14 December 2010
Big cities are here to stay
Brian Micklethwait

Mario Polèse has a piece about Why Big Cities matter More than Ever in, appropriately enough, City Journal.

He makes many worthwhile points.  My favourite one (i.e. I already strongly agree) is that the rise of electronic communication at a distance intensifies (rather than reduces) the demand for face-to-face contact, and hence for transport.  Not all information can be transmitted over wires or through the ether.  That much can increases the value of face-to-face meetings (like this one for instance), because quality face-to-face teams can now influence and trade with the entire world.

Sample quote:

What about the argument that falling communications costs actually undermine urban concentration?  For example, didn’t the existence of e-mail encourage Silicon Valley companies to outsource computer programming to Bangalore, India?  The truth is that this shift did foster urban concentration - in Bangalore.

Nice one.

As for falling physical transport costs causing physical dispersion, well, yes and no.  Consider the live theatre business.  Theatrical endeavour clusters in one spot (like Broadway or the West End of London), for all the usual reasons that businesses cluster (economies of scale - big pools of core professional talent - variety of ancillary professional talent - inside info - face-to-face contact (see above)), but good transport enables more punters to come to town, to witness these performances.  Transport enables a dispersed population all to benefit from the same services, which it thus makes more sense to be concentrated in the big city.

Transport, in other words, isn’t going anywhere.

28 October 2010
So what’s in those big yellow boxes?
Brian Micklethwait

One of my favourite means of transporting myself is to go for walks, in London, and in particular beside the River Thames in London.  It is surely a significant transport issue that walking alongside the Thames in London has got steadily easier as the decades have passed, as more bits of riverside path have been added to what was already there.  I would love to learn more about who exactly set this process in motion and how it has been kept going.  Clearly, nobody is allowed to build anything next to the river now without a piece of riverside walk being included, even if it will only join up with the rest of the riverside walk years later.  Is there an office where all this is “coordinated”?

As I walk along next to the river, I see things, especially things in (or should that be “on”) the river (and a lot of things go by river these days), that puzzle me.  Like this:


I’m talking, in particular, about these:


You see these all the time, being dragged up and down the river.  But what’s in them?

With the magic of computerised photos, I can take a close look at what looks like it could be a clue:


WRWA?  Indeed.  WRWA.  Western Riverside Waste Authority.  Inside all those yellow boxes is: shit, basically.

Cory Environmental Ltd, the Authority’s Waste Management Services Contractor, operate two waste transfer stations situated on the River Thames in South London; one in Wandsworth and the other in Battersea.

So now I know.

19 September 2007
When free enterprise built infrastructure
Patrick Crozier

I spotted this in a BBC piece on the Brunels’ Thames Tunnel:

“Victorian brickwork - particularly the early brickwork - was of a tremendous standard,”

And while inspecting a viaduct:

What they found was that of five levels of brickwork only the first, which had been exposed to the elements, had deteriorated to any extent.

So, what we have here is long-term thinking.  By private enterprise.

31 August 2007
Punctuality then and now
Patrick Crozier

I notice that the latest punctuality figures are out.  Despite the Telegraph’s best attempts to cast them in a bad light they actually appear to be quite good.

Punctuality in Britain is a funny thing.  Before Hatfield, if memory serves, they hovered around 91% which was about the same as they were on privatisation.  During the 1980s I can remember a British Rail poster proudly claiming 95% punctuality.  I didn’t believe them.  It certainly didn’t feel like it.

The other day I stumbled across this cutting from the Times from 1933 in which the London, Midland and Scottish reported and annual average of 92%.

Oh, and their definition of on time was to within five minutes.  Today it’s to within 10 minutes for long-distance services.

01 August 2007
Egg-shaped wheels
Rob Fisher

I wonder why egg-shaped wheels never caught on; or overhead luggage cribs for that matter.  More such fun with old technology magazines can be found at modernmechanix.com (tag line: “Yesterday’s tomorrow, today”).  Hat tip:  Rob Hinkley.

“However incredible it may appear, this coach will actually arrive in London four days after leaving Manchester.”
Patrick Crozier

Newspaper advertisement from 1754.  Found here via Marginal Revolution

And we complain about Virgin.