Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Catch-22 - Vienna Style

One of the funny things that happened in moving to Vienna is the process we had to go through for me to obtain permission to work. Actually, it's only funny now because it's over.

I wanted to start my own business (Vienna Transport Strategies) and so I went to the Chamber of Commerce, they were able to register me in about 5 minutes, but to complete the registration I needed to have permission to work. However, the city department responsible for giving me permission to work could not give it to me because I had no job.

Get it: you cannot start a business because you do not have permission to work, but you cannot get permission to work because you do not have a business.

The happy ending came when my wife got a job, then I was able to get permission to work as the spouse of an Austrian!

Moving is hard work!

We left Zurich at the end of July and moved to Vienna in early August. I cannot believe how hard it has been to move. From the IKEA runs to build cabinets to the formalities of registering to live in Austria and getting permission for me (an American) to work here. But we finally see light at the end of the tunnel.
As the old transportation joke goes, I hope it's not a train coming!

Wednesday, August 8, 2007


We have just moved to Vienna and things are very busy. Lots to unpack and do, no internet at home. So, that's why no recent bloging. I hope to start again soon.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Loose Change

One thing I hate is carrying around lots of change. Small change is especially aggravating. Pennies are not from heaven. Often I try to outsmart ticket machines by putting coins-in in a special order so that I can minimize the number of coins I get back. It's not rocket science, but it keeps me busy. The other fun thing to do is to give cashiers odd amounts of change that help reduce the amount of change you get back. This is especially interesting when the cashier does not have a cash register that automatically tells them how much change to give. For example, if the total is 8.38, I might give 10.03 so I get 1 dollar, two quarters, one nickle and one dime, rather than the same with two pennies. This allows me to get rid of three pennies and avoid getting two more. You can see how this could be addictive.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Apple Cake Anyone?

Here's a funny photo from Zurich. I like it because people say that the Swiss German dialect is never written, just spoken. However, often - especially at street fairs and festivals - Swiss German is written, but usually you can figure out what they mean. Here's a good example, it's clearly a stand selling something to do with apples, in this case apple cakes: Öpfelchüechli (High German Apfelküchen).

By the way, the 'li' at the end of
Öpfelchüechli is a diminutive ... it means small as in small cakes. German speaking people also use the letters 'chen' at the end of a word to mean small.

City Planning: Learning from our mistakes?

I visited the city of Colmar in Alsace recently. The city has a wonderful medieval quarter with canals, churches, convoluted streets and a rich history. Unfortunately they seem to be learning the wrong lessons from US city planning, here's a photo of a cineplex right on the edge of the old city center. At least they put a wide plaza in front and they probably will fill at least some of the space with cafes (there's a chain restaurant going in on the left side, the right side was still vacant when I took this photo). So, everything's not always better in Europe!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

If you have not seen the excerpt from the new book "Where Have All the Leaders Gone?" by Lee Iacocca with Catherine Whitney, click the link. It's an inspired piece of analysis and encouragement for action. Great reading.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Why I like Zurich: They know how to Party?

It might be surprising to learn that Zurich, and Switzerland in general, throws great parties; they don't have that reputation. But it's true.

Zurich throws several huge parties every year. They close many of the downtown streets, re-route the public transport system and set-up stages for entertainment. Yesterday was the annual Sechseläuten, in the summer there will be the Street Parade, there are fireworks at New Years and every several years they throw a really huge ZurichFest.

Anyway, the party organization is what most impresses me, as a city (and party) planner. Zurich leases out refreshment stand spaces (with temporary electric power feeds!). Public transport is organized to bring people to the event and often admission tickets include free transit. Best of all, after the party the streets are spotless. (The Street Parade has over a million people and probably they drink ten million beers/sodas etc. The outdoor party ends at midnight and by 6 am the streets are perfectly clean - no trace of the 12-hour+ party!)

In contrast it seemed like every big party in downtown San Francisco was completely unplanned. Too little public transit, garbage sitting around for days, ... Of course Zurich is better organized in these things throughout the year so it's no surprise that it works better for public events. Better city party planning is something we need to learn in the USA - it's one of the things that makes city life more enjoyable. Interestingly, San Francisco probably spends as much on its parties as Zurich
on a net cost basis since Zurich parties generate income from refreshment stand leases.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Lions of Zurich

I just started a flickr group called Lions of Zurich. Lions are the animal mascot of Zurich and there are lots of them carved in buildings, on signs and in strange places. The one on the right is in front of one of the city office buildings. The idea for this group is to find lots of lions in lots of places and post them on the website. It will be fun to try to find out where they are in real life. Go to the website and join the group and upload some photos.

Sunday, April 15, 2007


It's Sechseläuten season in Zurich again. Today was the children's parade. Here is a picture of the last float: the Böögg! Tomorrow they will light the huge bonfire and he will be blown up! More on Sechseläuten on my website.

Swiss German

It's always fun to see how the Swiss spell their German dialects. Here's a stand selling apple cake (Apfelkuechen in German).

Lost in Translating

One of the interesting things about living abroad is that you are often asked to help translate into English. It's one of the things I do at work and I enjoy it. I will use this tag to describe some of the interesting experiences I have had translating.

My first odd translation experience was when I met my wife. We spoke English together and she kept saying "Please" after I said "Thank you". I thought it was a bit strange, but sounded kind of cool.

After my first German class I learned why ... they say "Bitte" for both "please" and "you are welcome". Unfortunately my wife learned the difference and doesn't say "Please" anymore.

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Easter, St Johann, Carinthia, Austria

I am writing from St Johann Austria where my wife grew up. Yesterday I drove here and missed the blessing of the food, but made-up for it by getting up for the traditional Easter mass. I was also in time for the traditional Saturday evening Easter fire, here's a photo.

The Easter mass in St Johann starts at 4:00 am. It is a long service with lots of readings, including the one about how God created the world in 7 days (that one always makes me think of conservative religious folks who, among other things, believe this is the literal truth and fight science education in schools - so I dislike it). The mass includes music from a marching band - about 40 people - crowded into the very small choir loft (as they came down I felt like I was watching one of those films of college students getting out of a Volkswagen bug, how many more could their be?).

After the mass, the whole congregation takes candles and has a small parade around the church, which is on a hill, led by the marching band, stopping every hundred meters for a prayer (in a nod to modern times, the priest has a wireless microphone and someone carries a mobile loudspeaker). Here's a photo.

As we walked someone was blasting away with a cannon and the church bells were ringing. We walked back up to the church and then everyone reassembled to walk over - again led by the band - to the local Gasthaus (neighborhood pub) for goulash and beer. Then, back to bed, it was just getting to be light ... about 6 am.

Automobiles and Bicyles

A friend forwarded a great column by Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle on an incident that happened at a recent Critical Mass event in San Francisco. Carroll makes many interesting points. Another friend once said that 'if you put Mother Theresa behind the wheel she never would have won the Nobel Peace Prize.'

Earn My Vote dotcom - 2

Here's a politics column from Slate on John Edwards talking about issues and indirectly criticizing Obama for not talking about them. But, all the candidates need to start talking more about policy I think.

Obama's website has a nice section on issues with a good interface for people to provide input. I thought that the discussion on the pages was a bit too much, here's a list of legislation that I supported and a bit too little about what he would do as President, but maybe it's early yet.

I still would like to see something like my suggestion for a policy comparison website (see previous post).

Friday, April 6, 2007

Wine and Rail: Poschiavo (CH) - Valtelline (IT)

Who would be interested in taking this trip in late September:

  • Day 1: Zurich: Train to Zug, ride new StadtbahnZug!, on to Lucerne, visit Swiss Transport Museum.

  • Day 2: Train from Zurich to Breda, hike the Preda-Bergun rail history trail (downhill), on to Poschiavo via the Bernina Pass route, dinner at the historic Hotel Albrici in Poschiavo.

  • Day 3: Train to Tirano (IT), tour the Palazzo Salis (Sertoli Salis winery), hike through the vinyards above Tirano, train back to Poschiavo for dinner.

  • Day 4: Travel to Bianzone (IT) tour and lunch at Triaccia Winery, walk back to hotel through vineyards, dinner in Bianzone.

  • Day 5: Train from Tirano to Sondrio, lunch at a slow foods restaurant, train to Chiavenna, dinner at a slow foods restaurant.

  • Day 6: Bus from Chiavenna over Splügen Pass, lunch at summit, bus to Thusis, train to Zurich.
Let me know if you are interested and I will see if I can organize it.

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Earn My Vote dotcom - 1

Who thinks it would be a good idea to focus on the issues in the 2008 Presidential campaign?

Good, everyone. So, here's an idea.

How about setting-up a website where candidates are asked to answer 10 or 12 questions (e.g. Do you think there is a problem with health insurance in the US and if so what would you do about it?). Of course candidates are always asked these kinds of questions and always talk a lot and often don't say much. So, naturally, we would need to place some controls and limits on the questions/responses. For example:
  • Answers are limited to say 500 words;
  • Several yes/no questions related to each main question must be answered at the beginning of each question response;
  • After each 500 word response candidates must explain (in a separate entry), in say 100 words, how they would pay for their approach;
  • Candidates can revise their answers once per month;
  • Several recognized experts in the field (e.g. health care) would be asked to prepare their own responses to the questions;
  • Maybe we would let the experts comment on the candidates' responses too (although they would have to be impartial experts - are there any left?);
  • There would be a link to a page with comments and responses from the public to each question (although we don't want to create just another food fight).

It seems like the technology is out there and I think it would help focus candidates on the issues more than the standard campaign rhetoric. Anyone want to work on the idea?

Victory accomplished! War Lost! - 1

Sometimes I wonder if the radio stations here (DRS = Deutsch Radio Service) chooses audio from President Bush to make him sound bad, but unfortunately they probably don't ... he always sounds bad.

This morning was a good example, he was talking about House Speaker Nancy Pelosi meeting with Syrian President Assad and said something to the effect that 'photo opportunites are bad' and sounded like a playground bully. Then they had a clip from Speaker Pelosi who said something like 'we recognize that we have great differences but think it's important to talk with Syria.' Wow, who sounded presidential in those clips?

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Living in Zurich

I feel privileged to live in Zurich, especially after traveling. Everything works here, it's a very easy place to get around, it's clean and efficient. It really struck me this morning when I had several errands to run (buying transit tickets, changing airline reservations, having my contact lenses checked) ... I gave myself too much time and consequently arrived early at all my appointments ... but no problem, they offer free espresso at the optician!

Morford on Starbucks

Mark Morford from SFGATE has a great column on Starbucks today. Not only does he plug Peets coffee - one of the things I miss most about the SF Bay Area, but he puts his finger on perhaps the biggest problem with Starbucks, namely:
See, like most massive forces of cultural mediocrity, Starbucks' particular brand of evil is flecked with glimmers of actual quality. This is, of course, what makes them so goddamn dangerous.

Like Mark I have one thing that I really like about Starbucks, they are smoke free, here in Switzerland it's almost worth going there for that alone.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

WC Sign Photo Collection

I just placed my WC sign photo collection on my flickr site.

One of my favorite signs is shown here. The men's sign is also pretty cool, tuxedo-ed gent. I'll post one the next time I see one and have a camera available.

Got Nipples?

Visiting a department store in San Francisco reminded me of one of the key differences between the USA and Europe: nipples. Everyone has them, but they're ignored in the USA and celebrated in Europe.

One of the first questions I asked my (European) wife was whether all manikins in Europe have nipples. She thought this question odd, because, (naturally) they all do. Why not?

In the USA I've never seen a manikin with nipples and so I always notice nipples in Europe. This happened again this morning when I looked at The Economist (March 17-23) and there (right on the cover!) was a drawing of a big breasted women (representing the EU at 50) with nipples! Imagine if Time did likewise, the religious right would be apoplectic.

I think we may be able to trace this problem back to the French. If only
Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi - the French sculptor who created the statue - had included nipples, we would not have our nipple hang-up. (Some think Bartholdi used his mother as a model, perhaps including nipples on mom would have even offended Europeans.)

As an aside, it took me a while to find a good photo to be sure that the Statue of Liberty did not, in fact, have nipples. The best photo I found was on flickr which has 1200 photos tagged Statue of Liberty. Many great photos are available on lots of sites.

Kuyima Whale Watching San Ignacio Baja CS Mexico

We just returned from whale watching in Baja California Sud Mexico. We chose to take a 3-day package from Kuyima in the San Ignacio Lagoon which was great! More photos are on my flickr site.

We stayed at Kuyima's Eco Lodge (a group of cabins near the lagoon) and went out on whale watching trips all three days.

The highlight of our whale watching was touching the whales; the young whales are very curious and often come right to the boat and stick their heads out (under the mother's watchful eye). We had two very good days (lots of whales) and two less good trips, but left satisfied.

Kuyima's guides were all young people getting masters degrees in marine biology and the other staff (cooks, boat drivers) were extremely friendly while we practiced our elementary Spanish (I always mix up Italian and Spanish) supplemented by pointing and smiling.

The San Ignacio Lagoon is currently protected, but attempts are being made to develop the area for industry and more tourism. There is a big conflict about whether they should allow this development to provide jobs or not. Sounds familiar. One of the people on our trip is working with the International Community Foundation on a project to help preserve the Lagoon by helping the local residents find employment and providing economic support to the lagoon communities. We hope the foundation is successful, the Lagoon is truly a magical place.

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has also designated the lagoon one of their BioGems that should be protected, more about the lagoon and their project is available from the NRDC's Biogems website.

Back from Baja!

We just returned from two weeks in Baja California Sud Mexico and a couple days on both sides in San Francisco. The trip to Baja was great, the people so friendly it gave us pause. I remembered a newspaper article suggesting the USA should adopt an EU-like right of free migration and work for Mexico and Canada. Judging on the people we met in Mexico that would be great.

We flew to Cabo San Jose Airport, rented a car and drove to Todos Santos. The next day we drove on to La Paz (1 night), Loreto (2 nights), Santa Rosaria (1 night), San Ignacio (1 night).

The goal of our trip was to whale watch in the San Ignacio Lagoon at Kuyima eco lodge (see separate blog entry).

After whale watching we went back south stopping at Loreto and La Paz, before spending our last night at San Jose del Cabo.

We liked Baja better as we went further north, to the less developed areas. One of the owners of our hotel in La Paz told us that he had seen how things changed as more tourist development took place in Cabo San Lucas ... people became less friendly, more interested in partying, etc. People in La Paz and north were always unbelievably nice.

We really enjoyed our trip and hope to return soon.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Busy February

Well, it's been a busy February. Ski vacation in Carinthia Austria, trip to Vienna for apartment and to meet professional contacts and then the IVT ski weekend (photos on my Flickr site). I hope I have time to blog more in March!

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

iTunes and Blogger

Did you know that the Blogger software flags iTunes as a spelling error. Seems strange.

Legal Tender

Legal Tender from the B-52s (Whammy) just started playing on the iTunes. I was reminded of how clever their songs are and how it's pretty much impossible to work when listening to their songs. If only my fingers could dance (accurately) over the keyboard ... unfortunately my fingers on the keyboard do as well as my feet on the dance floor (just ask my long suffering wife).

Thursday, February 1, 2007

Transport Porkbarrel Jail

"Do not pass Go, do not collect $200, go directly to Jail" ... that sums-up US federal transport policy, except ... you DO collect hundreds of millions (or billions) of dollars. What am I talking about? Simply the Federal Transit Administration's New Starts Program.

The New Starts Program provides funding for major new public transport projects. The problem is that most of these projects were planned decades ago and often no longer make sense, but, since the program is essentially a "first-come, first-serve" system (in other words once a project is approved - and, thanks to Congressional politics, almost all projects are eventually approved - it is simply placed in the queue for eventual funding) and since projects cannot be changed once they are in the queue (without going back to the end of the queue), what is built often reflects plans developed decades earlier.

A good example is Buffalo NY, where I grew up. Buffalo began planning a heavy rail system in the 1960s. Gradually the plans were downscaled to a light rail system, although most of the route is underground. Construction of Buffalo's light rail system was started in the late 1970s and finished in the 1980s, but, guess what, Buffalo was a different city then. The six-mile light rail line cost well over $600 million and operating costs are much higher than the buses it replaced. This would be fine if there was sufficient ridership to warrant increased service or if the line was able to revitalize the center city, but there isn't and it hasn't. Buffalo has decentralized, its population has fallen drastically, its transport priorities are vastly different from the 1960s, and its transit district is struggling financially. These trends were clearly visible as final plans were being made for Buffalo's light rail line, but, because no substantial changes could be made to the plan once it was in the FTA New Starts Queue (without losing federal funding), more effective projects could not even be considered.

A similar problem is brewing now in San Francisco. The city's Central Subway project, planned during the early 1990's, is in the FTA's New Starts queue and has powerful support from Speaker Nancy Pelosi. However, as this article explains, after more detailed engineering, the project's costs have skyrocketed and its effectiveness has been significantly reduced. There are many much more efficient and effective ideas for improving public transport in San Francisco, but since the Central Subway is in the federal queue and transport managers do not want to lose the chance for federal funding, there is no possibility for implementing these new ideas.

These two illustrations show why we need to revisit federal urban transport policies. Probably the best idea is to develop a block-grant type program that allows cities to spend federal funds on projects that they believe will best solve their problems. This will allow cities to better link transport planning with other urban plans and lead to more innovative and creative transportation solutions. In the 1970s, the federal government introduced an extremely successful program that enabled cities to 'trade-in' funds designated for US Interstate urban freeways for public transport. This program was used to fund some of the most successful public transport projects of the last several years including Portland's first light rail line, Boston's Orange Line and San Francisco's Embarcardero Roadway/Muni Metro line. We should learn from that program.

I hope that Speaker Pelosi and the Democratic Congress will take up this issue, it would help reduce porkbarrel politics and revitalize our cities at the same time. I think that many professional transportation planners and managers would welcome finally getting out of New Starts Jail.

Friday, January 19, 2007

High Speed Rail Conference - June 28, 2007

One of my projects at the ETH IVT is helping to coordinate a day-long conference on the future of high speed rail transport in Switzerland and Europe that will be held in Zurich on June 28, 2007. The conference should be quite interesting, as we plan to approach the issue from a multi-disciplinary point of view.

Session 1 consists of three academic papers about the need for traveling at high speeds (sociology), the economics of high speed rail systems, and urban development planning impacts of high speed rail. Session 2 will present history of high speed rail and Switzerland's decision to adopt the Taktfahrplan approach rather than build a new high speed rail line. Session 3 will compare various technology options for high speed travel: Maglev, Swissmetro, Traditional High Speed Rail and Air travel. Session 4 will be a round table discussion by political, business and social leaders on how they see the future for high speed (rail) transport.

The conference will be in German, but we plan to translate the PowerPoint presentations into English. For more information see our conference website.

TRB Annual Meeting 2007

I will be attending the US Transportation Research Board's Annual Meeting next week. I am a co-author of four papers: Assessing the Feasibility of Transport Mega-Projects: Swissmetro European Market Study (07-1499); Applying Low Cost Airline Pricing Strategies on European Railroads (07-1399); Passenger Arrival Rates at Public Transport Stations (07-0635); and, A Proposed Infrastructure Pricing Methodology for Mixed-Use Rail Networks (07-1599). More information about these presentations can be found on my homepage.

ISB Workshop Vienna

I just returned from the Innovative Rail Systems workshop in Vienna. There were many interesting presentations (in German) available at the ISB project website. I was especially interested in a presentation by Claus Seibt from ARC systems research GmbH on factors that inhibit innovation in the railway industry (pdf, German). Many of these factors sounded similar to those impacting adoption of innovation in the USA and in other industies.