It’s August! I’ve got a new blog template

Eagle-eyed readers would have noticed I’ve put in a new blog template.

The intent was to provide more space for photos and table data. The old template (and most like it, in fact) squash them up even when displayed on a big desktop screen.

See any problems? Leave a comment.

Also, I’m interested to know what’s better: a rotating or random header image, or the same one each time (for easy recognition)?

Issues I need to fix:

  • Comment numbering has disappeared. The usual method of fixing this isn’t working yet.
  • The Google ads are turned off for now. Sorry, but I’ll be switching them back on. Will try not to make them too obtrusive.
  • A change earlier in the year to HTTPS has broken a bunch of pictures in older posts. — fixed

Reminder: At present I’m posting a mix of new blog posts, and backdated Europe trip posts.

Cardiff Bay: Pierhead building and Millennium Centre

Good to see smoking bans have been extended

A short break from posting my holiday blogs

From today, smoking bans have been extended to include the entrances to most government buildings, as well as outdoor dining areas.

This is all good. We’re way behind the other states on this. It’s about time non-smokers, who make up the vast majority of the population, had the right to more smoke-free places, including while eating.

The changes also mean e-cigarettes are included in smoking bans.

This is also welcome. Until now, as I understand it, e-cigarettes were not actually banned on and around public transport.

Vapers like to claim it’s harmless. I’m not sure I believe that, but regardless, I still don’t want the fumes in my face.

Smokers

Until 2014, smoking was still permitted in some parts of railway stations, and around tram and bus shelters.

It was only in 2007 that smoking was banned in pubs. It seems outlandish now, but as late as 2001, you could smoke in restaurants.

At one office job I worked at in 1998, people still smoked in the courtyard entrance, and I was told it had only been a couple of years earlier that smoking had been banned inside the office.

To coin a phrase, smokers are a dying breed. In 2015 it was down to 11.9% of Victorians, and hopefully it’ll continue to drop as it’s banned in more places.

Smoke blows around easily, and sometimes it’s difficult to walk along city streets without breathing it in. So I hope the bans will continue to spread. It’s good to see progress.

Adults may have the right to smoke, but increasingly they can’t inflict it on others. And that’s a good thing.

I’m back!

Just back (yesterday) from a three week trip to the UK and Belgium.

Apart from seeing family, we visited Cardiff, Bath, Penzance, Brussels and London.

In summary? Had a great time!

As you can see, I’m really delighted to be back:

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff

Expect lots of overly-detailed blog posts in the next few weeks…

Use this link to see them all in chronological order*, or start here:

*When reading posts in chronological (that is, forwards) order, you counter-intuitively click the “Older Posts” link for the next page, which in fact is newer posts.

Congestion is not the enemy

This in the Herald Sun a few weeks ago: Melbourne traffic congestion on par with world’s biggest cities like London, Rome and New York (paywall):

TRAFFIC congestion in Melbourne is on par with New York and could rival the world’s worst cities if nothing is done to combat the problem.

Figures supplied by Tom Tom show congestion levels in Melbourne are at 33 per cent compared to its population.

This means motorists are sitting in peak hour congestion a third longer than if the traffic was free-flowing.

And then this in The Age: Melbourne now as clogged as Sydney, and the city’s north-east has worst traffic:

The Grattan Institute research is based on an analysis of Google map data for more than 300 routes in and out of Sydney and Melbourne. It was collected 25 times a day over 12 weeks between March and June 2017 and found:

An average morning commute to the Melbourne CBD by car takes almost 70 per cent longer than in the middle of the night.

These are based on very similar surveys: the Herald Sun used the much-criticised Tom Tom congestion survey. The Age used a Grattan Institute survey.

Both use the same flawed methodology. They compare a city’s traffic speed at quiet times with the traffic speed at peak hour.

Apart from assuming that getting around by car as fast as possible is automatically the most important thing, you get wacky conclusions because a city with 24/7 congestion (only slightly worse at peak hour) is deemed to be less congested than a city where most of the time there’s free-flowing traffic but for a couple of hours a day it’s proportionately worse.

(The Grattan Institute says there’s more coming. I hope it’s more well thought out than just looking at motor vehicle commuting.)

In any case, if this is our big conclusion that drives transport policy, I think we’re asking the wrong questions.

CBD traffic, Lonsdale and William Streets

The debate shouldn’t be about congestion

I don’t think the debate should be about congestion. It shouldn’t even be about mobility. It should be about access to opportunity: jobs, education, amenity.

It’s not about whether people who choose to drive* are delayed by others who choose to drive. It’s about whether everybody (including those who don’t drive) can get to the places they need to get to.

*Or are forced to do so for lack of viable alternatives.

(To contradict myself for a moment: congestion that gets in the way of efficient transport modes absolutely is the enemy. Ways need to be found to get pedestrians, bikes, trams, buses and trains around it, or at least through it quickly.)

One of the major benefits of a big city, if there are lots of opportunities well-serviced by public transport (and walking and cycling), is that it makes it easier for everyone, of every age, and every income level, to access them… provided they don’t insist on bringing their 2 tonne private vehicle, of course.

Bourke Street Mall, lunchtime

What sort of city do we want?

There’s also a lesson in the headlines. In the Herald Sun story, New York, London and Rome are cited, and compared to Melbourne. In other words, the most prosperous, vibrant, successful cities on Earth have congestion. And we’re becoming more like them.

Is that actually a bad thing?

As Samuel Schwartz says in his excellent book which I just finished reading:

…a study from Texas A&M’s Transportation Institute found a powerful correlation between per capita traffic delay and per capita GDP; and the correlation wasn’t negative, but the opposite. For every 10 percent increase in traffic delay, the study found a 3.4 percent increase in per capita GDP. It’s not that congestion itself increases economic productivity, but that places with a lot of congestion are economically vibrant; those without, not so much.

Should we really be trying to stamp out congestion, or should we look at how other cities deal with it?

The big world cities don’t deal with congestion by eliminating it – which basically isn’t possible; building more roads just grows more traffic.

Rather, they provide lots of ways of avoiding traffic congestion, by making sure more people can get around without driving in it and adding to it: by providing viable non-car modes for most trips, including non-work, non-CBD trips.

Decentralisation and liveability

Meanwhile, the state Coalition is calling for more decentralisation to maintain Melbourne’s liveability. By “liveability” I suspect they actually mean crowding and congestion.

Again, look around the world at the cities we might aspire to be.

What makes Melbourne’s congested city centre successful in this age of the Information Economy is lots of people in a relatively small space. The majority, who come in by train, are simply never affected by traffic congestion. (They are affected by rail disruptions such as last week’s major outage, but that’s not an everyday thing.)

Decentralisation plays against one of our key strengths.

Which is not to say we shouldn’t increase the number of viable business districts, if it’s possible.

But just moving lots of people to car-dominated regional towns doesn’t really help. As Alan Davies notes, decentralisation is just another name for regional sprawl. And replacing urban sprawl with regional sprawl isn’t actually a positive.

Okay I’ve rambled a bit again.

But my key point is: congestion isn’t our enemy. Lack, and inequity of access is what we should be talking about, and seeking to fix.

Heading to the wild, wild west (Cornwall)

(Backdated. Posted 16/8/2017)

We bade our farewells to the family and my uncle K gave us a lift to Taunton station.

First step to our next destination was a train to Exeter, or to be precise, Exeter St Davids. As with Bath a few days earlier, Exeter is served by multiple railway stations, originally built by different railway companies.

Exeter Central is, as the name would suggest, more central, but it’s Exeter St Davids that opened first, and is now the busier main station. (Some people complain that Melbourne Central Station isn’t the main/central station. It seems that situation isn’t unique.)

We had to change trains at Exeter, but first we peered outside (pouring with rain, pretty much the first rain we’d encountered on the trip) and bought some sandwiches to eat on the way.

Our next train was heading for our destination: Penzance. It was the grandly named Cornish Riviera Express. Apparently this name has been used since 1904. It was mentioned on the station displays, though I didn’t notice any specific branding on the train itself, which was a standard High Speed Train (Intercity 125) set.

The train to Penzance, from Exeter St Davids

Grey and green, somewhere in Devon

We zoomed along through Devon, with some great scenery despite the grey skies.

Due to the hilly countryside, there are a large number of railway viaducts providing views over towns such as Plymouth. This is the view from the Keyham Viaduct – apparently it’s 27 metres up in the air. (Here’s what it looks like from below.)

Plymouth: rail viaduct over St Levan Road

Yet another grand bridge built by Brunel carried us across the River Tamar and into Cornwall. In fact we passed over numerous bridges, with some very impressive views along the way. Of course you can’t really see the bridges when you’re in the train, though in this case we got a good view of the parallel road bridge.

And then… we stopped at St Erth, one station short of Penzance, about 10 kilometres away.

For a while we didn’t move. My spidey sense detected something wrong. Then the announcement.

A truck (sorry, a lorry) had struck a bridge up ahead. The conductor, sorry train manager (fair enough, these HST trains are pretty long, and they actually have quite a few staff) got on the PA and apologised profusely, but we’d need to hop off the train here and wait for replacement buses.

We all got off the train in the drizzle and sheltered in the undercover part of the platform. The train manager and her colleagues were on their two-way radios trying to find out about replacement buses and/or whether the train would continue on once engineers had checked the safety of the bridge.

After a few minutes they said that due to the delay, the train would be short-shunting and heading back to London.

One of the rail staff suggested, given there was no ETA on trains resuming, that people exit the station and try their luck with the local buses. I checked Google Maps for buses – they ran about every 20 minutes from here to Penzance. I also checked the Uber app. Nothing nearby. So in light drizzle, we joined a queue of the braver passengers at the bus stop on the main road.

St Erth station, Cornwall

Bustituted on the way to Penzance

A bus arrived and a rail staffer hopped on first to check with the driver about them accepting rail tickets. The bus driver, who in fact is from the same parent company, seemed more concerned with just keeping to his schedule, and let everybody aboard gratis, so we squeezed on with our luggage and had a slightly more lurchy, cramped arrival in Penzance than expected.

We’d come halfway around the world and we’d been short-shunted and bustituted.

The train had been due in Penzance at 3:11pm. The line was shut until about an hour after that, but the bus got us there about the same time the line re-opened, so we probably ended up saving some time. As it was, the Train Manager had said we should be able to claim a refund on our tickets, so a few days later, I did just that. I haven’t actually had a response yet. (I don’t know how it works when the incident is outside the train company’s control.)

GWR web site: Trains delayed

From the bus station, we walked to hotel, just off the main drag, which curiously is called Market Jew Street. Apparently the name is a derivation of the Cornish Marghas Yow meaning Thursday Market.

The bloke on the hotel front desk asked “Where from Oz are you?” Melbourne – “Ah! I had a working holiday there, lived in Hawthorn for a while.” Small world.

(Few people in Australia say “Oz”, by the way. It appears to be particularly British slang for Australia.)

Across from the hotel was a shop full of various secondhand goods, and a Dalek in the window. Nice. (Weeks later, regular Doctor Who writer and actor Mark Gatiss would spot it too, and if you Google for Penzance Dalek, it looks like everyone who’s been through town has seen it.)

Nearby was a house marked with a non-blue plaque noting that the aunt and mother of the Brontë sisters had once lived there. History.

We headed down towards the sea to explore.

Chapel Street, Penzance

Letter box by Penzance Harbour

It wasn’t cold and it wasn’t raining, but the weather was more than a bit breezy. Powerful waves were hitting the coastline.

I was keen to look closely, but keener still to keep my feet dry, as in an attempt to pack light, I’d only brought one pair of shoes on the trip. As you may be able to hear from my exclamation, this was not entirely successful.

Western Promenad, Penzance

No pirates were obvious, but they wouldn’t be, would they?

Trivia from Wikipedia on The Pirates Of Penzance: The work’s title is a multi-layered joke. On the one hand, Penzance was a docile seaside resort in 1879, and not the place where one would expect to encounter pirates. On the other hand, the title was also a jab at the theatrical “pirates” who had staged unlicensed productions of H.M.S. Pinafore in America.

Apparently the lack of international copyright had caused problems for Pinafore.

Nowadays the locals seem enamoured of Poldark, which is filmed and set around Cornwall.

Other sights included a drydock, ship in situ, and various other shippy infrastructure which indicated it’s very much a working harbour.

Drydock, Penzance

Penzance Ship Repairers

Penzance Harbour

The Dolphin Tavern, Penzance

After a long walk around, we ended up back in the middle of town, and decided to eat dinner at a pub we’d spotted – The Dolphin, by the water. Most delicious.

Then some more walking around before we headed back to the hotel.