Transit is my travel hack

PALO ALTO–I spent most of the last three days here in the middle of Silicon Valley at the Privacy Identity Innovation conference, with a side trip to San Francisco for a press dinner last night. And a car never figured into my plans.

Auto-awesomed Caltrain photoInstead, I took Caltrain up and down the peninsula, with one connection via a VTA bus and reasonable amount of walking. What do you think I was going to do, drop $100 and change on a rental car that would sit idle except for when it would have me sitting in the loathsome traffic of U.S. 101?

For the most part, that worked fine. My travel times were sometimes longer, but I could get work done on my laptop and then get some exercise on foot at either end. The one huge exception: Missing one southbound train from San Francisco meant I had to spend almost an extra hour in the city when I was dead tired and just wanted to get back to my hotel.

Even when the alternative is not renting a car but taking a taxi, the local rail or bus service has often been a better idea. Take Las Vegas–please. Between Vegas cabbies’ documented habit of “long hauling” passengers to run up the fare, the deliberate inefficiency of the one-person-per-car taxi line at McCarran, the ripoff $3 surcharge for paying with a credit card, and the militant opposition to Uber and other potential competitors, I’ve had more than enough reasons besides the non-trivial cost savings to begin acquainting myself with bus service there.

Vegas bus guidancePlus, there’s the perverse pride to be had in getting around car-free in a place not known for its transit service. (See also: taking the VTA light rail around Santa Clara County and taking Capital Metro’s Red Line in Austin.)

Yet I keep hearing things like “I don’t know how to take the bus” from other out-of-town types at these events when I mention my mode of transportation.

I understand: It can be intimidating getting on a large vehicle full of strangers when you’re not sure exactly where it’s going or how you’ll know when to get off. I remember the anxiety of trying to figure out Metro buses from a tiny map at a stop or on a brochure.

Fortunately, it’s the year 2014 and you no longer need to rely on printed documentation. Google Maps and Bing Maps both include transit directions, and Google’s even offer turn-by-turn navigation. As long as your phone has a charge and a signal, you cannot get lost. You can, however, win the satisfaction of unlocking the workings of a new and somewhat complex system–which is, as a tech journalist, is the kind of thing I’m supposed to be doing anyway.

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The Tysons Corner El

Ever since I started watching the support columns for Metro’s Silver Line start to rise across Tysons, I’ve had one thought about them: That train will have some nice views up there.

Silver Line track through TysonsThat was not a popular reaction to the decision to string the Silver Line through Tysons on aerial tracks instead of in a tunnel–from the wailing about it, you’d think that this sprawl-choked “edge city” and its six-lane arterial roads would have turned into an oasis of walkability if only the train could have gone underground.

But as I saw today on the first westbound revenue-service train and then on the way home, Tysons looks considerably sharper from 30 to 50 feet in the air. You see its budding skyline swing into view as the aerial tracks swoop above the Toll Road and over to 123, you can gaze beyond the next endless block and too-long stoplight, you can look down on Beltway traffic (go ahead, chuckle at the plight of the drivers below), and as you proceed along 7 you can try to guess which used-car lot or strip mall will get redeveloped first.

(See my Flickr album from today’s ride to Reston and back.)

This elevated perspective may not have the overall beauty of the Yellow Line’s view of the Potomac River from the Fenwick Bridge–or of the Green Line’s ride through the treetops on the way to Branch Avenue–but it is an underrated aspect of the Silver Line that I plan on enjoying on my way to or from Tysons, Reston or Dulles Airport. And the good people of Tysons might as well take ownership of it by nicknaming their stretch of this route the Tysons Corner El.

D.C. snowstorms are the best

Snow and rulerI woke to find about nine inches of snow had accumulated overnight. That’s the most snow we’ve had all season and the most we’ve had in three years–two of which were less like a traditional D.C. winter and more like a colder version of the Bay Area’s rainy season.

As much as I like the Bay Area’s climate, I love living in a place with distinct seasons that include real winters. And no winter is complete to me without a full-on snowstorm that leaves rads impassable, shuts the airports and frees me to play in the snow–because I am basically eight years old at these times.

Today’s snow isn’t in the same league as the historic snowstorms I’ve seen here, but it will have to do.

1996 blizzard headlineJanuary 1996: This remains a sentimental favorite for how it helped bond me to the District. As the snow started falling, I decided I couldn’t watch it from inside the apartment I’d moved into weeks before. I wandered down from Kalorama to Dupont Circle, made my way to Kramerbooks, bought a copy of Edward P. Jones’ “Lost in the City,” and read his stories of wayward Washingtonians at the bar as the snow laid a hush over my beautiful neighborhood. By the next morning, 17.1 inches had fallen, and I was proud to be one of the few Posties who made it into the newsroom–having walked down the middle of Connecticut Avenue to get there.

The effects of the blizzard lingered for years; later in January, a torrent of snowmelt led a swollen Potomac to flood and tear up much of the C&O Canal, and the Park Service didn’t finish repairing the towpath until 1998 or maybe 1999.

Presidents’ Day, 2003: This could have been a lot more fun. We were in West Virginia to go skiing and should have stayed there. Instead, I was on the losing end of a group decision to head home early. After the long drive home in a blizzard, the first two hours involving too many tense moments on twisting mountain roads, I needed a drink. Instead, I realized there was enough snow on the ground (16.7 inches had fallen) and enough elevation changes in the adjacent blocks for me to finish my skiing without paying for a lift ticket. I enjoyed carving turns around parking meters.

December 2009: This was the first time I could make serious use of the cross-country skis I’d picked up a year or two earlier. I enjoyed “Snowpocalypse” by clocking about six miles through the streets of Arlington, finally turning around on the Fairfax Drive onramp to I-66 after I’d spent a few minutes contemplating a snow-covered highway devoid of cars. I ate well that night! The next evening, I took my downhill skis to a nearby park, where the 16.4 inches of snowfall had turned a series of steps into a miniature jump.

This was also the first snowstorm where I both had a digital camera to document the scenery and a choice of social-media sites to share those photos.

Rock Creek Park, February 2010February 2010: Washington’s most epic winter ever continued with a pair of blizzards–one depositing 17.8 inches, the second running up the score with 10.8 inches–not even half a week apart. The first day after “Snowmaggedon,” I spent almost five hours cross-countrying as far into the District as Rock Creek Park–in the process, checking “cross the Key Bridge in a car, on a bus, on a bike, on foot, and on skis” off my bucket list. A day later and considerably more sore, I ventured out again and inspected some impressive snow architecture on the Mall.

I wasn’t the only person doing a lot of urban skiing at the time. Some crazy kids in Pittsburgh put together an amazing video of them skiing and snowboarding down Mount Washington, among other unlikely spots around the city. Seriously, just watch it.

1/16/2014: Now that I finally uploaded a few dozen photos from the 2009 and 2010 snowstorms to Flickr (I’d only shared them on Facebook at the time, for reasons I don’t entirely remember), I embedded a slideshow of them after the jump.

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Side effect of reviewing gadgets: a largely gadget-free Christmas

Since I see so much gadget coverage timed for the holiday season–and have contributed a fair amount of it in the past–I have to assume that normal people give and get gadgets around the holidays.

Present ornament

But I am not normal! I understand why I rarely get the output of the electronics industry as a present; if a friend worked as a chef, I’d feel intimidated trying to buy kitchen gadgets or cookbooks. And as a freelancer, anything that I could use on the job should come out of my budget so it can land as an expense on my Schedule C at tax time.

But I also rarely buy myself gadgets as presents, even when there’d be no reasonable work connection. For that I blame the advent of CES: Knowing that I’m going to get a peek at the next six months to a year of the electronic industry’s handiwork two weeks after Christmas makes me leery of any non-trivial gadget purchases in the month before.

So what do you get for friends or family in the same disreputable profession that still acknowledges their professional interest? Cheap and non-obvious accessories can work. One of the better gadget-related gifts I ever got was a tiny, silicone smartphone stand that attaches to the phone’s back with a suction cup. It’s helped me stage more than a few phone pictures–and as a bonus, our toddler enjoys sticking it on my forehead.

Of you can try to make your gadget-reviewing pal’s business travel a little more pleasant: Figure out what airline he or she flies most often and buy a day pass to its lounges.

Edited 12/14/2013 to remove a stray sentence fragment.

Yet another airline prepares to pull into the hangar in the sky

With yesterday’s announcement of a planned merger between US Airways and American Airlines, one more airline I’ve flown will vanish from the skies. Well, not its planes or people, but its name, livery and two-character code, and hopefully its call sign too: It would be tasteless to ditch AA’s “AMERICAN” for US’s America West-derived “CACTUS.”

Pan Am boarding passThe list of defunct U.S. and foreign airlines–excluding regional carriers and those from childhood that I don’t remember–that have transported me from one place to another is longer than I’d thought. I’m not sure if that demonstrates the crummy economics of the airline business or merely my own advancing age.

  • Aloha: We flew them to and from Maui for a friend’s wedding several years ago. Maui is an excellent place to go to a friend’s wedding.
  • America West: My chosen conveyance to and from CES for a year or two. I don’t miss their hideous livery at all.
  • ATA: My wife and I took this discount carrier to Chicago and San Francisco a couple of times.
  • Braniff International: I was on them a few years with my parents in the ’70s or ’80s. Their colorful paint jobs are still missed.
  • China Southwest: Flew me from Chengdu to Lhasa, Tibet and back on a memorable, two-and-a-half-week-long vacation in 1998.
  • Continental: The first airline I reached elite frequent-flyer status on; some of those miles went towards upgrading our honeymoon flights (they took great care of us), and some are still in my United account.
  • Eastern: Flew them up and down the East Coast a few times growing up.
  • National: This short-lived airline got me from San Francisco to Las Vegas–horribly late–for one Macworld-plus-CES trip.
  • Northwest: They got me to Tokyo and Hong Kong on that 1998 but couldn’t get me home, courtesy of a strike that resulted in my getting rebooked on United a day later. Did I complain about having to spend an extra day in Hong Kong? No.
  • Pan Am: The one I miss most of all, as do all self-respecting aviation dorks.
  • PeoplExpress: Not “People’s Express,” damnit. I learned years later that their dense, single-class configurations had earned them the nickname “PeopleCompress.”
  • TWA: I think this was the first airfare the Post paid on my behalf, courtesy of the paper sending me to cover the first E3 video-game trade show in L.A. in 1995.

If you have anything you’d like to say about the departed, the comments are all yours.

The trade-off of travel

I’m in the middle of an unprecedented amount of travel. Two weeks ago, I flew out to L.A. to give a talk at an Edmunds.com conference; tonight, I’m flying to Berlin to cover the IFA consumer-electronics show there; two Sundays from now, I’m off to San Francisco for TechCrunch Disrupt; a week and a half after that, the Online News Association’s annual conference takes place in the same city; one week later, the Demo conference happens in Santa Clara.

I feel tired just reading the preceding sentence. In a normal month, I might have one trip out of town, certainly none requiring my passport.

I have business reasons for all this flying back and forth. I’ve never gone to some of these events before and would like to learn what I’ve missed; I expect to see interesting products debuted and demoed at them; they should represent good networking opportunities for me; at least for this year, I can afford the expense.

(The IFA trip is largely subsidized: The organizers have a pot of money set aside to bring some U.S. journalists there, with no requirement that I can discern to cover a particular vendor or technology. My regular editors were okay with that.)

But I have seriously mixed emotions every time I start to pack.

I hate the part of travel where I have to tear myself away from my lovely wife and our bubbly two-year-old. That dread often sets in not one but two nights before a departure, and it hasn’t gotten that much easier since my first business trip as a dad.

But I like travel itself–seeing the ground fall away from the wing at takeoff and then draw near again as we settle onto the runway, then finding my way around some new part of the world–and that allows the gloom to lift once I reach the airport. (Especially if it’s my beloved National Airport instead of, say, United’s grim C/D concourse at Dulles.)

The other part of traveling as a parent is the spouse debt I run up every time my lovely wife has to care for our bubbly two-year-old solo–something I have done for all of maybe four nights myself. I try to even the balance by setting aside a few nights’ worth of dinner in the fridge and freezer before I head out, but I know I couldn’t do this without the support of my family. And I know how fantastic it will be to come home to them this Sunday afternoon.

A Metro user-interface wish list

One side effect of being a user-interface critic is never being able to step away from the work–the world is full of bad UIs. And sadly enough, public transportation has been a tremendous contributor. Consider the transit system I know best and use all the time, Metro.

Don’t get me wrong here: Metro’s rail map is a model of clarity (yes, I own a copy of “Transit Maps of the World”) and I’ve grown so used to Metro’s signs counting down the minutes until the next train that the absence of equivalents in places like Boston baffles me (“I’m just going to have to wait at Government Center for an indeterminate period of time?!”). The leadership at WMATA greatly improved the system’s usability when they provided a schedule feed to third-party sites like Google Maps, as I documented in an article for ReadWriteWeb two weeks ago.

Yet in some ways, Metro’s user experience remains awkward enough to make you wonder about the motives of the people behind this “UX.”

  • Too many bus-stop signs are useless. The one pictured at right, across the street from the Clarendon Metro station, isn’t even the worst: Although it offers no map or schedule, it does name the end points of each route.
  • Bus-route monikers mean nothing. Take the 30s routes–please. Most 30s buses going west out of downtown head up Wisconsin Avenue, but the 38B goes across the river to Arlington. The 32, 32, 34 and 36 are local, but the 37 is express. Metro can’t even pick logical names for new routes, with no established constituency to confuse: When it added express service to BWI Airport, it named this route “B30″ instead of, you know, “BWI.”
  • The NextBus interface, on both the desktop and mobile, is clumsy and slow. It’s terrific that Metro lets you look up real-time arrival estimates for buses–when those estimates approach reality–but unless you’re standing in front of a sign with a NextBus stop number, you have to look up service by choosing a bus line, then a direction, then a stop. Metro’s sites desperately need a “service near my location” button like those on NJ Transit and BART’s mobile sites; fortunately, Metro spokesman Dan Stessel tweeted in June that Metro was working to add that. (The photo shows a related problem of incompatible next-arrival tools used by other systems; to see if Arlington Transit’s 42 bus will get there before the 38B, you’re asked to hit a separate site.) Update, 12/1, 12:02 p.m. Reader “t” commented that NextBus’s smartphone site – nextbus.com/webkit –  offers that geolocation option already. I tried it, and it almost instantly reported the next arrivals for the four Metro bus routes nearest my home, plus a D.C. Circulator stop about a mile away.
  • The downtown transfer stations need better exit signage. Get off at Metro Center, then try to find the westernmost exit. You can’t without a compass on your phone; at any given point, you can only see one or two signs pointing which escalator will take you towards one of its four exits. (There used to be a large map on the Red Line platform showing exactly where those exits put you on the street, but that disappeared at some point.) The situation is as bad at L’Enfant Plaza.
  • As a great many others have complained, station names are a form of grade inflation. In the city, endlessly-hyphenated names like “U Street/African-Amer Civil War Memorial/Cardozo” suggest how much influence a particular councilmember holds; in the suburbs, exercises in wishful thinking like “Vienna/Fairfax-GMU” imply that locations five miles away are next door. I can only hope Metro’s board quashes Fairfax County’s delusional proposal to name seven of the eight future Silver Line stops in the county after either “Tysons” or “Reston.”
  • Poorly-connected suburban stations. Building a Metro stop is an expensive exercise, but some area jurisdictions must have forgotten that when designing Metro stops that impede access from adjacent neighborhoods. In Fairfax, the Dunn-Loring stop squats in the median of Interstate 66–but there’s no pedestrian bridge connecting it to the north side of the highway. Walking from the West Falls Church stop to a friend’s house in Pimmit Hills–about a mile by air–sends me on a two-mile trek along multiple highway on- and off-ramps. In Montgomery County, walking from the Forest Glen stop to the east side of Georgia Avenue requires a hazardous crossing of eight lanes of traffic.

You’ll note that I didn’t include a common Metro rant: its byzantine route structure, with off-peak, peak and “peak of the peak” fares that also vary by distance. That’s because Metro’s stored-value fare cards, and in particular its SmarTrip RFID cards, help to hide the cost of any given trip. (When I interviewed Metro CFO Peter Benjamin in 1999 for a piece explaining the then-new SmarTrip system, he said upfront that Metro wanted to make the price of any one ride as invisible as the cost of a single drive.) It’s funny how a good interface can make complexity vanish.