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


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.


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.


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).

A wheely suitcase in Europe #3: Cassis to Llanca

Our third major sojourn (if you’re only tuning into these rants now you may want to read day one and two first) took us from Cassis, France to Lllanca, Spain.

Llanca is a small village located on the Mediterranean Sea about one hour north-east from Girona, in a famous part of the country known as Costa Bravas. Our motivation for stopping in Llanca was functional rather than inspirational: Llanca provided a convenient and cute stop-over on our way to northern Spain (specifically Zaragoza and San Sebastian).

This journey was one of the longest that we attempted on our holiday, and involved four trip legs and associated transfers (mapped in the following figure):

  1. Cassis to Cassis Station – bus 0.80 Euro
  2. Cassis Station to Marseille Saint Charles – train 4.90 Euro
  3. Marseille Saint Charles to Girona (with transfer in Montpellier) – train 86 Euro
  4. Girona to Llanca – train 4.90 Euro

Trip 3

Aside from the first trip leg, for which we caught a bus, the remainder of the journey was all by train. We left Cassis circa 830am and arrived in Llanca circa 6pm, so spent 9. 5 hours travelling all up. This included about 1 hour each in Marseille, Montpellier, and Girona between train connections. While these breaks stretched out the total travel-time, they also provided a nice opportunity to stretch the legs, grab a coffee/food, and have a quick look around the respective towns (NB: If you’re ever passing through Marseille St Charles station, then I can highly recommend l’Ecomotive, which is a vegetarian cafe located right outside).

Montpellier train station is definitely a lovely place to connect; it has a nice internal configuration, free wifi, and is close to the city centre. And/or light rail stops outside if you want to travel further afield.

The train from Montpellier to Girona was rather spectacular. For a large part of the journey the train travels along the coast, with beautiful salt flats and estuarine environments on one side, and open beach on the other. I also enjoyed the regional train between Girona and Llanca, which passed through the countryside, replete with sunflower fields.

From an initial observation, I’d say that the quality of the rail infrastructure and rolling stock in Spain (or at least Catalunya) is better even than that found in France. One of the most notable features was the high-quality signage; every station we passed through had legible signs for everything from tickets, to information, and toilets.

I do, however, have two words of warning for would-be train travellers in Spain. First, high-speed intercity trains are often full over summer, so it’s worth booking your ticket in advance to secure a seat at your preferred time of travel. I’ll return to this point in subsequent posts, where a combination of a changes to travel plans and full trains required that we find alternative transport arrangements.

Second, I found the Renfe (Spanish national rail operator) website to be a terrible piece of crap. The worst thing, I think, is that it doesn’t mention regional train services. To provide an example, here’s what the Renfe website says about services operating from Girona to Llanca tomorrow. That’s right; the Renfe website says there’s only one service per day, which leaves at 9am in the morning. If you were planning to visit Llanca, and you saw a timetable like this, then you’d be likely to be rather discouraged.

Renfe 1

Somewhat inexplicably, the public transport journey planner for Catalunya shows services operated by Renfe, as well as regional services. This means that there is actually one service between Girona and Llanca every hour. So it seems that Catalunya’s public transport journey planners shows all rail services, whereas Renfe’s website does not. Please keep this in mind if you’re planning to travel by train in Spain; the Renfe website is full of shiitake.

Aside from these minor issues, travelling by train in Spain is in of itself rather wonderful, and something I’d highly recommend, not just for long distance travel; the regional trains are really nice too.

Now for the juicy stuff: What is Llanca like? Well, we stayed in Llanca old town, which is set slightly back from the coast and centred on an old Romanesque era cathedral. The old town was generally lovely, replete with the typical attributes of a lovely European village: Lovely buildings, narrow lanes, and pleasant public spaces. We loved old town Llanca.


However, with a 10 minute walk towards the coast one stumbles into newer development around the port of Llanca, most of which appears to date from circa 1950 onwards. This part of town is not so pleasant, and was extremely automobile dependent by European standards. To some degree Llanca has the hallmarks of a town that is trying to keep everyone happy, and ends up pleasing no-one. One of Llanca’s natural challenges is that it is located at a natural junction in the road network. Hence it experiences considerable volumes of through traffic trying to access destinations further to the north and south along the coastline.

On the other hand, some of Llanca’s problems appear to be entirely of their own making. In many parts of town, for example, the footpaths and/or crossings are in a very sad state of affairs and/or even non-existent. I found this somewhat surprising given the demographics of the resident population, which appeared to be rather senior, and the dependence of the economy on tourism. I saw many people struggling to cross broken concrete and high kerbs with walking frames and sticks. When walking to the town from the train station, for example, one must traverse the intersection shown below. Ugggggggly. And not fun for those who are not able bodied.

llanca 2

We spent two nights in Llanca to recuperate before the next leg in our journey. On the second day we caught a bus from Llanca to Porto de la Salva, which is an even smaller village located 10km south along the coast. The bus ride cost only 1.70 Euro and provided spectacular coastal views. I have to say that Porto de la Salva was an absolute treat, and exactly what one thinks of when you hear the words “Spanish fishing village”, as you can hopefully gain from the images below.

Arriving in Porto de la Selva, we feasted on “tapes”, cervesa, and fresh peaches (which is a staple when travelling through France and Spain in summer) before walking to the beach and taking a swim. There’s a beautiful walk around the coast to the south of the town that is only accessible by foot, and which provides access to several beautiful swimming coves. Ultimately, I’d highly recommend a visit to Llanca, and especially Porto de la Selva. Just be aware that it gets busier over summer, although the latter seemed to be fairly sleepy, even at peak times.

We only spent two nights in Llanca, before pushing onto our next destination: Zaragoza. This which is capital of the Aragon Province, and certainly upped the tempo from the previous two legs …

A wheely suitcase in Europe #2: Annecy to Cassis

Having enjoyed our four days in Annecy, it was time to heard further south and continue our search for sun. Next stop: Cassis.

The route we took from Annecy to Cassis is mapped below. It consists of three legs: 1) Annecy to Lyon Airport via rental car; 2) Lyon Airport to Marseille via TGV (high speed train); and 3) Marseille to Cassis via Uber (NB: Mapped using Rome2Rio, which is my favourite website after TransportBlog).

Leg 2

The drive from Annecy to Lyon Airport took just over an hour. I noticed a couple of interesting things about driving in France: 1) there’s a lot of toll roads, yet the payment technologies seem rather primitive and 2) speed limits on the highway vary up to 130km/hr, for no apparent reason (speed profiles I’m guessing, but they weren’t obvious to me). Nonetheless, the drive from Annecy to Lyon went without a hitch, and was rather pleasant. Nonetheless, after one hour of driving I was well and truly ready to abandon the car.

At Lyon Airport we returned the rental car and then went to catch our TGV train. As mentioned in my last post, the TGV station at Lyon Airport is spacious, gracious, and well-designed. While I appreciate that Auckland will never have stations on this scale, I did wonder what we might learn from TGV stations when designing the CRL stations. The value of strong design and natural light being the most obvious takeaway messages (albeit the latter is harder underground!). Here’s another image to titillate your transport taste buds.

Driving from Annecy to Cassis, then it would have taken us about 5 hours. In contrast, our journey took a total of 4 hours, and that’s including time spent returning the rental car, waiting for the train, and booking/catching the Uber.

In terms of cost, the TGV cost 130 Euro for the two of us. That may sound steep, except that had we driven then we would have had to pay 1) 30 Eur for another day of car hire; 2) 60 Eur to return the rental car to a different location (we picked it up at Lyon Airport); and 3) ~100 Eur in fuel and tolls. So ~190 Euro all up.

That’s before you include the cost of parking in Cassis. So all up, for this particular leg the TGV was faster, cheaper, and ultimately more productive, as it enabled me to write this post while travelling. I should briefly mention that Marseille St Charles station is also something of a treasure, although for entirely different (historical) reasons to the station at Lyon Airport. Here’s the view looking back to the station after exiting, which I think gives you a feel for the station as a whole. It’s a charming, grand old thing.

Once we got to Marseille the transport equation changed in two key ways. The first change was simply that we met up with our friend, so there were now three of us in total. The second change was that train services between Marseille and Cassis operate only every hour or so, and take approximately one hour in total, including a final bus connection to Cassis. So the train worked out at 20 Eur in total plus one hour travel time, versus 50 Eur for an Uber that took only 30 minutes. So we opted for the latter.

Putting transport to one side, let me now talk about our destination, Cassis. The town itself is shown below. In a nutshell: Cassis is a small town located in the south of France with a resident population of 8,000, although this swells markedly over the peak summer period when people like me, but probably wealthier, invade for a few months. Founded circa 600 BC, the village has long been known for its fish, stone, and wine. It’s rather picturesque.

As an aside, in that second image you can just see some vinyards located on the terraced slopes in the top left corner. I’d highly recommend the tour of the Closs Sainte Magdeleine vinyard, which you can walk to from the town. The tour takes only an hour, costs only 12 Euro, and includes wine tasting. You can book at the information centre, which is located on the wharf in the centre of town (I love information centres).

Cassis is certainly a tourist hotspot for reasons other than the town itself. One of the reasons is the stunning natural environs. To the east, steep cliffs tower over the sea (as per the previous image), while along the coast to the east is a national park and all its associated recreational activities, like walking and kayaking. Some of which bring you to places such as that shown below. We hired kayaks for half a day to explore the calanques, which was more than long enough in the sun for this Non-Indian pale male.

So what’s notable about Cassis in a land use and transport sense?

Well, the first thing you notice is that it’s relatively dense for a city of its size. The density reflects two attributes. First, all the buildings are between 3-4 stories high. Second, the roads are extremely narrow. In fact, most are so narrow they can only accommodate a small car in one direction of travel. The narrowness of the streets seems to have prevented Google’s StreetView car from covering the centre of Cassis to any large extent.

Here’s an image from one of the streets that they have managed to document (link).

Cassis streets

At night, many of the restaurants place tables out on the street, creating one of the most effective and enduring public-private partnerships known to human-kind. That is, streets are integrated into the town in a seamless and dynamic way. Yes, some streets accomodate cars at slow speeds and at some times. At other times the same streets become places for markets, pedestrians, and restaurant seating etc.

Street design in Cassis doesn’t feel like an optional extra, something that is tagged on after the fact. It feels like something that is intrinsic to making the town’s character. To provide you with a tangible example, here’s a photo of a small roundabout in Cassis. You will note that the centre of the roundabout is home to a fountain, trees, and a decent amount of seating.

Cassis roundabout

In Cassis, prime space such as the centre of the roundabout is not something to be squandered simply to accommodate vehicle traffic, but must instead be used to deliver a multi-functional urban environment in which vehicles are only one element. The attention to street design, even in a small coastal town such as Cassis, is mind-boggling. The other thing that I found funny, as someone who turns my hand to transport engineering from time-to-time, is the complete absence of AustRoads like design standards. Sightlines? Turning radii? Meh. Instead, vehicles are expected to drive slowly. And, for the most part, they do.

Aside from our Uber ride to get to Cassis in the first place, our four days were spent completely car-free. We walked, kayaked, and swum ourselves into a happy little stupor.

Now, however, it’s time for me to wander out into the mild evening air to enjoy some pizza, wine, and crepes. Tomorrow we leave Cassis, and the next stop is Llanca, Province of Girona. Until then, bon nuit.

A wheely suitcase in Europe #1: Amsterdam to Annecy

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.

Trip leg 1

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.

Photo of The Day: Signs of a Better Auckland on its Way

Cranes. Lots of cranes on the Auckland skyline at the moment. Many of them are building apartment projects, especially in the shot below.


I particularly like this view because it shows that an area that long been dominated by one type of dwelling; detached Victorian houses, is now getting this resource complemented by a good volume of a different kind of dwelling. This is especially important as these old buildings have recently become extremely expensive through both further investment [massive upgrades] and good old fashioned scarcity plus neighbourhood desirability. So more people and different kinds of households are now entering this lovely neighbourhood with its existing infrastructure and great proximity to the city.

While the prices of the apartments reflect these qualities of the location [naturally] and therefore are not as cheap as those out at the end of the motorways, they are still easily under half the price of the surrounding done-up detached houses, and even many that are entirely uninhabitable. And therefore will help to add to the range of price points in the local market as well as the total number of dwellings.

Additionally, and something that’s dear to my heart as an existing resident of the area, all these additional locals mean new and better local amenity; more cafes, restaurants, and employment opportunities as more businesses move in to serve them [all three of my children work locally]; essentially more choice and vibrancy, because there’s simply more people on the streets. And it means that our neighbourhood will earn the right to better social services too, like more frequent bus services, street and park upgrades, and more funding for cultural events. In particular the new intensity along Great North Road is making a strong case for this route to both to be upgraded to a real boulevard, and to one day perhaps providing sufficient demand for the transit route west here to be upgraded to Light Rail.

It is especially pleasing too that these new apartment buildings are clearly better designed and built than those of the last boom in the mid-2000s. And what are they displacing? Car yards. Low land value, slow turnover carparks; what could be better?

This is picture that makes me a very happy urbanist and an even more happy local.