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July 22, 2012

Vive le Tour (even a dull one)

It was one of the dullest Tours I can remember: with an indistinct, unspectuacular route, hardly anything happened in the mountains, and one team was too strong, killing off competition. It was also one of the least deserving winner: 45 competitors removed by falls, and indeed Froome deserved more, but it was hampered by bad luck and iron hierarchy. It was a bit like track cycling invading the roads (100km of time stages is too much), and erasing poetry, scenery and tradition. This year, the Giro d'Italia was much more fun.

Still, well done Wiggins. First of all he looks like a clean win, and if dull means no drug scandals, long live a dull Tour. And the good luck this year balances the bad one last year. But mostly, thanks to him, there is some reporting and attention in the UK, although still nothing in comparison to Italy and France where cycling is the most watched sport. When I arrived to the UK twelve years ago, one of the cultural shocks was that there was no Tour de France on TV. But since the triumphs in the 2004 Olympics and 2007 Track Cycling Championship, the sport is more and more popular. This comes with some disadvantage (some silly consumerism), but (together with the crisis and oil prices) it increases the numbers of bikes on the road. Contrary to the number of cars, the more bikes on the road, the better: it gets safer if everybody gets used to bikes, and the political pressure for more cycling paths increases. The sporty nature of the new rediscovery of cycling in the UK, however, also limits its potential expansion: it is so sporty-looking, that everyday, casual city cycling, without helmet and lycra outfits, like on continental Europe, looks actually rarer. As if cycling were only for athletes: my grandaunt in the Po valley cycled until into her 80s.

In fact, cycling is become a flagship for environmental policies all around Europe, and interestingly, especially on the Right side: it is rightwing mayors like Boris Johnson and Letizia Moratti who have introduced cycleshare schemes in London and Milan. You can easily tell why: more space for bikes is a relatively cheap policy, as far as environmental measures go (especially if like in London they come with sponsorships from morally disputable institutions...), and who benefits most, is the middle classes, in an interesting social reverse from 50 years ago.

I have enjoying cycling a bit everywhere, from Peru to Canada and China. This year around Europe, unfortunately, I did not always have a bike at my disposal, but everywhere I could, I tried out the public cycle schemes and gathered information from local cyclists. And here are my notes.

The worst city for cycling is Madrid - strangely enough, the capital of a proper cycling nation. Only some 1% of the inhabitants cycles to work, and basically the only bikes you see are mountain bikes in the Casa del campo park. The reasons are largely understandable (climate, hills, excellent affordable public transport), but really the Spanish Right is well behind the other European ones and is not doing anything for cyclists.

From TibidaboThe best improvement is in Paris. When I was a student there in the mid-1990s, cycling was even worse than in my native town Milan: I remember the unique madness of placing some cycling lanes in the middle of the roads (the reason was to avoid the most frequent of city cycling accidents, i.e. crashes into opening doors of parked cars - but surely the solution is to remove the cars, not to place the bikes in the middle of fast traffic). Now, the vélib scheme is by far the best I have experienced, for number of bikes, ease of use, cost, and coverage of the whole city. It maybe an expensive scheme (a lot of bikes are lost to vandalism) but it is very well spent money: the whole city is much more livable and many more people take up cycling. But vélib is not the only reason for the cyling surge in Paris. The December 1995 month-long strike of public transport forced so many onto the two wheels, that a good share of them were hooked - and strikes in the Parisian public transports are everyday a possibility. Also, Paris has one of the best attended 'critical mass' traditions, anarchist group cycling and roller-skating to reclaim the streets from car traffic (popular also elsewhere, from Milan to Warsaw).

Clear improvements in comparison to the 1990s can be noticed also in London and in Warsaw, once very cyclist-hostile cities. But the best place among those I have been in the last two years (Copenhagen and Amsterdam did not enter the competition) is still, by far, Berlin - even though I am not a fan of cycling paths on pavements.


March 27, 2012

"Lean production" in Stockholm City Hall (and lean cuisine in Scandinavia)

Thin ice, from the Oslo-Stockholm trainAfter a few days in Oslo, and a 6-hour train journey, I am in Stockholm since last Saturday. The train journey was a beautiful calm crossing of forests and thawing lakes, and it was unbelievably cheap: 95 Swedish korons, half the price of the airport train from Oslo centre to Oslo airport...

In Stockholm, among other King's Speech in the Golden Hallthings, I am attending the International Labour Process Conference, a loosely Marxist congregation of people doing excellent critical research on work, inspired by Paul Thompson's writings. One of the main topics today was 'lean production', something the Japanese of Toyota invented a few decades ago and became a management mantra, although there is dubious evidence about its effectiveness and some evidence of negative effects on employees.

Tonight's conference reception was held in nothing less than the City Hall, the majestic building where, every year, a dinner and ball is held for the winners of the Nobel Prizes. I am sick and tired of waiting for that prize that never arrives, so I thought that I would settle for seeing the place now. We were welcome, in the Golden Hall, by the City Council president. Surelywith a polite intent, she said that she was happy to notice 'lean organisation' among the themes of our conference, because Stockholm City Council is an enthusiastic implementer of 'lean organisation' systems!... This is a constant irony: the more we do research to criticise something, the more we end up legitimising that same thing. But never mind: the reception was nice, and Paul Thompson had the well-deserved satisfaction of addressing us in such a prestigeous setting.

PS. In my ten days in Scandinavia I have eaten fantastically. Long are past the times when these remote lands offered only smoked herrings and vodka. "Nordic cuisine" has its golden moment right now, and if Copenhagen gets most of the highlights, Oslo is no worse (Stockholm is a bit behind). The focus on seasonal products and simplicity produces splendid results, especially with cured or raw fish and meat. It is also very "lean" and healthy, unlike what many Scandinavians eat normally. Of course, prices are very high, but like with the rest of the Nordic model, this at least has the positive effect of directing competition to quality rather than price. And (thinking of labour process) I like the fact that the waiters and kitchen staff earn no less than me, speak many languages fluently, and don't need to beg for tips. Interestingly, they are mostly local: immigrants from low-wage countries remain in ethnic restaurants (but on one evening, when I addressed the waitress saying "sorry, I don't speak Norwegian", she smiled back "neither do I!"... she was from Brisbane). The most expensive item is alcohol (bottles of wine in Norwegian restaurants start at around 50 Euros), but again this removes from the market cheap & bad wines. Moreover, the nature of wine as near luxury has led to the commendable practice of offering also good wines by the glass at proportionate prices (1/5 of the bottle). It perfectly fits my "drink less, but better" principle - I'll always prefer spending €10 on a good glass than on a mediocre bottle.

ÖstermalmstorgJust to mention the best experiences: in Oslo, the Håndsverkeren ("craftworkers") on Kristian IV's Gate, for revised traditional norwegian food (excellent dessert of pickled apples) and microbrewery beer; Oro Baron Tordenskioldsgate (fish and deer); Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin(spectacular fish on the new fancy waterfront). In Stockholm, Rolfs Kökon Tegnérgatan (French-Nordic fusion - you can eat at the counter and watch what happens in the kitchen, which I love - whether in a little bar or at the Atelier de Joël Robuchon) and the traditional working-class beer hall Pelikan in the middle of Södermalm.

But the weirdest culinary experience was in Stockholm: a pizza with reindeer and lingonberries. If they knew it in Naples, they would laugh. But Nordic cuisine is no longer a laughing stock.


January 26, 2012

Stalling mobility in Italy

My fast train from Milan to Rome yesterday morning was stopped after only few minutes by... an earthquake. Nothing serious, just a few minutes checks and eventually a 30 minutes delay - elsewhere there was more panic but no damage.

These days, moving around Italy, as I am doing intensively, is not simple, and transport problems are the prominent news: ships sink, taxis are on strike against liberalisation, bus drivers are on strike against cuts, lorries block the motorways in protest against fuel prices, car traffic is restricted in city centres, fast train line works is blocked by environmentalists... and now even the earthquake gives its contribution. A monument to immobility, from all direction. All is political in Italy, and both sinking ship and earthquake are immediately referred to Berlusconi, because captain Schettino's partying approach to navigation was identical to Silvio's approach to ruling, and Silvio's government has famously defined the L'Aquila earthquake as a mediatic event.

TramwayMore seriously political are protests on traffic. Among taxis and lorries there is a strong echo of Chile's protests of 1972, hich paved the road to Pinochet. I believe, as already written, that taxi liberalisation has to be very careful to avoid the wild situation of the USA, Ireland and some of Eastern Europe. But on fuel prices, I am with the government. I remember that even Blair struggled against a similar protest in 2000, but it didn't last for long. In Italy, goods' transport is by 90% on road, and on this account Europe is much worse than the USA.

A forefront of political struggle on mobility is Milan, where last week a congestion charge zone, modelled on London's, was introduced by the new leftwing mayor. Critics, and the Right, say that it has not improved the quality of air, but that was not its real aim. Traffic in Milan's city centre is now down by 40%, and moving around has become much faster and pleasant, whether on bus, foot or bike. And one important form of pollution has clearly declined: noise pollution. If the problem is that 'it is not enough', it is then auspicable that the congestion charge zone is soon extended to a broader area (as originally planned). The congestion charge zone received an enourmous support in a referendum last June, and those who protest are a minority embodying the moaning tradition of the Milanese. The idea of making people pay for using the car is not actually leftwing, it is rather liberal (liberals have always been in favour of toll roads, and on prices on everything), or even common sense: you soil, you pay.


July 03, 2011

AVE, high speed trains?

AVE 'flying' through AragonOver the last month I took the new AVE train between Madrid and Barcelona, or vice versa, five times. 2h38’ for 621km, and never one minute delay – very much unlike my recent flights. It’s the same distance as between London and Edinburgh, which requires 4h22’, delays not included, making it impossible as a day return trip and forcing people on the plane.

Spanish high-speed railways are the best in Europe in all regards: faster, longer, more comfortable, more punctual. Until May they were also cheaper, but crisis is striking hard and the many generous advance economic fares have been tacitly removed – a cheeky way to increase prices without saying it. The AVE has more legroom than in the countries of supposedly taller races, headphones and on-carriage movie, quick unobstructive security checks (the Atocha station bombs are not easily forgotten), and a display tells you all information you need (next station, outside temperature 42C, speed 305km/h...), while the arid Castellan and Aragonese landscapes gives quickly way to the green Catalan one.

2,655kms of high speed rail (only China has more) have not come cheap or without controversies. The first lines, in the early 1990s, to Andalusia were criticised as clientelism by the Andaluz Felipe González. The total bill for the infrastructure so far is 100,000m Euros, i.e. some 2,200€ per head, if the EU hadn't taken up a part of the bill. It is legitimate to ask if the money couldn’t have been spent better differently. The Toledo-Albacete high-speed service connecting all Castilla-La Mancha capitals, has just been closed, after only six months in operation, after realising only 18 passengers used it on average...

Yet in such a large country with such strong centrifugal forces, the under-three hours connections between most main cities do have sense and provide excellent alternatives to internal flights. The Spanish mistake, rather, is to have simultaneously invested similar amounts on motorways and airports – as if any provincial city had the right to be connected to Madrid by all options: plane, high-speed train and motorway. Spain has now 48 airports, of which only 11 are profitable, according to a reportage by El País (Aeropuertos para todos). The main ones, Madrid’s and Barcelona’s, have seen pharaonic new terminals built - indeed, Barcelona’s is the only European one to compete with the big Asian ones in terms of comfort and posh (it even has, quite uniquely, a large courtyard), but it is not particularly crowded. Worse with the small airports built over the last ten years in a ‘Ryanair rush’: every town believed that it only needed an airport to attract crowds of heavy-spending tourists. Take Burgos: it had five airports within 125 km, but it still needed its own. Or Castellón, inaugurated with great pump, but with no plane yet. Or Huesca, with more flights than passengers in 2009. The crisis has hit, and Ryanair is engaging in threats to local authorities: in Catalunya, after withdrawing from Reus airport, it is threatening to leave Girona too if the local council does not contribute with 5 Euros per passengers. Apart that Catalunya is the most indebted region of Spain, and that state aids are banned by the EU, if Girona really wanted to promote tourism it could spend the money much more cleverly than sponsoring one, controversial company. In fact, the fascination with cheap airlines has made no favours to Spain, contributing to the construction bubble and to a cheap-tourism industry that damages the environment and creates no good jobs – in fact, most jobs it creates are so bad that only impoverished immigrants take them up.

So, compared to airports and motorways, high-speed trains look like the least evil in Spain – but they still have a hard time around Europe. The new Portuguese government, given the notorious financial situation, has just suddenly withdrawn from the planned Lisbon-Madrid line – for the anger of the Spaniards who had already started work on their side. In the UK, the plan for a high-speed line from London to Birmingham and Manchester has so far survived the public spending cuts, but reactionary planning laws make the project extremely arduous. But the biggest disruptions are in Italy, where already the Milan-Roma (2h59’ for 517km, but the Apennines in between) was controversial, and now the planned Turin-Lyon line through the Alps is causing civic resistance and violent protests – also today.

Even if enjoying the Madrid-Barcelona train, and dreaming of a fast connection between England and Scotland, I’d say that the Alps are an exception. Such a delicate and unique environment requires slowness and respect, rather than being violated by long tunnels, mountains of excavated soil and noise. Indeed, in the Alps even more than elsewhere trains are better than planes and cars (motorway valleys have record incidences of cancers, as the exhaust pipes stick there). But the existing lines have enough capacity, and they only require an hour or so of calm – rewarded by the views.


December 22, 2010

Tschüß Berlin!

lamp post

Airports are open, so my three-month stay in Berlin ends today. Time for some summary reflections on this city, starting from the obvious: 3 months is not nearly enough to experience a city as large, varied and complex as Berlin.

Arm aber sexy

“Poor but sexy” is Berliners’ self-portrayal, starting from mayor Wowereit who, as a gay, can avoid the charge of sexism the use of the S word would involve in more PC countries. It’s an honest self-portrayal. Berlin is by far the cheapest capital of western Europe, and cheaper even than some eastern European capitals – after all, it still is a half-Eastern European city, and the other half wasn’t even a capital until quite recently. A near-20% unemployment rate does moderate prices. In all other European capitals the majority tends to be money-rich but time-poor, with an effect of hurry, selfishness, arrogance. Berlin is different: people have time rather than money, good taste rather than expensive cloths, bikes rather than SUV, spend the week-end in the parks and lakes rather than on foreign breaks.

It may change. The completely redeveloped Mitte may have some great new architecture, but is already undistinguishable from any downtown in Europe or USA. And in 2009 Berlin has overtaken Rome as third most-visited city in Europe (after Paris and London): demand is bound to increase prices and distort habits. But Berlin, while continuously changing, also develops forms of resistance. Gradual gentrification in once-popular neighbourhoods (first Prenzlauer Berg and Mitte, then Kreuzberg, now North Neukölln…) meets opposition, and so does tourism. The radical Left’s magazine Interim has launched, for 2011, an anti-tourism campaign with sabotage and disruption of hotels and tourist sights. Even if this materialises, if you visit Berlin in 2011 you have two solutions: first, do what is logic anyway, throw the Lonely Planet into the bin and stay off the beaten track, thereby avoiding the protests; alternatively, accept that the radical Left is itself a Berlin attraction, and join in, maybe asking passer-byes to take souvenir pictures of you throwing eggs at the sightseeing bus under the Brandenburger Tor.

Not only Currywurst

Germans share with Brits a dubious record: nations that spend the smallest share of their income on food. So none comes to Germany expecting gastronomic revelations. As an advantage over the Brits, Germans at least have their practical, efficient functionality: so food at least is real, not junk. I like the markets with, in Autumn, the central European wild mushrooms, root vegetables, apples & pears, smoked freshwater fish (eel!), cooked meat (Blutwurst!). And bakeries, despite the expansion of chains, are mostly still real bakeries making a large variety of excellent bread (alongside less inspired cakes): my street has seven bakers, more than the whole of Coventry. Imbiss kiosks, with their shared standing tables, offer more reasonable food in a more social setting than fast food chains or British fish & chips – even if I believe the Berlin’s pride “currywurst” should have remained what it originally was: a mistake, not a recipe.

Restaurants and bars tend to offer reasonable, reliable, comfortable fare for very reasonable prices – from the traditional potato soup, Eisbein (pork hock) and calve liver, to, increasingly, healthier things. Execution and service tend to be very skilled, thanks to the German vocational training system, and waiters strike the right mid-way between Italian overfriendliness and French stuffyness. In the huge surrounding parks you can also have idyllic near-wilderness experiences in outposts such as the Alte Fischerhütte or the Forsthaus Paulsborn. Italian restaurants are very popular, also thanks to the large Italian ex-Gastarbeiter population, but having tried a few I was just confirmed in my belief that yes, you can eat fantastic Italian food outside Italy, but only if you pay for it more than the price of a ticket to Italy. A newer and more interesting fashion is Austrian food, with cafes, patisseries, delicatessen shops and restaurants: try Sebastian Frank’s Horváth in Kreuzberg before it is deluged with Michelin stars. For more ambitious German food, in minimalistic settings, “N°45” on the new-posh Kollowitzplatz (with its organic Bio-market for VIPs, equivalent of London’s Borough Market or Paris’ organic Sunday market on Bd Raspail) cooks with local, Brandenburg ingredients, extremely sophisticated techniques, but none of the obsession with presentation and concept that overburdens the nouvelle cuisine of France or Britain. So Berlin’s food is, too, “arm aber sexy”.

White multiculturalism

Angela Merkel may repeat that multiculturalism – whatever she means by it - has failed, but in Berlin, in an important aspect of European culture, it is alive and well: you can find bars to watch, with the corresponding community, food and beer, just any European football league: Italian, Turkish, English, Spanish… And when the time comes for Germany-Turkey in the Olympiastadium, the 80,000 public is evenly split between Germans and Turks, Özil scores a fine goal for Germany, and after the game the injury and arrest count is three times lower than for the average second-league Hertha game.

On the other side, while eastern Europeans and southern Europeans (including many Turks) blend in a rather lively way, in comparison with other large western European cities Berlin is still remarkably white, especially in the eastern part, except for some residual ex-DDR Vietnamese (who cook well, by the way). I hear repeatedly that blacks don’t feel welcome, also in comparison to the rest of (western) Europe. Recent research (from Bielefeld’s sociologists, as well as from Münster’s) points that Germans are more hostile to non-Europeans, Muslims and Jews (!) than the neighbouring nations – although, at least, not in an “aggressive” way: fear of the unknown more than hatred of something real. Germany‘s enviable record of not having a significant rightwing-populist party may not last for long – so far, the populist Right had little space because the Linke covered social discontent, and the FDP covered the middle classes’ – but now the FDP tax populism has imploded (in the opinion polls the party is down to 3%, from 15% last year, good omen for the British Lib-Dems), while the Linke is deeply split.

Public transport

The best mean of transport in spacious, green and flat Berlin is the bicycle, but the round-the-clock public transport (also considering the large investment that was needed to link the eastern and western networks) is not bad. Or so I thought until, in November, I was informed that my monthly pass was extended for two more weeks, as a compensation for the poor level of service offered – which I hadn’t even noticed: used to Italian, Polish and British standards, I don’t have high expectations. Actually, does this extension-compensation principle apply to the rest of the EU? I should be entitled to a few years free transport in Milan and in the West Midlands…

In fact the disservice (again over the last few weeks due to snow) was limited to the S-Bahn, the bit which has been privatised (to Deutsche Bahn), while municipal buses, tramways and U-Bahn are perfect. Just another lesson on privatisation and efficiency…

Media

German newspapers are as thick and heavy as the British ones, but have much less advertising and much more to read. They are also more old-fashion: mostly broadsheet, with a focus on main news rather than investigative journalism or comment, and rather similar titles to each others and to the previous night TV news. I wonder if they can survive for long in this way in the internet era. For a three-month stay, I came to enjoy their rather old style, especially when reading them in the already old-style decadent setting of Berlin’s cafés, and their international coverage is impressive (for British newspapers, foreign news mostly means “US+Commonwealth+British tourists abroad”, and for Italian newspapers, it mostly means “what the world says of Italy”). Serious national papers are also more numerous than in any other EU country (stricter antitrust laws than in UK or Italy), which must be good for democracy.

While the main German papers are from West Germany, Berlin has its good share of serious papers: Tagesspiegel, Berliner Morgenpost, Berliner Zeitung. Good local news pages across Germany may partly explain a new wave of local-issues collective action across the country. I became affectionate to the Berliner Zeitung, originally from East Berlin, left-of-centre, similar look to the serious Zürcher Zeitung but lighter, proving that you can write short but non-nonsense articles, and devote much space to culture (it collaborates with the Frankfurter Rundschau). But the best Berlin’s paper is Tageszeitung, or taz, originally from the New Left and Kreuzberg’s occupied houses, now a bit too close to the Greens but still with excellent writing. And Berlin even has two other newspapers more to the Left: the former-SED Neues Deutschland and the former FDJ (DDR Youth) Junge Welt. Both a bit too propaganda-like to my taste, but with interesting information on union issues.

Culture

The problem is the excess of choice, source of dilemmas and regrets as you will miss 99.9% of the 3 thick pages of events published in the newspapers everyday. Cabaret in French, opera in Italian, talks in English, songs in Russian… Large choice of international, original language films, even if the Hollywood blockbusters are (deservedly) dubbed. The best concert hall and the best philharmonic orchestra in the world (with a new director from Birmingham, how little the world is).

And the museums. I have an ambivalent attitude to the museums. When I first visit places, they are never a priority (I confess to have seen no New York museum after three stays there): I have so many art books at home that the added value of seeing the original after the reproduction is marginal, in comparison to the irrepleceable and irreproduceable value of experiencing new quarters, views, foods; and most museums are just too big and crowded to provide a pleasant experience when visited in a hurry. But if I stay in a place for longer, and I can find the right time (Monday 9am, Tuesday 9pm…) to go, I love them and can’t understand how the locals can ignore their offerings, maybe because they have already seen them 20 years ago. Berlin is phenomenal in this regard. The Museumsinsel is being modernised and the ‘new’ Neues Museum and Bodemuseum are spectacular, with the right light for each individual work. The Zeughaus and the Judisches Museum are as instructive and absorbing as the best history books. On the Freie Universität campus, just out of the office for my lunch breaks, there are the Dahlem ethnographic and Asian museums, excellent compensations for an otherwise Eurocentric city. The Hamburger Bahnhof hosts amazing contemporary exhibitions in an exceptionally spacious setting. But my old favourite is still the Berggruen Sammlung – now, after his death, Berggruen Museum. A relatively small museum in a homely setting, with only masterpieces from Picasso, Matisse, Klee, Giacometti, individually chosen with a strong personal touch by Berggruen himself while he was helping Picasso & Co to sell (what a difficult job): I leave it as happy as after having seen old friends, not museum pieces.

Brandenburger Tor


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