In the next four weeks I will be travelling from Amsterdam to Lisbon, and back again, with my trusty wheely suitcase in tow.
If you’ve ever lived somewhere like Amsterdam, then you’ll know what I mean when I say that “winter is coming”. Even in the middle of summer, winter feels like it’s around the corner. Hence it’s usually a good idea to make like a bird and migrate south to ensure that you get at least some summer. There’s many amazing things about Amsterdam, although the weather is not one of them.
These posts will document some of my more interesting travel experiences, albeit in an ad-hoc fashion. Where possible, however, I try and identify transport and land use issues that I think are relevant or interesting in the New Zealand context. This particular post details the first leg of our summer journey, which took us from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Annecy, France. The route is illustrated below, where I have mapped our movements using the wonderful multi-modal travel planner Rome2Rio.
Why do I refer to wheely suitcases in the title of this series of posts? Well, I happen to think that wheely suitcases are a good example of a humble yet transformative transport technology. Approximately 5 years ago, I saw a presentation by Todd Litman where he was asked his views on the most transformative technological development to emerge in his lifetime. To my surprise, Todd replied “the wheely suitcase”.
His argument? Unlike things like space travel, wheely suitcases have expanded accessibility for a huge number of people. I have a personal fascination with the history of humble urban technologies, such as street lights, elevators, and wheely suitcases. As per this interesting blog post, it seems that Todd and I are not the only people who think about such seemingly mundane issues:
Can you imagine that it took close to six thousand years between the invention of the wheel (by, we assume, the Mesopotamians) and this brilliant implementation (by some luggage maker in a drab industrial suburb)? And billions of hours spent by travelers like myself schlepping luggage through corridors full of rude customs officers.
Worse, this took place three decades or so after we put a man on the moon. And consider all this sophistication used in sending someone into space, and its totally negligible impact on my life, and compare it to this lactic acid in my arms, pain in my lower back, soreness in the palms of my hands, and sense of helplessness in front of a long corridor. Indeed, though extremely consequential, we are talking about something trivial: a very simple technology.
But the technology is only trivial retrospectively—not prospectively. All those brilliant minds, usually disheveled and rumpled, who go to faraway conferences to discuss Gödel, Shmodel, Riemann’s Conjecture, quarks, shmarks, had to carry their suitcases through airport terminals, without thinking about applying their brain to such an insignificant transportation problem. And even if these brilliant minds had applied their supposedly overdeveloped brains to such an obvious and trivial problem, they probably would not have gotten anywhere.
Of course this is all a little tongue in cheek; it ignores the indirect technological developments that have emerged from the space programme. Things like satellites, GPS, and heat-resistant ceramics, for example, have transformed our lives in a myriad of ways. On the other hand, people like Todd might argue that if you took those squillions of $$$ invested in the space programme, and instead invested it directly into research and development, then we may well have ended up with even more useful technologies. I’ll leave this discussion here for y’all to debate over your next pale ale, but I think it’s interesting to keep in mind.
Our journey will start and end at Muiderpoort station, which is my local station. As you can read about here, construction of Muiderpoort station finished in the 1930s. The station’s aesthetics reflects the modernist influences of the day, while also paying homage to the style of traditional Dutch public buildings, most obviously churches. Other similar train stations include Amstel and Naarden-Bussum, which are located on the same line, but further south.
Muiderpoort has a somewhat dark history, which is reflected in a little statue located in the plaza outside the station. At the onset of WWII the newly-finished Muiderpoort station was used by the Nazis to cart Jews off to concentration camps elsewhere. Prior to WWII, Amsterdam was actually home to one of the largest (in an absolute and proportional sense) Jewish populations in Europe. Tragically, by the end of WWII this population had been decimated, and it has never recovered. Whenever I catch the train from Muiderpoort I reflect on sacrifices made by previous generations, which helps to put current tribulations into perspective.
Moving onto more positive historical developments: Muiderpoort is my gateway to the Dutch heavy rail network, which is rather impressive. To put some numbers around that statement, on an average day it carries just over 1.2 million passenger journeys (source). That’s not too dissimilar what Auckland’s rail network carries in an average month. The schematic below illustrates some of the underlying structure. It is immediately apparent that the rail network provides excellent coverage, but also that it is very much focused on the north-west of the country, in region known as the “Randstad”.
To give you a sense of its capacity, there are approximately 10 double-decker 8 car trains carrying up to 2,000 people operating between Utrecht and Amsterdam in the peak hour. That’s equivalent to the capacity of a 10 lane highway on one single route, and it wouldn’t surprise if most of this capacity was used.
My Muiderpoort is only a minor station in the scheme of things. Nonetheless, it enjoys frequent service from early in the morning to late at night. When we arrived at Muiderpoort at 6am, for example, there was a direct service running to Schiphol every 30 minutes, in between which were other services from which we could connect to services travelling to Schiphol. Basically, even minor stations in Amsterdam, like Muiderpoort, enjoy turn-up-and-go levels of service, for most hours of the day, and almost all week.
What about ticketing? Well, in the Netherlands, one smartcard is used for all public transport services across the entire country. Our 30 minute journey from Muiderpoort to Schiphol cost 2.50 Euro, which I think is great value compared to airport connections in most places.
One of the reasons it’s so cheap is because I’ve loaded a discount onto my card, which entitles me to a 40% discount when travelling outside of peak times. To qualify for this discount I have to pay an annual fee of 50 Euro. I think this is an interesting approach to delivering discounts: The discount is effectively a subscription, rather than applying to all journeys. By limiting access in this way, NS can in turn afford to offer a larger discount. One of the really nice – and less well-known – features of this particular discount is that it can be “loaded” onto up to two other smartcards. Thus I can “share” my discount with other people I am travelling with, which is great for families and groups. Smart and convenient, and something that could be done with HOP as a way of delivering targeted discounts.
Rail services go underground as they approach Schiphol airport. Passengers exit the station into a covered plaza located between the two major terminals. Train and flight information is readily available. Schiphol is one of the five largest airports in Europe terms of passenger movements (source), and it is growing faster than any other in the top five with the notable exception of Istanbul. As far as large airports go, Schiphol is actually fairly pleasant, even if it’s almost always busy. I’d choose Schiphol for connections over, say, Heathrow, Frankfurt, or Paris.
As an aside, I love the blue livery of KLM’s s planes, which really brighten up what are otherwise rather dull airport environs. Seeing them always makes me ruminate on Air New Zealand decision to abandon the traditional teal colour in favour of black. I appreciate that black is associated with the All Blacks, but New Zealand is, and will be, so much more than simply a rugby team. And that’s from someone who loves rugby. I wonder if Air New Zealand will come to regret abandoning what I thought was a vibrant and distinctive teal colour? In saying that I’m open to being convinced otherwise …
EasyJet flight EY7911 left Schiphol Airport bound for Lyon at 7.30am with us onboard. Our tickets cost 50 Euro each, which is the main reasons why decided to fly from Amsterdam to Lyon rather than travel by train (time was the other factor: 3 hours by plane versus 8 hours by train). Rest assured that we used more sustainable transport options for most other legs of our holiday. We checked in via EasyJet’s app and made our way straight to the gate; the topic of apps will come up repeatedly in this series of travel posts, for the primary reason that they have made our travels really easy.
Once on-board I noticed there seemed to be more legroom on the flight than I remembered from other low-cost carriers. I wonder if this is because airplane seats have become less bulky, especially when they don’t have electronic screens in them. At 1.82m I’m of fairly average height, yet even I had a healthy 10cm gap between my knees and the seat in front. Very nice.
Arriving in Lyon, we found the airport was undergoing a major renovation. I must say that Lyon airport did not make a good first impression; it has a strange circular layout and the signage is not great. I got the feeling that it is a good example of what Jan Gehl calls “bird shit architecture”. That is something which is designed to look from above, but which is dysfunctional at the ground level. In contrast, Schiphol looks ugly from the air but works well on the ground.
The best thing about Lyon Airport, in my opinion, is its TGV station. The beauty of the station is not only how it looks from the outside, but how it feels and functions internally. The design brings abundant natural light into the interior, which is characterised by clean lines and simple materials. Pedestrian desire lines rule. Bravo.
Upon arriving in Lyon, we collected our rental car and drove to Annecy. Our car was a Fiat 500, and for five days it cost 120 Euro in hire costs plus 80 Eur in fuel, tolls, and parking. That’s about 40 Euro per day, which is pretty good value – and not much more expensive than return train tickets from Lyon to Annecy for the two of us. Plus with the car it was much easier to access the mountains around Annecy.
On that note, it’s worth mentioning that Annecy is beautiful. The city has a lovely mix of buildings from various ages, with a medieval centre surrounded by more modern styles, most notably from the early 1900s. The town itself is situated amidst canals, on the shores of a beautiful lake, which is nestled in between spectacular mountains flanked by verdant forests. Here’s some teasers for you.
Our time in Annecy was spent cycling around the lake (4 hours), climbing La Tournette (5 hours; altitude 2,300m), and generally meandering through long sunny days. All very pleasant.
One of the most striking things about Annecy, which is relevant to Auckland and discussions on the Unitary Plan, is how dense it is: the centre of Annecy is dominated by 4-8 storey buildings, many of which are apartments. These are the sorts of apartment development that Auckland is lacking, and this is in a city with a population of under 100,000.
Having lived and traveled around Australia and Europe for several years, I can’t help but feel that Auckland is shooting itself in the foot when it comes to apartments. While the rest of the world has and still is embracing medium density developments of up to 7-8 storeys, Auckland seems paralysed by proposals to allow buildings above 3 storeys. It’s as if Auckland still can’t quite accept that it’s a city where land is scarce, such that compromises must be made.
I know that some people like Brian Rudman believe that 3 storeys is already a compromise, a nod to higher density. Such positions are, I think, painfully naive.
Cities everywhere, for centuries, have built up to 5-8 stories in order to house their growing populations. Restraining most of Auckland to 3 storeys or less is basically committing ourselves to supplying 50% fewer dwellings than would be available in other places for a physical given footprint. I don’t think many Aucklanders appreciate just how much density controls have constrained the supply of housing, and just how much this will negatively effect socio-economic and environmental outcomes for decades to come.
Anyway, for now I’m going to get out there and enjoy Europe and leave the rest of you to fix Auckland. My next update will be from Cassis, where most of the buildings are more than 2 storeys, where most of the inner city streets are too narrow for cars to access even in one direction, and where the atmosphere is oh so lovely.
Somehow the town still functions; I’m still trying to work it out and if I do then I’ll let you know.
Until next time, go well.