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Friday, June 25, 2010

On her back with her legs in the air

Many years ago I was hobbling (That's moonlighting if your not from my 'hood) for a private bus company, "D" Coaches they were called, after the owner, Darryll Davies. One of my regular gigs was driving the Senior Citizens club from Clydach. I'll nevr forget the lady in charge of the bus trips, Elvira Jones. She was a widow in her 70's and she ruled with a fist of iron. I remember one day she was chivvying the old folk on the bus and one of them called her "Di-munedd" impatient everyone spoke Welsh. She looked at me and this 70 something woman said; "If I was to stand on my head and piss in my eye they still would not be satisfied." That loses soooo much in translation. Before telling this story I must point out that Elvira Jones never wore leg-irons. She was a stockings and suspenders girl, she told me so herself.
One day I had a bus full, mostly women, on a Welsh countryside tour. We stopped at a pub for a little drink and then headed home. Not too long after leaving the pub I got approached by one of them telling me that about a dozen of the old dears needed to pee.

It was going to be about 20 minutes before I could get to the next Town, Carmarthen if I remember correctly, and find some place for them to go. That was going to be too long. I was on a country road with no lights so I pulled over. There was a small bank at the side of the road, so I suggested that if they were that desperate they could slip out of sight and do whatever they needed to do. About a dozen of them took the offer. Desperation is a great motivator.

Before long a couple of them came to me for help. One of the old dears had slipped on the bank and they were too nervous to try and go down there to help her. I went over and there, on the bottom of a not very steep or deep bank, was the unfortunate lady. She was wearing those leg irons, the kind that Forest Gump wore in the movie when he was a kid. She was lying on her back, with her legs in the air, her draws around her knees and she couldn't move. I had to help her up because the other old biddies were afraid to go down in case they slipped and joined her.

I was more embarrassed than she was. I helped her to her feet and said something like "I'll help you up the bank missus, but you'll have to handle your knickers yourself." She just stepped out of them and I got her back to the bus. To the cheers of the old folk and the amusement of everyone because I was the only one blushing.

Ever noticed how public transport frquently makes an ass of itself. Falls down and just lies there with it's butt to the world and says;
"I only need a little help and I'll be back on my feet."
Back on it's feet yes but still with the leg irons strapped on. What I'm referring to in this little analogy is that no mass transit agency anywhere can truly be run like a business. The leg irons are the political pressures that management has to deal with before making any real decision. The result is that very few decisions, certainly no major decisions, are ever business decisions. They are political decisions and the only solution to difficulty is to cut spending and look for a hand-out from the government. It's like working for a boss who himself is on welfare.

Many of the decisions are themselves counter -intuitive. If we are short of money we have to look for extra work to make up the shortfall. The bus company answer is to cut service, reducing it's ability to earn. If a bus route has few passengers the common wisdom is to remove the service. What is wrong in making an attempt to attract passengers to the line. If any of us had a product to sell and were truly committed to that product, we would do all we can to promote it. If feedback showed flaws we may tweak it to improve customer desire. Finding alternatives to generate revenue makes much more sense than constantly reducing an ability to earn.

The constant search for more and more government funds is also a weak strategy. In times of fiscal shortfall the monies that have been so relied upon become scarce and the old lady starts down that slippery slope that ends up with her legs in the air asking for more help.

It's worth pointing out that if she didn't have the leg-irons on she probably wouldn't have fallen and even if she had she would have been able to get up with minimum assistance.

These are not the failings of one bus company but a general failing in mass transit concepts all over the world. A point I've made for more years than I care to remember is; Financial crises and corporate challenges present the opportunity to change a system, not the excuse for perpetuating it.

I don't believe I'm the only one who sees this so why doesn't meaningful change take place?

It's those damn leg-irons again. If we accept government cash then we are at the mercy of politicians. The people elected to scrutinize and regulate now dictate. True business decisions are over-ridden by political constraints. The ambition and agendas of individuals, the notion that to accept an idea that isn't mine will hamper my advancement, the fear that change will put me in the back of the room instead of up front where I am now. Someone who has friends in high places and can negotiate extra funds wouldn't want the company to stand on it's own feet.

So innovation and creativity are squashed. The only suggestions considered are those that tinker with the system. "Turn off your computer." "Recycle paper" etc. may be worthy reccommendations of themselves but they are treating symptoms not the disease. If someone has smallpox an ointment to relieve the irritating sores, while giving some relief, does not fight the sickness.

So lets strengthen the legs, get rid of the irons and show the old girl how she can get back to the road on her own. Then no one needs to be embarrassed.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Down from the Mountain

This isn't about buses today, this is all about last weekend. The 21st of June is midsummer's day. In the Druid calender it's called "Alban Hefin" That's Welsh if you haven't guessed. I will hide nothing here, I follow the old Druid spirituality of my Welsh ancestors. I hesitate to call myself a Druid because Druids were a particular class with a very definite function in the old Celtic tribal tradition. That tribal structure and the view of Druids as Priests, Teachers and Judges no longer exists but I work at following their spiritual path and it works for me. My views on this part of my life are here;
and here
A life filled with Magic
I went to the Los Angeles national Forest, to a place called Jackson Flat.
Where I was camping is over 7,400 feet above sea level. To put it in perspective, the highest mountain in the UK is Ben Nevis, 4.409 feet above sea level.
There was quite a good group of Pagans there, not a huge number by any means but we made a respectable crowd. We sang and talked and held a ritual for the season. It was a good time for everyone and a refreshing experience. I came away feeling good about my life and the world in general. I felt renewed and ready to face the challenges that my life holds and prepared for the adventures yet to come.
The ancients saw Magic in the in-between places. The border between proprties, the indescribable place that is neither his nor his. Or the moment of midnight, that moment when it is neither today nor today. Such moments are where Magic happens, in the in-between places, in those times and places that are nothing, yet filled with potential. Such a moment is the Summer Solstice. There is a moment when the sun is at it's highest point in the year. An instant where it is at it's most powerful, then it declines. Such a moment is Alban Hefin, The Magic was there and I was privileged to feel it in the movement of the Earth and the movement of the skies. Most of all in the company of good friends old and new. Brothers and sisters on the long and winding road to the Summerland.
I also saw my very first live rattlesnake.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Mass Transit in Los Angeles

The public transport system in Los Angeles had me puzzled right from the beginning. There is something here that I had never seen before. Usually Buses work from a central hub, there's a downtown, or city centre, area where the buses radiate out from and return to, like the spokes of a wheel. there isn't any of that here in L.A. Here evrything goes north/south or east/west. I thought this was, not only strange but inefficient. Its a great soundbite to say that buses can take you everywhere but people don't want to go everywhere, we all have a specific destination in mind, be it shopping, Work, Church or whatever. So why didn't the buses radiate out from a central location connecting these places? Why does Los Angeles have everything going in such a way that more than one bus is necessary for almost any destination? Surely radiating out from a central hub would be a better use of resources, a more efficient way of getting the travelling public to their destination with less buses on the streets.
The answers I have been given sound fair on the face of it;
First It has been pointed out that Los Angeles is a planned city. It didn't just "happen" the way most european cities grew as villages met and combined over centuries of growth. Los Angeles was construcfed with all the streets going north/south and east/west.
Secondly; Los Angeles does not have a central hub. The downtown area is disfunctional.Great strides have been made in recent years to improve and revitalize the city centre but it is still a long way from being a city centre in the way any other city has a central focal point.
The city centre is split into districts; A garment district, a jewellery district, a toy district and so on. There is a cultural centre with some world class music and art theatres. All what you might expect in a thriving metropolis but where it falls down is that no one wants to hang out here. Any where else you might visit these places and then go to a restaraunt or a coffe bar, you would stay a little while. In Los Angeles, you come here for your business and then get out as soon as you can. The perception for most is that if you try to walk around Los Angeles, some homeless guy is going to cut your heart out.
Add to that the fact that there is no pedestrianized area in Los Angeles, nowhere that transportation options can be centralized, and you have a disfunctional hub.
The unfortunate by product of this is that the surrounding cities in Los Angeles county have mirrored the basic outline of L.A. they too are built on a grid, they even name their streets the same and in the same order.
As an aside here, the way I remember the order of the streets in L.A. and therefore the order of the streets in most of the outlying cities is;
"From MAIN we SPRING to BROADWAY then over the HILL to OLIVE, wouldn't it be GRAND if we could HOPE to to pick a FLOWER on FIGUEROA"
The result of this is that the outlying cities are unable to form functional transport hubs even though their city centres are more welcoming than Los Angeles.
The situation here could be changed, at little public expense and a far better use of transit resources with considerable savings in the long term. What is needed is political will. It would require some imagination, creativity, a willingness to advertise to the population of L.A. the plans to improve the quality of transportation and of city life. Then just do it.
The layout of L.A. is what it is. To work with what we have it would be necessary to consider the Central Business District a Hub. Here the grid system can work with certain well advertised modifications. Including the aggressive advertising of the attractions that downtown has and relieving the public of safety concerns. It should be a desired destination rather than a necessary evil.
All routes need to be revisited, this time not with assessing the level of ridership but how do they radiate from the centre, how do they best connect with the places that people really want to get to. With that principle as the first consideration ridership will folow, unlike the present method of looking at routes that have poor ridership and then cutting back on them. That is the easy way, Any child can do that. The part where real thought would come in would be in how to make the overall system efficient and responsive to the travelling public. nothing short of a complete overhaul of the transport structure in Los Angeles City and the outlying cities of the county will ever give an optimisation of resources and a truly responsive and effective public transportation system.

Monday, June 14, 2010

America versus England

Tim Howard is my newest hero.
Let me put the record straight, I'm a Welshman, born and bred. I was 42 years old when I came to America. All the years I've been here I still don't care that much for American sports and I've never been that interested in football, or Soccer as they call it over here. I'm a Rugby man, always have been, always will be but what I saw in the America vs England game made me proud of my American citizenship.
That Saturday I was rooting for America. Like I said, I'm an American Citizen and Wales isn't in the cup. It may be the subject of another article somewhere but the truth is Wales will never be in the World Cup. What I mean by that is, that it doesn't matter how well we play. It doesn't matter how good the Welsh team could be, it wouldn't even matter if Wales won the World Cup. The English Media will refer to Wales as "The British Contribution" They refuse to recognize our historic nation in whatever capacity we approach the World stage. I'll continue that rant another time, for now I want to bask in the glory of being on a side that held England to a draw.
Yes, it's true that the American goal was a fluke, the ball should never have got in the net. That said, the glory of the game was that England could not regain the lead. They couldn't get their ball past the superb goalkeeping skills of Tim Howard even giving him a boot in the ribs didn't help the English side. The man is a national hero, America got the draw and held it.
We now have the one point and are ready for Slovania.
Ymlaen America!  ooops! that's me being Welsh again. Go America!

Thursday, June 10, 2010


My son reminded me of something that happened so long ago that it feels like another life. It happened while I was a Bus Driver in Wales, The city of Swansea is on the south coast of Wales and the Bus company I worked for was South Wales Transport.
I had this route that went past Tycoch college and in the morning I would have a bus full of students. There was one in particular that I remember, Sharon. Sharon's parents were from Jamaica, some place just outside Kingston, if memory serves me right. During the 50's a lot of people immigrated in from Jamaica, Granada and Trinidad. There was full employment back in those days, I may well write about that, Prime Minister Harold MacMillan (Super Mac) and his "You've never had it so good" speech. but I digress.
Sharon and I used to talk. She was lovely and I was quite smitten by her. I could tell she liked me too but I was married and it never went any further than just talking on the bus on her way to college. There was a fair bit of banter too; like the time when she offered me a piece of dark chocolate and I pretended I couldn't find it on her hand, or how she'd come on the bus, if it had been raining, with her hood up and I'd tell her to smile otherwise I wouldn't know there was anyone in there. She called me "White Trash" and told me that the only good thing about me was a white Christmas. It was all good fun and so inappropriate in today's oh so politically correct world.
The second and third generation of those who came to the UK from the islands integrated well into our culture and way of life. I don't say there was no prejudice from individuals, some people will always be that way, but I was never so aware of it as I am today in California. Here I find so many people who are uncomfortable in their own skin, they can't have that easy familiarity that I was so used to back home. It seems you always have to be aware of what you say and who is listening when you say it. The breath of fresh air here is the Black people, excuse me the African American people, who are not bitter and angry and who can relate to anyone on their own terms. I'm going to have to write about that too, but back to Sharon.
One day she got on my bus quite loaded down. She had a basket and a backpack and some other things and I asked what was happening. She said that this was her last day. College was over and she and her friends were doing a gift exchange. She obviously had a lot of friends. She also told me that her family was moving to Surrey. That's in south east England and it meant we would never see each other again. I remember saying "And we never even kissed" She said "You never know" We chatted a little more then, when we got to the college she asked me to help her off with all that luggage. I had a pretty full bus but I wasn't going to say no so I gave her a hand. Then outside the bus in the full view of all my passengers and anyone else who could be walking by, she kissed me.
I'll never forget that kiss, it was loving and passionate and everything a kiss should be, but what made it special was that it was just a kiss. Usually when you kiss there's something that goes along with it; Like a prelude to sex or the promise of something to happen later. There's always something else. But we were never going to see each other again so there was no ulterior motive, it was a kiss purely for the sake of the kiss.
When I got back on the bus I was blushing like a fool and the passengers were clapping and cheering. Total embarrassment and a flush of pleasure and joy.
I never did see Sharon again, I have no idea what became of her but I will never forget that day and I will never forget the Kiss.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I am a Bus DRIVER, Dammit!

As I mention in my bio I've been driving buses for most of my adult life. It's a career I've always enjoyed., a place I can feel at home. It's made me a lot of money and one thing that can be said about this kind of work is that, once you have your licence and as long as you keep it clean, you never need to be unemployed. I don't care what recession might come along or what the financial worries of governments local or national might be. There is always work somewhere for the bus driver. More than that, you can go to any country in the world and as long as you can communicate, there's a job waiting for you.
Another thing about this kind of work is that it's not work. Bus Drivers do not really work, Steel workers, Farm Laborers and Coal Miners, these guys work. All I ever did was push a bus around the streets.
But I'm proud of what I do. Mass transit is essential to modern civilization and the Bus Driver is right there at the front of this industry. The Bus Driver is the one who represents the company at the street level. People who would never complain to the office about the schedules and about the bus they just missed, will complain to the driver. Folks have also been known to praise the driver for outstanding service. That doesn't get to the boss either. All in all I've seen many more smiles than frowns.
Another part of this job is that it's a great way to get to know a city. I've been to parts of Los Angeles that most folks who have lived here all their lives have yet to see. I've seen the best and the worst of Los Angeles. I've seen acts of incredible kindness and humanity, I've also arrived on the scene just after a murder.
There are many tales to tell and a lot of people to talk about. the good, the bad and the downright disgusting.
There's another side to it too. I drove buses in South Wales then I drove tour buses all over the British Isles and most of continental Europe but Los Angeles is unique. That could be said about any city but in the case of L.A. it's even more so. The contradictions and peculiarities of the mass transit industry in Los Angeles could not be found anywhere else in the world. History and geography have all played their part in producing a transit culture unlike anything I've ever come across.
That brings me to my final point and the first thing that bothered me about bus driving in L.A.  and it bothers me still.
They insist on calling me a Bus Operator they even have this saying of "There are no drivers here" and they talk about "Smooth Operator" ersonally, it makes me want to throw up. I am not an "Operator"! An operator takes phone calls, I'm a Bus Driver It's who I am it's how I identify my self, It's what I've done and what I do to keep the lights on and bacon on the stove.
So whenever I hear someone say "There are no drivers here" I answer "Here's one and I''m damn proud of it."