Thursday, August 30, 2007

Amtrak vs. My Bike

Following, an email I just sent to Amtrak's customer feedback:

Ahhh, another weekend, another trip between Milwaukee and Chicago.... which I won't be making on Amtrak.

Why? Simple: I can't take my bike.

Sure, I could put it in a box. I could also saw off my arm and put that in a box, too. It'd be only slightly less practical, and not nearly as painful.

I tried the bike-in-a-box thing once recently. A friend and I struggled for nearly 45 minutes to disassemble the bike and awkwardly cram it into the bike box, then jam it with some difficulty into the car (it didn't really fit).

Essentially, we took this incredibly efficient, sleek, compact, lightweight form of personal transporation, and turned it into an unweildy, awkward, enormous piece of oversized and immovable luggage.

We finally got to the station only to find they wouldn't let me on the train with it; I had to check it in as luggage. Luggage!! They wouldn't even let me just walk onto the (half-empty) train with it. It was maddening!! I nearly screamed in frustration, and almost missed my train as a result -- my friend had to come back to the station and take the box away before I could board.

You guys NEED TO CHANGE THIS POLICY. It's a bad policy. It's dumb. It costs you business. It discourages people like me -- those who rely on a bicycle for transportation -- from riding your trains.

There's no excuse for it. You've got the room. Spend a few bucks, take out a couple of seats on each train, or make them fold-aways, and poof -- room for 3-4 bikes. Have the rider carry the bike up themselves, require them to bungee cord them down. Make them wait till most passengers have boarded if need be; don't allow them on rush hour trains if you have to. Very simple. This works for New Jersey Transit. It works for Philadelphia's regional rail. It works for Chicago's Metra system. You're telling me it can't work for Amtrak? All those little dinky local rail systems can manage something that Amtrak can't?

When is this going to change, huh?

With that incentive, I'd gladly shell out the $21 for a ride to Chicago on a weekly basis. Without it, my money goes to Megabus, and Amtrak gets nothing but my ire.

For the uninitiated, Amtrak will only allow bikes on their Milwaukee-Chicago trains if the bike has been put in a taped-shut box and checked in as luggage. They might as well just tell us to take our bikes and stick 'em. It's a measure that's utterly impractical.

I'd love to have my bike down in Chicago on the weekends, and I hate having to lock it up at the train station, but thanks to Amtrak's absurd policy, there's not much other choice.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Newly carless

Two weeks ago, I sold my car. It had been legally out of commission since failing emissions at the end of July, and I stopped driving it after that. I have not replaced it yet, and don't have any immediate plans to do so.

This makes me one of five housemates, all adults, all licensed drivers, none of whom own a car. Yet this was not a decision based on urban or environmental idealism. I was just sick of spending money on the thing. It needed work immediately, probably a thousand bucks' worth or more. I didn't use it much in my day-to-day life -- mostly as a convenient way to get to work on rainy days, and occasionally to port the groceries home. I don't really need it for work, at least for the foreseeable future. And the bulk of my social life is centered around the East Side, where everything's in easy walking or biking distance.

The value I got from it was simply not equalling the value I was having to put into it. For the moment, the equation holds up for getting a replacement car, too. That may change when winter rolls around, but we'll see.

For now, my short-term debt has instantly evaporated thanks to the money from selling it and the refund on my insurance; I no longer have to budget out hundreds of dollars for endless maintenance and repairs; and I no longer care about every little noise from the alley that used to be somebody potentially breaking into it while it was parked.

Do I miss the mobility? Sure. Most of all I regret the inability to convey other people. When a friend needed a ride from the train station, I was only able to help because one of my housemates happened to have a borrowed car available.

I've made a few adjustments to my routines, such as more frequent stops at the grocery store on the way home from work. I more willingly spend money on things like bike repairs or cab fare -- they're a lot cheaper than the endless whammies of gas, insurance, repairs, maintenance, and registration. I have to limit how I pack for my weekly trips down to Chicago. I've learned how to bungee cord a lot of oddly-shaped items to my carry rack.

I may replace the car come winter, if the need arises; I would definately miss being able to zip around the city with my camera, which gets tough on bike after November or so. Still, with Zipcar coming to the East Side, I just might be able to get along without a car of my own.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Looking back 4 decades

From the Journal-Sentinel last week: Flash Point: Racial tension in the summer of 1967 fueled deadly violence, a fascinating snapshot of Milwaukee's social and emotional state 40 years ago, as violence and rioting engulfed portions of the inner city. It's part of a series reflecting on the 1967 riots.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Demolition everywhere you look

A lot of buildings are coming down at the moment...

Pabst Brewery

Pabst Brewery

Demolition has been ongoing at the long-shuttered Pabst Brewery since around January; this is the second major building to come down, but many smaller structures have been removed as well. This one sported a beige smokestack with "PABST" in glazed white tile; its 1950s Modern window walls were a favorite subject of mine:

Pabst Brewery, Milwaukee

Not far away, serious work has kicked in on the old Pfister-Vogel Tannery:

Pfister-Vogel Tannery

Pfister-Vogel Tannery

Most of the one-story additions and small outbuildings have been taken down:

Pfister-Vogel Tannery - outbuilding being demolished

Remediation work has been underway on the facade of the main building, with environment suit-clad workers riding a cherry picker up to the windows along Water Street. It looks like the demolition will move west to east, which would leave the most important brick facades intact until the end. The strategy seems to be to take down the lower portions in the back, which should give the taller portions in front somewhere to fall, including the towering smokestack. I'm waiting to see if a crane shows up on site to salvage the enormous roof-top water tank.

And finally, I was shocked on Friday afternoon to see that the last standing portion of the Grede Foundry was actually being knocked down:

Grede Foundry rubble

The office building has been standing, heavily frayed at the edges but essentially intact, for over a year now -- long enough that I'd almost convinced myself it was going to be saved. Why it was spared for so long is a mystery, but as of today it's entirely rubble.

Grede Foundry

I just hope someone salvaged those handsome raised aluminum letters; they were slick (especially on their polished stone background.) I'd been eyeing them myself for a long time!