Tag Archives: Phoenix

Train to Hawaii

This weekend is the Aloha Festival and, unlike previous years, this year it is being held at the so-called Tempe Beach Park. (Definition of Tempe Beach: a huge cement slab positioned near a horrid man-made lake.)

Still, the park itself is green, if lacking shade, and large, which easily accompdated the large crowds.

The park is also a block or so from the Light Rail, which makes it convenient if you want to ride rather than park in downtown Tempe.

The downside is that it was 53 minutes there from the 19th Ave & Camelback station.

I like the train, but that is too long on those hard-as-nails seats.

The festival is alright, but mostly an excuse to get vilovilo chicken, so I’ll just say the chicken was really good and leave it at that.

It was my first time to disembark at the Mill & 3rd station in Tempe. They need to do some work on that one. Traffic is brought completely to a stop in all directions and yet somehow pedestrians are left stranded on the train platform. This happened both when we arrived and when we were departing.

By and large the vast majority of people tired of waiting and crossed illegally. The strange part is: there was just no way traffic could have interacted with them, so why the No Walk signal?

The ride back was worse because I got to stand for nearly the whole trip. Almost made me long for the harder-than-nails seats.

Perhaps a trip to Tempe is just a bit too far. Next time we’ll use it for a trip to Heritage Square for the Asian Festival. That’s only 27 minutes from station to station.

Addendum: (3/14/2009) – One advantage to the train ride was I had time to write and publish that post entirely on the train while standing there. But something happened when we arrived at the departure station that makes me ask, “how am I supposed to teach my young children traffic safety when the train seems hellbent on forcing me not to?”

I mentioned that at the Tempe stop, the lights for the pedestrians were so grossly screwed up that most everyone just jaywalked across the street. It was completely safe, and, had I not had my kids there, I would have crossed and thought nothing more than, “man, what lousy traffic lights.”

The same happened again at 19th an Camelback. (See illustration, which is, sadly, so out-of-date that neither the park and ride nor the train station are visible.)

Like most of the stations, it is positioned in the middle of two-way traffic, just off to one side of a major intersection. Access is via the existing crosswalk at the intersection. I’d hazard to say that most of the others have no access at the far end of the station. This station; however, is different because of the park-and-ride. It has a one-side-of-the-street-only crosswalk to get you into the park and ride. The crosswalk has a light to stop traffic – only activated when someone hits the button.

We got off the train, and several people headed with us towards this backside crosswalk. I was there first, and hit the button. There was no traffic. The light didn’t change. East-bound traffic was completely blocked by the light at the intersection. There was no way traffic could enter the street between the intersection and the crosswalk. Still it didn’t change. More people arrived, they waited a few, observed the situation and walked across the street anyway. I can hardly blame them, but I’m trying to teach my children to obey the traffic laws. (When they’re older, they need to learn a certain amount of discretion, but for now, I want them to err on the side of caution.)

Still the light didn’t change. More people crossed. This time a couple with a baby in a stroller. We stood at this light fully 4-5 minutes. I watched them walk to their car, pack up their stroller and prepare to leave. Then, the east-bound intersection light changed to green and traffic began to flow.

Just as it reached the crosswalk, the light turned red and let us cross.

Whoever setup that traffic light, is an idiot.

19th and Camelback

Encouraging train snap

It’s been two weekends now and we’re long past the free rides on the Phoenix Metro (oh, how I abhor that name!) but today we were driving by the large park and ride as the train was disgorging and I was really impressed at how many people were getting off the train.

I really believe the trains will work well for the city, but I thought it would be months or even years before I saw this many people using it on a Sunday afternoon.

Phoenix Metro Light Rail – My Impressions

I’ll preface this with my comment that I’m a strong supporter of the light rail initiative for the Phoenix metro area. I’ve seen how urban trains and subways alter the cities (in generally good ways) that they pass through, and, while Phoenix is a ghastly urban sprawl with few “destination” areas, it could certainly use a bit of consolidation.

While a supporter of the light rail, and even though I only live one mile from the nearest station, I’m not likely a frequent rider. My work is not really near the line, I virtually never have any desire whatsoever to go into downtown Phoenix. We don’t have Cricket in this country and I don’t do the other sports. Once in a while I might want to go downtown for the Asian festival, or perhaps a show at the Arena (such as when the BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs was here). I don’t attend classes at Arizona State and if I did they probably wouldn’t be at the Tempe campus anyway. There might be something going on (like Fourth of July celebrations) at Steele Indian School Park or Tempe Town Lake that would warrant not being able to drive there. Someday when they extend it into Mesa, I could see visiting the Arizona Museum of Natural History (Mesa Southwest Museum.)

For now, though, for me, it’s mostly a curiosity and something that I hope causes things to start sprouting up around the stations. The Time Lords know we could use some build up around 19th/Camelback.

For the remainder of the year, the rides are free, and the city has really pulled out the stops to get people to try the trains this weekend. Yesterday, the lines were outrageous at the end and west endpoint stations. Nearly two hours in line for the one hour ride, standing, falling-out-the-doors room only.

Today wasn’t so bad – or so I thought.

We caught the train at fourth station along the line from the west end. We chose to use the Park & Ride in the nicer area around Camelback and Central than either on 19th Avenue. The train was already at standing room only when we got on. Fortunately, somewhere not too far down the line two people vacated seats and I was able to thrust the kids into them.

The train itself runs nice and smoothly, the only hints of a rough ride occur as the train passes crossover points and even those are minor. The acceleration of the train is quick enough that you really do need to hang onto something if you’re standing.

The interiors are very reminiscent of the buses in town, which have the poorest seating arrangements I’ve ever seen. I’m sure it must have something to do with ADA requirements, but they make terrible use of space and there are a lot fewer seats than there could be. Other train systems handle disabled access with better seating arrangements, but the light rail here seems to have intentionally eschewed other tried and true arrangements to continue with the lousy city bus seating plan.

As for the ride across town itself – this left something to be desired. Of course, these were not typical days and, in retrospect, I think Valley Metro screwed up with these opening celebrations. People won’t be riding this thing end to end for the most part, but that’s what most everyone was doing this weekend, and,when the train is packed to standing room only, it’s miserable standing for an hour crowded together. In a real-world light rail scenario, people would be getting on and getting off regularly. This weekend people just kept getting on. With each stop the train just kept getting more and more unpleasantly crowded and you knew it wasn’t going to get any better until the very end of the line. (At one point I was dreaming that they’d all get off in the downtown area or at the Mill Ave shops, but it didn’t happen. I mean, why the hell would anybody want to go all the way to Sycamore and Main in Mesa? There’s nothing there, but to anticipate your question: We went that far because the Mekong Plaza is about 1/2 mile from the last stop, so we used this as an excuse to go back to Taiwan Food Express for lunch.)

There were lots of people this weekend riding the train – indeed any form of Phoenix metro public transit – for the first time, and it wasn’t the best first experience to cram them all in a sardine can for an hour, I should imagine.

So that’s not really a complaint about the train, more the nature of the startup. Perhaps people will be more understanding than I think, but people typically astound me with their lack of perception, so I doubt it. Just read the user comments at the Arizona Republic’s or ABC 15’s websites on most any news story (but especially about the light rail) if you want to see just how dumb people can get.

One other observation, and this one is a major flaw in the train system itself… although, perhaps they can right this one easily.

The train stops way too often at red lights.

I recognize the fact that any train system that travels down the middle of the roadways must stop at red lights. That’s inevitable and necessary, sometimes they have to stop at green lights – for example, this weekend I witness an idiot in a truck creep into a U-turn across the tracks. He was running a red left arrow and completely in the wrong; however, he was was stopped on the tracks as a train came up on him. The train honked and honked, but could do little other than stop for him. It turns out the nimrod wasn’t just in a truck, he was towing a second truck.

But there were times when the train was stopping at least one extra time for every station. The Valley Metro website used to respond to that question by saying the lights would be synchronized with the train. They sure as hell weren’t synchronized yesterday. We stopped at streets that were literally T-junctions, that didn’t even have any through traffic. The streets themselves were barely more than alleyways and, to add insult to injury, they had no traffic at all waiting at the lights. We were stopping for nothing – no traffic, no pedestrians nothing!. I can understand this sort of thing at major intersections and at busy times of the day, but many of these stops were ridiculous.

They’ve got to improve that. The train speed was very good in most places, but going down Central, starting about Indian School was too slow because of the traffic. it’s that stretch alone that will prevent me from being able to take the train and get to work in a timely fashion. To use the train, I’d have to travel 4 superfluous miles north-south, which, if they were quick, might still be faster than just taking a bus along the east-west route I need to follow to get to work. (Working on the assumption that I’d make up a lot of speed on the east-west leg.)

When we got to the last stop, we could see a huge line of people waiting to board the trains. They were keeping the crown controlled in a parking lot, filtering them across to the platform in small groups to fit on the train. It looked to be about an hour’s wait, so instead of taking the train back, we grabbed one of the “special” buses the city had laid on that were running parallel to the trains for the weekend. It was mainly designed for people who didn’t want to wait in line, and it was free, so we travelled, in comfort, sitting down the whole way back. It took the same amount of time the train ride did.

This week is rather messed up for me, but I may try to take the train just to time the ride. If not then next weekend.

This morning before 7, the stations were mostly empty along Central and the trains were less than half the seats full.

Here come the trains!

The December 27th arrival of the light rail is just around the corner and I’ve even seen a train or two out on the tracks near the house.

Unfortunately, more often than not, what I usually see are morons, and I’m not the only one to notice. According to light rail operator Kim Zablonski:

“People are walking down the tracks to get where they’re going, riding their bicycles, ignoring the fact the tracks are for trains only, they’re driving their vehicles down the tracks”

You can read a bit more about preparations at ABC 15.

Link: ABC15 => Metro Light Rail prepares for debut.

Is this logical?

Why on earth would the city of Phoenix send out a work crew to start work replacing a perfectly good fire hydrant with another fire hydrant at 4:30 on a Friday afternoon?

Like how they mostly block off my driveway?

Update: 6:30, it’s getting dark and they’re still sitting around in the hole. At least the heavy machinery has stopped.

Update: 9:30
I can’t take it anymore. The curiosity is killing me. What’s wrong with my existing fire hydrant? What could go wrong? Why plop in with a backhoe and tear up my neighbor’s lawn just to replace it?

I finally ask one of the workers. I’m told that Phoenix has 21 different types of fire hydrants. The city has decided they only want 4 types of hydrant. As the worker said, “My boss tells me to replace ’em, so I do. ”

This raises lots of questions, chief of which is, “Is this really necessary in this time of extreme budget crunch?”. “Was the fire department having some sort of problems with the hydrants, if so, was it house safe? If not, why is my tax money being wasted?”

Something is wrong here.

First Phoenix Light Rail Accident?

First Phoenix Light Rail Accident?Driving south on 19th Ave today, I saw this amusing situation. I wasn’t in a position to take a picture except through my mirror as I reached the first stop light. What you can kind of see in the blow up is that the white car has managed to beach itself on the curb that prevents you from driving onto the train tracks. The curb is so high that the car’s tires cannot reach the ground.

It’s a little fun to try to figure out how he managed this stunt. If you look in the main photo, you’ll see on the left the where it is painted yellow. This is the nearest point where it would have been low enough for this guy to get over it. My guess is that he attempted to drive with one wheel on the curb and failed. Otherwise, I’d think his wheels would be showing damage. If he did that, he made about 50 feet before stranding himself.

Seems little likelihood that there’s any way he could be in this predicament without a certain modicum of stupidity being involved.

Freedom From Religion Foundation Billboards

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The Freedom From Religion Foundation’s “Imagine No Religion” billboards have gone up in a few places around the Phoenix. One of them is near Indian School and 23rd Street – which I happen to drive past each and every day – and had never seen it. My friend, John, and I were even in the area a couple times for lunch and didn’t see it.

We saw every other billboard in the area, but not that one. We were beginning to suspect that the whole controversy was a clever ploy to get atheists to pay more attention to billboard advertising.

Finally, however, this week we went searching until we found it. (See John here doing his very best Jimmy Olsen imitation with the camera.)

This morning, quite by accident on my way back from a meeting down at the State Capital, I passed another on 19th Ave, near the I-10.

When you’re looking for one, you can’t find one. When you don’t need one, they’re everywhere.

Snake oil isn’t dead

OK, we’re all feeling the pinch with gas prices, but I really hate it when people start taking advantage of others when they’re vulnerable. That’s bad enough, but when the local news helps them, I’m appalled.

Today, the local ABC affiliate, channel 15 published this story.

It’s about a company that sells magnets (yes, magnets) to improve your gas efficiency by 10%. Hmm, if only it were that simple. Why is it they just have testimonials from people who say things like, “Gosh, I sure was plumb skeptical of your claims until I tried this amazing product” rather than some real science explaining the principal rather than the pseudoscience babble on their site?

You’d think one of those darned smart scientists would have come up with this 50 years ago, wouldn’t ya? But, we all know, magnets are magic and their properties aren’t fully understood by modern science.

So remember, just because there’s no evidence for it, magical can magnets change the molecular structure of gas making it more efficient, they can realign the iron inside algae, making your pool more algae resistant, and they can filter free radicals from your blood.

I believe you can even buy magnetic condoms that go around your ankle. This system allows one to fully experience sexual intercourse without troublesome physical barriers and still prevents all forms of pregnancy, HIV or STDs. </SARCASM>

So this is a shame on ABC 15 for helping take money from people that could use it for something better – like a proper tune-up, which could actually help. What’s next? Psychic pet detectives can improve gas mileage by telling you where your dog should sit in your vehicle?

Fresh & Easy Reviewed

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In light of this link from the Guardian (Thank you, One-Ten for the link), there might be trouble a-brewin’ for Fresh & Easy.

Tesco suffered a double blow yesterday as City analysts claimed the group’s new US chain is in deep trouble, while its core UK business is being battered by the economy and losing ground to rivals.

One analyst claimed the new California-based Fresh & Easy convenience stores are missing sales targets by as much as 70%.

Tesco, the parent company, denies this, of course.

For once I’m actually on the cutting edge frontier of this so-called new shopping paradigm. We shop there about once a week, usually for very specific items, such as imported butter, British bacon, packaged (not-frozen) dinners, unpasteurized orange juice, teas, occasionally meats, fruits and vegetables. (Despite malicious rumors to the contrary, vegetables and fruits are consumed in my household.)

Is Fresh & Easy’s concept something that will be big? I don’t know. I’m notoriously bad at determining what kind of marketing nonsense people will fall for. If I was good at evaluating these concepts, I’d own some sort of hi-end organic dog treat bakery and be making a fortune off people with more money than sense.

So does that mean I think Fresh & Easy is a bogus concept? Maybe a little bit.

IMG_0139.JPGLet me explain the Fresh & Easy shopping experience a little bit. Fresh & Easys (Easies?) (hereafter referred to as “F&Es”) are small grocery stores, roughly twice the size of a 7-11, Circle K or other convenience mart. They are laid out in an efficient design, the majority of things people are probably looking for are in the first 3 aisles. Those items are fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy, packaged meals and side dishes, sandwiches and meat. If you’re looking for just shopping for something to feed the family on your way home from work, F&E is tailored for you. Packaged foods are typically sized for two people.

As you move further back in the store, you reach alcohol, breads, crackers, chips, cooking ingredients, frozen foods, and along the front of the store, drug store items. Most items in the store are typically F&E branded, but a few national name products are available.

Meats, and many fruits and vegetables are packaged in plastic trays, some are netted or netted into the trays, others are sealed and filled with freshness-preserving gas. F&E makes a point of stocking items marked as having low or no preservatives. I’ll mention that more later. Non-packaged fruit items, such as bananas are priced individually.

F&E also carried no tobacco products, which I applaud. Somehow though I think it’s because of their check-out system and liability rather than any ethical stand they’re taking. Whatever the reason, while laudable, this does set them further apart from a profitable convenience store staple. Convenience stores always do a brisk trade in death.

Fresh & Easy has no dedicated cashiers, all check-outs are self checkout, which, normally, I hate.

The typical self-checkout equipment found in Frys or Walmart is oriented not towards facilitating convenience for the customer, but towards minimizing staff costs while deterring theft. (Because, obviously, all customers a scumbag shoplifters.) These systems typically are only allowed for customers with 15 items or less because all items need to be weighed in advance on the front side of the bar-code scanner, and weighed again on the backside to make sure you aren’t slipping an unscanned item in the bag. All you need is one child helping you at the checkout line who puts some weight on either plate to send the whole mechanism into shoplifter alert mode, often requiring staff to come reset the mechanism. At least it doesn’t trigger a full-body search – I can imagine that the TSA would love to implement these into their airport security system, but haven’t quite worked out how just yet.

Also, even though it has been years since the introduction these style checkouts, the average person is still too stupid to work them. I’m always seeing someone standing there, reading the screen, mouthing the words to themselves and they try to make sense of the obviously too-complex english words on the screen. (“Hey, Violinda May, what does, ‘scan yer’ first item,’ mean?”)

Fresh & Easy has a couple of these evil registers and they work just a badly as everyone else’s. However, they also have a different type of self-checkout – the semi-assisted model, which works infinitely better. These don’t use scales, they use baggers. You pull your cart up to the register (no weighing required) and scan your items, after you’ve scanned them, you place them on a typical checkout style conveyor belt which whisks the groceries down to the bagging area, where (typically) an F&E employees bags your groceries for you. Occasionally, you end up bagging your own, but not often. This system is typically smooth and fast (although I did once have trouble with coupons) and works much faster and better than the “You’re all riff-raff, thieving scum” self-check out systems.

If you’re not comfortable doing your own scanning, an F&E employee will do it for you – when you start, there’s a button for start scanning, or have a cashier do it for you. Just hit that button and someone will come to you. (Don’t bother, you could scan it yourself before they get there.)

Once annoyance, F&E won’t automatically clear any credit purchase over $50 without checking your ID. That typically results in an inconvenient wait while someone comes over to check and punch in the all-clear code. With the prices of groceries shooting up, they might want to bump that to $75 or even $100.

These registers are part of the reason things are packaged in plastic trays or, like bananas, priced individually. Everything has been pre-allocated for you so that self-checkout works. There’s nothing in the store that isn’t bar-code priced.

Fresh & Easy employees are typically helpful and friendly.

Since the term “organic” when it applies to groceries is actually more of a marketing smokescreen than an actual definition of anything meaningful. I’m not going to evaluate F&E’s organic pedigree. Others have done so and claim that it comes up lacking – better than ordinary stores, but not good enough to satisfy the Earth-mother Gaia crowd.

What it does mean, though, is that F&E doesn’t compete on prices. They may be more economical than a really-fanatical organic food mart, but they don’t fare well against a typical supermarket. Further, in this country, “store brand” products are viewed (wrongly, in most cases) and low-cost, lower-quality items. (There’s the beauty of marketing, if you want to call it that.) Since F&E’s inventory is mostly store-branded, I think there’s probably a bit of market resistance.

For example, and, I’m 100% percent making this up, let’s say that Kraft Macaroni and Cheese is $1 a box at Fry’s, and Fry’s branded macaroni & cheese is 3 for $1. People still buy Kraft because it is perceived better. Along comes Fresh & Easy with a so-called more natural product at $0.90. It might be cheaper than Kraft, but people price evaluate it against the store-brands, in which case it is quite expensive.

Places like Trader Joe’s have managed to “sell” their store brand as being better than the national brands with a combination of “we’re all-natural” and “we cost more” because of it. Irony time, right? I’ll shop F&E any day over Trader Joe’s, but I suspect I’m in the minority.

Still, the fact that there are many chains of stores, and not all of them can be the cheapest proves conclusively that people don’t shop exclusively because of price.

Another “problem” with F&E is that, because of the no and low preservative model, their foods have terrible shelf lives. Fine, I don’t mind fresh meat expiring this week, but a bottle of salad dressing that expires in a week? I soak salads in dressing, but as a family, we can’t consume a bottle of dressing in a week.

When they first started, their meals, such as a ravioli in a bolognese sauce would typically have 3-5 days of shelf-life. Now, they have large stickers on them saying “Suitable for freezing” indicating that F&E may have realized that there’s some resistance to the short shelf life. (I have no empirical data on the subject, but I understand that Europeans typically buy smaller quantities of groceries, but shop more often. F&E is trying to tap that market, but this is not something that has caught on in the US, to my knowledge. We have large refrigerators, and they’re full.)

So, my conclusion is that Fresh & Easy has a convenient and fast shopping model. They stock enough items to do your full grocery shopping. All of the products we’ve had have been good, and some excellent. (Their French bread isn’t crusty enough, that’s my one complaint with their products.)

Do I think they’ve missed their targets by 70%?! I have no way to know that, but I can say this, location seems to be a huge issue in the success of the F&Es. There’s one location down at Baseline and 19th Ave, every time I’ve been there, it’s been quite busy. But – there is nothing else in that area, it’s a wasteland. It’s one of those areas that was rather like a slum that, developers desperate to build new homes that aren’t 90 miles from the city, started to reclaim, but as far as I can tell, F&E is the only store within 2-3 miles. How long will that last?

The newest store at Glendale and 19th Ave, an established neighborhood, has one of the larger Fry’s markets diagonally across the intersection. That store has been there (in one form or another) for as long as I can remember, and I’ve been familiar with this neighborhood for at least 20 years. That F&E is almost always empty when we visit.

Now, I’ll be quick to say that, because of the relative locations of those two stores, we’ve visited them at dramatically different times of the day, and, indeed, the same can be said of the other two we’ve visited, so that may completely invalidate my suppositions about location being more critical than concept. Time will tell. The newest one, which is moving along quickly now, is even closer to my home, but in an area near the central-corridor housing boom. There’s not much down there for shopping, and I predict this one will be a better location than Glendale and 19th.

I do hope they make it, they are a nice addition to the shopping scene..