30 October 2005

Asia's Cities Face Gridlock

Editor’s note: This is to my mind a pretty solid vision of the policy and technical challenges, but then again the people and groups involved in this case are among our leading international colleagues in all our work in this area. You might want to give a listen to the Real Player report, as a reminder that we need to put all our tools to work in this tough up-hill struggle.

Asia's Cities Face Gridlock
By Ron Corben, Bangkok, 25 October 2005

• Corben report - Download 351k
Listen to Corben report (uses RealPlayer)

Transport analysts say the solution to easing congestion in Asia's huge cities lies with mass bus transport systems replacing private cars.

Asia's cities, boosted by economic prosperity, especially in China and India, are facing increasing gridlock unless urgent measures to promote mass transit systems are promoted.

This was the warning from transport analysts during a regional conference in Bangkok on sustainable transportation and air quality.

More than 100 transport specialists from 10 countries at the conference say the solution lies in providing better public transportation systems to lure car owners away from driving.
Heather Allen, a manager with the International Association of Public Transport, says Asian cities need to stress transport systems over private car use.

"At the moment, anywhere in the world, the energy issue is very firmly on the table and the energy efficiency of public transport," she said. "Our experience and our research shows that on average you can go twice as far using public transport as you can with a private individual car."

Asia's love affair with the car appears very strong. In India, car sales in September were up almost 10 percent, while in China vehicle sales were up 33 percent from a year ago to 354,000 units. Both countries have booming economies and growing middle classes.

But experts say such growth aggravates the problems of increasingly crowded cities.

Axel Friedrich from Germany's Federal Environmental Agency says such growth cannot be sustained as traffic snarls increase in cities. Also, he says, more private cars aggravate pollution problems and increase economic costs because workers and cargo get stuck on jammed roads.

"The density of people in a city like Hong Kong, like Shanghai, or Beijing, is 10 times higher than in Europe or the United States," reminded Mr. Friedrich. "So if you try to get the same number of vehicles, what happened in Beijing, you are stuck in traffic. You can not move any more and this of course is not sustainable; so why promote a system you know is not working in the long term?"

But Mr. Friedrich says while Shanghai's government is trying to reverse the trend and put in place more public transportation, such changes are difficult to make.

Transport analysts say that new systems such as underground railways are often too expensive and provide low returns to investors or governments.

The most efficient systems and fastest to implement are bus systems. But Mr. Friedrich says governments often face local political and business interests when trying to put in place such efficient, low-cost transport systems.

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29 October 2005

Carsharing and Sustainable Transportation: 2005-2007

Note: The following builds on an oral presentation made as part of the final wrap-up that I was asked to present to a conference that took place in Brussels on 27/28 January 2005 under the title 'Keys to Car-Sharing: moving the city of tomorrow'. I was recently asked to go back to my notes and take a stab at putting in writing the main points made in that closing presentation. Which is what follows here. . (Your critical comments and remarks are as always energetically solicited.)

Carsharing and Sustainable Transportation:

Overview and recommendations for 2005-2007

Eric Britton, The Commons, Paris, France, 29 Oct. 2005

New Mobility Agenda & the World Carshare Consortium

http://www.newmobility.org and http://worldcarshare.com

1. Take Kyoto seriously

a. Transport accounts for 50% or more of all emissions in most cities, but there is nothing going on under the Kyoto Protocols or internationally that indicates that this challenge is being addressed and met.[1]

b. We propose that the European Commission and Union take an aggressive “point role” in creating a strategy and mechanism for Kyoto Compliance in the broad and as yet untended area of city transport.

c. Within this broader context, carsharing, got right, can make a contribution to help our cities move closer toward “Kyoto Compliance”

d. And that specifically in the next stage of work and activity to build on the moses results, that carsharing be targeted as an important “Kyoto Compliance tool”.

2. Carsharing offers a practical tool in the transition to sustainable transport.

a. With several decades of experience and operations now ongoing in more than five hundred places world wide, carsharing has passed beyond the stage of limited demonstration to practical reality.

b. Carsharing is both a viable transportation option -- and a potentially powerful sustainability tool in itself. But no less important it has its place as one strategic component of a multi-level alternative (to private car) transportation in cities.

c. We are seeing cases in which carsharing is acting as a catalyst for much broader forms of cooperation and creative interaction not only across the transport field but also in other important ways as well (community building, public health, etc.)

d. Only the leading systems with several years of operational experience can recommend themselves for serious study and replication in other places, but there are now several dozen of these and the strong systems are increasingly well known and acknowledged.

e. There is also a fast growing base of carsharing business and policy expertise, and both new start-ups and existing CSOs in the search for continuing improvements will do well to take full advantage of this expertise.

3. Planning and Support:

a. To do their full job, carsharing projects and programs must be framed and supported within the context of a broad-based multi-level sustainable transport strategy and program.

b. It is critical that projects be actively supported by local government and brought along with close working relationships with other transportation suppliers, including other public transporters, rail, air, taxis, car rental and more.

c. And for them to work, CSOs must be able to perform as well run businesses with a strong entrepreneurial sense and able to meet tough (and open) accounting and performance standards.

4. The EU Kyoto City Transportation Initiative, Carsharing component: – Public Target Setting

a. Build on the experience not only of the moses program of these last years, but also that of the world carshare movement more generally (which you can find documented in http://worldcarshare.com as well as a number of European, national and regional programs which have taken hold in recent years).

b. Set specific (and very ambitious) quantitative goals for xxx CSO’s in yyy cities, with zzz users.

c. Tighten time horizon:

· The first set of very ambitious objectives for period 2005-2008

· A second for the remainder of the Kyoto target: 2008-2012.

· The stress should be on this first and tighter time horizon.

5. Focus on Projects and Results:

a. Mechanisms to support work to help in development of properly prepared new carshare projects

b. Strategic support for reinforcing and extending existing successful CSOs

c. Tighter links of carshare planning and operations to overall sustainable transportation agenda and actions

d. “Active research”: Each ongoing project and operation is in effect a research platform for management information and feedback, including to other carshare and sustainable transport operations and projects. This needs to be further stressed.

6. International Partnerships and new forms of Public/Private cooperation

a. EU experience: The moses program is but one of many that need to be critically examined now and studied for materials and guidelines for future development and expansion of the carshare sector.

b. UITP: The proposed Carshare Platform of the UITP is an interesting move in the right direction. But it is only one; many more are required in other areas.

c. WBCSD: Invite the members of the Sustainable Mobility Initiative of the World Business Counsel for Sustainable Development to get directly involved in supporting specific projects with local partners in specific cities and projects.

d. International, regional and national carshare groups: In addition to the World Carshare Consortium that has been existence for more than a dozen years internationally, there are also important regional and national carshare groupings across Europe which provide valuable centers of information and expertise which need to be brought into and built on.

7. Public Entrepreneurship:

a. We need to be able to create and demonstrate new models of “public entrepreneurship”, which are associated with all the energy and rigor that traditionally have been hallmarks of the business community at its best.

b. These skills are needed both at the level of specific projects and operations, and more generally at various levels of government in which committed individuals and groups are ready to develop the expertise needed to ensure the success of this combination of public policy and private practice.

8. Bankable Projects:

a. Old habits die hard: The transport sector in cities is heavily regulated making effective innovation often close to impossible. If we are ever to achieve the new multi-level transportation arrangements that are needed for sustainability, this situation has got to change.

b. Experience suggests that there is plenty of room for aggressive private sector involvement in the carsharing sector, but it also has to be said that the transportation sector in cities is one that provides many barriers to innovation and sound business practices.

c. One of the main jobs of local government has to be that of “getting out of the way” of the entrepreneurs once the necessary structural and operational agreements and guidelines have been set.

d. Another has to be to ensure the inter-agency and other forms of cooperation with the public sector that is needed in each case if the CSO is to reach its full success.

e. Public support for CSOs must take into account environmental and other savings (externalities) – for which an appropriate analytic framework and criteria are yet to be devised. The creation of such a framework should be a near term priority, and should be carried out not as a bench or theoretic project but in cooperation with an initial group of coopering operators and public authorities.

9. EU Kyoto Implementation Grants Program – Transport in Cities/Carsharing – ˆ 5 Million

a. We propose that the EU set aside as a high emergency priority a fund of five million Euros in externally administered single amount one-time grants to new and existing carsharing operations, mainly within the EU region.

b. These grants will be of a standard ˆ 50k each, based on a short application following detailed guidelines, supported by at least two independent recognized international carshare experts, and with full supporting documentation as appropriate.

c. They will support both new start-ups which area able to show themselves as well prepared and with specific justified uses for the funds, as well as ‘second round’ support for existing CSOs to support specific expansion or necessary supporting projects.

d. This amount of money will support on the order of 100 such grants (with a further set aside of 5% of the total for program support expenses).

e. Grant recipients will be required to report briefly on how these funds are used and the results given, with the necessary comprehensive information to be posted both on their own web sites and internationally so that the results can be made universally available.

f. Where justified “twinned projects” can be framed in cities in the Accession Countries, paired grants may be in order.

g. Especial attention will be given to projects with women in leadership roles, as well as services targeting people with mobility handicaps and others living in poorly served areas.

h. Parallel or linked projects involving public spaces, active transport, group taxis and the like will also receive favorable consideration.

10. Next steps:

  • Network discussions in an attempt to put some better sense in the above, and then to start to define the mechanisms needed in order to begin to implement.

[1] See the Kyoto World Cities Challenge Initiative at http://newmobility.org for more on this.

28 October 2005

28.10.05. Climate: Italians want to mend ways

Editor’s Note: This is really quite a neat picture of both problem and if not exactly solution, at least the beginning, the first vague outlines of what has to be the solution path. There is no doubt in my mind that without such strong public support and “understanding” (a hard word in this case and not only in Italy) the sustainability agenda will continue to stall. Let me point up what I regard as the critical phrase in the following: 89.8% said they were willing to take concrete measures in their everyday lives to prevent the situation”. No reason to be blindly optimistic, but at least a start. Our start!

Climate: Italians want to mend ways

Most see emissions as key to earth's rising temperature

Rome, October 28 - An overwhelming majority of Italians accept that human activity is causing climate change and are willing to alter their lifestyles to stop it happening, according to a new poll .

Some 94.1% of Italians have no doubts that man-made pollution is the main cause of global warming, the survey by Doxa-Dnv revealed. What's more, 89.8% said they were willing to take concrete measures in their everyday lives to prevent the situation deteriorating .

They said they were ready to make lifestyle changes, like using their cars less, in order to reduce urban smog and emissions of greenhouse gases .

But while the results suggest Italian people are well informed about the greenhouse effect, they appear much less familiar with the international agreement that aims to stop it - the 1997 Kyoto Protocol .

Only 21% were very or quite familiar with the treaty; 37.2% had heard of it but knew very little or nothing about it, and 42% had not heard of it at all

Ignorance was greatest among young Italians, with more than half of 15-to-24-year-olds unaware of Kyoto's existence. Doxa-Dnv said this age group was also slightly less inclined to change its habits for the environment .

The Doxa-Dnv poll also revealed that more than two-thirds of Italians - 66.8% - believe local authorities, central government and the private sector are not doing enough to combat climate change and pollution .

Five regional governments announced Friday that they had agreed on a plan to improve air quality in northern Italy .

The regions of Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna, and the autonomous province of Trento signed an agreement to reduce pollution via a series of measures .

These include financial incentives to encourage individuals and businesses to use vehicles powered by environmentally friendly fuels like hydrogen, and the replacement of old public transport buses with greener models .

Italian cities frequently have to impose emergency traffic restrictions when pollution levels get particularly high .

The World Health Organisation estimates that more than 15,000 people die in Italy every year because of car-exhaust fumes .

Source: http://ansa.it/main/notizie/awnplus/english/news/2005-10-28_1824413.html

17 October 2005

17.10.05. One language for Europe: Not everyone agrees

Editor’s note: After a somewhat spirited reaction to my piece here on President Chirac and his Three Bitter Pills to Save Europe for France, I had several friends get on to me about the President's proposal to wipe out the language mess in the institutions of the EU and save a billion euros each year by making English the only working language of the Union. Martin Strid of Sweden (his English is by the way better than that of the average US college graduate) wrote the following strong comment:

" My problem with your language proposal is that while it would give you the privilege of native universal access, it would turn me into a second class citizen. That is against my nature, my self-esteem and my belief in democracy. As an argument, that is quite sufficient to turn your proposal down. However, there is more to be said.

Last week, for three days, the inadequacy of English for inter-European oral communication was demonstrated to me beyond exhaustion. Even by people who have been using your language at a professional level for tens of years.

Your proposal would also leave the Anglo-Saxon world in the mental poverty of one-language-only-ness, which is detrimental to intelligence and broadness of mind."

Serious stuff and arguments which I take not lightly at all, not least since I have spent my entire life in a multi-lingual environment and have in my day to day life been consistently observant of what gets understood when we cross language lines, and what not. And the implications for mental impoverishment are certainly part of the whole box of Pandora. Let me not comment on this any further other than to pass on to you the following which Martin added to his note


A world where everyone understands one another is a better world

Revised June 2005.

This document deals with language difficulties within the EU, the UN and the world at large and the importance of reaching an agreement over which language should be used for international communication. Additionally, the document addresses the reasons for why it is important to preserve and protect “small” languages. This has to be done to save many of them from extinction.

The UN has six and the EU twenty official languages, which is both difficult to manoeuvre and expensive.

My name is Hans Malv and I am a medical doctor. I have written this document on my own initiative and am thus not working for an organisation or pressure group. Nor have I received any compensation for writing this piece. Why then have I written it? My reason for doing so is my belief in the importance of communication between all people who share this planet, even if they belong to different linguistic areas.

My address is:
Lugna gatan 12
SE-211 60 Malmö

If you want to write me a letter, please write in English, but I can’t promise you an answer.

”The boundaries of my language are the boundaries of my world.” Ludwig Wittgenstein.

We can decrease the costs of the EU by 500 million pounds or 800million USD. In the long run we will be able to decrease the cost of the UN by comparable amounts. The money can be used where it is better needed. A more peaceful world follows as a bonus.

This concerns your world. You have a responsibility here.

In a few years it may suffice to learn two languages; one’s mother tongue and a language for the rest of the world. Knowing two languages will be enough to be able to speak to and understand all other people. 2-2-2-2-2-2-2-2

A Russian and a Japanese

Which language should a Pole or a Greek use to speak to each other, or say a Russian and a Japanese person? If they use English their intellectual exchange will be greatly limited, since English is such a complicated language with a wide vocabulary that it requires ten years of study by those gifted in language to be able to use it without effort. Indeed, why should they speak to each other in English when a much better alternative exists?

The international dialogue of today is performed in a multiplicity of languages, rather than in a single language, despite the fact that international co-operation continues to rise in importance. Which language would you promote?

Large numbers of people across the world will refuse to accept your choice of language regardless of what that choice may be.

What is the solution? The solution is the easily acquired language Esperanto that several million have already learnt. But there are also other solutions.

Read on, for your own sake and for the sake of humanity and you will see that there is a solution for the language problems of the EU, the UN and indeed the world. We should take care of the languages of the world, large as well as small, preserve them and protect them, or we will be all the poorer for losing them.

A better world

If all children and adolescents around the world were to begin to learn Esperanto today, they would be able to communicate freely with each other in a few years time. The youth of today are the adults of tomorrow. We can give them a better world to live in, a world without language barriers.

Do you accept that millions of children around the EU and the rest of the world are forced to spend a large portion of their school years studying your language (English) or other foreign languages that most students will never master? Would you not spare coming generations from this, given that there is a far superior alternative?

A large part of the world’s population suffers from a difficult and very expensive disability – a communication disability.

Esperanto is very easy to learn to speak and read. All words are pronounced as they are spelled. The grammar is simple and has no exceptions. Read on and you will find out how we are to solve the language problems of the EU and the world. You can make a great contribution.

Table of Contents:

12 October 2005

12.10.05. How France Saved Europe for Civilization – Part II

How France Saved Europe for Civilization – Part II

Or the three bitter pills that it took

Eric Britton, The Commons, Paris, Tuesday, October 18, 2005

Brrng. Brrrng. O dear, that phone again. Hello.

Monsieur Britton. Un instant, s’il vous plait. Le Président de la République wishes to speak to you.

And then, after a short wait: Hello Eric. This is Jacques Chirac.

Monsieur le Président, honoré.

No, no Eric. Let’s speak English like we always do.

Oui , Monsieur le Président.

No, I am serious. I finally got down to reading that piece you wrote on the morning after that disastrous Referendum in May, you know the one where you talk about how “Fifteen Million Frenchmen Can’t be Wrong, and How France is Saving Europe for Civilization” (I loved it). [1]And it gives me an idea.

Thank you for the kind words, Sire. But how can I help?

Well, you seem to have some ideas about how France can save Europe. And of course if we can do that in a way that the world can see and appreciate, well then we can get back into a strong leadership position that France deserves and must have. After all, we invented Europe, n’est-ce pas?

That makes sense to me, Mr. President.

Bien, but now tell me how we can do it.

If fact, Mr. President, I have been giving this considerable thought and had indeed come up with a three-point high profile policy package for France to take the lead once again, as indeed it has from the beginning of the idea that has become Europe. But then when I discussed it with all my French friends and colleagues they all told me – one hundred percent to the man, woman and household pet – that my plan was, excuse my French, “impossible”.

But you know Eric that “l’impossible n’est pas français”. So tell me.

Do I have to?

Yes. And by the way my staff tells me that your residential permit needs to be renewed shortly, and you know . . .

Hmm. I see, Well let’s take it one at a time. There are three parts in all. I call them the three bitter pills.

To get us going, there is no doubt in my mind that the first thing you can do, that you need to do, to regain your leadership in Europe, is to make and indeed insist on about as hard a proposal as you can imagine.

Mais non, cher ami. What might that be?

Let me start with the good news. That the government of France approach the twenty five members of the Union with the proposal that a single language be used for all European affairs and communications as of 1st January 2006. In this way there would be enormous savings in translation and interpretation costs, and among other things the more than one hundred million euros that it presently costs the European taxpayer can be directly recycled into the educational systems of al countries in the Union for the next five years to help manage this transition.

What a wonderful proposal, mon excellent ami. And indeed I have always thought that the language of France, the language of Molière, the language of diplomacy, literature, and of course love, should be the lingua franca of the world.

Almost, Mr. President. But now the pill.

Almost? Pill? What do you mean, mon excellent ami?

Mr. President, what I am suggesting is that your government should propose that the language of Europe should be English.

(Ghastly silence on the other end.)

May I go on to the second of my proposals?

(Ghastly silence on the other end.)

The second pillar of the winning French strategy is to propose that all the institutions of Europe be located in a single place. And that place must, for now at least, be Brussels.


Once again there will be enormous savings since as you know at present the circus of the European caravan ever schlepping between Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg is horrendously costly, and as well serves as a major source of distraction for those who are charged with the job of making Europe work.

Strasbourg too? What else is left.

Mr. President, this leads us to the third and final pillar of your leadership strategy: agricultural subsidies.

(Again silence, broken only by a long slow groan.)

Mais, Britton, I fear to hear what you have to propose on this.

And rightly so Mr. P., since the proposal is to cut all agricultural subsidies across the board by 50% starting on 1 January 2006. And once again, these funds are to be redirected into basic education, public health, simplification of administration, and historical levels of support for the full and rapid integration of communities and groups that are at present cut off from the mainstream of European society, well-being and solidarity. Your “fracture sociale” Monsieur le Président.

Is that all? So, you are asking us to give up our language, our European capital, and our precious agricultural subsidies. What a terrible cost. And what do we get in return for these sacrifices, Monsieur.

Simple, Mr. President. You save Europe for civilization.


* * *

Happy Ending:

Paris, Monday, 7 May 2007.

Monsieur Jacques Chirac was yesterday overwhelming reelected for a third term as President of the French Republic, after having shown that he was able to break the political and economic impasses that were threatening the European construction though his totally unexpected proposals of September 2005 that served to reshape the institutions of Europe forever. His totally unexpected proposals for restructuring could only have come from a French leader, and when they were presented were almost immediately accepted by all the remaining members of the Union. Indeed, it can truthfully be said that France, and President Chirac, saved Europe for civilization.

10 October 2005

10.10.05. Half the World:: Women and environment (Letter from Yeman)

Editor’s Note: We draw this article to your attention both for the important topic in its own right, but also because of the work in progress to try to crate the base for a continuing program in Gender/Mobility issues, including with special reference to situations in which women find themselves in real difficulty in their day to day lives because of our asymmetrical understanding of the issues and the inequities of our current arrangements. For more I would point you to the start up program http://www.xability.com and the many sites and programs that you will find set out there.

Half the World
Women and environment

Until now one does not hear much discussion on environmental issues in Yemen. And if one does come across a discussion, it is often limited to the island of Socotra or the World Bank or the Dutch grants for water projects. One does not come across points of argument around how women and men are affected differently by changes in environment. This is a challenge as well as an opportunity. Since there is no set discourse around environment and keeping in view the rise in consumerism, it is challenging to give a voice to the concern for environment. However, the absence of a set discourse also presents an opportunity to develop gender responsive dialogues on environmental conservation and protection. This could lead to formulation of interventions to address the different situation of women and men in relation to their dependence on environment or their different vulnerabilities to environmental degradation.

Experiences from different parts of the world suggest that the negative effects of environmental degradation are likely to hit the poorest people the hardest. Women among the poorest share a disproportionate share of responsibility related to meeting household needs such as fuel wood, drinking water, fodder for livestock and so on. They also depend on environment for raw material such as date palm leaves that helps them augment their family income. So scarcity of resources like water, for instance, will affect the entire population but it will affect women more adversely because they are more dependent on local water resources for fulfilling their traditional roles in the family, ie, drying up or pollution of natural springs means women have to walk longer in search of water, lack of irrigation water means decline in fodder production and that means walking longer distances in search of vegetation for livestock to graze, etc. In other words, disproportionate share of care responsibilities make poor women disproportionately vulnerable to the effects of environmental degradation. This vulnerability is made more serious by the fact that differences in property rights and actual ownership of agricultural property, poor access to information, and poor opportunities to acquire knowledge. Segregation between women and men and lack of mobility among women keep women and their concerns away from the decision-making. In other words, not only women and men are affected differently by environmental degradation, their abilities to change their situation in relation to environment are also different. Women, due to their exclusion from the public space, do not get opportunities to engage in environmental conservation and protection interventions.

An immediate consequence of environmental degradation for poor women is that their workload increases. A long term impact of increased workload is that women will have less time for leisure, and to find and use opportunities to improve their skills and move into non-traditional activities. This entire process that is centred around women spending more time fulfilling traditional reproductive roles, reinforces traditional division of labour and prevents women from shifting to productive work. To make discussions on environment and interventions associated with environment and livelihoods responsive towards women, it is important that gender based differences in immediate and long term impacts of environmental degradation are analysed and addressed.

Differences in dependence on environment, awareness about impact of environmental degradation and the opportunities to protect environment affect women and men’s motivation to protect environment. In Yemeni context, it is hard to say if women are more inclined to protect environment and change practices that harm environment. A tremendous change in lifestyle is going on in Yemen and both women and men are part of this change. There is a greater emphasis on imported consumer and basic everyday use products. Exclusion of concerns for environment from public discourses act as a barrier to the development of a larger concern for environment. But one can say that socio-cultural factors like ghettoisation of women in the private sphere and perception of environmental conservation and protection as technical matters and women as technically incompetent leads to blocking of opportunities that might get women to develop a stake in environmental debates and interventions. Also, given poor women’s dependence on natural resources to fulfil their traditional reproductive responsibilities, one can say that women would be more prepared to adopt environment friendly behaviour and participate in conservation efforts.

To understand the potential to improve environmental situation in Yemen, there is immediate need for research about gender aspects of environmental degradation. For example, with regard to water projects being implemented in Yemen there is a shortage of gender analysis. Such a gap means that water projects may not actually meet women’s needs. Since these projects slant towards technology based interventions rather than traditional knowledge based conservation and protection, the jobs created through these projects are more likely to go to men than women. It is important, therefore, that women with understanding of gender relations and roles and environment are involved in environmental projects at all levels so that gender needs are analysed and addressed. There is also a need to meet the general information gap regarding Yemeni environment as well as information needs of women that could help them participate in environmental debates and interventions.

If gender needs in relation to environment are not taken into account, both deficit of interventions and the presence of gender blind or neutral interventions would have a negative effect on gender equality. Moreover, without participation of women at all levels and in decision-making, the mission of protecting and conserving environment may not be possible. Women’s participation in environmental debates and interventions will improve their effectiveness and also offer greater potential of their sustainability.

Source: http://yementimes.com/article.shtml?i=883&p=culture&a=3

08 October 2005

08.10.05. Transport of Delight: The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los

Transport of Delight:

The Mythical Conception of Rail Transit in Los Angeles

By Jonathan Richmond. Akron, Ohio:

The following review by James Smart appears in Technology and culture, July 2005.

"This book is a study about the failure of thought and its causes," writes Jonathan Richmond in his introduction to Transport of Delight. "It starts with a bizarre decision: to construct a comprehensive rail passenger system in an environment where it appears incapable of providing real benefits." Richmond analyzes the decision to redeploy rail-borne public transit in a metropolitan area infamous for its congestion, smog, and sprawl, and, most importantly, where he believes that by any rational measure buses provide a superior mode of transit.

He finds the explanation for this decision in the power of myth and symbol, image and metaphor, citing extensively from linguistic experts such as Susan Langer, George Lakoff, and Martin Fossand on his first page quoting a passage from Russell Ackoff's The Art of Problem Solving: "We usually try to reduce complex situations to what appear to be one or more simple solvable problems . . . sometimes referred to as 'cutting the problem down to size.' In so doing we often reduce our chances of finding a creative solution to the original problem." This is exactly what Richmond believes happened in Los Angeles beginning in the 1980s.

Richmond has done his homework. His book is based in part on more than two hundred interviews with public officials. He presents a history of Henry Huntington's Pacific Electric, the storied Red Car system that once operated 1,100 miles of track radiating in all directions from Los Angeles. He evaluates the case for modern light rail and the forecasting methodology used to predict passenger demand for the first route planned for the Los Angeles area, the Blue Line connecting with the region's second-largest city, Long Beach. He reports that ridership forecasts were initially inflated. Then, just before the line opened, they were deflated in order to make the actual numbers look good.

Transport of Delight devotes considerable attention to the political decision-making process that led to passage of Proposition A, the local half-cent tax that funded the return of electric railways, a process ultimately dependent on "availability of a set of symbols, images, and metaphors which come together coherently to create a myth that acts with the power of truth" (p. 6). The human body's circulation system, for example, became a powerful metaphor for transit planners. Likewise valuable was the perception among civic leaders that electric trains were "sexier" than buses, a perception Richmond addresses at length in a section titled "The Train as Symbol of Community Pride: Penis Envy in Los Angeles."

Richmond notes the power of the mental image that remained after the last Red Cars disappeared in 1961, an image that gave rise to the notion that [End Page 661] the demise of a superior mode of transit was the result of a conspiracy in which General Motors played a key role. The first local railway started running between the harbor and downtown Los Angeles in 1869, the last Red Car line operated along this same corridor, and, thirty years after service ended on that line, rail-borne transit was reborn in the form of the Blue Line. This, Richmond feels certain, was a big mistake. In his view, buses are a superior mode of transit for Los Angeles, particularly in terms of their cost-effectiveness; just about everything involving an electric railway is vastly more expensive than rubber tire on paved roadway.

The Blue Line was brought into existence not on the basis of any rational assessment of available choices, but to reward political acumen, particularly that of County Supervisor Kenneth Hahn (now deceased, though his son became mayor of Los Angeles), through whose Fourth District was routed not only the Blue Line but also two other new electric rail lines -- all this in the wake of devastating riots in South Central Los Angeles and repeated recommendations that improved transit would have beneficial social consequences.

The problem was "cut down to size," yes, but Richmond is certain that it was the wrong size. Whatever one may happen to think about the virtues of different modes of urban transit, Transport of Delight presents an excellent case study in the power of myth, and it provides us with a compelling picture of a place where culture and technology blend seamlessly.


Available from University of Akron Press, 2005. Pp. xix+498. $49.95. The following is the Amazon link: http://www.amazon.com/

Amazon Book Description

This unusual book develops a novel theory of myth to explain the construction of rail passenger transit in Los Angeles when it had little to offer the needs of a dispersed autopolis, whose urgent but dispersed public transportation needs could have been better served by developing the regional bus system. The author conducted more than 3000 transcribed pages of interviews and performed the detective work necessary to reveal an unlikely logic that held together a network of symbols, images, and metaphors that together present powerful mythical beliefs in the guise of truth.

Transport of Delight is a true interdisciplinary work, and includes a thorough analytical assessment of the Los Angeles rail program, with a focus on the Long Beach Blue Line light rail — the first of the new projects to go ahead. En route, it shows that ridership forecasting for this project was not only biased and statistically invalid, but in fact done to justify decisions made on other grounds.

A political analysis shows how consensus was reached to proceed with the light rail to Long Beach, but political explanations are ultimately found lacking, because they cannot explain why decision-makers would want to put the rail in place. It is only when provocative metaphors—of the need to connect communities and to restore a mythical balance to a dysfunctional transportation system—and symbols—of escape from the pressure cooker of poverty, of urban success, power and, indeed sexual acumen: the train is revealed as both a woman and a penis—are surfaced, that we realize that Los Angeles’ Transport of Delight is the result of the very human need to transcend complexity by providing mythical creations that appear to offer easy answers to society’s deepest problems.

About the Author
Jonathan E. D. Richmond has a Ph.D. in transportation planning from MIT, where he was a Fulbright Scholar, has taught at UCLA, the University of Reading and the University of Sydney, held a fellowship at Harvard, served as transportation policy adviser for the Chair of the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission and consulted for the World Bank.

This review by Jim Smart, adjunct professor of journalism and public speaking at California State University Fullerton and Cal State San Bernardino. From 1981 until 1998 he served as head of media relations for the Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Permission to reprint a review published here may be obtained only from the reviewer.

01 October 2005

1/10/05. MIT unveils wind-up $100 laptop

MIT unveils wind-up $100 laptop

Friday, September 30, 2005 Posted: 1156 GMT (1956 HKT)

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts (AP) -- Experts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are designing a durable laptop computer that will cost about $100.

MIT Media Lab leader Nicholas Negroponte hopes to give the machines, which would be durable, flexible and self-reliant, to needy children around the world.

The machine's A-C adapter would double as a carrying strap, and a hand crank would power them when there's no electricity. They'd be foldable into more positions than traditional notebook PCs, and carried like slim lunchboxes.

For outdoor reading, their display would be able to shift from full color to glare-resistant black and white.

And surrounding it all, the laptops would have a rubber casing that closes tightly, because "they have to be absolutely indestructible," said Negroponte.

Negroponte hatched the $100 laptop idea after seeing children in a Cambodian village benefit from having notebook computers at school that they could also take home to use on their own.

Those computers had been donated by a foundation run by Negroponte and his wife. He decided that for kids everywhere to benefit from the educational and communications powers of the Internet, someone would have to make laptops inexpensive enough for officials in developing countries to bulk purchase.

Within a year, Negroponte expects his nonprofit One Laptop Per Child to get 5 million to 15 million of the machines in production, when children in Brazil, China, Egypt, Thailand, South Africa are due to begin getting them.

In the second year -- when Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney hopes to start buying them for all 500,000 middle and high-school students in this state -- Negroponte envisions 100 million to 150 million being made. (He boasts that these humble $100 notebooks would surpass the world's existing annual production of laptops, which is about 50 million.)

While a prototype isn't expected to be shown off until November, Negroponte unveiled blueprints at Technology Review magazine's Emerging Technologies conference at MIT.

Among the key specs: A 500-megahertz processor (that was fast in the 1990s but slow by today's standards) by Advanced Micro Devices Inc. and flash memory instead of a hard drive with moving parts. To save on software costs, the laptops would run the freely available Linux operating system instead of Windows.

The computers would be able to connect to Wi-Fi wireless networks and be part of "mesh" networks in which each laptop would relay data to and from other devices, reducing the need for expensive base stations. Plans call for the machines to have four USB ports for multimedia and data storage.

Perhaps the defining difference is the hand crank, though first-generation users would get no more than 10 minutes of juice from one minute of winding.

This certainly wouldn't be the first effort to bridge the world's so-called digital divide with inexpensive versions of fancy machinery. Other attempts have had a mixed record.

With those in mind, Negroponte says his team is addressing ways this project could be undermined.

For example, to keep the $100 laptops from being widely stolen or sold off in poor countries, he expects to make them so pervasive in schools and so distinctive in design that it would be "socially a stigma to be carrying one if you are not a student or a teacher."

And unlike the classic computing model in which successive generations of devices get more gadgetry at the same price, Negroponte said his group expects to do the reverse. With such tweaks as "electronic ink" displays that will require virtually no power, the MIT team expects to constantly lower the cost.

After all, in much of the world, Negroponte said, even $100 "is still too expensive."