Trails: the Washington, DC, area’s secret strength

Washington, DC,  and its environs may be known for prestige and politics, but these are among my least favorite aspects of this region I call home.

What is the best aspect?

The trails.

The trails frame the region’s abundant natural beauty. They flow through the traffic-clogged landscape, offering a secret source of strength and tranquility for anyone to discover.

The mighty Potomac river with its whitewater and rocky cliffs at Great Falls is flanked by one of America’s best dirt trails (the 184.5-mile C&O Canal Trail).

CO_Canal_Trail_-_Winding_Path
The C&O Canal Trail (image:Wikimedia)

The C&O Canal Trail offers a superior walking, running, or biking experience. You can also fish in the canal or the Potomac. Parts can be crowded, such as the area around the Great Falls Overlook, but for the most part its a simple rustic wonderland. The views are excellent. You’ll also find 19th century ruins along the path.

This trail alone is consolation enough for the Beltway and Congress.

Want to take in the city’s architectural splendor from afar, check out the Mount Vernon Trail that stretches between the Key Bridge (across the Potomac River from Georgetown) and Alexandria, Va. This is a great way to see the Tidal Basin and the city’s low-profile skyline from the riverside trail.

Another gem is the Rock Creek Trail, which descends to Georgetown through Rock Creek Park from Lake Needwood near where I live in Rockville.

These are just three (admittedly my top three) in a region stacked with gems. Other favorites include the W&OD Trail and the Sligo Creek Trail. A bit north of the city is the epic Seneca Creek Greenway Trail, which is long enough for a trail ultra-marathon. These trails are likely a big reason why the DC often tops lists for America’s fittest city (this year it gave up the #1 spot to the Twin Cities, another place with awesome trails).

But you don’t need to be an endurance athlete to appreciate the DC area’s secret strength.  As Lao Tzu may once have said: a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step.

The Q Bus Lives

Today I checked the Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority’s “better bus” webpage and clicked on the slate of upcoming service changes for 2016. To my surprise and delight, the Q bus I ride each day between Rockville and Silver Spring will survive and live another day, at least for the time being. Metrobus will put aside a plan to chop the line in half and force folks to transfer at Wheaton Station.

Last fall they collected feedback the plan that would have ended the eastern (Georgia Avenue and Silver Spring) portion of the Q line, which extends to Shady Grove at its Western end.  The plan would have stopped the line at Wheaton Station, and passengers traveling to Silver Spring would have gotten a free transfer onto the Metro line. Going the other way, passengers transferring on to the Q line from the Metro line would ride the bus free.

Why was this idea seriously considered and almost implemented? Beltway traffic on Georgia Avenue north of Silver Spring is predictably snarled, particularly during the evening northbound rush. With Y line buses already covering this part of the route, why not remove the cross-county Q buses from the congestion?

I disagreed fundamentally with the plan. The buses are a engulfed in a sea of passenger-less cars. They are a rafts of sanity and fiscal sense on these nasty currents of wasteful driving. Why punish those trying to make a positive difference by taking public transportation? I realize something has to give, but cars can’t just win because they are harder to control. Seemed like punishing those with the weakest voice (poorer riders) to accommodate people rich enough to drive solo.

Along with 473 other riders, I filled out survey on the proposed change (in my case by going to their website). The results of the survey reflected some of my own concerns and are nicely summarized in the service change document, and I quote them below:

Route Q1,2,4 Service and Tariff Proposals (referred to as Q Line)
Q Line customers weighed two proposals which at first blush are offsetting: the first is to receive a free transfer between Q Line and Red Line and the second is to cut the Q service back at Wheaton station forcing a transfer. As you might expect, Q Line customers rated the free transfer as positive and the service reduction as negative.
A closer look was taken to segment customers who were positive of both changes, one or the other, or were negative about both changes.
Just 11 percent of Q Line customers were positive about both the free transfer and service proposal. Another 46 percent preferred one or the other, mostly positive toward the free transfer and negative by the service reduction. Finally, 43 percent were negative toward both proposals.
Written sentiments seem to echo this negativity. An additional in-house survey was conducted by the CSCM team on-board the Q2 and Q4 bus lines between 7:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on Tuesday, September 29th, 2015 to collect additional data for the equity analysis. The survey results were consistent with the predominantly negative
sentiments reflected in the feedback gathered through the online survey, as described above.
Overall, service changes to the Q line would affect 76% of the riders surveyed on-board. The results showed a strong preference for bus over rail, with only 19% of respondents saying they would switch to the Red Line for access between
Wheaton and Silver Spring, if the Q Line service were to be cut. In terms of ridership, empirical evidence showed the north-bound Q line buses to be mostly full between 7:00 a.m. – 8:30 a.m., while the south bound buses were generally full throughout the day.
At the end of the document, Metrobus staff give their recommendation: “do not implement.”
Hurrah.
To put this in a larger context that’s easier to understand, I believe this represents a significant win for poorer riders–those who don’t have cars or can’t afford parking in particular–who need to commute across Montgomery county. Those going almost the entire route won’t be forced to transfer. Although this doesn’t solve the problem of snarled traffic, it at least doesn’t punish those who contribute to a more sensible commute for everyone. Now let’s start working on a better, cheaper, cleaner, transportation system.
Reading the document was also a refreshing taste of democracy in action. I learned how seriously Metrobus takes socioeconomic equity issues, and support the methodology overall. I might be signing a slightly different tune had the decision been opposite, but I still believe I’d respect the amount of work they put into their surveying (including sending out surveyors to capture the voices of riders unlikely to fill out online forms).

No more Dave Ramsey podcasts

For the last few months, I’ve tuned into Dave Ramsey’s radio show via podcast. There’s a lot to like about his simple method of getting and staying out of debt. America would be a better place if more people did something to get a better handle on debt. Henry David Thoreau made a similar point about signing one’s life away, and lamented how most men led lives of quiet desperation.

But I’ve decided that despite Dave’s strength as a teacher, the human interest of the people who call into the show, and the clarity of Dave’s ‘baby steps,’ aspects of the show trouble me enough that I have a hard time listening any further.

The things that bother me are:

  • The endless promotion of his network of financial advisers, insurance agents, and staged appearances
  • His rejection of DIY passive investing (the kind you can learn about on Bogleheads.org), which is a good option for individual investors who hope to avoid being ripped off
  • The clear relationship between the first and second points above
  • And then personally, the references to collecting guns as a hobby. I kind of enjoy his political rants, even through I usually disagree with them, because I can learn more about the perspective of the religious right. Collecting guns for fun, though, just reminds me of America’s tragic problem with guns.

So while I am grateful to Dave for constructing a good system to think about debt, I’m not about to become his customer.

**

The Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius coached himself to  “waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” That was about 1,845 years ago. His words, and those of Thoreau, echo through time. Easy to say, hard to achieve.

The machine never died

After a long journey with my friend Runzour, this Polar RS200 has been reborn to serve a new master.
After a long journey with my friend Runzour, this Polar RS200 has been reborn to serve a new master.

Today I spent $27 on batteries to relaunch a circa-2007 “running computer” given to me by my friend Runzour. While I was deleting his data, I noticed that he had logged more then 4,000 kilometers with it. The chest strap is weathered from use. This is ancient by today’s running-watch standards, but that gives it some character. Many physical objects don’t acquire much character during their first decade of use. The torch is passed. The machine never died. It was just sleeping, temporarily out of juice.

For someone who does as much running as I do, I’m a bit of an anomaly in that I’ve never used a running watch. Thus this is my first foray into this technology. One upside is that all the data the watch produces is intrinsic to this machine, as it has no connection to GPS.

Two Simple Rules for Fitness and Nutrition

Everyone navigates by their own lights when it comes to fitness and nutrition.These ideas are often like belief systems–best not to argue with a true believer of any particular stripe.

Here are the two ideas that guide me:

  1. Animal products and processed carbohydrates tend to be behind unhealthy weight gain and preventable disease.
  2. Exercise, particularly natural forms of exercise, lead to positive reinforcement loops.

The two authors whose ideas strike me as the clearest and most compelling are Andrew Weill and David Agus.

Marion Nestle is our best writer when it comes to seeing the food business and food politics for what they are.

Forks Over Knives opened my eyes to certain properties of animal foods. It deserves viewing.

Less is More

Recently I’ve been reading a collection of essays called Less is More.

This book gives me some hope about the world. Specifically, essays like “Simplicity isn’t ‘Voluntary’ Anymore” envisions what may begin to happen when our markets and ecosystems begin to evolve toward less for each human. The author, Ernest Callenbach, sees positive aspects in this evolution.

On the other side of adjustment lies a trio of self-reinforcing virtues that Callenback calls the “green-triangle approach”:

“As you look over your daily life, imagine a triangle whose points are environment, budget and health. It miraculously turns out that if you make a change aimed at improving one of those points, it will also help the others.”

This rings true to me, and it points to how each person can be part of an evolution toward a saner, wiser, more joyful, commonwealth type of society. Rather than top-down social programming, people begin to make the most of increasingly limited resources. In doing so, they wield power within their own spheres of influence and begin to temper environmental destruction, poor health during the prime years of life, and rising wealth inequality.

The part about looking over your daily life also speaks to me. It reminds me of stoic wisdom, the way Marcus Aurelius would scrutinize those things over which he had control in order to make the best decisions.

Contemporary life in America may be madness, but ideas like these offer some pleasing side trails. They may or may not lead to a better destination, but every thoughtful person should consider taking them.

Soulless optimizing: the infuriating case of the two aisle seats

The ultimate aisle seat. (Photo from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)
The ultimate aisle seat (from the Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons)

Optimize this. Life hack that. Is optimizing soulless when it turns a blind eye to other people?

Yesterday my family and I stood in the Southwest Airlines boarding lineup (in the A group, having checked in within mere seconds of the 24-hour check-in window opening). Immediately in front of us were a middle-aged couple who were perhaps a nanosecond quicker with their mouse click or smartphone swipe.

“Lets sit on two aisle seats across from each other,” said the woman. The man nodded.

Meanwhile I’m thinking that my family of three might not have a chance to sit together. Luckily there were plenty of seats at the back of the plane. The seats we grabbed ended up being right behind the optimizing couple.

“This is a full flight,” announced the flight attendant.

The woman spread open a copy of the New York Times. The man glanced at his Daniel Kahneman book. More people boarded the plane, shuffling toward the rear of the rapidly-filling cabin.

Eventually a couple of solo-riders grabbed window seats, which left middle seats next to both of the optimizers. These only filled up when the attendant announced “there are no more seats in the back. If you see a middle seat grab it.”

It either escaped the attention of of the optimizer couple that their actions had lousy consequences (friends far back in the check-in queue had to sit apart), or they just didn’t care.

My guess is they just didn’t care. These people seemed pretty smart–putting aside their callous seat choices (yes, I’m judging here. I know I’m far from perfect) . They spent the flight passing NYT and New Yorker articles back and forth. The man was reading Kahneman. Many of the articles seemed to be about optimizing, like “how to be happy,” and “how to raise successful children.”

I imagined the couple’s home: a mansion designed to provide each occupant (probably just them) maximum space and convenience. Same mental picture of their daily commutes.

Meanwhile, they aren’t sitting next to each other. Nor are the folks they displace. And the world is burning up because we consume so damn much, in an optimized way of course.

I’m into optimizing too, as all people probably should be. However, my hope is for a bit more objectivity about my surroundings and what other people are going through.

Southwest Airlines, a company with many fine merits, must know that their seating system sets up a kind of game theory among its riders. The couple I observed are participants in the “prisoners dilemma” that undercut their competition (otherwise known as fellow sovereign souls) in order to get ahead themselves.

I’m tagging this blog post under the category “life improvements,” but really this is about life improvement beyond life improvement. We’re flooded with content premised on life improvement. Time for a bit more awareness.

Like I said, I’m far from perfect. For example, I eat fish during a time of fishery collapses. I’m putting myself first all the time, just like this couple. They were just so damn rude it woke me up to what is going on.