Enjoying Public Transport


I am still driving my socialist car as though it were a Porsche or at least like a BMW or Mercedes Benz. There is no harm in that because almost all cars on the road behave in the same way in a traffic-clogged city, irrespective of the specifications of the car – whether high-end sports car or mid-range socialist car, right?

In Singapore, most cars behave in a specific manner, due to very tough law enforcement mechanism and severe punishments meted out in a consistent way. So it does not matter what car you drive.

Of late, I have started using public transport systems which are of high quality in Singapore, as most of you know. Whenever there seems to be high parking charges imposed (especially in the CBD, or Central Business District area), I tend to reconsider my options, weighing convenience against cost effectiveness. Most times, convenience wins hands down, but there are days and occasions when using public transport makes eminent sense. For example, I use public bus to reach my gym on weekdays as the parking is expensive and bus costs less than one-third of the parking cost, whereas during weekends, driving is a better option as the parking cost is similar to the bus cost, and the car allows me to buy a few things and bring back to home. Driving into CBD during weekdays is definitely not a good idea as apart from the exorbitant parking rates, there is an ERP (Electronic Road Pricing) charge to enter the CBD which varies depending on the time of the day.

Recently, I used a combination of bus and MRT subway system, which facilitated reaching the heart of the CBD in less than 40 min at a low cost. Then I started wondering – why do people still want to stick to their cars instead of enjoying the air-conditioned travel comfort in public transport. Apart from the comfort and timeliness, the other thing is the lack of traffic congestion on the MRT except, of course, of the commuters themselves who clog the stations in big numbers right through the day, more so during the peak hours.

One thing that I really enjoyed is watching the commuters and their behaviour without being obtrusive. 90% of the folks were totally fixated on their smartphones, many watching TV serials or videos, others reading news, etc., There was hardly any conversations going on, except amongst school going children and teenagers who mostly giggled about something. I expected at least some love birds, but I hardly saw anyone. This experience told me that Singaporean public transport commuters do not use the “public” opportunity to seek out potential new partners or business associates. They appear to be living a solo life in their own respective glass bubble, with hardly any interaction with other strangers. In fact, I noticed some couples did not even engage in any talk, but once they settled in, almost immediately whipped out their respective smartphones and started doing their own thing.

I noticed that government education on public orderliness has percolated and embedded itself in the psyche of people so much, that they always form a neat queue on either side of the opening doors of the MRT coaches, and try not to get pushed in as happens in Hong Kong or Mumbai.

Well, what I can say is that you save enough money in a five day week to have more than couple of meals if you use public transport as compared to driving and parking your own car. Though I sometimes wish to give up my car for good, the convenience factor nags me – I have to walk only 5 minutes to the bus stop right outside my condo, but have to walk some 12 minutes to the nearest MRT station. I have to wait for the bus, or use the several bus apps to plan the departure from my home to sync with specific bus arrival. And so on, and so forth. I was thinking today that such precise timings and definitions would have hardly mattered in India, for example, but in a developed country, our sensitivity goes up! We become extremely time conscious and want to plan our journey to the very last minute!!

However, in a nutshell, I have started enjoying at least the little bit of public transport that I am using. I wish the bus driver when I board the bus, and mostly the drivers respond with a big smile, as it is very apparent that no commuter bothers about the driver. Drivers of public transport in Singapore are not used to greetings coming from passengers, it appears! Everytime I get into a taxi, I greet the driver with his name as the app shows his name, and almost everytime I get warmth back. For me it is not unusual way of operating, but for the driver it is an unusual experience, a pleasant one to be greeted from out of the blue. Many a time, a suitably warmed up driver is a better alternative as he or she engages in small talk afterward which is a good experience.

So, here I go – for my next ride using public transport, which for me involves a fair bit of sociology reading as well, apart from getting to my destination on time!

Cheers, and have a great week ahead folks,

Vijay Srinivasan

24th February 2019

More of London during weekend


I spent more time walking around London and gaining requisite skills on navigating the rather complex London Underground or the “tube”. I even took couple of bus rides. Transportation is critical in any major city, but in London it is very critical since we cannot just hop into a black cab as it is frighteningly expensive (atleast for me). Uber is some 20 to 30% cheaper depending on the time of the day. I realized that I have to switch off the “foreign exchange data switch” in my brain, which constantly computes the cost of any service or product in SGD or INR and manages to scare me.

Without that switch being on, the retail prices looked pretty reasonable. I walked into a number of supermarkets such as Aldi, Marks&Spencer, Waitrose, Tesco, and Sainesbury. More or less similar, but the best was Waitrose in terms of variety and quality, though the prices were a bit on the higher side. All these supermarkets were crowded and I could hear a babble of multiple languages from immigrants from all over the world. Surely, an Indian in the U.K. is not out of place. In fact, when the Immigration Officer at London Gatwick Airport asked me about the purpose of my visit, I told him I was visiting my daughter for Diwali and he did not bat an eyelid!

Coming back to my London itinerary, I visited the famous Portobello Road Market in Nottinghill area on Saturday which was crowded to the hilt, with hardly any space to even move around. It resembled the flea markets elsewhere, with hundreds of small shops peddling trinkets, memorablia, clothing, books, paintings, etc., as also a variety of food from many parts of the world. I enjoyed the walk, though technically it was not a walk – you get almost pushed forward, or you have to push ahead to get to the next shop. I had to be careful holding the food that I ordered, as it could have been knocked down by any one of the “pushers”. Beware of pickpocketeers of course.

Some of the pictures from my Portobello Road shopping experience as below:

I continued my exploration of the City of London today (Sunday) by visiting the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Fascinating history from over a 1,000 years ago characterize the Tower of London, which is a World Heritage site. Again, I enjoyed the walk which spanned the length from the edge of the modern London Bridge, all the way down the steps towards the Tower of London. Hundreds of folks were doing the same on a bright sunny day, though it was a bit chilly at some 8 deg Celsius.

Here are some pictures from my Sunday itinerary:

London, no doubt, is a fascinating historic and global city – very interesting, very absorbing. I am sure I have not scratched even one-fourth of this great city. I found London to be a lively, happening city, not held to ransom by history though the tour guides and tourists only talk about the British history, Kings and Queens. Though I had written blog post against monarchy in the past, history is so fascinating that I also fell victim to the rather interesting stories about King Henry the Eighth and his foibles with various Queens (six of them!).

Overall, it was a good 3 days of exploration around London, and thats all I had on hand in terms of time.

Have a wonderful week ahead, folks.

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

4th November 2018

18,000 Steps in London 02 Nov


I walked and walked.

Never ending tourist spots in one of the most “touristy” cities in the world. I was part of a walking tour!

I am talking here about London, to which I returned after many, many years. I decided to become a “new” tourist in London on Friday 02 Nov.

First I went to the famous Primrose Hill on my own to get almost a full view of the City of London. Here are some pics – I am sure most of you would have travelled to this fabulous city, however I am posting what I took in an amateurish fashion:

I wanted to walk through St Regent’s Park and reach the London Business School and stroll through to Baker Street Underground Station as per my original plan. But I changed that plan and walked back to the cafes located near St John’s Wood Underground Station for having lunch plus coffee. It was a nice walk in sunny weather but the temperature was below 10 deg Celsius. I was of course, decked up for that kind of weather – thankfully, it was sunny all day unlike the usual rainy, muggy London that we usually get to experience almost all year round.

Salad lunch was good at Pret a Manger cafe and I had a lazy flat white coffee before I headed out to take the tube to the Charing Cross Station – I had to reach the Apple Store at Covent Garden to join the Sandeman’s New London Walking Tour (you can google it). It is a free tour, you just pay what you like to the tour guide at the end of the tour. We had a wonderful, vivacious lady from New Zealand as our tour guide, and she spoke almost non-stop right through the tour while shepherding some 30 folks from all over the world. I met people from Brazil, Spain, Russia, Holland, Portugal, Germany, Malaysia and the U.S. I also met an interesting guy from Argentina, but he went on to join the Spanish language tour.

We walked for the next 2.5 hours to many places like the Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Royal Park, Whitehall, Churchill’s War Room, and so on. I took several pictures as you can see below, but nothing outstanding as the group was constantly moving ahead and I did not wish to be left behind without being able to hear our guide’s fantastic speeches!

Most of you would have seen these places in London, so I am not elaborating on each and every one of them here. Let me see if you can identify the Harry Potter-specific shots that I took!

It was wonderful walking around London, actually the City of Westminster (not the City of London).

There were thousands of tourists in each place that I visited. When I tried to enter the Piccadilly Station Underground on Friday evening around 6 PM, it was so jam packed that I could move only inch by inch towards the entry gates, and then there seemed to be huge crowds trying to board the tube, I thought it almost looked like Mumbai train system, only there were no people hanging out of the train!

I used the “Citymapper” app for finding my way around which is incredibly useful especially on the London Underground, though I preferred Google Maps for the walking part between any two locations – it was easier and more accurate.

I wondered how people in the past would have navigated without the aid of such apps – signifying how “digital” we have become even to find some coffee shops around us!

London is all about discovering the city by walking around. Never take a taxi, you will be stuck in heavy traffic in a very very expensive mode of travel.

So now you see how I walked 18,000 steps in one day.

Have a good weekend folks,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

03 November 2018

Traffic Anarchy


I have been in Chennai, India for the past couple of days.

I do not have my laptop with me during this trip, so I am keying this blog post on my iPhone, for the first time ever! Its a bit strange though, however not that inconvenient to type.

The rainy season has started in Tamil Nadu State, with the threat of a cyclone coming during this weekend. While the State Government has issued warnings via a “red alert” for this Sunday 7th October, people don’t seem to be bothering, and everything looks normal on the roads, with occasional drizzles and some good rains during night times. I did not see many folks with umbrellas, which seemed strange, given the potential hazards of getting drenched in heavy rains anytime during the day. I became like the local folks, and decided not to take the umbrella yesterday when my mom proferred one with the warning that rains were coming – I walked out like an absolute local with no cover over my head. And it was drizzling a bit, and I enjoyed it, though I had no intent of getting drenched in the rain!

I got into an auto rickshaw, the affordable three-wheeler still dominating the streets of most cities and towns in India. I had booked the vehicle using the OLA app (similar to UBER or GRAB app), which provides dynamic real-time pricing, and had lot of difficulty in securing one due to the rains. It was annoying to keep getting the same message “no autos are available now – please try again later”, and also keep seeing an ever-increasing price every time. Finally, I had to pay more (like a surge price), and get an auto, it took nearly 30 minutes overall, which was not a pleasant waiting experience. Of course, I am not blaming the OLA app itself, as it cannot do much if even the higher real-time pricing does not elicit a response from the auto drivers who are waiting nearby to my location.

Now, let me come to the traffic part.

Indian cities (except a couple) are notorious for their disorganized and uncontrolled traffic conditions on even the arterial city roads. The road in which my apartment is located is known for its bad traffic all day round, with couple of large shopping malls, many apartment blocks, cinema theatres, a bus terminus, a major hospital and a large IT company building, all located within a stretch of less than 1 KM. I have to almost always make a U-turn just ahead of my apartment to get to the city, and that other side of the road is always super congested.

I suggested to my auto driver that he should take a short cut via some lane instead of joining the bursting traffic on the other side of the road, as I was making a rather short trip to the post office nearby and did not wish to waste a lot of time on the road.

He thought for some 5 seconds and decided to U-turn on my side of the road itself, and started driving against the oncoming traffic to my horror! He asked me not to worry!! The beauty was that the traffic coming against us “slightly” adjusted their traffic curvature to accommodate our vehicle, making a “sincere” attempt to avoid hitting us!!! This “adjustment” is a unique part of the driving culture in India.

After some 30 metres or so, he deftly turned into a side road and proceeded in the “right” side of the traffic, and was able to reach the desired traffic junction undercutting all of the traffic chaos on the other side of my main road by making appropriate quick turns!

Looks like many folks (except cars and heavy vehicles) are doing the same motions to undercut the traffic, with the potential threat of a traffic cop stopping the vehicle anytime, and issuing a traffic violation ticket, or demanding a hefty “contribution”.

Coming to think of it, it is not possible to get control of the city traffic situation in most cities of India without some sort of “ERP” system like that of Singapore – ERP stands for Electronic Road Pricing, and it is a dynamic road pricing system which increases the cost to drivers at peak traffic times. There will be huge protests if such a system is introduced in India, but I believe that there is no alternative due to the lack of proper, well maintained roads and also lack of adequate road space and improper/illegal constructions occupying road corners. Singapore has successfully and effectively used ERP to control traffic congestion for the past two decades.

With the rains hitting Chennai, I could see the very badly maintained roads taking further hits, creating big holes on the roads which are dangerous to all drivers, especially to the smaller vehicles such as autos and two wheelers. Who is responsible for this sorry state of affairs?

The traffic situation is bad especially during the rains, but I discovered the joys of listening to music like Abba, Boney M, and Ed Sheeren using Spotify app on my iPhone. Music one likes or loves to hear would reduce the the stress on Indian roads. Now I am downloading more songs via Spotify! Hopefully, other drivers will resort to some such non-distracting driving aids while encountering the chaos and the poor roads.

In any case, there is no escape from going outside the cosy house and doing your job. Millions of people endure this traffic anarchy right through the day, and they must be always wondering “when is someone going to put an end to all this chaos?”.

Have a wonderful, rain-soaked weekend, folks! At least the folks in South India!!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

6th October 2018

The Hong Kong Efficiency


I have been to Hong Kong a number of times over the past over two decades or so, but I have not been there for the past few years.

When I went last week, should I say I was impressed? Yes, nothing much has changed in terms of efficiency and fast movement. By efficiency, I mean that almost everything happens in clockwork fashion. The train from the airport is the most efficient way to transport yourself to the heart of town, and I wonder why people, especially many foreigners, continue to use the expensive taxis. I could purchase a return ticket from airport to Kowloon and back for less than SGD 20, which I thought was a very reasonable fare for a very effective use of one’s time.

By fast movement, I mean the people who are moving through the subway system, malls and everywhere else. I could not see a single slacker anywhere. For Hong Kong people, time is money, and they appear on an everlasting mission to make money all the time. Even more than the Singaporeans. People were on a rush, moving in and out of activities everywhere – I could feel the buzz in the air. The escalators were overloaded. It appeared to me that people did not wish to miss a “trade” – they were all traders in a sense.

With a GDP per capita of over USD 44,000 Hong Kong is one of the most prosperous countries (Sorry! – it is now part of China as a special administrative region) in the world. You can see wealth everywhere, in the malls which are glitzier than those of Singapore, in the cars zooming along the roads, in the real estate prices (the most expensive in the entire world), in the high-end restaurants, and finally in the prices which cabbies charge you! At an average of USD 3,000 per sq foot of condominium space, and still climbing, it is hard to buy anything more than 500 Sq Ft and most Hong Kong folks make do with very small apartments. Cars are expensive but much cheaper than in Singapore. Parking space is priced the worst – there have been reports that car parking spaces have been sold for more than USD 1M.

If you recall, the Eighties saw the emergence of four economic tigers – South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore. All these countries have been successful due to their early recognition of the fact that people need bread foremost, and nations need free trade. They also recognized the importance of manufacturing in building up their economic bases. The fundamental premise that economics should take precedence over everything else constituted the foundation of these economies. It proved to be prescient and hugely successful.

Hong Kong is also the city with the most skyscrapers in the world. They continue to build very tall buildings, and have not stopped building. The influx of people from China with huge amounts of cash has driven prices up. A decent meal for two in a nice restaurant is likely to set you back by SGD 120 to 150. A more advanced meal in an elegant restaurant with drinks et al, is likely to cost you in the range of SGD 300 to 400. I do not believe Singapore is the most expensive city in all of Asia Pacific, after seeing taxi and restaurant prices in Tokyo and Hong Kong recently.

With a relentless focus on the pursuit of perfection and efficiency, Hong Kong has built one of the most resilient economies in the world which is still growing. Of course, I complained about lack of credit card payment facility in taxis which is highly inconvenient for tourists who are forced to convert their respective currencies to Hong Kong Dollars. Uber is not that prevalent, though I used it and got a Tesla electric car to ride which was fabulous. The famous Didi taxi app from China works in Hong Kong, but there was no English version and the map was portrayed inaccurately so I could not use it. The powerful taxi union of Hong Kong is stopping the Hong Kong Government from introducing modern technologies – that was the only conclusion I could draw. When I used Uber, it was not cheaper than using the normal taxi, leading me to conclude that the taxi union has forced Uber to raise prices (which happened indeed).

British legacy can be witnessed in several areas including trade unionism!

That Hong Kong is very expensive can also be seen when you use a taxi to cross the tunnel under the sea. It can cost upwards of SGD 12 per crossing, which is very high. If everything is added, one can see the reason why Hong Kong is much more expensive than Singapore. Taxis, tolls, restaurants, and real estate are cheaper in Singapore. Only cars are more expensive. So I do not understand how Singapore is the most expensive city in the world (as some reports have stated).

Overall, Hong Kong is a great city with unrivalled business efficiency and fabulous views across the harbour (and almost from any high tower). In the night, it provides an unbeatable view – the glitziest in the world.

Have a wonderful weekend,

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

9th June 2018

The worsening traffic nightmare


India has always faced ever mounting infrastructure issues as its economy has expanded year after year over the past decade and a half. The country has consistently under-invested in infrastructure (roads, railways, airports, seaports, logistics), exactly opposite of how China’s infrastructure has been built ahead of its economic growth demands. Well, as they say the elephant takes time to get its house in order, while the dragon whizzes past at a tremendous, almost unbelievable speed even compared to Western standards.

So we have an India which is bursting at its seams, unable to cater to ever increasing domestic demands for all kinds of services. More than 115M Indians took a flight in March 2018, which is almost 10% of India’s population. This is a fantastic growth of nearly 24% Year-on-Year. But it exerts enormous pressure on airport infrastructure and capacity management. This has always been the issue in India. Almost everything is under planned, with the result being overcrowding and inability to manage demand with limited supply.

The only positive thing is that there is a sprinkling of brand new airport buildings and roads all over the country, and seaports are being upgraded. My guess is that it will take not less than another two decades before India catches up with China in terms of the country’s infrastructure – it could be faster as people would demand the same – there is after all a breaking point when things are likely to go haywire.

I experienced the road traffic jams in two Indian cities earlier this week – Bangalore (Bengaluru is the new name) and Chennai. I have not been to Bangalore for quite a while, so I was surprised with the traffic situation. Traffic in arterial roads was moving at snail’s pace, and it took more than two hours to reach Electronic City from the Airport. I should say that the Bangalore Airport was good (though not comparable to Mumbai or Delhi Airports) but it has been located some 50 to 60 KMs away from the city. I was also quite taken aback when the taxi swerved into several side roads (away from the highway) in order to cut the time of travel, but that ruse did not work out. Why can’t the city planners work out a straight toll-based expressway like in most global cities? Why should all visitors suffer just to get to the city, taking a good two hours and sometimes more? Why should the route to Electronic City cut across the key roads of the city instead of being connected to the Airport via an entry to the expressway, and so on and so forth………..there are no answers from our Bangalore colleagues however. Everyone is wondering, I guess, like we were! I later discovered that there is a helicopter service from the airport to Electronic City, but it was too late. Not only that, I found that the cost of the chopper was not very much higher than that of the taxi service, but it would cut the time taken to just 15 minutes.

I believe the charm of a city is robbed by traffic chaos and mismanagement. Bangalore was a beautiful garden city admired by many but inhabited by ex-army folks, retirees, and public sector employees. The IT revolution has of course benefited the city’s economy greatly, no doubt about it. It has however damaged the ecosystem of the city and its surroundings. People from all over India (and many international people) have made Bangalore their home.

Coming to Chennai, I should say it fares better than Bangalore in terms of traffic management. I was however, not happy with the deterioration that I witnessed just over the past six months – there has been a strongly felt absence of road works and enhanced traffic routing all across the city. While it takes only 30 to 40 minutes to reach the centre of the city from the Chennai Airport, one has to navigate it like a city road, as there is no expressway to the city. The road is jammed with auto-rickshaws, cars, heavy vehicles and the like, making the vehicular movement rather slow. Traffic light violations are rampant, and the notion of “might is right” is slowly encroaching on road traffic in Chennai (I think it is an export from Delhi road culture).

I also found that it took longer to get a call taxi this time in Chennai. I was using the popular OLA app for getting auto-rickshaws for shorter rides (less than 5 KMs) and cars for longer rides. I had to plan in an additional 15 – 20 minutes to get an auto-rickshaw and at least 30 minutes for a car due to the bad traffic conditions on heavily congested roads. It took me 40 minutes to get a taxi at 6:30 PM on a Saturday to go to the airport.

Overall, I find that India’s development comes at a heavy cost of lost productivity, with traffic situation being only one of the factors. People are irritated on the roads, and small accidents are not uncommon in city roads, often leading to fights and stoppage of smooth traffic flow. Traffic violations are on the rise. Wi-Fi is becoming a much sought after service on taxis to kill time. Transportation is a most basic requirement of people and it is the responsibility of the government to provide ease and flexibility in transportation. It is going to cost India more than a trillion dollars to get its infrastructure in place, and that will take not less than twenty years in my opinion.

Cheers, and enjoy India’s traffic in a pleasant manner, and without getting into road rage,

Vijay Srinivasan
21st April 2018
Chennai International Airport

Chicago O’Hare and Jet Lag


I flew from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Singapore via Taipei last weekend. My Eva Air flight was at 00:30 hours, past Friday midnight and I cleared all formalities by 10:15 PM Friday evening.

I was totally surprised at the level of airport activity – there were passengers, of course, and airport personnel, but O’Hare did not look like a major international airport at all. Almost all the restaurants were closed, except for a lousy coffee shop and a bar with no food. This was Terminal 5, and I am sure there might have been more activity in the other terminals, but we could not leave this terminal and go to the others to check out. My family was hungry and so was I, but the maximum we could get was a brownie and coffee. This was simply unacceptable, and I could not resist comparisons with major Asian flight hubs such as Singapore, Seoul, Bangkok or Hong Kong, which are alive with activities 24×7. You can almost get anything you want in the Singapore Changi International Airport even at midnight.

American airports need to be upgraded with more passenger services and better quality infrastructure. These airports are decades old and appear to have hardly seen a major facelift over the years. I saw one DFS shop open with exorbitant prices for almost everything. But as time went on, the activity levels dropped except around the departure gates. I wouldn’t be surprised if the situation was similar in other major international airports in the U.S.

Well, at least the gate handling was uneventful, and Eva Air departure personnel handled the crowd efficiently, and the flight left on time (except for the short taxiing delay of 10 to 15 minutes). I decided to align my body with the time at Chicago and went to sleep after some food. Many folks were seeing movies. I slept for some 6 to 7 hours and when I got up we were some 70% through with our journey time. It was morning time in Chicago and I again aligned my body with some activities like walking around the cabin, stretching the legs, seeing some movies, etc., keeping awake till the plane landed at Taipei. It was going to be 4 AM in Taipei the next day. And, I felt fresh. It worked for me and I had no jet lag at all even after we landed in Singapore around noon time Sunday.

Of course, I went to sleep pretty early Sunday night and had a good 8 hour sleep, and that brought my body in alignment with the local timing in Singapore. However, my family members were having difficulties with jet lag affecting them for couple of days before they felt all right.

So, the key learning was to ensure sync with the origin location of the flight, rather than the destination. This worked for me. I never felt sleepy during late afternoons upon arrival, and this was different from my previous experiences.

Well, Singapore always looks welcoming when we arrive its beautiful airport, so here we are! It was a wonderful vacation in the U.S. and when I walked around New York and Washington, I felt that I should have worked in these places at least once in my lifetime!

Cheers,

Vijay Srinivasan

8th July 2017