a healthy adult on a decent path. While 20 minutes’ walk in the cold is acceptable occasionally and for some people, it is not a good way to ensure access for the elderly, the disabled, and families with children, or to ensure frequent access from anybody. Given that the Purple Line runs hourly at best, and that our buses are not exemplars of punctuality (which means a wait in the cold after the walk to the stop), this is hardly dignified treatment of the car-free.

To be fair, I should say that the Ice Park in its current location is served only by the Yellow Line, which stops at that location only four times a day (three on Saturdays). So, in terms of frequency of service, this seems to be an improvement. However, I hope that Ice Alaska and the Borough can do better than offer people half an hour of cold and discomfort both before and after their visit.

The Ice Park is one of the uniquely wonderful things about Fairbanks. It should be in a central location and easily accessible to all.

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Fellow Fairbanks blogger Discontinuous Permafrost writes about the Unitarian-Universalist Fellowship in his latest post, “Organizing unorganized religion,”

While unorganized religion has its benefits, it also has its challenges. I suspect the only thing we might agree upon is that we should have service on Sunday.

It’s veering a bit away from the thrust of the piece (which is about the challenges and opportunities of a non-credal religion), but let me sow the seeds of disagreement over the UU’s one point of consensus (i.e., having service on Sunday).

All congregations from culturally Christian roots — mine included — seem to default to Sundays as their day of meeting. Yet Sunday is the day of the week when people without a car will have the hardest time getting to church (or what you may call it). The Borough buses in Fairbanks run a regular schedule from Monday to Friday, a much-scaled-back schedule on Saturday, and not at all on Sunday.

In addition, many congregations — DP’s and mine included — deliberately locate some distance from any concentration of human population, which means that the chance of many congregants’ walking to church is practically nil.

These two practices, of locating churches outside of any neighborhood and of meeting on transit-free days, has the effect of making church accessible only to those who can afford a car. The care and feeding of private automobiles takes up 15 to 25 percent of our personal income (across all income groups, incidentally), which poses a tremendous burden on the poor.

A requirement of car ownership seems to defy some of the “seven principles” that DP credits to the Unitarian-Universalists, particularly:

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations; and
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

By no means do I wish to single out the UU’s. My own religious body, like theirs, has a strong emphasis on equality, community, and social justice. Like theirs, mine is not accessible by public transit on Sundays. (Theirs, at least, is marginally accessible on the Yellow Line; mine is far away from any public transit.)

By requiring car ownership as the gateway to church participation (or, indeed, any civic participation), don’t we effectively weed out the involvement of the poor, the very people to whom the religious ought to reach out the most? Don’t we block, rather than encourage, their spiritual growth?

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