17 November 2011
Good riddance to Cuba’s old cars
Rob Fisher

This slightly odd BBC News video was linked on Google Plus with this description:

As President Raul Castro agrees to allow people to buy and sell cars in Cuba, there are concerns the move could spell the beginning of the end for many of the island’s classic American cars.

This sent flecks of spittle flying around me, but the text does not actually appear on the BBC site I wonder where it came from. Although Michael Voss sounds a bit sad, he does point out that Cubans will be glad to see the back of these cars. One man inherited a car from his father, but would rather have the money to start a business. Well, that’s kind of the point of free markets right there: you can swap stuff you don’t want for stuff you do.

15 July 2011
Mandatory vehicle insurance moan
Rob Fisher

I am a fair weather motorcyclist. I tend to tax my bike for 6 months of the year. For the other 6 months I have to declare SORN—statutory off road notification. This is onerous enough. And if we get some freakish good weather in November it takes considerable effort to get it taxed and then SORNed again. Since tax refunds are only given for whole months, if the good weather only lasts a week I lose.

To add insult to injury, there is a new rule that you must have insurance unless your vehicle is declared SORN, even if you are not using it on the road. It so happens that my insurance expires tomorrow but I have no plans to use the bike for a few weeks. I don’t want to pay for insurance I don’t need, and if I do SORN the bike in the middle of the month I won’t get the full refund. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t have time to research insurance quotes and I don’t have time to visit the Post Office for SORNing and re-taxing.

Politicians and bureaucrats do not consider the full costs of their interference in people’s lives.

08 July 2011
Transport infrastructure costs
Rob Fisher

Virginia Postrel reports on Bent Flyvbjerg’s studies into the costs of public infrastructure projects:

On average, urban and intercity rail projects run over budget by 45 percent, roads by 20 percent, and bridges and tunnels by 34 percent.

And the averages tell only part of the story. Rail projects are especially prone to cost underestimation. Seventy-five percent run at least 24 percent over projections, while 25 percent go over budget by at least 60 percent, Flyvbjerg finds.

By comparison, 75 percent of roads exceed cost estimates by at least 5 percent, and 25 percent do so by at least 32 percent.

Promoters of rail and toll-road projects also tend to substantially overstate future use, making those projects look more appealing to whoever is footing the bill. Rail projects attract only about half the expected passengers, on average, while in new research still in progress, Flyvbjerg finds that toll roads (including road bridges and tunnels) fall 20 percent short.

H/T Instapundit.

This doesn’t bode well for Crossrail. I’m also wondering how the M6 toll road is working out. It seems like a fantastic road to me, but is it making enough money?

04 July 2011
Car bureaucracy
Rob Fisher

She has a folder of information. Everyone has folders for their car stuff? How can the whole world be so organized? How can the government require that you be this organized to get through life? Why is no one protesting?

That’s from a post by Penelope Trunk who has Asperger’s syndrome, about struggling with registering her car at the DMV, which is presumably one of those rituals people in the USA take for granted. We have similar rituals here in the UK, and I can relate to a lot of what’s in that post, particularly the above quote.

24 May 2011
Making driving more pleasant
Rob Fisher

Here is a comic strip about a handy device to make driving more pleasant.

13 May 2011
Sir Humphrey’s roads
Rob Fisher

I am currently watching the second series of Yes, Minister on DVD. This is a scene from the episode, Doing the Honours.

Hacker: How much further?

Bernard: A few minutes. This M40 is a very good road.

Hacker: Hm. So’s the M4. I wonder why we’ve got two really good roads to Oxford before we got any to Southampton or Dover or Lowestoft or any of the ports.

Bernard: Well nearly all our permanent secretaries went to Oxford, Minister. And most Oxford colleges give very good dinners.

Hacker: And the cabinet let them get away with it?

Bernard: Certainly not, they put their foot down. They said no motorway to take civil servants to dinners in Oxford unless there was a motorway to take cabinet ministers hunting in the shires. That’s why when the M1 was built in the ‘50s it stopped in the middle of Leicestershire.

Hacker: Oh, come on Bernard! Well what about the M11? That’s only just been completed. Don’t Cambridge colleges give as good dinners as Oxford?

Bernard: Oh yes of course, Minister, but it’s years and years since the Department of Transport have had a permanent secretary from Cambridge.

I wonder how much truth there is in it.

11 May 2011
On the spot fines for bad driving
Rob Fisher

The government seems to be keen on changing the rules of the road.

Police will get powers to fine careless drivers on the spot, rather than taking them to court, as part of a government strategy to make Britain’s roads safer.

Ministers say motorists who tail-gate, undertake or cut others up often go unpunished and that introducing instant penalties would be more efficient.

Offenders would get a fine of at least £80 and three points on their licence.

The trouble with on-the-spot fines is that they are easy for the police to hand out, and your average law abiding citizen will just pay up, rather than risk the cost of a court case. Of course, “the proposals will have to go through Parliament”, but these things have a certain inevitability about them.

There are also plans to mess about with speed limits. The Lib Dems are against the proposal to increase the motorway speed limit because of global warming. I’m not happy about the proposal to reduce rural speed limits because driving fast on rural roads is fun. I quite like the notion of “Top Gear politics”, though: it sounds like an improvement on normal politics and green groups are against it.

29 March 2011
EU to ban cars from cities by 2050
Brian Micklethwait

So says Bruno Waterfield:

The European Commission on Monday unveiled a “single European transport area” aimed at enforcing “a profound shift in transport patterns for passengers” by 2050.

The plan also envisages an end to cheap holiday flights from Britain to southern Europe with a target that over 50 per cent of all journeys above 186 miles should be by rail.

Top of the EU’s list to cut climate change emissions is a target of “zero” for the number of petrol and diesel-driven cars and lorries in the EU’s future cities.

Siim Kallas, the EU transport commission, insisted that Brussels directives and new taxation of fuel would be used to force people out of their cars and onto “alternative” means of transport.

“That means no more conventionally fuelled cars in our city centres,” he said. “Action will follow, legislation, real action to change behaviour.”

A bunch of people who think that’s mad respond by saying that that’s mad.  Maybe it is, but how will the anti-maddists stop it?  That argument hasn’t worked all the times it’s been tried before.

The trouble with the “that’s mad” argument is that it doesn’t lay a finger on the “yes but wouldn’t it be nice?” argument.  Opponents of the EU look like grumpy believers in surrendering to “reality”.  The EU, meanwhile, comes across as boldly changing mere “reality” to something nicer.  So, the real argument is: would this actually be nicer?

My argument against might go something like this: it sounds nice, but it would drain all the life out of cities and turn them into museums, rather as the centre of Paris already has been turned into a museum, in that case by not allowing any new buildings other than Presidential follies like the glass pyramid thingy or the Pompidou Centre.  London, in contrast, is a living, growing place, all over.

But then again, although the Kallas plan would drain much of the life out of London that is now there, life of other sorts would move in.  It might indeed be quite nice.  For some, like tourists and tourist crap shop owners, street marketeers, electric motor makers, paving stone makers, road demolishers, etc. etc.

I look forward to comments from fellow TBloggers explaining why this really is a mad plan.

07 March 2011
Road sign photos
Brian Micklethwait

Yes, I am starting seriously to notice signs.  Especially the Health and Safety obsessed signs concerning the obligations of building workers.  It’s as if it is now obligatory to erect a complete building trade version of the Highway Code on the fencing of every building site in the land.  Buts signs of any kind can be extremely evocative, as well as informative of course.

Road signs, however, mostly don’t feel as annoying as those H&S signs.  This is because only a small percentage of them are nagging you to drive more safely.  Most are telling you how to get where you want to go, and motorists would feel seriously let down if signs like these were to start disappearing, or to be twiddled around like they were, according to the legends I have heard, during the War.

Here is a particularly excellent road sign photo, which I found here:


And here are some photos that I myself took, of a strange place, on the south side of the river, just upstream from the Thames Barrier, next to the riverside foot and cycle path.  Whether this is where temporary road signs go to rest and recuperate, or simply to die, I do not know.  The fierce yellow sign threatening round-the-clock CCTV stardom to all malefactors suggests that these signs have futures as well as pasts.

image image image

These are road signs associated with, like the little square above says, diverted traffic, caused by roadworks.  But the signs are not the annoyance.  The roadworks are the annoyance.  The roadworks without the signs would be even worse.

Bollards are a different matter.  Often, there are bollards, and signs, but no roadworks.

Click to get the bigger pictures.

01 March 2011
Automobiles (unlike high speed trains) are the masters of their fate
Brian Micklethwait

George F. Will has evidently been reading Transport Blog.  No, not really, but he does give an answer to the question at the bottom of my previous posting.  What, I asked, is the lefty fascination with high-speed trains?

So why is America’s “win the future” administration so fixated on railroads, a technology that was the future two centuries ago? Because progressivism’s aim is the modification of (other people’s) behavior.

Forever seeking Archimedean levers for prying the world in directions they prefer, progressives say they embrace high-speed rail for many reasons - to improve the climate, increase competitiveness, enhance national security, reduce congestion, and rationalize land use. The length of the list of reasons, and the flimsiness of each, points to this conclusion: the real reason for progressives’ passion for trains is their goal of diminishing Americans’ individualism in order to make them more amenable to collectivism.

To progressives, the best thing about railroads is that people riding them are not in automobiles, which are subversive of the deference on which progressivism depends. Automobiles go hither and yon, wherever and whenever the driver desires, without timetables. Automobiles encourage people to think they - unsupervised, untutored, and unscripted - are masters of their fates. The automobile encourages people in delusions of adequacy, which make them resistant to government by experts who know what choices people should make.

Time was, the progressive cry was “Workers of the world unite!” or “Power to the people!” Now it is less resonant: “All aboard!”

For me the problem of railways has always been that they need things to be arranged in lines.  Cars (as I prefer to call them) enable a whole area to come alive.  Trains only really work when, for some fortuitous reasons like a dominant river or river valley, or a coastline with a hostile interior, things are naturally linear.

Or, see below, when you are trundling goods from A to B, also a linear thing, and are not in any hurry about it.

Or if, as was the case for a few decades after trains were invented, there is no other way to travel even slightly fast.

08 January 2011
EU road haulier regulations suspended
Brian Micklethwait

The surprise for me, in this story about how the Road Hauliers of Britain Saved Christmas, came right at the end:

Between December 24th and 27th, the Department for Transport made the decision to temporarily relax the hours of EU drivers and working-time rules for hauliers directly responsible for the delivery of food to UK distribution centres and shops, to ensure that supplies were received on time.

So, what about the rest of the year?  Does our local government have greater powers to “suspend” EU regulations than it usually lets on?  Was this not the worst time of year, from the road safety point of view, to be relaxing safety regulations?  Were there lots more accidents, and if not ...?

06 January 2011
GM sales
Rob Fisher

Instapundit links to a blog post on The Truth About Cars which analyses GM’s sales figures. It argues that while some of bailed out GM’s brands do well, Chevrolet does not, and relies on fleet sales which are not as reliable. I don’t know about this, although I do notice that GM has lost market share and has not grown sales as much as other car makers over the last year.  What I find really interesting, though, is this comment:

How sick is it that the President’s press secretary is promoting GM through Twitter?  Does anyone else not see what a slippery slope this is, and how unfair it is to other privately owned car manufacturers? I’m sure other car companies can expect a fair shake from the US Government.

Indeed. Here is the tweet, which only mentions GM, even though the article it links to is about all car makers’ sales. Is this normal in America?

18 November 2010
Patrick and Michael on the Autobahn
Rob Fisher

Incoming text message from Michael Jennings, who is currently in Germany with Patrick Crozier: “Patrick is driving at 120mph. Freedom!?”  Replied me: “I’m sure Patrick knows what he is doing. You will most likely be ok.” Replied Michael: “Patrick responded with a sinister laugh.”  Then later: “Europe is full of stupid bloody windmills.”

Indeed. The same thing that causes those windmills might also cause Patrick to slow down, sooner or later. German watermelons want to slow people down to reduce CO2 emissions.

21 October 2010
Google car
Rob Fisher

I first heard about Google’s computer controlled car from Brian Micklethwait. It was a top secret project. It’s been going for a while: Robert Scoble spotted one back in January, and it didn’t like being videoed, even though he didn’t know at the time what it was.

Why might Google work on such a project? Perhaps they are not just an advertising company. They have form: Street View looks like good practice for building up a database of roads and learning how to automate cataloging of road features. And Google are good at working with vast quantities of data. From their blog post:

Our automated cars use video cameras, radar sensors and a laser range finder to “see” other traffic, as well as detailed maps (which we collect using manually driven vehicles) to navigate the road ahead. This is all made possible by Google’s data centers, which can process the enormous amounts of information gathered by our cars when mapping their terrain.

From a software design point of view, building a big database of road features in advance makes sense. Real time image processing is hard. The more complicated the task, the more error prone it becomes. Robert Scoble’s 2010 Prius can detect lane markings and warn him if he drifts out of his lane. But the Google car must understand the difference between and navigate all kinds of road junctions. By building the database in advance you can make sure your images are captured in conditions of optimum visibility, take pictures from all angles, add human input, and even have humans check the results.

Keeping the database up to date would be a challenge, but the sort of challenge Google would be good at solving. I can imagine a fleet of un-manned automated cars driving around updating the images, if that is not too much chicken and egg. Another consideration is that it’s easier to write an algorithm that checks for the the existence of something you are expecting, than to detect what is there with no advance knowlege. An example of this is Evernote, which can search for text in photographs of handwritten notes not because it can understand your handwriting, but because it can come up with a probability that a given image matches a particular word. So the car’s database might only have to augment a computer vision system that would find other ways to cope when the database does not agree with what is seen.

And Google has got the co-operation of authorities, so they have some idea of how to begin solving the regulatory problems.

If anyone can make automated cars a reality, it’s Google.

14 October 2010
The suggestion he wished briefly to elaborate was for great girdle round London…
Patrick Crozier

If Transport Blog was still going it’d have articles like this:

G. L. Pepler from The Times of 13 October 1910:

Some of the advantages of such a ring road would be to provide a means by which a great deal of fast traffic could circle London instead of passing through; to link up existing radial roads and outer suburbs; to open up a great deal of fresh land which, if properly town-planned, could form an almost continuous garden suburb round London…

And it only took 76 years.  Shame about the continuous garden suburb…

But it isn’t, so it doesn’t.

10 November 2008
The future of driving part three
Rob Fisher

The third and final article in Ars Technica’s series on self-driving cars is about how they will be regulated.  It discusses whether government subsidy or limited liability will be needed to give car manufacturer’s an incentive to introduce the technology.  Subsidy is probably unnecessary as something is either profitable or it is not, but apparently:

At one point, “all of the general aviation manufacturers stopped making planes because they couldn’t handle the liability. They were being found slightly liable in every plane crash, and it started to cost them more than the cost of manufacturing the plane.” Airplane manufacturers eventually convinced Congress to place limits on their liability.

The article goes on to look at who will have control over the software used.  Arguments in favour of open source software are presented, but I don’t think the situation is much different from software used in aviation, so the outcome is likely to be similar.  However, there is concern that the government would like nothing more than to take control of your car.  It seems inevitable that the police will be able to remotely disable it and politicians will control its speed.

13 October 2008
The future of driving
Rob Fisher

Ars Technica is running a series of articles on the automation of road transport.  The second article looks at the benefits of cars that drive themselves.  Safety advantages are obvious.  More interesting are the economic advantages.  In cities, taxis are more efficient than privately owned cars.  But:

So if taxis are so great, why aren’t they popular everywhere? The problem is that when you rent a taxi, you’re not only renting a car, but you’re hiring a driver as well. And human labor is expensive. So taxis only make sense financially in places where parking is so expensive or hard to find that driving your own car isn’t worth the trouble. Everywhere else, the cost of the driver is high enough that driving and parking your own car is a better deal.

Self-driving cars offer all the benefits of taxis for the cost of a traditional car. A self-driving vehicle will be able to show up on demand, transport passengers to a destination, and then drive off to pick up more passengers, refuel, or find a parking space. When self-driving taxis are readily available, many people—even far from dense urban areas—will find renting both cheaper and more convenient than owning a vehicle.

It’s easy to imagine being able to hire a taxi to your exact location from your GPS smartphone, have it turn up in minutes thanks to automated routing and demand prediction, and be able to choose from a selection of vehicles so you can get a pickup-truck to take you home from the furniture shop with your new sofa.

The article goes on to discuss the changes in parking and vehicle design that self-driving cars will enable, as well as the retail, freight and courier industries.

I have one concern: I enjoy driving and motorcycling, and it’s only a matter of time before human drivers are made illegal for health and safety reasons.  There will be other reasons, too.  Some kinds of automated congestion management may not work with a mixture of human- and computer-controlled cars.  For example, long convoys with only inches between each vehicle, or intersections where conflicting flows of cars are tightly interleaved.  Driving for pleasure may one day be confined to the track.

13 June 2008
Panic buying
Rob Fisher

Drivers of fuel tankers start a four day strike today.  Motorists are being warned not to “panic buy”.  Panic buying is perfectly rational behaviour:  a given individual is more likely to get fuel if they join in than if they abstain.

This strike is about pay rather than tax and only affects Shell.  Will people understand this or will they stock up on fuel regardless?

02 March 2008
Australian Groceries
Rob Fisher

Grocery prices in Australia are to climb.

Australia’s transport ministers decided at a meeting in Canberra yesterday to introduce a system of “full cost recovery” on heavy vehicles to help pay for road repair and construction costs.

Registration fees for 69 per cent of heavy vehicles will rise between 1 and 10 per cent.


Australian Consumer Association spokesman Christopher Zinn said families should expect more grocery price increases as the transport industry’s prices rose.

Or to put it another way, groceries will now be subsidised a bit less than they were before.

31 January 2008
Airport on stilts
Brian Micklethwait

Weirdness blogger deputy dog doesn’t do capital letters, but on the plus side collects strange structures and circumstances.  His latest weirdness is Funchal Airport, in Madeira, which is mostly not on the ground, but up in the air on pillars.  Lots of pillars.  It was on the ground, but was too short for comfort, and this was how they made it longer, apparently.  Underneath, there’s a big car park, which makes sense.

DD has photos of this, but the best photo of it that I found was this, on Flickr:


Whenever you find an interesting object, it’s worth looking for it on Flickr, I find.

This elaborate contraption - which looks rather like an aircraft carrier, I think – illustrates what an economic impact aviation can have on a region.  This is the trouble they are prepared to go to just to have airplanes serving them satisfactorily.  See also: Heathrow.

30 October 2007
User-controlled Transitions lenses – on a bus
Brian Micklethwait

One of the technological developments that Patrick and I talked about in this conversation was how much better and stronger glass has been getting lately.  Window pains have gone from flat transparencies that shatter into fragments if you so much as nudge them to giant hi-tech heat and light control systems that you can drop a car on without damage to anything but the car.

Soon, it would appear, we will be able to alter these membranes (membrains?) for ourselves, at any rate when travelling by bus:

Think user-controlled Transitions lenses, but for automobiles.  Got it? If so, then you’ve got a pretty decent idea of what makes Hino Motor’s concept motorcoach - which was being shown off at this year’s Tokyo Motor Show - unique. Developed by Research Frontiers, the SPD-Smart technology covering those expansive panels there on your right “allows vehicle occupants to instantly, precisely and uniformly control the amount of sunlight, glare and heat passing through the windows, sunroofs and other glazings.” Additionally, it blocks over 99-percent of harmful UV radiation and can be darkened or lightened with the press of a button. ...

Cool.  Literally, if cool is what you want.

18 October 2007
Drew Carey explains road pricing
Brian Micklethwait

I did a “view source” at Garnerblog and just shovelled it all into here, so maybe Patrick will want to edit.

Anyway, here it all is, Drew Carey on how the magic of the market might unblock LA:





15 October 2007
Wheels with a difference
Brian Micklethwait

During the summer I took a break from all blogging, but I have now resumed, chez moi and at Samizdata.  And I now resume here, with apologies for my prolonged absence, with a link to the transport gizmo that has most impressed me during the last few months.  I refer to the Nissan Pivo2.

You can’t understand the significance of this vehicle from still photos.  You have to see the video.  So, here it is:

Don’t let its Teletubby looks and that annoying monkey head computer fool you.  This remarkable vehicle embodies one of the most important advances in motoring, and especially in parking, that I have seen since the car itself was invented.

Just in case you didn’t get the video to work, or if you rely on words to find your way to interesting postings, I refer to the swivelling wheels.  These wheels are what every incompetent parker has always wanted.  You can just put it next to where you want to park it, and then tell it to swivel its wheels through ninety degrees.  Then you move sideways into the parking slot.  Even if other motorists park right next to you and leave you with only an inch of clearance at both ends, it’s no problem.  Swivel, sidle.  Swivel again, and drive away.  Brilliant.

I “designed” this vehicle in my head forty years ago, and my version looked uncannily like the Pivo2 does.

I’m guessing that what makes this concept possible is that small electric motors have got more powerful lately, to the point where you can have one for each wheel, plus another to swivel each wheel.  Plus, I’m guessing that car batteries are getting better all the time.  Or maybe Nissan just reckons that this is the way things are headed, and they want to be ready when they’ve got there.  But: don’t really know.  Comments?

04 August 2007
Together in electric dreams
Mark Holland

The Daily Telegraph, and therefore the rest of the mainstream media, has finally caught up with Transport Blog.

We checked out these new super funky electric sports cars, like, months ago when they and the fashionably green were still droning on about hybrids. Hybrids are surely the worst of both worlds. An inevitable stop gap maybe, but even so. Carrying two engines around simply doubles the wieght and complexity of the entire machine whilst the driver’s smugness level rises, undeservedly, exponentially.

Proper electric cars can be entirely re-engineered. They don’t need the bulky engine, gearbox and drivertrain and can instead use compact motors right down at the wheels. These motors are then only connected to the centre for power and control by cables. Cables! Especially clever is the way the motors can double up as generators when the vehicle is slowing down and pump energy back into the battery which extends the range of the car between charges.

From today’s paper:

In a low-key industrial estate in San Carlos, south of San Francisco, a quiet revolution is under way. After four years’ work, Tesla Motors is now weeks away from the launch of the Roadster - the world’s first production electric sports car; a vehicle the company fully expects to transform the industry. The man masterminding the launch is Elon Musk, the chairman of Tesla Motors, the first new American car company in decades, and one that will put a fleet of zero-emissions electric sports vehicles on the road this summer. Tesla’s Roadster is a high-performance two-seater, faster than a Ferrari yet twice as green as a Prius, Toyota’s petrol-electric hybrid. It runs on 6,831 lithium-iron batteries, identical to those in a laptop computer.

‘So you can look over at the Prius and go, “What are you doing in that gas-guzzling hog?”

Note also that we were ahead here:

Yet the Roadster is also designed to beat any fuel-based sports car, including a Ferrari or a Porsche, in a car-to-car showdown. With a top speed of 135mph, it accelerates from 0 to 60 in a fraction under four seconds. Its zero-emissions policy also extends to noise: as Vespremi turns the ignition and eases the red Roadster off the forecourt and out into the Californian sun, there is nothing but a low electrical hum. ‘A sort of Blade Runner soundtrack,’ Vespremi says. There is no engine noise - because there is no engine. (People have found this so eerie that one engineer suggested programming in various boy-racer sound effects, like mobile ringtones.)

When I’m an internet thousandaire a la Elon Musk - killer apps sought, we’ll name our first rocket after you! - I’ll buy one.

10 July 2007
Biking to nowhere
Rob Fisher

The point of many motorcycle journeys is not to go anywhere in particular, but to have fun getting there.  That’s why you see bikers congregating in large groups in certain locations:  they are locations that have interesting roads nearby.  I spent most of this weekend riding my bike around Hampshire and Dorset.  Motorways are too boring for motorcycling, so it’s a great way to explore the A- and B-roads, see the countryside and discover villages I’d never otherwise have known existed.  It’s also a good way to test out the B-road algorithm.

The video below was made, using a special camera mount, on Friday evening on the A32.  It’s rare to encounter so little traffic and experience the freedom of the open road by car, but by bike convoys of cars and lorries are quickly passed, and I frequently get the road to myself.  This makes riding a real pleasure.


24 June 2007
Thou shalt drive safely
Brian Micklethwait

From the BBC:

The Vatican has issued a set of “10 commandments” for motorists to promote safer driving.

The “Guidelines for the Pastoral Care of the Road” call on drivers to respect speed limits, refrain from drinking before driving and avoid cursing.

Roman Catholics are also urged to make the sign of the cross before setting off on a journey.

This is said to be the first time the Vatican has specifically dealt with the growing worldwide problem of road rage.

Amen.  Via him.

14 June 2007
Exciting stuff from the frozen north.

Jay Jardine reports on Private Ice Roads in the Northwest Territories.

Mark Holland • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road
13 June 2007
Most of the time Moscow's roads (according to English Russia) are crowded. But sometimes they look this:


It all rather depends on whether President Putin is in town or not.

This is not how it works in London. When the bigwigs are in town it is only the traffic immediately in front of them that gets moved out of the way. Still, it seems to work. Adonis reckons he once managed to do Heathrow to Parliament Square in 17 minutes.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road
G-Wiz G-Wiz
Brian Micklethwait

Spotted by David Tebbutt on June 5th, blogged by David Tebbutt June 6th, spotted by me there yesterday, and blogged here today.  Two cars in one parking space:


This car really is called G-WizBoris has more on the subject.

09 June 2007
And that’s only the nose
Brian Micklethwait

Definitely my transport photo of the week:


That’s from here, but if it gets forgotten about by and unlinkable to at the BBC, at least it will remain here.  I first saw it at Gizmodo, which is also a fast-moving ever-changing site, where things are hard to find later.

This is what it is:

The nose of a UK Astute class nuclear submarine rolls through the streets of Barrow-In-Furness, Cumbria. The first 7,000 ton behemoth will be launched in early June.

Good to know that the UK can still do big bastard type war machines.

09 May 2007
The Kings Road really was the king’s road
Brian Micklethwait

Apparently so:

Little bit of London trivia. Up until 1830 the Kings Road was just that - a private road owned by the king for nipping down to Hampton Court.

I wonder what His Majesty’s views were on road pricing.

19 April 2007
Climate change is happening.
Patrick Crozier

The world is warming up.  The ice sheets will melt, sea levels rise and the deserts expand.  Time is running out if we want to forestall disaster.

Meanwhile, back in the real world:

When Tata made its vow to build a $2,500 car, many Western auto executives ridiculed the project, dubbing it a four-wheel bicycle. They aren’t laughing anymore. Tata’s model is a real car with four doors, a 33-horsepower engine, and a top speed of around 80 mph.


There’s no lack of potential customers: Hundreds of millions of Chinese, Indians, Brazilians, Russians, and others will likely join the middle class in the coming decade, and cars are sure to be at the top of their shopping lists.

The poor will not be kept down.

(Hat-tip: Marginal Revolution who point out that safety regs mean that the car will probably not be available in the US.)

14 April 2007
Transport for cats
Brian Micklethwait

Apparently feral cats often get themselves into severe problems by creeping inside recently active and therefore warm motor vehicle engines.  So, when the vehicle start up again, trouble.  Often they die.  Pierrepoint, however, was rescued.

Macavity is far more on top of things.

The feline, which has a purple collar, gets onto the busy Walsall to Wolverhampton bus at the same stop most mornings - he then jumps off at the next stop 400m down the road, near a fish and chip shop.

He is no trouble:

Passenger, Paul Brennan, 19, who catches the 331 to work, said: “I first noticed the cat a few weeks ago. At first I thought it had been accompanied by its owner but after the first stop it became quite clear he was on his own.

“He sat at the front of the bus, waited patiently for the next stop and then got off. It was quite strange at first but now it just seems normal. I suppose he is the perfect passenger really - he sits quietly, minds his own business and then gets off.”

Perfect passenger then, apart from the fact that he presumably doesn’t pay.

11 April 2007
Dale does transport
Brian Micklethwait

Iain Dale doesn’t specialise in transport issues, but there have been a couple of postings there recently on transport themes.  On Monday there was a big chunk of Simon Hoggart, writing about the interruptions that train passengers (sorry: “customers” (I hate that)) are subjected to.

I settle in the quiet coach. Except it isn’t.

And, today, there is this coach, of the road sort, which says this on its side:


I don’t know why it says this.  Judging by the EUro stars to the right of that, it’s either a very pro EU message or very anti.  I imagine it’s the usual thing of Germans sounding scarier than they really are.  Usually.

28 March 2007
Satnav makes a splash
Brian Micklethwait

I have a vague notion that I first encountered this story on Channel 5’s Gadget Show, but I could be imagining that.  Anyway, what happened was that a Woman Driver’s satnav system told her to drive her Mercedes into a river, so she did.  I navigated – ha! - my way to this story, via engadget, which is always on the look out for new uses that people find for gadgets.

07 March 2007
Against state roads
Patrick Crozier

This is a follow-on from my posting on the government’s pricing scheme.

I am against state roads (and in favour of private roads) because:

  • I am against state ownership in general
  • I don’t think they are very good

What’s wrong with them?

Jams, Potholes, Pettifogging rules

So, how would private roads solve jams?

Partly by charging.  In the UK we already see this with our one toll motorway, the M6 toll.  As I understand it, the M6 toll is free flowing all day long while the original M6, which runs parallel to it and is free is jammed for most of the day. Partly by building more.

Well, if charging is the solution maybe state roads should charge.

An idea that is currently up for discussion.  The problem is that the state is incompetent.  If it is incompetent when building and running roads there is no particular reason to think it would be any better at charging for them.

But if all roads were private wouldn’t you end up with the chaos of having to pay a toll at every road?

First of all, not all roads will charge.  Some road owners and I am particularly thinking of the owners of roads with shopping malls and other attractions at the end of them will want people to drive down them and so won’t charge.
I think a lot will depend on how roads are privatised.  Ideally, local roads would be assigned to local councils and then the councils would be privatised, hence creating ready-made super-landlords.

But how will people get to work?

Ah, well this is where pricing really helps.  Pricing will lead to fewer vehicles and faster roads.  At this point buses and coaches will enter the market although you’d probably need private buses for this to work properly.  Given that buses can move far more people than cars can there is every reason to think that with private roads more people rather than less will use them.

But I don’t want to travel on some smelly bus.

Buses can be very nice these days.  Who’s to say that in a free market suppliers won’t leap in to provide luxury bus services?

But should we be encouraging roads what with global warming and all?

The assumption being that roads means vehicles, vehicles means CO2 and other pollution.  Pollution meaning global warming.  That may well be true.  In which case the solution is to charge the polluters.  There are ways of doing this.

But if someone owns the road outside your house he could, in theory deny you access.

A good reason to make sure that you have at least some kind of interest in whatever body owns your road.  Again, I think most urban roads will end up being owned by some form of super-landlord.

But how would private roads get built? you are against compulsory purchase after all.

I think there are ways of doing this.
Robot videos
Brian Micklethwait

Okay, so far, it won’t go so far.  But this certainly seems fraught with transport possibilities.  Thankyou engadget

It just seems so much smoother and more itself, if you know what I mean. As opposed, say, to this (video here) which just mimics a person, very badly.  It’s the hydraulic leg extending which makes the difference, I think.

And while rootling around some more at engadget, I found this, where there is video of a robot car parking system in New York that I got interested in a while back.

Plus, I just clicked on engadget’s complete transport archive, for the first time.  Can’t think why I never did that before.  Rich pickings.  Plus lots of black boxes to tell moron motorists where they are.

28 February 2007
Turnpike Trusts
Andy Wood

Last week, the Adam Smith Institute blogged about the national road pricing proposals. In the midst of his post, Eamonn Butler makes this interesting aside:

All that of course strongly suggests that the roads should be taken out of the politicians’ hands and put into local trusts who could ensure that the money raised was ring-fenced and spent on transport and roads, instead of leaching away into other pet political projects.

In essence, this looks like a suggestion to return to the system that existed in Britain for over two centuries, from the seventeenth century until Victorian times, in which up to a fifth of Britain’s roads were managed by Turnpike Trusts. In his article, “The Rise and Fall of Non-Government Roads in the United Kingdom”, Bruce Benson describes how the Turnpike Trusts worked:

A long series of Acts were passed beginning in 1663 that enabled the establishment of local ad hoc bodies known as “Turnpike Trusts.”  It must be emphasized that these turnpike trusts were not government innovations, however.  The initiative was at the local level. Members of local parishes who were burdened by the high costs of road maintenance under the parish system began to petition parliament for the right to charge a tax on heavy loads.  Indeed, the earliest Trusts were run by local JPs, although later Trusts had independent bodies of trustees.

After about 1700 the process became increasingly standardized.  A group of local landowners and/or merchants would accumulate the money necessary to fund a Turnpike Act in parliament and to carry the cost of the trust through its start-up period.  Most Turnpike Acts gave legal standing to a Turnpike Trust made up of a number of local landowners, and/or other important parishioners.  The Trustees were, by law, unpaid and forbidden to make personal profit from the trust.  They were responsible for erecting gates to collect tolls, and for appointing collectors, a surveyor to supervise repairs, and a Clerk and Treasurer to administer the affairs of the trust.  The funds collected could only be applied to the road named in the Act.  These roads were usually existing highways, although new roads were also built, particularly after 1740, and the extent of roads that were “usable” for heavy traffic expanded significantly once the trusts began to innovate and improve the roads they controlled, as noted below.  The Trusts were granted a monopoly power over the road (generally for a period of 21 years), so that the customary right of passage was fundamentally altered: the roads were no longer common pool resources.  Most trusts used the money collected to repair and improve roads, but if the tolls were insufficient to cover the up-front costs, the trusts were allowed to borrow money at a rate of interest fixed by the Act.

The system did not last, however. From 1864 onwards, the trusts were shut down, with the last road passing into public hands in 1895. At Transport Blog, we like to think that goods and services, including transport, are produced in better quality and lower cost when in private hands motivated by profit and free from political interference. If a private road system is superior to a public one, then why did the Victorians nationalise it? What went wrong? In a lengthy discussion, Benson proposes a number of reasons:

[T]he structure and characteristics of the trusts created significant principal-agent problems.  The Trustees were not allowed to earn a profit.  Therefore, even though the trustees had sufficient incentives to invest in the formation of a trust, they generally were not interested in the day to day operation of the road.  The toll gates were farmed out, and while trustees were suppose to monitor the gate-keepers and surveyors, their incentives to do so were very weak. After all, their primary income generating activities were elsewhere (their farms or businesses) and these enterprises commanded most of their attention…

[T]he political limitations on trusts also led to significant complaints by shippers and travelers.  ... A serious complaint about the turnpike system as it evolved was that there were too many toll booths, requiring too many stops, thereby slowing transportation services unnecessarily.  Gregory (1932: 193) suggests, in fact, that this was the most important complaint against the turnpikes: “Road users declared that they would rather pay twice the amount if they could be saved the annoyance of the delay.“This problem resulted from the fact that most of the turnpike trusts controlled only short sections of roadway within a parish, so travelers had to pay new tolls each time they left one trust’s road and entered another.  While consolidation of small trusts was desirable in order to avoid the problems with excessive stopping and delays (as well as in order to capture various scale economies in management and maintenance), the trusts operated at the prerogative of parliament, and any formal consolidation required parliamentary approval.  Political resistance to consolidation (e.g., by local trustees who did not want to lose control of their roads, and probably by competitive modes that did not want competition from more efficient turnpikes, as explained below) was strong, so even though efforts were made to obtain parliamentary approval to combine small trusts into larger organizations ..., parliament did not respond with necessary enabling legislation that might have led to widespread consolidation…

[T]here was significant political opposition to the trusts themselves.  Opposition came from those involved in competitive transportation modes such as the river and canal barges and railroads ..., from the trade centers that already had effective transportation connections and feared competition from other centers if their road connections were improved, from some landowners and farmers who feared that better roads would make it easier for their low-wage laborers to be attracted away, from farmers who supplied local markets and feared that improved roads would bring in competition from distant suppliers, from heavy road users who did not want to pay tolls for access even though they wanted the roads to be maintained, and so on.  Therefore, in order to gain sufficient support for passage, Turnpike Acts always had to reflect significant political compromise, including long lists of toll-exemptions for some of the powerful individuals and groups who opposed each Act.

So, although we think that applying free-market principles would result in a better road network, the experience of the Turnpike Trusts (not to mention Railtrack) makes me wonder whether it really is possible to remove political interference, at least while governments continue to exist.

Benson’s article also includes some discussion of the economics of roads as well as a history of the provision of roads in Britain from medieval times onwards. It’s worth reading the whole thing.

(By the way, this was written and posted from the 16:16 GNER service from Leuchars to Kings Cross, which has Wi-Fi onboard. The delights of modern travel, eh?)

06 February 2007
A big lorry load of little lorries, in China. Big Lorry Blog, which is run by a bloke called Brian, reports, with pictures.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (1)RoadRoad Miscellany
03 February 2007
Another flying car!
Brian Micklethwait

Inevitably the YouTube promo for this gizmo concentrates on its public service abilities.  It can rescue people (but only one at a time) from burning skyscrapers.  It can be an aerial ambulance, even if there are traffic jams.  It can catch criminals.  There’s no mention of air jams.  But that last bit got me thinking.  What this really is is the perfect getaway car.

Thank you Gizmodo.

Basically, this is a couple of small person pods attached to about seven fan heaters without heating of various sizes, and pointing in various directions.  A helicopter for dummies, you might say.  It reminds me a bit of a lawnmower, of the sort that has a big fan for chucking the grass cuttings into a big bin, or just elsewhere.

01 February 2007
Cars – parking them by robot and towing them with a motorbike
Brian Micklethwait

Some are trainspotters.  I am a carparkspotter.  Well, virtually speaking, and provided they are interesting, which they mostly aren’t of course.

See this, today, which links to this, and also back to this, also by me, from 2003.  I agree with myself completely.

In other car news, here is a YouTube snippet about a motor bike which will tow broken down cars.  My first thought was, yes, it can get to the car quickly, by wizzing through traffic jams like a motor bike, but once it has hooked itself to the car it becomes as wide as a car and is stuck in the same jam with everyone else.

But then I thought, what if the immobility of the car it is seeing to is what caused the traffic jam, and as soon as it gets to the car and hooks it up and starts to move, the traffic jam as a whole starts moving again, and the motorbike with it?  So it does actually make quite a lot of sense.

I’d love to tell you how I got to “Motorpasion”, which is the Spanish or Portuguese or whatever for “Motorpassion”, but I can’t remember.

05 December 2006
Risking life and limb: Cairo cabs
Jackie D
View from a Cairo taxi

I blogged a couple of videos from a trip to Egypt in October, depicting a few moments of a taxi ride in Cairo. If you’ve ever been to urban areas in China or India, this sort of driving will not be anything new to you. If you haven’t, well, it still doesn’t compare with the experience of being pretty sure you’re going to die on a dusty road in Egypt.

What Cairo cabs lack in safety, they make up for in affordability. You can have a driver take you all around town, wait for you while you explore or have a meal, and deliver you back to your hotel (barring road death) for only a few pounds or dollars - including a big tip.

02 December 2006
Plug in electronics. Disengage brain
Mark Holland

Yes, I realise I can be quite Amish about a lot of the “life changing must have gizmos” that “with it” people rave about. But really, Sat Nav?

What’s with all these plonkers just following its orders and blindly going along narrow tracks across the North Yorkshire Moors, through deep fords in Wiltshire or, really taking the biscuit, driving to Manchester instead of Brentwood?

London Ambulance Service was at a loss yesterday to explain why the crew had not noticed their journey was taking somewhat longer than expected or how they had managed to miss subtle indicators that it was going awry — such as Birmingham.

And just yesterday, not quite as importantly perhaps, a Four Tops tribute band would up in Chelmsford rather than Cheltenham.

Is it that these people were unable to read maps and road signs in the first place? Or has the electronic führer embedded in the dashboard turned them into zombies?

Just as our ability to remember phone numbers has gone out the window since the phones acquired the ability to remember them, in time nobody will know the way to anywhere. Not Amarillo, not San Jose, not even Scunthorpe.

Finally, if a Sat Nav manufacturer really wanted to add a human touch to its directions it should direct you via pubs. People do that sometimes don’t they? Left at the Fat Ox, on past the Kings Head…

28 November 2006
New on Instapatrick (that's my rapid response unit, by the way): Against state roads.

Patrick Crozier • PermalinkFeedback (0)Road
16 November 2006
I just wrote a posting for Transport Blog about road pricing, which today got a plug in the Queen's Speech, and how the latest version of it might involve good news on the Total Surveillance State front. But Samizdata looked like it was having a rather thin day, by its admittedly rather busy standards, so I stuck it there.

It was a good excuse to link, yet again, to link to this.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (0)RoadCongestion ChargingToll roadsUK pricing scheme
14 November 2006
Why a London bus strike and why now?
Brian Micklethwait

Why a London bus strike and why now?

There is a bus strike raging in London today:

Some 60 bus routes serving north, central and west London and parts of Hertfordshire have been affected.

The Transport and General Workers’ Union wants a 6% wage increase in line with similar pay offers from other London bus operators.

Why?  Why is this happening?  And why now, all of a sudden?  Apparently this is the first strike in London for seven years, a fact which the BBC omits.  The BBC omits also that Metroline, the employer in this ruckus, is Singaporean.  It’s like, the BBC doesn’t want this to mean anything.

I think strikes are like wars, in that they happen because each side thinks it will win.  They can’t both be right, and something is making them disagree.  Some uncertainty.

The usual uncertainty I reach for to explain strikes is politics.  The politicians could pay more for their beloved buses than they are paying, so the TGWU reckons that Metroline could extort more from the politicians than they are extorting, and that Metroline could pay the bus drivers more.  The politicians have presumably assured Metroline that there is no more money to be had, and Metroline either does believe this, or hopes that the TGWU will believe it, and that they can pocket any differences that they can extract.

So, guess.  The buses have now all been paid for.  The system is now in place, and seemingly working well.  Mr Livingstone’s career is riding on them.  Ergo, say the busmen, now we can demand more money to drive them.  What will Livingstone do?  Shut all the buses up in their garages until the busmen crawl back to work?  Maybe Metroline thinks that will happen.  The busmen don’t believe that Livingstone and Metroline will hold to such a position.  What are they?  Rupert Murdoch?  Why not just put up the council tax?  Or just, you know, slap it on the tube fares or something?

But that could just be me being anti-political.  It may just be that the TGWU reckons its workers are pissed off with these damned Singaporeans and would rather work some other place than take a mere 4%.

Wars are about the will to fight as well as about mere resources.  Sorry, this is getting too profound.

13 November 2006
This is cool.

Via Driver Chris, who gives it a far better intro than I can muster: It's a map of the British motorway system in a London Underground style.

Mark Holland • PermalinkFeedback (2)London UndergroundRoad
05 November 2006
Weekend Papers Motoring section roundup
Mark Holland

While I’m not an avid reader of the weekend newspaper motoring sections I do like to read what Jeremy Clarkson in the Sunday Times and James May in the Saturday Telegraph have come up with. Both writers take an entertaining, sideways look at ‘motoring’ - not a word I’m keen on really. The opening three quarters of Clarkson’s column is usually about some off-at-a-tangent topic which he’ll then, almost as if by magic, manage to relate to the car he’s supposed to be reviewing. I say usually because I seem to recall him waffling on about cheese for the entire article once when he couldn’t think of a single worthwhile thing to say about a Vauxhall Vectra. Meanwhile May often whitters on about old Jaguars or his Porsche Boxter with the brown trim in his charming, affable young fogey style.

This week: Clarkson, in his roundabout fashion, reviews the Renault Clio Sport 197, a 2-litre hot hatch which supposedly includes air vents behind the front wheels and a ground effects inducing ‘diffuser under the rear bumper’ which are by products of their Formula One programme. Along the way we get treated to Clarkson’s views on Michael Schumacher (he’s a fan), Fernando Alonso (a fish nicker!), F1 and the dwindling appeal of the hot hatch. Cracking stuff.

James May on the other hand ruminates on torque. I remember Newton Metres and turning moments from school physics lessons but had never really fathomed what they were up to within cars. And now, thanks to James, I do. It’s just a shame he over did the Newton Metres with his two-foot long wrench.


Bonus features:

Car enthusiast Jay Leno raves about Richard Hammond and Top Gear whilst Clarkson is caught riding a bicycle. Albeit one with a jet engine and a top speed of 70mph.

“I’m not loaning it to Richard Hammond because he’ll ride it into a field and turn it upside down,” he said. “It’s the first bike you can ride without wearing muesli sandals and a beard. It’s Lance Armstrong and Frank Whittle in one.”

Oh, and his saddle is set far too low.

30 October 2006
Yesterday I spotted a van covered in grass, and photoed it. (It even has its own blog.)

It is indeed a strange and eye-catching sight. I wonder if anyone will now make the case that such vehicles are a danger, by drawing the attention of drivers away from their driving. It might only take one more accident where this is the excuse offered.

Brian Micklethwait • PermalinkFeedback (0)RoadRoad MiscellanyRoad Safety