Postcard from Bogota

Following a few days in Mexico City, I’ve had the pleasure of staying a week in Bogota, Colombia. Bogota is both the federal capital and the capital of Cundinamarca state, and while it probably doesn’t yet figure as a world capital of culture or clout, it certainly is a thriving mega city of regional importance.

Because of its position straddling the Andes, Colombia is a country with every climate conceivable, it has snow covered alps, temperate savannah, dense jungle, dry desert, not to mention both tropical Caribbean and temperate-maritime Pacific coasts.

The city itself sits on broad plain high up on the middle finger of the three-branched Andes mountains, in fact at 2,700m it’s high enough to cause altitude sickness in some people. The altitude gives the nominally tropical city a very mild temperate climate, with clear skies, low humidity and temperatures that sit around the high teens and low twenties every day of the year. You could call it the city of eternal Spring.
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Bogota is big. At around 11.5 million people it is as populous as greater London, or all of New Zealand two and a half times over.

Bogota is also dense. The majority of inhabitants live in apartment towers, mid rise block or terraced house style developments. The north of the city has a very European feel, with four to six story apartments of brick or concrete on a grid of fairly narrow tree lined streets. If it weren’t for the language you could be in the Netherlands or Germany.

Curiously, the city is three sided. The original colonial centre was established on one edge of the plain at the foot of a great mountain range. It has since sprawled across the plain to the north, south and west, but not to the east on account of the mountains. This allows for one unique benefit: you can ride a cable car a further 400m up the mountain of Monseraté near downtown and take in the whole sprawling metropolis in a single vista, including the bizzare experience of standing on terra firma and looking down at the tops of fifty story skyscrapers in the commercial district far below. If the thin air doesn’t take your breath away, the view certainly will!

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Accordingly Bogota has basically two types of land use structure. A long, thin, but dense band of apartment towers runs for 40km north-south along the eastern edge of the plain, taking advantage of the Andes foothills to provide spectacular view back across the city. These buildings are accessed by a circuitous web of winding narrow switchback roads not too dissimilar to western Wellington. For the most part the wealthy live here in gated apartment communities, however dotted amongst them are university campuses (Bogota has dozens of them for some reason) and patches of impoverished and dangerous barrios similar to the famous favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

The other structure is on the plain itself, an enormous flat and regular grid of broad multi-lane avenues, filled with three to thirty storey buildings. Think Los Angeles but consistently taller. This is perhaps Bogota’s downfall: it land use is what can only be described as dense sprawl, and it’s transport system is entirely road based. Not surprisingly the traffic is truly horrendous. I have to laugh whenever people complain about Auckland’s supposedly worlds-worst traffic. Puh-lease. If you want bad traffic, take a city the same area as Auckland, with an entirely road based transport network… then add another ten million inhabitants all trying to drive at the same time.

Naturally Bogota has spend decades trying to accommodate it’s traffic with more, bigger roads. The city is covered in a massive amount of six, eight, ten lane avenues. They appear to have tried a bit of everything, separated motorways, limited access avenues, boulevards, frontage roads, slip lanes, underpasses, overpasses, one way streets, the works. The system almost works too… when conditions are perfect. However that almost never happens. It only takes one small crash, a truck parked illegally to unload, a taxi doing a u-turn or one of a thousand other small disruptions to infarct the system. This is perhaps the folly of huge roads for huge capacity, on an eight lane road one disruption clogs up eight times the traffic.

Transport here has an interesting socio-cultural element. From what I understand Bogotano society has six distinct classes with a broad spread of inequality, from the destitute poor up to the untouchable elite with money and connections above the law. For the middle classes, there is a great preoccupation with not sliding down the ladder. Few in the middle classes would ever dream of catching public transport as that is the domain of the underclass. Maintaining a private car is a necessary symbol of status regardless of the cost or the traffic, and if one does not drive they rely on cheap and ubiquitous taxis or town car services. Either way, not escape from the traffic is possible and it’s one form of private car all the way.

The transit wonks among us must now be thinking, but what about the Transmillennio? For the less frothy-mouthed readers, the Transmillennio is a now-famous busway system with half a dozen lines running along Bogota’s main arterials forming quite a wide reaching and effective network. This system is A grade busway of world class design. It is based around a system of dedicated, physically separated median busway lanes, some of which are grade separate at key intersections. The are combined with train-style island platform stations accessed by elaborate overpasses and footbridges. The busways themselves are serviced by special red colour high capacity trunk-only metro buses, very long vehicles with two or three articulated sections, high floors that match up with platform level, and four or even five double doors per bus. At the end of each of the busways there are huge interchanges where green-coloured feeder buses of conventional design connect the surrounding suburbs to the trunk busways. In that regard it really is metro system writ with rubber.

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So what is it like to use? I wouldn’t know myself, as I was consistently dissuaded from trying it by friends and family whenever I mentioned it. The locals advised it was too crowded, too dangerous, too much of a risk for any decent person to use. I do wonder if this is simply a hangover of the same cultural understanding that buses were for the poor and to be avoided. Indeed when I asked few of my advisors had ever set foot on the system. My one young cousin who did actually use it to get to university each day only complained that it was too crowded, and the station too far away from his apartment.

What we do know is that the system is indeed hugely popular and overcrowded, a victim of it’s own success. Preoccupations of class and status aside, hundreds of thousands of people use the system every day. For all its efficiency at beating traffic and it mega capacity buses ability to move the masses, the simple fact is it barely touches the sides of the transport task in Bogota. Imagine London with no tube, not overground, no suburban trains, no national rail, no DLR, no tramlink. Imagine a London with six busways as the only rapid transit. That is Bogota. They have a long way to go to turn the traffic situation around. So yes it is a massive success, and very worthwhile, but for Bogota it is just the start of fixing things.

So if the Transmillennio is so effective (if not comprehensive), one has to ask why we don’t build them in Auckland. Indeed we hear this quite often from certain politicians, why are we talking about CRL tunnels and trains and light rail, when the bus can do the job for half the price? It’s a good question, and one that deserves an evaluation. Nonetheless, the answer is pretty simple: space.

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The Transmillennio takes up space, lots of space. More space than we have. The basic cross section of these busways is two bus lanes either side of a median. That’s basically the full width of most of our main roads to start with. However, once you get to a stop the situation blows out again. Each of the stations has a large platform, then stopping lanes either side, then passing lane beside those again. That means a cross section of four bus lanes and the station, about 25 metres wide. Now as most of Auckland’s arterial roads are one chain wide (about 21m), building a Transmillennio in Auckland would require buying and demolishing all the buildings down one side of the street just to fit in the bus corridor, let alone any other traffic lanes, footpaths or street trees. Indeed, the one place we are looking at a multilane street busway, the AMETI corridor in east Auckland, they are planning to do exactly that.

So while we can do busways alongside motorways like we do on the North Shore (and hopefully the northwest), we can’t fit them in the street for the most part. This is why AT is looking at light rail, because for the same capacity LRT needs only two lanes and compact platforms, where the bus systems need four to manage the greater number of vehicles.

Bogota managed this by building into their existing avenues, which had huge wide medians in addition to three or four lanes in each direction. The Transmillennio got away without any land or building purchases by virtue of having huge road reserves to start with. In fact they had such wide corridors that they actually widened the roadways at the same time, adding extra lanes for traffic to offset the squeals of indignation about spending proper money on public transport. So in one way Bogota was lucky to have a fair whack of empty space effectively lying around, or arguably they were wasting land to start with and found a better use for it.

My end evaluation? The Transmillennio was a good move for Bogota that fits the city well and takes advantage of spatial resources, however it’s only the start of much more for fixing their transport issues.

Postcard from Mexico City

I’ve had the pleasure of spending the last week in the bustling and incomparable city of Mexico D.F, and thought I’d share a few musings on urbanism and transport from the great metropole of Mesoamerica.

A little historical context to start. The origins of Mexico City stretch back through three great epochs to the time of nomadic hunter-gatherers. A couple of thousand years ago the site of modern day Mexico City was a vast basin of lakes, islands and swamps. Legend has it the first settlers migrating through the valley chanced upon an extraordonary sight, a sacred eagle perched on a cactus tree devouring an equally sacred snake. The nomads took this as an omen to settle and found a permanent village, a act commemorated to this day in the emblem and flag of Mexico.

Revelations aside, a more prosaic interpretation is that these villagers flourished as their chosen site afforded two valuable resources: plenty of fresh water, and abundant alluvial soils for agriculture. Indeed in short order an alliance of thriving agricultural villages developed across the basin and created the fundamental requirement for the emergence of advanced urban culture, a surplus of agricultural production. Anthropology tells us that having more food that you need does two great things for society, for a start not everyone has to labor all day just to survive. This allows for more complex social structures where thinkers, teachers, artists, clergy and indeed aristocrats can exist. Secondly, with the ability to store excess food comes the requirement to count, organise, manage and defend stockpiles. The early Mexicans working out how to dry their corn harvest effectively led to the development of advanced mathematics, political structures, taxation, law and an organised professional military. A millenium of agricultural surpluses turned wandering tribes into those great pyramid builders, the teotihuacans, who morphed over time into the Mexica, or Aztecs as we more commonly know them.

Getting back to the city, the precolumbian Mexica developed a very efficient system of urban planning. They laid their city out in a rectangular grid, with a regular system of orthogonal streets laid about an axis of two broad avenues intersecting in the centre of town. These streets and avenues served not only as the trunk and feeder of the transport network, but also the same for the drainage system. At the intersection of the main thoroughfares they located a market square around a great temple, the seat of both the religious hierarchy and the secular administration.

If any of this sounds familiar to you, it’s because it is indeed incredibly similar to the standard Roman urban plan, one which persists right across the Mediterranean basin and indeed the western world. It’s quite amazing to think that when the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Mexico City in the early 1500s they found an urban form uncannily similar to their cities and towns back home! Needless to say the invaders changed very little to the form of the city. In typical conquistador fashion they tore down the central temple complex and build a cathedral and town hall it its place (using masonry from the Mexica temple no less), and kept the plaza, avenues and streets as they were. As I walk down the street to the plaza to marvel at the grand religious buildings and browse through the market, it’s uncanny to realise that a thousand years ago an Aztec burgher would have done the exact same thing, in the exact same places, an age before New Spain was twinkle in a European monarch’s eye.

Mexico City 1

So, to the city today. It’s fair to say that Mexico City didn’t cope well with the transition to motorisation in the 20th century. The places is soaked with traffic day and night, and the basin form holds in a lot of pollution in a great inversion layer of smog. Anyone who claims Auckland has bad traffic needs to spend ten minutes trying to drive across central Mexico City! Having said that there isn’t a lot of private traffic in the central city, like most mature mega cities traffic is mostly taxis, trucks, service vehicles and the odd VIP. Even where private vehicles are used they are full of families or groups. Perhaps the single occupant commuter exists in the outer boroughs, but they are a scarce breed in town. No, instead the people are on foot, anywhere and everywhere, but usually crammed onto narrow lumpy sidewalks as vehicles fill most of the street.

Mexico City 6

 

I get the feeling that the city is just waking up to a pedestrian revolution. While I believe they have always had a couple of main pedestrian streets, there is evidence of a current and wide reaching programme to repurpose roadspace away from the vehicular minority and provide more room for the vast majority of pedestrians. You can see evidence of temporary “paint and planter” type interventions, and of more comprehensive rebuilds. It seems the model of choice is a flush paved surface from building to building, with a single one-way traffic lane in the centre controlled by bollards and footpath spaces twice as wide either side. While it takes a huge amount of bollards to stop a Chilango taxi driver from parking on the footpath, it’s a great improvement over the status quo of three one way lanes and metre wide sidewalks.

Mexico City 2

Cycling is noticeably absent for such a flat and gridded city, except for the ubiquitous old school cargo trikes, no doubt due to the traffic and the almost complete lack of infrastructure. Still I did see one new separated cycleway and a few hardy vanguards. I get the feeling personal cycling is about to take off in the Distrito Federale: their appears to be a small but flourishing indicator species of tricked out hipster fixies. Time will tell whether than blossoms into mass cycling, and whether the city copes.

Mexico City 3

Another clear observation Mexico City has a new and advanced bus rapid transit system, of the type becoming increasing common in Latin America. This is characterised by median running physically separated bus lanes in the middle of huge avenues, with enclosed stations with high level platforms, and special double-articulated jumbo buses running metro style trunk service. In Mexico they have put the doors on the ‘wrong’ side of the bus, allowing them to run on opposite sides to traffic and stop facing the island platforms. The MetroBus name is apt, it really is a metro line run with buses. Watching one of the stations for a few minutes show they must be hugely efficient, with long buses moving through every minute or two without delay. Alas I don’t think the model translates to Auckland at all as we just don’t have the room. In Mexico these busways sit in the middle of very long eight or ten lane avenues, with the bus lanes and stations taking up the equivalent of four or five lanes of width.

Mexico City 4

Speaking of Metro, Mexico D.F does have an extensive metro system. In fact it is huge and shifts almost three million trips per day, second only to New York in the Americas. The ticket price is absurdly low, a journey between any stations on the network costs five pesos, or about 40c. As such the metro is one of Mexico’s great equalisers, sharp suited business types sit shoulder to shoulder with school kids and beggars. They do have a smart card ticketing system but they appear to be chronically short on the cards, instead people buy long rolls of single use paper stubs to feed into the turnstiles. Curiously the system isn’t air conditioned despite the heat, and the connections between lines require horrendously long walks through narrow connecting passages. The transfers are so bad I wonder if it does actually function as a network, or if it’s more just a collection of separate lines. Another curiosity are the vehicles, the entire metro system run on rubber tyres for reasons that aren’t immediately apparent. Rather than steel wheels on steel rails, the trains have big rubber wheels like a truck that run along slightly concave broad metal tracks. This is supplemented by a second set of horizontal wheels that act against another set of perpendicular tracks to keep the drive wheels aligned around corners. This is all supplemented by a set of guide wheels and tracks that look like conventional rail tracks in between the tyre plates to steer the vehicle through curves. Furthermore they have two power rails to supply electricity to the motors… all up they have an eight-rail solution! I can’t see how that’s affordable to build or maintain and for the life of me can’t work out the benefit of it all.

Mexico City 5

So there we go, a quick view of urbanism and transport in Mexico City. If you’ve been there or know more about the city or history please share your thoughts in the comments! Hasta luego!

1 Million HOP Cards

Late last week Auckland Transport announced that they sold their millionth HOP card.

Thanks a million Auckland – the millionth AT HOP card has just been sold.

AT HOP is the smart card which can be used for bus, rail and ferry travel throughout Auckland. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=891uUQSa2gk

Group Manager AT HOP, Denise Verrall, says as of June 2016, surveys indicated that 42% of Auckland adults have a HOP card. “We’re very happy with the numbers using AT HOP, the same time last year 33% of Aucklanders surveyed said they had a card so that’s a great improvement.”

The AT HOP card was rolled out on trains in late 2012 and then extended to ferry and bus services.

Four out of five customers now choose to pay for their public transport trip with the card.  “The card gives a discount of at least 20% off single trip cash fares, excluding SkyBus and Waiheke ferry services. When you tag-on with your AT HOP card it is read in a 300th of a milli-second.

“Using public transport is now so much easier with the AT HOP card and Simpler Fares. Paying with an AT HOP card allows customers to pay just once for a single journey, that can involve up to five bus or train trips over four hours, with a maximum transfer time of 30 minutes between each trip.”

Denise Verrall says the uptake of the card has been very strong in Auckland. “In 2013, Oyster the London travel smartcard, was used in over 85% of trips vs cash tickets, after 10 years in the market. In comparison, HOP has now reached 85.5% after 4 years in the market, so we are very pleased with the uptake of HOP by Aucklanders.”

One million cards and achieving an 85% use is a good result – although the latter is a little bit false as it turns out that it excludes trips made using operator products (i.e. the special passes on the ferries). They say that now 42% of adults in Auckland have a HOP card, up from 33% a year ago.

With the Simplified fares now rolled out and the new bus network coming I suspect it will only further encourage people to use HOP and one day hopefully it’s use will supplant the separate systems used on some ferry routes.

 

A few days before this announcement, AT sent out an email to HOP users stating that prizes could be won just for using your card.

This September, the millionth AT HOP card will be sold in Auckland.

We think that’s worth celebrating with you, so every time you use your registered AT HOP card during September, you’ll go in the draw to win $100 HOP Money on your AT HOP card*. We’ll draw 2 winners every Friday in September 2016 … 10 prizes in all!

Thanks for getting on board with one of a million AT HOP cards. Thanks a million!

HOP 1 million cards

My first thought on reading this was one I’ve had many times before, why isn’t this a regular and ongoing feature of HOP. It seems like the kind of simple thing that they could do encourage both PT and HOP use and one that doesn’t cost all that much in the grand scheme of things. In a similar vein, I also think AT should be looking include elements of gamification to the HOP system to encourage use.

Other than changing fares, what would you do to encourage more people to use HOP?

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).

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.

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.