Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Still Not Smelling Like ROSA

In yesterday's post I criticized the ROSA program in DC, which targets people without DC tags on their cars, and parking restrictions in general.

A couple commenters responded with a few different arguments, generally with the point that other places have similar or worse parking enforcement policies. I dispute this.

First and foremost: DC is unique in the United States in that it is a city that operates as a completely independent jusidiction from the suburbs and surrounding areas. Every single person who does not physically live in DC, does not have DC tags on their car.

These poeople are not our enemies. They work, play, shop and have friends who live in DC. They have reasons for needing to park on a regular basis in our city that are not only legitimate, but necessary for the functioning of our economy, our very lives. Your housekeeper, your girfriend, your mother, your dog walker. Any of them could live in a different state and need to park their car at your home. Yet we have an intricate web of rules for various types of visitor permits that are confusing and laborious to comply with.

What About New York

The only place that I can think of that has anything in common with DC geographically is New York City. While certainly a higher percentage of the metropolitan area probably lives in New York than in DC, the same situation exists: a lot of people living in New Jersey and Connecticut work, play, and do business in New York City. And, like DC, New York City is a huge tourist destination. They want people to visit.

So how does New York deal with this? Does New York City outlaw anyone without New York plates from parking in the city?

Umm, no. Quite the opposite, in New York, there are no residential considerations at all. Everyone has the same parking privileges, everywhere. If there isn't a "no parking" sign, you can park there. There are no crazy rules about being observed twice in one month, which apparently visitors are supposed to deduce.

Apparently, they have figured out something DC has not: that we actually depend on people from other states for our economy. They are our friends, coworkers, contractors, and we want them to be able to park in our city without having to jump through hoops. Parking is not something that should be hoarded, reserved so that everyone is guaranteed a spot in front of their house - it's something that's needed just as much by the people who do not live in the city as by those who do.

New York also does smart things to increase the availability of parking, the very concept of which seems to paralyze DC, such as:

1) New program has meter rates that vary based on demand at the time

2) Allowing parking right up to the intersection at "T" intersections on one way streets - in DC, regardless of the configuration, you can't park within 25 feet of a stop sign.

Hey, look at that!! In NYC, you can park in places where it makes sense that you should be able to park. In DC, you can't park within 25 feet of a stop sign or intersection no matter what. But luckily we've got ROSA to help with the parking problem instead - because who needs those pesky workers and visitors?

Boston? Chicago? er... Anywhere?

Boston has spots designated for visitors in areas with residential parking restrictions. There is no ROSA-like program.

Chicago lets you buy daily parking passes for use in RPP zoned areas online!! How cool is that? You can also buy books of 30.

In Chicago, like DC, RPP covers certain residential only during certian hours. Unlike DC, their web site even lets you figure out if a specific area has restrictions. And course it is possible to get visitor passes in some reasonable manner, and you won't be ticketed for parking more than once a month where the regulations are not in effect.

Further unlike DC, motorcycles and scooters may park in RPP zones without displaying an annual or visitor residential parking permit which makes absolute sense since they take up so little space. Not so in DC.

I could go on, but it seems clear the DC is unique in the ridiculousness of its parking laws.

Is There Anywhere Quite As Backwards As DC?

If anyone is aware of a major metropolitan area, or indeed any jurisdiction, that has parking regulations that can result in ticketing of a legally registered car that is not in violation of the posted parking restrictions, please let me know. I am not aware of any.

ROSA is the worst. There are a hundred other things wrong with DC's parking rules, like the visitor pass policy, the zone parking permits (which you can't get if your street is not zoned), the list goes on... but other cities have stupid things like that too.

But where else on earth can you get a ticket when you're in compiance with the posted parking regulations?

Probably Hazzard County, but I doubt anywhere else.

A ROSA By Any Other Name Smells Just As Bad

While walking the dog recently I saw a note on a car windshield. The note is directed towards "Officer Ward" and implores that the officer stop ticketing her car. The ticket is "Failure To Secure DC Tags" which is a $100 fine, and is issued under the ROSA program.

The victim here has Louisiana tags and said they are attending Catholic University. This car was parked on an unzoned block. There are no parking restrictions. The next morning, there was a ticket on her windshield, shown in the second picture.

Parking Note 1Parking Note 2

ROSA stands for "registration of out of state automobiles." It is one of DC's many anti-visitor polices, and as far as I know, is a form of extortion unique to DC. While many local governments love to extort money from visitors in the form of tolls and speed traps, only in DC do we have a rule that lets the police ticket your cars while they are legally parked.

If a policeman or "meter maid" believes that you are a resident of DC who has not changed their tags, or alternatively is a little short on their quota for the month, they can issue a legally parked car a one hundred dollar ticket, every single day. From DMV's web site:

The Metropolitan Police Department monitors residential areas for the presence of automobiles not in compliance with DC registration requirements. If an automobile has been observed a second time within a thirty-day period, a warning notice may be issued...

After that, it's ticket time.

So basically, this law means that if you do not have DC tags, and you legally park in DC more than once in a one-month period, you can be ticketed. Good luck visiting your boyfriend/girlfriend. Good luck being a regular service provider like a cleaning person. Good luck having friends who live somewhere other than DC (like, say, Maryland or Virginia) who want to visit you more than once a month. Good luck having a job in DC somewhere that has ample street parking, but few or no private parking options -- like at the Bancroft School, and a nursing home, in Mt. Pleasant. Where, ironically, ANC Commissioner Jack McKay tried to set up a registration program for daytime workers to actually pay for monthly permits so they could legally park near the school. Then - suddenly and unceremoniously -- the program, which was about to actually be enacted, was killed.

Apparently, DC's stranglehold on parking -- even in residential areas, during daytime hours only, when there is loads of parking available -- is more important than being able to provide a legal option for people who work in the city.

So, only way to avoid getting insanely expensive tickets when you park your out-of-state vehicle in DC is to obtain a reciprocity permit of which there are a mind-boggling array here. These include special permits for "students, military, and elected officials," "health care provider permit (60 days)," "visitor parking permit for guests (15 days)," and yes, even a "rental car parking permit (15 days)."

I guess "boyfriend/girlfriend" would fall under "visitor permit for guests (15 days)." To obtain one of these, you need:

  • The name and address of the resident
  • The name and address of the visitor using the permit
  • The license tag number, and issuing state of the visitor's vehicle
This is all extraordinarily inconvenient if you have a regular visitor, since you must go in person to a police station to get one every 15 days. I haven't a clue what you are expected to do if you don't happen to have the licence plate number for a guest handy, or if you have more than one guest. Oh yeah, I know what you're supposed to do: cough up the "protection money" to DC when you get the shakedown.

The upshot: If you want to park in DC then you need to prove you don't live here... even if you are parked legally, on an unzoned street, or during hours that parking restrictions do not apply.

Sometimes I am amazed that anyone comes here at all. I love this city. But it's laws like this that make DC seem like Hazzard County, where we're just waiting for Bo and Luke Duke to cross the county line so we can kick out their taillight and then arrest them for driving with a broken taillight.

There is no other place on earth that I am aware of where you can get a parking ticket while parked legally. Maybe that's because most places actually want people to come visit their city and spend their money. Too bad we are so shortsighted that we think extortion makes more economic sense than friendlieness. Someone up there needs to learn that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Teachers: You Could Learn A Thing Or Two

"Old teachers are the ones who stuck around when the buildings were falling down. When there wasn't no money."

-- Speaker (presumably, a teacher) at last night's protest against Michelle Rhee's proposed DCPS layoffs

Let me state unequivocally that I do not agree with Michelle Rhee's policy. She hired approximately 900 new teachers over the summer, and recently announced plans to lay off hundreds more by September 30th. This action is supposedly predicated on budget shortfalls. The assumption is that she will not be letting go the young, inexpensive new hires, but rather veteran, higher-paid employees -- so the move in many ways amounts to union busting. Hire a bunch of new people, then use the economy as an excuse to get rid of the old ones.

This stinks for a lot of reasons. Dan Brown at Huffington Post makes the case against Rhee's methods very well here, and I generally agree with his points. Experience matters. You can't just flush out a quarter of the teachers and replace them with rookies and expect things to work.

And it's obvious that the problems with the system don't rest squarely on the shoulders of the teachers. You could have 3,800 of the best teachers in the world, but that doesn't change the fact that you're trying to educate tens of thousands of kids who don't care, may be growing up in poverty among other home life problems, and won't graduate more than half the time. The best cadre of teachers on the planet could not solve that problem.

But at the same time, when I hear something like what I heard on NPR this morning, I just cringe. In front of a microphone, at a rally, protesting the unfairness of veteran teachers being dismissed in favor of new hires, the speaker can't even find it within herself to use proper English?

This is a pretty sad statement. I don't care about the differences between cultures. I don't care about urban dialects. While I personally don't speak that way, I do say all kinds of other crap that is not proper English when I'm hanging out with my friends. I'm fine with people speaking any way they please when they're in casual company.

But I would never speak like that to an audience, or around kids, and if any teacher of my child ever spoke that way, I'd be shedding no tears to hear about their pink slip. At the bare minimum, our teachers should be able to form a sentence with some basic semblance of proper grammar.

I suppose we will find out soon enough what Rhee has planned for the schools. I can't agree with her approach, nor do I think it will solve any problems. It's so typical of the Fenty administration -- rule with a heavy hand, damn the consequences. Just about every significant action that the administration has taken is dramatic and untested. It's out with the old and in with the new. While there's nothing wrong with infusing a lumbering institution with some new blood, when you get rid of all the old blood, suddenly, the system doesn't just change, it breaks. You can't change city hall overnight.

At the same time, hearing that made me put myself in Michelle Rhee's shoes for a minute. I wonder what she sees going on in the schools every day. Those are some pretty uncomfortable shoes. I wouldn't want to wear them.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

PETA: Hoax, or You Can't Make This Stuff Up?

I am really not obsessed with PETA, athough I have mocked them here or on facebook many times in the past. It's just that they're so darn craaaaazy, those PETA people. The reason for my post today is to pose a very important question, and try to answer it through the preponderance of evidence.

PETA: Bullshit or Not?

There are an ever-increasing number of clues that PETA is, in fact, an elaborate hoax perpetrated by some very clever pranksters. Over the years, PETA has become near and dear to tofu-toasters everywhere, and indeed, they have become very comfortable with their acceptance as a quasi-legitimate operation. But the jokesters are getting cocky, going a little too far, as we will demonstrate through an analysis of some of PETA's recent actions. Today, I will set out to prove that PETA is, in fact, one of the biggest public hoaxes ever perpetrated on American society.

All Lives Are Equal

This June, PETA took a stand against the swatting of flies, arguing in favor of "compassion for all animals, even the most curious, smallest, and least sympathetic ones." Or, the most pestilential. I blogged about this, and wondered publically about their position regarding life forms such as the H1N1 virus or chalmydia. I have not heard back on that one.

Chickens Have Feelings Too

Next, PETA announces plans for the Chicken Empathy Museum. The goal would be to help everyone understand the truth about chickens. Not that they are delicious when spiced and deep-fried, but that

"Chickens are sensitive, smart animals who have feelings just as we do"

I sincerely apologize if, with this mocking of the plans for the Chicken Empathy Museum, I have hurt the feelings of any particularly sensitive chickens. But the kicker is that they would also serve
"delicious faux-chicken drumsticks and chickenless pot pie."

Now that strikes me as pretty odd. So, PETA is operating on the assumption that chickens are as sensitive as human beings, and the entire purpose of this museum is to promote empathy towards chickens.

Let me ask you, PETA. How do you think someone of Native American descent, or, indeed, any sane person, would feel about the National Museum of the American Indian offering delicious treats that looked like the skinned, severed heads of American Indians?

Yeah, not so much. Clearly, PETA is starting to show their hand.

PETA's CEO, hard at work.

Peta-philes? Oh no. You really didn't.

Finally, it has come to my attention that PETA decided it would be a funny idea to name their blog The PETA Files.

This time, they didn't just tip their hand. They threw it down on the table, and it's full of jokers. Unless they have literally gone so far off the deep end that they think empathy towards chickens takes a front seat to emapthy towards victims of child abuse, this is the clincher: PETA's a joke. And I don't mean the kind of joke that we all always thought they were, I mean a REAL joke, and they got us GOOD.

Go I gotta hand it to you PETA. You put one over on all of us. And I, for one, can't wait to see what the punch line is when the curtain drops!

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Three Questionable Waste Disposal Decisions

I wrote not too long ago about the daily proliferation of trash on my street. Since then, I've been pretty good about picking up trash every day on the three or four blocks where I walk the VERY BAD DOG who does not deserve such long walks because he tried to attack my neighbor and routinely ignores me and pees on the kitchen floor whenever our backs are turned. Ahem.

Anyway, back to the trash. There has been a noticeable impact. Sure, people still throw crap on the ground. There are these candy wrappers, some kind of peanut butter chew or something, that appear daily. Then there are the random Schlitz Malt Liquor cans and McDonalds trash on Spring Road.

But by and large, I pick up less and less trash every day. Whereas I used to only concern myself with cans, bottles, and bags, now, there often aren't any of those. So I pick up smaller things, candy wrappers, sometimes cigarette butts, and even stuff in the street if street sweeping is not coming up soon.

11th St Litter 2N. thinks all this is hilarious and bought me a grabber-thingy called the Gopher 2 for picking up trash. This thing is awesome. Although I have been too embarassed to actually take it with me on the dog-walk and use it to collect trash yet, it has many other uses, including ass-grabbing, pet-teasing, and, for those who are not strong with The Force and may need such assistance, remote-control-gettting-while-reclined-on-couch.

So while my moonlighting as a garbage man is generally going well, there are three things that have appeared on my block lately that are somewhat baffling, and beyond the scope of my morning efforts.

1. The Television

Has now been on the sidewalk for about a month. Guess what? Nobody wants your 24 year old Goldstar television. That includes the trash men, a fact which should have been crystal clear after it remained on the sidewalk despite the trash cans being emptied, twice a week, for the last month.

11th St Litter 12. The Post Base

This has been sitting on the sidewalk for a LONG time. The guy on the corner redid his fence sometime in the distant past, like early summer or even spring. It's been there ever since. Now, generally, I can't complain about that house because they are good neighbors, keep things up, and I even saw him mowing the treebox once. ONCE.

Obviously, though, there is not a female in that household. Because while all dudes are born with the ability to selectively ignore things like this indefinitely, and indeed even convince themselves that the object in question is actually not there, the opposite happens for women. When there is something within the boundaries of their living space that should not be there, or is in the wrong place, it starts glowing around the edges, then becomes bright white, and finally screams at them like a dying banshee every time they see it. Which they in turn do to you. This I learned while I was married. No woman would permit that post to remain on their sidewalk for months. Clearly, the guy who lives there needs a girlfriend, and possibly a pickup truck.

11th St Litter 33. The Compost Pile/Rat Feeder

This is the most problematic of the three QWDDs (Questionable Waste Disposal Decisions). While the first two are annoying, I can (and perhaps will) take care of them myself either with a call to bulk pickup, or by throwing them in the back of my truck the next time I go to Fort Totten. But this one keeps recurring -- and, like that strange itch that you got after that drunken late-night hookup with "Marisa" or "Melisa" or whatever her name was, it's hard to get rid of without involving someone wearing a pair of rubber gloves.

Some person, or perhaps people, are dumping old food in the treeboxes. I suspect that they think they are feeding birds. I really do believe their motive is not absolute laziness since it's always old-looking food, often bread products. In the picture from this morning, it's moldy bagels. I picked them up. Someone saw me do it and thanked me.

But take a closer look at the television picture. That orange pile next to the TV is rice. That also appeared this morning. That's disgusting, and there's no way birds will eat it anyway. There has been rice in the past at the spot where I picked up the bagels. As well as a huge pile of bread, and sausages, and all sorts of crap. Someone either thinks that the treebox is some kind of miraculous garbage disposal, or that they really are doing a service to all the starving vermin in DC by dumping old food on the sidewalk.

Today was the first time I picked up the food pile (the bagels, I couldn't deal with the rice) because it's starting to happen more often. Maybe they will realize it's not cool when someone takes it every day. If not, then hopefully I will see them doing it and have have a frank discussion with them about rats and the purpose of trash cans and sewers. If that doesn't work, then that leaves me with only one alternative. No, I'm not talking about a stakeout with a camera, followed by public humiliation in the form of leaflets under the windshield of every car on the block.

I'm talking about the Real Genius punishment.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Restroom Etiquette Making Headlines Everywhere

"Just be sure you don't hit the wrong button and end up putting a photo of your junk on Twitter. Trust me, you don't want those followers."
-- Brad Pitt, 7/17/09, on bathroom texting

Following on the firestorm caused by my screed against the use of the center stall in the office restroom, CNN has published a story called "Restroom Etiquette for The Office."

Or did they? Oops. It looks like they decided the world wasn't ready to be told what not to do in the bathroom by CNN, and pulled the story. Fortunately, it's still available on Google's cache as well as the mobile feed.

The article makes some very solid points, by advising bathroom newbies with sound advice such as flush the toilet and don't drip on the toilet seat. The authors do, however, veer into highly controversial territory, by openly opposing talking across the stalls. While the authors do admit that this is more personal preference than etiquette, they go one step further by suggesting that this applies to urinals too. Personally, I think they walked off the cliff on this one. Talking across stalls, maybe, but urinals? Any society that is so uptight that chatting with your co-worker while peeing is verboten has really gone too far.

Bear in mind that there absolutely must be an empty urinal between you during this conversation at the clivas multrum. If for some reason you are forced to pee right next to someone, especially someone you know, then the only appropriate way to handle this is with absolute silence and a level gaze. Just pretend it's not happening.

Which brings me to the failings of this article, and indeed, the failings of mainstream media in general. While the subject matter is one of great relevance, it fails to deal with what is truly important, the meat of the subject.

The issues they discuss, such as talking across bathroom stalls and talking on one's cell phone while using the toilet, are important ones. Yet much more serious matters are left unexplored. And cell-phone use in the bathroom is hardly breaking news. Brad Pitt came out against it publicly in July, strongly urging people to only communicate via text message while in the bathroom.

His marriage to Angelina Jolie notwithstanding, Mr. Pitt is indeed a wise man. State secrets have been compromised through idle cell-phone chatter in the bathroom. And his bold comments further highlight the shallow failings of the present CNN article. While they correctly decry the practice of talking on the phone in the can, they don't even bother to say that texting is perfectly fine. Nor do they warn of the risk of photographing your junk while using your phone in the restroom. Where's the depth, the analysis? The horror stories of twittering your junk accidentally?

What about dropping your phone in the toilet?!?

In the end, while it does bring some hope that such matters are being discussed at all, we at Farm Fresh Meat strongly believe that the media could be doing much more. Discussion of bathroom etiquette has languished in the shadows long enough. It's time that everyone -- not just the media, but all of us -- took a stand and pulled back the curtain on this awkward subject.

Stand up for proper bathroom etiquette. Call out your coworkers and friends when they use the center stall or talk across the stalls. If everyone works together, like Polio, bad bathroom behaviour can be eradicated.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Romance Is Not Dead

Liked Your LookThis morning when I went out to my car, I saw an ominous-looking piece of paper under my windshield wiper. Ticket? Did I let my inspection expire? Nope, not pink. As I approached the car I saw handwriting on the note. Oh no. Someone hit my car. Well at least they left a note, but dammit I've spent more time in the shop than out of it this year.

My fears were unfounded. The note was from a secret admirer, proof that romance is not dead in the world. A handwritten note, a compliment, "I just liked your look." It could be the beginning of nothing, just another conversation at a bar, a missed connection, or, if acted upon, it could be the story of how we met, told to our grown children 25 years from now.

Unfortunately, I have to burst that bubble. It wasn't for me.

I loaned my car to a friend last night.

Now that we've gotten the sappery out of the way, it's time to mock this thing mercilessly. Mouhahhahahhaaa!!

Romance is not dead yet, is what I meant to say. So let's see how long it takes to kill it!

"I liked your look?" The friend in question was wearing a ratty Superman T-shirt. Except it was a black T-shirt, not a blue one, so I guess it was bizarro superman. Over that was a zip-up hoodie of some kind, and below were, I believe, sweat pants. All ill-fitting because they belonged to her boyfriend. She hadn't been home since Saturday to change into her own clothes, because she had lost her purse (and keys) while wasted on Saturday night.

Which brings us to why she was borrowing my car --- by some miracle, the Palace of Wonders actually had her stuff and she needed to go get it.

Anyway, it was a priceless look. I would imagine if she'd actually taken a shower or put on something that did not look like it came from the hipster section of the Value Thrift, that our erstwhile romantic wouldn't have even noticed her! Seriously - you may want to consider the "hung over walk of shame" look more often, apparently it turns a lot of heads.

There are a lot of things that come to mind as I ponder this note.

1. Notes like this are supposed to start with "I've never done something like this before." It's not that I seriously think you haven't but at least you could pretend.

2. On the subject of leaving notes on the cars of people you've never met. How does this compare to meeting people at the bus stop, grocery store line, or STD clinic waiting room for getting dates?

3. "Shallow to say..." interesting expression, but yes....

4. Can you clarify exactly what that word is at the end of the fourth line, that looks kind of like "I was talking with an / nazi..." I really can't figure out what this says, but will give you the benefit of the doubt and assume that you are not friends with any nazis. But it could hold the key to the important question: Do You Live On My Block, Or Were You Visiting? Which brings us to...

5. If the answer is "Live On My Block," then how could you possibly not have realized that my car also lives on my block? It's there every single day. While picking up strangers by leaving notes on their car is weird to begin with, it's even weirder if they happen to live across the street from you or something. I'd think that you'd make a lot more headway with the "hi, I'm your neighbor" introduction than random stalker note.

Okay, now that I've ripped the heart out of a complete stranger who will probably read this, fly into the kind of alcohol-induce rage that only a true romantic callously scorned could have, leave another note telling me what an a-hole I am, then later sober up some and regret it, come back and remove the note and possibly key my car, I'd like to close with this.

I gave her the note. Good luck. By the way -- she's totally psychotic.

Friday, September 18, 2009

An apology, and an update.

I asked my girlfriend what she thought of my last post.

She said (paraphrased) "God that was boring. You haven't posted in a week and then you drone on for ten paragraphs about speed traps? I didn't even get halfway through."

I apologize for that. I guess it was kinda boring. I will try to keep my posts either more trivial, or in those cases when I write on serious matters of politics and speed bumps and such, I will keep them snarky and inflamatory so people will read them and I will get published in Express more often. Yay!

On that note, the firebox near my house which I have written about here and then again here has morphed again!! Actually it was a couple weeks ago, but I kept forgetting to write about it until today.

They seem to have added some orange trim. Now, it is essentially painted the same way it was before they did anything (see bad picture from my first post), except it is much sloppier, and with uglier colors. It does look better than the previous stark-red incarnation, at least.

Will this be the end? Now that school has started, will we be spared the paintbrush for nine months? Only time will tell.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The DC Police State

In a recent issue of The Mail Gary Imhoff discusses DC's automated traffic enforcement of speeding and red-light running. While this is nothing new, the situation is about to take a turn for the gestapo with the recent announcement that the city plans to triple the number of automated speed traps. And this is on top of the 104% increase in revenue that DC has gotten from these bad boys in the last two years - $46 million from 620,000 citations issued this year alone. That's more than one citation per resident of DC. In the current issue of The Mail, one commenter makes the classic argument that there is no possible reason to be upset about this because, hey, speeding is against the law:

But it seems to me that in the recent discussion, people are not questioning the legitimacy of the law; they are questioning the legitimacy of enforcing a good law, if that pursuit means that a private entity or the government profits from the pursuit. If a person is breaking the law, isn’t this really just “sour grapes” about being caught?

Amazingly I have never written about red light and speed cameras before on this blog, but there are two primary components to the arguments against them. On the one side, there is ample evidence that red-light cameras in particular may not actually increase safety. At intersections where red-light cameras are present, while there may be a minor decrease in T-bone type collisions, it is generally offset by an increase in rear-end collisions, as people slam on their brakes at the first sign of a yellow light to avoid a possible ticket, when in fact the correct course of action at that speed would have been to proceed through the intersection. The other side is the precedent set by pervasive automated law enforcement.

Apart from the general arguments against these devices, they are rarely installed in response to safety concerns. It is a documented fact that in most jurisdictions, DC included, red light cameras are installed at intersections where the most red-light running occurs - not intersections where the most accidents occur. The same for speed cameras - they are installed not in response to safety concerns, but in response to areas where speeding is prevalent. The obvious conclusion is that the primary purpose of these devices is revenue generation, rather than safety.

It may come as a surprise, but there isn't actually a very strong relationship between unsafe intersections, and intersections where people run red lights. More often than not, analysis has shown that intersections with high incidences of red-light running have design problems. Either it is difficult for traffic to make turns legally, or the yellow light is timed too short for the speed limit, or it has physical design problems. Wouldn't a good government try to figure out and correct problems with such intersections, improving safety and traffic flow, rather than just trying to profit from them?

The same is usually true of areas where people routinely speed. Studies have shown that most people drive at a speed that is comfortable given the conditions, regardless of the speed limit - the size and type of the road, traffic conditions, proximity to pedestrian and other traffic, and so on. Most places where people speed frequently are not at all unsafe and have few accidents. Rather, the speed limit is set artifically low. But instead of trying to understand why people routinely speed in certain places and adjusting the speed limit to reflect the conditions, the government profits from it.

If You Have Nothing To Hide You Have Nothing To Fear

But back to the time-honored argument in favor of any kind of zealous law enforcement. "If you aren't breaking the law, then you don't have anything to worry about." The problem with this argument is that it can be used to defend any kind of government intrusion and law enforcement, all the way to up and including McCarthyism and Nazi Germany. It can be used to defend any kind of wiretapping, surveillance, or police searches.

I realize that by even mentioning Nazi Germany in the context of speed cameras I risk being laughed off the podium, because there is no comparison. I agree. I am absolutely not comparing the two. So I will say it again so there is no misunderstanding.

The argument that is almost always used to defend automated law enforcement, can also be used to defend any form of government monitoring or law enforcement techniques.

So unless you would also be in favor of the extreme scenario, equally defensible with this argument, it a bad argument.

Imagine the most efficient form of traffic enforcement possible. An automated system, perhaps built into your car or into the roads, monitored your actions at all times. If you roll through a stop sign, or exceed the speed limit for even a second, or pull away from the curb without fastening your seatbelt, a buzzer would go off in your car and deduct a fine from your bank account. George Orwell's "1984" is the quintessential vision of this future. But that's a little too extreme for the purpose of this discussion. However, a couple other movies come to mind that show a slightly more realistic version of where this could end up. In Demolition Man, violating any law (including uttering a curse word) resulted in a piece of paper being spit out from a nearby kiosk with your fine. In The Fifth Element Bruce Willis' taxicab rattles off the number of violations he has remaining until he loses his licence each time he gets in a fender bender or breaks a traffic law.

Eight years of the Bush administration notwithstanding, I think that the vast majority of the people in this country would have a problem with constant government monitoring and absolute law enforcement of this sort.

So I submit to those who think that there is no problem with the proliferation of automated traffic enforcement devices: why is this OK with you, but not the extreme scenario, which is equally defensible with the same argument? Where would you draw a line, and why would you draw it there?

This is not about "sour grapes" and wanting to break the law without getting caught. It's about the purpose of our laws, and how we enforce them. When you identify a stretch of road where people routinely drive 10 miles per hour over the speed limit, but isn't especially accident prone, that should be a sign that perhaps the speed limit is too low -- not your cue to start shaking down everyone who drives through there. If you have an intersection that has frequent red light running, instead of profiting from it, figure out what makes this intersection different from similar ones where people don't run the lights all the time.

A good government does not make arbitrary laws, and then use them as an opportunity to tax its citizens more. Situations constantly change, and laws are obviously much slower to do so. We should not aggressively enforce laws like these simply because we can, without trying to understand why people are breaking these laws. This notion is hardly without precedent. When I lived in Mount Pleasant, street parking became extremely difficult, and Jim Graham successfully got the police to agree to cease enforcement of parking restrictions that limited you to 25 feet from an intersection. The vast majority of the citizens favored this, and the citywide law was not changed, obviously, but the police agreed to cease enforcement. Over time, perhaps that law will change so it can accommodate the needs of a given community. This same notion can be applied here - while it may take a while to figure out why people are speeding or running red lights somewhere, unless there is a documented safety problem, zealous enforcement does not serve the community.

In DC, our government has embraced the notion that there's nothing wrong with the roads, the intersections, and the speed limits - there's just something wrong with all the people who use them and they should pay for that. That is an absurd notion. And even more offensive is that this approach places money before safety -- since these automated enforcement devices are placed with maximum revenue in mind, while unsafe intersections and stretches of road remain unsafe.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

How To Lose Friends And Entrench Enemies

The title of today's post is the entirety of a short comment on Greater Greater Washington by crin. I thought it was particularly fitting because of two things that happened in the last 24 hours. One is the subject of the blog post that inspired that comment, and the other is last night's Presidential address to congress on health care.

First, the local news. Alice Swanson was killed last summer while cycling near Dupont Circle. There was much controversy surrounding this tragic accident, in part because the driver of the truck that hit her was not found to be negligent and not charged. I don't want to debate this here, but rather discuss the events of yesterday related to this.

Picture from Greater Greater Washington post above
Following her death a "ghost bike" was erected at the spot of the accident to memorialize her. The memorial remained in place for more than a year, and was removed recently (probably by the Department of Public Works). Those responsible for the memorial were outraged because they were not notified of its removal. My personal opinion is that while it would have been nice for DC to somehow let them know, this isn't exactly cause for outrage. The memorial was on public space, it was not permitted, and not legal. It was allowed to remain for more than a year, far longer than any other such citizen-installed memorial I've heard of. It served its purpose, and DPW even installed a sign at the intersection warning drivers to watch for cyclists.

Last night, 22 (that's right, twenty-two) ghost bikes were installed around the location in an act of civil disobedience in response to the removal. From Alice Swanson Rides Again:

Twenty-two bicycles have been placed around the intersection of Connecticut Avenue, 20th Street, and R Street (the original site of the ghost bike), one for each year of Alice’s life. Hopefully, this will get Mayor Fenty’s attention...

We hope this forces the city government to see public space as something for public use. But the one thing we’re not hoping for is for the Mayor’s office to put the bike back. We put it back. And if it leaves again, we’ll put it back again. And again. And again. And this time, the ghost bike stays.

So basically, they are retaliating against the city for what amounts to them doing their job. The problem is, this no longer has anything to do with Alice Swanson's memory. It has to do with revenge, and spite, and an eye for an eye. And more likely than not, publicity for the self-described anarchist who did this. This kind of behavior has no place when it comes to the whole point of the original ghost bike: to memorialize a tragic death.

This has gone too far. If all the time and energy being put into this act of civil disobedience went into having a permanent, tasteful, non-sidewalk-obstructing memorial, we'd probably have one by now. But instead, we have what amounts to junk tied to every other light post in Dupont Circle. But worse, it creates a rift between the ones who care most about this memorial, and the very people whom they need on their side to get a legitimate, permanent one: the city government.

What makes this all the more hypocritical is that this is a very heavily traveled area by pedestrians. In the picture above, the very first bike you see is blocking almost half of the entrance to the crosswalk. This is at a minimum a nuisance - I am sure everyone's been waiting to cross a street at busy times and had difficulty not bumping into people under normal circumstances. This makes it that much worse. In the worst case it could even be a safety problem if someone walked into it because they weren't looking down. I'm not trying to say that it's a hazard akin to an open manhole, but considering the other kinds of things that people walk into regularly, it's unquestionably a possible hazard.

Enough is enough. If you want a real memorial, do it legitimately. If the effort that went into this project -- "weeks Dumpster-diving, as well as wailing on Freecycle and Craigslist" -- had been put towards a productive purpose such as working with the government on a permanent memorial, we might very well have had one by now.

This is public space, remember? Like the road - we all must share it. And it is clear that this action will not help your cause. This will certainly serve to annoy DPW who must now deal with all the new ghost bikes, and it has clearly annoyed the majority of people commenting on the story.

... And, the national news. Last night, during President Obama's speech, Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) yelled out "You lie!" while the President was speaking, in regard to his statement that illegal aliens would not be covered by his proposal. Let us forget for a moment the incredible hypocrisy in one politician calling another one a liar. The pot and the kettle immediately come to mind. There is not a single politican on earth who can say they've never bent the truth. And while it may be hard to quantify who's worse, anyone who's listened to Bill O'Reilly or Rush Limbaugh for more than 8 seconds should know that Republicans wrote the book on bending the truth. But I'll be the first to admit that every Democrat probably owns a signed copy of the same book.

It's not about lies. There are plenty to go around. It's about respect. To stand up in a congressional address and interrupt the President of The United States in the middle of a speech to the entire free world on the most important issue facing us today and call him a liar?

That is unforgivable. John McCain said it best when asked by Larry King afterwards what he thought:

"Totally disrespectful, no place for it in that setting or any other and he should apologize immediately."

This was the act of a single individual, but what he said reflects upon all Republicans. Sadly, it a bellweather that Obama will have a really hard time getting everyone to move beyond the rhetoric, the name calling, the bickering, and work to create legislation instead of continuing to do nothing. He'd barely been on the stage for 15 minutes, imploring the lawmakers of this country to find a way to stop using this legislation as a political tool while the goal becomes ever more elusive, to work together, and he's called a liar in the rudest possible fashion.

Joe Wilson is symbolic of the problem. He's not the only one, he's just the one who couldn't even keep his composure long enough to listen to the leader of the free world tell him what he was trying to achieve. Unfortunately, he didn't just embarass himself. He embarassed our entire leadership. It's hard to have a lot of faith in a governing body that can't even be nice for a half-hour when the President is speaking.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Metro: Love / H8

Hate Mt. Pleasant 2
Seriously Metro, why the Mount Pleasant hate?
"None of the federal, Maryland, Virginia or D.C. laws apply to us," said [WMATA] Vice Chairman Peter Benjamin. "That's the way it is."

WMATA decided, unceremoniously, to shut down Metro at three Northern Virginia stations over Labor Day Weekend. This interesting move was predicated on the need to perform major surgery on the tracks between Crystal City and National Airport. Inconveniently, I was flying to Maine in and out of National Airport during the window in which Metro would not be open.

This was irritating, mostly because the public announcement was made Tuesday of last week. There was, understandably, a significant reaction from the public upon learning with very short notice that it would be inconvenient or impossible to ride Metro to the airport. WMATA held a conference call on Thursday with its top staff to discuss the communication shortcomings in the wake of this blunder. In the ultimate irony, Metro, which is a publically-funded system, decided that the conference call would be secret.

Getting There

Being able to take Metro to National is one of the main benefits of flying from National, and much of the reason why I'm willing to pay extra to use that airport. So suddenly learning that that benefit had evaporated a few days before my travel did not make me happy in the way that a bank error in your favor does.

Metro offered shuttle service to and from the airport from the Pentagon station. Since my flight left at 8:40 AM on Saturday morning, and Metro opens at 7, this seemed like a dicey proposition at best. We would not be taking Metro. Nor was I excited about the idea of finding a cab at 7:30 AM on a Saturday. The last option, driving, seemed equally risky, since who knows how many people would have to drive for the same reason, making parking questionable. Besides which, I didn't really want to drop another 50 bucks or so on airport parking. After many phone calls and emails, I found a friend who was miraculously both in town over the holiday weekend, and could be convinced to get up at 6:30 to bring us to the airport.

DSC_0034At the airport, we were approached by a reporter from WJLA who quizzed us about the metro closures and how it had affected our travel plans. Yes, actually, it did. It wasn't the end of the world, and it worked out. But it would have been a lot less stressful if we had known well in advance about the closure so we didn't have to scramble to figure out a way to get to the airport. Obviously they did not decide to perform this work only four days before the weekend. This sort of maintenance work is probably scheduled months in advance. Yet nobody, not even some top Metro officals, knew until Tuesday. I can think of no excuse for this, whether it was an oversight or a deliberate act. It is unacceptable.

WMATA later updated their web site to include a more detailed explanation of the closures, and an explanation that Labor Day was in fact historically the weekend when the fewest people ride Metro. You know what? I was a lot less confounded and irritated when I actaully was treated like a rational human being and given an explanation for why this had to be done. Why couldn't you just be straight with everyone at up front? And a few months ago?

Returning from National on Monday morning, we decided to save cab fare since we weren't in a hurry and see how things went with Metro. We followed the yellow signs in National to the metro shuttle pickup. At least until we encountered a sign that was pointing in the direction we had just come. Nice. Luckily, the centripital signage all seemed to converge upon the infromation desk at the airport, so when we found ourselves slightly baffled as to where we should be going, we just asked the lady. The instructions were pretty obvious. Go outside and the bus will pick you up at the beginning of the platform.

If I had been a little more coherent at that moment, after getting up at 4 AM to make my 6 AM flight from Portland, I probably wouldn't have even tried to follow the signs in the first place, but I did because they were there. The busses were exactly where you would expect them to be: on the curb outside baggage claim, with all the other busses. So why on earth did they install a baffling, conflicting maze of signs in the airport, when they could have just had far fewer signs that said "Exit Baggage Claim For Metro Shuttle" or something like that? Or just "Go Outside Where The Busses Are?"

Metro: Communicate. Really.

Metro seems to have a problem with basic communication. Here's my report card for how they did in communicating this service interruption.

Timeliness: fail. 4 days ahead of time for a major holiday weekend? No es bueno.

Quality: fail. No explanation given for the closure at fist.

Usefulness: fail. The signs at National were confusing, conflicting, and franky, unnecessary. Rather than install a maze of arrows pointing us (or failing to do so) to the same place we always go, why not just tell us to go outside?

Plays well with others: N/A. Metro doesn't have any friends left.

DSC_0136Once we got to the metro shuttle, the service was remarkably efficient. Metro advised on their web site that the shuttle would add about 15 minutes to the trip. You know what? It did. There were plenty of shuttles waiting, they left often, and we were at Pentagon exactly 15 minutes after boarding the shuttle.

Here's some really simple advice, which I can hardly believe is necessary. Communicate. I love Metro. It's a great system, better than most in this country. I also understand that maintenance is necessary and you will need to interrupt service sometimes.

But if you can't grasp the most basic concepts of telling us what is going on, you come out smelling like garbage. To turn garbage into roses, all you need to do is stop acting like a communist dictator and let us know what's going on.

Oh yeah, Maine

It was awesome! And altogether too short. There was, unfortunately, no stay of execution for those lobsters above.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Parking: It's Just Not That Hard

Today's rant will be on the topic of parking. For most people, it is something that you either learn to do in Driver's Education, or the proper technique is so blindingly obvious that you never even think of it as a skill.

I have complained before about bad drivers. But bad parkers annoy in a way that bad drivers do not. The bad driver makes you curse momentarily as he or she turns abruptly without signalling, or wanders down the road at a snail's pace while applying makeup or reading the newspaper. But soon enough they are just a memory. The bad parker, on the other hand, frustrates completely. They prevent YOU from being able to park, and there's nothing you can do about it. There is little satisfaction in flicking off an empty car.

Edge ParkerToday we showcase two of the most irritating kinds of bad parkers. These are not the complete jerks who intentionally take up two parking spaces so that nobody can park near their car. No, those people are a different class of devil. They are fully aware of their actions, they are purposeful. Those people deserve to have their cars keyed.

I am talking about the other kind of bad parkers: the ignorant ones. These are the people who simply don't get it. They think so little about the way they park, that you wonder how they can figure out how to open a can of soda.

Bad parker #1: The Edge Parker.

The parker featured here leaves his car technically in the parking spot, but is so close to the edge of the space that anyone parking next to them will require skills comparable to that of a space shuttle pilot while docking with MIR. The situation pictured here is an especially egregious violation. You can see to the left of the car is a pole in the parking garage. There is a large open space on that side, meaning that one could actually park close to the other side and still be guaranteed plenty of room to open the car door. As an additional benefit to parking that way, no other car can park close enough that you risk door dinging.

But no. Instead, this person chose to squeeze all the way to the other side, ensuring that anyone needing the spot next to them would have to be driving a Mini Cooper, or alternatively be trained in operating a bomb-defusing robot, in order to park in the space and still have enough room to get out of their car.

Bad Parker #2: The Meter Moron

Meter Moron 1Meter Moron 2

This kind of pest has either just moved to the area from Nome, Alaska, where there are no parking meters, or, more likely, is a complete idiot. They have parked their car directly in front of the meter, effectively consuming two parking spots.

The violation that I've captured here is the worst kind: they are in the end spot. Even if you were born yesterday and have never parked at a meter before, in the wide shot you can see the "No Parking" sign that designates the end of the row of parking. Yet instead of parking as close as possible to the sign, they left a space into which only a Smart Car could fit between themselves and the end of the legal parking.

This street does not have lines delineating the parking spots. But most do, and there is not a single place on earth that positions the meter in the middle of a parking spot. So just because there aren't lines painted on the ground, and an instructional video available on the parking meter to explain how not to be a moron, you think this meter works any differently? Everywhere in the entire civilized world, you park between meters and pay the one at the front of your car. The only exception is those places with the "double meters," but in that case it's even more obvious which one is for you. Apparently, though, if that isn't spelled out to some people, every single place they park, it's a baffling ordeal to figure out where to leave your car.

In some ways, I blame Montgomery County. They could paint the lines to help the mentally deficient. They could also ticket these fools relentlessly for not paying both meters - but they don't. I've watched the meter people callously ticket cars parked correctly, whose meters have just expired, but for some reason let these guys take up two spots without ticketing them.

But much more than Montgomery County, I blame the idiots. For the record, the garage car had Maryland plates, and the meter car had Virginia plates. Just sayin'.

Both of these pictures were taken today at my office building. This is not a rare problem. It is a pestilence.

Update, 11:00 AM: Apparently, Silver Spring is a magnet for the parking impaired. Or perhaps it's just human nature to see something stupid, and follow suit. Basically every car on the street is parked idiotically right now. I love the last one, who I actually watched park between two spots and not even pay for the meter.

Meter Moron 4

Two more meter morons, a third visible across the street.

Meter Moron 3

Fourth meter moron. This one decided to take two spots for the price of zero.