January 05, 2023 22:48 +0000  |  Cambridge Transit Urban Design 0

There's some exciting stuff happening here in Cambridge. The county council (the tier of government between municipal and national that handles Cambridge and the surrounding smaller towns) has declared that they want to build what they're calling a "sustainable travel zone" around pretty much all of Cambridge proper.

In practise, this means that within this area, if you drive your car, you'll be billed to the tune of £5/day. There are a series of exceptions of course, ranging from cabs to emergency vehicles, but on the whole most drivers in the city will have to pay this fare every day they enter (or leave) the city. And yes, this applies to people who live inside the zone.

Understandably, a lot of people are upset by this, but I think that it's a great idea that's long overdue.

I'm going to rant on this for a bit.

Why charging £5/day per car in Cambridge is great

For nearly 70 years, most of the developed world has been asleep at the wheel (see what I did there?) when it comes to urban design to the point where private cars are seen as not just a necessity, but even a force of nature. When pedestrians are mowed down by careless drivers in this country, the conversation inevitably falls to victim blaming, asking "why weren't they wearing their government recommended high-viz jacket?" Discussions around cycling centre around the decorum of those who violate laws written for cars, while ignoring the drivers who violate those same laws with fatal consequences.

Cars are dangerous

Cars kill 1.5million people every year and that's collisions alone. When you factor in the deaths from pollution and climate change, it's insane that we've entertained this pattern for so long.

Cars kill community

On top of that, a society that privileges private cars (ie. nearly every country) necessarily excludes the poor, the disabled, the young and the old. That means that events like all candidates meetings and football games, or public parks and children's play areas place an unfair burden on people to own and be capable of operating a car or depend on having someone else drive them. People can be isolated by their partners because they simply have no way to leave the house, or feel "fenced in" by the pedestrian-hostile world outside.

We know all this

The thing is, everyone knows this is terrible. 9 out of 10 drivers will agree: cars are terrible for all of the above reasons. However, when it comes to actually reducing cars on the road, everyone thinks they're an exception.

Everyone else needs to get off the road, but I have to drive my kid to school! What am I supposed to do, send her on a bike? It's not safe!

This of course comes from the self-fulfilling prophecy: we built a world so dependent on private cars that we can't interact with that world safely using any other means. You can have a development without cycle lanes or even sidewalks and no one will bat an eye, but dare to skimp on the free parking and people lose their frickin' minds.

Ok I get it, so what're we supposed to do?

This world our predecessors built for us sucks. Accepting that, where do we go next? To my mind, you have to start with a collective decision around what we want to become, and the rational answer to that has to be: Amsterdam.

Clean, quiet, safe streets mostly used by pedestrians, bicycles, and transit, allowing for delivery and emergency vehicles and even the occasional (very slow moving) private car. That's a world where you can safely send your kid to school on her bike, the world where an 80 year old woman can choose to live alone and still buy groceries and visit friends independently.

I don't think it's unreasonable to say that most people want this. The problem mostly seems to be around the public's unwillingness to accept that this is even possible. I want to go through some of the more common objections:

We can't do that here! The Netherlands is flat. We have hills!

There are plenty of examples of good pedestrian, cycling, and transit infrastructure being applied in cities all over the world, but like anything else, we can tailor our designs to the geography. Many towns (like Cambridge) are flat, so a heavy cycling focus makes sense. Other cities (like perhaps San Francisco) are probably better suited to biasing pedestrian and transit corridors, or subsidising e-bikes.

That's unreasonable. They had the density so it was easy for them. We're too spread out!

This sounds plausible until you realise that the Netherlands looked like this in the 1970s:

An Amsterdam traffic jam in 1970

Cities change all the time. We can change ours, but we have to want it.

That's nice, but the Dutch don't do the same kind of work that I do. I need a big truck to do my job!

This is laughable to anyone who's seen a hydraulic crane truck hoisting a grand piano three storeys into the air on the Haarlemmerstraat. Nine times out of ten, small trucks do the work just fine, and for that last 10%, a work truck can always be acquired. You do not need a land rover to buy groceries.

My office is in a business park off the freeway. I have to own a car to get to my job.

This is a symptom of our failed design philosophy: the idea that everyone owns a car, so they "they can just drive" to my cheap office space. These far-away office parks don't make anyone happy. They're painful and dangerous to commute to, require expensive hardware (cars) to make the trip, and typically exist in "deserts" where you can't find food or child care, let alone nearby homes.

This model is bad for everyone and has to die. At the very least, it shouldn't be cheaper to subject people to this.

What about the suburbs & villages? Those people need cars!

Some people don't like living in a "city" like Cambridge and prefer to live further out where the land is paradoxically cheaper, but where you must own a car to go basically anywhere. That's fine, but we can't let their preferences dictate the structure of our community. If Cambridge wants to be like Amsterdam, these people need to be dissuaded from driving their cars into the city.

The carrot & stick

The £5/day charge will be applied to cars driven within a very large "sustainable travel zone" (STZ) on any weekday. The proceeds from this levy will be applied to expanding transit (frequency and routes & lowering fares) as well as improving/expanding cycle infrastructure.

In effect, this is a classic carrot/stick arrangement: you can drive your car if you want, but you're going to pay. However if you're open to alternatives, they're now faster, cheaper, and more convenient.

It's not a perfect plan. Personally, I would have favoured outright banning of cars within the zone, or at least extending the STZ to include weekends, but this is a step in the right direction.

The risk

There's a whole bunch of politics operating under the radar here that makes this all rather interesting.

Cambridge's mass transport, like all transport in the UK (excluding London) is privately held. There are a handful of bus companies managing separate routes charging exorbitant fares for notoriously unreliable service and they don't even allow transfers. It's a terrible system that's barely used and politically, no one has dared step up with a solution to fix it. Through this plan, these companies stand to benefit considerably, effectively absorbing a public subsidy for a private service that has historically not been provided well at all.

In other words, this might just be a case of politicians finding a way to soak the public for some money so that they can give it to their friends in some private companies. It certainly wouldn't have been the first time.

What's worse is that they'd be doing this with the blessing of active transport activists like Camcycle who have pinned their names and reputations to the project for support. If this is, as I suspect, a fleecing of the public purse, it could be terrible for everyone.

Why it won't happen

The plan is being executed by the Cambridgeshire County Council which is presently governed by a Labour/Lib-dem coalition. The Conservatives, who are largely elected by car-driving village dwellers will likely use this as an issue to beat their opponents in the next election.

That election is timed to happen just before the £5/day charge comes into effect, but after the public funds have been spent "bolstering transit". My inner cynic says that this is all designed to take that public money, give it to the bus companies and then fold up shop before the next election so they don't have to go through with it.

All of this is terribly disappointing, but even given the very likely chance that this is all a scam, I find myself still siding with it.

When it comes to building our cities to be clean, quiet, and safe for everyone, I'm going to support any plan that furthers that goal. If the alternative is letting a bunch of carbrains turn around and kill it ensuring that nothing gets better, I'll back any plan that gets us even a little bit closer to a better home.

January 10, 2012 18:25 +0000  |  Netherlands Transit 2

So I've been building a list over this past year of All the Things the Netherlands Does Well and Those Not So Much. The original intention was to write one Really Big Post on the whole thing, but it occurs to me that there's no reason I have to do that. Instead, I'm going to break it into a series. Today I'll start with one of the things the Dutch do well (sort of): Transit.

In comparison to Canada, the Netherlands is tiny. It's about half the size of New Brunswick and can be traversed by car in a matter of hours. In terms of geographic obstructions, we're talking more about streams and tiny lakes than mountain ranges or rivers. In other words, it's more-or-less perfect terrain for the trains that criss-cross the country and lead into Belgium, Luxenburg and Germany.

The trains are largely commuter rail, but the tracks double for freight outside of rush hour as well. The station across the street from my apartment regularly sees freight trains rip through the station. This can be quite loud, but homes like mine have been constructed with this in mind: close the window and you barely notice.

The commuter trains aren't particularly high-comfort (with the exception of the newest Sprinter trains) but they're a ltitle cleaner than the average SkyTrain or TTC subway. The exception here though is the graffiti. For some reason there are a few assholes that insist on tagging the occasional train car (inside or out). This is cleaned eventually, but most trains have at least a few marks.

The quality of stations ranges from sketchy (like Diemen Zuid), to Shiny and New (like Bijlmer ArenA), but in terms of safety it's all about the same: super safe. The Netherlands is (well -- feels, and based on my own limited research, appears) super-safe... but that's another blog post.

The service, like most things in this country, appears to be at the whim of the workers and their interest in your welfare. I've been late to the airport twice now because my train decided that stopping at Weesp just wasn't in the cards that day. Weesp is a major transfer point to Schiphol airport, roughly between my home and Amsterdam. I've been abandonned at a station well after midnight least once (they don't run after about 1am) and for New Years, rather than running later to handle the late-night traffic, they stopped running as early as 2030h. When I mentioned this to a Dutch coworker, his response was: "Well the train workers need to celebrate too!" -- it's a wonder the police and fire departments don't just go on holiday on Easter... but that's another blog post too.

They use a system here called the OV Chipkaart, an NFC card that you keep in your wallet and swipe at the station before getting on the train and again as you're leaving the station. It carries a balance that is debitted every time you swipe out based on the distance travelled. It's a smart way to run a transit system that both Vancouver and Toronto are likely to see in the near future. London, Seoul and Tokyo have been using such a system for a long time now to considerable success.

But the Dutch are dicks about it. In order to ride the train, your card must have a minimum of €20 on it, a ridiculous sum when you consisder the single-digit minumums required for the aforementioned cities. In addition to that, most of the stations don't use fare gates so it's all too easy to pass right by them without checking out. Suddenly, your €4 journey just cost you €20: you're welcome. Also, as far as I can tell, they actually store the credit balance on the card, so someone with an NFC writer and a little patience can game the system. For a second attempt at such a system, the Dutch get a C- on this one.

But for all the gripes I have with the service and shoddy fare system, the network is just too awesome. I can literally cross the street, step onto a train, and be in Berlin in a few hours. Commuter rail to Amsterdam Centraal, and then hop onto a 400kph ICE express train that shoots across the country and into the next. I can be in the Hague by commuter rail in about an hour and half, or be in Paris by Thalys in 3 hours. Have a craving for Belgian waffles one morning? You can be there in about 2hours.

Just make sure that you go on Saturday... nothing is open on Sunday. But that's another blog post.

February 28, 2011 06:15 +0000  |  Amsterdam Language Learning Transit 9

I think that I'll make this part of a series, though if I'm right, the number of parts will be in the hundreds before I'm through here.

After the brunt of my jet lag had passed, I took a day to do some exploring. I needed some raw materials for some Grandma Soup, an needed to get my bearings in the city, especially with the transit system. In my day out, here's a list of what I learnt:

  • Language:
    • klanten-service == customer service
    • Hele kip == whole chicken
    • trekken == pull and duwen == push (of course, I learnt these the hard way
  • The area of town referred to as Niewmarkt is an actual farmer's market where they sell all kinds of fresh fruits & veggies. I bought what I thought was a parsnip, and though it was tasty, I'm not convinced that it was one.
  • The transit system here is multi-tiered, managed by multiple companies, but unified under one payment system by way of the OV-Chipkart I mentioned in a previous post:
    • Busses serve routes from the outskirts of the city into the core and around the suburbs.
    • Trams run throughout the downtown and into the suburbs.
    • The Metro is mostly above ground and serves much of the suburban space.
    • There are also inter-urban trains that run from metro hub stations into the more independent suburbs like Naarden (where I start tomorrow).
  • Google Transit is available here, which is awesome, but the directions appear to be broken when it comes to the Metro lines. While it maps the correct route, it gives you the wrong terminus station, so navigation can be tricky.
  • Dutch Pepsi tastes like Canadian Coca Cola, and the grade of aluminum used is higher than back home.
  • They have carbonated iced tea here. It tastes like Canadian iced tea (not like American, ew)... it's alright.
  • I'm passively learning basic numbers in Dutch. When people ask me for €5, I don't have to translate it.
    • The language-learning process is strange to behold. Like an outsider, I can feel my brain learning a word, and consciously working to translate it into English, even though, I've already comprehended the meaning. As an example, in the push/pull case above, I figured out that "trekken" meant "pull" when I saw it above the handle and I couldn't push the door open. At that point I understood what it meant, but still made the mental note "ah, trekken == pull". It's very odd.

June 13, 2009 00:50 +0000  |  Activism Environment Politics Transit Translink 2

I thought that I might post a brief note on this whole Be Part of the Plan business from Translink.

For those of you not living in Vancouver, Translink is the Lower Mainland transit authority. Created just before the demise of the NDP over a decade ago as a way to offload the responsibility of transit from the province, Translink is an unelected body charged with support of all methods of transportation from Vancouver out to just past Langley. They handle SkyTrain, the road system, the West Coast Express, the Seabus and even the cycling infrastructure and they're notorious for tending to do so with very little input from the public.

So you can imagine what a remarkable thing it is to see posters and ads all over the place for this be part of the plan program they're pushing. They're trying to give everyone the impression that they're interested in public input regarding their responsibilities and to do just that, they've built a website, a blog, a Twitter account and set up a number of "consultations" with the public over the next few weeks.

It all sounds really great: public engagement on one of the most important civil issues in this generation is a pretty big deal, but unfortunately there's nothing engaging about the whole process. Instead, all of this, the website, the Twitter, the "consultations", are all targeted at one purpose: they want more money and they want you to agree with them on their plans for transit going toward 2040.

Every element of this outreach has the same message:

  1. You have three choices: more service, the same service, abysmal service
  2. You should pick the first one
  3. You should give them more money so they can do the first one.

Of course it's all framed like they're giving you all this really detailed information about the process of making hard choices about transit, but that's also bookended with statements like "we have a vision" on the one side and the usual "end of the world" rhetoric you hear if you don't make the "right" choice. What kills me though, and what should bother the hell out of everyone "involved" in this circus is that they entire process is framed with their own goals in mind. In other words, they've already made the decision and they're telling us that we have only one option for better transportation in this city and it's their plan. If you don't like it, that's it -- transit is doomed.

It's all quite dishonest and manipulative really. We know Translink's track record: over a decade of service with the transit adoption rate holding steady at an embarrassing 13%. They want more funding for their plans which we now know are just plain ineffective and we're being told that there is no alternative but to accept their position or give up. It's maddening.

I'd suggest that you attend one of these events and give them a piece of your mind (as I did) but I don't like encouraging people to partake in an exercise of futility. I would instead suggest that we come up with Better Ideas for transit in the Lower Mainland and work to pressure our elected officials to reject the Translink plan in favour of something more effective because this kind of manipulative behaviour should never be permitted to fly.

May 27, 2009 21:06 +0000  |  Culture Friends Japan Korea Transit Travel 1

The Pagoda in Asakusa
This was the main tourist attraction near our hostel, a beautiful pagoda right next to a Buddhist temple.
The Buddhist temple in Asakusa
The view of the courtyard from just inside the Asakusa temple.
Downtown Shibuya
This is a fragment of the density that is Shibuya. I've heard that Bladerunner was modelled after this.
Susan at the Meiji Shrine
The Meiji Shrine is really a great big part in the heart of Tokyo.
The Imperial Palace in Tokyo
This is the present home of the Emperor of Japan. The role is purely symbolic now (unlike Canada, he isn't officially the Head of State), but he's still treated as though he is.
Me in a field of yellow flowers
One of the few good shots taken of me on this trip. This is in Hama Rikyu Teien, a giant garden within walking distance of the world-renouned Tsukiji fish market.
Susan ina field of yellow flowers
Susan made a face for this one to be funny, so don't worry, she's not mad :-)
Susan loves ladybugs
Susan loves ladybugs
The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building
The The Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building is one of the tallest in the city and they offer a free elevator ride to the top so you can check out the skyline.
Imperial Palace, Kyoto.
The seat of Imperial power for nearly 1000years, this is was shot in the garden of the Imperial Palace, Kyoto.
This is the closest they would let us get, but I still feel all special for being there.
A pagoda in Gion
As part of the lantern festival in Gion, this pagoda was illuminated.
Susan and cookie
Everything is cute in Japan, even the cookies.
Susan and the view
The view from our lunch stop in Okinawa.

I've not been very studious about my Japan update and for that I'm sorry. Life's been a bit crazy since I returned "home" and I guess I figured that if I put up the pictures, I could put it off a bit but as the details of the whole trip are beginning to fade from memory, this is becoming more urgent.

So where shall I start? Lets start with a good one: Susan is awesome. Our relationship before the trip was a rather disconnected one. We knew each other only a little when I left Toronto, but I honestly believe that we've grown much closer as a result of this trip. It's always a risk, choosing to travel a foreign country with a friend and I'm really glad that it worked out so well. She compensated for my weaknesses and I for hers. I just thought that I might get that out first.


Japan is an interesting place. Though not as foreign as you may think, it's still quite different from Canada. This became quite clear to me no less than 15minutes after we landed at Narita Airport: I was fingerprinted as I came through customs. Those of you who know me know that this was quite traumatic for me. I've managed to go 29years without being treated like a criminal and here I was, at customs in a foreign country where I didn't know my rights in this regard. The man pointed at the little computer, and holding my passport he said: "Fingers. Put". I complied and it's really been bothering me ever since. I've even found myself trying to think of ways to mutilate the tips of those two fingers...

So yeah, Japanese folk seem to have fewer concerns about how much power the State has over them. This probably bothered me more than anything during my stay. A close second though would be the social acceptance of smoking over there. They still ask you: "Smoking or non?" when you enter a restaurant. Nasty. At least they can't smoke on the subway.

The subways were a bit of a disappointment really. All those stories you hear about pushers on the trains? Never saw one. In fact, the trains we were on never got any more crowded than a TTC or Seoul subway car does. From what I hear though, the JR Line trains from the surrounding areas are what started this rumour, as they support the suburbanites, but since we never went there, it never happened.


Transit is a good place from which to segue into Tokyo though. My gods it was impressive. Not so much the stations or the trains themselves, but the sheer number of lines and how the city manages its mass. Tokyo supports within its borders the entire population of Canada. 12million in Tokyo proper, and 33million when you include the suburbs.

But here's the kicker: you wouldn't know it. Excluding a few famous intersections, the focal points of the city are sufficiently dispersed that you don't have the "downtown" problem that plagues most North American cities. Instead of funnelling all 33million people into a single urbanised core, Tokyo supports many, many "cores", each with a mix of residential, commercial and even industrial uses. People will often live in Shinjuku and work in Roppongi, both "downtowns" in their own right, but within the same city. For the Vancouver people, imagine if Burnaby were a real destination for people, or if it wasn't unique to live in Vancouver but work in Richmond. Now imagine that all of that space were one great big city. That's Tokyo -- but with real transit.

One more note on the transit: it's massive. It's a mesh of 13 subway lines and 282 stations (not including the commuter rail (JR) lines) criss-crossing above and below ground, all different colours, sporting hard-to-remember names and managed by two different private companies. Now, imagine that even with all of that complexity, that it was super-easy to navigate: Each station is sequentially numbered and colour-coded so if you're going from A to B, you find the coloured line you're likely to take on the many free multi-lingual maps, find the start and end points and take their numbers. If you're going from 13 to 26, then you make sure that the numbers are getting bigger as you ride. If not, you're going the wrong way. Transit way-finding in Tokyo was never a problem.

Another common myth people hear about Tokyo is that it's a concrete desert, but nothing could be further from the truth. True, much of it is paved, but there are beautiful gardens everywhere, and I'm not talking about these lame Toronto-style parkettes, or these new mini parks that are popping up in Vancouver, I'm talking about acres of tended streams, trees and flowers right in the midst of the city. Some like the The Hama Rikyu Teien Gardens near the Tsukiji Fish Market cost a few hundred yen (100¥ was roughly $1.30CAD), and others like the Meiji Shrine are totally free. Beautiful landscaped public spaces nestled between the urban spaces to help keep people sane. It's really very impressive.

We only had three days in Tokyo though, so we couldn't possibly have seen everything we wanted to. Squaresoft and Joypolis would have to wait for another time. We did however see the busiest intersection in the world, in an area of town called Shibuya, visit Asakusa for its beautiful old Buddhist temple, walk through Shinjuku to see some awesome architecture as well as the Imperial Palace (though we couldn't wake up early enough to get inside the grounds). Tokyo is awesome, but expensive. You should go, but make sure that you're prepared to drop about $75CAD a day... assuming that you're staying in a hostel.


Like every rational country, Japan links its major cities with high-speed rail that plugs into local transit. You can take the subway from Asakusa to Tokyo station in 20minutes and without leaving the building, hop on a bullet train to a city hundreds of kilometres away. We were in Kyoto in a matter of hours.

Kyoto is pretty much the opposite of Tokyo. Where Tokyo is sky scrapers and 33million people, Kyoto is a quiet, traditional Japanese town riddled with centuries-old temples and a less-than-impressive subway system. You don't come to Kyoto for the bustle and night life, you come for the culture, history and peace.

Susan had booked us into Tani House, a hostel that bills itself as a traditional home converted for hostel living. We got a whole house to ourselves, complete with kitchen, living room, bathroom and a few bedrooms and the old woman who runs the place even made us tea when we arrived. We ate on the floor, we slept on the floor in the paper-walled bedroom and let the high-energy memory from Tokyo fade away. It's a great place to stay, I muchly recommend :-)

While digging around for a link to Tani House, I happened upon this YouTube video of the interior. Check it out if you're interested.

We didn't have a lot of time there, so sightseeing of Kyoto was rather rushed. We spent one day visiting the Imperial Palace1 complete with English language tour and acres of cherry blossoms and continued into the rest of the city to do some general sightseeing. Kyoto is divided by a massive river that the public uses for everything from jogging to picnics to makeouts. It's really quite beautiful. Have I said that enough yet? We spent an evening in Gion at a lantern festival, and we even paid a rather entertained cab driver to take us to The Nintendo Building. That's right, I can has culture.

Kyoto: Learn Your Pronunciation

One final note on Kyoto before I move on. We realised early on in our stay there that as Kyoto is overrun with beautiful old temples, the locals (and for the sake of this story, the cab drivers) usually navigate by the temple names rather than street intersections. This can be dangerous if you don't have the pronunciation down.

We'd done everything right. Susan had acquired a map of the city and directions to our hostel. We'd found the temple nearest our hostel (Daikaku-ji) and circled it on the map and after a long day of sightseeing, figured that a cab ride home was only appropriate. We handed the map to the driver, pointed at the circled portion and we were off.

It wasn't long before Susan and I both started to feel as though we weren't on the right track. The surrounding areas looked less and less familiar as the ride continued on and eventually the city began to fade away. With fewer and fewer lights on the streets outside, we started to freak out just a little. We asked the driver: "Daitoku-ji?" and he smiled, though looking a little confused and nodded. We had put all of our faith in a map and a stranger and now there was a lake coming up on our right.

30minutes and about 30 000¥ later, he pulls into a dark, deserted temple and asks for his cash. We panic. Much confusion ensues. Clearly he was sure that he'd taken us to the right place, but this was obviously not where we wanted to go. The driver figured that we did in fact want to be at this temple, we just didn't know where our hostel was from here. He turned off the meter and took us a little further into town where he proceeded to ask strangers for us regarding the location of this "Tani House" place. No luck. We got him to take us somewhere near civilisation, paid the incredibly patient man and got out. It was 10pm and we were on a strange street in a foreign country with a phrase book, an (apparently useless) map and just under about 100000¥.

It took us some time (and a few fruitless enquiries with non-English-speaking locals) to figure out that when we'd initially circled the temple on the map, we'd gotten a syllable wrong. Daikaku-ji was in the middle of nowhere. Daitoku-ji was where we wanted to be. It hadn't been a problem before because we'd followed the aforementioned directions to our hostel the first time.

So let this be a lesson to you kids:

  • Get a map
  • Make sure you've got the right place on that map.
  • Trust the cab drivers in Kyoto, they're awesome, but feel free to second-guess yourself.
  • Make sure that you have lots of cash -- just in case.

Tangent: Language

For those who already know, I apologise for stating the seemingly obvious, but since I didn't know, I must assume that I'm not the only one. Written Japanese is in fact three different character sets: hiragana, katakana, and kanji. Most people know this much but what surprised and impressed me was the fact that each of these character sets have their own purpose -- ie. they're not exactly interchangeable.

Kanji for example is probably the closest thing to what Westerners often assume all Asian languages are like. Each symbol is a single character (as opposed to Korean which is a composite of symbols representing a syllable) which represents an idea or thought. "Home" has it's own symbol, as does "food" and "vehicle". These symbols are then combined into statements, often only a few symbols long that culturally mean something. "Car parkade" cannot be represented in Kanji, instead they symbol for "vehicle" and "place" are used and everyone understands.

The problem with Kanji though is that it's limiting. You can't really create full sentences with it easily. For this, hiragana is provided as the sort of "glue". The symbols are noticeably different and actually "spell out" into words rather than independently represent ideas. I don't really understand much more than this.

Lastly, there's katakana, which as my guidebook explained, is often used for foreign words. My name would be spelt with katakana as would "Vancouver" or probably even "meat loaf" as there's likely is no Japanese word for it. katakana appears deceptively similar to hiragana (for the uninitiated) so understanding signage with a little guidebook is really tough.

If there's anything that I've taken away from this trip, it's that I apparently have an aptitude for languages, or at the very least a sincere interest. I managed to pick up the basics in no time and have little touble handling navigation and simple conversation. It's fun! You should try :-)

If you're interested in finding more information about the various writing types in Japan, I found this handy site that covers not only the modern usage, but the historical roots of all three types as well.


Frankly, I was surprised that you can't take a train to Okinawa. Of course I knew that it was an island, but I figured that Japan of all places would have tried to run a train there :-) Sadly, this wasn't the case though, so we took a train from Kyoto station to Kansai airport in Osaka and boarded a short flight to Okinawa where we met Susan's friend Yasuko (pronounced "yes-ko") who would serve as our awesome guide for the duration of our stay in Japan.

The differences between Okinawa and either of our previous destinations are night & day. Everything from climate (tropical) to urban design (far more suburban) to culture (it's like another country) is drastically different from either Tokyo or Kyoto. Where Tokyo has skyscrapers, Okinawa has decaying low-rises, instead of subways, there are highways. The presence of Americans too is staggering. There's a US air force base within the city limits and everywhere you look you see American military types with their families. It's amazing how your personal feel for safety changes as well. In Kyoto Susan watched a girl leave her laptop on a table in a Starbucks while she went to the bathroom, but that kind of thing is much less likely in Okinawa.

But outside of the city, Okinawa is surrounded with tropical forest. Yasuko drove us all over the countryside to holy shrines and sleepy little villages where we took pictures of the flora, were eaten by bugs and enjoyed the scenery. We ate at a little place called "Pizza and Sky" with an amazing view and visited a series of cottage factories where people were making glass sculpture by hand. This is the kind of thing you just can't do on your own and Yasuko made this possible. She is awesome.

Our last big stop in our Okinawa trip was the Churaumi Aquarium a massive building on the shore that plays host to hundreds of different aquatic species. There was the traditional dolphin show as well as the biggest fish tank I've ever seen. I saw a fish that was bigger than a house dude. Crazy, crazy stuff.

Going Home

All of the above took place in the space of a week. There was more of course but as it is, this post is already way too long. Japan is just fascinating. With its mountain of cute toys (Hello Kitty anyone?), ancient culture and honourable people, it's an amazing place to experience. I'll have to go back, as I just didn't have enough time for everything I wanted to see. Next time I'll have to spend more time in Tokyo and Kyoto and be sure to visit Hiroshima as well. When I do return though, I hope that Susan will come with me too. She was fun :-)


  1. Kyoto was actually the original seat of the Emperor from way back in the 8th Century. In fact, "Kyoto" means "capital city". It was later moved to Edo (Tokyo) in the 1800's.

May 10, 2009 10:30 +0000  |  Green Party Provincial Campaign 2009 Transit 1

I recieved an email tonight from a constituent in my riding regarding the horrible bus service she, at 50 years of age, has to endure. Given that I'm a low-profile candidate, I've not really had an opportunity to talk about my two favourite subjects in this election: transit and energy, so I was quite happy to write about it at length.

After I got it all down though, I realised that I've never done that before: written out exactly what needs to be done. So I'm posting it here, if only to use it as a checklist for my future work in this area.

I'm afraid that what I have to tell you may not be what you want to hear, but will also be true and it will be everything I know about transit and community building.

You are living in the classic North American conundrum. You've moved into a quiet neighbourhood away from the noise and traffic of the city because it's comfortable and peaceful. The air is cleaner, the pace slower and on the whole, you're happier for it. It's just that transportation in and out of the area is difficult.

The natural request for people in your position then is that if only the bus service were extended or simply had its frequency improved then life would be perfect. This line of thinking makes sense, but when you start taking into account the financials of such a plan as well as the needs of the rest of the province things start looking less and less plausible.

Low-density communities are very difficult to service not only because the residents are far apart, but because the entire community is often built with the car in mind. Residents are expected to own a car, and transit is always an afterthought: it's for those who can't drive. What's worse, if you extend transit into these areas, the land value increases and this drives sprawl further away from the centres, recreating the initial problem. For these reasons transit extensions into low-density areas are very expensive and have a low return on investment in terms of ridership achieved and carbon footprint reduced.

Now, with all of the above said, I'm not going to tell you that the Green Party has no intentions of extending transit into your area, far from it. However, I need my answer framed with the above in mind.

The Green Party is all about building healthier communities with accessible transit and lots of public space. In a perfect world, transit in the Lower Mainland would be a collection of mixed-density communities interlinked with high-speed transit corridors and independently covered in a mesh of light rail streetcar lines. You could walk from your home to a transit stop a block or two away, ride the regular line to the central hub and then hop the high-speed to wherever you need to go.

But we don't live in that world, we live in this one, and in this one your transit needs aren't being met. So I'm going to tell you what I want to do to move us closer to that ideal world while we do what we can for your situation as well.

For starters, the transit routing needs to be simplified. Straight lines, dedicated lanes and regular times are the key here. Even if the bus only comes every 20min, so long as it's predictable, people can start to see it as a viable alternative to a car.

Second, we slowly need to restructure our communities to serve as a series of hubs. From models as simple as Toronto to systems as complex as Seoul, we know that constructing your community predicated on the assumption that everyone just wants to use transit to commute to and from work is a flawed one. We visit friends and family, we go out for dinner, and see movies or walk on the waterfront, and in a community that constructs its transit primarily for commuting, all of these activities necessitate a private vehicle. Following a hub model would foster private commercial development in the transit interchanges and allow us to better plan the growth of the community by placing residential blocks near hubs or along future light rail corridors.

It should also be noted that both of these actions would require support from the municipal levels of government as well as the province.

For you, all this would mean that in the short term, your mobility should improve with regular (albeit not every 5 minutes) and that in the medium term, you should be able to get on any bus, going any direction and know that it will eventually end up at a transit hub where you'll find a library, community centre, shopping district or the Seabus.

That was a rather long-winded answer, but I hope that it's addressed your questions. It's always nice to talk to a constituent about transit, since it's one of the primary reasons I got into this in the first place. On the off chance that I don't win the seat for North Vancouver-Seymour, you can be sure that I'll continue to push for the above kind of reforms in this city because I know that it's the right way to go for us.

Thanks again for your interest and support.

March 13, 2009 02:48 +0000  |  Friends Japan Korea Transit Travel 4

You know, I intended on updating more often than this, but frankly my life here in Seoul hasn't been all that "epic" :-) I guess a post every 5 to 7 days will have to suffice.

Shawna & Friends

Even with Emily-Jane's poor timing in her moving back to Toronto only a week before I arrived, I've still managed to spend lots of time with friends in Seoul since Shawna moved here from Yeosu (여수시) at roughly the same time as Emily-Jane left.

At the end of my first day in Seoul, Jeong-Yeon and I were quite tired from our wanderings as we headed home.
Shawna and Me
Shawna and I messing around at the restaurant where I had the kangaroo.
Make Yourself Fucking Lovely
Yes this says what you think it says. It's a little clothing store in Itaewon.
Shawna's friend Paul
Paul is Shawna's really cool neighbour who babysat me for a day and speands a great deal of time with Shawna. He's a cool guy and it was nice to have met him.
Seoul City Subway turnstyles
Seoul uses a turnstyle system for it's underground. You can buy a Tmoney card and charge it up with Won, which is later automatically debitted by these two-way machines. Billing is based on distance travelled rather than Toronto's one-price-for-all or Vancouver's zone system.
A Korean washing machine
This is Shawna's washing machine. If you had only a week's worth of clothes to your name, could you be sure that you knew how to operate this thing?

My first night here was shared with Shawna, her new English-teacher neighbours and an old friend from high school, Jeong-Yeon (whom I visited last time I was in Seoul). We ate pizza, talked about Buffy and got along swimmingly. As the week has gone on, Shawna, Paul (one of her neighbours) and I have spent a great deal of time together -- pretty much every evening has had the three of us doing something. Paul got off work early and took me around town to buy some tailor-made shirts and pick up a loner phone (call me or txt me! 011-82-10-8686-6551) and Jeong-Yeon did some wandering with me as well. Everyone here has been really helpful and supportive.

Some of you had expressed doubt as to my ability to survive in Korea due to my horribly picky eating habits, so I thought that I would mention that I've yet to consume any traditionally Korean food this week :-) Instead, I've enjoyed unlimited steak at a Brazilian steakhouse, some incredibly good kangaroo at a high-end restaurant & winery, french toast at a cafe down the street and ice cream at Cold Stone. Paul even brought over some gelato last night :-) Shawna has assured me though that tonight we're going out for real Korean food. I hope it's BBQ :-)

So yes, Seoul is very much an international city. Not nearly as foreigner-friendly as Berlin or even Florence, but you can see that they're making serious efforts. Unlike Yeosu, where white-folk are extremely rare, I've noticed a rough ratio of 1:40 in the subway system. Some neighbourhoods like Itaewon (이태원동) are more westernised but anyone navigate the awesome underground thanks to the excellent way-finding signs and maps throughout the city.

Quest for the Spatula

It was based on these observations that I decided to go out wandering on my own yesterday. Armed with about 60 000 원, (won) (about $52 CAD), a phrasebook, a cellphone, and some rudimentary phrases like "hello", "thank you", and "I'll take that", I went for a walk with the intention of getting lost and finding my way again. Turns out it wasn't all that hard to do both.

The plan was to return home with a new power strip for Shawna's desk, a plastic spatula (she only has a metal one for her Teflon pan) and some groceries. The power strip was tough. I walked into a hardware store to find someone who spoke just enough English to tell me how much something cost but not enough to figure out what I wanted. She handed me a pen and paper and we played pictionary for a few minutes while she bounced around the tiny store pointing at things to see if that's what I was looking for. Eventually we got it though. She asked for "one, two" and I handed her twelve-thousand won.

The rest of the trip was far less fruitful. I would walk down a street for 20 or 30 minutes passing a pharmacy, then a phone store, then a office supply store, then another pharmacy, then another phone store... repeat until exhausted. Then I'd turn a corner and it'd be the same thing, only this time with furniture stores. Who would have thought that finding a cheap plastic spatula would be so difficult? I spent much of the rest of the day just strolling through zig-zaggy streets, stopping in to corner stores looking for some salt & pepper for Shawna's kitchen or some cooking oil but nothing was more elusive than that damned spatula... so I gave up and got on the subway, deciding to favour the entropy approach: I picked a station that didn't look to be too far away (I was getting tired) and hopped on.


There wasn't much at Nakseongdae Station (낙성대역) either but as I was sitting there waiting for the subway I started to realise that I understanding Korean writing really isn't all that hard. The name station name Nakseongdae was written on a support beam just above the Korean and without thinking I began sounding out the script. Once you understand the basic composition of the vowels and syllables, everything seems elementary. Once on the subway, I began scanning the map looking for other station names I could pronounce -- it was awesome. I can't say that I understand Korean yet, but it's a hell of a thing to feel that click in your brain when you at least start down that path.


My only regret so far (and frankly, this isn't that big of a deal) is that I've not had much time to work on my own technical stuff. I wanted to finish my password-tracking program so it could handle groups, or learn more about Django but neither of those have happened. I've done a lot of relaxing though and that, more than anything else is what I've needed lately.

Susan is arriving from Daegu (대구) tonight and she'll be staying here at Shawna's with me and Soomi. This tiny little place is going to be a full house, but not for long -- Susan and I will be getting on an early flight out of here to Tokyo in the morning. Then begins the really foreign part of my trip :-)

October 24, 2008 21:10 +0000  |  Art Transit 2

This is a beautiful example of what people can do when public organisations like the TTC make their information available to the public for mixing and mashing. Kieran Huggins put this together using data from, music from and coupling it with some OpenGL code, produced this awesome video:

September 25, 2008 20:22 +0000  |  Activism Transit Vancouver 2

Translink is organising it's own unconference probably in much the same form as Toronto's Transit Camp. This one coming up will be based around security, but I imagine that it will be a good place to meet smart activist types and learn more about how transit works and what it needs in Vancouver.

I've you've got the time, I encourage you to register on the SkyTrain Security Unconference website. I've managed to schedule it into my day just before my interview with NextUP as they've accepted my application (yay!), and I was just invited to an interview with them on the same day at 3pm.

August 20, 2008 22:47 +0000  |  Activism Politics Public Space The Toronto Public Space Committee Toronto Transit 13

In 2006, Jane Pitfield, one of Toronto's mayoral candidates had mentioned the possibility of selling naming rights to subway stations as a way to help fund the system. As insane as it may sound to some, this idea did gain traction among some supporters in council and the media. At the time, I'd toyed with the idea of creating a corporate-sponsored subway map to raise some awareness around this woman's position, but as it became clear that she was unlikely to win, my interest faded.

However, the idea didn't die with Pitfield's campaign. Toronto City Hall has continued to toy with the idea of selling off the naming rights of public spaces to corporations, so Jayme Turney and Jonathan Goldsbie from the Toronto Public Space Committee started work on a campaign called City for Sale -- an advocacy campaign to raise awareness about the result of this line of thinking as well as push council on considering other options. When I heard about this, I contacted Jonathan to let him know that I had a fun idea in mind that might help them out, and after roughly a week of off-hours toying with Inkscape, and lots of help from the City For Sale volunteers with logo acquisition, "The Wrong Way" was born: