October 2010

29 October 2010
Just do it!
Brian Micklethwait

imageI photoed that earlier in the week, yards from my home.

Are any laws being broken?  I’d like to think: not.

After all, there seem to be thingies sticking out from the back axle, to enable such passenger transport.  Presumably the Law would have been all over that, if the Law says no to this kind of thing.

I give it three years.  If only to stop private enterprise competing with Boris bikes.
 
 

Aerial electricity
Brian Micklethwait

Internet connections when on the move are nice, but increasingly, as Michael J told me would happen several years ago, people now have their own.  What they don’t have is their own everlasting mobile power supply.  Or not yet.  So, the fact that these are now appearing in more and more British train carriages is very welcome.  Few use them.  I seldom use them myself.  But I like it that they’re there.

That’s not so difficult to arrange.  But in the air, where every ounce counts, supplying electricity is, as James Fallows reported some days ago, a lot harder.

Question: will ever cheaper and more fequently used international travel, combined with arrangements like this, eventually create demand for a global standard in electric plugs?  Or are we stuck with state-imposed confusion for ever?

Remember when it was said that only Government could sort out the mess of conflicting computer and computer plug and computer storage (etc. etc.) standards.  Imagine the permanent bedlam that actually existing governments might have imposed upon all that, also.

RELATED: Tube Wi-Fi trial at Charring Cross.  The point being, presumably, that our regular internet connections don’t work down there.

Glasgow is there already.

Boris bikes
Brian Micklethwait

Boris bikes (named thus after Mayor of London Boris Johnson) have gone from non-existent to ubiquitous, seemingly in no time.

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There is a clump of them (with a regular bike in the foreground) which I encountered in Lower Marsh, just beyond Waterloo Station.

Another example of vehicles as adverts.

So, okay, Boris bikes are transport, but how are they themselves transported?  After all, you can’t rely on the punters exactly balancing everything out, can you?  Excesses will accumulate here, dearths there.  How is that corrected?

Moments after taking the above snap, I found out:

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Cue comment from our very own Lord of the Carbon Footprint, Michael J, about all the other such schemes there are in the world.  Like in Melbourne.

28 October 2010
The tuk-tuk
Michael Jennings

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Bangkok, Thailand. October 2010

Is it a car? Is it a motorbike? Is it a truck? Is it a bus? Is it a rickshaw? Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it Superman?

Of course, the only real answer is that it is a tuk-tuk, a class of vehicle that is highly useful in many parts of Asia and Africa, but which is largely unknown in the rich countries of Europe and North America. It is interesting how cultural factors differ from country to country even in Asia and Africa, though. Tuk-tuks are ubiquitous in Thailand and Laos (although the design seems to vary depending on where in the country you are, so I am intrigued to know just how home-made these things are) but much less common in Vietnam or Indonesia.

Or are the differences regulatory rather than cultural? I need to do more research. 

So what’s in those big yellow boxes?
Brian Micklethwait

One of my favourite means of transporting myself is to go for walks, in London, and in particular beside the River Thames in London.  It is surely a significant transport issue that walking alongside the Thames in London has got steadily easier as the decades have passed, as more bits of riverside path have been added to what was already there.  I would love to learn more about who exactly set this process in motion and how it has been kept going.  Clearly, nobody is allowed to build anything next to the river now without a piece of riverside walk being included, even if it will only join up with the rest of the riverside walk years later.  Is there an office where all this is “coordinated”?

As I walk along next to the river, I see things, especially things in (or should that be “on") the river (and a lot of things go by river these days), that puzzle me.  Like this:

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I’m talking, in particular, about these:

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You see these all the time, being dragged up and down the river.  But what’s in them?

With the magic of computerised photos, I can take a close look at what looks like it could be a clue:

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WRWA?  Indeed.  WRWA.  Western Riverside Waste Authority.  Inside all those yellow boxes is: shit, basically.

Cory Environmental Ltd, the Authority’s Waste Management Services Contractor, operate two waste transfer stations situated on the River Thames in South London; one in Wandsworth and the other in Battersea.

So now I know.

When virtual meeting is not enough
Brian Micklethwait

Will the Transport Blog revival continue?  To try to increase the chances of that being so, the four of us met up last night, at the Pizza Express that is near Waterloo Station:

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Left to right, Brian (i.e. me), Patrick, Rob, Michael.  I (i.e. Brian) was holding the camera in my stretched out right hand and concentrating not on how I looked but on getting us all into the picture, hence me looking weird.  But the rest of them look like a sixties record cover, don’t they?

Once again, I think I see a big transport principle at work here.  People who do things together, however virtually and twenty-first-centurily and web-basedly blah blah blah, need to meet from time to time.  People will always want to meet.  To meet, you have to travel.  To travel, you need transport.

27 October 2010
Security, iPads and biodiversity
Rob Fisher

First liquids are to be allowed on planes, and now the chairman of British airways is complaining about security theatre. Taking off shoes and taking laptops out of bags is a waste of time, he thinks. The “aviation industry” agrees with him. Air travellers have had enough and the tide is turning. This is good news. And this is very funny, and typical of authorities unable to keep up with technology:

...confusion over whether the iPad is a laptop or not, thereby requiring further examination, was one example of inconsistencies.

Meanwhile, Airbus are getting in on the biodiversity bandwagon. Why?

Roller bus!
Brian Micklethwait

Without doubt the strangest transport related picture I’ve taken in London in recent months was this:

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That’s a rather ancient Rolls Royce, not a bus!

Later, I took a closer look at what it says on the door there:

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And all was revealed.  Here‘s the website.  Recommended to all who like ladies in stockings and suspenders.

Is there a serious point to this?  Any serious point?  Well, perhaps that “transport” doesn’t just mean enterprises that are devoted wholly to transport, but also enterprises whose main focus is something completely other than transport, but who nevertheless get involved in transport, as part of the process of creating a satisfactory package-product for their customers.

Or maybe: that vehicles are increasingly being used to advertise such mostly-not-transport enterprises.  There’s nothing like a seriously weird vehicle meandering around its native city, with a big sign on it that makes little immediate sense but which sticks in the mind (while also making sure to include mention of a www dot something), to get people talking, and googling, and even blogging.

In this connection, I don’t think that me being able to photo this weird contraption is incidental either.  Cameras are not just things to snap pretty and artistic scenes with.  They are machines for taking notes, quickly, in a way that wouldn’t work nearly so well with pens and notebooks.  Moving vehicles, by their nature, are come and gone quickly.  Typically there isn’t time to read what they say on them, let alone identify the salient bits and write them down.  But there is time to photo them, and read about it all later.  It’s not just the internet.  The internet combined with cheap cameras, especially cameras in phones of course, have also helped to change how advertising works, and in particular how adverts work which are on the sides of lorries or vans or cars.

26 October 2010
EU to lift flight ban on carry-on liquids
Brian Micklethwait

Looks that way.  About effing time.  Via Johnathan Pearce at Samizdata.

How to spook a Vietnamese taxi driver
Michael Jennings

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This is actually in Saigon

I was in Hanoi a couple of weeks ago. The Socialist Republic of Vietnam has been getting richer very rapidly ever since it de facto abandoned socialism, but is not yet rich enough to have metro systems in its cities, and private car ownership is still relatively rare. There are a few buses, but for a person unfamiliar with the local geography and the local language, riding a bus can be problematic as it is easy to catch a bus that will make an unexpected turn and take you to an unexpected place.

However, motorcycle ownership is ubiquitous. (Seriously, apart from the mobile phone, is there any invention that is more empowering for people in poor countries than the motorcycle?) People who in some countries would look to buy a stylish car here look to buy a stylish motorcycle or scooter - Vietnam is Italian brand Vespa’s largest market by far. This leads to one way of getting around. If you are a foreigner, men sitting by the side of the road next to a motorcycle will often look at you and either utter the word “motorbike” or make a gesture imitating the turning of handlebars. If you say yes, you explain to them where you want to go, agree on a price, you get on the back of the motorcycle and they ride you across town. This, of course, involves a certain amount of haggling over the price, is only good for one person at a time, and is not ideal if you have a lot of luggage or the weather is bad, Plus there is an element of danger. This is not perhaps as bad as you might think, as traffic speeds are relatively low, and there are relatively few larger vehicles on the roads. Colliding with another motorcycle at low speed is unlikely to lead to serious injury, whereas colliding with a bus at higher speed is more dangerous.

Motorcycle taxis are useful, but they have the various hassles just mentioned. Fortunately, the bulk of the larger vehicles on the road are taxis.

As a rule, I do not like using taxis. Having got in a car, you are then totally at the mercy of the driver. There are many, many, many scams by which taxi drivers will attempt to overcharge you, particularly if you are a foreigner, look tired, are hailing a taxi at an airport or other tourist destination, and are not familiar with the city. These can vary from the simple “We will go via the scenic route” trick to the at times enjoyably creative and baroque. Sometimes drivers will be insistent on taking you to where they want to go rather than where you want to go, possibly because the owner of the hotel or shop at that destination will pay them commission, and sometimes simply because they are going that way. Sometimes they will commit outright fraud against you - watch out for being given forged money as change if you are ever in Buenos Aires (and indeed watch for every other form of taxi driver bad behaviour if you are ever in Buenos Aires). The trick of the rigged meter which has a special setting for unwary foreigners is annoyingly common, too.

There are some places where taxis are more honest, and some where they are not. For instance, I have never encountered a dishonest taxi driver in China, but I don’t think I have encountered an honest one in Bulgaria. (My sample size is limited, as after a couple of dishonest ones, I decided to never get into a taxi in that country ever again). The trouble is that you can never really know which category the country you have arrived in fits into until you have some experience, which is why dishonest taxi drivers are attracted to airports, where they find customers who lack experience, and as a bonus are usually very tired and unfamiliar with the alternatives to taking taxis. There is probably a (weak) correlation with wealth, and there is certainly a correlation with the rule of law, but it is still not always easy to pick. (On the other hand, in Singapore, there is a sign in large letters in multiple languages inside every taxi giving the number of the taxi and a phone number to call if you have any complaint at all about the taxi driver. I do not know what the punishment is for being a dishonest taxi driver in Singapore, but I suspect it features loss of licence and a fine of many thousands of dollars and that it is strictly enforced. Singapore taxi drivers take you where you are going, by the most direct route, and charge what is on the meter. And I could have picked that).

Once a country is rich enough and/or the rule of law is strong enough, the problem of dishonesty does not entirely go away, but it is replaced by something else - the problem of regulatory capture. Governments feel the need to set fares, so that customers can be sure of what they will pay. (There is still lots of scope for refusing to turn the meter on, taking the passenger the long way, etc, just the same). Governments feel the need to restrict the number of licensed taxis, so that drivers are guaranteed a decent income, or something. In places such as Sydney and New York, this has simply led to taxi licences being sold from party to party for hundreds of thousands of dollars each, taxi owners demanding large returns on their immensely valuable licences and so lobbying governments (successfully) to set high fares and to further restrict the supply of licences, and drivers still making a pittance after paying most of their fares as rent to the taxi owners. Thus you end up with a situation where fares are high, supply is low, and taxi drivers are paid poorly. In London, we have restrictive licensing, in which what is actually a relatively low skilled job is turned into a high skilled one by requiring taxi drivers to train for several years (gaining “The Knowledge") before being permitted to drive a taxi. Supply is restricted by an artificial shortage of drivers, and high fares are justified. The drivers are well paid, but customers are again poorly served. In both London and New York, alternative classes of taxi have come into being outside the regulatory system, and these basically come down to the system you find in third world countries before taxis have been given meters. You approach the owner of the taxi (in London, the office of a minicab company), agree on a price in advance, and you are taken there. Of course, Transport for London recently noticed that minicabs were not regulated enough, and started imposing all kinds of onerous licensing requirements on them, too (accompanied by a publicity campaign aimed at scaring the public away from using any vehicle without a licence), so the cycle is unending.

Which gets me back to Vietnam. In Hanoi, there are very few actual regulations on the operation of taxis. There is no limit on the number of taxis. I do not know if the government requires taxis to have meters, but they all have them. There is a sign on the top of most taxis including the world “meter” in large letters, as it is understood that customers want meters. The flagfall and cost per kilometre of riding in the taxi is prominently displayed inside and outside the taxi. There are over a hundred taxi companies, and the name of the taxi company is displayed on the side of the taxi. Those taxis that have are known for being reputable have the name in more prominent letters. There is no regulation of fares. Different taxi companies charge different fares. More importantly, smaller taxis charge less than those using larger cars. Taxis in fancier cars charge more than in less fancy cars. In most places, taxi fares are regulated to a single rate. This leads to a uniformity of cars used as taxis, as passengers would generally choose a more spacious or more expensive car if the cost is the same. This means that in Hanoi there are lots of small taxis (which use less fuel, cause less pollution, and cause less road congestion), whereas in many other places they are rare. (The most common vehicle used for taxis in Hanoi is probably the Daewoo Matiz / Chevrolet Spark). There are lots of taxis in general, which is good if you are trying to hail one. I suspect that drivers still do not earn very much, but that is the nature of the profession, and a consequence of the fact that in Vietnam, a lot of people do not earn very much. There is fast economic growth, and economic opportunities come out of that.

And as a passenger, the experience was a good one. Taxi drivers always turn on the meter. Fares are low. Due to the level of competition, fares are very similar regardless of the taxi company. I am also told that fares change rapidly in response to changes in the price of petrol and/or interest rates. My guidebook said that there are a few “tourist taxis” which pick up passengers near five star hotels and charge exorbitant fares, but I did not encounter one. My only taxi driver incident was more amusing than anything else.

I had an iPad with me in Vietnam. When I first connected to a WiFi hotspot in Hanoi, its maps application downloaded a detailed map of the entire city of Hanoi. Once I had that, the assisted GPS in the iPad allowed me to see where I was at any time on this map. Basically, if I was moving, I would be able to look at the map, and a little animated blue dot would show me exactly where I was. After a nice dinner at James Waterton’s home (thanks mate) I got in a taxi, got out the iPad, showed the driver where I wanted to go on the map, and away we went. As it happened, he headed in the exact opposite direction to where he was supposed to be going. I let him do this for a couple of minutes, and when we were stopped at a traffic light, I showed him the iPad, and pointed out the blue dot to demonstrate that I knew exactly what he was doing.

After that, he took me straight back to my hotel. 

25 October 2010
Amphibious tourist buses ancient and modern
Brian Micklethwait

It’s good to be back.  I don’t really want to be muggins for Transport Blog, the one who is still posting when every one else is taking a holiday, but now that others are back posting, I am delighted to join in.  This first posting, i.e. this time around, is really just me checking that I still know how to do it.

And checking out also that I can still stick up pictures.  So, let’s see about that:

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That’s one of my favourite items of London Transport, namely one of the fleet of yellow amphibious buses, for taking tourists both along streets and along the river.  They are named, as you can see, after Shakespearian heroines.

While googling for further info about these yellow ladies, I came across this blog posting, which reveals that a brand new design for a yellow amphibious bus has now been contrived:

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This I did not know, until now.  Blog and learn.  This started out as a posting called nothing more than: “Good to be back”.  But it has turned into a real blog posting and now has a real title, about something.

I find myself pondering the economics of tourist vehicles, as opposed to regular A-to-B transport type vehicles.  I can’t believe that it would ever make sense to put commuters in a thing like this.  Commuters resent paying an extra few pence per journey, because, day after day after working day, that still adds up to a fortune, and because any fun would soon fade.  But tourists are happy to pay an extra few quid for the fun of travelling in a bus that can swim.  Just the once.

Which, come to think of it, makes tourism a massively important thing, transport-wise.  Tourists will pay for vehicles to take their first rather faltering and expensive steps, vehicles which may not have much of a present, as serious contributions to transport, but which may just have one hell of a future.

20 October 2010
Google car
Rob Fisher

I first heard about Google’s computer controlled car from Brian Micklethwait. It was a top secret project. It’s been going for a while: Robert Scoble spotted one back in January, and it didn’t like being videoed, even though he didn’t know at the time what it was.

Why might Google work on such a project? Perhaps they are not just an advertising company. They have form: Street View looks like good practice for building up a database of roads and learning how to automate cataloging of road features. And Google are good at working with vast quantities of data. From their blog post:

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

From a software design point of view, building a big database of road features in advance makes sense. Real time image processing is hard. The more complicated the task, the more error prone it becomes. Robert Scoble’s 2010 Prius can detect lane markings and warn him if he drifts out of his lane. But the Google car must understand the difference between and navigate all kinds of road junctions. By building the database in advance you can make sure your images are captured in conditions of optimum visibility, take pictures from all angles, add human input, and even have humans check the results.

Keeping the database up to date would be a challenge, but the sort of challenge Google would be good at solving. I can imagine a fleet of un-manned automated cars driving around updating the images, if that is not too much chicken and egg. Another consideration is that it’s easier to write an algorithm that checks for the the existence of something you are expecting, than to detect what is there with no advance knowlege. An example of this is Evernote, which can search for text in photographs of handwritten notes not because it can understand your handwriting, but because it can come up with a probability that a given image matches a particular word. So the car’s database might only have to augment a computer vision system that would find other ways to cope when the database does not agree with what is seen.

And Google has got the co-operation of authorities, so they have some idea of how to begin solving the regulatory problems.

If anyone can make automated cars a reality, it’s Google.

17 October 2010
Allowing fares to rise is a good thing
Patrick Crozier

If Transport Blog were still going I would be very inclined to link to this piece:

Rail fares ‘to rise by up to 40 per cent’

Good thing too, I would say.  Fare control is a form of regulation, regulation is a form of intimidation, intimidation is a form of violence and violence is wrong.  That’s the moral side.  On the practical side: violence doesn’t work.  So any removal of violence is likely to lead to a better world in the long run (though, not necessarily, sad to say, in the short run).  So, that’s sorted I’d say.

However, I would add one thing.  If the government wants to do this with the minimum amount of political damage, I would suggest freeing all fares but at the same time allowing everyone with an existing annual season ticket the right to renew that ticket at that price in perpetuity.  My guess is that the number of people so privileged would decline to next-to-nothing in next-to-no-time.

I would then go on to say that freed of all that fare control (an all that Euro-regulation, of course) train companies would be free, through the process of price discovery, to offer the sort of services passengers really want.  You know, that’s “really” as in: what they want and are prepared to pay for, not: what they want and are prepared to make other people pay for.  Which for all, I know will include things like carriages without seats or even, seats you can actually sit in.

But Transport Blog is not going, so I won’t.

13 October 2010
The suggestion he wished briefly to elaborate was for great girdle round London…
Patrick Crozier

If Transport Blog was still going it’d have articles like this:

G. L. Pepler from The Times of 13 October 1910:

Some of the advantages of such a ring road would be to provide a means by which a great deal of fast traffic could circle London instead of passing through; to link up existing radial roads and outer suburbs; to open up a great deal of fresh land which, if properly town-planned, could form an almost continuous garden suburb round London…

And it only took 76 years.  Shame about the continuous garden suburb…

But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.

10 October 2010