Sunday, August 31, 2008

A Tip for Bus Travel on Labor Day

CDTA announced buses will run on a Sunday/ Holiday schedule on Labor Day.

Those in the know, know CDTA's Sunday schedule is skeletal.

The last time I was in town for a holiday to use CDTA when buses operated on a Sunday/Holiday schedule was Memorial Day. I tried to schedule an errand using Trip Planner, and if I had followed the tool's recommendations, I would have waited and waited all day long. Trip Planner directed me to one of the many routes that don't run on Sundays.

I decided to try to live up to my transit riding super-hero title (thanks again, All Over Albany, the source for all-things-interesting about this region, including the daily Morning Blend for those who don't want to scour the day's news all by yourself; they're also the good people who I umm... lifted the above photo from) and run a test before the holiday to provide those folks in town who ride the bus and depend on one of the two online planning tools some sound advice.

The advice:


Instead, to plan your bus trip, do one of the following:
  • Call CDTA's information line: 482-8822 between the hours of 8:30 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. today or Monday.
  • Use a combination of the CDTA system map and schedules to plan your outing. Remember to check whether the routes you need actually operate on Sundays by checking each route schedule. Schedules are accessible directly on the system map by clicking anyplace you see a circled route number on the map.

Curious about the results of my test of Google Tranist and Trip Planner?
Testing was run Saturday night and Sunday morning for trips scheduled on Monday, September 1.
Trip Planner results
Unlike Memorial Day, CDTA's Trip Planner didn't leave me waiting on the corner for a bus that wouldn't show up. Instead they disabled all route information for September 1, even for the routes that will be operating. So, unless CDTA's IT staff is going to make last minute changes, using Trip Planner on Monday is not a wise choice.

Google Transit results
It doesn't look as though Google Transit got the memo from CDTA about Labor Day bus service. Every trip I entered for Monday gave me info for regular Monday service, with every route in the system operating. Now, I still might use Google Transit on Monday is to see if their walking alternative is more viable than the abysmal Sunday bus service!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

CDTA's Hip Hip HooRAY!

About a month ago, it dawned on me --I am an official "public transportation geek."

The clue that tipped me off was the enthusiasm with which I nodded my head while sitting in an empty room and watching the online video of CDTA's July board meeting - something Executive Director, Ray Melleady said had been right on target. You've got to be really into transit to sit through a board meeting of your Transit Authority.

So, you can probably imagine my excitement when I returned home Sunday night at 9 p.m. - exhausted from driving the rental car I had over the weekend to get out of town and enjoy the Adirondacks for a couple of days - I opened my Sunday Times Union to see Ray Melleady's piece on the front page of the Perspective section.

I couldn't wait to see what Ray had to say.

It was filled with good stuff, and he drove it all home with my favorite part right here:

This is a direct call to elected officials, business leaders, chambers of commerce, labor unions and transit managers. If you are serious about energy independence and conservation, we need to advocate for the authorization of new public policy and funding initiatives that reward communities for developing a strong public transportation infrastructure.

The communities that get it right will grow and prosper. The ones that get it wrong will shrink and preside over a slow and steady decline.

When I finished reading, it left me wondering how often Ray rides the bus.

You can actually watch Ray give a lesson on how to ride the bus by clicking here (go to the "More from Ray..." box on the upper right side of the page, you'll need Windows Media Player to view - then click on the "Frequently Asked Questions" link ) -- this video was definitely made before Google Transit came to town, and doesn't even mention the Trip Planner; still it conveys some very useful info. Also check out the Welcome Message link at the same location where Ray introduces viewers to the website... via the website. Yeah -- kinda on the silly side that you need to go to the website in order to watch the video highlighting their site improvements. This video was made a while ago as well, again it doesn't mention Trip Planner or Google Transit, and Ray spends some needless time discussing their branding and the color blue (really, not necessary in retrospect, but I'm sure at the time of the shoot, the marketing folks and management were keen on the big change to blue buses). My favorite of the two is definitely the FAQ video -- the intro music pulls me right into the video and onto the bus.

Speaking of CDTA's marketing efforts, I've noticed a bunch of new interior CDTA ads on the bus. My favorites are some great ads introducing CDTA employees (unfortunately, I couldn't find any samples on the CDTA website to link to, but I recall bus operators and mechanics -- I, of course, am waiting to see the one that introduces Dolly!) ; the ads also act as a "want ad" for employees and push the concept of "working green". Then yesterday, I happened to look up on the bus and noticed the interior was plastered with CDTA ads -- some of them should have been placed more carefully because there were instances where the same bus rider would view just one ad multiple times. I noticed one ad promoting safety on the bus and another directing riders to check out the CDTA website -- which I think is a great idea. Good work, CDTA. I'm hoping to see more ads that direct riders to specific aspects of the site, like Google Transit, Trip Planner, Service Alerts and the News Center.

Growing up in NYC, the advertising on the inside of subway cars and buses was just as prevalent as the advertising everyplace else in the city. I remember as a kid and a teenager, spending much of my transit time checking out all of the ads on the trains and buses. I also recall teenage boys I knew who dug the Preparation H ads so much, they would take them home and post on their bedroom walls! (I searched for a sample old ad to enhance this post, but couldn't find one -- if you can, send it my way!)

I think CDTA is missing opportunities to increase revenue a bit by selling more ads on the interior of buses and at bus shelters -- and you'd think all those new buses equipped with cameras will prevent adolescents and frat boys running off with interior decorations.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

P.S. Clean up after yourselves...

There are times when I have oh, ten minutes or so to wait for a connecting bus at Crossgates, and I'm starving. Not enough time to run inside, grab some food, sit and eat it and then run outside to catch the bus. Nope. Not enough time. Besides...who wants mall food court food anyway -- even when you're starving?

That's how I felt before I discovered Full Mi Belly, the relatively new Jamaican joint at the food court. Yumyumyum.

Eating is a no-no on the bus. But it's done.

Sometimes, when I have that lag for a connecting bus at Crossgates I'll run inside, grab a small jerk chicken with rice and peas and cabbage for $5.99 plus tax. Then run outside to catch the bus I need. I'm sitting on the bus, starving, with the smell of outstanding jerk chicken wafting before me, and a growling stomach. I can't take it -- I have to have just a little. So, yes, even I have guiltily eaten on the bus. But I always make sure that I don't leave a mess behind me!
This mess includes chicken bones I found on the bus before 10 a.m. one morning this summer!
Don't be nasty.

Since my last post had 9 birthday wishes, I was thinking 10 is a much better number. 10 is nice and round. There's a completeness to a list of 10 things. To add to my list of "big 4-0" birthday wishes, this one's for those of you on the bus with me.

Wish List - My Fellow Bus Riders

We bond over missed buses, we share schedule information, we talk about possible fair hikes and we freeze outside together in the winter... so let's be respectful of our shared space and...

1. If you MUST eat on the bus, clean up after yourselves.

A "transit-riding superhero" * Turns 40 Thursday

Yup, I'm turning 40 in a couple of days --I was shocked reading All Over Albany last week to find that my 40th is within just a few days of the 40th birthday of a Capital Region celebrity of sorts. I think I'm old enough now and I'm certainly bold enough now to ask for a few gifts. Do what you can, for me, k?

[*Note: the title "transit-riding superhero" is thanks to the very good folks at All Over Albany]

Wish List - Drivers

Hey Drivers,
This is coming from someone who really enjoys driving. You're operating a vehicle, moving from one place to another so please...

1. Share the road with bicyclists. I think we have enough ghost bikes in our region.

2. Respect pedestrians. About a month after I started my no-driving experiment, I came within inches of being hit while crossing a Central Avenue intersection with my daughter (we were on our way to a bus stop and then to a rental car company to pick up a car) . The driver who was making a left turn onto Central at a green light was extremely apologetic. He got out of his car, and ran across the busy street (almost getting hit himself) to be sure we were ok. However, not all drivers are as concerned about pedestrians' well-being.

3. Along the same lines as 2, above. Turning on red (right on red or left from a one-way to a one-way), is not a free pass to simply slow down to 5 or 3 or even 1 mph and slowly coast through an intersection. The light is still red. Red still means stop. Completely stop. Oh, yeah... and before you pull ahead, be sure the coast is clear.

Wish List - CDTA
CDTA, I feel like I'm your big sister, two years older than you, I'm holding your hand and pulling you along. While, I certainly have a long list of wishes for you -- below are the top 3 items on my wish list.

1. Improve the abysmal Sunday service . It looks like you recognize the need for improvements as Monday's article about your proposal to re-vamp Schenectady's service pointed out,

" 'There are certain routes on our system that don't stop after 6 or 7 p.m., and some don't run on Sundays,' said spokeswoman Margo Janack. 'People who may want to attend religious services, people who want to shop after work at night or catch some entertainment somewhere -- they may not be able to do that by bus because the service doesn't extend that far or run for that long.'

The current hours also often fall short for people who work night and weekend shifts."

Eureka! You do see that those of us without cars need to get around on Sundays too! Yes, funding is tight, but this is the state's Capital Region and it is certainly reasonable to expect good transit service seven days per week, at least once per hour in each direction from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.

2. Post schedules at all stops and shelters so we know when to expect a bus. It seems that a year ago there were many more schedules posted. Recently, sleeker shelters were installed and nobody bothered to re-post schedules. If funds aren't available in your budget to pay staff to do the posting, this seems like a project that could be accomplished by volunteer bus riders and/or partnerships with volunteers from local non-profits.

3. Follow up with riders' complaints. I know I've called the customer information line to complain at least one time since the posting of the Complaint Process flow chart dated September 2007, provided my name and phone number and said, "I'd like someone to call me back with information." I never received a phone call back. In addition to the flow chart, you also state in the How To Ride section of the site, "We will investigate your complaint and report back to you in writing within 10 working days." Do what you say.

Wish List for Regional Planners, Politicians and other Transit-related Decision Makers

Hey folks, it's great that Albany is now working on our first-ever Comprehensive Plan, and excellent that the TU has started the Capital Region at a Crossroads series and blog -- now let's get something done. Here are my suggestions:

1. Make life easier for those that tread lightly on the environment: (i) give us bike lanes across the cities and throughout the region, (ii) enforce sidewalk shoveling ordinances in the winters to keep our sidewalks clear of snow and ice, and (iii) invest in sidewalks in areas where there are none.

2. Be good to my younger sibling, CDTA. Invest in transit and transit-oriented development - let's face it - transit is part of the solution for today's fiscal and energy realities. And bring me something faster than buses to get from city to city to city to city, and from the cities to some of our beautiful outlying areas.

3. Let's start a non-profit car sharing company. I really think non-profit is the way to go -- check out why Austin went non-profit with Austin Car Share and even little Ithaca, NY launched a non-profit car sharing company this past June!

... and maybe I'll see you on the bus.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Hello, Dolly!

In case you didn't read all about it, the TU sent a few good reporters out on assignment to give our bus service a whirl. The article stirred considerable response including Pantaloons' excellent workaround when things don't go as planned (read the post then scroll down to the comment- it's worth it) thanks to All Over Albany , a number of reader responses on the TU Crossroads blog, Roger Green's Zen and the Art of Bus Riding, a CDTA Board member who gave the newspaper a piece of his mind (available for your viewing pleasure on the CDTA website - the July 30 meeting - about 32 minutes into the meeting), and some rather lively discussions on the bus -- imagine that!

What was I doing during all of this hubbub?

Soaking it all in, of course.

One of the very first responses I had to the article was a strong agreement with Margo Janack and Carm Basile, two CDTA spokes-folk. From the original article:

"Mainly, Janack and Basile wanted to know this: Why didn't our bold investigators just pick up the phone and call the authority's Customer Information Center before heading out?

The number, they note, is listed in the phone book, posted at bus stops, printed on schedules and displayed on the Web site."

Exactly. 482-8822. I love that number. Calling the CDTA information line when I'm on my way to a bus stop, waiting at a bus stop, and even on a bus has helped me many times.

It was a few months ago when I overheard a conversation between bus riders about service. One said to the other something like this, "Oh, when I didn't catch that bus I spoke to Dolly and she told me ...."

I chimed in, "What?"

My fellow rider responded, "Oh, Dolly -- on the information line. She's worked there forever."

I try to be personable. To get to know people. To at least take note when I'm on the phone with an operator that they too are human. But, I had never retained the names of the helpful people on the other end of the customer information line in my memory bank. Probably because most of the times that I've called, I've been rather frustrated.

Since that day, I've paid closer attention when my call is answered, and sometimes, I too speak with Dolly.

The other day, I was running late. So late, that I didn't even check the bus schedule before leaving the house because I just didn't want to know. I dropped my daughter off at camp, and headed towards Western Avenue. As I was walking across Main towards Madison, it happened again.

I saw a bus driving west along Western Avenue -- and I thought a really bad word to myself. I had missed a bus.

My mind started to work, "Now I'm probably going to have to wait a while or maybe it'd be faster to walk over to Washington Avenue and catch that line. Wait... could it be possible that was not the bus line I even wanted?? Sometimes there is that other line that runs up Western..."

I didn't want to go into my bag and start fumbling through the bus schedules. It was just too much work. It also slows me down. I decided to call for help.

Dolly answered.

"Oh, hi Dolly -- I've got a couple of questions."

First I asked her if that bus I missed could possibly be the one I really didn't need, the Number 11.

"No," she said without a pause, "The Number 11 doesn't even run this time of day."

Ok... so, when is the next Number 10?

"They run every 20 minutes."

Ok. I knew that, really. They tell me every time I call. It can be hard to keep it all on the front burner though. Well, not for Dolly.

What about the Number 30... going towards Washington Avenue from Western? She checked. That bus rarely runs, and I had missed it. I asked when the next Washington Avenue bus was.

Dolly told me, and I realized I'd be cutting it too close if I tried to walk over there.

The twenty minutes (by this time, much closer to 15 minutes) would go by quickly if I waited on the bench at the stop on Western and Allen and read my newspaper.

I couldn't help myself, "Thank you Dolly, you're a doll!"

She laughed. Poor woman, she probably gets that ALL THE TIME.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Finding a good match

My friend once shared some words of wisdom that she got from her grandfather.

They went something like this, "You know you've found the right person to marry if he makes your life easier!"

I've kept that in mind over the years... haven't gotten married as relationships have always seemed to complicate my life; never have they made things easier.

Then came August 1, 2008. The go-live date for Google Transit in Albany.

Already GT is on the right track.

Saturday morning when I was pondering getting to the gym to take a class that I really do enjoy, GT gave me a couple of bus options. The shortest option: about 40 minutes of travel time; he also gave me the option to walk: about 50 minutes of travel time. Not much difference. And that was just to GET to the gym. Then there was the hour of class time, and the travel time back home which I didn't calculate on GT because he hasn't quite worked out how to present that info as cleanly as the sometimes-tedious, rather cumbersome CDTA Trip Planner does.

I assessed the one-way information Google Transit gave me.

I made a decision.

Not to be to cliché, but yes, I changed my mind.

I decided to make good, productive use of that 40-50 minute one-way travel time by doing something at home on my very long list of things to do.

After the 40 - 50 minutes passed by, I put on my running shoes, stretched, and went for run (ok, a jog) around the gorgeous lake at Washington Park. Ran for a good 44 minutes right back to my doorstep, with no added travel time home.

Google Transit made my life easier. I'd say we're off to a very nice start.

CDTA now links to Google Maps (you can actually get to Google Transit as an option in Google Maps) directly from their site as well as to Google's how-to video. Good partnerships make happy travelers.

I'm not rushing into things with GT though; that's never a good idea. He only got to town a few days ago, and we're just getting to know each other... but, hey GT was only in beta on Saturday, which means it can only get betta, right?