Category Archives: Consumer issues

Hints about the future of rural America?

I thought these observations gleaned from recent news stories, were worth sharing. They arrived in emails from someone who comments as “Compare Decide”.

The good news is that JC Penney has made its first profit since 2010.

The bad news is that they have decided to close up to 140 stores.

The worse news is that this will probably trigger the closing of many struggling shopping malls.

http://www.marketwatch.com/story/jc-penney-to-close-130-to-140-stores-sales-dip-2017-02-24-12485289

Most of these articles on this subject frame it in terms of the rise of online shopping, or the executive mistakes of the past.

But it has been little noted that these store closings are in rural areas.

The story of the century is the decline, obsolescence and doom of small towns and outside suburbs, and so few seem to see this pattern.
….

But back in September of 2016, an optimistic JC Penney was planning on replacing Sears and Macy’s.

http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/ct-rise-of-jc-penney-20160826-story.html

Some of J.C. Penney’s most profitable locations turned out to be small stores in rural areas where the retailer pays almost no rent; two California stores opening this year will be completely funded by the landlord.

A less happy story from yesterday.

http://news.morningstar.com/all/dow-jones/us-markets/201702248502/jc-penney-to-close-more-than-100-stores-3rd-update.aspx

Penney on Friday eked out its first annual profit since 2010, but executives said they were closing weaker stores so they could focus their investments on revamping those in stronger markets. Penney said it would identify the locations that are set to close next month, though executives said many were smaller stores in rural locations.

Geography is critical.

Optimism is still evident in some parts of the retail industry.

But another mall giant, Gap Inc., posted higher comparable quarterly sales for the first time in two years. “If you read the headlines today, you’ll see the words dead, dying, sick. We are none of those,” CEO Art Peck told investors late Thursday. “We are healthy and strong and have a plan and clear direction.”

Um, that’s what JC Penney was saying last year….

Taken for a bus ride

As a frequent bus rider, I was glad to see the city roll out a very reasonably-priced day pass good for unlimited travel on Honolulu buses.

That sounds like a pretty good deal.

As Hawaii News Now reported:

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell signed a bill into law Friday that allows riders to buy a one-day pass, eliminating the need for passengers to get paper transfers from bus drivers.

“We have one of the most heavily used bus systems. We want to make it as easy and convenient for riders,” Caldwell said.

City officials hope to have the one-day pass available for purchase by October. They say it will make things a lot easier for both passengers and bus drivers, while addressing the fraud that currently happens with paper transfers.

City officials, including Mayor Caldwell, are pretty proud of it.

However, there are a few caveats.

Did you catch the October timeframe? Apparently it’s going to take eight months to get this puppy up and running.

And then, if I understand it correctly, it’s a day pass. Not to be confused with a 24-hour pass.

If you’re a visitor and happen to buy your pass in mid-afternoon to do a little sightseeing and later travel to a restaurant for dinner, your $5 would only get you 12-hours or so.

That’s because the passes will be good from midnight of the day of purchase through 3 a.m. of the following day.

Still a good deal, but…

My wife and I have been in Las Vegas the past few days. She’s attending the annual conference of the Western Society of Criminology, and I’m along for the ride. Yesterday I rode the bus from the Las Vegas Strip to downtown in order to find the Writer’s Block Bookstore.

The Las Vegas buses are operated by the Regional Transportation Commission of Southern Nevada. The RTC website says the buses carry about 64 million passengers each year. That’s just about the same ridership as Honolulu, which claims 68 million annual rides.

My 24-hour bus pass here in Las Vegas cost $8, so I paid a premium over what the day-pass in Honolulu is going to cost.

But my pass is actually good for 24 hours. I bought it just after 10 a.m. yesterday, and I can use it up to 10 a.m. today.

How do they do that? By using smart passes rather than the technologically-challenged dumb passes Honolulu will rely on. Paper passes for Las Vegas buses have a magnetic strip containing the data showing when it was purchased and when it will expire. When you get on a bus, you just swipe your pass through a reader on the fare box. It allows them to sell tickets of different durations using the same paper tickets. Most useful for visitors are the 2-hour, 24-hour, and three-day passes.

I bought my pass using the rideRTC smartphone app. The app can be downloaded for free, and provides route maps and schedules, fare information, and allows you to quickly buy one or more passes using a credit card. No fumbling for cash at the bus stop. And no getting shortchanged by a day-pass that might only be good for a few hours.

According to RTC:

rideRTC Features

• Buy and use your transit pass – Purchase an RTC transit pass from the convenience of your phone anywhere, anytime, and use it on board any route.
• Plan your trip – Plan your next trip using transit with detailed step-by-step information.
• Find your bus – Get arrival information about routes and bus stops near you and where you want to go.
• Customer assistance – Call RTC customer service directly from the app.

And signage at bus stops and on the buses warns riders they must purchase their tickets before getting on the bus, eliminating most of the delays in boarding.

Oh, one more thing. The Ambassadors.

At the stop when I first boarded the bus outside Meda’s conference hotel, there was a man in a blue shirt identifying him as an RTC Ambassador, as in this photo (the picture was actually taken on my return from downtown). He walked among passengers waiting at the bus stop offering information, bus riding tips, schedules, and more. Extremely helpful for visitors, and most riders in this area were visitors. And after I visited the bookstore, returning with my bag of books, there was another ambassador making sure that visitors got launched properly back to the Strip.

That’s service.

And a final observation. When I visited the Regional Transit Commission’s website, I couldn’t help noticing that it provided quick and easy access to a schedule of meetings and agendas, not only for the commission but for its various committees.

“Meetings are open to the public and community participation is encouraged,” the website advises.

Committees include things like the Bus Shelter and Bench Advisory Committee, Arts in Transit Advisory Council, Specifications Subcommittee, Finance Committee, Evaluation Committee, and more.

That’s a different level of transparency and participation than we enjoy back home, isn’t it?

Bottom line. Yes, Honolulu’s new $5 day pass is a welcome move. But TheBus still has a long way to go.

Threats and fines don’t matter when you’ve got to go

An Associated Press story about Rep. Gene Ward’s proposal to create “urine free zones” that would attach a fines up to $2,000 to the act of relieving one’s bladder without benefit of toilet was picked across the country this week.

What madness. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go. At that point it’s pee in your clothes or in the bushes. Threats and fines don’t help.

When I was on the staff of the Star-Bulletin and often had multiple things to do downtown, I recall my mental map of accessible places to pee. It was in self-defense, as more and more places started locking up their restrooms. It worked pretty well, although on one or two occasions I found myself looking around for potential locations “just in case” I wasn’t able to reach a safe zone in time.

I wrote about the issue back in a 2008 column. I think it was the same year that a bill or two pushed the need for public restrooms, and had mainstream support from Catholic Charities, as I recall.

I’m reprinting that column below. Nothing seems to have changed in the interim.

When you’ve got to go
by Ian Lind
Honolulu Weekly, March 20, 2008

It’s one of those messages that you don’t want to see at a moment of crisis: “Sorry, no public restrooms.”

Although the discomfort of finding yourself in urgent need of a toilet is often fodder for comedians, getting caught in that situation is no laughing matter. When you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go, but the number of publicly accessible toilets in Honolulu has been rapidly dwindling as businesses have restricted previously available facilities, citing the high costs of maintenance, and neither state nor county governments have stepped up to address the resulting problems.

Legislators haven’t responded either, perhaps because of the stigma associated with public discussion of toilets. This year, a bill has passed the State House and is awaiting action in the Senate extending a 2004 law making it illegal to urinate or defecate in public anywhere in the downtown business district despite the fact that publicly accessible toilets are hard to find, while another bill that would have required businesses to open existing toilets to the public died without a hearing.

Honolulu’s bus system doesn’t provide public toilets even at major transfer points, despite its reliance on several long-haul routes, and transit planners have pointedly stated that they have no intention of building restrooms into stations along the proposed new rail line.

So with businesses locking their toilets, a dearth of public facilities, and laws against emergency stops in public, this can be a very serious issue. My wife points out that even planning a simple shopping trip requires taking into consideration available rest stops, and the challenges are more serious for those with special needs, including families with small children, pregnant women, those with medical conditions, the elderly and disabled. For them, as well as many of the rest of us, a long commute, a shopping trip, or any other excursion away from home can lead to embarrassing and uncomfortable incidents.

The American Restroom Association, a Washington-based education and advocacy group, views the lack of publicly available toilets as a serious personal and public health issue in the U.S.

Association president Robert Brubaker, in a November 2007 interview, called for Americans “to start talking about restrooms and speak up for them just as they do for streetlights and sidewalks.”

Brubaker attributed the lack of publicly accessible facilities both to Americans reticence to openly discuss toilet use, and to a policy gap in laws at the federal, state, and local levels.

Federal labor regulations protects the health of workers by requiring employers to provide a minimum number of bathrooms depending on the type of business and the number of employees, but there’s no requirement that they serve the public. The federal Department of Health and Human Services, which should be serving up laws and rules to provide sanitation facilities for the general public, has failed to act on proposals for public restroom standards. For the most part, restroom access has been governed by state and local regulations.

Most local governments, including here in Hawaii, have adopted provisions of the Uniform Plumbing Code, which sets out standards for the required number of toilets in most buildings. The UPC also requires that those toilets be accessible to all “occupants”, meaning that if a building or business allows the public to enter as customers, they must also be provided access to the building’s restrooms.

Those restrooms available only to employees aren’t counted by the UPC when determining whether a building complies with the requirement.

But a funny thing happened here in the islands. Although the City and County of Honolulu adopted most of the Uniform Plumbing Code, the sections dealing with toilet facilities were deleted and do not apply, or “may be used as a guide only.”

Similarly, the State Department of Health has adopted provisions for “sanitary facilities” in auditoriums, churches, theaters, “amusement places”, and “buildings of public assembly”, along with schools, dormitories, and bars. But DOH regulations covering restaurants, markets, and other businesses “do not include the
provision for public use,” again failing to serve the broader public interest, and those applying to office buildings and other retail businesses are absent.

What can be done? In Portland, Oregon, a community advocacy group calling itself PHLUSH (Public Hygiene Lets Us Stay Human) has pushed the city to explore options for meeting the need for public toilets. In one report, PHLUSH reviewed a number of urban options, including automated restrooms that clean themselves after each use, portable toilets, freestanding restrooms supported by advertising, and even storefront rest stops that combine toilet facilities with community services, perhaps offering free space to social service agencies in exchange for managing the public toilets.

Working with students and professors from a local university, PHLUSH initiated a study of existing facilities and needs, and has worked with city officials to find innovative solutions to what is really a basic need. Similar cooperative efforts to address this public health issue here at home are long overdue.

At-grade option offers a way out of Honolulu’s train wreck

I was sorry to see Lee Cataluna’s glib column this morning disparaging the possibility of incorporating the at-grade option in order to complete Honolulu’s rail system, which is currently collapsing under the weight of dramatic cost overruns, inept planning and management, and vicious politics, which have combined to create world-leading per-mile costs.

A coalition has emerged to promote an at-grade option which promises lower costs and an improved rider experience at street level. We should be jumping at this option, not finding excuses to not even explore it further.

It doesn’t sound to me like Cataluna took the time to read any of the extensive documentation provided to support the at-grade alternative (see the Salvage the Rail report here).

Here’s the best Cataluna can do to deride this alternative proposal.

But that utopian photo rendering is not what downtown Honolulu streets look like. Where are the bicycles whizzing through intersections with impunity? Where are the guys on high-pitched, foul-smelling mopeds weaving in and out of traffic? Where are the people with their eyes glued to their phones and their ears plugged with earbuds leisurely moseying across the crosswalk while the red hand blinks to no effect? Where are the drivers yapping on their phones? The crush of late and frazzled commuters? The grandmas with huge dark glasses slowly pulling their wheeled shopping baskets along the roadside? The city streets are already full up, maxed out and crazy with vehicles, pedestrians and troublemakers without a train plowing through all that chaos. Will all those users suddenly be off the pavement and on the train?

The fact is that virtually all cities in the U.S. and internationally that have built rail systems in the past three decades have relied on the kind of light rail technology that allows trains to run on the ground, through shopping areas and downtown malls. They have all dealt with these common traffic issues. Planners have had to develop techniques for minimizing the issues Cataluna seems to feel are unsolvable.

It seems to me that officials have a responsibility to carefully assess this alternative now, before the opportunity passes. If there’s a chance that it can salvage a reasonable rail system out of the current financial train wreck, even if Hawaii drivers experience a bit of stress along the way, it’s not something to reject out of hand as Cataluna would have us do.

Right now, there are several possible scenarios. We could proceed with business as usual, and will probably end up spending $12 billion or more to complete the train as originally planned.

On the other hand, it’s always possible that Honolulu will be forced to throw in the towel, admit financial defeat, and spend the next ten years paying to demolish the parts of the system already built.

Or we’ll limp along, find a way to control the budget by stripping out all frills and extras, cutting stations and amenities, ending up what will still be the world’s costliest urban rail system, but with fewer stops, fewer riders, and perpetual ongoing deficits.

None of those are pretty pictures.

Given those alternatives, I would think reasonable people would want to spend some time to understand how other cities across the globe have made at-grade rail systems work.

Cataluna’s clever localisms don’t do anything to further that understanding.