Archive for transport

Moving house is hard to do

At less than a mile this is the shortest house move we have ever made. We also had less stuff to move than ever before. Previous house moves have had their share of troubles. I especially remember the fateful day I got two friends to help us load up a big van with a fridge, a washing machine, a dryer, 6 dismantled wardrobe units, and assorted household stuff, only to crash the van within a few yards. Still smarting from past experiences, we decided for once to employ some professional movers.

However, this move has actually proved the most protracted and difficult yet. The council has created a legacy of pain for any prospective inhabitants by changing the address of the apartment (there are now two addresses and three postcodes for one dwelling). This made it difficult for the phone company to locate the records. A system outage, followed by general irresponsibility and incompetence meant that the phone line was made usable 2 weeks late. Poor customer service and even more incompetence then meant the broadband application was delayed by a further week. 24 days after moving house, I got Internet access. As a teleworker, this made life pretty difficult. And of course we are more dependent upon the Internet now than we have ever been before.

It was also our first move from a furnished property to an unfurnished one. I have spent much of the last month putting up furniture and re-arranging rooms. The various deliveries we have had, from hot food to furniture, have been fraught with difficulty because the address has two numbers in it, is rarely transmitted properly, and always foxes couriers. I have even had to help out two puzzled postmen with directions to the various mailboxes. Several would-be callers have failed to find the door and concluded that the apartment didn’t exist.

Despite the hassles, we are settling in and we are enjoying the new location. Although it is further from the city centre and further from any shops than our previous home, we are enjoying the space and the quiet. A lot. I’ve only had to visit the neighbours to plead for quiet once so far in 5 weeks. This bodes well.

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Over-engineering works on Le Métro

I fell for the trap of buying weekly tickets mid-week—they started on Monday even though I bought them late on Wednesday night—but these cartes oranges were still good value for money.

We were worried they might have been rendered useless when I accidentally put them through a wash cycle, but they still worked! One of them didn’t work consistently, but a member of staff was very sympathetic and issued me as many passes as I wanted to get me through the ticket gates. Since it was the last day, I only asked for four.

How well, I wonder, would Tube tickets work after being laundered? Would the London Underground staff be as helpful if they didn’t? For comparison, please note that I washed my tickets at 30ºC (thank goodness I was feeling eco-friendly!).

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French freecycle

velibvelib’ is a portmanteau of the two French words velo and libre, so a good transliteration would be freecycle. Unlike the US freecycle however, this one is free as in freedom, not free as in beer. French has different words for these concepts, so the confusion doesn’t arise. For just 5€ you can use the bicycles as often as you like for a week, provided each journey is less than 30 minutes. There is a bit of fiddling around choosing a working bike and typing the numbers into the kiosk to take it out, but the basics are quickly learned.

So far, I am pretty impressed with the system. It has only been around for a year and it seems to be well used. It helps, of course, that Paris has lanes especially for buses, taxis, and bikes. Of course it has a few problems.

velib fullFor one, the bike racks fill up at key times. You have a few choices:

  • you can wait for someone to take a bike;
  • you can look up the nearby bike racks at the kiosk; or
  • you can buy a one-day ticket (1€) and swap a bike out.

The obvious solution is the supermarket trolley approach. When the racks are full, it should be possible to stack the bikes (not vertically of course—that would be silly). They don’t tessellate as nicely as supermarket trolleys, but they could line up side-by-side.

velib emptyMore recently we saw the opposite problem: a rack completely devoid of bikes! Neither of these problems has yet done more than delay us a few minutes, though this could be very different when late for an urgent appointment. There are lorries that come by to load up bikes from full racks, and presumably populate the empty ones. I had an idea about paying homeless people to move bikes around, but I have no idea how well that would work.

Another obvious shortfall is that there is no user feedback facility. When I check in a bike, I would like to be able to note whether something is wrong with it. The Parisians have created a convention of turning the saddle around to indicate an unusable bike, but this is not universally understood and doesn’t seem to be noticed by the velib’ administrators. Of course the saddle could be turned to any angle, so treating it as a single bit seems wasteful: it could be turned a little to indicate a usable bike with an irritating defect (like out-of-tune gears), or by greater degrees according to the severity of the defect. Turning it left or right could also carry some information, though I can’t think what. The one defect that can’t be indicated in this convention is when the saddle cannot be adjusted.

If you plan on using these, you may want to consider purchasing a Navigo card, which obviates much of the fiddly kiosk interaction. These passes are mainly for Métro travel and cost 5€ if you live outside France. You should also visit a Monoprix shop to buy a velib’ map. These are very handy for planning your travel and for looking up the nearest station when out and about. I did download a PDF map to my phone but it wouldn’t draw the bike rack symbols properly and it was a very poor quality map to boot.

velib weirdLastly I note that the bikes are used in an unexpected way. Quite often, people just go and sit on the locked bikes, either to chat or to reflect quietly on their own—probably just because they’re comfortable seats waiting to be used.

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It’s just like riding a bike

Today, while contemplating an impending bike ride, my wife expressed concern that she hadn’t ridden a bike in ages: would she still be able to do it? Of course you can guess what phrase sprang unhelpfully to mind.

“Once you learn, you never forget—it’s just like riding a bike.”

To be fair, it served my purpose to highlight that cycling was the archetypal once-learned-never-forgotten activity. That alone served to reassure her. It still set me wondering: what should I have compared it to?

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The City of Burning Clutches

“Sheffield is a city—like Rome—built on seven hills.”

This introduction to Sheffield from a leaflet I picked up on my first visit to the city has stuck in my mind.  I was disappointed not to see a corollary statement when visiting Rome.  I can attest that Sheffield is indeed a city with some fairly steep ascents.  I feel this quite keenly when cycling, though I have as yet been spared some of the meaner hills.

More surprisingly, the effect on cars is quite noticeable, too.  A neighbour’s visitors requested that I leave them three car lengths so they could pull out from their parking space on our 20° hill.  (I saw them use all of this space too!)  And it is the rare, brave motorist who reverses into a parking space on this hill.  Although the spaces here are hard-won, mine is usually safe if no-one else moves.  Most striking of all, though is the unmistakably acrid and cloying smell of the super-heated clutch.  I have had some trouble with this when driving a moving van,  Yesterday and today I realized that I was not alone.  Large stretches of the city reek of burnt clutch.  Throughout the day traffic inches up the Netherthorpe Road to Brook Hill, and many, many drivers simply don’t know how to drive slowly and jerkily up a hill.

It’s rare that I wish this country were more like the US, but I wish more of the cars on the road had automatic transmission or automatic clutches.

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