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August 20, 2014

Enough People

Following the post-war baby boom, and a burgeoning prosperity in the West, the 1960s were awash in cars as well as enterprising young people. It was almost inevitable that the practice of phone booth stuffing (remember phone booths?) gave way to car stuffing.

Fun, right?

At the time, the favourite car to stuff with people was the VW Beetle. And the Morris Mini. Around the same time, concern about world population - or rather, over-population - began to surface among the general public. Maybe being immobilised over the steering wheel by the bodies of friends made people think.

August 15, 2014

Eight Ways to Catch the Train - None by Driving Your Car

Rail is wonderful. Rail is great. Rail is low-carbon, low stress and often low-cost as well. But too often, the lack of a good way to get to and from the railway station can be a dealbreaker. So here are a few ways to get access to the station, as modeled in Delft, a Dutch city of about 100,000.

1. BYO bike
On your home turf, your own bike is the method of choice. Bicycle parking, or "fietsenstalling" in Dutch, is free on the outside racks. There is a small daily fee for a spot on the covered racks where your bike stays dry and an attendant keeps an eye on things. (The building's colour, "Delft Blue", was probably chosen for the benefit of visitors).


Most stations in Dutch cities offer bicycle parking, ranging from a few racks in small towns, to the three-story bicycle palace next to Central Station in Amsterdam. Which is pretty full on most work days.

If you must have your very own bike where you get off the train, you can bring it with you for a small fee. There are designated places where you can store your bike on the train.

August 9, 2014

Raahgiri: Car-free Sunday, Indian style

This is what traffic in New Delhi often looks like.


Photo by NOMAD

Enough New Delhi residents are fed up with their roads being clogged by cars, that they have decided to take back the streets. Starting at Connaught Place, one of New Delhi's shopping and business districts since it was designed by W.H. Nicholls, the Chief Architect to the Indian government in the early 20th century.

August 5, 2014

Review: 2014 Honda Civic

Did a double take on the street. There was this good-looking car parked across the street - as in, not "vanilla" - and it was labeled Honda Civic!

Here. This is what Americans think of when you say "Honda Civic". Right?

It's about as conventional, un-offensive, unremarkable as you can get. If you were to rob a bank, you'd choose a US Civic for the getaway car. For its ability to get lost in the crowd.

That's not what I saw. This is what I saw:

August 1, 2014

How to Drive on the Wrong Side of the Road (and Live to Tell the Tale)

Are you living where you drive on the right and moving, or considering holidays to a place where they have left-hand drive, like Great Britain, Hong Kong or Japan? Or the other way around? Here are a few strategies to make driving on the "wrong" side of the road safer.


Photo by Alex Proimos

July 26, 2014

Sweet BlueMotion

The Aerosmith song starts "You talk about things and nobody cares / You're wearing out things that nobody wears".

Well, have I been driving a thing that nobody drives. Nobody in the US, that is. I'll talk about it, too, and I don't care that you don't care. But you should care.

I've been driving a rented Golf for a week. Except that the steering wheel is on the right side of the car (more on that in another post), it's just the same as our Golf. Same sturdy seating, not overstuffed. Same ample trunk that easily fits our luggage with room to spare. Same easy handling.

However, under the hood it's a little different: it has the 1.6L diesel engine that is not for sale in the US (where the smallest engine is the 2.0L TDI). This rental car was augmented by Volkswagen's "BlueMotion" suite of technologies that boost the fuel efficiency.

I confess freely: I was lousy at hypermiling this car.

July 24, 2014

The Difference Between Owning a Car and Being Mobile

It makes the news when a city like Helsinki announces that, by 2025, its suite of mobility-on-demand solutions will be so comprehensive that it will be quite pointless to own a car. But in fact, the trend in many large cities has been going that way for a long time.

Compare these two pictures of Oxford Street, London's shopping paradise, the first taken in the up-beat 1950s, the second this summer.


Oxford Street, 1955. Photo by Ben Brooksbank

In the days just after the War, Oxford Street was already lined with shops. There was enough space for three cars abreast in each direction. The sidewalk was fairly generous. Private automobiles shared the road with the famed double-decker buses, and the iconic London taxis, all black.

July 6, 2014

The Difference Between a Road and a Means of Transport

A recent Op-Ed in the New York Times sighs, "America’s infrastructure is now so wretched that, in some areas, the only people who drive straight are the drunks. Anyone who is sober swerves to avoid potholes."

So yes, the Federal excise tax on gasoline, which helps pay for highway maintenance, has been stuck at 18 cents a gallon since 1993, quite unaffected by inflation or the slowly decreasing use of gasoline. And states and local authorities are broke.


Photo by Sascha Pöschl.

But the way road infrastructure is built and managed could also be a lot better. My dad, a retired civil engineer, always says that construction is far easier than maintenance. He especially sighs at "vanity" projects in developing countries, where developed-world roads are built, complete with beautiful overpasses and glorious bridges, but where maintenance funds are not assigned, so that the steel and concrete glory starts to crumble faster than you can say "repair funds".

July 2, 2014

Up! Holland up!

Some time in the course of the 2010 World Cup, I looked out of the window of my dad's flat in Holland and spotted, right on the parking lot, a diminuitive Volkwagen up!, all decked out in orange and with the works "up! Holland up!" painted down its sides.

I grinned. It was a brilliant marriage of the name of Volkswagen's tiniest car, the up!, and the fighting song of one of Europe's smallest nations. Very much tongue in cheek, it goes, "Hup, Holland, hup! Don't put the lion in its undershirt." It is sung in the key of good nature, by supporters of Dutch teams at international sporting events.

June 29, 2014

Counter Coulter

There was a bewildering article about soccer written by one Ann Coulter, who is apparently a conservative political commentator. From what I can tell - it's not easy to read through the article's ranting - she seems to say soccer is a liberal plot to make Americans like the metric system, and will inevitably lead to the nation's moral decay, QED.

It's hard to fathom how a columnist is so willing to write about something she doesn't understand. I don't think Coulter has watched a soccer match in her life. Or not a good one, anyway. It's the only way someone can claim that "Individual achievement is not a big factor in soccer".

June 23, 2014

Soccer Flags

You wouldn't necessarily notice much in the US, except in ethnic neighbourhoods, but football fever is on. As in: soccer! Mostly you can tell because cars have started to sprout from their side windows these small flags, fluttering in the breeze, and indicating the country supported by the driver.

As of this writing, it's early days in the 2014 World Cup tournament, so things are still relatively mellow. But as the final matches approach, the countries whose teams have made it to the semi-finals will suddenly break out in the national colours. In the Netherlands, everything turns an eye-watering orange, in one of those country-wide nods to the royal house originated by William of Orange.

June 16, 2014

Google Car: the case for the improbable

When I was a freshman, and an international student newly arrived in the United States, I learned to my astonishment that "breakfast cereal" means not Kellogg's corn flakes or Alpen Muesli - the only ones I had encountered before - but an entire isle of variously shaped and coloured offerings. My first grocery shopping trips where always whole-afternoon affairs.

I also found out about this game called football. Where feet are hardly used at all. Apart from that the rules were all mystifying to me: even the shape of the ball was something I'd never seen before, like a lemon gone wrong. Of course, there are plenty of other games with obtuse rules, such as cricket or snooker, and odd ways of keeping track of the score, such as in tennis or snooker, and creative and unusual orders of hitting the balls, such as in pool - or snooker.

My freshman year was the first year my dorm had gone co-ed. There were plenty of kind upperclassmen who were eager to explain the rules of football to a foreign newcomer. But I waved away the kind offers, and set out to divine the rules just from watching the games. It was a jumble. Here were these guys with shoulders like the Incredible Hulk's and legs like Rudolf Valentino's, huddling, bending, throwing the ball in the wrong direction, and then all running around in incomprehensible patterns that made my friends shout an appreciative "Yeah!" I remained throroughly mystified.


[The Obamas' dog probably has a better idea of why he's running than I did about the rules of football.]

But one day I wandered outside, into a pickup game of touch football. My friends invited me in, on the principle of learning by doing. It was kind of them: really, I had no clue what was going on.