Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Railways in Wired's Today in Tech

Wired has a fun blog called This Day in Tech. It describes some invention or idea that was first deployed on the same day sometime in the past. Today's was on the invention of the automatic coupler for railways.

When we talk about how good the European railways are, it's interesting to remember that Europe still uses the old manual method of coupling which makes their railways much less efficient. I heard that Europe was about to change to automatic couplers in the 1970s, but France vetoed the idea for some odd reason. C'est la vie!

Here's a list of some of the other railway related This Day in Tech postings:

Aug. 2, 1873: San Francisco’s First Cable Car Conquers Nob Hill - Describes the first cable car in San Francisco and how the system works.

March 5, 1872: Westinghouse Gives Railroads a Brake - Describes how air brake systems work, the air brake 2.0 reference provides a nice perspective on technological innovation.

Nov. 18, 1883: Railroad Time Goes Coast to Coast - who knew that the idea of standard time started with the railways, but it makes sense when you think about it.

Friday, April 24, 2009

James Bond in Bremen

I have always believed that comedy is a great way to learn and communicate. My music video on high speed rail and some others I have "in production" are all done with that in mind.

At the VREF's Future Urban Transport Conference this week, Michael Glotz-Richter, from the Free Hanseatic City of Bremen's Sustainable Mobility department showed us two films on how James Bond was able to outwit his opponent using public transport and bicycling in Bremen. The films are great examples of using comedy to encourage sustainable transport. The public transport film is above, the James Bond bicycling in Bremen is here.

Zurich's public transport operator has been a leader in using comedy in transport advertising and has even done some research to determine its effectiveness. This sounds like a good Transportation Research Board paper!

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Volvo Museum and Hybrid Bus

On Tuesday afternoon, following the VREF's Future of Urban Transport conference we took a hybrid bus to the Volvo Museum and had a presentation on Volvo's approach to bus rapid transit and hybrid bus technology. BRT and public transport priority in general are one of my main interests, so it was nice to learn more about Volvo's work in this area. The main message for me was that transit priority is important for reducing greenhouse gases since there is only so much that vehicle technology can do by itself.

The Volvo Museum was fascinating. It describes the company history and there are cars, trucks and buses from every decade, including "concept" vehicles. Photo shows me 'driving' one of the historic buses (they would not let me drive the hybrid!). Very interesting is that Nash Motors from the USA almost bought Volvo in the 1930s, but at the last minute Volvo's founders were able to get additional funding to keep the company. Given my name that was an interesting personal connection!

Photos from the Volvo Museum are on my flickr site.

Future Urban Transport Conference - Days 2 and 3

Yesterday I discussed the academic workshop held at the Future Urban Transport Conference, today I discuss the second two days which were devoted to a wider discussion of issues.

On Monday, we started with presentations from very high level business leaders at AB Volvo, Bombardier Transportation, Volvo Car Corporation and the Swedish Petroleum Institute. They described what their companies were doing in the areas of future urban transport. Next we heard from the Mayor of Goteborg, the Deputy Mayor of Changsha (China) and Kulveer Ranger (Director of Transport Policy for the Greater London Authority). They described how their cities were addressing the issue of sustainable transport and urban planning. The final session discussed 'service' business ideas: urban freight management, Veolia Transport (a major operator of public transport services) and a property developer from Stockholm who described how they redeveloped an old industrial area.

All the presentations were interesting, although I think that the discussion would have been better if the groups were mixed rather than in the "silo" based format. For example it would have been interesting to have the Bombardier's president discuss where and when rail investment is warranted with a policy maker from a developing country in Asia or Africa. Or having the Volvo Cars president discuss with London's transport policy director how to make electric cars a reality (London believes electric car technology is ready for deployment now, it would have been interesting to hear the auto industry's view on that).

On the other hand, the conference was small enough so that we could discuss many of these issues on a one-to-one basis. In fact, I discussed Shai Agassi's very interesting Better Place proposal for deploying electric cars NOW with London's Mr Ranger the evening before over a beer.

We started Tuesday with two videos of James Bond in Bremen. Then four focused discussions of specific research projects sponsored by the VREF. Professor Lisa Schweitzer (University of Southern California) talked about the need to proactively work on development around rail stations in disadvantaged areas. Professor Yves Crozet (University of Lyon) described how to improve accessibility for disadvantaged areas by focusing on slower modes of transport based on a case study of Lyon's BRT line (the case study used a very cool GIS analysis).

Next we heard from Professor Anthony May (University of Leeds) on the results of a quick analysis of transport financing in France, Germany, Great Britain and Japan. What was most surprising was the lack of detailed research in the area of comparing these systems and the high degree of variation. (This would be an excellent subject for my WIKI-based transport knowledge management system, more later.) Finally, Professor Elizabeth Deakin (UC Berkeley), another of my favorite UCB professors, talked about the US transport funding situation. Both presentations included several excellent recommendations for improving the funding process.

In the afternoon a small group of us visited the Volvo Museum and learned a bit more about the Volvo buses. More tomorrow.

Future Urban Transport Conference - Göteborg Sweden

I just returned from the 4th Future Urban Transport Conference held in Göteborg. The conference is sponsored by the City of Göteborg, the Volvo Research and Education Foundations and the Volvo company. (The photo above is of the design on the sides of Göteborg's public transport vehicles - they have a great PT system including a new bus rapid transit line.)

The conference was excellent, blending academic research with public policy and business issues. The first day consisted of presentations from academic researchers. Many were from programs sponsored by the VREF and there was a real diversity of ideas and opinions expressed. The conference website shows the schedule with links to the presentations.

One of the most interesting presentations for me was the keynote by Professor Geetam Tiwari who discussed some of the research done at her institute in New Delhi. Her presentation Public Transport Use - Emerging Issues really made you think about some preconceived ideas about public transport (is a new metro the right solution for cities like Delhi? is public transport really safer than alternatives? what are the real equity issues in transport?).

I also really enjoyed Professor Carlos Daganzo's presentation on A Cheap and Resilient Approach to Eliminating Bus Bunching. Professor Daganzo was one of my teachers at Berkeley and he always amazed me by being able to translate very complex mathematical analysis into practical ideas, and even better, to make them easily understandable. As a public transport rider I feel like I am affected by bus bunching every day and so I hope to work with Vienna Transport to test Carlos' idea on my local bus line. I'll keep you updated.

The third presentation that made a big impact on me was by Professor Harry Dimitriou: Mega transport Projects, Globalization and Private Finance: Emerging Challenges for the 21st Century. The topics he raised are especially topical since many policy makers have been operating under the assumption that private finance (e.g. public private partnerships etc.) are the answer to solving our transport infrastructure problems ... but the private finance model seems to have let us down in the last several years, what does this mean? Among the interesting points he made is that the private sector is not necessarily more efficient than the public sector, that finance companies and government can have very different objectives for their assets (financiers may want to churn the asset to generate short term profits, government wants an efficient and sustainable infrastructure solution), etc. Fascinating ideas extremely relevant for today's problems.

I could go on since there were many other interesting papers and discussions. Tomorrow more on the second two days of the conference.

Stockholm: Vasa Museum Restaurant

After spending the morning at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm I decided to have lunch in the museum restaurant. Museum restaurants are always dicey quality wise, but it looked good.

The restaurant serves "simple Swedish food" according to the museum brochure, but my meal was excellent. They had about three main dishes and lots of very ample sandwitchs and salads. Since I had Swedish meatballs the night before I decided on a lighter meal of fish.

I had salt cod with boiled potatoes and sauted winter vegetables. The cod was accompanied by lignon berry jam and capers (again I really love these bits of sweet in salty dishes). The vegetables were really great, they included beets with the standard carrots leeks and celery saute ... adding a very nice flavour. It's cafeteria style, you order, take your cold food and then the waiter brings your hot food. A nice touch was that when the waiter he noticed that I did not have any bread, and so he told me I should go back and get some ... that's really friendly and nice service!

Again, plan your museum visit, go to the museum ahead of the crowd and then have lunch on the early side too. When I went in I was alone in line, when I left there was a line (although it was pretty short).

It's only open for lunch, but I recommend it highly.

Stockholm Vasa Museum

Most of the guidebooks say that the Vasa Museum is a must in Stockholm. I agree.

The museum is built around a sailing ship built in 1632 that sank on its maiden voyage. (Boy, that must have been embarrassing!) Anyway, after trying to salvage it in the 1600's (they were able to bring many of the cannons back up using an early version of a diving bell), the ship was essentially forgotten although it was in the main harbour.

In 1957 the ship was found again, now surrounded by silt, and the King supported the idea of raising it up from the seabed. The process took four years, but the ship could be raised and then moved to a temporary museum for restoration and documentation. I visited the ship on my first trip to Sweden in 1983, but several years ago they opened a new museum in a building that surrounds the ship and provides great views of all levels.

The museum has a film presenting the history (with English subtitles) that runs almost every half hour. Also they offer tours (in English) several times a day. Both the tour and film are excellent and I recommend them highly. One more recommendation: get there early ... the museum is justifiably popular so it fills fast. I was there about 10 minutes after opening and had the place pretty much to myself for about 15 minutes. When I left at about 1 pm, it was really getting crowded.

Also, the museum restaurant is really excellent. See my Vasa Museum Restaurant review posting. More photos are available on my Stockholm Photos set on Flickr.

Stockholm: Pelikan Restaurant

On Friday night I ate at the Pelikan Restaurant in Stockholm. It was recommended on the site Spotted by Locals as a good place for typical Swedish food. So I thought I would try it.

The wait was about half hour for a table, but it looked good so I enjoyed a very nice local beer called Wisby Hansa Pils at the bar on the left side. It was really great because the restaurants and bars in Sweden are non smoking - what a relief from the crazy Austrian system!

When it was time to eat, I was led into the dining room, a very nice bistro-like room with very high ceiling, ceramic tile floor and nice decorations. It was quite loud, but very pleasant space, and they gave me a very nice table.

My waitress was not really friendly (my greeting: "You're not from Sweden are you?") or efficient, but maybe it's because the restaurant was very busy. I ordered the Swedish meatballs and another beer. Unfortunately my waitress did not take the time to understand which beer I wanted so brought me the wrong one and she was so inattentive that I never had a chance to ask her to change it, so I simply drank it.

The Swedish meatballs were huge and tasty. I really like meals where they mix flavours like sweet (lignon berry jam), sour (pickles) and meat/gravy together. (Austrians do that with schnitzel and cranberry sauce.)

In summary, my food was very good and everything else looked great too. Everyone seemed to be having a good time, although I noticed that others were a bit frustrated by the service as well. I would recommend the restaurant, especially with a group, but be patient.


On the way to the Future Urban Transport Conference in Göteborg Sweden I spent a day in Stockholm exploring the city and its transport system. It was a relatively warm and sunny, so everyone was out enjoying the day.

I planned my short trip using the website Spotted by Locals. Many of their recommendations were in the SoFo area (the neighborhood south of Folkkungagatan) in the Södermalm part of Stockholm. It's an "old" (I would say 1910-1920) district that has been rediscovered by creative young urban types, so it's filled with interesting shops, restaurants, coffee shops, bars etc.

Spotted by locals recommended a park called Montelius-Gäten. It's a little hard to find on their map, but it's just behind Bastugaten, which you can reach by walking uphill from Hornsgaten (here's my Stockholm Visit map). It's a very nice path running along the edge of the hill overlooking the harbour and city with a series of benches, lawns etc.

On Saturday morning I walked through the city to the Vasa Museum, it's a huge sailing ship that sank on its maiden voyage (in 1634) only to be rediscovered in 1957. More in the next post.

On leaving the museum I was able to catch a historic trolley to the centre of town. It reminded me of San Francisco and I talked briefly with the conductor about San Francisco's historic trolleys. At the square where the trolley ended, the group that runs the historic tram had a bookshop set up in another old trolley. I did not have time to browse because my bus was arriving to take me to the Stockholm museum of Public Transport (more in another post).

After leaving the Public Transport Museum, I walked through the SoFo district again and had an great ice cream at AH (two of the flavours I had were saffron and licorice). Then I headed to the main station to catch my train to Göteborg.

Stockholm has a great public transport system. I was able to buy a 24-hour pass for about $10 that let me use everything - even the historic tram. The subway system is excellent, very nice cars and stations. My only complaint is that you cannot buy tickets (either for the public transport system or the railway) with a credit card unless you know your PIN. So you need to wait in, quite long, lines to buy your tickets. I probably wasted 20 minutes this way on Friday.

More Stockholm photos - views, public transport, public transport museum on my Flickr sets.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Rainy Saturday on the Glattalbahn, Zurich

On our recent trip to Zürich we rode the Glattalbahn (German) from Zurich Airport into the center of Zürich. The Glattalbahn is a new rail line that combines aspects of a tram (streetcar, light rail transit) line with regional rail. It operates on the city streets in Zürich and then on its own right of way outside the city.

The Glattalbahn was very carefully planned and has lots of interesting features that you can see in this film including very well designed stations, sensitivity to the environment (tracks laid on grass, lines of trees), including the whole street in the improvement project and connectivity to other public transport. I hope the film does justice to some of these, sorry about the rain!

Zurich: Restaurant Karl

On our last trip to Zürich I had a great lunch at Restaurant Karl in the Zentrum Karl der Grosse, which is right next to the Grosse Munster.

The Zentrum Karl der Grosse is operated by the city of Zürich and offers a large variety of social and cultural programs. For example they have integration classes for immigrants, art programs and sometimes concerts. The restaurant offers training to disadvantaged persons and eating there helps support the programs.

We ate there several times when we lived in Zürich and the food was always very good. It's fairly simple: pastas, rosti and grilled meats. They offer a nice selection of wines by the glass, most from nearby (especially good are those from the Kloster Ittingen, which also brews a great Klosterbrau beer). An added bonus: it's smoke free ... still a rarity (unfortunately) in Zürich.

On this visit I was drawn in by the promise of Barlauch. Barlauch is something I never had in the USA, it's a spring herb that you make pesto out of, it's a natural garlic. I can't get enough of it (in fact we made five bottles of pesto last week). Anyway, I had it on top of the Zürich standby Rosti (home fried potatoes). It was fantastic, check out the photo. Although they did look at me a bit oddly when I asked for extra Barlauch, they brought me a nice little pitcher full. Lunch with water and coffee cost about 35 Swiss Francs.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Burnham Plan for Chicago

2009 is the centenial of Daniel Burnham's plan for Chicago. We studied this plan in all my history of city planning courses, not only the content, which was quite advanced, but the beautiful drawings and associated public relations efforts (they even created a textbook for school children to teach them about the importanace of good city planning and implementing the plan). To celebrate the centenial the Chicago Public Library has created a website: The Burnham Plan Centenial with lots of good information.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Is funny the new black? Is this a mixed metaphore?

Scott Brown at Wired has an interesting article Scott Brown on Stand-Up Comedy, Lingua Franca of the Wired World. I think his point that comedy on the internet helps
facilitate ironic linkages, unexpected resonances across genres and media, and anarchic twists on established, institutional forms
is fascinating because this is just what is needed to help spur creative ideas in areas from research and development to business planning. I guess I need to go to comedy school ... but Brown has the solution: just being part of the e-world will help. Hope so.

By the way, the photo is from Luzern, it's under a big hook that can be used to pull people out of the river. The sign says that it is an "Official Rescue Device" and that "Missuse will be punished." Reminds me of the Vaudeville hook used to pull bad acts off the stage.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Is management the problem?

Henry Mintzberg, a professor of management studies at McGill University in Montreal, wrote a great article America's monumental failure of management on the current economic crisis that takes a broader view of the problem and its causes. He criticizes the Harvard Business School case study approach among other things and mentions a study he did evaluating the performance of 19 "superstar" HBS graduates (10 led businesses that failed miserably, 4 failed more or less and 5 led businesses that were considered successful ... not a great track record).

I would add former US President George W. Bush, another HBS graduate, as perhaps the best example of failed HBS managers and the bankruptcy in the "American" system of management HBS teaches.

Rebuilding Cities: Buffalo NY

Nicolai Ouroussoff had a great article in Sunday's NY Times: Reinventing America's Cities: The Time Is Now. The article outlines the need for coordinated planning and, can I say: "big" ideas for making US cities more attractive and livable.

He discusses specific plans for New Orleans, Los Angeles, the Bronx and my hometown Buffalo, as well as more general concepts that would help. I was particularly interested in his description of Buffalo, especially the problematic plan by the US Department of Homeland Security to greatly expand the Peace Bridge Customs area. Ouroussoff mentions that preservationists in Buffalo are fighting the plan, I wish them good luck!

Buffalo could be a poster child for the problems with urban redevelopment projects. Ouroussoff mentions that an aerial freeway was built through one of Fredrick Law Olmsted Sr's parks ... actually it's worse, another two freeways were built: a surface freeway through Olmsted's Delaware Park and a depressed freeway through Olmsted's Humboldt Parkway (which also happened to be an African American neighborhood). The city's light rail system was build mostly underground thus reducing the possibility for community development similar to Portland Oregon around its surface LRT line (not to mention drastically increasing construction and operating costs).

A real problem hindering big planning ideas is that cities like Buffalo need to think small. In other words how to best grow into smaller cities. That goes against the traditional political and business "boosterism" but it's reality. And, smaller could really be beautiful.

Why not simply tear down the freeways - there's less traffic? Replace them with surface boulevards like San Francisco or Milwaukee or re-route the traffic. Rebuild the parks they run through: daylight the Scajaquada Creek from Delaware Park to the Niagara River.

Why not use the existing International Railway Bridge to create a "moving inspection" system for homeland security. Trucks would be loaded on railcars and be inspected on a continuous system of automatic sensors located along the railway track. Not only would such a system eliminate the need for increasing the Peace Bridge inspection facilities, but it would reduce emissions and increase the efficiency of freight transport (less waiting at inspection). Such a system could be a model for other border crossings. In the long term it could increase the amount of freight shipped by rail.

Why not develop a program to focus redevelopment in certain neighborhoods and create a 21st Century equivalent for Olmsted's park system? Such a plan would reduce infrastructure costs and help create the kind of environment that could attract new residents and businesses to Buffalo. The parks could even offer 'economic crisis victory' gardens to nearby residents.

Why not preserve the grain elevators and Buffalo River area as an urban park the way many Ruhr District cities have done. But, the list of ideas is endless.

This kind of planning calls for creativity - which is clearly available - and government programs like those called for in Ouroussoff's article. Let's hope that the Obama Administration doesn't stop thinking about tomorrow.

Ouroussoff mentions that Europe looked to the USA in the past for planning ideas and now the US is looking at Europe. But there is an Architect Engineer from 1890s Vienna, Otto Wagner, that also provides a clue. He planned Vienna's urban transport system combining existing rail lines with new lines and building stations, bridges and facilities that, while serving engineering functions very well, are also beautiful. He did the same with flood facilities. I think there's a lot to learn from his work as well. The photos with the posting are from my flickr photos Vienna Public Transport Otto Wagner.