Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bike to exercise and/or bike to commute

Accidentally I came across Chris Fox Payne's comics. He has been the illustrator for the Readers Digest magazine's back cover. He has been focusing on a slice of modern American life. I like his provocative comics that make you think. Please go to his gallery to have a complete view of his work in Readers Digest. It is worthwhile to look carefully, and ponder upon.

This piece was cut from August 2007 issue which was named as 'alternative fuel'. With a gas station as the background: a huge SUV was pumping the gas from the tank, at a price well above three dollars per gallon; a biking lady is also taking a break to get something to drink- regaining some energy to continue biking.

The interpretation of the comic becomes interesting. Positive readers would like to think this might be promoting the use of bike, as a contrast to automobiles which needs to consume increasingly costly gas. However, looking through his other comics, it doesn't seem to be so sophisticated. As the title is alternative fuel, I feel it actually is more around the drink in this lady's hand. The blue color drink reminds me of the energy drink Gatorade. It is supposed to be a special drink for people doing exercise, rather than plain water, it is scientifically designed and works better than water to your body than plain water.

This brings me to think about the use of bike in US. Just look at the design of bikes in US, it is mainly for exercising. Bikes in the Netherlands are much more sturdy for commute uses: higher handles for sitting straight so that you can look at the front; strong frames to take loads including bags and kids; chain guard to prevent your pants getting dirty; dynamo attaching the front wheel to generate lights, both front and back, for biking at night; etc., etc.

In US, bikes are far away from being used as vehicles to replace automobiles. Even in the most bike friendly city Boulder Colorado, the design of the bike paths are mostly for the purpose of recreation rather than encouraging used as a commute replacement. Bikes rarely have back seats for carrying some load. My experience of biking for groceries in US was always with a heavy backpack. Later a friend gave me her bike Rosy with a front basket on it, which was so unusual. However, the basket was not strong enough to balance a one-gallon milk bottle in it. We even shipped a lying idle bike from US and found it was a bad decision. Bikes here in the Netherlands are more like those in China. Truly, bikes for commute are quite different from bikes for exercising.

It is not easy to change a city as well as people's life style into a bike friendly place, since life is so different: you go shopping more frequent since your bike wouldn't carry that much for a whole week's need; your frig can be smaller since you shop more often; shops should stay close to where you live so that you can easily reach by bikes; the city is friendly for bikes so that people on bikes are safe... ... It is too hard to imagine any US cities could someday adopt the Dutch model of living.

Back to Payne's comic, readers are allowed to have multiple interpretations. To be more pessimistic, I would think it more relates to the energy drink as an alternative fuel to the exercising athletes, rather than promoting the use of the alternative fuel powered bikes to replace the SUV. However, it is a great contrast to put them together to make people think of something.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Experiencing Milan - the city-wide shopping mall

Visiting Italy had been a dream for long time. Western architecture courses in the college time deepened this dream, it finally came true. We spent five days in the city of Milan, a metropolitan city on the foothills of Alps. I thought I would be very excited. Not really. Maybe because I have seen the world for quite much, or I have done too much research before going there, nothing much turned out to be surprising. People are just like people anywhere in the world, other than it is a lot more crowded in Milan. I try to remember interesting things in my trip.

Italy in my mind, or in my collections are a mask, and a glass candy that a friend brought to me during her trip to Rome. My impression about Italy was also from friends who had been there. First is many thieves, and you need to take care of your bags. One Italian colleague went back home from US also got his laptop bag stolen in the airport. Second is, people there sell meat like what is done in China: they cut meat in the open market. The rest of my knowledge is all about their great history written in stone. With all these basic in mind, we arrived in Italy.

As what I have said, since there was not much that I really felt surprise over there, I will only write about things that more or less special over there in Milan. The biggest for this city is, how can this city support so many shopping spaces? Our hotel was close to Loreto, around two miles from the central DUOMO, one of the biggest Cathedral in the World. We could walk all the way to Duomo with all shops along the street named Bluenose Aires. When you reached Duomo, shopping malls are even more. You can easily see big named stores like PRADA, LV, ZARA, and many others I saw the first time. The Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II is the oldest shopping mall in the World are filled with big name fashion stores and elegant design. How can a metropolitan city of seven million people have so much purchasing power to support all these? This is the center of fashion and design. Many shops are nice looking even if you are only window shopping. I just can't help to question how can it be so many. According to my sense, they can only exist so many because some of them are there to be a showroom, rather than sales.

We once sat in a bar, watching people walking on the streets. Occasionally you see fashionable ladies walking by. Maybe also a fashion, you see people holding paper shopping bags, small or big with big brand names on them. Some hold a bunch of them, apparently did a lot shopping. Some in my eyes, it is a fashion to hold a bag with a big name. The picture was edited from a photo taken in a tram: an old lady with a Chanel bag in her hand.

We happened to be there on the San Ambrogio's day, a celebration of Milan's patron saint. It evolved into a beautiful Christmas market full of sweets and typical products. The "Oh Bej! Oh Bej!" fair. Many more stalls were set up on the street in many part of the city. During the weekend time, it was quite a scene: you have to walk with the crowd. Surprisingly, people are buying, not only window shopping like we two. We spotted some local snacks and tasted some. It turned out to be a big mistake: they were made with similar taste although different materials. One big discovery, Italians also sell roasted chestnuts on streets! They use a different way of roasting which didn't have the shinny sugary skin as in China. On the street, they set up some little stove to keep them warm. It is also sold measuring by three different size of cans. The smallest can might hold barely 10 chestnuts at a cost of three euros.

Coming from Netherlands, the tallest country, we suddenly found people there are mostly shorter. Do you know that in the Netherlands all building codes for height of doors, furnitures are higher than most of the world? We sometimes feel some chairs or toilet seats are not comfortable sitting on. We realized this point again when we were walking on the streets, seeing mostly short old couples walking. Maybe the younger generations will be taller.

Till the end, luckily we didn't experience any lost or meet any thieves. Only once in a corner of a stalk on the streets I saw several masks and a few glass candies were on display. I felt masks were such a pretty artifact from Italy and just found out it was famous in Venice. We didn't see meat were cut and sold on streets either. The Duomo cathedral is splendid and we even got on the rooftop to see its wonderful sculptures. What we experienced a few more times were worship mass in varied churches in this 90% catholic country. People all say that Milan is not a typical Italian city. So, I am expecting to go to Rome from now on.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

How budget airline works - travelling at 0.01 euro

I couldn't believe it myself before my trip even after we bought the ticket online, round trip for two person at a total cost of 0.04 euro. I still can't make it how the airline can cover its running cost if not making money. Those who were traveling with us could not be paying the same as us. However, I searched again and found that the regular webfare for the trip of ours is 14.99 for one way. So a round trip ticket plus the taxes cost around 60 euro. All these low budget airlines are amazingly operating at a unbelievable low cost. When I told my Mom that we paid only four cents for this trip, her first concern was, is it safe? I thought we might fly with very small aircraft. It turned our to be around one third occupied Boeing-737.

Now I am safe and sound back from Milan, Italy. The budget airline we flew was Ryanair, a UK company. Let me tell you how the cost is lowered in these flights. First, these airlines operates between smaller airport. The cost of airport landing is a big part of the ticket. Smaller airport charges lower for renting terminals. In the Netherlands, flying from Amsterdam airport is always more expensive than smaller airport like Rotterdam in terms of taxes, fees and charges you paid upon the ticket price. The ticket we bought was again another promotion for one day that all surcharges were waived. So the result was, we have to fly out from Weeze, Germany, a small airport close to the Netherlands border. This way, people who live close to this airport get the most travel benefit of these budget airlines. We took quite a cumbersome journey to get to the airport: two hours train plus one hour shuttle bus journey.

Second, there is no seat numbers. I feel this is a big invention that make the transition time of the flight efficient. You don't get a seat number in your boarding card, and you are told to sit where ever there is an empty seat. Imagining the complicated and sometimes confused boarding sequences I have experienced in US: Some let the back row board first, and some let the window sears board first; this is quite a relief of trouble. In this flight, there is no class difference. Since everyone are paying for the low price, and everyone are equal. There is no business class, all seats are the same. Actually, people do not care that much on where you sit in a few hours' flight. It is the airline companies that make the selection of seats such a big deal. We boarded in the middle of the queue, and we sat at row 8.

Third, is the minimum employees. There were three crews working in the flight serving. They also came down to the terminal to board the passengers. They work so efficiently that as soon as the passengers getting out of the plane, the next flight starts boarding. The staying time of the plane in the terminal is less than an hour. Since there are no seat number for passengers, the boarding process also takes much less time. Surely, there are little necessary equipment as we take for granted in other airport, including the bridge to the plane. You basically walk (or bus) to the plane, and walked up the stairs to board the plane.

Fourth, almost nothing is free in the flight. A tin of coke cost 1.4 pound. We managed to get a free cup of water on the way there. The staff didn't sound very happy to serve that. We also felt a little awkward to ask again later since we only paid 0.01. On the way back, we brought a bottle of water with us. It seems, some people are buying drinks. We were the miser ones. There was a round of lottery sale, in the name of airline. Two euro for one. The in-flight magazines were not kept in front of you, they were distributed and collected later. You can pay 2 euro to buy a copy if you want. This sounds a little weird to me. It only shows that you are allowed to take those magazines home in other flights if they are kept in front of you. I have never seen people doing that.

The flight is safe and efficient. All safety card were pasted in front on you, which made the interior a little crowded feeling. The demo of flight crew were also professional. I don't know whether it was originated from my own security concern due to its unbelievable low cost, I paid more attention in those security demos and learned things that I didn't know before: You should blow the inflated jacket when you are out of the airplane, otherwise it would prevent you from walking out fast.

Also, on the door of the luggage cabins, colorful advertisement were displayed. In our flight, it was the Ryanair's own Christmas sale advertisement. I would think that they might want to sell these spaces also to other companies later.

I feel I buy a lot of their lowering cost strategies. It makes sense to me. Traveling is only for you to get from point A to point B, rather than to achieve some comfort you can easily get while not traveling. I remember when I was little, I was always fascinated with the little gift my Dad brought back from his flying trip. I still keep one little airplane model. In some way, the meaning of flying were connected more to the in-flight gift, free drinks, and food, than the mobility itself. Before my first flying experience, I expected more of those concrete things, than the flying experience which was kind of untouchable. It is reasonable to expect that flying is like taking a bus or train. I would pay for the mobility it provides. People can pay more if they need some extra service, but do not include those services into a bundled price. Italian airline was suffered a lot from the competition from Ryanair which slowly takes part in a bigger share of domestic flight in Italy. I look good upon the future of these budget airlines.

PS: the picture was copied from the NY Times article on budget air travel. I do not agree with what it says about Ryanair very much. You can read it here.