Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Over the weekend I visited a friend in Bangkok. It's exotic and interesting, but that isn't what I left there thinking about. My real take-away is about transportation. I have two primary points of reference for traffic - one is Seattle and the other is Saigon. Both are traffic nightmares; Bangkok is not.
Bangkok's population is officially listed as 9,100,000, about the same size as Saigon and five times the population of the whole of King County, Seattle's home. The streets of Bangkok are wide and traffic flows normally for a major metropolis. At rush hour things slow down but at other times they flow fairly smoothly. Saigon's 5,000,000 motorbikes make the traffic chaotic, unpredictable and sometimes outright dangerous. Motorbikes share the streets and sidewalks with bicycles, cars, pedestrians, cyclos, and pushcarts. There is some kind of protocol, but it's difficult to figure out. In Bangkok there are only a few bikes and motorbikes. What is the difference?
Here it is: Bangkok has a mass transportation system. That's the difference. The BTS Skytrain and the MRT Underground move huge numbers of people swiftly through the city in comfortable air-conditioned cars at reasonable prices. They also leave the streets free for automobile and bus traffic. Why is it that Thailand, ranked #30 in the world in GDP can move people more efficiently than #1 ranked United States? I don't know the answer, but I think we deserve one.
In 1953 Seattle built a double-decked elevated roadway through downtown, and in 1963 the Evergreen Point floating bridge was built to connect Seattle to the eastern suburbs. Now, 50 years later both of them are falling apart and need to be replaced and there is no mass transit anywhere (Light rail is a very short joke). Seattle is infamous for its "process." Everyone must be heard and heard and heard, but nothing gets done. Seattle has been arguing over both the viaduct and the bridge for more than 10 years. Finally, last year a "consensus" was arrived at and we decided to build a tunnel to replace the crumbling old elevated eyesore through downtown. It was a struggle but the tunnel won out and it was agreed that the solution would also create a beautiful San Francisco-like waterfront that would attract locals and tourists alike as well as move traffic efficiently. But, now the "process" is grinding us down again and someone has collected the required number of signatures to bring the matter to another vote on the ballot in 2011. For some reason it seems more important to stop doing things in Seattle than to do them.
Why can't we have a beautiful waterfront, a functional bridge system and, yes, a mass transit system too? If #30 can do it, why can't #1?
Monday, May 2, 2011
Did you get invited to the wedding on Friday? It was a big day for the bride and groom, but we had a great time too. We weren't actually able to get to Westminster Abbey, but we did get to the Snap Cafe in District Two, Ho Chi Minh City. There are a enough British expats working here that the British Business Group Vietnam (BBGV) decided to celebrate the event locally. The Snap was a great choice - no clotted cream and scones but a big open space with a playground for the kids and lots of beer and popcorn.
Attendees were encouraged to dress for the wedding, but with 95F temperatures and a thatched roof hut for the venue there were only a few takers. There was one gent in a morning coat and a few women with large brimmed hats and hankies to mop their brows or dab their tears of joy. Most of us arrived before the TV coverage began and the atmosphere was very festive. There were two big screens (actually sheets hung from the posts and thatch) and bench seating. As opposed to the Abbey, this crowd was up and mingling and the kids were hanging from the monkey bars.
We settled down on a couch in the smaller of the two viewing venues and immediately made friends with the two women on the couch beside us. One of the women was a handsome black woman from Malaysia who came to Vietnam with her husband 20 years ago, divorced him and has been working ever since as a teacher in one of the independent schools. Her friend was a stylish upscale blond of a certain age who was born in North Borneo, raised in Hong Kong and educated in the UK. She's the "girlfriend" of a Frenchman who runs a venture capital firm. As Kate and Will drove to the Abbey and walked down the aisle we introduced ourselves and did running commentary on the crowd, the car, the horses, the dress, the uniforms, the royals, the foliage in the nave, and the voice of the bishop. In the process we learned that North Borneo lady's brother is a world class sailor who has just opened a sailing school in MuiNe and the Malaysian woman has strong opinions about the death of Princess Diana. The incredibly wonderful thing about being an expat in Saigon is that you meet an endless chain of interesting people and these two were no exception.
As I sat down to write about the wedding and our new friends I learned that a Special Forces team raided a compound in Pakistan and killed Osama Bin Laden. It was a very big weekend. I wonder if Donald Trump will find a way to "be extremely proud" of his role in either event or perhaps question the reality of them.