14 Juillet 2007: Joyeux fête national! Vive la belle France!

In honor of “Bastille Day”, here is an appropriate e-card from your Mole, just for you and although it has past, “Happy fourth of July!”

America's Best Poorest Maintenance

The photo♪ above was taken at Union Station shows just one example of just how little attention the LACMTA devotes to routine maintenance. At one time there were signs which warned of the danger of the high voltage present on the 3rd rail. But the warnings of the 750 volts AC (alternating current) have long been covered over by dirt and grime. America's Best[2006-2007] is unable to identify the problem, comprehend direct comments to them or reflect on my earlier posting (See this blog: June 2006) much less correct the situation. What is needed and what can be seen in most subways in the world, are large, and in our case bilingual, signs at several points along the outer walls on each platform which warn of the danger. My guess is that like aviation improvements are built on tombstones, it will take an electrocution to force the snail-like LACMTA into motion. I really hope that that will NOT be the case.

The Mole reads the papers (and other things) so you don't have to

The Times, in a back-page piece(1), reports that a “study” of the Red Line (I know, I know, Fuchsia Line), subway to Santa Monica has begun. It will cost $36 million (that's 2,880,000 individual fares at $1.25, folks) and take eighteen months, enriching those that do not need to be enriched, to determine the obvious, viz., that we need a subway link to Santa Monica! The many months of 720 Rapid bus experience should provide all the statistics required to arrive at a decision. However, you Mole, has found that bus driver generated passenger counts may be less accurate than one would expect (see below).

On the front page, the Times covered(2) the, to me, strange attempts, to turn wealthy condominium owners into public transit riders. Speaking about residential complexes in or near public transit, Roger Snoble, whose $300,000+ annual salary is paid by the $1.25 fares of over 20,000 transit riders EACH MONTH over the course of a year, says “People could live here and never use their cars”. Not that the $300,000+ man is a daily user of the service that he apparently believes others whose salaries are in the same order of magnitude will use. The Times calls it “transit-friendly housing” a phrase which is belied by two headlines later in the article: “Transit's lack of convenience cited” and “Doubt cast on rational for transit-oriented projects”. Real reporters would have included “numbers” in their reporting. Then, had they had divided the average cost of a “transit-friendly” apartment – including both purchase and rental costs as separate values, by the number of occupants -- we could quickly see that potential transit riders would have to invest, say, $X per person occupying for a rental unit or $Y per person for those occupying a condominium unit, in order to become a transit rider. No degree in “Rocket Science” would be required to see that these people will not give up their “Beamers” for the joy of sharing their daily commutes with people toting garbage bags full of [mostly] empty beer cans and others about whom I have so freely written here :-). I wonder if “in bed with the LACMTA” has any meaning around the office of the Los Angeles Times?

It appears that the Times is breaking in a new reporter in a soft piece(3) on the LACMTA fare boost. In what must be a candidate for understatement of the month, a rider is quoted as saying “The hikes aren't too popular ...”. All the quotes seem to originate on rail platforms while avoiding interviews on-board buses, which demand Spanish language skill along with the kind of backbone and guts not expected of sorority women who become reporters. Again, no math is included, e.g., given that day passes now cost $5 people will likely try to replace shorter bus links with shoe leather, so that they only use 3 buses trips per day rather than four, paying individual fares and limiting their actual out-of-pocket increase to .75 each day rather than $2. They will also use other tactics to limit their transportation costs – none of which, for obvious reasons, I will detail here. One of the funnier quotes had an unhappy rider saying: “... I've heard that people are going to write angry letters to MTA, ...”. As one who has written to the MTA, I might suggest yelling down a rat hole as an equally effective course of action. The piece also noted, “MTA officials said revenue from the fare increases would go toward plugging a $1.8-billion deficit anticipated over the next decade”. This approach being a more attractive alternative than increasing ridership or cutting expenses.

In a letter to the editor(4), a Los Angeles Times reader pointed out that CalTrans rates freeway segments A through F depending on the [jam factor] while the LACMTA does not focus on improving the worst segments. After some thought, I considered this letter as sufficient reason from removing all functions other than rail, bus and subway service from the domain of the LACMTA. Let that organization focus on services that require a fare and turn freeway, highway and all such infrastructure over to a new or other agency. Perhaps concentrating the limited – in more ways than one – resources only on fare based services they will have some success to support their ridiculous claim of being America's Best. When will we all shout ¡Basta! or Enough! and demand accountability from the LACMTA?

The Foothill Transit Footnotes explains(5) the rationale for a fare increase as 1, 2 and 3. Here, succinctly, in my paraphrasing, they are: One - Costs of bus operation is up; Two - Funding, 55% which is supplied by the LACMTA is drying up [I try to explain some of the many LACMTA inefficiencies in my postings here]; Three – Arnold is applying his terminator skills to de-funding public transportation in an amount near $800 million. You remember Foothill Transit, don't you? They are the ones who post the “Baby Safe” notices on their buses. Unlike the LACMTA who plasters there narcissistic posters, which scream “America's Best”, on any vertical surface.

A perfect strike! That's how I describe the LACMTA's efforts to obtain federal funds for automobile traffic improvement. Instead of a “this is how we will do it proposal” our dysfunctional LACMTA request funds for a “study” -- you understand, we will talk about it but not do anything. The Los Angeles Times called out the agency(6) and some of the politicos behind it, with a quote: “... They submitted something that didn't respond to the criteria ...”, from someone who studies transportation and gets paid for it.

Before leaving this section I would like to reiterating my call to the Los Angeles Times management to properly cover the LACMTA. By “properly cover” I mean devote the same reportorial resources that the have to King-Drew and to the “Altered Oceans” series. Or, at minimum they should use the same amount of ink weekly that they have been using on the problems of Villaraigosa and Delgadillo. The Times is in a position to force exponential improvements in our public transportation simply by pointing out the waste, abuse and potential for fraud, well, mismanagement anyway, which is rampant in the agency.

By the way, after reading the New York magazine article(7) about CBS' Evening News, your news junkie Mole checked Google using Katie Couric's least favourite word, “sputum”. The 3,170,000 references indicate that Ms Couric still has a lot of slapping to do!

Ear to the Rail

Your Mole uses his laptop a lot! His usual quick “calculator” is Python, about which he has written earlier. After installing Scilab 4.1.1 recently he has become enamored -- the correct term for the software as the reader will soon see -- with it as an excellent tool. It is a product of a consortium comprised of: INRIA (Institut National de Recherche en Informatique et en Automatique) the French National Institute of Research in Information and Automation and ENPC (École nationale des ponts et chaussées) the prestigious French National School of Bridges and Roads, which is an engineering school.

Scilab also incorporates systems modeling and simulation in the embedded Scicos module. Scicos allows one to model and simulate systems. One frequently used model is service queues – say, for example, lines of people waiting to buy bus passes. An analyst (if the LACMTA had one) would study the arrival pattern of bus pass buyers at the Union Station sales location and then experiment, using simulation, with staffing the sales windows to match the requirement of a given time interval, say more windows open a lunch time it that is when the arrival rate of customers was greatest. The intent in this case, again, if the LACMTA could have such a service oriented intent, is to minimize waiting time. In early July I saw lines as long as 100 people with only two of the three windows staffed and later I noted equally long lines with all three sales windows staffed – indicating a need for ah, duh ..., more sales windows.

A calculation, to find the area of a circle, using scilab looks like this:

--> r = 10 // set radius equal to 10 cm
-->%pi*r^2 // %pi is 3.14159, * means multiplication and ^ denotes exponentiation, in this
// case r squared
ans = 314.15927

The // indicates that the following text is a comment. I have found only one other constant %e = to 2.7182818. If you use this constant (%e) at all, you will know how and when to use it. There are zillions of intrinsic functions, well, er .., quite a few, including those for matrix and vector operations. And an operator, the \, which will help you solve those pesky systems of linear equations that kept you awake nights doing algebra homework.

The software supports French, English and other languages too. I don't want to teach you Scilab, not here and now anyway, but simply to introduce you to it. Download it for Linux and Windoze at http://www.scilab.org/ . It is free! My favourite word!! :-)

The Mole Rides Again – and wonders why it is that even without fare increases, every six months you end up paying more money for less transportation

“America's Best[2006-2007]” is incapable of developing an integrated transportation system. There is the 626 shuttle which only runs at rush hour(s) and then only between the LAXCBC, Mariposa and Aviation stations and World Way West. What is needed is either a frequent LAXCBC (LAX City Bus Center) shuttle to Aviation Station or a slight rerouting of the LAX “G” Line which runs between LAX and Aviation Station, allowing pickups at the LAXCBC. Links to/from the Green Line from the LAXCBC via METRO is via the 439 (Aviation Station) hourly and the 232 (Mariposa Station) approximately twice an hour. Of course, if one desires to further depreciate their Metro pass/Day pass the Big Blue Bus 3, the Culver City 6 or Beach Cities Transit 109 will take you there. Again the LACMTA, with its' anti-Midas touch, gives us less transportation and longer waits for more money.

I ride to Pasadena on the Gold Line: The man across from me is reading the “House of Mondavi; The Rise and Fall of an American Wine Dynasty”, my informal survey finds that few read nonfiction. Since passengers can open the car doors from outside, it would be well for the motorman to keep the doors of the Gold Line and other rail lines closed, while the train is in the station waiting for departure. That would keep the cold air from leaking outside and reduce costs while keeping the passengers cool. But, what does the LACNTA know about saving money or passenger comfort for that matter??

I am aboard a 439 bus, diagonally across from me is a Metro employee. He is using a Symbol Technology hand-held device to count passengers. He tells me that this is to determine types of fare payment. He elaborates, explaining that what I thought was the true statistical count as performed by the driver, is not what it seems. It turns out that counting passengers/fare types is an optional driver function. Further that, although the fare-box keyboards which allow the driver entered passenger/fare distributions have been in use for several years – the system is still in “evaluation” mode or “trial/test” mode. Smile as you think about the money and time the LACMTA has wasted and will continue to waste on these frequently out-of-service fare boxes!

One metric that could be very useful in measuring LACMTA service, is the sum of all on-route bus mileage for the six month periods between schedule changes. We could then see a continuing decrease in the route structure and the corresponding increase in time and effort to reach a specific destination, i.e., more transfers, higher fare payments and longer waits.

I rode a Green Line train that was invaded by deputies – six of them. They caught (and released) two school girls who didn't have tickets and took a man who was in the same situation off the train and handcuffed him. Another metric, knowing that the LACMTA is incapable of dealing with metrics, would be the mean (average) dollar return per deputy per hour. So on a given eight-hour day, if a deputy caught eight people and four of them paid the $250 fine, his mean hourly return (this is a good opportunity to use scilab) for the day is $125. Now, that is the gross return. From this we must deduct the hourly cost of his salary and benefits, the cost of processing the case through the court system, etc., etc. Importantly, we must consider that the deputy's services are lost to other, perhaps more important, policing tasks. It doesn't take much thought to see that using deputies to function as fare collectors is inefficient.

My fellow passenger aboard a 232 bus turns out to be a doctoral candidate from Brazil. His specialty is AI (Artificial Intelligence) so we talk a bit about Lisp and Prolog, computer languages that play a role in AI. He is planning a trip to Hollywood so I prepare a “Mole map” that will take him from the Marina district to Hollywood and back.

On the seat next to me I found a “Poetry Project Checklist”. One of the templates included in it was under the heading “If I were in charge of the world”. One of the templates was as follows: If I were in charge of the world there’d be ___(i)_____, ____(ii)_____ and _____(iii)___. You can give it a try. My entries would be: (i) NO weapons of any kind; (ii) ice cream for desert at least twice a week and (iii) passport less travel.

(1) N/A “MTA OKs study of Wilshire subway plan” Los Angeles Times 29 June 2007:B8

(2) Bernstein, Sharon and Vara-Orta, Francisco “Near the rails but on the road” Los Angeles Times 20 June 2007:A1+

(3) Hsu, Tiffany “Complaints, resignation greet MTA fare increases” Los Angeles Times 1 July 2007:B6

(4) Olson, Carl Letters Los Angeles Times 5 July 2007:A16

(5) N/A “Funding Fundamentals” Footnotes Vol. 17 Nr. 4,(Fothill Transit, West Covina, CA) June 2007:(unnumbered) pp2

(6) Hymon, Steve “L.A. Misses out on transit funding” Los Angeles Times 8 June 2007:B1+

(7) Hagan, Joe “Alas, Poor Couric” New York Magazine, 16 July 2007 Web: http://nymag.com/news/features/34452/

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