Archive for the ‘Transportation’ Category


April 11, 2016

A little over a year ago I published a post in which I proposed a simple rule for comparing the prices of things across the years.  I call it the “one-hundred rule” because it postulates that, at least since about 1900, prices — in US dollars — have been increasing a hundredfold in 100 years. It corresponds to an annual inflation rate of 4.73%, and also means that prices double every 15 years. I have found that it works quite well for such disparate products and services as postage, coffee, hamburgers, hotel rooms, cars (at least from the time that they were in general use) and even houses in rural England (with reference to Downton Abbey).

Some products or services, however, cannot be compared over a long time span.  As I noted in the post, the price of a Model T Ford automobile dropped considerably in the decade after its introduction, as car ownership gradually became the norm, and the formula works only from the later point in time (1925).   Similarly, a telephone call nowadays is a very different process from what it was half a century ago.

And while the formula works reasonably well with respect to broadly based housing costs, it fails spectacularly when it comes to housing in cities. A personal example: in 1966 (exactly half a century ago) my then-wife and I bought a small house in Berkeley (California) for $16,900 and sold it six years later for $22,300. This is a factor of 1.32, and 1.04736 = 1000.06 = 1.32 — perfect! But according to the rule the price should now be ten times what we paid, that is, around $170,000. Instead, it is estimated at between $700,000 and $800,000. Yikes!

What has happened is that city living in early-21st-century America is not what it was in mid-20th century, and though the house is physically the same (there is no record of any expansion), it no longer represents the same thing. In the 1950s and 1960s middle-class Americas, on the whole, didn’t like living in cities. The very rich, of course, had their mansions and town houses as well as their country homes, but the middle class opted for something in between, which was the suburbs. The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) system, which was designed in the 1950s and built in the 1960s, reflects the attitude of the time: what it does is connect the urban core that includes downtown San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley (where the University of California is located) with the suburbs (including those that are within the legal city limits); what it does not do is facilitate movement among various parts of the metropolitan area that don’t happen to lie along the lines going through downtown Oakland and San Francisco.It is, in other words, not a metro like those in other big cities around the world, but a commuter railroad comparable to the RER in France, the S-Bahn in Germany or the Cercanías in  Spain, with the big difference that the European systems are integrated with their countries’ mainline railroad networks, including high-speed trains, while BART is not integrated with anything; it doesn’t even use standard railroad gauge.

The absence of a true metro makes Bay Area living more cumbersome and more dependent on driving.  (While Washington has something called Metro, it’s also a radial system like BART.)

The change from a time when “inner city” was a pejorative to the present situation, when it is desirable enough to have caused a hyperinflation in urban housing costs (except in places like Detroit), may have occurred some time around the 1980s, when air travel got cheaper and more Americans traveled to Europe, discovering the tree-lined boulevards with bicycle lanes, the sidewalk cafés (hitherto banned in the US for supposed health reasons) and other pleasures of city living, which were then brought back here. But, as a result of planning decisions made in an earlier age, convenient public transportation is not one of them.


June 12, 2015

In my last post, I noted how Google Maps gives  accurate information on public transportation, both local and long-distance, in Spain, Italy and Germany, but fails to do so with regard to train travel in Belgium and France. In Belgium, the information is found readily (and reliably) on the website of Belgian Railways (NMBS/SNCB), in Dutch, English, French and German. In principle it should be the same with French Railways (SNCF), but it didn’t quite work out that way with regard to a trip from Amiens to Paris.

A previous consultation of the website had shown that a train listed as Intercités 2014 was due to leave at 11:05 and arrive at the Gare du Nord at 12:29. This seemed to be an ideal connection, and when we arrived at Amiens on the preceding day the electronic timetable at the station did in fact show that train.

I had thought about getting our tickets for the train right after our arrival from Ghent (with a train change at Lille), but since the ticket office (nowadays called espace de ventes) was to be open till 21:30, we decided to do it later. When we got to the station at 8 in the evening, however, the office was closed; a printed sign on the door said that “for exceptional reasons” (unspecified) they would be closing at 19:30.

We decided to try the automatic ticket machine. The train in question was listed as having only first-class seats available, at a price more than twice of second class, but in any case the machine would not accept our American debit card. Since the ticket office would open at 05:50, we could easily postpone the purchase to the morrow.

Meanwhile, checking the SNCF site on my smartphone, I found that the train we wanted was not listed at all  on the reservations page, while the timetable page had it departing at 11:35.

When I got to the station (a short walk from our hotel) the next morning at 7:30, there was as yet no sign of life at the espace de ventes. I asked around, and was told variously that the office would open at 7:45 and 8:00. It was actually opened (reluctantly, it seemed) at 8:15, and I got the second-class tickets I wanted with no problem. The train, though officially an Intercités, was in fact composed of TER Picardie cars, second-class only. I wonder what we would have done with our first-class tickets, had we bought them from the machine!

A check of the SNCF website today shows the train listed, with an 11:20 departure (but still a 12:29 arrival), on both the reservations and timetable pages. Perhaps the slower time when we took it was due to track work, and perhaps the inconsistencies in the electronic information were due to a system malfunction. I have generally had good experiences riding French trains (except during strikes), and I hope that what happened last month (which, in any case, did not affect the travel itself) was a fluke.

Traveling by Google

June 5, 2015

I have just learned, from  this story in the San Francisco Chronicle, that I am one of the 53 percent of Internet map users who rely primarily on Google Maps, and one of the 90 percent who do so primarily on a mobile device. Rarely do I find myself so much a member of a majority.

I was an early user of MapQuest. I flirted for some time with the soon-to-be-discontinued Yahoo Maps. But once Google Maps became established I quickly converted, seduced by the fact that it provides not only driving directions but also ones for walking, bicycling and public transit. I have found the last option especially useful here in the Bay Area, obviating the need to consult separately the various agencies (AC Transit, BART, SF Muni and others). And on a recent trip to Europe which began in Barcelona and continued to Rome and then Cologne (via Ryanair), I got all the necessary bus, metro and suburban-rail connections pretty much right. And the information for continuing our travel from Cologne to Aachen by train was also spot on; GM, obviously linked to Deutsche Bahn, gave both the regional RE trains and the international ICE express trains (which go on to Brussels) at their scheduled times.

But when I was planning the continuation of our voyage from Aachen into Belgium, something strange happened. Had our destination been Brussels, we would of course have taken the ICE which would have whisked us there in a little over an hour. But we had decided that our base would be Ghent, and for the connection from Aachen to Ghent Google Maps gave the following:

12:21 PM–3:52 PM

High speed trainICE Bus214 Bus96 3 h 31 min

12:21 PM from Aachen Hbf

4 min

Schedule explorer
12:21 PM
Aachen Hbf
12:21 PM

Aachen Hbf

ICEICE 16towards Bruxelles-Midi
1 h 5 min (2 stops)
 1:26 PM
 Gare de Bruxelles-Nord


About 2 min
 1:35 PM
 Brussel Noord Perron 2

 Bus214 towards Brussel – Aalst

 1 h 18 min (57 stops) · Stop ID: 300855
 2:53 PM
 Aalst Station Perron 5


About 1 min
2:59 PM

Aalst Station Perron 3

Bus96 towards Aalst – Erpe Vijfhuizen – Oordegem – Melle – Gent
52 min (46 stops) · Stop ID: 204972
 3:51 PM
 Gent St.-Pietersstation Perron 12


 About 1 min , 160 m
 3:52 PM
Station Gent-Sint-Pieters
9000 Gent, Belgium

It seemed very strange that there would be no train from Brussels to Ghent and the trip would have to be done on two buses and take two and a half hours. I then checked on the website of Belgian Railways (SNCB/NMBS) and found out that there are about five such trains every hour, express trains taking half an hour and local trains taking an hour. Why weren’t they shown on Google Maps?

It so happened that the ICE train that we were going to take from Cologne to Aachen, and for which we had the tickets, was canceled a few minutes before departure. We quickly changed platforms to take the slower (and cheaper) regional train, and when we arrived in Aachen we requested (and promptly received) a refund of the difference in fares. When we inquired about going to Ghent, we were informed that, instead of changing trains in Brussels, there was an alternative that was perhaps a little bit slower but, for travelers over 65, considerably cheaper: we could take a local (L) train (operated by Belgian Railways) from Aachen to the nearby Belgian town of Welkenraedt (French-speaking despite the seemingly Germanic name) and there, on the same platform, hop onto one of the hourly express IC trains that run clear across Belgium, from Eupen to Ostend, by way of Liège, Brussels, Ghent and Bruges. The trip from Aachen to Ghent, including the change, takes two and a half hours (ours took longer because the Aachen-Welkenraedt train was late and so the connection was missed).

Now let’s see what Google Maps has to say about this sort of trip. The train from Aachen to Welkenraedt (and vice versa) is covered, because it is code-shared as both a Belgian local train and a German regional (R) train. How about Welkenraedt to Ghent, in reality a direct train taking 2 hours and 11 minutes?

7:42 AM–12:52 PM

TrainR ICE Bus214 Bus94 5 h 10 min

7:42 AM from Gare de Welkenraedt

3 min

Schedule explorer
7:42 AM
Gare de Welkenraedt
4840 Welkenraedt, Belgium
7:42 AM

Gare de Welkenraedt

7:56 AM

RR 5006 towards Aachen Hbf

14 min (2 stops)
8:21 AM

Aachen Hbf

ICEICE 18 towards Bruxelles-Midi

And then it’s the same as the previously given trip from Aachen to Ghent.

For trips within Belgium, such as from Ghent to Bruges, similar combinations of buses run by De Lijn were given. Now it so happens that De Lijn also runs all the local transport in Flanders, so that  information about buses and trams in Ghent was readily available on GM. But for some strange reason GM is not linked to Belgian Railways. I’m sure I’m not the only one aware of this; there are probably a few million frustrated Belgians in this situation. But I have found no reference to it online.

Belgian Railways also operates several trains a day going from Antwerp to Lille (in France) and stopping at Ghent; the trip from Ghent to Lille is about an hour and a quarter. For the Google Maps result, let the map speak for itself.

Gent Sint-Pietersstation, Ghent, Belgium to Gare de Lille-Flandres - Google MapsLille, however, was not our final destination on that day; it was Amiens. But when I queried Google Maps about the trip, I got the following reply:

     Sorry, your search appears to be outside our current coverage area for transit.

It was the same for traveling from Amiens to Paris. Obviously, then, SNCF (the French railway system) is not linked with Google Maps, either. (SNCF’s online presence, however, isn’t all that great; I’ll write about that another time.)

Google Maps does, on the other hand, give information about local transit in Paris, including buses, metro and RER (suburban rail). But something strange happened when I tried to find the schedule of trains on the well-known  (see Wikipedia, for example) RER line B to Charles de Gaulle Airport, a trip taking about 35 minutes. When I entered “Paris Nord, France” as the origin and “Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 – TGV, France” as the destination, I got several options, and one of them did in fact involve RER B. But rather than the northbound train going directly to the airport, GM had me take the southbound:

9:28 AM
 Gare du Nord
 TrainRER B towards Cité Universitaire
 11 min (5 stops)
 9:39 AM
About 2 min
 9:43 AM
 Subway6 towards Nation
 10 min (8 stops)
 9:53 AM
 About 4 min
 10:00 AM
 Gare Paris-Bercy
 BusiDBUS towards Bruxelles
 45 min (non-stop) ·
 10:45 AM
 Paris aéroport Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle Roissypôle
About 18 min , 1.1 km
 11:03 AM
Aéroport Charles de Gaulle 2 – TGV

This is even more puzzling: since RATP (the Paris transit network, including RER) is in the  Google Maps system, why isn’t the airport line there?


January 23, 2015

When I first read about the car-sharing entity called Uber, I assumed that the name would be pronounced as Yuber, in accordance with the usual English way of pronouncing word-initial “long u“: union, usage, uterus, utopia,… But I’ve never heard it pronounced as anything but oober, which makes me think that this is how the company calls itself, and that the name is meant to be interpreted as Latin. Now uber as a Latin adjective means ‘fertile’ or ‘productive’ and as a noun it can mean something like ‘fertile ground,’ but by far the most common meaning is that of ‘(female) breast’ or ‘teat.’ Why a company whose goal is to transport people would call itself that, I don’t know.

And whenever I think of Latin, I think of the many terms used to denote a person of (at least partly) sub-Saharan African descent, especially in America. Such people have been called darkies, Negroes, colored, black, Afro-American, African-American, and in the more distant past also Moors, Abyssinian, and Ethiopian. The geographic inaccuracy of the last three designations doesn’t really matter, any more than the actual color described as black (or, for that matter, white; chessboards and chessmen are not always strictly black and white either). Of course, negro is just the Spanish or Portuguese word for  black.

But then there is the Latin word for black: niger. This, two was commonly used in English to designate people in or from Africa from about the end of the 16th century onward (as was pater for father — it must have been a kind of affectation by educated Britons). Around the end of the 18th century some (but not all) writers began adding a second g, presumably in order to insure a pronunciation closer to the Latin one, rhyming with bigger and not, at least in English, with tiger (though Robert Burns rhymes nigger, vigour and tiger).

And, around the same time as the spelling change, the Latin word became offensive, both in the mouths of those saying it and in the ears of those hearing it. What is it about Latin?

Incidentally, the word nègre plays a similarly offensive role in French, but perhaps not to the same extent. The English version of Jean Genêt’s play provocatively titled Les Nègres  was given the inoffensive title The Blacks. (Conversely, black is now an OK word in French for referring to people of African origin or descent.)


January 7, 2015

Yesterday (January 6, 2015) was, according to the media, a momentous day for California. A hole was dug that represents Jerry Brown’s long-time wet dream: the groundbreaking of the California High-Speed Rail line. I will call it CHSR for now, though I’m sure that in time a more speaker-friendly moniker will be made up.

Don’t get me wrong: I like Jerry Brown. I liked him in the 1970s as Governor Moonbeam, and I like him in the 2010s as Mr. Pragmatic, a role he prepared for in the 2000s as mayor of Oakland and Attorney General.

I also like high-speed rail. 25 years ago I rode the Tokaido Shinkansen from Kyoto to Osaka, and since then I have ridden the TGV in France and the AVE in Spain several times. But, as far as I remember, in none of those trips did I simply go from one high-speed rail station to another. For example, when a few years ago my wife and I traveled on the AVE from Zaragoza to Barcelona, we first took a bus from Jaca that took us directly to the intermodal Delicias station Delicias(where the bus station is integrated with the rail station), and after arriving at Barcelona Sants it was a simple matter to go to another track and board a suburban train (Cercanías/Rodalies) to Barcelona Estació de França, from where we had a pleasant walk to our hotel.

What I am saying is that in the countries that have working high-speed rail lines, these lines are part of an integrated rail system that includes long-distance lines, regional lines and suburban lines, and bus lines as well. California has no such system, and none is being planned, as far as I know. There is a hodgepodge of individual rail lines with little or no connectivity, the nearest thing being Amtrak’s bus service. Even when several lines meet at the same station, the frequency of trains is so low (some run only once a day) and their punctuality so abysmal (since most passenger trains share tracks with, and give way to, freight trains) that making connections is, for the most part, out of the question.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the only station where our suburban system (BART) connects with other rail lines is Richmond, a location that’s convenient for me (I live in El Cerrito) but not for the bulk of Bay Area residents. And, of course, Richmond is not along the planned route of CHSR. If I am still around when CHSR is complete, as is its full extension to the Transbay Transit Center in San Francisco (scheduled for completion in 2029 — I was born in 1935 — and we know what scheduled completion dates mean in California), then I could, in principle, take BART to Embarcadero, walk to Transbay and take CSHR to Los Angeles. Otherwise I might have to go to Richmond and take the Capitol Corridor to the San Jose Diridon station — a 54-mile (87-km) trip that takes an hour and three quarters. High-speed rail indeed!

The planning of a high-speed line that is not an integral part of an interconnected system reminds me of a similar situation in North American soccer.

There is an organization, called Major League Soccer (MLS), which functions as the Division I equivalent of the likes of the Premier League, La Liga and the like. There is also a Division II North American Soccer League (NASL) and a Division III USL Pro. But, unlike most other soccer-playing countries, these entities don’t form a league system, with promotion and relegation as a key ingredient (though there has been some “self-relegation” from NASL to USL Pro). The system of promotion and relegation is what makes it interesting to follow games in the lower divisions and those involving low-ranking teams  (at least for people who are not fans of the teams). Without it, one quickly loses interest. Since its lousy record over the past two seasons I have not followed the team that, by dint of geography, I should be a fan of — the San Jose Earthquakes. (I have actually been a fan of the LA Galaxy, partly because I grew up in Los Angeles and partly because their star was my namesake Cobi Jones [the fact that I write my name Coby is an arbitrary choice on my part], though my loyalty faded when he retired and David Beckham joined the team.)

There is also the matter of MLS’s name. With sports leagues in the English-speaking world, if the word league is part of the name, it generally comes at the end (no need to give examples), even when the “league” is not actually a league but a tournament (e.g. Champions’ League). Why does MLS have it in the middle?

My guess is that Major League Soccer is a calque of the very prestigious Major League Baseball (MLB). But MLB is, at least historically, an umbrella organization for the two major leagues, the American League and the National League, which until 2000 were separate legal entities; it was only then that MLB actually became a league.

MLS was formed well before that, in 1995. But then it isn’t really a league either, at least in the conventional sense of “an association of teams or clubs that compete chiefly among themselves” (American Heritage Dictionary); the “teams or clubs” of MLS are not entities that are voluntarily associated with one another, but units of “a single-entity structure in which teams and player contracts are centrally owned” (Wikipedia) by it. So perhaps Major League Soccer should be read as “Major-League” Soccer; a soccer organization that wants to look like a major league but isn’t really.

The Wikipedia article also notes that “one aspect that had alienated fans was that MLS experimented with rules deviations in its early years in an attempt to ‘Americanize’ the sport.” It isn’t just rules deviations; it’s the fact that a 20-team “league” does not, as do other such leagues, play a standard home-and-home schedule of 38 games with the winner as champion, but follows other American sports in dividing itself into “conferences” with post-season playoffs for the championship, and not allowing (as I mentioned above) relegation and promotion. Since real soccer fans like me can follow European and Mexican football on television, it’s no wonder we feel alienated by MLS.

The San Francisco Chronicle’s columnist Jon Carroll wrote in his column today that, as he was riding the TGV, “[he] thought: Wasn’t this supposed to be our future? Wasn’t the United States supposed to produce the best ideas in commercial transportation? Those are rhetorical questions.”

Perhaps smilar questions can be asked about professional sports organizations.