(james benedict brown) on the road

Snapshot: Glasgow Airport

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 8 December, 2010

Seen from the departure loun… sorry, shopping mall, inside Glasgow Airport. The suitcase dropped off a baggage tug, and was retrieved about five minutes later.


Unbalanced and smug

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 18 September, 2010

Back in Glasgow, and this news story caught my eye:

Glasgow tourist chiefs hit out over guide
18 September 2010

Glasgow tourist chiefs have hit out at a new guide which claims the city remains blighted by violence, deprivation and unhealthy lifestyles.

The Thomas Cook guide praises the city for its “vibrant” arts scene, high culture, green spaces and shopping.

But it also warns visitors to expect poor weather, sectarianism and alcohol and drug abuse in its deprived suburbs.

Glasgow’s weather is also drawn to readers’ attentions.

It comments: “The city’s rainy reputation is well founded and the likelihood is that you’ll experience more than a few showers, if not a full-on downpour. Going out without an umbrella or a hat is foolhardy, to say the least.”

Scott Taylor, chief executive of Glasgow City Marketing Bureau, reacted angrily to the guide, describing it as “unbalanced” and “smug”

We spotted the link to the article at the top of the localised section of the BBC News homepage (screengrab below). Just above Man scarred for life after attack, Gang attack teenager at bus stop, Probation over runaway boy images and Man guilty of Christmas Day death. And any suggestion that it’s always rainy is clearly disproven by an afternoon of “white cloud” ahead of us in the three day forecast.

A Streetcar named Elaine

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 9 July, 2010

Two nights ago I walked into to a dingy nineteen-sixties public car park on Mitchell Street in Glasgow. Climbing to the first floor, I was met with the sight that would bring horror to most car owners. My parking space was empty. There was a large BMW shaped hole where my BMW should have been.

Not to panic though. I just fired up an iPhone app, which routed a call for me to speak to a nice man in a London call centre. He told me that due the designated bay being occupied at the time, the car had been parked four levels up by the last person who used it. And sure enough, after a short ride in an intimidatingly vandal proof elevator, I found my bright blue BMW 1 Series parked on the fifth floor.

This was, as you might have guessed, not my BMW. It belongs to Streetcar, a British car sharing club that has recently gained international attention having been acquired by the American car sharing giant Zipcar. Thanks to a recent favourable enrollment promotion, I’ve become a member of Streetcar just in time to see it rebranded as Zipcar. Presumably the little non-recyclable plastic smart card they sent me (with its own non-recyclable plastic wallet and non-recyclable laminated cardboard welcome pack) and the plastic parking bay signs will all have to be re-issued in due course. You can see the environmental benefits of car sharing already.

At least the impressive iPhone app won’t need much work to be re-branded from Streetcar blue to Zipcar green.

If you’re unfamiliar with how car sharing works, it’s pretty simple. Rather than owning car that sits unused most of the day, Streetcar members have access to several hundred cars and vans dotted around Britain’s largest cities. Members (who normally pay £60/year) can book one by the hour, day, week or month by phone, internet or smartphone app. I booked my Beemer – named Elaine, incidentally – at just five minutes notice. When you get to the car, your membership card or iPhone app can unlock the vehicle, and you’ll find the keys in the glove box. Thirty miles per calendar day and all the petrol you need are included in the hourly, daily or weekly rates (a payment card is nestled in the handheld device that releases the key). A VW Polo costs £4.95/hour or £49.50/day, while a BMW 1 Series costs £6.95/hour or £69.50/day. Current promotions include £1/hour discounts during the early evening and £20 6pm – 9am overnight rentals, the latter of which persuaded me to have my first spin in the Beemer. There are just ten cars here in Glasgow right now, although that number should grow soon, and hopefully will grow outwards from the city centre. Streetcar bays aren’t generally on public streets outside London, so secure and easily accessible off-street parking is usually needed. Most vehicles are parked in city centre car parks, which isn’t particularly handy for suburban or inner-suburban residents, although there are three very close to Glasgow Central station. I’m actively petitioning Streetcar to bring some to the inner Southside, one of the city’s lowest car-owning neighbourhoods, but until then, this will have to do.

The experience so far has been almost entirely positive. The cars are new 2010 models with low mileages and clean interiors. Members who get them dirty are invited to use the petrol payment card in the car to buy car wash and vacuuming tokens whenever needed, and so far it seems that Glasgow’s members are looking after their cars. Either that, or there aren’t many of us. Watching my iPhone app here and in London during my last visit, there seems to be very good short notice availability for cars compared to the capital. Perhaps the £1/hour and £20 overnight promotions are there to encourage more use of the cars we’ve got.

Living in the city, and surviving on a modest budget, we have absolutely no need of our own car. Over the last two years we’ve used a variety of rental companies to borrow cars for 24 hour periods: just long enough to get to Ikea or B&Q, and come home and regret our fiscal excesses. The daily Streetcar rate works out roughly comparable to the costs of renting from a major rental company, perhaps even cheaper when you include the cost of fuel. The limited 30 mile daily mileage allowance with Streetcar is, a problem, however. Streetcars are clearly marketed for inner-city use on short rentals: you only get greater mileage allowances if you go for a more than 72 hours. I very nearly max-ed out the daily mileage allowance driving out to an suburban courier depot to collect a mysterious and as-yet unclaimed package (note to DHL: try buzzing our apartment, knocking on our door or perhaps pushing the card through our letterbox next time).

The biggest problem I have with Streetcar, however, is the choice of vehicles. Here in Glasgow we’ve got four VW Polos and six BMW 1 Series. The former are fantastic little cars – beautifully designed and made, very nippy and ideal for urban driving. But the BMWs are insane choices for a car club. Only marginally larger in terms of passenger and luggage space, they have dreadful visibility and an rock solid ride. It seems bizarre that a car sharing club – ostensibly designed for people who are not seduced by the cachet of owning a car – should choose a car that is so ostentatious and yet so compromised as a city car. What’s more, Elaine, my Mitchell Street Streetcar, was not a base model 1 Series, but a performance-oriented M Sport model. On a £20 overnight promotion, I enjoyed bouncing around Glasgow in this lively and sporty little car, but the leather sports seats were desperately uncomfortable, and the rigid suspension was completely unsuited to our poorly maintained and potholed city streets.

There is also a longer term calculation to be made. On the deal that enrolled me to Streetcar, I’m basically getting membership for free. The costs are limited to the hourly or daily rental fees (and my third party excess insurance, which covers me in the event of damaging occurring to the car and Streetcar lifting £750 from my credit card). If I were to take into account the normal cost of membership plus the rental charges, I’d be hard pressed to say Streetcar is better value than the five to six car and van rentals I’ve made in the last year from the likes of Hertz, Europcar or Arnold Clark. And I will continue to need them, because Streetcar don’t have any vans in Glasgow (and looking to cities where they do, they’re very poor value compared to most rental companies’ daily van rental rates). There is no doubt at all that Streetcar can be a lot cheaper than owning a car, but I remain unconvinced that it’s the best choice for non-car owners who want a more convenient form of occasional car rental.

My flight memory

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 23 June, 2010

About a month ago I rediscovered my FlightMemory account. It had lain dormant for a couple of years, and on a quiet evening I was able to bring up to date relatively easily. FlightMemory is a free-for-basic / paid-for-premium online service that allows you to log aeroplane flights in an online database. You can specify the date, time, route, airline, aircraft; even the seat number. It can then calculate the flown distance to build a comprehensive database of how far you’ve flown, and which airlines and aircraft you’ve used the most

Even if it were possible to do it – which I don’t think it realistically is – the site doesn’t offer you an indication of the carbon emissions or environmental impact of one’s travels. Different planes, different engines, different climatic conditions, different passenger and cargo loadings, etc. all conspire to make each flight unique. By its very nature, the website seems to err on the side of celebrating rather than lamenting flying. There’s a machismo table of users so that you compare the size of your emissions to the size of everyone elses.

Although I appreciate that the very act of blogging about my (publicly accessible) statistics makes me guilty of participating in the macho competition. But to put it in layman’s terms, I’m prepared to admit that I have flown too much in my lifetime.

I’ve now flown in excess of 125,000 miles, equivalent to five circumnavigations of the planet, or half the distance between the Earth and the Moon. I’ve been able to take into account almost every commercial flight I’ve ever taken, starting with a short cross-channel hop in a Dornier 228 in 1994 (although the exact date still eludes me) up until the Ryanair flight I took this morning. All my recent flights have been booked online, so the receipts were somewhere in my inbox. My diaries filled in the gaps, and only a few school and university trips to Europe are missing precise journey data.

FlightMemory will generate a global, continental and domestic map for each user, personalised around their home country. The European visualisation of my travels is a record of many different holidays and study trips, but doesn’t represent the many journeys I’ve taken to France, Belgium and the Netherlands by train. At a push I’d guess roughly half my trips to the continent have been by train, so don’t throw the book at me yet.

My UK map is, however, a dense hive of lines, primarily because of my personal and professional connections between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. By my reckoning, I’ve only ever flown domestically within Great Britain three times, the train having always been cheaper and more attractive. But the real damage to the environment (and the real damage to my personal life) has been my commute between Glasgow and Belfast. While the longest route I’ve flown was more than 4,200 miles in length (from Edmonton to London) the shortest is between Belfast and Prestwick, at just 80 miles – the shortest route operated anywhere in Europe by Ryanair, and one that is quite surreal in a Boeing 737-800 series, lasting as little as twenty minutes tarmac to tarmac.

According to FlightMemory, I’ve now flown between Belfast and Glasgow fifty times. Strangely I’ve flown to Belfast more times than I’ve flown to Glasgow, and yet as I look around me, I’m still in Glasgow. Similarly, until earlier this year, Glasgow International Airport was one that I had departed from several times, but never arrived into. Having now done both, however, I can confirm it’s a ****hole whichever way you pass through it, and more expensive to use than comparable airports.

This unpleasant existence of commuting across the Irish Sea will continue for the next year or so. As long as I remember, I’ll keep updating the FlightMemory too, although I look forward to the day when I doubt have any trips planned by plane.

Icelandair marketing 1, James 0

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 16 October, 2009

Message to Icelandair management: give someone in your marketing department a pay rise.


You don’t need an expensive advertising agency or a degree in marketing to know that simplicity sells. And when you’re selling a country as breathtakingly beautiful as Iceland as a holiday destination, you don’t need any waffle for advertising copy. Put a picture of Iceland in the newspaper (albeit with some suspect pony-photoshopping, which I am willing to overlook) and a few lines about direct flights from Glasgow and a three night citybreak for £239, and I’m sold. As an American might say “what’s not to like?”