Dr. Heinrich Koppers, a German inventor, developed a process to distill and capture the by-products of coal combustion…. Dr. Koppers developed his new process in Germany, and he was brought to the United States in 1908 by US Steel to build by-product coke oven for its use.  As war clouds gathered, Dr Koppers became anxious about mounting anti-German sentiment, the possibility of war, and the seizure of his patents and operations.

Following the German attack on Belgium, the demand for the by-products of Dr Koppers’ ovens skyrocketed. “With the advent of war came the realization that the striking power of a nation in modern warfare is largely determined by it supply of coke.…Altogether the company played a most important part in the successful prosecution of the world conflict.”

In 1915, the Mellons moved in, reorganized, and effectively secured control of the company, leaving the inventor with a 20% share. When the United States declared war on Germany, the Koppers Company, undoubtedly motivated by the deepest patriotic sentiment, notified Attorney General Palmer of the German inventor’s stake-holding, whereby his share was confiscated and sold at auction to the sole bidder — the Mellon interests.

— McCollester, The Point of Pittsburgh, citing David Koskoff’s The Mellons: Chronicle of America’s Richest Family and Frank Harper’s Pittsburgh of today: Its resources and people.

Locally-owned home goods store in Pittsburgh?

At the moment I need clothes hangers, but in general, where in Pittsburgh do you go to buy small items for your home that isn’t a major national chain store?

My only requirement is that it be somewhere I can reasonably reach by bike from Oakland. My default pretty much since it opened has been the Target in East Liberty*, but if there’s an alternative I’m not thinking of I’d love to hear about it…


* to be clear, I am perfectly happy to shop at Target; I absolutely am not boycotting them. But as a general rule I prefer to support local business when possible, and got to wondering if it is in this case…

In order for low-income housing to be acceptable to the general public in the US, the buildings must look poor and smell poor. Even a cheap grade of deodorant must be used in the insecticide for the control of cockroaches in this housing. The poor must be kept in their place and made to grovel.…When a window is broken or some equipment requires replacement, the length of time before repairs are carried out serves as a type of penitence for being poor, and also proves to the general public that people on welfare destroy property.…Middle-class Americans want the welfare recipient to wear a scarlet “P” on his chest.

I once heard a bright young architect lecture that it is possible to design housing that will cause crime, divorce, and family strife. Little does he know that many housing authorities and private companies are already in this business.

—Robert Snetsinger, Diary of a Mad Planner.

Once again, not much has changed in 40 years….

Comments on Port Authority’s Fare System Proposal

Port Authority is considering overhauling their fare system.  If you missed the two public hearings, in late February and today, you can submit your comments online, by email to farepolicy@portauthority.org, or by mail to Port Authority, Attn: Fare Policy Proposal, Heinz 57 Center, 345 Sixth Avenue, Floor 3, Pittsburgh PA 15222, until the end of March.

My comments:

  • I favour the reducing of fares as much as possible. However, as I’m sure you’re aware, certain long distance (especially suburban commuter) routes cost significantly more to operate, and it is substantially unfair to those who live in and near the City to be forced to once again subsidize exurban riders. I am also concerned about the impact of eliminating the Downtown free-fare zone on the elderly, disabled, and others who use it to bridge the gap between one side of Downtown and the other.Consider, for one, the rider who takes a bus in from lower Greenfield Avenue, planning to transfer to, say, the 12 to McKnight Road. Without the free-fare zone, they are faced with either a double transfer or a long walk from Allies or Fourth Avenue to Liberty and Seventh. With it, a rider who doesn’t feel like making the walk doesn’t have to worry about whether they can pay for the transfer or whether the farebox will accurately credit multiple transfers against their card.

    I would much rather see the zone system recalibrated so that it has less impact on lower-income communities such as McKeesport and Clairton while not further privileging suburban commuters.

  • I am generally opposed to a surcharge for using cash, as those who are using cash are often either infrequent riders or those who can least afford (in terms of money or time) the outlay to acquire a special farecard. However, I do recognize that it does cost extra for PAT to process and handle cash, and so I am not strongly opposed to a minimal cash surcharge that allows the system to recoup that cost.
  • I am strongly opposed to a fee to acquire a farecard, especially in concert with a cash surcharge. If there must be a fee to recover the cost of stocking vending machines, it again should be as little as possible, and not charged at in-person service centers, groceries and other sales agents, etc. (Additionally, there should be many more such sales agents–Giant Eagle is still not as ubiquitous as they’d like to think they are…–and either the hours of the Downtown Service Center should be massively increased or it should be possible to handle farecard problems at other locations or remotely.  I know of too many people who’ve had problems with their farecards but because they don’t work Downtown or don’t work a standard 9-to-5 (or both) can’t get to the DSC to resolve the problem without making special arrangements.)
  • I am especially opposed to any fee to transfer lines, especially if there is any movement toward more trunk-and-feeder systems. Transfer fees disincentivize riding, especially along feeders; even a trip from the Hill to the Strip can require multiple routes, and if it costs yet more to ride just because there isn’t a single vehicle that makes the trip, it will further encourage driving for trips that shouldn’t need it.  (Or, as Jarrett Walker puts it, Charging for connections is insane.)
  • Regarding light-rail proof-of-payment, I strongly endorse PPT’s concerns about enforcement. Especially in light of the multiple recent violent incidents involving PAT Police and related agencies, PAT must tread very, very carefully when considering expanded policing on and around its system.
  • Not only am I strongly in favour of the day-pass idea, it should be automatic.  Rather than forcing someone to purchase a day-pass special, if a card user uses their card more than some number X (2? 3?) times in a day, further rides should be free.  If someone realizes on their way home from work that they need to stop at the grocery store, they shouldn’t have to worry about how much more they’ll need to pay in bus fare–it should just work.  Similarly for weekly, monthly, and especially annual passes; individuals should not be denied the benefit of being able to pay for 11 monthly passes and get the 12th free just because they don’t have nearly $1,100 in the bank at one time… if you buy eleven monthly passes in a row, the twelfth should just be free, whether or not you paid for them all at once.

If, like me, you’ve ever wondered where some of the Pittsburgh region’s odder town boundary lines came from…

“Here is a town dependent on one of the great industries of America, which has profited by brilliant invention, by organizing genius, by a national policy of tariff protection. It was studied at the close of one of the longest periods of prosperity known by our generation. What has that prosperity brought to the rank and file of the people whose waking hours are put into the industry?”

…Around the turn of the [20th] century, creative political gerrymandering carved wealthy supervisory and professional enclaves that garnered the taxes paid by industrial properties, leaving the more densely populated working-class districts with school and borough taxes that were substantially higher…. The Borough of Edgewood, for example, was created to include all but the front gate of the Union Switch & Signal under its taxing authority, while Swissvale, where most of its blue collar employees lived, got very little tax benefit from the facility. A similar situation existed between Homestead and Munhall…. The burden on the working poor was accentuated by the fact, common to all the industrial towns, that while mill property was assessed at thirty percent of its value, residential property was assessed at eighty percent of market value.

— Charles McCollester, The Point of Pittsburgh, quoting Paul Kellogg, Director of the Pittsburgh Survey, Editor’s Foreword to Homestead: the households of a mill town

A map of Edgar Thomson Works, greatest and last of the Mon Valley's integrated steel mills, with the boundaries of the boroughs of Braddock and North Braddock overlaid.
This coiled mass of rail lines is Carnegie’s Edgar Thomson Works, built 1873, both one of the earliest and the last of the Mon Valley’s great integrated steel mills. The red box marks the Borough of North Braddock, incorporated 1897 to prevent the mill from being annexed to the fledgling East Pittsburgh, just off the map to the east. Only the westernmost thousand feet (or less) of the plant is actually in Braddock Borough, the town most associated with it.

Still seeking justice for Susan Hicks: Blaming victims will not create safer streets

Yesterday marked four months since Susan Hicks was killed riding home from work. Next month, friends and others will join to complete her commute.

I want to hope that by the end of March there will be some news of the investigation or efforts to make Oakland a less dangerous place to be, but it is difficult to be optimistic.  Our local leaders try to find ways to make it illegal to cross the street while ignoring rampant reckless speeding. Our safety studies give brownie points to transportation associations who tell students to “walk safe” and “don’t be a road zombie” but don’t even comment on the lack of safe-driving messaging—nor do they have any idea why large numbers of students would want to cross the road between classroom buildings.  The university itself responds to pleas for a safer campus with bike racks, carpool marketing, and walk-safe messaging. Our bus drivers and police accost cyclists for occupying lane space, and even drivers who kill while sober rarely get more than a $500 fine and a few points on their licence.

When will we act to protect our people from those who actually do them harm, instead of blaming victims for the positions we force them into?

On sledding kids and cars

A fun little story about sledding and cars…

When I was a kid, we lived down the block from my elementary school, which was built at the top of (very) small hill—it’s not even enough of a hill to show up on Google Maps’ terrain view, but it was enough to sled on.

The problem was, there was a road built across the slope–and the way the hill curved and the road was constructed, the result was that kids’ sledding path was pretty much perpendicular to the road.  So you had kids who’d get going fast enough that they’d end up sledding into and across the road, sometimes even ending up in the yard of the church across the street.

This might not have been a problem generations ago when the road was constructed, but by the 1980s this little street was a major connection between the freeway north out of town and the university campus, pharmaceutical and other research labs, and various other offices, shopping centres, and such on the north side, and so traffic was beginning to be a problem.

To protect the sledding kids from the traffic, a chain-link fence was erected along the sidewalk.  Now, when kids went sledding down the hill at high speed….they punched through the fence, losing only enough momentum to keep them from safely reaching the other side of the road.  More of them ended up stopping in the street itself.  This was obviously suboptimal, so to solve the problem, hay bales were added in front of the fence, so that kids would be definitively stopped before they could reach the road.

Now, southeast Michigan has some pretty wicked freeze-thaw cycles.  It will occasionally snow a couple inches, then melt, then re-freeze, all within a couple days.  And it turns out that when you dump a bunch of snow on hay bales, then melt it, it seeps into the bale.  And when you refreeze it, you end up with an enormous 12-cubic-foot ice cube.  Which is as hard as rock.

And so it was that at age 7, sledding one day in early January when it had finally snowed again after having been warm a few days, I ran into a hay bale the size and consistency of a cement-block wall foot first and shattered my tibia at the distal growth-plate into thirteen pieces.

To this day–26 years later, next month–my leg is enough shorter that I can stand straight on my left foot and my right swings freely.  I got off light–some years later, a child hit the hay head-first and was permanently and severely brain damaged.  Shortly thereafter, signs were posted at the top of the hill declaring sledding forbidden.

I haven’t been around the school lately—my parents moved to the other side of town a few years ago—but Google Maps shows heavy construction across the top of the ridge, where there used to be a playground, and where kids used to start their sled runs.  The hay bales are gone—I suppose with no sledding allowed, they aren’t necessary anymore.

It doesn’t appear to have ever occurred to anyone that, instead of keeping the kids away from the cars, we should keep the cars away from the kids.