Two thoughts from the road

March 24, 2011

As I occasionally looked out the window on my bus ride back to Albany from New York City today, two thoughts struck me:

1.  Gasoline is about $.30 less per gallon in New Jersey than in Albany, even though self-service stations are not permitted.  For the driver of a car that gets 20 mpg who puts on 15,000 miles per year, the difference adds up to well over $200.  Another way they get you in New York

2.  The Thruway is packed with signage that seems to serve no useful purpose.  Why does anyone need to know that the Capital Region comprises the territory between exits 23 and 27?  Or that one is entering the Hudson River Valley National Historical Area (or something like that)?  You can’t see anything characteristic of these areas from a car zipping down the Thruway, and, to the extent the signs may prompt someone to try, they could prove a dangerous distraction.  I’d rather Thruway management got rid of the visual clutter.  Maybe the savings could be used to reduce New York’s high gas tax.

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Greyhound/Trailways beats Megabus and Amtrak

March 24, 2011

Today, for the second time in a few weeks, I had to travel to New York City for the day without much advance notice. In both cases, the “traditional” Greyhound/Trailways bus came in at $35.00 for a non-refundable round-trip ticket, less than what Megabus would have charged (and, needless to say, a lot less than Amtrak would have charged). In each case, though I booked through the Greyhound web site, I wound up on Trailways buses. Each was clean, professionally driven, and had 110 volt outlets for laptops, cell phones, etc. I’m not sure if they had wi-fi. If you’re on a budget and need to travel without much advance notice, it’s not a bad way to go.


Walking vs. transit and driving

March 17, 2011

One of the things I like about the warmer weather that’s coming to the northeast is the opportunity to walk more.  It’s a good non-impact exercise, and it can be purposeful, getting one to where one needs to go, so it serves the great god of the twenty-first century – productivity – and its acolyte – multitasking.

 

But how practical is walking?  It depends.  If you want to walk to Target or Wal-Mart in East Greenbush, lots of luck.  Not only does Third Avenue extension lack sidewalks, for large parts there is no shoulder to the right of the fog line – the driving lane is all there is to the road.  If you want to walk around Rensselaer, wait until all the snow has melted.  The city sees no need to clear the sidewalks of its two bridges that span the railroad tracks (in dramatic contrast, the State does a great job on the pedestrian walkway of the Dunn Memorial Bridge between Rensselaer and Albany).

 

Leaving aside bad weather and impassible routes, I have found that, for trips of as much as two miles, a walk can compare very favorably with CDTA in terms of actual time spent getting from point A to point B.  The infrequency of CDTA service often leads to long waits for the bus, which may be compounded if the bus is running late.  Frequent stops and circuitous routes lengthen the journey once travel has begun.  When you walk – in addition to saving $1.50 each way and feeling good about the health benefits you are providing yourself – you leave precisely when you are ready,  and you usually can take the most direct route.  If you’re going shopping, walk one way and take the bus home with your packages.  Give it a try – you’ll feel better and save money.

 

Driving, alas, is another story.  Most of our suburban environment is inhospitable to walking and transit, and the distances between homes, workplaces and shops can be too great to allow walking by even those whose tolerance for delay and danger is greater than average.  Shame on the developers who built our sprawling environment, and shame on the government zoning and planning officials who let them.  I remember when, I few years ago, my employer temporarily relocated from downtown Albany to a suburban office park while our building was being renovated.  Getting in my car to run to the bank or post office at lunch time – and often getting stuck in traffic while trying to do so – got me so angry, not just at the waste of my time, but at the collective waste of untold hours of human productivity and gallons of precious, expensive gasoline.

 

Our land use situation is toothpaste that will be very difficult to put back in the tube, and most people seem to tolerate if not prefer the suburban, auto-dependent life.


Amtrak sucks

March 11, 2011

Although I like trains, and I try to support all types of public transport when I can, I have had more than my share of troubles — primarily late trains — with Amtrak.  On a different note, last January, I purchased, on the Amtrak web site, a few days before my travel date, a round-trip ticket to NYC to attend an event.  I was charged the regular $76 round-trip fare.

I rode on the train with a friend who was attending the same event.  He advised me that he had purchased his ticket around the same time at the ticket window, and he was offered a fare about $15 less than what I paid, without having to satisfy any special condition, as a result of some promotion.

I wrote to Amtrak on January 26, recounting the above, adding:  “If you wish to encourage use of your web site for the purchase of tickets, patrons using the web site should be offered the lowest available fare for their trip. When booking my trip, I did not notice any information about the availability of a lower fare, and I certainly was not offered it. If the promotional fare my friend received should have been made available to me, I would appreciate a refund in the amount of the discount he received.”

On January 31, I received a reply, the gist of which is as follows:  “We apologize that is has taken longer than we expected for us to reply to your email inquiry.  We have forwarded your e-mail to Amtrak’s Customer Relations Department. They will contact you as soon as possible in the order that your email is received.  The department is experiencing an extremely higher than normal volume, due predominantly to weather related issues and personnel staffing.  Please allow between four to six weeks for a response.”

True to their word, I received a further response, but no satisfaction, on March 3.  Here’s the gist of it:  “As information, our records show that you did pay the lowest normally-discounted fare for your trip.  We cannot be sure as to which of the deals your associate took advantage of.  We also do not offer refunds after travel has been completed; therefore we must respectfully deny your request.  For future reference, you may want to look at the ‘Advertised Specials’ section under the ‘Deals’ tab on Amtrak.com for a list of current specials.  Please be aware that there are limited seats available for each of these deals and varied terms and conditions.”

What kind of customer service business takes a week to acknowledge receipt of an e-mail without giving a substantive response?  Is an immediate automated reply too much to ask expect if the delayed reply is not going to offer any information that an automated reply wouldn’t?

Further, what kind of business wants to discourage people from making web purchases instead of in-person purchases?  Most travel web sites I’ve seen offer a “lowest rate guarantee.”  Amtrak, on the other hand, says to me, in essence, it’s your responsibility to look all over our web site for discount announcements (for the record, I’m almost certain that I  did, and didn’t see any) and if you miss one – or if we forget to put it up – tough noogies.

This attitude is consistent with another experience I had several years ago, ironically while trying to get to NYC to attend the same annual event.  When I arrived at the station, I saw that the train I was to take was delayed several hours, and there was no way I could get to NYC before the event would be over.  I went to the ticket window and requested a refund.  The clerk advised me to save the ticket for use another time, as 15% was withheld from cash refunds.  I asked where on the ticket it said that; he couldn’t show me, but said that’s the policy, and suggested I write “to Washington” if I wasn’t happy.  I wasn’t happy, so I did write to Washington.  I was given a full refund, as “an accommodation” to me.  I noticed that now Amtrak tickets state that refunds may be subject to a penalty.  You can thank me for that.

I understand that Amtrak is under-funded, but I still think it could do a little better in the customer relations department.  It’s not a big bargain (the bus fare is less than half the train fare) or a luxurious travel experience (rolling stock is old, often uncomfortably hot or cold, and often without food service), and it often does not run on schedule.  Showing a little more consideration for the customer would make these shortcomings a lot less irritating.


Two minor annoyances

March 11, 2011

Bagging groceries is not rocket science.  I know, because I did it for several years while I was a high school student.  The organizing principle is to evenly distribute the items, heavy on the bottom, light and fragile items on the top.  If done correctly, each bag will in the customer’s order will weigh about as much as each other, and things like bread, eggs and bananas will be at tops of the bags.  Why, then, at almost every store I patronize, do the cashiers or baggers operate under the incorrect assumption that similar items should be placed together?  Carrying a bag full of paper products isn’t a problem, but carrying a bag full of canned goods or two-litre soda bottles is difficult and potentially dangerous.  I wrote  to one of the area’s leading supermarket chains about this problem, and I received a response that bagging personnel would be reminded of the correct way to pack bags.  So far, I haven’t seen it.

Although I wish I didn’t have to, I own and drive a car.  To express both my patriotism and my parsimonious nature, I purchased a very small, fuel-efficient car, which has a 12-gallon gas tank.  When a local supermarket chain started advertising it would grant a ten-cent-per-gallon discount on gas at certain local stations for each $50 in purchases at its stores, I was mildly excited, until I found out that each earned discount could only be used on one fuel purchase of up to 20 gallons.  As one who only needs to buy about half that amount to fill my vehicle, I can receive only half of my earned discounts.  I wrote the company about this, and received the usual canned non-response.  There are ways around this, I’m told, though most seem to me not worth the trouble.  One can bring a fuel container and fill that, if one can find a safe place to store it  One can split the discount with another vehicle if both can make and keep an appointment to meet at a participating filling station.  Since I still occasionally ride the bus, despite CDTA’s best efforts to discourage my patronage, I’ve found the easiest way for me to realize the full value of the offer is to apply my earned discount toward the purchase of a bus pass.


Here’s what spending top dollar on education can buy . . .

March 6, 2011

This New York Times story should make everyone involved in public education in New York a little ashamed, even though apparently great progress has been made in the last few years.


A few more thoughts . . .

March 3, 2011

7.  Those who resent the pay and benefits public employees receive should be urging raises for private sector workers rather than urging a race to the bottom.  The middle class is rapidly disappearing in this country, and that’s not a good thing; nor is the great concentration of wealth at the top of the economic pyramid.

8.  By opposing repeal of LIFO and pressing for other non-pecuniary “rights,” such as tenure,  teachers – who want to be regarded as professionals, even though they want to organize like labor – risk being perceived more as the latter and less as the former.

9.  To the extent unions have overplayed their hands, it’s in large part because management has let them.  How many teachers NYC now wants to lay off should not have received tenure (until recently, teachers there were routinely granted tenure, when they could have been let go without further ado)?  How many negotiators took the easy way out on work rules or seniority to avoid a strike, loss of political support, or something else?  As in most disasters, in this one, there’s plenty of blame to go around.