Sunday, March 28, 2010

BUS STORY # 177 (Stop Making Sense)

Red Light Camera 2, originally uploaded by busboy4.

Three years ago almost to the day, I posted an interesting conversation with a co-rider about whether the red light cameras were intended to reduce driving accidents, injuries and death, or to generate revenue for the city. 1.

Red light cameras are back in the news here in New Mexico. Last week, the state Transportation Commission gave the Department of Transportation the power to ban red light cameras on state roads, highways, and interstates. 2

Governor Bill Richardson (legendarily lead-footed) strongly supports the move. 3

The rationale from the commission chairman, Johnny Cope, is two-fold. One reason is that “the true safety impact of the use of these cameras is still murky at best.” The other is that “more and more New Mexico cities seem to be putting driver-generated revenues ahead of sound traffic management techniques . . . ” 4

If Mr. Cope has been googling red light cameras and looking at the welter of conflicting claims, I can appreciate his being murky about the safety impact.

Websites and blogs generally fall into a partisan category; they’re either for or against. Each accuses the other of statistical sleight-of-hand or of using studies already skewed to support their bias.

News stories report the results of studies from both sides, but, characteristic of most of today’s journalism, there is precious little investigative reporting into either position.

Here is what the city website has to say about red light cameras in Albuquerque:
The Albuquerque Fire Department reports a 23% decrease in Level 1 trauma calls at red-light camera enforced intersections. The great news, with redlight violations being down by as much as 50-70% at the oldest red-light camera intersections; lives, money and time are being saved by this successful traffic initiative. 5
If you’re of a partisan mode, your default position on this data is either that the fire department’s data is trustworthy (pro) or the city has manipulated the data so it can keep generating revenue from the red light cameras (anti).

Which brings me to Mr. Cope’s other concern: “ . . . New Mexico cities seem to be putting driver-generated revenues ahead of sound traffic management techniques . . .”

He doesn’t explain how the cities are doing this, but my co-rider, Dan, thought he had the answer three years ago:
Dan went for the coup de grâce. The group took a field trip to several of the intersections and timed the duration of the yellow light. Sure enough, they found some interesting discrepancies. “People learn how much yellow light time they have at a frequently-used intersection, then use that learned response at other intersections where the timing is different. When that time is shorter, the city makes a hundred bucks. Or more.” 1
Going back to Google, it seems that every blog, story or comment about why red light cameras should be banned includes the allegation that municipalities are intentionally manipulating the timing of the yellow light to increase the probability of a red light violation for the sole purpose of generating revenue.

Indeed, I found a substantiated story of such tactics in Washington, D.C. back in 2003. The American Automobile Association’s weighing in is particularly compelling.

How widespread is the practice? It’s hard to tell. But the anti red light camera folks believe it’s the rule and not the exception.

Sadly, it wouldn’t surprise anyone, anywhere, to learn one’s local officials have been abusing the citizenry in this manner. Given the widespread skepticism that yellow light timing is both fair and standardized, I think any municipality using red light cameras needs to publicly address the question if it is to have credibility about the purpose of the program. I don't believe Albuquerque has done that.

The impact of the state decision on Albuquerque will be the loss of four red light cameras on Coors Boulevard and the red light camera at the Paseo del Norte and Jefferson intersection. 4

However, one of the first things our new mayor, Richard Barry, did after taking office was to request a review of the city’s red light program. That covers a great many more intersections and roadways than are affected by the state decision. Right now, the mayor and the city council are waiting for the results of an independent investigation of the efficacy of the program being conducted by researchers at UNM. The mayor has been reported as saying “much of his decision” will be based on the conclusions of the study. 6

Rumor has it he’s not a fan of the program. On the other hand, his administration is facing a multi-million dollar deficit in the wake of the economic collapse, and a “reckless driving tax” might look like a pretty good source of badly needed revenue right now.

(There is also this: if he were to agree with the governor, New Mexico would make national headlines for achieving a bipartisan agreement on something in the known universe. Of course, it’s hard to tell if that would serve as an incentive or a deterrent.)

So what does this have to do with riding the bus?

Whether red light cameras or their absence make intersections more dangerous, one thing every driver, bus rider, cyclist and pedestrian in this city knows for sure: speeding through intersections and running red lights is moving toward cultural acceptance. Intersections are dangerous places because of the way people drive.

ABQ RIDE has been promoting a “top ten” reasons for taking the bus. Here’s number 11: leaving the car in the garage and taking the bus increases your odds of getting where you're going alive and intact.

Of course, buses share the same risk at intersections that cars do. We’ve already lost a Rapid Ride to a red light runner back in October. (There were no red light cameras at the intersection.)

After watching how the passengers were bounced around on that bus, we riders should probably start right now to petition for seat belts.

Helmets optional.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

BUS STORY # 176 (Wild Child)

Wild Things Bus_1008, originally uploaded by Brechtbug.

He’s two and he’s terrible. He’s screaming and shouting and ricocheting off the riders and the bench seats up on the rear platform.

Mom sits in the rear left corner. Dad sits on the bench seat in front of her. They’re mostly spectators, sometimes commentators, and little else.

There are four other adults up there, all male, all somewhere between 20 and 40. Two of them laugh and generally approve of this display of machismito. He’s gonna be a pistol, he is. Mom and dad are proud of that. The rear platform is a stage, and the kid is playing to the audience.

The third guy is wearing hospital scrubs. I’ve seen him on this route several times before. He obviously likes the kid, but he’s also got a way with him that quiets him and slows him down some. It takes me a while to realize what he's doing. The kid sees he's got this guy’s attention without realizing the guy has his.

The fourth guy sits in the corner just above the exit door. He does not look like he approves. He does not look like he disapproves. He looks terrified. He looks scrunched into that corner and he keeps his wide eyes on the kid’s every move.

As good as the guy in scrubs is, there comes the time when the kid is ready to bust loose again. They’ve been playing peek-a-boo with the kid’s Spider Man cap. The bus has stopped to take on some riders. Just as the front and rear doors start to close, the kid throws his cap on the floor. His dad leans over to pick it up and the kid shrieks. It’s a glass-breaker.

The fourth rider suddenly shoots straight up out of his seat and yells to the front of the bus, “LET ME OUT OF HERE! NOW!”

The driver re-opens the back door and he is down and out in a flash.

I see him standing there looking at us as we pull away. I can see the relief just beginning to find expression in his face. There’ll be another, quieter, bus in 20 minutes.

The photo at the top of this story is titled “Wild Things Bus_1008” and is posted with the kind permission of Brechtbug. You can see this and all Brechtbug’s photos on Flickr at:

Sunday, March 14, 2010

BUS STORY # 175 (Portrait # 6: Eastern)

The first time I noticed him, I thought he had a medical condition. He was sitting on a bench seat facing the aisle, eyes closed, arms on his thighs with his hands turned up and his two middle fingers touching his thumbs. The pose suggested meditation then, but the position looked unnatural, the hands awkward and the fingers contractured.

He rocked side to side with the starting and the stopping of the bus without ever losing his equilibrium. I thought maybe he was trying to sleep. Then I saw him drool. That’s when I decided he must have a medical condition.

I was mistaken.

One afternoon, we got off at the same stop. Out on the sidewalk, he turned into an awake and alert and normally functioning human being. I began consciously watching for him after that.

It took a while to reach the conclusion he was meditating.

First, he’s young – maybe mid-20s or younger – and I don’t automatically associate meditation with young males no matter what their genetic or cultural heritage.

On the other hand, he looks Amerasian, and my cultural stereotypes associate meditation more with the East than with the West.

Secondly, this was happening on the bus. Even if a young man were to undertake the practice of meditation, picking the bus as a practice environment seemed unlikely both because the bus is noisy and distracting, and because he would be making a public spectacle of himself. Outside of chest-beating and jackassing, young males are not prone to making public spectacles of themselves.

On the other hand, I thought about those musicians who explained how they learned to focus on their music in performance situations by busking on busy, noisy street corners.

Which brings me to the occasional iPod. Sometimes he has the earpiece in, sometimes he doesn’t. It took me a while to realize I was associating young-man-with-iPod with rock/pop/hip hop music – another cultural prejudice, of course. He might be listening to some tranquil, New Age ambience music, or even a meditation study.

There are other mysteries.

He always wears the same things: a shirt with some sort of Oriental dragon motif, worn untucked, with black pants and black athletic shoes. Sometimes the shirt will feature instead flames licking up from the hem. But always the black pants and shoes.

And there is this: this is what he wears summer and winter.

One cold evening, we got off the bus together. Even more rare, we ended up at the same stop waiting for the same transfer. I was stunned to realize he had no coat, no hat, nothing more than a short-sleeved shirt. His only concession to the cold was to keep his hands in his pants pockets. Otherwise, he betrayed no discomfort.

What else could it be but a spiritual practice, a mind-over-matter exercise, or maybe a martial arts discipline?

Ah, the mysteries of the inscrutable eastbound!

The photo at the top of this story is from the website for Hua Designs and is posted with Hua Design's kind permission. You can see this shirt and all Hua Design's clothing lines at:

Sunday, March 07, 2010

BUS STORY # 174 (Seats On The Bus)

“Hey! Hey! Hey! Step back, folks. Let the children on first.”

The little 400 is already three-quarters full, and there’s a bunch of people waiting at the stop. They surge forward when the front door opens, and that’s when the driver tells them to let the kids on first.

The first message doesn’t take. The driver is out of his seat and blocks the first boarder from getting to the fare box.

“I said step back, folks. Let the children on first. They need to get a seat with their mother.”

This time, the group gets it. The woman who was first through the door backs out and steps to one side. The group parts, and Mom shepherds two little girls to the front door and into the bus. They’re something like eight and six, pig tails and dresses, and look a bit shy. Mom has a folded-up stroller which the youngest looks well beyond.

She makes a point of thanking the driver for his consideration while taking care of the fares. She then sits down next to me on the perimeter bench seating. When she directs the older girl to the seat above on the platform, I quickly realize the situation and move over one. Mom thanks me.

I find myself sharing my seat with the purse of the woman in the next seat. She grabs it, and her body language suggests she’s irritated I’ve taken her purse’s seat.

I’m immediately reminded of a recent You Tube video of a fight between two women on a San Francisco bus. Turns out one of the women refused to move her purse from an empty seat and allow the other woman to sit down.

That fight also had a racial context. I look at the woman with the purse and think we’d have a racial, gender, and possibly a generational context to boot. Top that, SF!

Fortunately, Albuquerque is pretty laid back when it comes to race, and pretty much everything else, too. That includes seating on the bus – more specifically, the riders who’ve taken up two seats, one for them and one for their stuff. In fact, most standing riders will let empty seats go unoccupied if it means having to squeeze in between two other riders, or past the rider in the aisle seat. We’re a pretty live-and-let-live group, generally speaking.

That’s most of the time, not all of the time.

One regular recently told me about a rider who challenged another rider who didn’t want to give up the seat next to him. The regular recounts the conversation as going something like this: “Listen, I paid for a seat on the bus. Did you pay for two seats? Because if you did, I’ll stand. But I’m pretty sure you only have a ticket for one of these seats.”

He got his seat.

My experience is there’s a lot more thoughtfulness among the ridership than not. I’m thinking of the day before I began writing this. I was on my way home, standing in the aisle of a packed bus by a double seat occupied by a woman and her large shopping bag.

“Sir? Sir?”

It took me a minute to realize she was calling to me.

“Do you want to sit down?”

I thought about her shopping bag and my backpack and I told her I was fine.

She was a big lady, but she proceeded to move the shopping bag to her lap and empty the seat for me anyway. The effort was awkward, and she didn’t look comfortable when she was done. I really would rather have stayed standing. But I couldn’t ignore this act of consideration on her part, so I sat down next to her and piled my backpack in my lap.

“Thank you,” I said, and meant it.

And now I’m remembering one of the regulars who puts all her stuff in the window seat and sits in the aisle seat. She busies herself with a book or with scrolling through her mobile. But as we get closer to town and seats become less and less available, she gathers up her stuff and moves herself to the window seat, freeing up the easier-to-access aisle seat. Such awareness, such thoughtfulness, every morning, never fails to impress me.

And I remember one of the early “shorts” when I wrote about a kid who gave up his seat for me. And how there’s another story exactly like it in the queue, the only difference being some other old guy is the beneficiary of some young kid’s thoughtfulness.

Still more such stories have bubbled up as I write this. The point is that, for every time you see someone’s lack of civility, whether from thoughtlessness or a self-centered sense of prerogative, there’s a whole bunch more of people’s kindness and consideration for their co-riders.

A special salute to the driver of the 400 at the beginning of this story. I suspect looking out for the kids to the degree he did isn’t really in his job description. But it was the right thing to do. And it was a fine example for all of us.

Thank you, driver.

The photo at the top of this story is titled “Yes my bag needs its own seat” and is posted with the kind permission of Plaid Ninja. You can see this and all Plaid Ninja’s photos on Flickr at: