Tuesday, 11 November 2014

More on why I'm running for the board of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition


Vote Now (voting extended through Friday, November 28th)

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 "
Link | Posted by Edward, 11 November 2014, 09:29 ( 9:29 AM) | Comments (3) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 7 November 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 7

Marrakesh (Morocco) - Palermo (Italy)

"What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas." (Not.)

There are some things that happen during the filming of The Amazing Race that television viewers never see. Each episode of the reality-TV race around the world is separated from the next by a 12-hour (or occasionally longer) "pit stop", typically at a luxury resort or hotel. The racers are filmed arriving at, and departing from, each pit stop. But the cameras and microphones follow them into their hotel rooms only when they are invited in by the racers, typically only for brief and controlled glimpses.

In real life, each season's race around the world lasts about a month. During that time, the two-person teams of racers are on camera continuously, almost everywhere else they go. Behind the closed doors of their hotel rooms, however, they can relax, plan strategy, process what they've experienced, argue with each other, make love, etc., without being interrupted or worrying about what the people watching them will think.

That's as it should be, and as it should be for ordinary hotel guests as well, especially long-term travellers in less familiar places. Sensory overload is an important element of culture shock. In a place where there are few foreign visitors and people who look like you are a rarity, being the constant focus of attention can be enough to make anyone feel like they have inadvertently become the star of their own reality-TV show. Often, the only escape for an overwhelmed visitor, and the only place where they can regain a sense of being in control of their space and their experience, is inside their hotel room.

Immersion in sensory overload can be enjoyable, in controllable doses. The longer the duration of your trip, the more likely you are to need to withdraw, at least occasionally. The ability to exclude both temporarily unwanted people and temporarily unwanted stimuli from your hotel room is most vital for long-term travellers, road warriors, and people like some of my readers who for various reasons have lived in hotel rooms for months at a time.

The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that under U.S. law, once you have paid for a hotel room, your room is your home and your castle. You are entitled to the same protection against unwanted intrusions in a hotel room as you would be in the same room if you owned it outright as a condo.

As is often the case, however, the law is one thing and business norms are another. The difference is made clear in a fascinating and widely-misreported legal case involving a gambler arrested earlier this year in Las Vegas.

Paul Phua is a Malaysian businessman well known as a high-roller at casinos in Macau and in Las Vegas, where he has played in million-dollar-ante (U.S. dollars) televised poker games.

(Macau is an enclave in China near Hong Kong on the Pearl River Delta. Macau used to be a colony of Portugal, as Hong Kong was a colony of the U.K., and both are now "Special Administrative Regions" of China. Hong Kong continues to use its special legal status to provide a haven for banking and incorporation. Macau uses its special status to provide a haven for legal gambling. Casino gambling is generally illegal in China except in the Special Administrative Regions. Most Chinese citizens can't get visas to travel to the USA or other countries, but can more easily get permission to travel to Macau from the rest of China. As a result, Macau has become the world's largest legal casino gambling center: Significantly more money is bet and lost to the casinos in Macau than in Las Vegas.)

Paul Phua and his son Darren Phua were arrested in July of this year, during the soccer World Cup, in a residential villa (a 10,000-square-foot hotel suite) at the Caesar's Palace casino-hotel complex in Las Vegas. Gambling, including betting on the World Cup, is of course legal in Las Vegas. That's how Caesar's Palace makes its money, and that's why the Phuas were there. They have been charged with U.S. Federal crimes, however, for allegedly using the Internet connection from their hotel villa in Las Vegas to send messages to unlicensed sports betting businesses in Macau and elsewhere.

What made the headlines last week, and led to an editorial in the New York Times, was a motion filed by the Phuas' lawyers arguing that the searches of the Phuas' villas were unconstitutional.

If you have time, and enjoy a good story, I encourage you to read the motion. I spend a lot of time skimming and sometimes reading legal briefs, as part of my work as a policy analyst and consumer and human rights advocate. Most of the time, even when the arguments are important, it's just work. But this is the best-written piece of legal story-telling I've read in years, even down to the legally irrelevant asides. ("Once they left the villas, the first comment of [agents] Lopez and Kung was to agree that the female butler was "pretty hot." Ex. F., Trans. Disc 3, p. 39, lines 24-25. Turning back to the case, they...")

The essence of the Phuas' lawyers' argument was that FBI agents and Nevada state law enforcement officers repeatedly cut off the Internet service to the Phuas' villas, waited until the residents of the villas reported the outages, then came into the villas with hidden cameras and recorders but disguised as, and falsely claiming to be, repair technicians working for the hotel.

The police then used the information from these warrantless entries to apply for a search warrant for the Phuas' villas as well as a another villa occupied by some alleged associates of the Phuas, claiming that the residents of the villas had "consented" to their coming inside.

The legal issue is whether you can be deemed to have "consented" to a search by the police if you let a person into your home who claims to be a repair technician, especially when the only reason you called for service is that the police had turned off your service.

This sounds like something out a comic-book story of surveillance in a tin-pot dictatorship, where the phone in your hotel room stops working (because the secret police have disconnected the line), and then the secret police show up at your door, pretending to be from the telephone company, and pretend to "fix" the phone while installing wiretapping devices.

There's more to the malfeasance of the FBI and Nevada police in this case. They tried to hide from the judge the fact that they were the ones who had disconnected the DSL lines to the villas, prompting the residents' service request to the hotel. They also claimed to the judge that the Phuas had been "free to leave" while they were being kept in handcuffs for more than five hours. Since the Phuas weren't being detained, it wasn't necessary to read them their rights or allow them to talk to their lawyer, who had shown up outside the villa and was turned away by police.

But what interested me most was the role of the hotel-casino management and staff.

The New York Times editorial, like much of the of the other news analysis, got this backwards:

During the 2014 World Cup, the agents suspected that an illegal gambling ring was operating out of several hotel rooms at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, but they apparently did not have enough evidence to get a court-issued warrant. So they enlisted the hotel’s assistance in shutting off the Internet to those rooms, prompting the rooms’ occupants to call for help. Undercover agents disguised as repairmen appeared at the door, and the occupants let them in. While pretending to fix the service, the agents saw men watching soccer matches and looking at betting odds on their computers. There is nothing illegal about visiting sports-betting websites, but the agents relied primarily on that evidence to get their search warrant. What they failed to tell the judge was that they had turned off the Internet service themselves.

The voluminous court filings (those that are available without charge through RECAP are linked from this copy of the docket sheet) and other news reports about the underlying facts make clear that the actual chain of suspicion and illegal snooping went in the other direction:

Contrary to what the Times suggested, the police didn't "enlist" the hotel in their investigation. The hotel initiated the investigation, enlisted the police to spy on its guests, gave the police full access to all the data it had already collected about these guests and all the surveillance tools it had already installed, and provided support without which the police wouldn't have been able to trick the guests into letting in the cops disguised as Internet repairmen.

Reprehensible (and unconstitutional) as the cops' actions were in this case, anyone who spends time in hotel rooms ought to be at least as outraged at the hotel's role in spying on its guests.

Continue reading "The Amazing Race 25, Episode 7"
Link | Posted by Edward, 7 November 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, 6 November 2014

I'm a candidate for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition


Vote Now (voting extended through Friday, November 28th)
More about the issues and why I'm running

I'm one of nine candidates in this year's election for eight seats on the 15-member Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition.

Who am I, and why am I running for the Board of Directors of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition?

Bicycling is central to my life and identity. I'm a former professional bicyclist (as a messenger, not a racer -- professional racers are a tiny minority of the numbers of working cyclists). I've never owned a motor vehicle. The ability to rely on bicycles and mass transit for year-round transportation is one of the reasons I moved to San Francisco in 1985, and have lived here (when I'm not travelling) ever since.

I write about travel, including bicycle travel, and I work for a travel-related human rights organization. I've ridden and observed bicycling in cities around the world (including in India, China, Argentina, the Netherlands, etc.), in addition to touring long distances by bicycle across North America and Europe, and I think bicycling has a key role in any sustainable human future.

In recent years, the SFBC has come to have an effectively "self-perpetuating" Board of Directors, with the members of the current Board nominating their successors and the election by the members of the SFBC serving as little more than a rubber-stamp approval of the Board's slate of nominees. This year, I'm the only candidate on the ballot for the SFBC Board of Directors other than the candidates nominated by the members of the current Board.

I would bring to the SFBC 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.

Events over the past year, from motorized vehicular killings of bicyclists to the backlash by some motorists against bicyclists, pedestrians, and transit users expressed by Proposition L (which was defeated, but still got 60,000 votes), make clear the need for us to renew our commitment as a civil rights organization to defend bicyclists against discrimination and to realize the full potential of the "transit-first" clause of the city charter. Bicycle-friendliness requires more than just bicycle-specific infrastructure. Too many bicyclists in San Francisco are still subjected to bias and harassment by motorists and police. The SFBC can and should, as part of our work, be doing something to change this. But that's only part of the challenge we face.

I've posted my complete answers to the SFBC questionnaire for candidates for the Board of Directors, which give more detail about my candidacy, as does this follow-up article with more about the issues and why I'm running.

I would welcome a chance to talk with SFBC members about my candidacy and about what you want the SFBC to be doing. Feel free to contact me by phone at 415-824-0214 (be aware that I might be travelling and in another time zone) or by e-mail at "sfbike@hasbrouck.org".

If, like most of the people I know in San Francisco, you are a member of the SFBC, and you know me -- as a friend, as a neighbor, as a colleague, as an activist, and of course as a bicyclist -- please support my candidacy, and encourage your friends to do so as well.

[I plan to post a follow-up article with more details. But I haven't been able to find out when the ballots will be sent out, and want to make sure that at least this much information is available to voters when the ballots arrive and voting begins. I was given wrong information about the election deadlines, and was finally told the deadline for candidate statements to be sent out with the ballot the same afternoon that they were due. I've requested a copy of the minutes of the decision scheduling and establishing procedures for the election, but haven't received it. So far as I can tell, someone on the SFBC staff and/or the current Board of Directors -- I don't know who -- is making up the election rules and procedures as the election is being conducted.]

[Voting was supposed to end November 21st. But just before the polls were supposed to close, without warning or notice to candidates or members, voting was extended for another week. I did not request or consent to this extension, and have protested it as improper.]

Link | Posted by Edward, 6 November 2014, 10:10 (10:10 AM) | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 31 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 6

Marrakesh (Morocco)

This week, many of the contestants on The Amazing Race 25 continued to have trouble finding their way around Marrakesh, both on foot in the center of the city and driving product-placement cars into the outlying mountains. The team that lost the most time to missed turns and other route-finding mistakes finished last in this leg of the race, and was eliminated.

It's easy for television viewers to think, "I could do better than that." But could you really, if you understand neither spoken nor written Arabic? And how would you go about it?

Here's an updated overview of techniques and tools for finding your way to a destination in an unfamiliar city, especially where there are few or no signs in any writing system you can read:

  1. Get someone to lead you.
    This could mean hiring someone (perhaps one of the crowd of children or older students who crowds around you wanting to practice their English) to walk with you, or hiring a taxi to drive in front of you, as contestants in The Amazing Race have sometimes done even when they were required to drive their own vehicles. In a maze of twisty little unsigned and possible unnamed streets, it can be almost impossible to give clear verbal directions or draw a clear map, even with a common language. It's common for a generous local informant eventually to give up and say, "It's too hard to explain. Just follow me and I'll lead you there." The most difficult aspect of a situation like this can be deciding whether or not to offer to pay, or if so, how much. Someone who is doing you a favor out of generosity or hospitality may be offended to be offered a tip. But in a place where personal services are normally compensated, someone who takes time to help you may expect you to pay them the normal local wage for such a service, and feel ripped off if you don't. You can't always tell what's expected. I think it's generally best to offer a tip or payment, especially if someone has spent significant time or gone significantly out of their way to help you, but to take no for an answer if your offer is refused.

  2. Ask passers-by for directions.
    This is easier said than done if you have no language in common with most of the people on the street. The more tools for communication you have, the better your chances that the next person you meet, after proceeding in the direction you have been pointed, will be able to understand where you want to go, and get across to you what to do next. Any map -- even a bad map or one in a language neither you nor your informant understands -- can be helpful as an aid to non-verbal communication. Have paper and pencil handy in a place where you don't have to dig in your luggage for them, and offer them to people from whom you are asking for directions. The first chance you get -- ideally, before you even set out -- get someone to write down the name and address of your destination and any other information that might help you find it or help someone along the way give you directions (e.g. a phone number at your destination that a local person can call on their cell phone). If someone tells you to take bus number 64, ask them to write that down in the local language. The next person you encounter may not understand "64" in English, but if you show people at the bus stop a page in your pocket notebook with "Bus 64" written on it in the local language, they'll be able to indicate with gestures whether or not you should board an unlabelled bus that comes along. I doubt that this technique is prohibited by the rules of The Amazing Race, but I've hardly ever seen this technique used by contestants on the reality-TV show.

  3. Use digital maps.
    With the exception of the advice about specific smartphone models, most of what I said two years ago in my three-part series series about Smartphones and Digital Maps for International Travel is still valid today. To make use of digital maps, you either need reliable, affordable, wireless data coverage while you are travelling, or you need to have digital maps downloaded and stored on your device for "offline" use. For now, Nokia Maps remain the best worldwide offline maps for smartphone use, but it's not clear for how much longer the Nokia Maps database for Symbian will continue to be updated: Microsoft has paid Nokia to discontinue development of new phones with the Symbian operating system, in favor of Windows Phone. No more new Symbian phones are being made, although tens and perhaps hundreds of millions of them remain in use. As for data service for access to online maps (such as Google Maps) while abroad, T-Mobile USA has begun offering the first service plans for customers in the USA that include wireless data even while roaming in many countries. But while these plans do include roaming data usage in China and, somewhat remarkably, India, they don't include Morocco or many other Third or Fourth World countries, especially in Africa. Even offline maps stored on your own device are less reliable than paper maps, and have other drawbacks. Cellphones are theft magnets, and smartphones more so. iPads and other tablet devices are worst of all, and the top targets of snatch thieves around the world. Even an unsuccessful attempt to steal your device can result in it being damaged and rendered temporarily or permanently unusable. What's you Plan B for maps -- and everything else for which you use your phone -- if it runs out of juice or is lost, stolen, or damaged beyond repair?

  4. Use paper maps.
    Paper maps are as useful as ever, but have been getting harder and harder to find, either in advance of a trip or locally. The travails of paper map creators, publishers, and distributors mirror those of authors, publishers, and distributors of printed guidebooks. Both local people and visitors (at least those with money, who used to buy high-quality paper maps) are using digital maps on smartphones, drastically reducing sales of paper maps other than the cheapest and poorest quality ones. Even if good maps are published locally, they may be not be easy for visitors to find. So it's more important than ever, and more likely to be worth the price premium, to track down and procure the best maps you can before your trip. Most specialized brick-and-mortar travel book and map stores in the USA, including the entire chain of Rand McNally company stores, have closed. So has Maplink, which for many years was the largest mail-order supplier in the USA of international maps. (Maplink's domain name was sold at the bankruptcy auction, and now redirects to a completely different company with which I have no experience.) There are still some excellent map stores in other countries, as I list in the resource guide in the latest edition of The Practical Nomad: How to Travel Around the World. But international shipping tends to be quite expensive for small map orders. Since the demise of Maplink, the best source in the USA for international travel maps has been Omni Resources (Omnimap.com). As was Maplink, Omnimap is mainly a wholesale distributor but happily services retail orders. They have only a very few maps on display for walk-in sales at their office in North Carolina, but you can get a sense of their mail-order catalog from this page of maps of Morocco. Call or e-mail them if you can't find what you want, or aren't sure which map(s) will be best for your purpose. It's hard to judge or compare maps without having them in your hands. (For what it's worth, I had no financial interest in Maplink, and have none in Omnimap -- they don't have an "affiliate" advertising program.)
Link | Posted by Edward, 31 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 24 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 5

Copenhagen (Denmark) - Marrakesh (Morocco)

Former bike messengers Alli and Kym finished first again in this leg of The Amazing Race 25 after yet another task that required making deliveries by bicycle.

This week each racer had to secure several bundles of freshly-tanned goatskins with bungee cords on top of the rear rack of a bike, and then make their way through the narrow lanes of the old city of Marrakesh to a designated workshop to deliver the load of leather. All of the racers had difficulty with this task.

The racers were unprepared for the traffic on the narrow lanes of the old city, which are too narrow for cars, trucks, or buses but heavily congested with a complex traffic mix of pedestrians with pushcarts, loaded cargo bicycles, motorcycles, scooters, horse and donkey carts, stray goats, and other surprises.

In the USA, we associate "traffic" exclusively with motorized vehicles. Except on sidewalks in the downtown areas of a few cities, and on even fewer bike paths -- mainly in some of those same cities and some college campuses and university towns -- "car-free" in the USA means largely "traffic-free". So it's tempting for people in the USA to infer from this, incorrectly, that separated bicycle or pedestrian infrastructure is inherently less congested and therefore safer than rights-of-way which bicyclists share with larger motorized vehicles. That can be a dangerous mistake: We saw the racers colliding repeatedly with each other and with other vehicles (fortunately, without apparent serious injury) when they stopped or turned without warning.

Many bicyclists and pedestrians in the USA don't think of bike paths or sidewalks as rights-of-way on which one has to pay attention to other traffic. People on such paths routinely stop without warning, hold conversations, or make U-turns in the middle of the path -- just as drivers of motorized vehicles do on lightly-trafficked roads in much of the rest of world.

In places where urban transportation is less dominated by motorized vehicles, "pedestrianized" downtown areas can be difficult for any vehicle, including a bicycle, to penetrate. Don't be surprised if you have to dismount to proceed safely, or can't proceed safely with a bike at any speed. And it can be as difficult, and takes as much care to find a place where you can safely pull over and consult a map, or pass a slower-moving cyclist, on a bike path in a Dutch city with a steady stream of two-wheeled traffic as to do the same in a car on a freeway in Los Angeles. You need to look, then signal, then pull out of the path of traffic before you stop.

Even those of the racers who were able to pedal and steer their bikes, or who realized that they ought to get off and walk their bikes, had trouble finding their destination.

In the USA, essentially all occupied residential or business premises have addresses including a sequential building number and a street name, and most intersections are signed with those street names. Rural roads in most of the USA are usually signed with the same names as appear on maps, and both city streets and country roads tend to be oriented North-South or East-West and signed with those cardinal directions. (New England and some other regions are exceptions. New England streets and roads tend to wander, and are often signed with the name of the next town, village, or neighborhood rather than with the name of the street or road.)

Systems of building identifiers, street and road signage, and "wayfinding" methodologies vary greatly in other parts of the world. Streets and roads may not follow straight lines or be oriented or signed according to cardinal directions or in the same ways as in the USA.

In the U.K., for example, many houses and office buildings are identified by name rather than by street number. The numeric identifier typically entered into a GPS or smartphone to find a location in the U.K. is not the street address but the postcode, which identifies the location as precisely as the little used nine digit "ZIP+4" code in the USA.

Building numbers in Japan are not in sequence along the street, while in many cities in Japan as well as some in other countries the primary location indicator is a block or quadrant rather than a street. There are often multiple streets in the same city with the same name. They might have some modifier to distinguish them, like the Washington Street and Washington Road that one finds in many a New England town. But they might not, and even if they do the prefix or suffix might not be obvious, or might not always be used.

In France, which we found even more bicycle-friendly than Scotland on our trip this summer, despite having even less bicycle-specific infrastructure, there's a single national road numbering system (unlike the multiple overlays of interstate, federal, state, county, and city street numbering in the USA). Even tertiary rural roads in France, like through rural roads in most of the USA, are typically signed by number if they are signed at all. And since bicyclists in France use the same roads as motorized vehicles, that means they can also use the same maps and signage -- an often overlooked but enormously significant advantage, since where there are more motorized vehicles than bicycles, motoring maps are easier to find than cycle-specific maps.

Not so in some other countries. In the U.K. and Germany, even numbered roads aren't necessarily well signed by number. Signs at rural intersections typically indicate either the name of the next major town or city in that direction (helpful, although still potentially ambiguous if more than one branch might take you to the same city), or, more often, the name of the next village -- useless unless you have a sufficiently detailed map to show every village.

In the Netherlands and the Flemish portion of Belgium, there's an extensive network of separate bikeways that bicyclists are expected to use. Since bicyclists are in practice required to use this separate route system, not all of which closely parallels motor roads, they can make only limited use of signage or maps for motorists. Most signage on the bikeways in these regions either follows the "next village" system of wayfinding (problematic for travellers unfamiliar with the locality, as previously discussed), or relies on a system of numbered waypoints ("knooppunten"). With a printed or electronic knooppunt map, you can define a route by a sequence of these marked intersection points. But they are useless without such a detailed bicycle-specific map, and it can be extremely difficult -- as I learned the hard way -- to find your way back onto a planned route of this type if you miss a single sign or make a single wrong turn.

The canonical method for finding your way through an unsigned maze of small streets or alleys in a city, village, or souk is to hire a local pedrson, typically a student or other young person, to lead the way. This is especially appropriate where you can't speak the language or read the local alphabet or writing system. The racers kept asking directions of passers-by, and then going on. But none of them appeared to be recruiting, or offering to pay for, an impromptu guide to go with them.

Many of the signs signs we saw on streets and shops in this episode of the race were at least partially bilingual. The street-food stalls the racers had to help assemble in the central market square of Marrakesh, for example, had their menus posted in French as well as Arabic.

One of the racers, who learned Spanish in the Air Force, and now gets to practice her Spanish regularly in her job as a flight attendant, was shown haggling with their taxi driver in Spanish. Morocco is in one of those parts of the world where most prices are negotiated rather than fixed. But why in Spanish? Isn't Morocco a former French colony where the second language is French?

Yes, but Spanish is the second most-common foreign language in Morocco, after French and ahead of English. Many Moroccans in tourism and service industries speak Spanish to accommodate tourists from Spain, which is just across the straits of Gibraltar. Morocco is closer to Spain than to France, and accessible by ferry from Spain even on a day trip.

There are even two small enclaves of Spanish territory, the towns of Ceuta and Melilla, on the African coast accessible only from the Mediterranean Sea or through Morocco. These have been a focus of contention as points of entry for immigrants from Africa to Europe, and have been encircled by increasingly high fences reminiscent of those between the USA and Mexico.

Regardless of how they make their way from Morocco across to Europe, with or without government permission, there are huge numbers of Moroccans -- perhaps as many as a million-- living in Spain. Moroccans dominate the seasonal agricultural "guest worker" labor force in Spain the way Turks dominate "guest worker" occupations in service industries inGermany and Austria. Just as you can find people everywhere in Turkey who speak some German from having lived in Europe, so you can find Moroccans who learned some Spanish while living and working the fields in Spain.

Visitors wouldn't necessarily know this in advance, but you can never anticipate where and with whom any foreign language will prove to be useful. I've found myself speaking French in Uzbekistan and Spanish in Ethiopia. In a pinch, try any language(s) you know.

Link | Posted by Edward, 24 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights

Presentation as part of a panel on
"Kashmiris: A Forgotten People"
(Cornell University, 2 October 2014)

Who am I to talk about Kashmir?

I'm an activist for peace and justice, and a travel journalist. I think that part of the ethical responsibility of travellers is to speak up about what we see, not just go home and forget about the places we've visited – especially when we visit places with few foreign observers other than tourists. Tourists play an increasingly important role as citizen human rights observers.

The focus of my human rights activism is the USA, although that's not today's topic. And I don't claim to be a historian or an expert on current events in Kashmir.

What I can offer is a perspective on Kashmir in terms of contemporary norms of human rights, democracy, and self-determination, rather than explanations of contemporary polices rooted in what I think is irrelevant ancient history.

The big picture, about which we'll hear more from some of tonight's other speakers, is that since 1989, India has maintained a military occupation of the Kashmir Valley by more than half a million soldiers, police, paramilitaries, and other armed "security" forces brought in from outside Kashmir.

This occupation has had all the typical attributes of any military occupation, in unusually intense and prolonged form. For most of the last 25 years, the Kashmir Valley has been under various flavors of de facto or de jure martial law, with soldiers everywhere, army camps next to every village, checkpoints on every city block, curfews, house to house searches, legalized arrest and detention without trial, and official suspension of many of the norms of democratic governance and civil liberties.

Since the departure of the principal non-Muslim population group, the Hindu Pandits, in the 1990s, essentially all of the remaining population in the Kashmir Valley -- other than the occupation forces -- has been Muslim. That has allowed the Indian forces to define the entire valley as a free-fire zone in which the Kashmiri Muslim population is considered and treated as the enemy: presumed to be either "militants" or their sympathizers, and fair game for summary killing. Military and paramilitary forces have effectively complete impunity for any actions against civilians, which have come to include systematic torture of detainees, rape of civilian women, collective reprisals (against families, neighborhoods, and villages), shooting to death of children who throw stones at soldiers, and attacks targeting medical personnel, human rights activists, and journalists.

To put the death toll in perspective, this month the Kashmir Valley has suffered from its worst natural disaster in a century: a 100-year flood that has killed perhaps 500 people. But on average, several times this many Kashmiris have been killed by Indian "security" forces in Kashmir every year for the last 25 years -- a total of at least 50,000 out of a population of around 7 million people in the valley.

What has not happened, throughout this time, and still isn't happening, is any plebiscite, referendum or negotiations on self-determination for Kashmiris or any change in Kashmir's status.

Fundamentally, as I see it,

  1. What is going on in Kashmir is best understood as a Kashmiri nationalist struggle for self-determination (despite efforts to frame it as a dispute about history, as a dispute about "terrorism", as a dispute between secularism and religious fundamentalism, as a dispute between Hindus and Muslims, as a dispute between India and Pakistan, and so forth); and
  2. Self-determination is a human rights issue.

Self-determination is itself one of the most widely recognized and fundamental human rights. "The principle of … self-determination of peoples" is recognized in Article 1 of the U.N. Charter. Article 1 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (to which the USA, India, and Pakistan are all parties) provides that, "All peoples have the right of self-determination. By virtue of that right they freely determine their political status.... The States Parties to the present Covenant... shall promote the realization of the right of self-determination, and shall respect that right, in conformity with the provisions of the Charter of the United Nations."

There are "liberals" and "reformers" within India, and some foreign human rights activists, who want to separate self-determination from (other) human rights. But that's not possible. You can't have a velvet-gloved occupation. Maintaining power by force, over popular opposition, requires brute, and brutal, use of force -- regardless of whether that opposition is itself violent, nonviolent, or a mix of both. Some say that self-determination is a "political question" on which human rights activists should remain "neutral". But that denies the status of self-determination as itself a human right. The (other) human rights issues in Kashmir cannot be resolved without addressing the human rights issue of self-determination.

The central demand of the Kashmiri nationalist movement is "Azaadi", often translated as "Freedom". But what exactly does that mean? While some outsiders profess confusion, Kashmiris themselves have been remarkably precise, consistent, and coherent: Their central unifying demand for decades has been for a plebiscite on the status of Kashmir, as was promised by the government of India (including in repeated statements by its first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru), by the government of Pakistan, and by resolution of the U.N. Security Council supported by India, Pakistan, and all of the Permanent Members including the USA.

Neither "azaadi" nor self-determination necessarily means independence for Kashmir. To demand the right to decide is not to presume what that decision would be, only that the decision should be made (1) by Kashmiris themselves and (2) at the ballot box through electoral means. To put it another way, the question is not how Kashmiris should vote, but whether they should have the right to vote on this specific question.

If the central Kashmiri demand is for the holding of an election, what are the circumstances in which human rights, including the right to self-determination, require that such an election be held?

Continue reading "Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights"
Link | Posted by Edward, 18 October 2014, 07:55 ( 7:55 AM) | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 17 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 4

Shetland Islands, Scotland (U.K.) - Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.) - Copenhagen (Denmark) - Malmö (Sweden) - Copenhagen (Denmark)

This week's episode of The Amazing Race 25 focused on "sustainable" and "environmental" travel and transportation, with former bicycle messengers Alli and Kym each winning a (product placement) plug-in hybrid car after finishing first in a series of tasks including driving similar cars as fuel-efficiently as possible across the bridge between Copenhagen and Malmö, and making deliveries in Copenhagen on a cargo bike.

This isn't the first time that The Amazing Race has had tasks that appear to have been tailor-made for a specific team, but it was one of the most unfair in pitting bicycle delivery professionals against amateurs. Any long wheelbase or heavily loaded bicycle or tricycle -- a tandem, a long wheelbase recumbent, a cargo bike, or even a heavily loaded touring bicycle -- handles very differently from a conventional single-rider diamond-frame bicycle without a load.

Some years ago, I left my garage door open and my long wheelbase recumbent bicycle was stolen. A neighbor called the next morning to ask what my bike was doing in the bushes in front of their house: The thief or thieves had been unable to ride it, and had abandoned it less than a block away. They kept my partner's less valuable conventional diamond-frame bike that they had stolen at the same time.

The alternative task for the teams of racers (for those of you who don't watch the TV show, the challenges are sometimes a single task, but in other cases offer the racers a choice between two tasks) also highlighted the extent to which Copenhagen has been trying to de-prioritize private cars in the competition for scarce public space on city streets: The racers had to furnish and decorate a "parklet", or car parking space on the street re-purposed as a mini-park or extension of a sidewalk seating and lounging area. I believe that parklets originated in Copenhagen, and eventually spread to San Francisco and other U.S. cities first as unauthorized guerrilla art installations and eventually as permitted uses of designated spaces along city streets.

Copenhagen is generally thought of as "bicycle friendly" according to the infrastructure-centric criteria I discussed last week. A high percentage (by European standards) of travel within the city is by bicycle, and the percentage of Copenhagen residents who own cars is low.

But in this episode of the race, we also saw some of the problems with trying not just to provide separate sections of the right-of-way for pedestrians and wheeled vehicles, but to provide a third division of the right-of-way for two-wheeled vehicles separate from those for pedestrians and for larger vehicles.

Some of the racers were surprised to be overtaken by motorcycles in the bike lane, but motorized two-wheelers are permitted in such two-wheeler lanes in many countries. There is no international road "standard" as to whether a "bike lane" is reserved for non-motorized vehicles, or is reserved for all two-wheeled vehicles, motorized or not..

There's a similar lack of standardization as to which portion of the right-of-way bicycles are expected or required to use where there are two divisions. In most of the USA bicycles are required to share the portion of the roadway used by all other (motorized) vehicles, and the sidewalk is legally reserved for pedestrians. But in many other countries (and in some places in the USA) bicycles are required to share side paths, where they exist, with pedestrians, and leave the main portion of the roadway for the exclusive use of motorized vehicles.

To make matters worse, common practices are often at odds with the law. There are many places in the USA, and for that matter in England and elsewhere, where bicyclists are expected by motorists and even the police to ride on the sidewalk, wherever there is a sidewalk, even where that's illegal. Rarely is there any clear notice to a visiting bicyclist as to either the local law or local behavioral norms or expectations.

Expected lines for bicycles to follow through intersections are even less standardized, confusing, and consequently often dangerous. That's especially true where there are sometimes two and sometimes three divisions of the right-of-way, and bicyclists constantly have to be trying to figure out whether they are supposed to be on the sidewalk, in the street, or following some third way (and if so, where that third way is).

Despite what I presume were the the good intentions of the TV show's producers. something was missing from the discussion of sustainability on "The Amazing Race", as from most discussion of responsible travel or "ecotourism": There was no mention of the environmental impact of air travel.

As I said earlier this month at the SXSW Eco conference in a presentation on Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age:

Definitions of "ecotourism" have excluded transportation to and from the destination, so that a resort or a tour can be certified as "green" even if all the guests are flying in from thousands of miles away, and even if air travel is the largest component of the carbon footprint of the tour or visit.

The lead news story from SXSW Eco was the contrast between my talk and the keynote by a spokesperson for Boeing. This was also a topic of discussion (although not as much of one as I would have liked) at the TBEX travel bloggers conference I attended in September.

I don't intend to claim any moral superiority here -- only a degree of consciousness and public acknowledgment of my moral qualms -- or to tell you what to do. I don't know if I'm a moderate, a hypocrite, or merely conflicted in my ambivalence about continuing to fly. After my talk, I was flamed on Twitter by climate-change deniers calling me "unspeakably evil" for flying if I think doing so contributes to global warming. One could say the same thing about any use of fossil fuels. But the trolls have a point: I have no children, I live in the city and get around mainly by bicycle and public transit, and I've never owned a motor vehicle. Air travel is the largest "discretionary" (although essential to my current livelihood) component of my carbon footprint.

What can I, and what can you, do about the environmental impact of our air travel? As I concluded my talk on "Peak Travel":

If you think that travel can have a positive impact -- on global consciousness and tolerance for diversity, on environmental awareness, on community development, on wildlife conservation -- and if you want yourself and your children and grandchildren to continue to be able to travel the world, you should take the lead in raising these issues, figuring out what a more sustainable and less air travel dependent ecology and economy of travel might be like, and getting the necessary infrastructure and policies in place to enable that -- before the oil runs out and the era of air travel ends.

Link | Posted by Edward, 17 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

"Travelers, say bon voyage to privacy"

I talked at length with Watchdog investigative reporter Dave Lieber for his column in today's Dallas Morning News: Travelers, say bon voyage to privacy.

Lieber hits the nail on the head by calling out how few travellers realize that the U.S. government is keeping a permanent file of complete mirror copies of their reservations:

Did you know that when you buy an airline ticket and make other travel reservations, the government keeps a record of the details?

If airlines don’t comply, they can’t fly in the U.S., explains Ed Hasbrouck, a privacy expert with the Identity Project who has studied the records for years and is considered the nation’s top expert.

Before each trip, the system creates a travel score for you.... Before an airline can issue you a boarding pass, the system must approve your passage, Hasbrouck explains....

The idea behind extensive use of PNRs [Passenger Name Records], he says, is not necessarily to watch known suspects but to find new ones.

Want to appeal? "It’s a secret administrative process based on the score you don’t know, based on files you haven’t seen," Hasbrouck says....

Hasbrouck says: "You can’t keep files on everybody in case you want some dirt on them. That’s what J. Edgar Hoover did. We’ve been through this before in this country. Think of all the ways those files targeted innocent people and were misused. People’s lives were destroyed on the basis of unfounded allegations.

"Do we want to go back to that?"

For those whose curiosity has been piqued, here are links to more about this issue:

My FAQ, What's in a Passenger Name Record (PNR)?, includes links to examples of PNR data, templates to request your travel history and PNR files from DHS, and information about my lawsuit against DHS to try to find out what files it had about me and how it had used and "shared" them.

Requirements for airlines to send passenger data to the government, and receive individualized (per-passenger, per-flight) permission from the government before issuing a boarding pass, are contained in two separate sets of DHS regulations: Secure Flight for domestic flights and the Advance Passenger Information System (APIS) for international flights. (More about the APIS regulations.)

The system of "pre-crime" profiling and assigning scores to all air travelers was discussed in recent government audit reports and at a Congressional hearing last month, and in a front-page story in the New York Times, in which I was quoted, last year.

There's a good overview of the government's travel surveillance and control process in a talk I gave that was broadcast on C-SPAN last year. The slides from that talk include diagrams of the system and examples of PNR data and other government files about myself and travellers.

Link | Posted by Edward, 17 October 2014, 00:12 (12:12 AM) | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, 10 October 2014

The Amazing Race 25, Episode 3

Oxford, England (U.K.) - Aberdeen, Scotland (U.K.) - Shetland Islands, Scotland (U.K.)


[National Cycle Network Route 1, Northumberland coast, England, U.K.]

The first clue given to the teams in this leg of The Amazing Race 25 sent them north on an all-day train ride from Oxford, England, to Aberdeen, Scotland, and then on an overnight ferry to Lerwick on the main island ("the Mainland") of the Shetlands.

Nothing was said about Aberdeen on the reality-TV show, and the racers spent only a few hours in Aberdeen before catching the ferry to the Shetland Islands. Aberdeen is actually a disproportionately important little city as the center of one of Scotland's most important industries: It's the jumping off point for helicopters and ships servicing and carrying workers to and from the offshore oil drilling rigs and platforms in the North Sea.

Even tourists who might be interested in spending more time in Aberdeen tend not to linger. There's a shortage of hotels in and around Aberdeen, and nondiscretionary demand for hotel rooms by oil workers and other business travellers has driven hotel prices in Aberdeen even higher than those in most of the rest of Scotland. Hotel room rates throughout Scotland are typically higher than those in most of England, at least in the summer tourist season. With the U.K. pound high relative to the Euro, hotel prices in Scotland were among the highest we encountered last summer anywhere we travelled in Europe except in Switzerland).

Lerwick is itself a secondary service port for the offshore oil industry, which is the second-largest component of the Shetland Islands economy after commercial fishing and ahead of agriculture (including the ubiquitous sheep pasturing that was featured in the racers' tasks) and tourism.

Tourists tend to think of Scotland in terms of castles and kilts, glens and green hills, and grazing sheep. But like New England, which is mostly wooded but where much of the land is steep and rocky and agriculture and forestry are mostly secondary to the economy, Scotland has had a predominately knowledge-based economy driven by leadership in technology and education since the Industrial Revolution. The most characteristic Scottish perspective on the world, like that of the New Englander of "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court", may be that of an engineer.

In the background of every conversation in Scotland this summer, when The Amazing Race 25 was being filmed in June and when we were there in July, was the impending September 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Perhaps the producers of The Amazing Race wanted to avoid being perceived as taking sides in a political campaign, but I'm amazed that they managed to edit out any on-screen appearance of blue-and-white "Yes" yard or window signs. (The "No" campaign, although it prevailed in the vote, was much less visible.)

Two things were especially interesting to me about travelling in Scotland during the run-up to the independence referendum.

The first was that questions I always want to ask when I travel, but that local people sometimes haven't thought about or are taken aback by, were already at the center of both public and private conversation in pubs and at breakfast tables, in the newspapers, on radio and television, in best-selling books, and on city and village streets.

How do people here see yourselves as a people, a community, a country? What is your national identity, and what defines it? How is this place different from all others? What is your relationship to the rest of the world, and what do you want to be? What are your values? What is your vision? What future do you want for yourselves? How will you get there?

It couldn't have been more exciting for me to than to get to listen in on such a national self-exploration -- and better still, one conducted in English.

Second, I found a fascinating case study and comparison, in both the referendum process and the arguments being used in the referendum campaign, for the possibility of an eventual referendum on the status of Kashmir. The talk I gave earlier this month at Cornell University on "Kashmir, self-determination, and human rights" brings out some of the lessons I see for Kashmir in the Scottish example, in addition to other aspects of the underappreciated and generally misunderstood Kashmir issue.

The Shetland Islands are administratively and politically an integral part of Scotland and of the U.K. The majority in the Shetlands, like the majority in Scotland as a whole, voted "No" to Scottish independence. There had been some speculation, however, that if Scotland became independent, the Shetlands might seek some sort of quasi-autonomous status, like the U.K.-affiliated Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, in order to be able to become an offshore but Scottish-affiliated banking, insurance, incorporation, and/or tax haven.

We didn't get as far north as the Shetland Islands or even Aberdeen, but we spent less time in England and more time in Scotland this summer -- in Glascow, in Edinburgh, in the highlands along the Great Glen as far as Inverness, and in eastern Scotland and the (English-Scottish) border country -- then we had planned.


[Loch Lomond, Scotland, U.K.]

A major reason for our choice (although not the only one) was that we were travelling by bicycle, and Scotland proved to be much more bicycle-friendly than England.

That's not what you would conclude if you used the criteria that are typically used to assess the "bicycle-friendliness" of communities and regions in the USA, the U.K., and many other countries.

"Friendliness" is an attitudinal and behavioral attribute, and the "friendliness" that matters most to bicycle travellers is that of motorists: Are drivers of motor vehicles "friendly" to bicyclists they encounter on streets and roads, and respectful of bicyclists' rights and safety? Or do motorists treat bicyclists as childish, as a nuisance, as an impediment to motorized traffic, or as fair game for motorized vehicular assault?

When I first heard of ratings and awards for "bicycle-friendly" communities, I assumed that they were based on surveys of bicyclists about whether local motorists were friendly to them. But I was wrong. Motorists' attitudes aren't even considered in "bicycle-friendly" designations, which instead are based entirely on the existence of bicycle-specific infrastructure and policies.

Travelling by bicycle in Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, France, the Netherlands, and the U.K. for two months this summer, we saw wide variations in national and regional cycling cultures and styles, the nature and extent of bicycle-specific infrastructure, and motorists' attitudes toward cyclists. Overall, there was little correlation between the amount of bicycle-specific infrastructure and the quality or safety of the experience of bicycle travel in different places, and much greater correlation with how motorists think about and interact with bicycles and bicyclists on the roads.

England has an extensive National Cycle Network of routes designated by the nonprofit sustainable travel and transport organization Sustrans. But Sustrans is mainly focused on recreational walking and hiking routes, rather than on bicycling or on routes that are actually efficient for transportation. Once Sustrans designates a route, it gets shown on every sort of map as "the route that cyclists are supposed to follow", regardless of its suitability for bicycle travel. No further effort to provide for bicycles is thought to be necessary. And English motorists, like those in Germany and some other countries I've visited, expect that where there is a designated bicycle route, bicycles should be on it -- no matter how inferior or unsuitable it is -- and not trying to share the roads that are used by motor vehicles.

Even in the USA, where many "bike paths" are poorly surfaced, signed, or maintained, I've seen few designated bike routes that are as bad as many sections of the U.K.'s National Cycle Route Network. The design criteria are "scenic", "fun", and "avoiding any road shared with motorized traffic. "Efficient", "direct", and "easy" are not among those criteria.

Sustrans designates routes that go miles out of the way, high up insanely steep hills, and along "paths" that are barely passable on a mountain bike much less a loaded touring bike with wide panniers, for the sake of a scenic detour (without bothering to designate any alternate route for through travellers or commuters) or to avoid even the shortest stretch of road shared with motorized traffic.

On various parts of U.K. National Cycle Network Route 1, we found ourselves directed off motor vehicle roads onto muddy singletrack through sheep pasture with gates we had to stop and dismount to open and close after ourselves every mile or less, and paths too narrow for bicycles in opposite directions to pass each other, where our legs were brushing against thickly overgrown hedges of stinging nettles on both sides at once. Rather than being the best or easiest through routes for inexperienced bicycle travellers, many of the cycling routes designated by Sustrans are suitable only for skilled, well-prepared cyclists who are looking for a seriously difficult challenge.

By contrast to England, there are far fewer designated long-distance cycle routes in Scotland. Scottish roads are as narrow as English roads, and outside of towns typically lack any shoulder, sidewalk, or side path.

In the USA, even what we think of as "narrow" roads typically have at least some pavement width beyond the edge of the vehicle traffic lane. But many roads in the U.K. have absolutely no shoulders at all, and many of them have hedgerows -- eight-foot-high vertical walls of dense shrubbery spiked with the ends of trimmed-off branches -- extending all the way to the edge of the traffic lane.

We encountered some inconsiderate and reckless motorists in Scotland, as one does everywhere. Once when we had to go a few miles on an "A" road (a narrow two-lane road with heavy traffic and few pull-outs or places to pass safely), a tour bus driver, possibly not from Scotland, ran us off into a narrow ditch alongside a rock wall.

But despite this, and despite the near-complete lack of bicycle-specific infrastructure or alternatives to sharing the roads with motorized traffic, I found Scotland much more genuinely bicycle-friendly than England. In general, Scottish drivers didn't seem surprised to encounter bicycles sharing the roads, even where there were side paths, and didn't seem to begrudge us our place on the roads any more than they would wide, slow, agricultural implements.

The defining experience for me of bicycle-friendly Scotland came when we were going up a long steep grade in the Highlands at about three miles an hour. A series of loaded tandem logging trucks overtaking us slowed down to match our speed a safe distance behind us, and waited -- not honking, not revving their engines, not tailgating us -- for us to crawl as far up the hill as necessary, sometimes half a mile or more, until we got to gaps in the hedgerow where we could pull over to let them pass.

That's nothing about bicycle-friendly infrastructure, and everything about attitude.

Link | Posted by Edward, 10 October 2014, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age

One of the more disruptive consequences of peak oil is likely to be peak air travel.

What does peak air travel mean? Why is it likely? Why haven't you already heard more about it? And what business and investment opportunities does this coming disruption create?

I've been writing about the unsustainability of air travel for more than 20 years, and I'm pleased that this year it's on the SXSW Eco conference agenda.

But let me make one thing perfectly clear from the start: I am not here to tell you that you shouldn't fly.

Some people do make that argument, and it's a legitimate question, but that's not what I'm saying.


[A few years ago, as part of a year-long trip around the world, I flew to Australia, rented a car, and drove to Uluru. Will a trip like this be possible in the future? How will it be different? How much more will it cost? How much more time will it take? What means of of transport will it use?]

I came to Austin by plane, and I think very few people who can afford to fly will choose to fly significantly less for reasons of ethics or sustainability.

People like me who travel by air should pay more than we do: our decision-making is distorted by the fact that air travel is artificially cheap. Air transport is, and always has been, more heavily subsidized than almost any other mode of transport, in many non-obvious ways. I would support much higher taxes on my own air travel, and the elimination of the current subsidies.

But flying is too attractive for voluntary reductions to have much effect. If we want people to fly less, we're going to have to persuade them through their pocketbook by making flying more expensive.

My point today is that -- ethics aside -- peak oil is likely to make air travel much more expensive, both in absolute terms and relative to the cost of surface transportation.

Air transport is different from surface transport in two key respects: (1) Airplanes can't be connected to the grid, and (2) keeping them up in the air requires a fuel with an energy density that batteries or other alternatives can't provide, and aren't likely to be able to provide. For air travel as we know it, there is no substitute for liquid fuel – as the aviation industry itself freely admits.

Fuel is already a higher percentage of the cost of air transport than of the cost of most modes of surface transport, making airline ticket prices more sensitive to fuel costs than surface transit prices.

Fracking seems to have postponed peak oil for a few years. But when peak oil's day of reckoning arrives, some of its earliest and most severe impacts on end-user prices are likely to be on air travel.

Obviously, the aviation industry doesn't want to talk about its impending contraction, since that would not only scare off investors but could cause governments to cut back their current aviation subsidies.

In addition, higher costs for air travel are as much of a threat to the so-called "ecotourism" industry as to the aviation industry. Definitions of "ecotourism" have excluded transportation to and from the destination, so that a resort or a tour can be certified as "green" even if all the guests are flying in from thousands of miles away, and even if air travel is the largest component of the carbon footprint of the tour or visit. Many "ecotourism" businesses and destinations are almost entirely dependent on airborne guests. That creates pressure on those who support fair trade, community development, and wildlife and ecosystem conservation funded by "ecotourism" to also support continued cheap air travel. As a result, many of those who are regarded as ecotourism experts and spokespeople have been part of the conspiracy of silence with the aviation industry about the environmental impact of airborne tourism.

What's harder to understand is why private investors have drunk the propaganda Kool-aid that airlines and aircraft manufacturers have cooked up about a future of "sustainable" infinite growth in air travel.

We heard some of this in yesterday's keynote here at SXSW Eco 2014, in which the top Boeing executive for "sustainability" showed us, not a graph of air traffic leveling off at some sustainable level, but a growth curve accelerating upward off the chart into the future at an increasing rate of growth.

It's hard to imagine any other industry putting forward that kind of projection at a conference like this, or expecting to get away with calling it "sustainable". But this is exactly the sort of taken-for-granted exceptionalism that has characterized aviation, and government policy towards aviation, from its earliest years. The Chicago Convention international treaty has been interpreted as exempting fuel for international airline flights from taxes. The USA is vigorously opposing inclusion of airlines in the European Union emissions trading scheme. And there are no global controls or caps or taxes on aviation emissions.

The aviation industry has succeeded in separating aviation from the rest of the discussion of climate change at the United Nations, and has gotten global policy on aircraft emissions moved to the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), a sector-specific revolving-door UN agency largely if not entirely captured by aviation industry interests. Any action on climate change by ICAO has been indefinitely postponed, despite vigorous but little-reported protests from the International Coalition for Sustainable Aviation, the one environmental group (and virtually the only civil society organization of any sort) with an observer seat at ICAO.

As we heard in yesterday's keynote here at SXSW Eco 2014, the aviation industry's claim is that sometime, years or more likely decades in the future, airlines and aircraft manufacturers hope to replace fossil fuel with biofuels. "We hope to find a way to clean up our own act, someday," aviation industry spokespeople say, "So in the meantime we should continue to be exempt from the climate change and fossil fuel conservation regimes you are putting in place for all other industries."

But how realistic is the prospect for "sustainable" biofuels, on which the aviation industry has staked its hopes?

With enough resource inputs, organic chemistry can turn almost any feedstock into any other organic compound. But to meet the needs of aviation, sustainably, biofuels must be:

  1. A high energy density drop-in liquid replacement for kerosene;
  2. Produced in quantities many times those of current jet fuel extraction and refining (to support air traffic many times present volumes, as the industry projects, driven largely by growth in air travel and air cargo transport in China and other developing countries);
  3. At prices comparable to current kerosene prices;
  4. Without contributing more to climate change – through energy inputs and the production and refining process – than it saves compared to fossil fuel;
  5. Without diverting land, water, or human labor from food production (i.e. burning food for jet fuel); and
  6. Available at full scale soon, before we run out of oil or pass the climate change tipping point.

That's a tall order. It might turn out to be possible, but I don't think it's likely.

I'm not sure how many people in the aviation industry really believe it's likely that biofuels will meet all these challenges. Perhaps the best public indication of what industry insiders really think is contained in their reports to those to whom they are accountable: their stockholders. I know of no airline or aircraft manufacturer that bases its financial projections on biofuel rather than fossil fuel costs. Either they think that biofuel prices will somehow magically end up exactly equal to fossil fuel prices, or – more likely – they have no real expectation that biofuels will constitute any meaningful fraction of the fuel used by airliners in any financially foreseeable future.

Would I bet on aviation biofuels myself? At most, it's the sort of highly speculative investment on which I would risk a small portion of the capital I could afford to lose, if I were a venture capitalist who could afford to invest in many such high-risk ventures in the hope that the one winner that pays out, pays out big enough to cover the losses on the majority of losers.

But by planning for continued cheap air transport, unsuspecting investors and business people in seemingly unrelated industries that depend on air travel have staked their fortunes, often without realizing it, on a risky bet on future production of large quantities of cheap, sustainable biofuels for aviation – when the more conservative strategy would be to plan and prepare for the greater likelihood that air travel will, in fact, get much more expensive.

If peak oil is coming, and it's likely to bring a dramatic increase in the cost of air travel, what does this imply?

Continue reading "Peak Travel: Envisioning a post-air-travel age"
Link | Posted by Edward, 9 October 2014, 21:42 ( 9:42 PM) | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)