Coaching VTA Bus Drivers Again

This morning I stood at the bus stop with the usual suspects waiting for the pre-dawn express bus to Palo Alto. It was five minutes late. We watched in amazement as the express bus drove past us across the street, coming from the opposite direction for the afternoon route. Before the bus could finish turning right on to Southwest Expressway to enter the loop-de-loop at Meridian Avenue and the 280, someone had the VTA customer service number on speed dial and started talking to a customer rep. We shook our heads. This isn’t the first time we had to coach the bus drivers on their new routes.

The Valley Transit Authority (VTA) in Silicon Valley rotates the drivers among the different routes every March and September. This week, the second full week of April and six weeks after the last rotation, some schedules got tweaked and new drivers started on the routes to my tech job in Palo Alto.

The local bus I take to pick up the express bus arrived two minutes earlier on the revised schedule, which meant I had to get out of my apartment five minutes earlier. Some drivers will arrive a few minutes earlier to avoid getting stuck behind the lights at the light rail crossing or take a break at the 7-11 at the next stop. New drivers on new routes are an unpredictable bunch, especially when sticking to the schedule.

The express bus tried to pick us again. Now ten minutes late. The driver probably had to go back out on southbound 280, swung up and around on Bird Avenue, and came back on northbound 280.  Still coming from the opposite direction by taking the Meridian Avenue exit instead of continuing on to Southwest Expressway. The onboard GPS should have given the driver precise directions for getting to this particular bus stop. If the driver is early or late, the GPS gives them a notification. The GPS either not worked or this driver ignored it.

The person on call to customer service got patched through to the driver over the radio. “You stay on that side,” he told the driver, pointing at the other side of the street. “We’re crossing over.”

A half-dozen of us ran across the empty lanes like East Berliners trying to cross the kill zone to West Berlin. The express bus veered across the lanes as if the driver was going to pick us up in the middle of the street, make a U-turn to pick us up from the other side, or just run us over for shakes and giggles. Some of us stopped in the middle lane to make sure that the express bus did stop before we cross over the last lane. We stepped aboard as if we were right on schedule.

Like most bus drivers running late, this driver put the pedal to the metal once we hit the freeway. When we quickly came upon the Page Mill Road exit, and still in the fast lane, people in the back of the bus started shouting directions. We cut through three lanes of traffic in a heartbeat. Once we were on Page Mill Road, the driver remembered the rest of his route. I arrived at my next bus stop to pick up the local bus with a few minutes to spare. Not surprisingly, a new driver learning the route with some coaching from the passengers.


Riding The Hotel 22 Bus

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When I started my new tech job six months ago, I initially took the 522 from San Jose to Palo Alto that ran the same route as the 22 and makes 75% fewer stops to get across the valley faster. This portion of my two-hour trip each way to work took 45 minute. As the weather got colder, the presence—and the overwhelming smell—of the homeless became more prevalent. Although I knew that the homeless rode the 22 around the clock, I didn’t know it had the nickname of “Hotel 22” until I read The New York Times op-ed piece by Elizabeth Lo on her new documentary by the same name.

Silicon Valley has three different kinds of buses that get workers from the outlying areas of the San Francisco Bay Area to their jobs in Silicon Valley, the Peninsula, Oakland or San Francisco. I’ve ridden on all three buses over the last 15 years as a computer technician in Silicon Valley.

Local buses crisscross the county to connect people from their homes to the major transit centers and thoroughfares for local companies. Minimum wage workers, techies and homeless people all mingled together, the 22 being the most obvious example. A monthly bus pass for Santa Clara County is $70 USD.

Commuter buses connect major transit centers to job-concentrated areas that are typically inaccessible without a vehicle (i.e., no sidewalks back to civilization). Some commuter and express buses are WiFi-enabled to allow Internet access via cellphone and tablets. You’re less likely to find minimum wage workers and the homeless on these buses, as the fastest routes are twice as expensive. A monthly express bus pass in Santa Clara County cost $140 USD.

Tech buses stop at major transit centers and thoroughfares to take them directly to each campus building. These luxury buses features faster WiFi connections, comfortable seats and sometimes a restroom. Access restricted to workers with company badges. Free for full-time employees, and, depending on the company, a nominal fee for contractors. No minimum wage workers or homeless allowed on these buses. These buses made the news when protesters in San Francisco and Oakland rioted against Google buses in 2013.

After riding the 522 for two months, I switched to an express bus that cut my overall commute to an hour each way. I drove the 280/85 freeway route to Mountain View for many years, suffering 45 minutes in the morning and 90 minutes in the evening. Driving beyond the 280/85 interchange to Page Mill Road in Palo Alto is much worse. I’m happy to pay someone else to drive while I read an ebook, listen to an audio book or take a snooze. Yes, like many of my fellow techies, I don’t miss dealing with the homeless or their overwhelming smell.

Some people get outraged that Silicon Valley, being richest society in America, can’t take care of the homeless. As I pointed out in the comment on The New York Times website, Californians love to vote on initiatives and propositions that decrease their taxes and increase their services. This is true for most Americans. Everyone wants services; no one wants to pay for it. Until that change, nothing else will change. Something to look forward to as baby boomers retire and the workforce shrinks in the next quarter-century.

Coaching VTA Bus Drivers On Their Routes

VTAOne of the more curious sights at the start of the New Year was seeing VTA bus drivers studying a small handbook like monks examining scriptures. Whenever the bus pulled into a new stop, and the passengers finished boarding and departing, the driver pulls out the handbook to study the opened page for a moment. What’s the handbook? After several incidents where the passengers coached the drivers on driving their routes, the handbook listed the driving directions for all the bus routes. Some of those printed directions weren’t very accurate.

Since I started my new non-writing tech job six months ago, I liked my new commute of taking a five-minute local bus from my home, taking a 20-minute express bus to Palo Alto, and a five-minute local bus to my job. With 30 minutes of waiting between connections, it takes an hour each way. This is perhaps the most efficient route I have ever taken to work on the public transit.

The express bus had a new driver for Thursday and Friday afternoons. Like many drivers I’ve seen, he had a handbook nearby. He also had several 3×5 cards taped to the dashboard with handwritten directions. Leaving Palo Alto via Page Mill Road to southbound 280 was uneventful. When it came time to take the freeway loop for the Fruitdale Avenue stop, the driver drove past the southbound Meridian Avenue exit and took the northbound Meridian Avenue exit.

I leaned forward from my seat. “You missed the exit.”

“For real?” the driver said, dismayed. He glanced at his 3×5 cards. “The handbook says northbound exit.”

“Your handbook has a misprint.”

Everyone else in the bus became backseat driver and shouted directions at the driver. Most of those directions were wildly inconsistent for a confused driver unfamiliar with this part of San Jose. Being the closest person to the driver, I spoke up over the din behind me and directed the driver to take a loop-de-loop around the 280 on local streets to get to Meridian Avenue. The driver became more confident as the backseat drivers agreed with my directions and stopped offering alternative directions..

After the driver stopped at the morning bus stop for the express bus (the afternoon bus stop was across the street in the opposite direction), he crossed out “southbound” and wrote “northbound” for Meridian Avenue on his 3×5 cards. He hasn’t made that mistake again since learning his new route.

The local bus in Palo Alto never has the same bus driver in the morning. My coworkers and I often have to coach the new driver on the route. The location of where I get off from the express bus to pick up the local bus in Palo Alto is at an intersection in the foothills, a middle-of-nowhere place filled with rich joggers and poor jackrabbits. Most drivers don’t expect to find people waiting for a bus out here in the morning, and, if running behind schedule, will bypass this leg of the route to make up time.

One driver tried to drive on without picking me up. After I got into the street with both hands waving (this typically happens during a rainstorm), and my coworkers from inside the bus shouted at the driver to stop, I ran down the block to get on the bus. The driver told me that she didn’t pick up passengers at that stop. I told her to look up the handbook. She discovered that my stop was a time-point stop listed in the schedule—and she was ten minutes late.

Despite each bus having a GPS system that list turn-by-turn directions for each route, the drivers consulted their handbooks at each bus stop for the first two weeks of the New Year. Except for the local bus in Palo Alto which always has a different driver each morning, the drivers know their new routes as coached by the passengers.

Flying High With Orion Spacecraft

Orion Spacecraft SplashdownAs a child growing up in the 1970’s, spaceflight was a big deal. I watched the Apollo 11 moon landing while in utero with my parents a month before I was born. While the moon landings were old news by the time I got into school, the Apollo-Soyuz test flight between America and the Soviet Union, the fateful re-entry of Skylab, and the space shuttle program were future milestones. Spaceflight became routine—and home computers caught my interest—in the 1980’s. With the exception of the Challenger (1986) and Columbia (2003) shuttle disasters, spaceflight was no longer a big deal. With the flawless test flight of the Orion spacecraft to send astronauts to the moon and beyond, perhaps that will change.

Orion wasn’t on my mind at work until I noticed the headline tucked away on a corner of The New York Times website. (Unless something blows up and lives are lost, routine spaceflight will never capture the front page again.) I watched the NASA videos for launch and splashdown of the 4.5-hour mission.

The new spacecraft made a single Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the space shuttles and the International Space Station travel, before the second stage rocket boosted it into a 3,600-mile high orbit to fly through the Van Allen radiation belt and simulate a 20,000 MPH atmospheric re-entry that blasts the heat shield at 4,000 F degrees. From launch to splashdown, 1,200 sensors sent back telemetry data to help engineers prepare for the next test flight.

As I read the news commentary and review the technical specs of the Delta IV heavy rocket (which normally launches satellites into orbit), I felt like the kid who reviewed the NASA pamphlets on space missions at the local library with hope and excitement. The threat of nuclear annihilation from the Cold War in the 20th century was a good motivation to get off the planet. With the threat of global warming in the 21st century, getting off the planet is still a good idea. The survival of humanity will depend on going into space.

A lot of the focus for the new manned spaceflight is from Earth orbit towards Mars and beyond. (This is where the “deep space” label gets slapped on by commentators, which in my opinion should apply only to space missions beyond the solar system.) What about Venus (second planet from the sun)? Granted, Earth’s sister world isn’t the most inviting place for a manned mission with a sulfuric acid atmosphere hot enough that lead is a liquid. But, like Mount Everest being the tallest peak on Earth, it’s there to visit and closer than Mars.

Blogger Michael J. Battaglia in Scientific American makes a good argument for a flyby visit to Venus: “A circumnavigation of Venus would test our ability to function in deep space, to enter a planet’s gravitational influence, to create robust shielding for the higher radiation at Venus’s relatively close proximity to the sun, to devise zero-g strategies for long-duration flights—all of which would bolster us for an even longer journey to Mars. Besides, for a long-duration mission, we might not want to commit our astronauts to landing on Mars only to find out that they could not walk, their musculature had so degenerated upon arrival. In contrast, the crew of a long Venus round-trip would land not on a faraway planet but back on Earth, where medical attention is readily available if needed.”

Due to ever smaller budgets, NASA will have to compromise mission objectives to get the most bangs for the buck. The next unmanned test flight for Orion to cruise around the moon will be in 2017 or 2018. With the Chinese and the Russians planning missions to the moon, a new space race might make spaceflight more exciting and less routine again.

Can We PLEASE Shut Up About The New Bay Bridge?

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The next time I hear the words, “Bay Bridge,” on the radio, I’m going to run over an orange cone in a construction zone on the freeway. Bad enough that the bolt fastener problem got talked about endlessly for months on “The Ronn Owens Show” during the morning commute and the news roundup during the evening commute. A week-long drumbeat to the closure of the Bay Bridge over Labor Day weekend was especially aggravating. But was it really necessary for KGO Radio to host their news desk on Yerba Buena Island—where the eastern and western spans meet—for the week following the bridge reopening on Labor Day?

I’m not sure if I will ever drive over the new eastern span anytime soon. Since I live and work in the south bay, I rarely have to cross the bay. The last time was a few years ago when I did a temp job in San Mateo and drove over the San Mateo Bridge to visit my father in a Sacramento, taking the 580 out to the I-5 in the central valley to avoid paying the bridge toll at the Benicia Bridge on the 680 in the north bay.

The last time I was on the Bay Bridge was the day of the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. I was working with my father in construction at the time. We visited a job site in Walnut Creek, crossed the Bay Bridge after lunch to visit a job site in San Francisco, and came home in time for the earthquake. We saw on TV the collapsed section of the Bay Bridge that we drove over hours before, which started the 24 year ordeal to replace the eastern span. The job isn’t done yet: still got bike lanes to add to the western span and the dismantling of the old eastern span over the next few years.

Now talk on the Bay Bridge has shifted to arguing over renaming the western span to the Willie L. Brown, Jr. Bridge. Tim Montemayor of “The Monty Show” screamed over the radio on Saturday that the state legislators gave in to being “blackmailed” by the NAACP, which is pushing to rename the bridge after the former mayor of San Francisco. That’s a bit of stretch even for conspiracy nuts. If you’re naming the bridge after Willie Brown on the western span, name the eastern span after Governor Jerry Brown and call it the Slick Willie/Moonbeam Jerry Bay Bridge.

Let’s shut up about the Bay Bridge and talk about something else for a change. The BART contract negotiations will rear its ugly head when the 60-day cooling off period imposed by the governor expires in October. The union is threatening to have the longest strike since the 1970’s if they don’t get a 23 percent pay increase, and BART management is threatening to run the trains during a strike. Although all the screaming and hollering might get tiresome, no one will be talking about the Bay Bridge outside of the traffic reports.

Crashing Into The Ground At LaGuardia Airport

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After the airplane crash landed in San Francisco, my roommate reassured me that I had nothing to worry about for my first airplane trip that I’m taking on my birthday next month. Southwest Airlines flies the older Boeing 737 airplanes that are more reliable than the newer Boeing 777 airplane that crashed. And then a Southwest Airlines 737 crash landed at LaGuardia Airport after the nose gear collapsed and the airplane skidded to a halt on the runway.

Nothing to worry about.

As a child growing up in the 1970’s, it seemed like an airplane either crashing or being hijacked by terrorists every other week. Flying on an airplane got added to a long list of things that I would never do. Something I avoided for many years by never going anywhere far enough from Silicon Valley that couldn’t be reached by car.

As I got older in life, the list of things that I would never do got shorter. If I could get my driver license at the tender young age of 37, perhaps I could take an airplane to Las Vegas on my 44th birthday. That the Las Vegas Star Trek convention is taking place the same week I’ll be there is purely coincidental. Considering how much I paid for this trip over the last six months, not going isn’t an option.

I still need to get used to the idea of hurling through the sky in a cigar-shaped coffin, but these crashes aren’t helping that much. I’ll probably end up like William Shatner in The Twilight Zone TV episode, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” being carried out on a stretcher after losing it on the airplane.

Crashing At SFO With Carryon Luggage In Hand

SFO Plane CrashThe Fourth of July weekend was relatively quiet in Silicon Valley. With the downtown San Jose fireworks show cancelled this year, no air cannons thumped the ground a few miles away to launch fireworks. No idiots shot fireworks from their balcony, and, despite a few M-80s going off, the apartment complex didn’t burn to the ground. The only major fireworks was an airplane crash landing at SFO on Saturday, especially this picture showing people exiting the burning airliner with luggage in hand.

I have never taken an airplane trip. That will change next month when I go to Las Vegas for my birthday. My roommate reassured that me that the 737’s that Southwest Airlines flies are older than the 777’s flown by Asiana Airlines. That’s reassuring (I think). If the airplane I’m on does a crash landing on the tarmac, the last thing I’ll do is haul out my carryon luggage from the overhead bin, blocked everyone else in the aisle from getting out, go down the emergency slide and drag it across the tarmac.

From the various reports that I read, first class passengers were able to grab their carryon luggage and head for the slides, business class passengers got stuck as the slides didn’t deploy, and coach passengers got screwed as the tail section hit the seawall and broke off. The more I read about this crash, the more I’m reminded of the sinking of the Titanic in 1912: first class passengers got into the lifeboats, business passengers grabbed whatever else that floated, and everyone else went down with the ship.

The stupidity of some people never ceases to amaze me.

I have to wonder what was so important in their carryon luggage that they couldn’t leave it behind. With airport security being the way it is, I doubt they were trying to smuggle anything valuable through customs like a pouch of diamonds, a stash of weed, or a flock of parrots. One pair stood next to two boxes of duty-free alcohol while watching the airplane burn, raising questions whether the boxes got smuggled on board or stolen from the kitchen area. Since a gaggle of Silicon Valley executives was on this flight, their most valuable possession was probably data on a smartphone in their pants pocket.

Do You Know The Way To Alviso?

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One of my pet peeves is how the national news media represents California in general and Silicon Valley in particular. When Los Angeles had a sharp four-point-something earthquake a few years ago, CNN carried on as if California slid into the ocean and ran a video clip from a grocery store surveillance camera that showed very little shaking going on. As for stories filmed in Silicon Valley, San Francisco is a convenient backdrop despite being 50 miles away.

While browsing Bloomberg BusinessWeek, I came across a video feature called “Welcome To The Ghost Town of Silicon Valley” about Alviso, a small town abandoned to the marshes and the residential area annexed by San Jose in the 1960’s. As I watched the video, I started moaning at the factual errors being made by the reporter.

Alviso is nowhere near Mountain View (Google) or Palo Alto (Facebook). What’s over there is the Shoreline Amphitheater built on top of a landfill. The early rock concerts literally went up in smoke as the grassy viewing area behind the seating caught on fire from the methane gas bubbling up from the landfill underneath. Pumping stations pump out the methane gas to make the grassy area safe. The only grass that goes up in smoke is the joints that concertgoers bring themselves.

The train tracks that passes through Alviso and the marshes doesn’t go to San Francisco. The northeast tracks follow the coastline of the east bay and the delta into Sacramento. After my parents retired to Sacramento in the 1990’s, I took the Amtrak Capitol Corridor to visit them because the fare was half the cost of gas for a car but took twice as long to get there. I didn’t mind since I didn’t have a car and loved to travel by train. This is the best way to view the ruined houses and boats left in the marshes.

If you want to travel through Mountain View and Palo Alto on the way to San Francisco, you take Caltrain on the northwest tracks. Board either train at the downtown San Jose train station. The tracks split into different directions in after the San Jose/Santa Clara border.

You would think that Bloomberg BusinessWeek could afford a few fact checkers—or consult an amateur historian who could correct their mistaken reporter.

The Slick Willie-Moonbeam Jerry Bay Bridge

Bay Bridge Western SpanWhen politicians have nothing better to do, they love to rename public buildings and infrastructures. The U.S. Congress, for example, made renaming the local post offices a top legislative priority that such bills constitute 20% of their “do nothing” agenda. California state legislators are getting into the renaming frenzy by proposing to rename the western half of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge after “Slick” Willie Brown. As for the scandal-plagued eastern half that connects to Oakland, they should rename it after Governor “Moonbeam” Jerry Brown.

On the bright side, they’re not selling the naming rights to the highest bidder.

The public naming convention for the person being given the honor of having a local landmark rename after him—almost always a man who gets this honor—should have been dead for at least five years. Not anymore. At least, not in Silicon Valley.

The San Jose Convention Center got renamed in 1991 after Tom McEnery, a former mayor of San Jose who spearheaded much of the downtown redevelopment that included the convention center and the arena.

The downtown San Jose train station had many names over the years as ownership changed from Southern Pacific to Caltrain. The most recent name change in 1994 was after Ron Diridon, a former county supervisor who spearheaded the renovation of the station to become a future transportation hub for the light rail (done), high-speed rail (someday) and BART (when hell freezes over).

The San Jose International Airport was rename in 2001 after Norman Mineta, a former mayor of San Jose who went on to serve as a congressman, commerce secretary for President Bill Clinton and transportation secretary for President George W. Bush.

Notice the general trend here? If you can spend a substantial amount of taxpayer monies on facilities and transportation networks, you too can have something rename after you without being buried in the ground for five years.

If we have to rename the bay bridge after the Browns, let’s use their political nicknames to sum up the absurdity of the situation: The Slick Willie-Moonbeam Jerry Bay Bridge.