Saturday, February 28, 2009

Keep on Truckin!

Freakonomics has a fascinating article today, What Do Truckers Have to Do With Country Music, Food Prices, and Politics?, it's an interview with Shane Hamilton author of Trucking Country, a new book on trucking in the USA. The interview raises several fascinating issues related to the truckers themselves and the future or freight transportation. Here's a particularly interesting quote:

It’s not that truckers aren’t affecting food prices at all — clearly the modern food system is utterly dependent on highway transportation powered by fossil fuel, and the costs of transporting food along that chain are borne by food consumers and taxpayers in the long run. Short-term food-price swings, however, are disproportionately absorbed not by end consumers but by those further “up” the food distribution chain — namely, farmers, wholesalers, and transporters.

Hamilton expects that as fuel prices rise there will be less long distance trucking and more use of railroads. Of course this will take some real re-organization of the way railroads work.

Friday, February 27, 2009

High Speed Rail instead of flying!

Great article in today's WIRED Autopia Blog on airline routes that should be replaced by high speed rail. I commented on the article referring to my work on high speed rail.
Next time I will mention my music video!

More Amsterdam, less suburban-dam!

Amsterdam street scene, March 2008

David Brooks, a syndicated columnist from the NY Times, had a column this week titled "I dream of Denver" basically saying that most Americans did not want to live in Amsterdam (i.e. "dense" older cities). Paul Sighley, who writes a blog for the California Planning and Development Report, took issue with Brooks, and believes that the poll upon which Brooks based his column really shows that Americans want options beyond suburban sprawl. He says,
It makes me wonder if we have built enough suburbia to last us for another a generation or two. Maybe, just maybe, we in California should be focused on making cities – whether they be like San Jose or Anaheim – better places to live. Maybe we should make our small towns – whether it’s Chowchilla or Ukiah – complete places to live, learn, work and recreate. And maybe we should pause before we convert our rural places – whether it’s the Salinas Valley or the Sierra foothills – into suburbs.

Most planners are not advocating for an American Amsterdam, and neither am I. I’m only pointing out that not everyone – nowhere near a majority, according to Pew – wants to live in Roseville.

As a former Californian who has moved to one of those old European cities, I can only say I really enjoy the urban lifestyle and hope that California can develop more real urban areas like San Francisco and Los Angeles. Maybe the economic crisis maybe will give us the opportunity to "reset" into a more sustainable and exciting built environment.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zurich: Kronenhalle Restaurant

We lived around the block from the Kronenhalle Restaurant in Zurich for about seven years, but although we visited the bar a few times, we never ate at the restaurant. Last week we took the plunge (well, actually, we were invited).

The Kronenhalle is one of Zurich's most famous restaurants. It was a meeting place for artists including James Joyce and Marc Chagall. Rumor has it that some artists paid for their meals in pictures and the owners were collectors. Consequently, the restaurant and bar are filled with excellent art.

The Kronenhalle is classic. Waiters in white, an elegantly dressed Maître d' and assistants in black with white aprons. One funny thing, especially if you are not from Zurich, is that they serve Burli rolls (I describe them here). These rolls are extremely crusty and, as you can see from the photo above, leave crumbs all over the white starched table cloth; but they are classic in Zurich.

We started with celery-chestnut cream soup and nussli salad (lambs' ear). The nussli salad was served with a nice french cream dressing; it's very popular in Switzerland. Both starters were excellent.

For our main courses my wife and I shared the rack of lamb for two and our companions shared the Chateaubriand for two. Both dishes were presented to the table, then taken to a carving station for plating.

They use an antique plate heating device that's a bit scary to see in operation, but elegant. The meal is served in two settings with fresh plates for the second helping. The meat and side dishes were cooked perfectly. We all ordered the profiteroles for dessert and they were also quite fine.

Since we were guests I can't say what the whole meal cost, but the prices, while high, are not significantly more expensive than in other Zurich restaurants especially considering the experience. The Maître d' said that the Zürcher Geschnetzeltes are the house speciality and they looked quite good. As a comparison Zürcher Geschnetzeltes cost 54 CHF at Kronenhalle versus about 40 CHF in many other restaurants.

Zurich Real Time Public Transport Information

As I have written before, the quality of Zurich's public transport system never ceases to amaze me. We visited last week for the International Association of Railway Operations Research (IAROR) conference and had a chance to catch-up with what they have been doing since we left. The biggest change for me is the real time public transport information systems.

All the new vehicles and most of the old vehicles have been outfitted with television monitors that display the next three stops, travel time to these stops and the final destination. Next to each stop all the connecting public transport lines are listed. That's pretty good, but it gets better.

As the bus or tram approaches a stop where there are connecting public transport lines, a second screen shows the departure time of the connecting lines and displays any delays for the particular line (see below). This gives you time to re-plan your route if something is delayed (although lines are seldom delayed in Zurich!).

The on-vehicle system is complimented by real time displays of bus and tram arrivals at all the main bus/tram stops and many of the smaller ones. The displays are simple and easy to read. These are very common today, but the extent of their deployment in Zurich is noteworthy.

As shown on the photo to the left, real time train information is also available on Zurich's S-Bahn (regional rail network), although the transfer of real time S-Bahn data to the Zurich city buses and trams did not seem to be working yet. It's probably only a question of time, the highly innovative and successful StadtbahnZug! S-Bahn system in Zug Switzerland was experimenting with providing local transit information in the trains several years ago.

I am not sure if Zurich's system is unique, but I have never seen a similar system so it might be. In any case it's an excellent example of providing real time public transport data. It's so good I am working on a parody music video of it, you'll see the video here first!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Bread Delivery

My friend Walt, living in France, describes a dilemma he is facing ... how much bread to buy from the delivery service. I can relate because these kinds of services are really wonderful.

In the Austrian countryside many people still bake the traditional sourdough bread in large wooden ovens (sometimes located in the yard). It's a big effort, and since the bread stays "fresh" for about two weeks, they usually bake enough for friends too. They deliver the bread or people pick it up, it's a nice chance for socializing.

I put "fresh" in quotes because the bread is very dense (like Pumpernickle in the USA). Also, it's not sour like San Francisco sourdough bread, just a little sour. But, it's really tasty. Interesting too that almost everyone has one of those slicing machines that are used to cut cold cuts in a delicatessen and uses it to cut the bread (aboout 1/4 inch thick) - it's almost too hard to cut with a knife.

Regarding the delivery, I wonder if there is not some way to make the system more efficient and thereby ensure its survival? Maybe delivering more than just bread (Walt's baker also delivers cheese) or serving several customers at one stop (customers would walk to the gathering point).

My questions are more than just general interest, I am working on an interesting research project that is trying to find ways to better meet the transport needs of changing demographics; and as people get older these types of delivery systems will become more important, especially in rural areas.

Friday, February 20, 2009

More Public Transport Announcements

My friend who was so impressed with Nice and the public transport announcements there wrote back to me when I asked if I could quote her, with the following:

Your note made me think a bit more about transit announcements, the fundamental question being, "Who should be speaking?" Is it the management of the transit service, as appears to be the default choice, deciding how it should be represented to the public? Is it the driver, who might be speaking if there weren't a recorded announcement? Or is it the community: specifically, the transit-rider part of the community? While of course professionals would have to make sure that most riders could understand the thing, I like the idea of the voice representing more of the actual participants in the transit experience, that is, either the driver or the riders.

All excellent questions I think.

Reflecting on the idea that the announcements should represent the actual participants in the transit experience I am reminded again of one of my favorite quotes (about half way down page) from Alain de Botton about Zurich and its public transport system ... essentially that everyone in the city from the Mayor to the very young school children use it. In which case the announcements would truly represent the entire community, a nice civic gesture.

Public Transport Announcements

I am preparing a post about Zurich's real time public transport information system, but here's another interesting item. A friend wrote to me from Nice:

How's this for a charming transportation refinement: I'm staying in the old city of Nice (not a bad town, either) five tram stops from the train station. As you get to the first seaside stop, the recorded stop announcement is followed by the sound of a wave breaking. The next stop is the opera house, which is announced in French and then in Italian. The next stop is the regional bus station, which is announced in French in then in English. Then they go back to announcing just in French. Cute, eh?

They have men and women's voices, young and old, changing for all five stops I've heard so far. Why NOT have an eight-year-old or an 80-year-old announcing the stops? I've always thought that the recorded announcements in San Francisco should use men's voices with the local black San Francisco accent because that's who drives the bus, instead of woman-like machine voices from Ohio somewhere, but I like this idea even better.

I think this is a great idea. Not only does the variation in voices and audio clues (wave breaking) add some creativity but it also helps remind you where you are in the city. The WienerLinien (Vienna's public transport operator) had a recording come on between two stations of a child asking you not to leave your newspapers in the trains. I loved hearing it because it was so different and unexpected (even though I heard it between the same two stations every day!). By the way, after being asked so nicely I never left my newspaper again.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Two Billion Cars

I have been a fan of Daniel Sperling, a Professor at UC Davis, for many years. I have really enjoyed his articles in the University of California Transportation Center Access magazine.

Sperling was recently on the Jon Stewart Show (Comedy Central) discussing the book he co-authored Two Billion Cars. It was especially interesting how (relatively!) serious Jon Stewart was. Here's the clip:

Too bad some of Sperling's ideas were not implemented when we still had time to save the auto industry!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

How the Crash Will Reshape America

I am a big fan of Richard Florida's work on urban planning. In the March Atlantic he wrote an article called How the Crash Will Reshape America about how the economic crisis will change cities. Here's a great quote:
But another crucial aspect of the crisis has been largely overlooked, and it might ultimately prove more important. Because America’s tendency to overconsume and under-save has been intimately intertwined with our postwar spatial fix—that is, with housing and suburbanization—the shape of the economy has been badly distorted, from where people live, to where investment flows, to what’s produced. Unless we make fundamental policy changes to eliminate these distortions, the economy is likely to face worsening handicaps in the years ahead.

I was born in Buffalo NY and I know what he is talking about when he mentions that cities like Detroit and Buffalo need to learn how to fight blight as the population decreases, he says:
That’s the challenge that many Rust Belt cities share: managing population decline without becoming blighted. The task is doubly difficult because as the manufacturing industry has shrunk, the local high-end services—finance, law, consulting—that it once supported have diminished as well, absorbed by bigger regional hubs and globally connected cities.

I hope that we are creative enough to develop solutions for these types of problems.

Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society?

I just read a very interesting article from the New York Review of Books on the fate of the US auto industry. It's called Can We Transform the Auto-Industrial Society? By Emma Rothschild. Here is a quote that summarizes one of the ways we got into this mess ...
The pattern of land use in the expanding cities of the South and West—which have had the most rapid population growth, ... is a consequence of prices as well as preferences, and of the changing distribution of public expenditure, or public partiality.

What's important is that we have set the prices through public policy such as highway subsidies and tax subsidies for home ownership. I think we need to recognize these ways we have encouraged unsustainable development patterns ... the Republicans always say we should let the market decide, but our subsidies distort the market and we need to recognize this.

Friday, February 6, 2009

JetBlue Terminal 5

Patrick Smith has a different opinion about JetBlue's new Terminal 5 than mine. I do agree with most of what he said, although I kind of like the retail in airports especially the more interesting shops like Muji To Go that we don't have here in Vienna. I did not find the terminal crowded, but as I mentioned in my blog post, I traveled at a non-busy time.

Smith asks why we can't build better airports. I think we simply don't spend the same amount of money on these projects as other countries. In the USA the airlines need to partially pay for the airports through their landing fees and they (especially now) really pinch pennies.

The Zurich airport is operated by a private company called Unique. They purchased the airport from the city several years ago. I find that airport very nice, however the Swiss seem to have a very high quality of building (everything) that is not so often seen in the USA. They use quality materials everywhere and these materials last.

Anyway, Smith is right, it's too bad our airports can't be more like the grand train stations of the past. The NY Times had a great article by Simon Winchester called Cathedrals of the Iron Horse, Awesome Again that captured some of the glory in these stations.

Vienna: die Burgermeister Restaurant

To celebrate President Obama's Inauguration we went to the Democrats Abroad party but after seeing the speech decided to get some real American food ... hamburgers and french fries.

We went to a relatively new restaurant called die Burgermeister. The name is a kind of play on words since Burgermeister also means mayor in German.

The restaurant has a few tables and a small counter where people waiting for a table or to pick-up food they ordered can wait and have a beer.

Everything is high quality starting with the beer. die Burgermeister has a cooler with about 25 different kinds of bottled beer. They had many of my favorites including Trumer Pils, Augustiner Edelstoff (Munich) and Rathaus Pils (Baden, DE). We had fun comparing a couple of different ones.

The hamburgers are very tasty, freshly ground meat cooked medium. They come on a semi-whole wheat roll (calling it a bun would be wrong) with homemade ketchup, some pickles and a bit of mustard. You can order several different toppings including mushrooms, grilled onions, etc. The french fries were as good as any I have had even Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco. They came with the homemade ketchup too (but not enough!).

We spoke to the waitress and she told us that almost everything is homemade and "bio" (which is similar to organic) although the rolls are made specially for them. You may need to wait a while since all the food is cooked to order, but the beer cooler helps! We will go back soon. Our dinner: two burgers, french fries and several beers was about 25 Euros.

Monday, February 2, 2009

TRB Annual Meeting 2009

This year's US Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting was another blow out. It's hard to explain to non transport geeks how interesting it is to have five days, hundreds of sessions, over 10,000 transport professionals all in Washington together (well, three hotels) ... lots of good information and networking.

I was co-author of five papers (Andrew Nash Publications) this year. Unfortunately I had a bad cold so my presentations were a bit lame, but I have been thinking about new music videos for them, so maybe that will make-up for dull presentations.

As usual the best thing about the TRB meeting is the networking and the wandering into different sessions and events. This year's highlight for me was the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy (ITDP) party where they gave out their sustainable transportation awards. The event was great, Enrique Peñalosa, former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia AND Congressman Earl Blumenauer - two of my heros - both spoke. New York City won the award, but the honorable mentions were also very impressive.

The TRB left me drained and after a short trip to California, I had to take a break from blogging when I returned to Vienna, but now that I'm back, there will be more.