S*#!-hole country

August 7, 2019

I recently returned from a trip that took me by air to three Latin American countries – Panama, Argentina and Costa Rica (I also visited Uruguay, but by boat). At one airport on my trip, after 12 wearying hours of traveling, including seven straight hours in a coach seat, I was directed to a huge, dingy arrivals hall without air conditioning (and it was hot), where I waited over 40 minutes with hundreds of other tired, hot travelers to have a disinterested bureaucrat stamp my passport without asking me a single question. After another wait of 40 minutes (in a room also without air conditioning) for my luggage, I finally was able to go outside to look for a cab. One nowhere near the front of a long line of licensed cabs called out to me, so I got in. When I told him where I was going (a hotel near the airport, not the urban center) he cursed me and tried to hold me up for an exorbitant fixed fare, though local law requires cabs to use meters. When I threatened to report him if he didn’t turn on the meter, he acquiesced, muttering “it’ll be the same.” Of course, it wasn’t – it was just over half what he initially had asked for.

Can you guess the airport at which this scene took place?  If you guessed JFK in New York upon my return, you’d be right.  The three international airports in Latin America that I experienced were all modern, air conditioned, and the entry procedures were efficient and quick.

Smart governments know that good airports are huge economic drivers, and can shape visitors’ attitudes toward a place by the initial impressions they instill.  The local leaders who pushed through the renovation of the Albany International Airport a few decades ago knew this, and I believe their good work has paid off.  The Port Authority of NY and NJ, which runs the JFK airport, has promised a new JFK.  It can’t come soon enough.

 

 

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End of an era

July 11, 2018

USA Today reports that Southwest Airlines will soon stop serving its iconic peanuts, in deference to those with allergies. I only hope this heightened awareness of the needs of its customers with allergies will extend to those sensitive to the fur of so-called “support” animals, as well as those whose migraines can be triggered by screaming babies. I’m not holding my breath.


Too loud and too sweet

August 12, 2015

I just returned from a trip to, among other places, Las Vegas, and I was very bothered by the volume of sound in several places I visited.  While I may be over-sensitive, I can’t believe that ear-splitting sound levels are good for the health of either the patrons or the employees of these loud establishments, and I question whether they are good for the bottom line.  When time permits, I’ll look for studies, but I find it hard to believe that sound levels I find uncomfortable to be present in are enjoyed by anyone.  Loud noise in other public places has become endemic — in addition to the dreaded airport CNN monitors, about which I’ve previously written, I often find televisions — usually competing with other background music — blaring in restaurants and bars.  In an age when everyone has a smart phone or other device that allows them to listen to whatever they want, is it really necessary for airports and other public places to bother those of us who prefer silence?

My trip exposed me to another of my pet peeves — screaming babies on airplanes.  Ear plugs are not a complete solution; what also would help would be to ask families who travel with young children, in exchange for the preferred boarding and the ability to bring infants along for free they now get, to sit in the last few rows of the plane.  It astounds me that Southwest, the airline I usually fly, will require a “Customer of Size” to purchase an extra seat if he or she intrudes on the space of one other passenger (the cost of which is reimbursed if not every seat on the plane is taken), while a screaming infant can terrorize dozens of people with impunity.  If the airlines really care about the comfort and well-being of their customers, they will pay more attention to the screaming baby issue.  I for one will gladly shift my patronage to any airline that does.

Further on the theme of too much, why is everything over-sweetened?  I have read that a can of regular Coke contains the equivalent of 10 teaspoons of sugar, which seems objectionable on health grounds.  Why not offer an alternative containing about half as much sugar, which might be more pleasing to adult palates and less objectionable than artificially sweetened alternatives, most of which also are cloyingly sweet.  Reduced sugar drinks would appeal to those watching their calories and would result in good public relations for their makers, something the soft drink industry could use right now.

Oscar Wilde admonished “everything in moderation, including moderation.”  Time to return to the time when moderation is the general rule and not the exception.


Lessons from our neighbors to the North

September 1, 2014

I just returned from a glorious cycling mini-vacation in Montreal, one of North America’s premiere cities for bicycling. I got to see a lot, compared to what pedestrians get to see; I got to see details that those who drive around miss; I got fresh air, sunshine, exercise and contact with locals. What Montreal got from me was tourist dollars, good will, great word of mouth and someone likely to return for more.

By accommodating cyclists, in addition to other tourists, Montreal has spawned a whole industry of businesses that support them – hotels and inns near bike paths, bicycle shops, and the like. It has provided its  residents an outlet for safe, outdoor, healthy recreation. And it has created a mini-boom in real estate along the major bike routes, such as the Lachine Canal trail.

By contrast, let’s look at what our area is doing to promote tourism and economic development: a convention center and a casino resort, neither world class, and therefore neither likely to attract visitors from outside the region. Both are late-comers in declining industries that already have excess capacity. While both will create one-shot jobs while they are being built, neither is likely to spur much ongoing development in their immediate surroundings, and neither will provide ongoing entertainment or recreational opportunities for locals, except perhaps for the casino, which may not be a good thing.

Some of the major benefits of encouraging bicycle tourism are:

1.  Low cost.  The bedrock principle for encouraging people to bike is to provide an area physically separate from automobiles in which they can feel safe and comfortable.  “Sharrows,” and bike route signs, the principal things our government wastes money on to promote cycling, do not achieve this goal.  However, there are relatively easy and inexpensive ways to separate cars and bikes.  Here’s a bike path in Montreal that uses no more than a painted line to demarcate a bike lane next to the curb, with cars parked on its outside to shield the cyclists from moving traffic.

Simple bike path - parked cars separate bikes and moving cars

Simple bike path – parked cars separate bikes and moving cars

For a little more money, actual temporary barriers can be installed that can be removed in winter (in Montreal, the bike paths are open from April through November):

Bike trail with stantions

Bike trail with stanchions

For a little more, you can add fancy, permanent curbing, and even a separate signaling system, but these are bells and whistles, not essentials:

Bike path with curbing

Bike path with curbing

 

 

 

 

 

Bike traffic light

Bike traffic light

2.  Benefits to residents.  While attracting tourists, a usable network of bike trails will at the same time encourage locals to use their bikes more, which will improve their health, reduce automobile traffic and its negative side effects (pollution, accidents, use of large swaths of downtown land for parking lots, etc.).

3.  Economic development.  Bikeable cities attract millenials and others who prefer urban, car-less environments.  In Montreal, I saw a lot of new residential development next to the major bike trails, as well as renovations of older warehouses, factories and the like into apartments and condos.

Montreal has as long and severe a winter season as Albany, yet it proves that bike paths make economic sense even when used only part of the year.  One advantage Montreal does have over Albany is more level terrain, but there are plenty of potential routes here that would not require major hill climbs.  The Corning Preserve and Mohawk bike trails already here are a good start that demonstrate the local demand for off-road cycling facilities, so there is little risk that if we build it, no one will come.

Expanding our network of off-road bike routes would be a win-win for residents, tourists and local businesses, at minimal cost to government.  There are few greater opportunities for government to do so much good for so many at so little cost.  What’s stopping it?


Hooray, TSA!

December 18, 2013

For many, many, years, the TSA treated all air travelers alike, subjecting each to the same security screening procedures. Just recently, I was pleased to see that I was selected for the new “Pre-check” program that let me, a somewhat frequent flyer who has no criminal record and never did anything to compromise travel safety, to breeze through the line without taking out my laptop and liquids, and without taking off my shoes, belt and “light” jacket. I understand that eligible travelers can either pay to enroll in the program or, like me, be selected for it on an ad-hoc basis (I was told that being selected for one flight does not guarantee selection for future flights). Either way, it makes sense, both to the traveling public and to an agency with limited resources, to deploy those resources where they are most likely to discover safety threats. While some may say that this targeting of resources is “discriminatory,” especially if it is perceived to be directed at certain ethnic groups, it simply makes no sense to apply the same procedures to different passengers who present objectively different risks. I applaud the TSA for this common-sense move that will benefit all travelers and increase safety.

Of course, implementation of the new policy is not perfect. Recently, I booked a trip with a companion. Though we were on the same reservation, only one of us was selected for pre-check, making it basically useless, since the other would have to go through the full screening. I called the airline about this, and was told to contact the TSA. I left a comment on the TSA web site, but I did not receive a meaningful individualized response. Overall, though, Pre-check is a step in the right direction.


“Second” trips

May 9, 2012

For those who frequently travel by air and other forms of public transit, a major inconvenience can be the “second” trips between one’s home and departure airport and one’s arrival airport and ultimate destination. In many areas, the only options are driving and paying exorbitant parking fees at the airport, expensive and often unreliable taxis and renting a car, which may not be appropriate when one’s ultimate destination is a city center with limited or prohibitively expensive parking.  All the auto-based options also subject the user to getting stuck in traffic and risking missing a plane that won’t wait or an important meeting at the ultimate destination.  Many cities provide an answer to this problem with direct transit links to their major commercial airports. Traveling to cities like Boston, Chicago and Atlanta is a pleasure due to the existence of inexpensive, direct rapid transit service between the airport and downtown. I’ve written about the direct bus service between the airport and downtown in New Orleans (not as good as rail transit, but a viable option for smaller metro areas). I’ve also written about CDTA’s virtual failure to provide such service in our area, though I think there could be a demand for it, especially if routed via Wolf Road and the Bus Plus route to downtown Albany, perhaps extending across the river to the Amtrak station.

In planning an international trip from which J. F. Kennedy airport in New York City is my air departure point, I was reminded of New York’s utter failure in this important area. After alighting from Amtrak in New York’s Penn Station, I would expect the greatest city in the world to offer a direct rail connection from that transit hub to the airport that is that city’s international gateway. Instead, what I get is the option of schlepping to either the Long Island Railroad (quicker but more expensive) or the subway, from which I need to change to another train to get to the airport.

What’s the big deal, you may ask? The web sites I’ve consulted do not indicate whether the change of trains in Jamaica (assuming the Long Island Railroad option, which I plan to use) is across the platform or requires climbing stairs (with the luggage for an international trip), which would preclude all but the physically robust from using it (I assume the subway option does involve stairs, which is why I’m springing for the LIRR). Another change of conveyance also offers the traveler (especially if not proficient in English) another chance to get on the wrong train, and it offers another chance for a missed connection due to bad weather or mechanical breakdown.

Flying to JFK (and having to get from one terminal to another) is cost-prohibitive.  Taxis and buses are subject to getting stuck in traffic, a risk I cannot take due to my schedule.  For me, the two-train option is the only practical one, though far less desirable than a one-train option would be.  I will hope for the best, and upon my return write a post about how it works out.

Obviously, it is difficult if not impossible to overlay new transit lines in a fully-developed environment such as New York, and the visionaries who planned its airports did not consider direct rail links necessary.*  Nonetheless, I find in difficult to believe that the greatest city in the world cannot have found a way (with its various transit partners) to provide a direct rail link between JFK (and its other airports) and midtown Manhattan, even it the route it follows is not the shortest.  If it really is impossible, how about a system of HOV lanes on the highways linking the airports with midtown so that bus service can operate with less likelihood of traffic delay?

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*Update (10/9/12)– my recent re-reading of Caro’s biography of Robert Moses, The Power Broker, reveals that one of Moses’s staff members suggested reserving land in the median of the Van Wyck Expressway, when it was being constructed to serve the airport, for future transit use.  Moses, a strong opponent of public transit, vetoed the suggestion.