Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the tag “transportation”

A Piece of My Mind: Could Local Lucre Grease our Wheels? (Los Altos Town Crier March 1, 2017)

P1050177cropI am a big fan of public transit, taking the train regularly to Sacramento and San Francisco to visit family, taking BART to the Symphony or to museums in San Francisco, riding Light Rail and Muni in San Jose and San Francisco.  But I am somewhat reluctant to recommend these services to some of my more fastidious friends, since CalTrain and BART in particular are more than a little grungy.

In the past 20 years I have traveled on public transit systems made similar to BART, and have seen cars and stations in Taipei, Atlanta, and Washington DC get upgrade after upgrade.  In the same period of time nothing has happened to BART, except that the forty-year-old cars have gotten dirtier, smellier, and more worn.  The windows have become so scratched that it is almost impossible to read the signage at each station (especially since very few of the station signs are lighted) and there has never been any interior electronic signage to tell where you are.  And the rails have become noisier and noisier, to the point where going around a bend in a tunnel is now acutely painful to the ears.  The noise is so intense that any on-board announcements are completely indecipherable.  When I take BART to San Francisco, I wear earplugs. 

So why can’t we update BART as often as Taipei updates its MRT?  Of course, we have an absurd idea that public transportation should be self-supporting, and with fares kept low there is little money for upgrades and maintenance.  Yet there are other public services that do not pretend to be self-supporting, and yet manage to stay up to date.  We don’t expect libraries to be self-supporting through their collection of fines, or schools to be self-supporting through sales of tickets to sports events and concerts.  Why can’t…. but wait a minute!  What do schools and libraries have that BART doesn’t have?  They have Friends!  They have Foundations! 

What if we had a BART Maintenance Foundation, similar to the Los Altos Educational Foundation which maintains our high level of school quality , and a Friends of CalTrain, as effective and dedicated as our Friends of the Los Altos Library?   And what if we could inveigle some of our more affluent local residents to become involved?  Just think what we could do!

Latest estimates for total electrification of CalTrain come to about $1.76 billion.  That’s a paltry 3% of Mark Zuckerberg’s current net worth.  A donation to the Friends of CalTrain would certainly earn him a bunch of LIKE’s and maybe a free engineer’s cap to wear when the hoody is in the wash. 

New BART cars are currently running about $3.2 million per car. Why not invite some of our technocrats to purchase naming rights to a BART car?  Certainly more prestigious than buying a Lamborghini that you can only drive in your underground garage because it is too expensive to crash test.  And think of all the rainbow-framed Windows  sending out a subliminal message! 

Upgrading the infrastructure of BART is a bit pricier – $3.5 billion per current estimate – but there are lots of opportunities for appropriate philanthropy. $915 million is needed to update the control system;  maybe one of those companies working on self-driving cars could help under-write the self-driving BART system.  Another $432 million will renovate the Maintenance Center in Hayward.  Might not another local company want to be LinkedIn for naming rights?  That leaves 107 miles of track to be maintained at  roughly $20 million per mile.   Why not set up an Adopt-A-Track program similar to the Adopt-a-Highway program which keeps our highways tidy?  There could be little mileposts along the track: “If you like this quiet ride, you’ll LOVE our electric cars!” “Our software keeps your sales on TRACK!” “Trains or data – easy access is our specialty!”

OK, so upgrading and maintaining public transit isn’t quite on the same cosmic level of good-deed-doing as curing cancer or eliminating malaria.  Still, this is an opportunity to improve the daily quality of life for an average of 430,000 daily riders. Who would like to step up?

Freeway Free in California: Feet on the Streets for the Women’s March Jan 22,2017

I was proud to be part of the worldwide demonstration in favor of equal rights, science, facts, and tolerance of differences. Here are some pix of my self, friends, and family in San Jose, San Francisco, and Sacramento. (note Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom in lower right, along with my new grand-daughter in her pussy hat.)

Freeway Free in France: Grappling with Griselda (the GPS Lady)

20161222_175841map1We have a French road map courtesy of AAA.  Three out of four of us have the same road map.   If you want to get to point A, the map is useful for finding out some waypoints along the way, since signposts in the French countryside mostly point just to the next town, not to the next major town.  The road numbers on the map almost never match any of the road numbers you actually see on the road signs, so that’s no help.

On the map, toll roads are blue with red borders, divided highways are yellow with red borders, “Principal roads” are red, “main roads” are yellow, and there are some grey roads.  There are large areas which seem to have no roads, but that is not the case.

20161222_175841docmap2We have a GPS which came with our car.  We had some interesting trips in the first few days, because it seemed to have been preset to avoid toll roads and major highways at all costs.  We saw a lot of red roads (they have striping, shoulders, left turn lanes, and lots of roundabouts) and yellow roads (center striping, no left turn lanes, fewer roundabouts, no shoulders, and grey roads (no striping, no shoulders, stop signs, just room for two midsize cards to get past each other) and a fair set of the invisible roads, which are basically one-lane roads bordered by very solid stone walls where you just have to pray there is no one coming around the next curve.

By the time we had wrestled with Griselda the GPS lady for a few days, we were ready to take matters into our own hands and get on the toll road in order to get to Peche Merle, the prehistoric cave where the only English language tour was going to depart at 10.  We ignored Griselda and set off for A20, the toll road.  Bad move.  Little did we know that in this case Griselda was right:  the toll road took us way out of our way and we narrowly made it to our destination on time (helped by DB’s having mistakenly (she says) told us 10 when our actual tour was at 10:30).  We found that W’s smart phone, though not connected to the Internet, could be set using the hotel Wifi and subsequently gave us excellent access to Google Maps, so we had a cross check.  On our return, we found that what had taken us an hour and a half using our “common sense” was reduced to under an hour using Griselda ‘s and Google’s byroads.

The next morning we set off again, this time feeling confident in Griselda’s advice, but common sense began to worry when she insisted on taking us northeast when the old-technology map showed we needed to be going almost due west.  We stopped and checked. Turned out Griselda operates by names of towns, not tourist attractions, and “Lascaux” per Griselda was a little town halfway to Tours. We reprogrammed her for the TOWN closest to the Cave de Lascaux where we wanted to go, and off we went, threading our way through tiny lanes that looked more like sidewalks, twisting through villages almost too small to have names, until we finally regained the yellow road which led to our goal.  We were so delighted to regain center striping!

For the rest of our trip, we made use of Griselda, Google, AND the paper map.  Of course, once we were alert to the foibles of each, we had no discord between them.

Freeway-Free in France:La Vie en Rose in Provence

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Note: this begins a series of entries about my three-week journey with my three friends in south-west France and Paris.  DM is on the left, DBat the end of the table in a striped blouse that will become familiar, then myself (AJ) and WB in her trademark blue camp shirt on the right.

The four of us  did not exactly plan to be freeway-free during our three-week adventure tour of France, but the  GPS system in our rental car made the decision for us:  Apparently the GPS had been pre-programmed to avoid toll roads, and despite all our efforts we could not figure out how to over-ride this command.  We wound our way from Marseilles on frontage roads and two lane back roads,  through olive orchards and vineyards and past fruit stands and old stone churches and through innumerable roundabouts until we made it to my friend ‘s charming small cottage  in Lunel, with vegetables and flowers growing profusely front and back and three bedrooms and a bathroom upstairs for the four of us to share.
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We had a delightful dinner al fresco in the back garden – local melon and prosciutto and olives, tomatoes from the garden, rose wine from the local vigneron, two kinds of quiche made from goat cheese and local vegetables, and lots of lively conversation.   We had all read Peter Mayle’s “A Year in Provence” in advance of our trip, and felt we were living inside the book.

If you sit on the left side of the plane flying into Marseilles and have good weather, you will have  a spectacular view of snow- topped Mt. Cervix in the Italian Alps just over the French border.

Security in our Nation’s Capital – 3 Vignettes

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TSA Precheck

My husband D and I applied for TSA pre-check privileges two weeks ago.  We had to do it in person at an H&R Block office in Santa Clara, with finger printing, passports and $85. each.   My ‘Known Traveler’ ID number showed up the next day on the TSA web site so my husband entered it for all the flights I am taking this summer, including ours to D.C.   I’ll have TSA Pre at all airport check-ins. My husband’s “KT” number, however, is still in processing.  He called TSA and was told by a friendly fellow that this is typical, implying that most terrorists are men and thus they take longer to check out.  He did say that there were no red flags on my husband’s profile.    So this morning we got our boarding passes for tomorrow and  –  Whee  –  we are both TSA Pre-Check.  Go figure.  Maybe because he had been this category on all his flights for the past few years.  Maybe because he is a distinguished WASP senior citizen.   Maybe because we are flying first class.  Maybe because it’s Tuesday.    Whatever, he will enjoy, at 5 am, NOT  having to shed his shoes and belt nor remove his laptop.

Security guard’s view

We got into our nation’s capital a day early for our  Travel Tour, to do some stuff on our own.   One of the suggested travel-packing items our tour leader recommended was a money belt.  Uh Oh!  Shades of the guy on our Barcelona tour who had his wallet filched  within minutes of arriving En Espana   –  or the warnings when we  were at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris  from the entrance Gendarme:  Beware of pickpockets.  So D bought a stylish (Hah) money belt and packed it .  Then, after we had finished our fine breakfast at the JW Marriott in D.C. he approached a tall, imposing, black security guard in the lobby and asked him,  “Should I be concerned about pickpockets here in Washington D.C. ?”

The guard thought for a moment and said,  “No, I’ve never heard of or experienced a problem, and I’ve lived here for 14 years.  And I carry my wallet in my back pocket.”

“Right,” my husband said.  “But you also carry a gun!”   The guard did not seem amused, but the money belt stayed in his suitcase.

White house walk-by

After dinner at a café across from our hotel we walked further down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House.  There were Secret Service men not-so-secretly patrolling in Kelvar vests, walkie-talkies, pistols, and some with assault rifles.  One can no longer go up and press one’s face against the fence to catch a glimpse of Michele Obama’s kitchen garden – there are traffic barriers keeping onlookers 10 feet from the fence.  Of course, the SS guys are selected to be handsome, charming, and to interact with the public – the one we approached sympathized with the difference between our memory of “the last time we were here we could…”  with a warm “too bad you can’t still, but welcome back.”  We found a bench further down Pensylvania Ave. and took a rest, and on our return found the sidewalk blocked, SS men at attention, no longer interactive.  A detour to the other side of the street led us back to our hotel;  on the way we found three DC policemen chatting. “What’s going on?”  “It’s just a drill.  If it were real we wouldn’t be standing here,”

Flight Risk

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“Time to get up, “ my husband D said , his voice roughened by sleep or the lack of it.  I opened bleary eyes.  It was 3:30 AM, the time D had determined we needed to rise in order to make our 6AM plane departure from SFO.  I pushed myself out of bed and wove my way to the kitchen to start some coffee.  My cell phone lay charging in its nest on the counter.  “That’s got to go in my bag,” I thought, as I picked it up.  Then I registered the message glaring from its yellow oval:  “Your flight has been cancelled.”

Shock, amazement, distress.  Our flight has been rebooked through Houston instead of Chicago, leaving at 10:50.  What to do?  Back to bed not a good option – too much adrenaline generated by the cancellation notice.  Tried unsuccessfully to doze.  Finally ate breakfast at 6:30, arrived airport at 9, to find a delay of another hour.P1020899doc

Flight delay. Delay. Delay. Finally a lovely first class seat in a new Dreamliner. We hover over Houston, which looks impossibly green below towering white clouds like the ghosts of Bryce Canyon hoodoos.  We land.  Our connection  in Houston leaves in 20 minutes, no gate info provided.  Mad search for departure info?  Found – ugh! Terminal E, we are in A.  Where is E?  D is looking at the airport map he ripped from the flight magazine, while I flag down a jitney driver.  “How do we get to Terminal E?” “Hop on” he replies, and off we go zig-zagging down the endless corridor, turning right here, left there.  He stops.  “Are we there yet?”  No, change to another  jitney.  Our original savior continues left at the Y, we go right, then stop again with our gate in sight.  We’ve made it.  We are not even the last to get on the plane.  And there is another delay in leaving, so we are even pretty confident that our luggage made it too.  The afternoon of orienting ourselves to our hotel and surroundings is blown, the welcome champagne and a nice dinner ditto, but we are GOING TO GET THERE!

Hidden Treasures: Car-free carefree Catalina

 

20150324_092816docBefore William Randolph Hearst transformed a remote family campsite into a private Gothic Dreamcastle, before Walt Disney transformed an orange plantation into a fairy-tale theme park, there was Santa Catalina Island.  In the 1920’s it was mostly scrub, used occasionally as the setting for Western movies. (Leftover bison still roam the interior).  Then William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate had a vision. He bought Catalina Island and created an art-deco enclave , added the west’s first professional baseball team as an attraction, (the Wrigley – owned Chicago Cubs came across the country for their spring training), and invited the public to come. . The island is open to anyone who can get there, by ferry, by private boat, by plane, or you can, as the Four Preps famously sung, “swim with just some water wings and my guitar.”20150323_092507web

Wrigley wasn’t the first to build a resort on Santa Catalina Island, but he had the money to buy out his predecessor after a fire leveled half of the main town of Shatto (named for the previous owner). He renamed and recreated the town as Avalon, started up a ceramic factory with produced the  omni-present tiles and ceramics which set the theme of the town, and crowned the effort by building the Casino (“gathering place” in Italian). The Casino includes a theatre whose decor was designed by the same artist who created Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. It also includes a ballroom with the largest hardwood dance floor in the US. THe whole thing is circular in shape and topped with a tiny little cupola which formerly housed a beacon guiding boats into the harbor. I’ve never seen another building remotely like it.

20150322_115128web In the 20’s and 30’s Santa Catalina was a getaway haven for Hollywood celebrities including Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Humbphry Bogart, Lauren Bacall, and John Wayne. Winston Churchill came here to fish for marlin. During the war Errol Flynn sailed here and was arrested for indecent behavior. Norma Jean Dougherty lived here with her merchant marine husband Jim, years before she became Marilyn Monroe. Natalie Wood drowned here. The little Catalina Island museum is full of cinema history,

Access to Wrigley’s island is by ferry, helicopter, or private plane. There are almost no cars on the island. Transportation is mainly by golf cart, bicycle, or foot. The resort area included a lot of what you might see in Cancun or Cabo San Lucas: kayaking, parasailing, snorkeling and scuba diving, although the beaches are skimpy and the water is chilly.   Outside of the resort area of Avalon, the island is a nature preserve, harboring kit foxes, bald eagles, and the afore-mentioned buffalo. Hiking, camping and biking in the back country is by permit. Jeep tours are available, but pricey ($72/person for a 6 hour tour.) 20150323_120629web

So, you ‘d like to visit Tuscany but you hate long plane flights? You can experience the picturesque village of Avalon clinging to the steep hillsides of Catalina. You love the desert atmosphere and beach vibe of Cabo San Lucas but your passport has expired?  Hike the back country of Catalina and take in the 360 degree views of ocean and harbor from the heights of the island.  You just want to get away, bask in the sun, and eat great food?  Avalon has lots of sunshine and chaise lounges for basking, plus excellent food from fish tacos on the pier to high-end California Fusion at the Avalon Grill.

What are you waiting for?

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Aliens Among Us (LATC February 4, 2015

Adolphin4 friend invited me  to go whale-watching outside Monterey Bay during the migration of the gray whales along the “Whale Highway”  which stretches along the California coast from Alaska to Cabo San Lucas.whalemigration

graywhaletailShortly after leaving the shelter of the bay, we spotted plumes of vapor not far off – at least a dozen whales, a “mega-pod”, were swimming together, blowing off vapor, and diving in rough synchronization.  As we approached, we could see the backs of the whales, scarred by barnacles, but glistening silver-gray in the sun.  The whales exhaled, one after another, or two at a time,  sending  fountains of white spray into the clear air. Then they dived, one by one slithering their huge bulk in an arc as they bent toward the bottom of the sea, than at the end flipping their heart-shaped flukes up into the air as if waving farewell.  It was like a dance.  We waited and watched – where would they come up next? A shout – “6 o’clock! Behind us” and the performance was repeated. “”10 o’clock! On our left!” and again the aquatic dance.  Why was this group of whales gathered together? The on-board naturalist had no clue. “It’s not usual to find so many in one group.”  We watched and wondered.whalespout

Finally the boat went on – there was more to see. “There’s a big school of dolphins up ahead – maybe they’ll come to play with the boat.”  In a moment we were surrounded by hundreds of hurtling gray shapes – needle-nosed dolphins barreling through the water next to the boat, dodging in and out of the bow wave, surfing in the wake, racing alongside the boat in huge leaps which sent them flying out of the water.  “If the water were rougher they’d ignore us,” said the guide, “but when it’s calm like today they get bored, and the boat is like a big toy to them.”  Could this be true? Or was he just ascribing human-like motives to these gray bullets? Why were there hundreds of dolphins in this one small space of ocean?  He had no clue.

rissos-dolphin1As we headed back toward the bay, the boat detoured to observe some Rossi’s dolphins, a very different sort.  These are stately silver swimmers, with a vertical dorsal fin and a rounded bullet head. The Rossi’s dolphins don’t leap from the water, don’t race each other, but swim smoothly along at a steady pace, paying no attention to our boat. “They mind their own business and want us to keep our distance,” said the naturalist.  But what is their business?  And why are they so unafraid, yet so aloof?

I read with bemusement about our astronomers’ search for alien life on other planets.  Most marine scientists seem to believe that dolphins and whales have enough brain tissue to have evolved what we would call reasoning, and that they communicate with each other through complex sonar systems.  How can we hope to recognize and interact with intelligent aliens on other planets when we understand so little about the intelligent aliens on our own?

The Roadside Diner – An American Classic (LATC August 2014)

20140620_KIngsChef2_webFrom what I saw on our recent back-roads trip across the country, the United States has NOT become one homogenized culture from East to West – it only looks that way from the Interstates. And though California has harvested much of the best of the East in creating the mix of cuisines, traditions, and cultures we call Californian, we did leave a few good things out. One of the missing pieces: the diner.

The classic diner was a castoff railroad diner cars, clad in aluminum outside, and featuring big windows so you could monitor the passers-by on the street, a tiny kitchen, red-vinyl upholstered booths and a red Formica counter trimmed in aluminum, with red-vinyl upholstered stools along the counter. To the joy of children everywhere, the stools could spin. Fortunately, the diner also had waitresses of a certain age, who might be named Edna or Mildred or Gertie, but who could be counted on to tell children (and their parents, too) to stop fooling around and eat their vegetables.

Avenue Diner, G,BurgWe had breakfast on the day of our East Coast departure at the Avenue Diner. We faced platefuls of eggs, potatoes, and bacon that would have daunted a lumberjack. As we leaned back midway, we noticed a buff gray-haired guy in a Marine Corps muscle shirt and steel-studded belt paying for his coffee just over the partition. It was Stephen Lang, the villainous Marine colonel from “Avatar”, in town to do a one-man dramatic show at the local Art Fest. We were star-struck, but the waitresses at the Avenue Diner didn’t miss a beat at having a celebrity stroll in for coffee.

As cast-off railway dining cars became scarce, the diner evolved. It moved next to the hotel downtown as an inexpensive alternative to the hotel restaurant. It called itself a Coffee Shop, or even a Café. On the second day of our trip we passed up the swank historically-preserved Bremerhasset Hotel dining room and opted for the Crystal Café just across the street.

At the Crystal Café, breakfast for two came to $13 including tip. The café was cheerful and clean, with lots of coffee mugs with regular patron’s names on them hanging on hooks behind the counter, and an honor library shelf circling the room with books in easy reach. The pretty young waitress was probably not named Mildred or Edna, but she was able to juggle orders, coffee cups, and questions from regulars and newbies with great aplomb.

In Colorado Springs we wanted an early start, so we stopped downtown at the King’s Chef Diner, touted locally as offering “the best breakfast in the state of Colorado.” The honor library here featured a lot of castoff comic books, and the clientele was an intriguing mix of military guys in buzz cuts and street people with day-glo hair and pierced body parts. The host and waitress treated us with great deference, as exotic creatures who had wandered far from our ecological niche. I ordered the featured breakfast burrito. “Are you sure you want the sauce?” the waitress asked me anxiously. “It’s pretty spicy.” I assured her I could handle it. For a brief second I thought she was going to over-rule me in true diner fashion, but she must have been only a trainee.King's Chef Diner  CO Sprngs

By the time the diner reached California it had mutated, adding sheltered parking, a drive-up window, and even putting the waitresses on roller skates. The drive-in’s did well for a while until the national chains muscled in. One by one they have disappeared, to my regret.

Don’t get me wrong. You’ll see me enjoying patio seating at the local coffee shops and patisseries. But I miss having  a take-charge waitress reminding me to eat my vegetables.

 

The Hollow Towns (LATC July 2014)

 
 
The Great WAll of Los Altos
 
My husband and I recently took a backroads trip across the country. We avoided the interstates with their urban bypasses as much as possible, choosing instead the old US highways which usually pass right down the main streets of whatever population centers are strung along their path.  Sadly, business goes where people are, and if there are more travelers on the interstate than on the highway, that’s where the services go.  And the downtown businesses which comprised the community core then wither, and their buildings rot, and there is no there there.
 
Often, very often, the city governments have misdiagnosed the problem.  In the 50’s and 60’s it was imagined to be all about parking.  People went to the suburban strip malls because it was easy to park, they thought.  So the city managers gutted the city center,tearing down the historic structures which gave it personality, and replaced those structures with parking lots. 
 
Hotel Blemerhasset, Parkersburg WVI’m talking about Parkersburg, West Virginia. In its heyday, the center of town was a fantasy of Romanesque architecture in red brick or gray stone, each structure striving to reach the heights via a spire (if it was a church) or a clock tower (if it was a civic building),  The history book in our hotel showed picture after picture of these wonderful buildings, but most were captioned “… abandoned in the 50’s.” “…gutted by fire of unknown origin after standing empty for some time.” “…razed unceremoniously in the 70’s despite citizen and local historian’s outraged protest.”  I noted the locations where these buildings had stood and checked them out.  Parking lots, all. And all empty.  Only three buildings remained of the many pictured. There is no there there.
 
I’m talking about Sunnyvale, California. In the 1950’s Murphy Avenue was the main street of Sunnyvale, and boasted a department store and a number of other retail shops.  Adjacent to Murphy Avenue was a  Town and Country Village shopping center, with wide overhanging eaves and benches to encourage lingering in the shade.  But in the 60’s competition from the new Stanford Mall was extreme.  So the city fathers decided to create the Sunnyvale Town Center enclosed mall, and in doing so they cut off Murphy Avenue and converted it to a parking lot for the new mall.  Fifty years later the Town and Country Village has been razed and replaced with apartments, and the Town Centre struggles on its third set of anchor stores, which are almost impossible to find behind their multistory parking garages.  Against all odds, the three block vestige of Murphy Avenue is pulsing with lively restaurants and shops.  There is little else there.Murphy Avenue
 
I’m not talking about my own hometown of Los Altos… yet.  But when I approach Main Street on the expressway which replaced the railroad tracks along First Street,  I worry.  Formerly drivers on the expressway could glance over and look down Main Street and along First Street, and if they were intrigued by the small-town look of the many 1920’s era buildings, they could take the next exit and follow their urge to explore.  But that’s not going to happen any more.  There is a four story Great Wall which barricades the town against any casual glance.  The Great Wall of Los Altos includes two huge new apartment complexes and “one of only two podium-style Safeway markets in the state.” (Podium – style means parking on the first floor, shopping  in a high-ceilinged market at the tope of an escalator, and storage on the floors above.)
 No matter how much ivy and bougainvillea is trained up the Great Wall to soften it, there is no way to see through the Wall to the charming streets behind it.  If fewer people shop in Los Altos in the next months and years, it’s not because of the lack of parking.  It’s because they will have no way to know what is there.
The Great Wall - Section 2

 

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