Why is ATs website so customer unfriendly?

Yesterday afternoon I noticed a tweet from reader Tina Plunkett asking where she could top-up her HOP card on Ponsonby Rd.

While this isn’t something I ever look up, I knew I’d seen it on the AT website before and as I had some spare time I thought I’d try and be helpful by looking it up for her. I was out at the time so this meant doing so on my phone but I assumed it would easy enough.

I knew I’d seen a list and even a map of retailers in the AT HOP section of the website which was located under Bus Train Ferry on the AT Website so I started by navigating there. But here’s where I came unstuck, I couldn’t get to the AT HOP section as on the mobile version of AT’s website, it doesn’t exist. Here are a couple of screen shots showing the AT HOP section nowhere to be found.

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So there’s an image I can click on to get a HOP card and there’s a whole heap of fine text that I assume is there for legal reasons but no links to the any details about HOP, like where they can be topped up. To do that you have to dig through the menu icon at the top right of the page (in the first image) but even then, it’s not intuitive or easy to find.

As a comparison, here is the desktop version showing the heading sitting just under the Real Time Board on the left hand menu. That isn’t to say the desktop version is great either, personally I find it a cluttered, junky mess and I get the impression that AT simply don’t care about the customer experience of those who may want to use it.

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I think the issue here is broader than something seemingly important missing from the mobile version of their website but goes to the wider issue of how AT interact with customers. I tend to know my way around the AT site fairly well as I’m often looking around it as part of posts I’m writing – and is why I knew I’d seen the HOP section and map. But even for me, I find the website a mess and often completely unfriendly to users. I can imagine someone who’s a bit PT curious and sick of sitting in traffic every day going to the AT site, taking one look at it and deciding it’s simply all too hard.

I’m sure many of you have seen better implementations of equivalent websites for other cities. If you have some outstanding examples of getting it right then let us know in the comments and I’ll look at another post so we can give AT some ideas for improvement.

While on the topic of HOP retailers, looking at them for this post also highlighted once again just how few places there are to top-up a card – something I don’t think about as I normally top-up online. As you can see from the map there are some huge areas where there are not many places to do this. Outside of the rail network, locations to top-up are sparse.

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And I won’t even go into the garbage fire that you’re presented with if you log in to your AT account.

Postcard from Japan: Kamakura Day Trip

I’m back from my holiday now which means I can focus on writing posts again, including sharing more my trip. In this post I’ll cover a day trip we took to Kamakura, a seaside city south of Tokyo that is known for a number of festivals as well as Buddhist shrines and temples. The city is surrounded on three sides by some steep hills which help to make you feel like you’re in a very different location, despite not being all that far from Tokyo. We actually traveled there a day before our trip to Hakone that I’ve already written about.

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Kamakura is about 50km south of Tokyo by rail making it very similar in distance as Britomart to Pukekohe – and one of the reasons I felt it was useful to discuss here. To get there we first made our way to Shinagawa, like we did for going to Hakone, and transferred to the Yokosuka Line which runs through Kamakura. There are only 10 stops on the 47km between Shinagawa and Kamakura and while not high speed, the trains would often reach 120km/h with that section of the journey taking around 54 minutes.

By comparison the approximately 49km between Pukekohe and Britomart has 15 stops and takes around 1:18 including a 6-8 minute transfer at Papakura. I suspect we could get travel times down to that kind of level if we can sort out the electrification issue (either by battery powered EMUs or extending the wires), completing the much needed third main to allow some faster limited stop services to run. This would also need to be after the CRL when there is some additional capacity on the rail network as all of the current capacity will be needed.

Like many of the lines around Tokyo, the trains running down the Yokosuka line have some serious capacity. They have the same length as about three of our 3-car trains combined but can hold many more people as nine of the eleven carriages use metro style bench seating – like the middle of our trains – while the other two carriages are first class but are also double deckers. I don’t know what the capacity is but I assume it would easily be in the 1500-2000 per train range and that capacity is clearly needed. Even on a mid-morning on a weekday heading away from Tokyo the train was decently busy. As a comparison, one of our 6-car trains has a stated capacity of 750 people. Moving to bench style seating is something we may need to consider to improve capacity and something I’ll look at in a later post – the good news is our trains are designed for it to be done easily.

Arriving at the station in Kamakura there was a nice bit of wayfinding in the form of some walking routes options. We decided to do The Great Buddha Course although we didn’t follow it exactly as suggested. We also did a bit of The Kamakura Quick Course, although we didn’t realise it at the time.

kamakura-day-trip-wayfinding

Setting off one of the first things I noticed was the infrastructure, the hills have had plenty of tunnels punched through them for local connectivity. Like many places in Japan though, the local roads where most people live are designed to a completely different scale. Footpaths might not exist but it’s not such an issue when cars are only travelling slow anyway. If a car came the other way – and they did – they definitely couldn’t pass at speed.

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As seen on the wayfinding, one of the highlights of the route we took was the Great Buddha at Kotoku-in Temple. It is made from bronze, is 13.5m tall, was built in 1252 and has survived undamaged both a Tsunami (which wiped out the buildings around it), and later an earthquake which damaged the base it sits on. For a nominal fee you could also go inside for a look which also shows how it was made 764 years ago.

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Moving down further to the Hase-dera Temple we got our first good view of the beach and back over a decent part of the city.

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Shortly after that we reached the end of the course. It was suggested that we catch a small, mostly single track railway back to the main station however we decided to walk instead and go via the beach. The beach was fairly deserted, being a Friday afternoon and not particularly warm. I imagine it’s quite popular in the heat of summer though. Along much of the beach there was a decently wide seaside walkway/cycleway but it is next to a coastal highway which felt like much more of a barrier than its size or traffic volumes at the time might suggest. I was also surprised to see very little in the way of making better use asset the town had.

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So with seemingly not a lot to do at the beach we made our way back to town, about 1km north.

We’ve talked recently about the proposed Victoria St Linear Park that Auckland Transport seem to be neutering, even though it’s not really a park and is in fact vital to the operation of the City Rail Link. In Kamakura it is much more of a linear park and is in fact part of a shrine to the north. The park/walkway is split in two equal halves and totals around 500m long. It is straight down the middle of the road and is also raised above it. Access to it is only at either end or in the middle.

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In spring with the cherry blossoms in bloom I imagine it would be very pretty but also very different to why we need more people space on Victoria St.

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By now it was mid-late afternoon and we hadn’t had lunch so we were getting hungry. We made our way to an area that had a bit of activity and it turned out to be where all the activity was. Running almost 600m north from the train station and bus terminal, Komachi St was lined with food and retail options and with a lot of people, it had a great atmosphere.

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After looking around for a bit it was time to head home. We made our way back down the street to the train station and not long later we were on our way back to Tokyo.

All up a good day and one that I feel can provide some lessons for us.

The Big Smoke

The Big Smoke – putting New Zealand’s cities centre-stage 

by Ben Schrader

I wrote The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 because I’d long felt that New Zealand history, as taught and written, did not resonate with me. The history I learnt at school and university had emphasised the ‘rural myth’. This asserted that Pākehā had come to New Zealand to settle land alienated from Māori. Settlers would buy a parcel of forest or grassland, and then clear, fence and farm it. Alternatively, they could reside in towns, and provide goods and services – grocery, blacksmithing, stock and station supplies – to those on encircling farms. Cities only functioned, in these accounts, as markets and ports. ‘Real’ New Zealanders, it seemed, lived on the land.

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The inferior position of cities was emphasised in New Zealand’s cultural production. I grew up reading Barry Crump’s ‘Good Keen Men’ books and thinking his ‘Man Alone’ protagonists were archetypal Kiwi blokes.  At secondary school I joined the tramping club and during the holidays headed into the bush with others. I looked forward to the physical challenges these trips provided, but for me the attraction of tramping was less the scenery and more the sociability: there is nothing like putting the world to rights around a campfire.  The prospect of going into the bush by myself held no appeal. I could never be a Good Keen Man. This was confirmed to me at the end of every tramp by the elation I felt on returning to Wellington and the trappings of civilisation, not least a hot shower.

On examining my family history I realised I was not the first Schrader to have an urban sensibility. My great, great grandfather, James, was born in 1834 in London. In 1862 he sought a new life in New Zealand. He landed in Dunedin and soon found work as a post office clerk. Ever since then the Schraders down my line of the family have lived in large towns or cities and pursued urban occupations: as clerks, tailors, grocers, restaurateurs and writers. Their homes have not looked out upon pasture or bush but the street and their neighbour’s fences. All have lived with the sights, sounds and smells of the people about them.

Whereas many historians have situated Pākehā identities in the land, I have always had a much stronger affinity with cities. I can appreciate the beauty of the snow-clad Southern Alps glistening in the sun, but the vistas that enthral me are city ones: the gradual revealing of Wellington as the motorway leaves the Ngāūranga Gorge; Auckland’s towering skyline from Waitematā Harbour’s undulating surface, or the ornate Victorian buildings lining Dunedin’s Princes Street. In other words, my social identity is grounded more in the streets and lanes of the cities where my forebears and I have lived than in the forests and farms that surround them.

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Of course I knew my family were not the only ones to prefer city life; the rapid growth of Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin underlines this. But the rise of these cities and those who built them has been underplayed in New Zealand history writing. This is surprising, considering that since the 1910s most New Zealanders have been urban dwellers – 86 per cent in 2014. Yet we know surprisingly little about these people and the spaces in which they lived. New Zealand generally lacks the substantial studies of urban life that are standard in national histories overseas.

So why hasn’t urban history captured the imagination of New Zealand historians? I proffer three suggestions. The first is that many adopted the anti-city bias of mid-twentieth-century nationalist literary culture. Writers like Rex (A.R.D.) Fairburn endlessly celebrated the naturalness of country life over the artificiality of city life – even though he lived in Devonport. The two most influential histories of Pākehā society, Jock Phillips’s A Man’s Country? (1987) and Miles Fairburn’s The Ideal Society and its Enemies (1989), are both rural-centric. The bias has carried to the present, most notably in environmental history. Overseas the sub-field has a strong urban strain, but in a new edition of Making a New Land: Environmental Histories of New Zealand (2013), just two of the eighteen essays consider city environments.

A second possibility is that many historians avoid spatial analysis. It is not surprising that disciplines with a spatial bent, such as urban design and geography, have long been at the forefront of city research. Since the 1950s, scholars like Kenneth Cumberland, Eric Pawson, and Garth Falconer have employed spatial analysis to chart New Zealand’s urban development. Conversely, historians have generally seen cities as places where events happen, rarely considering how space – buildings, streets, landscapes – frame and shape these events.

The third reason is that in a small history community like New Zealand’s, there is less room for the diversity of sub-fields that characterise the profession overseas. The research interests of most historians have simply lain elsewhere.

If urban history has been in the wings of scholarship, The Big Smoke is an attempt to bring them centre-stage.  It examines what cities looked like and how they changed. It considers why women especially lived in cities and how Māori experienced and shaped them. It explores the ways the street was a living room and stage for city life. And it explains why New Zealand so quickly became a nation of townspeople.street-people-2

I hope the book will appeal particularly to those who, like me, do not identify with the ‘Good Keen Man’ stereotype. Certainly, there is growing evidence that New Zealand’s rural iconography no longer resonates with how most New Zealanders see themselves. Symptomatic of this shift was the ending of the long-running Speight’s ‘Southern Man’ advertising campaign in 2012. A Speight’s executive explained that New Zealand’s urbanisation meant the relevance of the great outdoors had changed. Future campaigns would be city-based, he said.

The same goes for our history writing. In a modern age of mega-cities we can no longer think of ourselves only as people of the land. If we are better to understand what is happening in our society in the present, more historians need to enter the city streets, lanes and cul-de-sacs of its past.

The Big Smoke: New Zealand Cities, 1840-1920 by Ben Schrader is published by Bridget Williams Books and out now (www.bwb.co.nz/books/big-smoke).

Postcard from Japan: Hakone Day Trip

My wife and I are currently taking a couple of weeks holiday in Japan. I’ll post more about some of the urban aspects later but I thought I’d start with a day trip we took to Hakone that ended up in us using eight different forms of transport.

We were staying in Tokyo in Harajuku so the first step was to get to Shinagawa. Staying only a couple of minutes walk from the local station and then super frequent services every couple of minutes on the busy Yamanote Line – which stops at Shinagawa – this step was easy.

According to the fountain of knowledge that is Wikipedia:

  • The Yamanote Line is a circle line around central Tokyo linking many of key destinations, playing a similar role to the Inner Link in Auckland but on a much larger and busier scale. According to that fount of knowledge that is Wikipedia, it is one of the busiest lines in the world with an estimated 3.6 million trips every day. That’s more people than the entire London Underground carries (3.4 million a day). Tokyo’s fairly extensive subway network is mostly located within the ring of the Yamanote Line
  • Harajuku station is a fairly simple affair with just a fairly narrow island platform. Even so it is estimated that over 70,000 people use it daily, that’s more than our entire rail network on a busy weekday.

After a brief 16 minute journey, we were at Shinagawa and from here we could transfer to a high speed Shinkansen to allow us to cover the 70km distance to Odawara in just 27 minutes, reaching top speeds in places of around 270km/h.

  • The Tokaido Shinkansen line – between Tokyo and Shin-Osaka – is the busiest (and most profitable) high-speed line in the world. Every day more than 430,000 trips are taken on it. There are multiple service patterns that run and has have trains in each direction every few minutes
  • Shinkansen on some lines can reach over 300km/h and the Chuo Skinkansen (maglev) under construction is expected to run at over 500km/h

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At Odawara we purchased a pass allowing us to use all other different transport modes listed below. We transferred to small local railway to start our journey up into the hills to the town of Hakone-Yumoto. This train is effectively run as a shuttle service following a river valley up to the hills and taking only 15 minutes with a couple of stops along the way. From about 26m above sea level at Odwara, Hakone-Yumoto sits at 108m. It was a midday on a Saturday and the service was fairly busy, like a morning peak in Auckland.

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Upon reaching Hakone-Yumoto it was a short hop along the platform to change to the Hokone-Tozan Mountain Railway. The three car trains that are used are able to climb up the steep sides of the mountains at grades of up to 8% (rising 1m for every 12m travelled) but it definitely doesn’t do so very fast with speeds of only around 15km/h. It takes about 40 minutes to cover 8.9km and along the way there are a handful of stops at mountain villages. There were a couple of switchbacks along the way to help it get up the mountain and which also served to allow trains to pass trains heading in the opposite direction. Winding through the steep bush clad hills the railway was apparently designed to be as hidden as possible.

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The train was full of passengers for the ride up to 553m above sea level at the town of Gora.

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At Gora it was a transfer to a furnicular for a trip up the side of the steep mountain. This is about 1.2km over which it rises 214m to Sōunzan. The transfer from the mountain train to the furnicular is easy and part of the same building.

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At the top of the furnicular it was then a transfer to a gondola to reach even higher up the mountain to the tourist area of Ōwakudani.

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Ōwakudani is a geothermal hotspot and is famous for the cooking eggs in the sulphuric hot springs which turns the shells black.

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Not a scene from Lord of the Rings but works to stabilise the side of the mountain

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The shell might be black but they still taste like normal eggs

From the side of the mountain it is also a great spot on a good day to get views of Mt Fuji. It just so happened we had a great day for it.

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After bite to eat it was time to continue and a second gondola takes riders down to Tōgendai on the edge of Lake Ashi. From there we transferred to one of three pirate ship themed ferries that run along the lake. I have no idea why they are themed as pirate ships but they are. We also had some fortuitous timing, the ferries only run every 40 minutes and we arrived with about a minute to spare, a perfect un-timed transfer.

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At the other end of the lake was Moto-Hakone where we took a quick break before boarding the last new mode of the day, a bus. It also happened to be the least enjoyable because it was a small bus, smaller than the stupid small ADL buses NZ Bus use, and was also completely packed with people. They seemed to have a moto that you can always fit one more person on – although even that had its limits. This wasn’t helped by the buses only running ever half an hour and meant that some people got left behind. To go with the cramped conditions, the route was through some mountainous terrain with steep hills and frequent sharp bends.

After getting very personable with others on the bus for about 45 minutes – especially when someone sitting at the back wanted to get off – we arrived back in Hakone Yumoto. From there it was simply a reverse of the first three legs to get back home.

Here is a quick map of the journey

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Back at Odawara we had a little wait for our Shinkansen back to Tokyo. The stations are each designed with at least four tracks so that stopping services don’t hold up ones that aren’t stopping. While waiting a number of services in each direction flew past at speed

Scenery wise, it is very reminiscent of various places around the centre of the North Island, which is why I guess Hakone has a sister city relationship with Taupo.

It was mostly just a day of travelling but it was enjoyable and despite not really being planned and using lots of different services, the transfers seemed to work fairly well. I know a few readers have done this trip too, if you have, what did you think of it.

Why we blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Having an informed public conversation about policy means that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

image

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.

image

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.