Monday, 23 February 2015
Andrew Patner and I in Chicago
I learned today of the sudden death earlier this month of Andrew Patner, longtime Chicago music and culture critic and commentator with WFMT radio and various print publications, whom I had known as a classmate at the College of the University of Chicago in the late 1970s.
I've been remembering the time that Andrew and I (and 23 other people) were arrested together on the U. of C. campus on May 22, 1979.Continue reading "Andrew Patner and I in Chicago"
Tuesday, 17 February 2015
Government subsidies to airlines, revisited
An editiorial in the New York Times today discusses demands by the dominant troika of USA-based airlines (American, Delta, and United) that the US government should intervene in their behalf to renegotiate international aviation treaties with countries such as the UAE and Qatar which, the US-based airlines allege, are subsidizing airlines based in those countries (Etihad in Abu Dhabi, Emirates in Dubai, and Qatar Airways) more than the US government is subsidizing US-based airlines.
The Times is right to be skeptical of US-based airlines' claims to need even more protection from the US government for their oligopoly and against potential foreign competion.
But the Times is dead wrong to point to airline alliances as beneficial to travellers. And the Times fails to mention any of the more significant ways that US-based airlines benefit from government subsidies.
A true "open skies" policy would allow foreign ownership of US-based airlines and the operation of flights within the USA by foreign airlines, just as airlines owned and based anywhere in the European Union are now allowed to operate flights within or between any EU member states. Current so-called "open skies" agreements between the USA and other countries that deny foreign carriers access to the US domestic market are protectionist and misleadingly labelled
As I pointed out in a letter to the editor published by the Times almost 20 years ago, and in more detail in an article in my newsletter and blog a decade later, "Americans who can afford to fly rarely ... are subsidizing the frequent-flying elite." That's as true today as it was when I wrote it in 1996.
Frequent flyers and airlines grumble about taxes, but US aviation tax policy remains profoundly regressive.
Wednesday, 11 February 2015
Open letter to members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
I'm a candidate for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Colation
Candidates' statements and election info
More about the issues and why I'm running
I'm writing to my fellow members of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, to let you know about some important issues related to our interests as members and the recent election for the SFBC Board of Directors, in which I was a candidate.
Did you know that the membership of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has fallen by more than 20 percent in the last two years?
The cover of the Winter 2013 "Tube Times" had the tagline "12,000 members strong". By November 2014, there were only 9,315 members on our rolls!
Why has our membership gone down? Why so dramatically? And why now?
It's obvious that the number of bicyclists on the streets of San Francisco has been increasing. And it's not as though we've been so successful that cyclists no longer feel the need for an advocacy group like the SFBC: During the last two years, there has been a groundswell of outrage against killings of bicyclists and pedestrians by negligent motorists.
Some people may have joined the SFBC for member discounts that are no longer available, but that doesn't account for such a dramatic decline in member numbers (although it does highlight the danger of depending on commercial partnerships or other outside sources of funding).
If thousands more San Franciscans have chosen not to renew their SFBC memberships than have been replaced by new members, we should take it as a sign that many SF bicyclists may not see the SFBC as having effectively represented or advocated for their interests.
SFBC staff and members of the Board of Direction have made commendable efforts to increase the demographic diversity of our organization. But it's not enough for our membership to present the image of a rainbow coalition. If our membership is to grow, we need to make sure that the policies for which we advocate reflect the diversity within our membership not just of demographics but of opinions on the issues.
The more successful we are in broadening and diversifying our membership, the more we should_expect_ to find differences of opinion within our coalition -- and the more we need to develop and institutionalize democratic, participatory mechanisms for internal discussion, debate, and decision-making.
Our political influence with city officials and the public derives from the credibility of our claim to speak for a large, diverse membership representative of SF bicyclists. If our "coalition" lacks internal democracy, we will lose our political legitimacy, and become vulnerable to criticism that we don't really speak for many SF bicyclists.
The SFBC was founded as a participatory "do-ocracy" in which the work was done by volunteer members and decisions were made by the people who were doing the work. It was eventually incorporated as a membership organization governed by the members ourselves, through membership meetings at which members could make, debate, and vote on proposals, and a Board of Directors elected by the members.
That's still our formal structure, but in practice essentially all decisions are now in the hands of an effectively self-perpetuating Board of Directors, or are delegated to staff. Decisions on issues on which SF bicyclists, including SFBC members, have had differing opinions have been announced without any opportunity for discussion or consensus-building within our organization.
There hasn't been a quorum at an SFBC membership meeting in years. Even the most important questions about our political platform have not been submitted to a vote of the members. There is no established process for members to propose actions or policy positions, or discuss them with our fellow members. To the extent there has been any discussion of substantive political issues by the Board of Directors, it has occurred entirely in Executive Sessions from which members are excluded.
Our coalition seems to have been moving in the direction of the statewide California Bicycle Coalition, which abolished members' voting rights in 2011, and transferred all decision-making power to a Board of Directors that selects its own successors. And the new Executive Director of the SF Bicycle Coalition comes to us from a position on the staff of another organization controlled entirely by a small, self-perpetuating Board of Directors, rather than a member-controlled organization.
Even the best intentions of leaders and experts are no substitute for internal democracy. Different bicyclists have different ideas about what needs to be done to improve conditions for bicycling in our city. The interests of our members, and our political credibility as a grassroots organization, would best be served by restoring a greater role for members in initiating, determining, and carrying out our political program.
I decided to run for the Board of Directors after trying unsuccessfully to make concrete proposals for SFBC activities and policy positions, and being rebuffed or -- perhaps worse -- met with complete incomprehension as to why a member would be making proposals for what our organization should be doing in the name of our members.
Elections for the Board of Directors are the only vestige of internal democracy in the governance of our "coalition". But there hasn't been a contested Board election in many years, and the slate of candidates nominated by the incumbent Board has always been been elected.
I was the only candidate who chose to run this year despite not being endorsed by the incumbent Board members. In announcing my candidacy, I said that I would bring to the Board of Directors a focus on policy advocacy, on bicyclists' rights, and on participatory decision-making and internal transparency and democracy within the SFBC -- all of which have been under-represented on the current Board. (There's more about why I ran for the Board here.)
This is neither a dispute over specific policies or decisions nor, so far as I know, a personal conflict. I've been a member and supporter of the SFBC for almost 20 years, and I ran for the Board because I care about the future of our organization. Yet rather than being welcomed as an attempt to address the causes of our loss of membership, to better connect the SFBC and our advocacy positions to our grassroots base, or to develop internal processes for coping with the growing diversity of opinions within our membership, my candidacy was treated by the staff and the incumbent Board members as a hostile threat to the organization.
SFBC membership numbers haven't been included in annual reports to members. I discovered the membership decline when I was finally provided -- after the scheduled election was over -- with the list of members eligible to vote in the election for the SFBC Board of Directors.
The SFBC Bylaws and California law provide specific procedures for access to the membership list, but the staff and the current Board of Directors -- including the members of the Board running for re-election -- flatly refused to comply with our own rules or state law, or to provide any alternate way for candidates or other members to communicate with each other, until after the scheduled election was over.
After the scheduled election period was over, voting was extended for another week, without warning. Many members received no notice at all of this extended voting period, and most members were sent notice of the extended voting only after it was underway, despite our Bylaws requiring 30-days advance notice to all members of election dates.
More than two months after the close of voting, the SFBC Board and staff are still refusing to tell me how many votes I or any of the Board-endorsed candidates received. But I have finally been told that, although the Board has not yet met to consider whether the election was valid, the slate nominated by the incumbents (including those members running for re-election) have all been deemed elected.
The November 2014 voting for the SFBC Board of Directors was irrevocably tainted by (1) the violations of the SFBC Bylaws and state law in denying me access to the membership list or any alternate way of communicating with fellow members about my candidacy until after the scheduled election was over, and (2) the violation of the Bylaws in extending the voting without giving all members 30 days notice. This voting did not constitute a valid election. The Board of Directors should schedule new voting, in accordance with our Bylaws. And the number of votes received by each candidate should, of course, be disclosed to all candidates and members.
More fundamentally, the SFBC needs to revive, or create anew, mechanisms for effective participatory and democratic internal discussion, debate, and decision-making, so that our policy advocacy positions and program of activities genuinely reflect the full diversity of opinions of an increasing diverse (and hopefully once again growing) membership.
The next SFBC Board of Directors meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, February 24th, from 6:30-8:30 pm. at the SFBC office, 833 Market St., 10th floor. Board meetings are open to SFBC members, and I encourage you to attend. You can also e-mail the Board at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tell SFBC Board members that they need to schedule new, proper voting to elect the new Board. Tell the Board that internal democracy is vital to our growth and our ability to speak for the diversity of SF bicyclists.
And consider nominating yourself or other SFBC members for the Board of Directors. You can nominate yourself or any other SFBC member in good standing by sending an e-mail message to email@example.com.
I look forward to working with you and all other SFBC members to revitalize and re-democratize the SFBC as a voice for all San Francisco bicyclists.
Feel free to contact me with your ideas, feedback, questions, concerns, criticism, support, or suggestions.
1130 Treat Ave.
Tuesday, 13 January 2015
Obama "data breach" bill ignores sensitivity of travel info
Today President Obama released the text of his proposal for a "National Data Breach Notification Standard".
The point of the bill is to create a nationally-standard requirement for businesses to notify consumers whenever "sensitive" personal or account information is improperly disclosed.
The President's bill is only the starting point for what will likely be (and should be) vigorous debate in Congress and by privacy advocates, data security experts, and the public.
But I want to point out two key flaws in the first draft proposed by the President, both of which pertain especially to travel, which could and should be fixed by fairly simple amendments:
First, the bill appears to have a loophole that could leave transportation common carriers -- airlines, railroads, bus companies, etc. -- exempt from its requirements. As written, the bill applies only to companies subject to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Act, which doesn't generally apply to communication or transportation common carriers or some financial services providers. The bill includes special provisions for coordination between the FTC and the FCC (for communications carriers) and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (for financial services providers). But it clearly needs to include a similar provision for coordination with the Department of Transportation (DOT) for issues pertaining to transportation carriers, over which the DOT and not the FTC currently has exclusive jurisdiction for consumer protection.
Second, perhaps more significantly, the bill omits location information from its definition of "sensitive" personal information, the leakage of which triggers notification requirements.
It appears that the bill wrongly conceives of identity theft and consequent financial loss as the sole, or at least the most significant, threat model for breaches of personal data security.
But that leaves out the grave, often violent (and not infrequently fatal) risks of stalking and harassment, primarily but not exclusively in the context of domestic abuse.
Victims of stalking, harassment, and domestic violence may be much more gravely endangered by involuntary disclosure of information about their location -- whether from cellphone traces or airline reservations -- than by disclosure of any of their financial records or account information.
There has been growing recognition that location information (including by definition travel data) is one of the key categories of especially sensitive and personally revealing data, along with health and financial information. But that insight didn't make it into the President's proposal, which urgently needs to be amended to explicitly define any information about the physical location of an individual person as being, per se, "sensitive" personal information.
This isn't a hypothetical issue.
Not long ago I accidentally discovered a major public leak, which was still ongoing until I reported it to the responsible company, of personal location tracking logs stored in conjunction with use of a "location-aware" smartphone app and associated Web-based service. I'll have more details once the service provider responsible for the leak has had a chance to mitigate the damage and disclose it to users. It appears, unfortunately, that the applicable state data breach notification laws currently have the same defect as President Obama's bill, and omit location data from the categories of personal data leakage of which triggers their notice requirements.
Friday, 19 December 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 12
Manila (Philippines) - Los Angeles, CA (USA)
As has become the norm, The Amazing Race 25 was decided in the final episode by a test of the racers' memory of the sequence of places they had visited.
It's tempting to make fun of people who travel around the world while staying so focused on their next destination, rather than on where they are and what is happening around them, that by the end of their journey they have difficulty remembering where they've been without consulting their notes.
There's more than a hint of reality, however, to this aspect of the reality-TV show. You might not keep notes about where you've been. Or maybe you do, perhaps in the form of blog entries or Facebook updates. But how much do you remember about your previous journeys without looking through the photos you took? How many images do you remember that you didn't stop to photograph when you saw them?
Some people can't remember anything that they are told in a class unless they take notes, even though they never look at those notes once the lecture is over. Is what matters to your memory looking at your pictures after your trip? Or is it the act of photography that focuses your attention in the moment, and fixes images in your memory at the same time that it fixes them on film or in arrays of digital sensor data?
How much are your travel memories, and your travel stories, shaped by the tools that you use to record and refresh your recollections? By the practice of repeated retelling?
There's a genre of travel writing and oral travel storytelling that blurs the lines between fact and fiction. I have a couple of friends who get paid to tell travel stories on stage as performance art, and many written travel narratives compete more with novels than with works of history or geography. Readers and listeners aren't expected to take them entirely at face value: We allow considerable artistic latitude when travel stories are presented as entertainment or even as educational parables, rather than as journalism. Is it more fun to read or listen to a good story, or to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
But do we ourselves retain the ability to distinguish the way things appear in our travel slideshows, or in the stories we tell about our travels, from the way they appeared in the moment to ourselves or others?
A common theme of interviews with people who've participated in The Amazing Race is that the story told by the TV broadcasts -- ten hours or so of video edited down from a from a month or so of filming around the world -- doesn't entirely correspond to cast members' memories of what happened. But The Amazing Race is different from most travellers' reality in that cast members don't carry cameras themselves and don't see any of photos of their trips until the TV show -- edited by someone else, from a different point of view -- is broadcast several months later.
If the racers sometimes have difficulty remembering details of earlier events that seem obvious to TV viewers who have seen them focused on, and if the racers' sometimes feel that they are watching a TV show about other people, detached from their own experience, that should perhaps be a lesson about how much our own memories may differ from the way that other people -- those we travel with or those we meet along the way -- might tell the stories of our trips.
What determines what you remember about your travels, and how you remember it?
Please share your thoughts in the comments during this hiatus -- like the season of storytelling between big trips -- between seasons of "The Amazing Race".
Friday, 12 December 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 11
In this episode of The Amazing Race 25, the contestants faced a cycling challenge whose difficulty was a consequence -- in a not so obvious way -- of the economic conditions in the Philippines that I talked about last week.
As I've noted previously, the on-screen host and off-screen co-producer of The Amazing Race, Phil Keoghan, is a cyclist who takes every opportunity to put the racers on unusual bicycles. If you're preparing to compete in the race, you should ride as many different types of bikes as you can find, especially unusual configurations of cargo bikes.
The design of the diamond-frame bicycle, and its more recent relative the motorcycle, has changed remarkably little in the last century. Although there are some cargo bikes with the load carried in front, and some front infant and child seats and carriers, larger loads and adult passengers are almost always carried on the rear of a bicycle. A few seasons ago in Malawi, one member of each team had to pedal a bicycle "taxi" with their teammate behind them on the pillion.
But tricycle rickshaws, both pedal powered and motorized, have long been, and continue to be, made in at least three fundamentally different configurations:
- "Delta" trikes, with two drive wheels and the passenger(s) and/or cargo in the rear, and the driver and a single steering wheel in front;
- "Tadpole" trikes, with the driver and a single drive wheel in the rear, and the passenger(s) and/or cargo between or over the two front wheels; and
- "Sidecar" trikes, with the driver riding a more or less standard bicycle or motorcycle, and the passenger or cargo carried on a third wheel alongside.
Each of these designs has it's own pros and cons, as Phil would say. Each is the norm in different countries.
Standard Indian cycle-rickshaws are delta trikes, while standard Vietnamese cycle-rickshaws are tadpole trikes.
Motorized "auto-rickshaws" in India and most other countries are delta trikes which require a rear differential in the drive train, but which can be steered directly with handlebars, with an extraordinarily small turning radius, without the need for a complicated steering-wheel linkage.
The Philippines is one of the few large countries in which almost all three-wheelers, whether pedal powered or motorized, have sidecar configurations.
Why is this? Largely because either a delta or a tadpole design requires more complex custom components than does a sidecar attached to an off-the-shelf bicycle or motorcycle.
Indian (delta) cycle rickshaws and (delta) auto rickshaws are manufactured entirely in India.
In the Philippines, as I mentioned in my previous column, there's almost no domestic manufacturing, and no significant domestic production of either bicycles or motorcycles. It's much cheaper to import a cheap mass-produced bicycle or motorcycle, and attach a simple locally-made sidecar, then to import an expensive and very bulky complete tricycle rickshaw. The only moving part on the sidecar is a standard wheel, which is neither powered nor steerable and generally doesn't even have a brake.
While sidecars can be compact and maneuverable, their asymmetry (power, steering, and often braking all from only one side) makes them less intuitive to drive and potentially less stable.
The biggest challenge for the racers was steering a sidecar bicycle rickshaw, with their teammate as passenger, around corners and through city traffic.
Most of the racers also had problems with the sizing of the pedicabs. That should be a reminder that, as with clothing, it can be difficult to find a properly fitting bicycle in a place where most local people are much shorter, taller, thinner, or fatter than you are. Even in Japan, with a large bicycle manufacturing industry, there are many common makes and models of bicycles that aren't produced in sizes appropriate for someone like me 5'11" (180 cm) tall. As the racers found out, you can ride a bicycle that's much too small for you, at least for a short distance. But it won't be comfortable and you won't be able to develop much power.
Friday, 5 December 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 10
Singapore (Singapore) - Manila (Philippines)
[Overseas job postings in the window of a labor broker in Cebu, Philippines]
Do you remember the first time you came face-to-face with Third World or Fourth World poverty? For people who grew up in the First World, such a moment is often one of the most enduring of travel memories and most life-changing of travel experiences.
Whether or not you are travelling to such a place, you can -- and should, if you want to understand what people's lives are like in much of the world -- read, watch movies, and listen to friends tell you stories about what they've seen and experienced in different parts of the world.
None of that, however is likely to fully prepare you or enable you to really imagine what it's like for an entire family to live in a 10' × 10' (3m x 3m) shack they've built themselves out of scrounged materials discarded by richer folks, with no toilet and water carried from a tap 100 yards (100m) away, if they're luckier than some slum dwellers, or a muddy sump a mile (1.5 km) away if they are less lucky. Or to live on the street -- literally.
Common reactions to seeing things like this for the first time include:
- "I know what poverty is like in my country, but poverty here is qualitatively different."
- "I understood this intellectually, but that couldn't prepare me for the reality."
- "Now that I've seen what life is really like for people here, I'll never forget it, even after I get home."
A reluctance to confront poverty shouldn't keep you from travelling to the Third or Fourth World. Poverty is not confined to the global South. Wherever you go, keep in mind that poor people are not animals in a zoo, even if poverty forces them to live their lives in public view.
In some countries where rich people are able to segregate their lives from those of poor people -- including of course the USA -- both wealthy locals and wealthy tourists can be oblivious to the living conditions of the poor. Teresa P.R. Caldiera's "City of Walls", which I mention in the resource guide in the most recent edition of "The Practical Nomad: How To Travel Around The World", provides many insights into the causes and consequences of this sort of segregation. If you travel by car or taxi or on a tour bus, rather than by public transit, and walk around outside only in the enclaves of the rich, it's possible to visit such places while never being confronted with the poverty that's out of sight and out of mind to the local gentry.
In other countries -- not necessarily ones where poverty is deeper or more pervasive -- poverty is less well hidden. In these places, it's much more normal for even wealthy visitors to see, hear, feel, and smell what life is like all the time for poorer folks.
Preparing yourself for and coping with the "culture shock" this can produce, and finding ways to maximize the benefit you can get from it as an educational experience, are larger topics than I can address here.
Philip Briggs' "Ethiopia: The Bradt Travel Guide", which I also mention in the resource guide in "The Practical Nomad", includes a remarkably sensitive chapter on "Bridging the Cultural Gap" that's really about bridging the gap of wealth between rich Northern travellers and poor Southern locals. It's worth reading if you are going anywhere in the Third or especially the Fourth World, not just Ethiopia or elsewhere in Africa. It's the best treatment I've seen of issues such as guilt and begging, tipping, overcharging of foreigners by locals, and meanness by budget travelers, as well as the emotional and existential impact of profound differences in wealth.
Poverty in the Philippines catches many visitors by surprise, as it did the contestants on The Amazing Race this season. Many visitors don't realize how impoverished the country is, and aren't prepared for the depth and pervasiveness of poverty the way they might be if they were travelling to South Asia or sub-Saharan Africa.
The Philippines isn't a Fourth World country, but it is a Third World country. Per capita income in the Philippines is closer to that of Indonesia or India than to that of Thailand or Mexico. And the distribution of income in the Philippines is even more uneven than it is in Indonesia.
Why the Philippines isn't "developing" at the same pace as some of its neighbors, and why poverty in the Philippines remains so extreme and so prevalent, are complex questions addressed in the works of Philippine scholars like Walden Bello, and on which every Filipina or Filipino you meet will have their own opinions.
But as in the cases of Malta and Singapore in the preceding legs of this season of The Amazing Race, part of the explanation for the economic state of the Philippines lies in patterns of immigration, emigration, and migrant labor. To understand the Philippines, you have to understand, or at least be aware of, the Filipinas and Filipinos you don't see in their own country: the millions working in other countries around the world.
The Philippines is one of the largest remittance economies in the world. Filipinas and Filipinos working abroad send home more money than do citizens of any other country except China and India. Remittances to the Philippines exceed even those to Mexico, even though Mexico has a significantly larger population. And while remittances from Mexicans working abroad, mainly in the USA, are vital to the national economy, remittances represent about five times larger a share of total national income in the Philippines than in Mexico.
Many observers see remittance economies as an example of the "tragedy of the commons". Migrant workers are making rational individual economic decision by choosing to take higher-paying jobs abroad, but collectively these decisions serve to further impoverish their homelands.
Remittances tend to be spent on imported consumer goods, not on development of local productive capacity. Migrant workers are held up as role models and national heroes, leading (luring?) educated and qualified young people away from careers within the country. The departure of the best and brightest for jobs abroad, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as the "brain drain", bleeds the country of its "human capital" and perpetuates national dependency on imported expertise.
These dynamics are at work in many countries, but in no other country as large as the Philippines are they are so powerful an influence. And in no other large country is understanding the pervasive impact of the "invisible hand" of the international migrant labor market so essential to understanding the state of affairs that you find within the country when you visit.
Please share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.
Friday, 28 November 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 9
Malta (Malta) - Singapore (Singapore)
In this episode, The Amazing Race 25 made its way from one island city-state, Malta, to another, Singapore.
As in Malta, the proximity of much poorer neighboring countries makes immigration and border controls a political, economic, and social issue in Singapore in ways that tourists who arrive and depart by air may not notice.
Singapore is an island, but it's linked to the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula and the rest of the Asian mainland by a road and rail causeway and a second highway bridge. More than a hundred thousand people cross between Singapore and Malaysia every day.
Singapore was formerly part of the same British colony, and then part of the same independent country, as what is now Malaysia. Relationships between such formerly united countries vary widely.
Vietnam, Germany, and Yemen have been reunified after periods of partition. North and South Korea, and Ethiopia and Eritrea, are officially at war, although both Korean governments profess a desire for reunification. It's possible to travel between them only by way of other countries, most often China or Russia in the case of the Koreas, and Yemen, Saudi Arabia, or the U.A.E. in the case of Ethiopia and Eritrea. The governments of both Taiwan and the P.R.C. also both profess a desire for reunification, although most travel between them continues to be via the anomalous enclave of Hong Kong. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh have "normalized" their diplomatic relations since the wars that accompanied their successive partitions from each other. Except between parts of Kashmir, it's easier for foreigners to travel between them than most people think (I'll save that story for another day), but the borders between them are still largely closed to locals.
The relationship between Singapore and Malaysia (and to some extent also Indonesia) has much in common with that between Mexico and the portions of the USA that used to be part of Mexico. The ratio of average income between Singapore and Malaysia is quite similar to that between the USA and Mexico. Singapore relies on lower wage Malaysian workers, and Malaysians take jobs in Singapore for the money despite discrimination against them in Singapore and what many perceive as a crowded yet atomized and soulless city life.
Mutual economic dependence is mixed with mutual hostility and mutual fear about wealth, race/ethnicity, language, and religion. As in so many other regions, rhetoric of "diversity" on both ends of the causeway masks the existence of overlayed "communities" that often live side by side with only limited interaction. The epitome of this is of course in Los Angeles -- nominally one of the world's most diverse metropolises -- where people who drive everywhere fly over each other's neighborhoods on elevated freeways, without stopping and often without even being aware of who lives down below, much less what their lives are like. Similar phenomena are found in, among other places, Johannesburg and São Paulo.
Singapore is a dense, high-rise city, with roughly twice the land area of Malta but ten times the population. So you might expect that, at least when they aren't working, people who live in Singapore would be eager to get away to the Malaysian countryside. In practice, wealthy Singaporeans and wealthy expats tend to fly to places further away on their vacations.
While there are exceptions, many Singaporeans and wealthy expats living and working in Singapore hardly ever visit Malaysia, even for a day trip or a weekend. And if that seems surprising, consider how many people live their lives in San Diego and rarely, or never, visit the larger city of Tijuana just across the line that divides the trans-border metropolitan area. For tourists, it's regarded as a minor sideshow among the attractions of the region, not – as it should be – as essential to getting a sense of regional context.
Because most of the people crossing between Singapore and Malaysia are Malaysian workers, Singapore has put a low priority on improving passenger transit links. There is no rail connection between downtown Singapore and Malaysia: Long-distance trains from Malaysia, which used to run through to a station in downtown Singapore, now terminate at "Woodlands" at the Singapore end of the causeway. The nearest stations on the Singapore MRT (subway/metro train) are a long, hot walk from the causeway. But it's easy and inexpensive, if a bit time-consuming, to take an inexpensive local bus from the MRT station across to Johore Bahru ("J.B."), the Malaysian city at the north end of the causeway.
You can get buses either directly from downtown Singapore, or somewhat more cheaply from J.B., to points throughout Malaysia. Malaysian trains are comfortable and cheap but slow and have limited routes. There's been talk of building a new high-speed rail line between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur, but progress has been slow and even the route into Singapore has not yet been agreed.
Depending on traffic, taking a taxi across the causeway or the newer "Second Link" bridge might save you time and isn't too expensive.
Customs and immigration formalities are generally straightforward, but as at the border between San Ysidro (south of San Diego) and Tijuana, traffic jams and substantial delays are always possible. A few years ago, crossing from Singapore to Malaysia on a Friday evening, I spent two claustrophobic hours, after I got off the bus at the checkpoint at the Malaysian end of the causeway, in a throng of Malaysian workers going home to their families for the weekend.
Walking would sometimes be faster than waiting in traffic, but pedestrians aren't currently allowed on either the causeway or the Second Link bridge. Bicycles are allowed on the causeway, though, paying the same toll and using the same two-wheeler lanes through the customs and toll plazas as motorcycles and scooters. You can also take bicycles on the "bumboats" (inexpensive shared water taxis) that shuttle across to Malaysia from a ferry terminal in the Changi neighborhood near Singapore's airport.
Indonesia is also nearby, but not nearly as close or as accessible. The Singapore Strait between Singapore and Indonesia is deeper and much wider than the Johore Strait between Singapore and Malaysia. There is no bridge between Singapore and Indonesia, and few ferries.
The closest Indonesian island to Singapore is Batam, about an hour away by ferry. Because of its proximity to Singapore, it's one of the fastest growing urban areas in Indonesia, with a population that has doubled to more than a million in the last decade. Batam is a free trade zone dominated by foreign-owned export-goods manufacturing and assembly plants like the "maquiladoras" in similar zones in Tijuana and elsewhere in Mexico along the USA border.
Many foreign visitors imagine that it would be inexpensive to travel "overland" or by boat from Singapore to Jakarta or other more touristed portions of Indonesia. Unfortunately, that isn't true. Distances are large, and inter-island ferries are infrequent and don't go directly from Singapore to any of the major Indonesian islands or tourist destinations. By the time you pay for ferry fare as well as food and lodging at unavoidable layover points along the way, it's cheaper to fly.
Friday, 21 November 2014
The Amazing Race 25, Episode 8
Palermo (Italy) - Malta (Malta)
"Where's Malta?" asked several of the teams on The Amazing Race 25 when they got the clues directing them to the island nation in the Mediterranean Sea. One team speculated that Malta might be in Spain, Italy, or Greece before they got around to considering that, "Maybe Malta's its own country."
Malta is actually the name of an independent country -- formerly a British colony and major naval base -- as well as the name of its largest island. The racers' ignorance is understandable, however, since Malta is small and not a major destination for foreign tourists.
Most of the travellers I sent to Malta during my career as a travel agent only went there because the cheapest tickets between other places were on Air Malta and allowed -- or required, due to less than daily schedules on many routes -- a free stopover on the island. "Low-fare" airlines have driven down prices on many routes within Europe, but Air Malta used to be one of the few airlines that offered cheap one-way consolidator tickets across the Mediterranean, such as between Europe and North Africa and between Iberia and Greece ot Turkey. For a small airline, Air Malta (airline code "KM", as in "Knights of Malta") also serves a surprisingly large number of airports, including many "provincial" and secondary cities.
For what it's worth, most of these travellers who reported back to me said that Malta was interesting, distinctive, and worth a short stopover if you are passing through, although expensive even by European standards and probably not worth going too far out of your way to visit unless you have some special interest or motivation.
Malta is the smallest member state of the European Union, in both in area and population. It's a crowded cluster of little islands: Luxembourg has only slightly more people than Malta, but almost ten times the land area.
Malta is also distinguished by having the largest number of refugees and asylum seekers per capita of any EU member or other First World (i.e comparably wealthy) country. Of fewer than half a million residents of Malta, almost a thousand are seeking asylum and almost ten thousand more are other refugees. Most of these are "boat people" who arrived from or via Africa or the Eastern Mediterranean.
A small cluster of crowded rocks in the middle of the sea isn't an attractive goal for any but the most desperate refugees. Malta's refugee and asylum seeker crisis only began after Malta joined the EU in 2004 and the Schengen Area at the end of 2007.
A citizen of any EU member state has the right to live and work anywhere in the EU, and all controls on travel across borders within the Schengen Area have been abolished. That's why many people in other countries around the world who can claim citizenship in EU member states by ancestry or otherwise are now acquiring passports of countries they never intend to live in, as de facto lifetime pan-EU residence and work permits, with the right to pass that citizenship status and its privileges on to one's children.
But the EU and Schengen treaties are accompanied by the EU's so-called Dublin Regulations, which assign responsibility for adjudicating asylum claims to whichever EU member country a refugee first arrives in.
Even if an asylum seeker makes it onto a plane or ferry onward from Malta to the European continent, any other EU country in which they are found can send them back to Malta.
The burdens of these rules on both countries of arrival and the refugees themselves are felt in all the EU members closest by land or sea to poorer countries to the east and south. The largest numbers of refugees and asylum seekers subject to these rules arrive in the EU via Greece. But Malta's small size as well as its location make the refugee problems there proportionately much worse.
Like the USA, but unlike most other EU countries, Malta tries to discourage refugees and asylum seekers by detaining most of them, typically for a year or more, while their claims are being processed. But most refugees who arrive in Malta (unlike people who seek asylum in the USA, most of whom are eventually deported) eventually obtain some sort of legal status and move on from Malta to other European countries.
While the implications of EU asylum processing rules on the Maltese refugee crisis have been widely discussed, the significance of another group of regulations and practices has been almost entirely overlooked.
Why, we need to ask, are migrants arriving at Malta by boat in the first place?
Not because it is cheaper, or because they couldn't afford to fly. Human traffickers charge more than the price of tickets on low-fare airlines to smuggle refugees and asylum seekers across the Mediterranean in overcrowded and often unseaworthy small boats.
And not because they are not legally entitled to travel to, enter, or remain in the EU. An asylum claim can only be made or adjudicated after an asylum seeker arrives in a country of refuge. But most of those who make it to Malta eventually have their claims upheld, and are officially determined to be entitled to remain. In other words, they are legal travellers and legal entrants, even though the legality of their entry can only be determined after the fact.
The reason refugees are taking to the sea, where many of them die en route (like those who die in the desert trying to enter the USA from Mexico), is that airlines -- in flagrant violation of their obligations under international aviation and human rights treaties -- refuse to transport them.
Airlines simply will not sell you a ticket or allow you to board a flight to another country if you don't have a visa or other advance permission (such as citizenship of a country that is allowed visa-free entry to your destination), but say you intend to apply for asylum at your destination.
Governments fail to enforce the obligations of common carriers to transport such passengers.
And of course most asylum seekers -- people who, by definition, are suffering from or have a justified fear of persecution -- have little or no realistic access to judicial redress.
The right to travel may seem abstract, and of less significance than rights that are more obviously matters of life and death. This is a case where the deaths of "boat people" at sea -- legitimate refugees fleeing real persecution, who are entitled to asylum if they can reach a country of refuge -- are directly attributable to violations of the right to travel by airlines, and the acquiescence in (or encouragement of) those violations by national governments.
Tuesday, 11 November 2014
More on why I'm running for the board of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition
Announcement of my candidacy
Candidates' statements and election info
Follow-up letter to members of the SF Bicycle Coalition
In announcing my candidacy for the for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, I said that I would bring to the Board a focus on policy advocacy, on bicyclists' rights, and on participatory decision-making and internal transparency and democracy within the SFBC -- all of which have been under-represented on the current Board.
What does this mean, and why are these issues important?Continue reading "More on why I'm running for the board of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition "