50 Years of waiting for an Auckland Rapid Transit system.

Ian Reynolds 1946 by Brian Brake

My father, Ian Reynolds 1922-2005, was an architect (as was my mother). He was also a what was then called a Town and Country Planner. After returning from working in England after the war he spent the rest of his career as partner in a big multidisciplinary practice in Auckland (missing the city of his youth: Wellington. Office in Wakefield St, where the AUT business school is now). There he was responsible for a chunk of our post-war modernist heritage, as well as a lot of planning work. Especially at the University of Auckland, master-planning the campuses and involved in the campaign to retain the city one, which thankfully won out. Notable design work includes the School of Engineering and the Thomas Building both on Princess St, his practice also designed the School of Architecture while he was head of the architectural division.

In 1967, which is of course now 50 years ago, he was interviewed by the Herald about transport in Auckland (in full below). And it makes for a pretty interesting read, surprisingly relevant still, perhaps alarmingly so. I’m pretty sure his 1967 self would be very surprised that we are only now getting round to building the Rapid Transit Network he describes from the De Leuw Cather report. Although later of course he witnessed the defeat of Robbie’s Rail, and much else that should have given life to the 1960s plans for balanced transport networks. The interview shows a clear vision of that possibility, and how that would have led to a different more urban pattern of development for Auckland than we currently have:

Readers will no doubt feel that indeed; some apples don’t fall very far from the tree, yet re-reading this I am amazed now at how little I ever discussed these issues with Ian. I think on his side that was because of a sorrow felt by the idealistic modernists of his generation about the development of Auckland in the later part of the last century. Interestingly for many there was a move into environmentalism from urbanism (not that either phrase were current at the time) as centrally directed motorways and private land speculation took over completely from state planning and housing investment. Perhaps that is where this generation’s lasting legacy can be seen. Especially evident in the careers of two of Ian’s colleagues; captured perfectly in this obituary of planner FWO Jones (known even to us kids as ‘Fwo’) and the just recently deceased KRTA partner Dave Thom, who was very active in the national parks programme, and in making the theoretical case for environmentalism as a core practice of engineering internationally.

But it must be remembered that the denser city was always considered the necessary corollary to the protected wilderness, as this keeps the city from spreading so much into the country. The term sprawl is after all the shortened version of urban sprawl. His generation did achieve much in protecting key wild places, but I think Ian keenly felt that on urban form they suffered a life long defeat. So it would be good to show him Auckland now, the last ten years since his death have seen a profound change. I think he would be gratified by many of the trends; the full return of the university to the city, the strong revival of inner city living (though not so much the design of many of the buildings), the rail revival (he was a dedicated train user; taking the overnight train to Wellington regularly instead of flying, which he loathed, he was also an equally dedicated pipe smoker; which got him in the end).

There is so much that is still accurate in the document, both happily and otherwise, I think he is right both about our relative lack of corruption and waste, but also the dominance of political expediency over good policy in transport and urban form:

Here he refers to the ‘Morningside Deviation’ the 1940s version of the CRL suffering the same fate (see here for earlier schemes):

It is important to remember that at the time of the interview the population of Auckland was around half a million, so the arguments then are even more pressing now there’s another million souls living here. And some concerns have disappeared completely, such ‘inner city decline’. Of course had the described bus/rail system been developed alongside the motorways the pattern of the city’s development would be different; less sprawl, more complexity, not radically different just less monotone. A city of greater variety and one less entirely dominated by traffic. One that pushes less aggressively into the surrounding countryside… Instead we have built one network entirely, the motorway system, and largely one developmental typology, low density dispersal, and the city is poorer for it. And now we must urgently add the missing complementary Rapid Transit Network, as those 1960s planners quite correctly foresaw would be required to prevent a road only system choking to death on its own overuse. At least as the city is three times the size it is so the cost is now affordable; if only we would stop so expensively adding to the one now complete system….

Sketching in Kendal 1950

Wanderlust: One week in Bordeaux makes a hard man crumble

Wanderlust: Strong longing for or impluse toward wandering (source)

Imagine you own a house in the French countryside, where you live with your dogs and horses. Now imagine that you want to spend Christmas with your family in the U.K.

Such situations are exactly what the website Trusted Housesitter sets out to resolve. Once you have signed up, then all you need to do is list photos of your house, the dates you’re away, and what animals needs to be looked after. Then people can apply to look after your house and beloved (usually furry) friends for no cost. You give them accommodation; they look after your animals. Like many online platforms that rely on trust to some degree, they use upfront identity checks and follow-up reviews to try and keep people honest.

We recently made use of Trusted Housesitter to find a house in the Aquitaine region in France, where we spent a week over Christmas. For those of you who don’t know so much about European geography at the regional level, then look at the map below and think mustard yellow and south-west (that’s bottom-left, for the even more geographically challenged).

Bordeaux is the capital of the Aquitaine region, and it is a historical city that is famed for its red wine. When photographed from a particular angle in certain climatic conditions, part of Bordeaux looks like this. That is, quite nice.

I understand the central city is UNESCO heritage listed. We spend three nights in Bordeaux itself, and especially enjoyed walking through the Old Town, along the river, and then looping back through the old wine district. I could actually see myself living and loving here. Bordeaux is lively, with good restaurants and bars, without too much hustle and bustle.

From a transport perspective, the most interesting aspect of Bordeaux is probably the LRT; in the city centre the system is powered by induction loops embedded in the pavement. I understand the use of induction was prompted by the desire to avoid the visual polllution caused by overhead wires. Like most innovative technologies, this one has encountered its share of reliability issues. Could cities like Auckland learn from the issues Bordeaux encountered?

The city itself is also very flat, and I was somewhat surprised with the lack of cycle infrastructure, especially compared to the Netherlands and even Paris.

Nevertheless, after three nights in Bordeaux itself, we grabbed our hire car and escaped to the Aquitaine countryside to take up residence. The house we were living in was located in a little hamlet called Lunas, which was about 15 minutes drive north from Bergerac. The house we stayed in (with our Dutch friend Nienke) was rather delightful, as shown below.

During our stay we were charged with looking after Filou (brown dog), Elmo (black dog), Thomas (black horse), and Blue (white horse). I am pleased to report that all are still alive, even though Thomas did try and have a chew of my jacket.

During the middle of the day we ventured forth to surrounding towns and villages. Aquitaine is an interesting region partly because it was ruled by the English royals for approximately 300 years from 1154 until the end of the so-called Hundred Year’s War in 1453, when it was annexed by France (source). Thereafter the region sustained a high proportion of French Protestants, or Huguenots, at least until St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, military defeats, and loss of rights resulted in sustained emigration to new world countries with more tolerant religious climes (NB: Game of Thrones fans may want to read-up on these events, as I understand they inspired the Red Wedding scene). Or for a somewhat related take on the European (Norman) influence on England, some of you might be interested in this article.

Partly because of this historical legacy, Aquitaine is peppered with partially fortified villages, called Bastides, which combined a central marketplace, church, and fortification. On our day-trips we visited several lovely small villages, such as St Emilion, PerigueuxLimeuil, and Monpazier. Here’s a couple of pics to tease the taste-buds. We were there in winter, so many of the shops were shut. Nonetheless, we always found somewhere decent to eat and as well as some talented local artisans hawking their wares. I have heard, and can imagine, that these places bustle during the peak summer months.

Our week in Aquitaine makes a hard man crumble like a freshly-baked croissant. The food was amazing, and very affordable. We ate several three course lunch meals for 15 Euro, or 23 NZD. And when I say three course meal, I am talking about a shrimp risotto entree, marinated roast duck mains, with creme brulee for dessert. That is, a decent poke of the tasty food stick for a small piece of the old travel budget. I’d highly recommend the restaurant Euskadi, Bergerac. For those who don’t know, lunch is a serious event in France — and most tourist places will shut between 12-2pm. Be warned and plan ahead; I’d recommend joining them in enjoying a slow lunch.

One of the most impressive things about Aquitaine is that it’s quite wild. In the woods close to where we were staying, wild deer and boar roamed relatively freely, at least until they were hobbled by a hunter. Indeed, one long-term upside of the gradual decline of rural areas in many parts of Europe is the gradual “re-wilding” of marginal land that was previously used for farming. This is a topic to which I’ll return in a future post, as it’s been the topic of considerable debate, especially when it is accompanied with the return of mega-fauna, such as bears and wolves (source).

Either way, the key messages of this post are:

  1. If you are an animal lover with wanderlust, then check out TrustedHousesitter.com. The site operates in many countries around the world, including New Zealand and Australia. If you’re somewhat flexible, then it’s a great cost-effective way to travel and also puts you in touch with locals who can advise on things to do.
  2. If you want to go off slightly the beaten track in France, then I’d recommend Aquitaine. You can easily spend 1-2 weeks visiting the towns and villages, even in winter. If you’re short on time, then I can recommend St Emilion — as it’s close to Bordeaux and has a wonderful monolithic cathedral in the centre of town.
  3. Rural areas around the world are struggling with demographic, environmental, and technological change. Is it possible for government policy to help rural areas transition their economy away from marginal extractive and/or agricultural industries? In ways that will benefit both urban and rural areas? I’ll be pondering such issues in an upcoming post.

Until next time, travel safe. And to finish, here’s some lovely street art from Bordeaux. Goodbye concrete; hello psychedelic wolverines. Have any of you travelled in theAquitaine region? If so then please feel free to share your experiences and advice in the comments section. I’d personally be keen to know a bit more about the Atlantic coast, which we didn’t visit on this trip — but may do on another.

Wheely suitcase in Europe #8: Santiago de Compostela to Lisbon — Where dwell-times are short

Earlier this year I undertook a rather long and splendid journey starting in Amsterdam, the Netherlands and ending in Lisbon, Portugal. In seven previous posts I document our progress as follows:

  1. Amsterdam to Annecy
  2. Annecy to Cassis
  3. Cassis to Llanca
  4. Llanca to Zaragoza
  5. Zaragoza to San Sebastian
  6. San Sebastian to Gijon
  7. Gijon to Santiago de Compostela

The routes we took are also illustrated in the map below. At various stages in our journey we used different transport modes, including combination of plane, car, bicycle, train, bus, and ride-share.

At first glance this may seem like a strange route. After all, the natural line of travel from the south of France is to continue south along the east coast of Spain. Two seasonal factors influenced our decision to head west instead (NB: We were travelling in July and the end of August), namely 1) the heat of the Spanish summer and 2) the influx of summer tourists. Spain’s Atlantic coast is both milder (20 – 30 degrees) and receives fewer summer tourists. So if you do go to Spain in the summer, then I’d recommmed heading north-west.

In this post, I document the final leg of our journey, which us from Santiago de Compostela, Spain to Lisbon, Portugal. We travelled by BlaBlaCar to Porto, and then caught the train to Lisbon. Combining two transport modes enabled us to save us both time and money. More specifically, the train from Santiago de Compostela to Porto runs infrequently (every 3 hours), is slow (4.5 hours), and relatively expensive (35 Euro per person). In comparison, BlaBlaCar picked us up from our door, took 2.5 hours, and cost only 16 Eur per person.

An apt way to end our journey, I thought. One of my fellow bloggers (a’hem, PATRICK) expressed bemusement that we didn’t use the train to travel everywhere. I freely admit rail is nice, where it exists, is frequent, fast, and affordable. On our journey, however, not all these criteria were met all of the time. The two reasons I gave to Patrick for using non-train transpot modes, which I think is worth repeating here, are:

  1. If you want to travel off the beaten track in Europe, ***then*** sometimes you will need to make use of transport modes other than rail. This is especially true when travelling in countries with less well-developed rail networks; and
  2. If you are travelling in Europe at peak times, e.g. summer and/or oevr Christmas, ***then*** you can expect that the high-speed trains will be expensive if not completely full on some days.

For these two reasons I’d strongly suggest that people add buses and BlaBlacar to their list of back-up transport modes. When combined with rail, they make it really easy to travel in Europe without hiring your own car. Of course, neither of these modes is perfect either, hence the need to be flexible.

There, multi-modal sales pitch over. Having arrived in Lisbon, we then set about enjoying ourselves even more than we did on the train. Being late August, the temperature was pushing 30 degrees. I must say that we had 5 days in Lisbon, and it wasn’t enough. Two things strike you almost immediately about Lisbon: 1) the city is extremely beautiful and 2) the geography and topography is spectacular, albeit something that makes it harder to get around.

From a transport perspective, the most interesting aspect of Lisbon has to be the quaint trams that navigate through very narrow streets and up very steep hills, as shown below.

Apart from exploring the city, including the castle shown in the prevous image, we also took two day-trips further afield. One day we caught a suburban train along the coast to a sea-side village called Cascais. The train takes ~40 minutes, and runs right along the coast.

I can report that dwell-times on Lisbon’s (heavy) rail line to Cascais are approximately 25-35 seconds, even under peak summer loads. I mention this because Portugal is not, shall we say, the wealthiest and/or most technologically-advanced nation in Europe. Nonetheless it still manages to achieve dwell-times half that of Auckland. Shame on us.

If Phil Goff and the new Council need any convincing that they should push AT on the dwell-times, then I’d suggest we put them, first, on a plane to Lisbon and, second, on a train to Cascais. Perhaps we could even find a European watch-maker to sponsor the trip and supply watches so the Councillors can precisely time the dwell-times?

On our other day-trip, we rented a car and headed to the UNESCO world-heritage site of Sintra. While Lisbon is a wonderful place to visit in of itself, Sintra moves the region into the top-shelf. Sintra manages to combine both natural and historical beauty in a way I’ve not really experienced anywhere else, and which is as a result somewhat hard to explain.

I would say that Sintra is best understood as a sub-region, which is dominated by a large forest and mountain range within which are sprinkled an amazing number of amazingly beautiful places of interest, such as public gardens, villages, palaces, castles, and convents. Here’s a few images to whet the appetite (NB: All images are grabbed from the web; let me know if they are yours and you would like credit and/or them taken down). If you’re intrigued, then check out the Wiki page for more detail.

Sintra is only an hours’ drive from Lisbon, or there is also a train from Lisbon. Just be aware that the coast west of Sintra is also worth exploring, and cannot be reached by train.

Having spent five wonderful days in Lisbon, and four weeks travelling across Europe, we then flew back to Amsterdam so that I could begin the current academic year. If you are interested in the relative cost and speed of the different travel modes we used then let me know and I’ll try and write up a summary post. Otherwise, I have another upcoming travel post which considers our Christmas adventure in Bordeaux.

Until then, I will leave you to enjoy the New Zealand summer, of which I am suitably jealous. Travel safe y’all.

Bookstores, cities, and shared streets

For me, a new house or apartment doesn’t truly feel like home until I begin to fill it with books. Books serve as familiars and friends: re-reading an old favourite can bring me back to places, people, and feelings that I had filed away in my memory, while encountering a new book is like befriending an interesting stranger.

Books are also heavy, especially after you’ve filled a few shelves. So they are not suited for a transient lifestyle: they require a stable home (or a strong back).

Just as I associate books with home, I also associate bookstores with cities. I grew up in the low-density suburbs east of San Francisco, around the time when Amazon was undermining the retail model of big bookselling chains. To get to a really excellent bookshop, you had to go to a urban place.

Bookstores play a key role in my first memories of urban places. My dad and I would take periodic trips into Berkeley to get dinner and do a bit of shopping. We’d spend an evening browsing the big bookstores on Telegraph Avenue – the late, lamented Cody’s Books, and the four-storey Moe’s Books, which (for me at least) sets the standard for a great second-hand bookshop.

moes-books-2010-courtesy-moes-books

This was a window into a different world: strangely-drawn comic books filled with odd concepts (not superheroes!); translated versions of obscure Latin American novellists; the cast-offs from hundreds of postgraduate philosophy papers. And the place was different too: shops were open later (and catered to a more diverse range of glass vase enthusiasts); the streets were laid out on a grid; the buildings were set closer to each other. People were around in the evening.

This, too, felt like home, in a different way than the footpathless suburbs did.

Later on, after moving to a city, I discovered that books were a good fit with the two quintessential urban transport modes: walking and public transport. (Especially in the pre-smartphone age.) Having a book takes some of the pain out of an unexpected wait for a bus, and occasionally starts conversations once you’re on the bus. Reading while walking is a bit more challenging but can be done with practice – provided you stop at intersections.

walking-while-reading

Me, basically.

One of the small joys of my current job is that I work on O’Connell St, with two of Auckland’s best bookshops within thirty seconds of my office. Used bookseller Jason Books is next door on O’Connell St, while Unity Books is just down the way on High Street. I visit both on a regular basis. Sometimes I go in to look for a specific book, and find it; other times I leave with an unexpected purchase (or nothing at all).

It wouldn’t be that hard buy books online instead, and it would probably save me money. But I keep coming back because I value bookstores as places. It’s a much richer experience to browse for books laid out on shelves and tables than to search through an online catalogue. A good bookshop will draw your eye towards books that you otherwise wouldn’t have found – “hey, look over here!” They’re also places where you can run into people.

Unfortunately, the streets outside my office also present a major contrast in terms of place quality. The shared space on O’Connell St is a pleasure to walk on: even with a bit of car traffic and delivery vans parked up, it’s spacious and safe for people on foot. And, especially with summer coming on, it’s busy with people walking, talking, or sitting down for a coffee.

High Street, on the other hand, is an abysmal, congested mess. Most of the space on the street is given over to a small number of low-turnover parking spaces, while people on foot must clump together on narrow footpaths and jostle slowly past each other. As the vast majority of the people using the street are walking, this represents a major impediment to efficient transport: we are seemingly sacrificing the needs of the many on foot for a small number of people in cars. (And it makes it hard to read while walking on High Street, as I have to pay too much attention to people in close proximity!)

Due to the pedestrian congestion, I spend less time and money on High Street than I’d like to. Oddly, a lot of the businesses on High Street have apparently campaigned against a shared street, which seems like self-sabotage given the great numbers of people walking up and down the street and the tiny number of people driving or parking.

I would never, ever drive to buy books (or anything else) on High St, but I would walk out the front door and window-shop a lot more often if the environment was better for walking. A great bookshop deserves a great urban street, and vice versa. Get behind it.

Why we blog

As delegates were leaving the American Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin: “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?”. Franklin replied: “A Republic, if you can keep it.”

He meant that, while the delegates had recommended a set of principles for government, it was up to average citizens to make them work in practice. That meant – and still means – having citizens who are informed and active in public debates over what and how we should proceed as a society, rather than citizens who will passively accept being ruled.

I believe in representative democracy. It isn’t a perfect system, but it’s better than the alternatives. This model of government is most compatible with long-run social and economic prosperity, and with an expansion of human freedom and capabilities.

But hard work is needed to maintain and improve it. It’s not enough to just have the option to vote every three years. During and between elections, it’s vital to carry on an informed public conversation on policy issues. It doesn’t matter if it’s happening on the radio and in the newspaper, in church halls and cafes and public meetings, or in blogs written by unpaid volunteers. But it needs to happen.

I stress the words “informed” and “public”. It is important for the debate to be informed by facts and evidence, because they are essential for grounding conversations between different points of view. People with different values and principles can have an intelligent conversation if they are able to build on a common set of facts. For instance, when people who care mainly about predictable driving times talk to people who care mainly about safe cycling facilities, it would be useful to know what the research says about the impact of cycle lanes on driving speeds.

It is equally important for the discussion to be happening in public, where citizens in general can engage with it and respond to it. Discussions between politicians and lobbyists in smoky back rooms do not usually lead to awesome outcomes. This doesn’t mean that every conversation has to be publicly disclosed, but it does mean that part of the conversation has to be open to the public.

Having an informed public conversation about policy means that:

  • Citizens get a better understanding of policy issues and trade-offs, and vote in a more informed way
  • Politicians and policymakers face public checks and balances – if they come up with silly ideas, others will be there to point out their silliness
  • New ideas can enter the public debate from a more diverse range of sources, meaning that policymakers don’t accidentally exclude a good idea.

A key part of an informed public conversation is having people who are passionate and knowledgeable about an issue who will discuss that issue in public, rather than behind closed doors. Sometimes these people are outsiders to the field who have gotten interested in it and educated themselves. For instance, Transportblog editors Matt and Patrick have never worked in transport or urban planning. Matt works for a financial services company, while Patrick runs his own photography business.

But often, the people who help foster the public conversation work in the field, in business, academia, or (more rarely) government. Jarrett Walker of HumanTransit fame is an excellent example of a professional who contributes to the public conversation about his profession. While working as a public transport planning consultant, he also writes a regular blog about the principles of network design. (Disclosure: I also work in the same field, and Jarrett partners with the company I work for for projects in Australia and New Zealand.)

It isn’t necessarily easy to speak or write publicly about the field you work in. While there are social benefits to fostering a more informed public conversation, there are personal and professional risks. This is especially true in New Zealand, due to the small size of the place. It’s definitely possible to do yourself out of a job by taking the ‘wrong’ position on a controversial issue – in most fields, there just aren’t that many people hiring.

That’s a risk that can be managed, if not fully mitigated. This doesn’t mean taking a ‘party line’ and publicly advocating for the positions of employers or clients. In a democratic society, everybody is entitled to hold and express personal views. But it does mean strictly maintaining client confidentiality, and, from time to time, staying silent on an issue that you’ve worked closely on, or discussing it in a general sense rather than delving into the details of a specific proposal.

But in spite of the risks, I’ve been enthusiastic about writing for Transportblog (unpaid!) because I see it as a useful contribution to a more informed public debate about major issues like transport policy, housing policy, and the overall shape of our built environment – which is to say, the shape of our society. It’s my small contribution to making representative democracy work better.

Transportblog undoubtedly has an editorial voice that is shaped in different ways by all of the regular authors, who volunteer their own time to run the blog, as well as by interactions with commenters. Like all humans, we have our own values and viewpoints, and we express them in what we write. But my hope is that we manage to ground ourselves in the evidence, and to build our posts around facts rather than unsubstantiated reckons.

Other people with different values or viewpoints may look at the same evidence and come to a different conclusion about what should be done. Hopefully the work done by Transportblog will make people more aware of the common evidence base underpinning the debate, and help identify some of the big issues facing Auckland and other cities in New Zealand.

Is this where the conversation ends? No – certainly not! With luck, it’s just the beginning. I’d like to see a broader and more diverse conversation about public policy in New Zealand – not just in transport and urban policy, but across the board. I’d like to see more people grappling with important issues in public, rather than just talking about the weather.

The thing is: It won’t happen by itself. Participating in a public conversation takes time and effort. You have to inform yourself of the issues, and learn to debate others in a respectful fashion. If you’re talking about an issue that you work on, it can leave you feeling exposed to professional risks.

So if we want a good, well-informed public conversation about policy, we need to make it easier, not harder, to speak in public. I’d encourage everyone to think carefully about how to foster the debate:

  • Employers should ask whether their media policies (both social and conventional) enable employees to make public contributions. It’s certainly vital to maintain client confidentiality and avoid prejudicing your work. However, I would argue that many employers are too conservative and hence unintentionally stifle the debate.
  • Universities and schools should encourage their staff to engage more with public policy issues. These organisations are (in principle at least) more removed from commercial and political imperatives. There are some great examples of publicly-engaged academics and teachers in NZ – Thomas Lumley (StatsChat), Michelle Dickinson (NanoGirl), and secondary school teacher and occasional NZ Herald columnist Peter Lyons come to mind – but they’re in the minority.
  • Everyday New Zealanders should think about speaking up on issues you care about – and, equally importantly, informing yourself about those issues. But if you disagree with someone else’s view, don’t take that as a license to smear them or tear them down personally. Ad hominem attacks destroy quality conversations. Instead, try to understand how their values may differ from yours, and, if you think they’re simply wrong on the facts, engage with the evidence and debate the issue honestly.

And finally, Transportblog is always open to considering guest posts, so contact us if you’ve got ideas you’d like to share.

Confessions of an Auckland voter: Why I voted for Chlöe

Introduction

Greetings from Amsterdam. A couple of issues relating to Auckland’s local government elections have exercised my mind of late, specifically:

  • Candidates for councillor in the Waitemata ward; and
  • Why I voted Chlöe Swarbrick for Mayor of Auckland.

Before I get started, I’d like to make a simple statement about democracy.

The refrain “democracy is not a spectator sport” rings true to me for several reasons. The first is that my grandmother used to regale me with stories about how her grandmother would walk to work past Parliament’s gates, where women protesting for the right to vote would be chained. Every election, my grandmother would then ask me questions about politics, and emphasize the importance of voting. Her favourite line was “I don’t care who you vote for, just so long as you vote.”

The second reason is that I think effective democracy is an important determinant of long-run socio-economic success. You only have to look at the sorts of situations currently playing out in the U.K., U.S., and elsewhere to get a feel for what happens when people don’t pay attention to democracy. In particular, when a large proportion of the electorate is uninformed and/or disengaged and/or disenfranchised, then democracy tends to come back and bite society on its ass.

Now, before I get into the details of who I voted for, I feel compelled to summarize my own values – just so y’all know where I’m coming from. I’m not expecting others to share these values, of course, but it may help you understand some of the driving forces behind my voting decisions. I also think this is useful because my values don’t fit neatly into a left-right spectrum, but are instead something of a hybrid:

  • I am socially liberal, insofar as I think people should be free to choose how to live their lives, unless there’s good reasons for society to intervene;
  • I am moderately fiscally conservative, because I am aware that debt needs to be re-paid by future generations; the same generations who are facing the twin challenges of an ageing population and climate change. For these reasons, want to ensure we only incur debt to invest in things that will benefit future generations; and
  • I have a strongly-honed sense of justice, and want to live in a society where vulnerable people are cared for. That includes future generations.

In terms of local government, my top two priorities – in order of importance – are 1) housing and 2) transport. With regards to the former, I would like to see fewer restrictions on density, so that Auckland can intensify. While I appreciate “quality urban development”, I’m not prepared to sacrifice housing affordability at the altar of aesthetic values. Let’s build a lot of houses and figure out how to do it better as we go. As for transport, I would like to see funding prioritized to projects that are 1) strategic, in the sense they support policy objectives like sustainability and equity and 2) efficient, in the sense their economic benefits exceed their economic costs.

Finally, I should say that this post is not intended to encourage you to vote for anyone in particular, but simply to explain the thought process I myself went through in determining who I would vote for. And to stimulate debate. Onwards.

Waitemata: Where men people vie for our affections

Three men people are standing for councillor in Waitemata: Mike Lee, Bill Ralston, and Rob Thomas. I voted for the latter, such that most of what follows should be read as an explanation of “why” Rob appealed compared to the others.

I evaluate Mike positions in some detail, largely because I have voted for him in previous elections. My democratic divorce from Mike has been rather slow, but was nonetheless difficult. Reason being that Mike has achieved a lot of great things, e.g. advocating for investment in rail and changes to PT contracting. Ultimately, however, I’ve become increasingly disatisfied with his positions on housing, which has in turn become a more important driver of my vote – as I now explain.

If you go to Mike’s website and click “What Mike stands for“, then you will find the following bullet points (source):

  • Make sure the people of the inner city suburbs and Hauraki Gulf islands have a strong voice at the top table
  • Protect our environment and enhance our quality of life
  • Invest in the public transport Auckland needs
  • Keep Supercity costs and rates under control
  • Protect our unique heritage and encourage quality urban development
  • Support Auckland’s thriving arts and entertainment scene

No mention is made of “housing”, which I thought was odd (NB: .“… encourage quality urban development” is too vague for my liking, as it puts “quality” ahead of “development” and is not specific about the need for housing in particular). I thought this was odd not just because I think housing is important, but also because other parts of Mike’s web-site mention the “housing crisis”. It seems odd Mike would speak of a housing crisis, yet not identify housing as a key issue under what he stands for.

Turning now to transport, one of Mike’s bullet points does mention “Invest in the public transport Auckland needs“. On the surface, this sounds promising. So I dug a bit further, and did a key word search of Mike’s website by transport mode. First I started with “rail”, which highlighted the following issues (n=47):

  • Rail to the airport, where Mike appears to support a heavy rail option; and
  • Parnell Station; which Mike wants accelerated.

I support long-term planning for public transport to the airport, even if I don’t feel too strongly about technologies. I also support a station at Parnell, provided it’s 1) in the right location, 2) supported by up-zoning of land use activities; and 3) does not negatively impact on rail operations. While I suspect the issue of Parnell Station is more complicated than Mike makes out, this is only a minor quibble – provided he acknowledges the technical complexities involved. Indeed, train stations, like people, “are complicated creatures full of quirks and secrets“. To borrow a line from the fantastic Mr Dahl.

A key word search for “buses” returned n=6 hits, all of which involved Mike saying buses were horrible compared to trains. This was disappointing given the current and future importance of buses to many people who live in Waitemata, including myself. I personally would like to see a number of small and large bus improvements being accelerated, such as the hours of operation for bus lanes on Mt Eden Road, and was disappointed Mike didn’t advocate for bus improvements more strongly.

A keyword search for “cycling” returned zero hits, while “walking” returned only two hits – both of which involved Mike referring to instances where he was walking, rather than the need for investment in pedestrian facilities per se. Again I was disappointed, because investment in walking and cycling is good in-of-itself, and complements public transport.

Basically, the over-arching impression is that Mike likes trains, and doesn’t have much time or passion for other transport modes. As someone who walks and cycles as a first preference, and who uses public transport in general before thinking about modes in particular, this doesn’t pass grade.

Turning now to Bill Ralston, I searched his website but couldn’t find much mention of housing. That essentially ruled him out of contention for my vote. In his transport policy, Bill argues we need to fix traffic congestion because it costs us $1.8 – 2.0 billion p.a. This figure is bogus: The costs are closer to $500 million p.a., as explained in this NZTA research report by Ian Wallis. To his credit – and in contrast to Mike – Bill does express support for buses and cycling (source):

More bus-ways – the Shore’s Northern Bus-way shows how well that can work, more bus-lanes, phased lights for buses, bike lanes and bike paths and while the CRL is not the silver bullet to solve the city’s transport issues – it will help. Get on with it.

All up I found Bill’s policies too light on detail. And, like Mike Lee, there were a few too many “grumpy man” statements. I don’t have a problem with grumpy old men per se, provided their gruffness is self-effacing and humorously applied. Like these guys.

Finally, we turn to the person who ultimately won my vote: Rob Thomas. Initially I didn’t expect to even consider Rob. I was, however, impressed by Rob’s statement in the candidate booklet, and even more impressed when I went to his website. There, he makes prominent mention of climate change upfront (source):

Climate Change is the biggest issue facing Auckland and our planet today. Temperature increases, sea level rise and the acidification of our oceans are just some of the issues that will impact Auckland over the next 50-100 years.

I agree. And while I’d like to see more central government leadership on the issue of climate change, I think it’s important that its strategic significance is also embodied in policies at the local government level.

In terms of housing, Rob was – from what I could tell – the only candidate to state explicitly on their website the need to “Build more homes in Auckland“. While light on details, the high-level sentiment is at least there – and that won him bonus points, especially when compared to the other candidates. On the transport side, Rob’s website mentioned the need for better public transport and cycling.

In a nutshell, I voted for Rob because his priorities aligned most closely with my own. If I hadn’t voted for Rob, then Mike would have been in second-place, and Bill in third.

Chlöe for Mayor

I voted for Chlöe for Mayor for two reasons. One is that she is passionate about democracy itself, which is extremely important to me. And I don’t mean “passion for democracy” in an airy-fairy, hand-wavy sense; I mean Chlöe seems keen to engage people with the nitty-gritty, gnarly issues that frequently arise in local government, and which ultimately have a significant influence on our quality of life, as discussed in this video.

The second reason I voted for Chlöe was because of her policies. The preamble to her housing policy, for example, reads as follows (source):

Auckland is in the midst of a housing crisis. The median property price is now ten times the median income. So too are rents rising, and our population of homeless and rough sleepers increasing. Reports of families sleeping in cars or garages are not uncommon, and have broken international news. Young families are unlikely to be able to realistically aspire to own a home in this market.

In this TVNZ interview, Chlöe makes it clear that she’s talking about bringing down property prices, which she considers to be a point of distinction from the other candidates, and something that is important to me. I’d like to see a 20-30% decline in property prices over the next 10 years, which basically means holding them constant in nominal terms and letting inflation eat away at the real value. Achieving such an outcome will require that we change expectations about future capital gains, which is where explicit statements – like Chlöe’s – about the need to reduce property values can be rather useful.

The preamble to Chlöe’s transport policy is similarly direct (source):

There is a lot of money ($1.4billion in 2015 alone) spent on transport in Auckland. But we’re not seeing that cost reflected in choice.

Choice is the freedom to choose how you, as the people of Auckland, navigate our city. Currently, many parts of our city are automobile-dependent, because the alternative options (public transport, cycling, or walking) are impracticable or inaccessible.

This lack of choice forces more people onto our roads at an exponential rate, as 800 new cars are registered for Auckland roads each week. More blind investment in roading projects at the expense of alternative transport results only in more cars to fill up those new, wider, shiny roads. This is why, in our 2013 Census, we saw that 74% of Auckland drove to work in their own private cars (70% driving by themselves).

To see our roads function properly, we need to invest in projects to get people – especially those people who don’t actually want to be there – off of those roads.

As your Mayor, I will advocate for a bold shift in focus: I will see that Auckland’s public transport system is a real, viable, and efficient option to get where you’re going. I will see Auckland thrive by becoming walkable, and cycleable.

Righto. If you read further down the page then you’ll find some explicit mention of the sorts of public transport (rail and bus) and walking/cycling improvements that Chlöe would like to prioritize. Generally mode-neutral, and focused on improving the effectiveness of our transport spend, rather than just increasing the spend itself. This subtle emphasis is important to me.

If you don’t know who Chlöe is and what she’s about in general, then I’d also suggest watching this video, which I think gives good insight into where she’s coming from and also some inner mettle.

Some of you may be wondering why I didn’t vote for Phil Goff. I must say that Phil ran a very close second. I thought Phil had excellent policies on housing affordability, for example, and his transport policies were also nicely balanced. Phil even mentions GPS-based road pricing, which many of you will know is close to my heart. If we had an STV voting system, then Phil Goff would have received my second ranking.

The main reason I didn’t vote for Phil Goff is simply because when I am relatively indifferent between two candidates, then I tend to vote for the candidate that brings more diversity to the table. In this case, Chlöe wins out. Notwithstanding my own vote for Chlöe, I wouldn’t be disappointed if Phil was to win.

Conclusions

There you have it. Even if you don’t agree, please just take the time to vote. And encourage your friends and family to do the same. I suspect low voter turn-out in local government elections is something that can only be addressed through a combination of electoral reform (online voting, ditching FPP for STV) and cultural change. Addressing the latter really begins by acknowledging that we have a problem, and starting a conversation about how it might be fixed.

Finally, some of you may be wondering what I do when I’m not pondering how to exercise my democratic right. The answer, my friends, is that I’m cycling around Amsterdam. Safely. And with an emergency potato in my pants. Tot ziens.

A wheely suitcase in Europe #7: Gijon to Santiago de Compostela.

We left Gijon and drove our rental westward on the A8 highway. Our destination? Santiago de Compostela. Our route? Illustrated below (source).

Trip 7

Asturias is a beautiful part of Spain that mixes coastline and mountains to create a potent visual cocktail. Numerous impressive viaducts on the A8 highway provides splendid views on all sides, while a couple of tunnels smooth out the topographical ebb and flow. It really was a lovely driving experience. Partly because there was lots of road and not much traffic. Plus some fairly spectacular wind turbines (source).

After an hour or so of highway driving, we exited the highway at Ribadeo. This seaside little town sits on the border between the regions of Asturias, from hither we came, and Galicia, to thither we head. Ribadeo is definitely worth a stop; the town itself is cute and it sits in among some of the beaches in Spain. Perhaps the most famous is le Catadrales (source).

There are two important things to know with le Catadrales. The first is that its popularity means that you have to book; the second is that it can only be accessed at low tide. So we instead opted for Playa de os Castros (source).

This lovely little sliver of the Galician coast almost had it all: Jagged cliffs encapsulated the crescent shaped bay. Fine white sand and smooth rocks greet your feet. Take to the waves for a swim in the beautiful clear water, or sit back and relax in any number of calm rock pools. On the day we were there the temperature nudged 30 degrees and clear blue skies, so the refreshing currents of the Atlantic provided welcome respite.

Beyond Ribadeo, the A8 turns inland and heads south towards Santiago de Compostela, which is the capital of the Spanish region of Galicia. This is the most remote, less-visited, and (in my experience) most unique regions of Spain. The city purports to be the final resting place of Saint James, and by extension it marks the end point of “St James way” (Camino de Santiago). This is one of the more famous pilgrim routes (source).

If you’re not the sort of person who is motivated to walk thousands of kilometres in the name of God, then don’t write Santiago de Compostela off too quickly. The city has a lovely feel. This is partly due to its pleasant architecture, which is a UNESCO world heritage site for fairly obvious reasons …  (source).

The first thing I noticed, is that while Santiago de Compostela is a major tourist destination, the people we encountered were not your “typical” flashy Euro tourist. Instead, they were more the type of people who enjoy ascetic pleasures, such as walking thousands of miles. And then having done so, sitting around and enjoying a good yarn over a hearty (but not too expensive) meal. My kind of people.

The second thing I noticed about Santiago de Compostela was the large number of young people. SdC is home to a major university, which was founded in 1495 and now has 30,000 students (source). During my travels, I’ve come to realise that universities, and the young people they attract, contribute quite a lot to a city’s atmosphere. And it’s not because I like young people. It’s more because the types of activities they pursue tend to have positive spillovers for me. Specifically, students tend to like eating and drinking, but don’t like spending too much money. This means that cities and towns that are home to major universities also tend to support good, affordable food.

Of course, university towns also tend to have a lot of “creative energy”. On our last night in Santiago de Compostela, for example, we stumbled across an all-girl band of 5 who were belting out glorious original rock songs in front of an aged religious building in the middle of a lightning storm, which lit up the sky behind them. There was a very decent crowd for a Thursday night all having a whale of a time.

The other reason we stayed in Santiago de Compostela is simply its proximity to the rest of Galicia. And our second to last day, we picked up a rental car (40 Euro for one day; delightful little Volvo V40) and drove 268 kms for approximately 5 hours. In which time we took in the following towns and sights.

Day trip

One of our destinations stood out. Let me introduce you to Castro de Barona. This is a little headland juts out in the Atlantic that just happens to be the site of well-preserved Celtic ruins dating to 100 BC. Now, as some you may know I love history. Indeed, before turning my hand to engineering and eventually economics, I studied history.

Of all the historical monuments and sites I have visited in my life, the ruins at Castro de Barona rank at the very top in terms of enjoyment. Few places give you such a palpable sense of history, especially from the perspective of every day people who are trying to build a better life for themselves. Let me try and paint you a picture, first visually … (source and source).

As we wandered through the ruins, sunlight streamed through the clouds, illuminating the ocean around us, beneath which verdant forests of sea weed waved green fingers. Waves crashed, gulls flew, and flowers bloomed. Being there, in this environment, it was not at all hard to imagine why, thousands of years ago, those people chose this location to build a town. All in all, Castro de Barona was perhaps the highlight of our trip so far. It is a truly magical place.

On our final night, we enjoyed a meal at one of Santiago de Compostela’s many restaurants, namely Cafe de Altamira. Let me mention two things about this restaurant. The first is that it showed up as “vegetarian” on Trip Advisor. Imagine our surprise when none (I mean zero) of the entrees or meals listed in the menu were vegetarian. Apparently, in Spain, “vegetarian” means “contains products derived from vegetables”. Being omnivorous, we were not bothered.

So I opted for the (locally sourced) octopus. Which brings to the second notable thing about this restaurant; The god dam octopus. This was possibly the most delicious meal I have ever tasted: Fresh lightly grilled octopus muddled together with potatoes, creamy paprika sauce, and fresh parsley. Simple, succulent, and oh so tasty. Expensive, as far as this part of Spain goes, but worth every over-valued Euro cent as far as I am concerned.

Conclusion? We spent three fabulous days in and around Santiago de Compostela, and did not even come close to running out of things to do and/or places to visit.

Recommendation? Travel to Galicia, stay in Santiago de Compostela, swim at the beach, visit Celtic ruins, and eat octopus.

Further research? Lisbon. Until next post, bon voyage.

 

A wheely suitcase in Europe #6: San Sebastian to Gijon

After four nights in San Sebastian, Basque we journeyed further west to Gijon, Asturias. Again we decided to use BlaBlaCar, mainly because the alternative rail and bus journeys were slower and more expensive respectively. The route we took is illustrated below, which as you can see we primarily hugged the coastline.

Trip 6

In contrast, travelling by train between San Sebastian and Gijon would have taken us on the route shown below. This would have taken longer, cost more, and dragged us inland away from the coast. Thumbs down to using the train in this part of Spain.

SS to gij by train

Our BlaBlaCar journey was again seamless and pleasant. We booked two seats in the back seat of a Saab 9-3, which provided a lovely ride. The drive itself was spectacular; imagine soaring verdant hills and mountains on one side, and beautiful rugged coastline on the other. Similar to that shown below (source).

Look familiar? Personally, I felt like the landscape in Cantabria and especially Asturias was extraordinarily similar to a combination of New Zealand’s West Coast and the Coromandel.

The region of Asturias is actually home to beaches of all shapes, sizes, and persuasions. Here’s a recent post on coastal Asturias written by someone (Liz) who previously lived in Spain, but who now lives in New Zealand. I think Liz provides a wonderful synopsis of the region’s coastal towns and beaches. One of the most interesting beaches Liz talks about (but we didn’t visit) is Playa de Gulpiyuri, which is a flooded sinkhole located 100m back from the coastline. Quite amazing.

That’s not all, however, because apart from beaches, Asturias also has mountains.

Not just green mountains either: Proper snowy mountains (source).

We stayed for two nights in Gijon, which I must say was a little underwhelming. In our wanderings we found little in the way of public art or civic investment. Perhaps more sadly the food was not great in comparison to other places we had eaten. On the first night we had the misfortune of stumbling into a funny yet terrible restaurant (here’s the TripAdvisor reviews if you’re interested). On the second night the food was better, but still not great.

Ultimately Gijon gave me the feeling of being struggle town; a place whose primary purpose (at least historically) had been to meet the needs of industry. That’s not to say Gijon doesn’t have potential; indeed the natural setting is beautiful, as illustrated below. There’s a little bit of Barcelona about the place, except without the young people to keep it vibrant.

And it’s real saving grace is that it’s located in one of the most beautiful regions I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. In general, I can highly recommend visiting Asturias, even if I’m lukewarm on Gijon itself. I’ve heard that Oviedo, which is a city just 30 minutes away, might be a better place to park yourself to explore the region, whether it be beaches or mountains that take your fancy.

I hope you enjoy; tune in soon for the Gijon to Santiago de Compostela leg.

A wheely suitcase in Europe #5: Zaragoza to San Sebastian (plus some musings on high speed rail and one-way streets)

On leg five of our journey we meandered from Zaragoza to San Sebastian (Donostia in the local lingo, which I respect even if I revert to San Sebastian for the remainder of this post). For this particular leg we took the bus (ww.alsa.es), mainly because it was about the same travel-time as the train (3.5 hours) and cost only half the price. Plus the bus left at a more convenient time for us than the train. The route we took is illustrated below.

Trip 5

The bus left at 8.30 and dropped us in San Sebastian 3.5 hours later, pretty much right on-time. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was free wifi on the bus, which appears to be a standard feature on Elsa long-distance bus services in Spain. Worth remembering, because free wifi is honestly a god-send for travelers who may not have a local mobile data connection. And it’s definitely an advantage over BlaBlaCar ride-share, which we used for our last leg (you can read about here).

The first half of the journey traversed relatively flat dry (albeit fertile) land in the Ebro river valley. In terms of history, I understand the Pamplona marks the northern-most point in the Moors occupation of Spain, which began with an invasion from North Africa circa 700AD. In the following map, you can see just how much of modern Spain was initially occupied, and also how long it took for Christian forces to re-conquer the territory (source). Even 600 years later, there was still a sizable area of Moor occupied territory.

From Pamplona to San Sebastian, the road took us into greener and more mountainous terrain. Indeed, it was these mountains that protected northern Spain from the invasion. They create a natural barrier and are partly the reason why the rail network in this part of Spain is relatively indirect / convoluted.

All this, however, is set to change over the coming years; the Basque region is in the process of developing their own high speed rail network linking Bilbao, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and San Sebastian, as illustrated below.

More details on the project, including origins and financing, are available here. There’s a couple of interesting aspects of this high-speed rail network that are worth dwelling on. The first is that it connects to a wider high-speed rail network in two places: Madrid to the south and Bordeaux to the north.

These two connections change the optimal route for trains travelling between France and destinations in Spain to the south. As you can see in the image below, the optimal route between Paris and Madrid is currently via Zaragoza to the east, whereas the new HSR network may make it more efficient to connect via Vitoria-Gaistez to the east. Incidentally, travelling by train from Paris to Madrid takes 12 hours in total, of which the section from Paris to Bordeaux only takes 3 hours while the section from Bordeaux to Madrid currently takes 9 hours. The ability for the Basque HSR network to reduce these travel-times is the main reason why it has attracted EU funding.

Paris to madrid

The second interesting thing about the Basque HSR network is that it looks like there’s a  couple of branches to San Sebastian and Irun. Now, as Jarrett Walker has written about here, branches dissipate frequency and complicate network design. My hunch is that these cities do not receive direct HSR service, but must instead use local services on their respective branches to connect to a HSR station somewhere further down the line, perhaps Vitoria-Gaistez.

Nonetheless, the development of this network is rather exciting, and it’d be interesting to see how it turns out, and the impact it has on regional connectivity, which incidentally is rather poor at the present time.

In terms of San Sebastian itself, well it’s simply stunning and perhaps the most beautiful city I’ve ever experienced. The reason I say this is because it is beautiful in both a natural and a built sense; the harbour, hills, beaches, and buildings all combine to create an extremely aesthetic experience. The image below gives you a sense for the wider area (source).

San Sebastian occupies an extremely strategic location right on the Spanish / French border. It was also a decent harbour and relatively defensible. Hence it was one of the first locations occupied by Napoleon’s armies, and it was subsequently razed to the ground while being “liberated” by the British and Spanish forces. So circa 1815 the entire town effectively needed to be re-built. The “old town” was rebuilt more or less on the old street grid, with a few changes here and there (slightly wider pedestrian streets etc).

 

Then, in 1863, the town won the right to demolish its fortifications and expand. Wiki puts it thusly:

In 1863, the defensive walls of the town were demolished (their remains are visible in the underground car-park at the Boulevard) and an expansion of the town began in an attempt to escape the military function it had held before.[14] Works were appointed to Jose Goicoa and Ramon Cortazar, who modeled the new city according to an orthogonal shape much in an neoclassical Parisian style, and the former designed elegant buildings, like the Miramar Palace, or the Concha Promenade.[11]:145–146 The city was chosen by the Spanish monarchy to spend the summer following the French example of the nearBiarritz. Subsequently the Spanish nobility and the diplomatic corps opened residences in the summer capital. As the “wave baths” at La Concha conflicted with shipbuilding activity, shipyards relocated to Pasaia, a near bay formerly part of San Sebastián.

Basically, the expansion of San Sebastian catalysed a re-focusing of the town onto recreational activities, with industrial activities relocated to surrounding environs and/or even, in the case of port operations, nearby towns. Moreover, the resulting street network and architectural style really is rather lovely. The connected nature of San Sebastian’s street network is evident in the following image, which is taken from Google Maps.

San Sebastian

One of the interesting things about San Sebastian is its wide deployment of one-way streets. Now I know many urban designers gag at the thought of one-way streets, and partly for good reason: In the Auckland context, Nelson and Hobson Streets are horrendous place-destroying one-way monsters. In San Sebastian, however, the outcome is usually (not always) rather different. More specifically, in San Sebastian the negative impacts of one-way streets is mitigated to a large degree by urban design treatments. This includes wide footpaths, many pedestrian only streets, and long / frequent pedestrian phases at signalised intersections.

This reminded me of a post I wrote a while back about how it may be possible to “upgrade” Nelson and Hobson Street while retaining the one-way function. In this post I describe how an urban boulevard design treatment on Nelson and Hobson could seek to split the through and local traffic functions, thereby creating low speed access lanes adjacent to buildings on either side of the street. The speed of vehicles travelling adjacent to the footpath would be considerably reduced. You might even implement two speed limits: 30km/hr on the access lanes and 50km/hr on the through lanes.

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, such a configuration would free up space for wider footpaths and all manner of other amenities.

I don’t know what the status of the planned two-waying of Nelson and Hobson Streets, but it may be worth considering an option that retains the one-way function of Nelson and Hobson, while transforming them nonetheless into much nicer places to be. If anyone out there is interested in seeing how one-way streets might work in a sensitive urban environment, then I’d recommend visiting San Sebastia.

At the present time I’m actually sitting further east in Gijon, Asturias, i.e. I’m one step behind in documenting our travels. So it’s probably an appropriate time to for me to finish this post, have a glass of rioja, and start thinking about the next post. Adios.

 

 

 

A wheely suitcase in Europe #4: Llanca to Zaragoza

Leg four of our journey took us from Llanca to Zaragoza, as illustrated below.

trip 4

Compared to previous journeys (here, here, and here) this one was relatively straightforward: We caught a train from Llanca to Girona, and from there caught our ride share direct to Zaragoza, as illustrated below. This was the first, but is not the last, ride share we will take on our holiday. I think it’s worth discussing how it works because, for most of us, the concept of ride share is probably somewhat novel. But it’s something you’ll want to get your head around, because I get the feeling that in 5-10 years this will be the new norm.

Before I do I just want to give a shout out to the (relatively senior) man working at the Llanca train station cafe. With good grace, and despite our poor Spanish language skills, we happily negotiated our way to the best coffee we’ve had in Spain thus far. And all this happened at 730am on a Sunday morning. And for 1.50 Euro per coffee. Splendid.

Perhaps the next thing to mention is the circumstances that caused us to turn to ride share in the first instance: We decided to change our original travel plans at short notice. Initially we had planned (and booked) to travel all the way from Llanca to San Sebastian, which would have taken circa 9-10 hours. Instead, we opted to split this journey in two to travel in a more relaxed fashion, and in doing so we would be able to visit the city of Zaragoza, which we’d heard was rather fabulous.

So at short notice (2 days prior) we had to work out how to get from Llanca to Zaragoza? My first instinct was to consider trains, so I looked at the Renfe website. While there was approximately one service every hour between Girona and Zaragoza (via Barcelona), all the services between 9am and 4pm were already fully booked. This meant that if we’d caught the train, then we would have had to travel relatively early, or arrive in Zaragoza after 7pm, neither of which was particularly attractive.

Next, I checked out the BlaBlaCar website. For those who haven’t heard me rave about Blablacar in the past, you can read more about it here. I know that some people who work in the transportation sector tend to pooh pooh ride-share initiatives. While this is somewhat understandable, insofar as there’s been a lot of promise and false starts, it’s also true that Blablacar has taken off in a way that no other platform has managed. The previous link put is thusly:

BlaBlaCar now has 20 million members in 19 countries. In 2013, they declared that had successfully coordinated 10 million rides (covering 3 billion kilometres), which is as many passengers as the Eurostar (of which I am a big fan and consumer)

BlaBlaCar works as follows: They have created a ride-sharing community designed to connect those who are driving cars with people who need a ride. BlaBlaCar really took off a few years back, when the Icelandic volcano Gods decided to disrupt millions of people’s flights across Europe for several weeks, and it now covers most countries in Europe.

One of the more interesting aspects of BlaBlaCar in terms of urban transportation is that it caters for both one-off and regular ride-sharing. If you search for rides between any reasonably proximate urban centres, for example Amsterdam and Rotterdam (as shown below), then you will find a number of rides being offered by people who make the journey regularly. In the following figure, you can see that “Jos K” shows up twice – he appears to travel this route every Wednesday and offers rides for 7 GBP.

Blabla

Thus BlaBlaCar is not only for tourists, but it also enables people to ride share in a way that could meaningfully impact on congestion. Unlike earlier ride-sharing platforms, BlaBlaCar, has for whatever reason, been able to achieve a critical mass of users that makes it useful for many journeys. One of the key advantages, from a travel perspective, is that BlaBlaCar is a very cheap way to travel. Indeed, I haven’t crunched the numbers but apart from flying it’s probably the cheapest per kilometre travelled.

Travelling from Girona to Zaragoza by train, for example, cost approximately 80 Euro per person for a 3.5 hour journey. And we would have had to travel either quite early in the morning or relatively late at night, because the trains in between those times were all full. In comparison, our BlaBlaCar journey cost only 30 Euro per person for the same travel time. So in this particular case, BlaBlaCar enabled us to travel at a convenient time and for a price more than 50% less than the train.

Pleasingly, uptake of BlaBlaCar has grown rapidly over the last few years, and it was recently able to raise hundreds of millions in venture capital to fund its ongoing development and expansion. Growth in the number of annual Blablacar rides to 2014 is summarised below.

So BlaBlaCar is cool, and it’s worth considering when making your way around Europe. If only beause it is a real useful travel option for those who are 1) price sensitive and/or 2) are looking to make a journey that is not well-catered for by more traditional transport modes. When combined with planes, trains, buses, and Uber, BlaBlaCar seems to represent the final piece of the transport jigsaw puzzle for those who don’t like all the hassle and cost associated with driving and parking?

How does the BlaBlaCar process work? Well, anyone can search for rides, so feel free to have a play. If you find a ride that you want to book, then just sign up with your personal profile (including identity verification and payment).

You can create ride alerts for journeys that you want to make well into the future. This means that if you are planning a trip in Europe, then you can actually create ride alerts well in advance, and be notified when they become available. It’s worth mentioning that most rides become available 2-3 days beforehand, so BlaBlacar may not be attractive for those people who like to plan in advance and/or are not flexible.

That’s enough about BlaBlaCar. The upshot is that it really helped us out of a bind, and saved us a lot of money in the process. If you’re planning a trip to Europe then I’d really recommend taking a look at the website and searching for some rides. It’s definitely the sort of thing that you feel more comfortable with once you have tried it. Of course the other thing you can do, if you do happen to be driving from place to place, is to offer your own rides to others.

But what about Zaragoza? Well, we stayed at Hotel Catalunya el Pilar, which made for an interesting change from the AirBnbs that we had booked until this point. The Hotel itself was a grand old building located right in the middle of town, and on the edge of a beautiful plaza replete with trees, fountains, and benches plus a giant cathedral of course.

Hotel el Pilar

Zaragoza itself is the capital of the Region of Aragon, and it has a history dating back to Roman times, when it was called Caesar Augustus. The Romans loved Zaragoza primarily due to its strategic location at the confluence of several important rivers, and it thrived in the period from 100 to 400 AD. During the 1980s and 90s, four previously lost Roman ruins were uncovered in the city centre, and can now be viewed for the cost of 7 Euro. I particularly appreciated the Roman latrines, which provided an open-plan pooping environment. I expect the passive surveillance resulted in less graffiti and mess compared to modern public bathrooms. Zaragoza’s come a long way in 2000 odd years.

Zaragoza’s long history means it is replete with a number of spectacular religious buildings. During the middle ages, Zaragoza was apparently “the” place to be. One of the more interesting churches is St Leo, which has changed hands between Muslim and Christian occupants over the years, as have a number of churches in Spain. Napoleon laid siege to Zaragoza at some point, and eventually won the day. In terms of more humble buildings, I particularly liked the art deco neighbourhoods located immediately to the south of the Old Town.

Ultimately, however, it is food – and in particular tapas – that nourish Zaragoza’s soul. The old town houses a tapas district known as “El Tubo”, which is one of the largest and buzziest restaurant districts I’ve encountered. While some of it is a tourist trap, there’s also a pleasing array of cheap-eats and dive-bars, especially in areas less well-frequented by tourists. We found it easy to dine out on fabulous food for less than 10 Euro ($15), including drinks.

And lots of street art. Love (source).

Aside from the dense city centre, there’s nothing particularly notable about Zaragoza from a transport and land use perspective. It has a single LRT line running on a north-south alignment across the river, with other public transport needs provided by buses. The long-distance rail and bus station is unfortunately a wee way out of town. To catch our early morning bus to San Sebastian we opted for the 10 minute taxi ride, which cost 8 Euro, rather than a 40 minute walk.

In a nutshell, if you’re ever travelling through northern Spain then I can highly recommend spending at least a couple of days in Zaragoza. While the summer weather is hot (approximately 35 degrees), it’s a dry heat. So if you plan your schedule to avoid the middle of the day, for example to write blog posts, then it’s perfectly pleasant. If you had more time then you could even use Zaragoza as something of a base to explore to the north and west, where you can find towns like Huesca, Logarno, Pamplona, and Valladolid.

Well I’m currently sitting on the bus from Zaragoza to San Sebastian, which is our next destination, and the view outside the window is getting increasingly interesting. So I think it’s time to close the laptop. Until next time, take care and have fun.

Rest assured that from afar I’m busy toasting to the passage of the (albeit imperfect) Unitary Plan, and Auckland’s future success. The next step? Central Government needs to get its act together and reduce incentives for property investment (NB: Please note that such moves are independent from people’s ethnicity. Anyone who comments on this post about ethnicity in relation to property investment in New Zealand will have their comments edited or deleted. I’m sick of dog-whistle racist shizz).