Petrol, chocolate and a sales meeting:Business lounges in service stations

What’s the reality of “walkable cities?” If you are one of the mobile business consultants, salesmen or any one of a large range of contractors, who everyday you spend more than half their time traveling in their car,  truck or van, with no options for using public transport or working over the internet, but having to see people face to face, inspect works or transport their workmen to sites distributed all over  the sprawl. Amongst a series of recent posts and articles on car related themes these caught my attentions and gave me pause to rethink a little about how we see the transition from our present high carbon cities to a lower carbon  “neutral” future?

The first one is this from The Economist, which is appropriately on the growth of facilities catering for this car culture, any of you who have traveled in Britain are aware of these large aglomerations on the freeways, we have our own versions here in South Africa, not yet this extended but with the growth of controversial toll-roads, no doubt soon to get there:

AT 10 o’clock on a mid-week morning, there’s already a goodly queue at the McDonald’s in the Cobham service station. Kingdoms may rise and kingdoms may fall, but mankind’s need for Egg McMuffins and coffee shows no sign of weakening. Elsewhere at the facility, which recently opened on the M25, London’s orbital motorway, drivers and their passengers play other traditional service-station roles, buying petrol, using the loos, shouting at their children, wincing at the sandwich prices. With its Shell garage, Days Inn hotel, Marks & Spencer, WHSmith, McDonalds, KFC, a couple of other restaurants and some slot machines this is a normal, modern motorway stop. Look up on the first floor, though, and you see a more unusual amenity with views out over the service-station floor: a Regus business lounge.

Is nowhere safe from business travellers these days? An ever-expanding army of mobile workers needs an expanding number of places to meet and work. Regus has been opening a lounge a day since early 2011 and now has them in over 500 cities, including in railway stations in France and the Netherlands (in Britain, Network Rail has done a deal with another provider of flexible working spaces, the Office Group). In its efforts to dominate in what it calls “third place” working environments (where the first place is the office and the second is the home) Regus recently decided that motorway service stations were the next battleground. It is running three new operations beside British motorways, as well as several in France. And though the atmosphere of a typical business lounge is rather different from that of most service stations, the two do appear to complement each other.

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We all know our frustration with cell phone/mobile use in cars, texting is especially dangerous and despite the laws against it and the surprising frequency with which we see drivers of large SUV’s with handset to their ears, which I would think should have a handsfree as standard equipment, here is an extreme version of this trend from Things I grab, motley collection :

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Forget texting while driving. German police say they nabbed a driver who had wired his Ford station wagon with an entire mobile office.

Saarland state police said Friday the 35-year-old man was pulled over for doing 130 kph (80 mph) in a 100 kph zone while passing a truck Monday.

AP Photo / Saarland State Police

Built on a wooden frame on his passenger seat they found a laptop on a docking station tilted for easy driver access, a printer, router, wireless internet stick, WLAN antenna, and an inverter to power it all.

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All of this is variously blamed on everything from Fordism through neoliberalism to America’s Oil Wars, but as most of us who have one know – we love our cars and even of we have a placebo Toyota Prius like me, we are in love with driving them and we construct our identities with them, this post from URBAN TIMES

The Growth of Car Culture

What is car culture? It is the practice and regular usage of cars in cities around the world. It is the feeling you get when you wake up early in the morning eager to get out of the house to drive. It is a lifestyle built around using cars.

The culture or social behavior of using cars has spread throughout the world. It has become an international social phenomenon attributable to both developed and developing nations.

As Wilfred Owen points out in in Wheels, in 1900 the world had hardly ten thousand automobiles, but eight decades later, there were more than 360 million motor vehicles and their effect on mankind has been enormous.

A personalized version of the cheapest car in the world – the Tata Nano. (Image: vm2827 / Flickr)

John Urrey observes that car-culture is a culture which is presently being followed by the general public although it was primarily consumed by the rich and elite classes in the 20th century.

According to theOICA (automotive issues in world forums), a total of over 50 million cars were produced internationally in the year 2011. Presently, more than 500 million cars are being consumed world-wide and this “figure is expected to double  by 2015“.

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With this culture being actively driven by the automobile and big oil and their differential adaptations to  soliciting customers either through more and more powerful cars – a la TopGear, or through their offerings of alternative smaller, more fuel efficient cars and by undertaking extensive urbanization trends studies such as this one by P-Rex , an MIT research lab

Toyota’s vision: The right vehicle,
at the right place, at the right time

This ambitious project attempts to “take the temperature” of urbanization of the entire U.S.  Conceived of as a Drosscape 2.0, we are collaborating with Toyota to assess and project the urbanization patterns in the metropolitan landscape.  With the echo boomers entering prime house-buying age, we see this as an opportune moment to envision how the basic urbanization will proceed over the next few decades.  We are more metropolitan, more southern and more western as a populous than we  were in the 20th century.  Will these trends hold?  How  will the complex of jobs, housing, and transportation interact with this new metropolitan landscape?  These questions and more will be addressed in this multi-year research contract.

Extract from Toyota Alternative Fuels Presentation

An presentation using some of the initial results is available here; Our Shared, Sustainable Future: Progress and Challenges which clearly highlights whose future it is that Toyota are most concerned with!

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So how does this look in under African Skies; – here is a piece that might let you judge somewhat for yourself:

The first is on the role of the “Black Diamonds” and the growth of South africa’s middle class:

Counting Cars to Measure Africa’s Middle Class  by John Campbell from Africa in Transition

Township residents pose on a luxury car in Soweto's Thokoza Park March 25, 2006. (Antony Kaminju/Courtesy Reuters)Township residents pose on a luxury car in Soweto’s Thokoza Park March 25, 2006. (Antony Kaminju/Courtesy Reuters)

That Africa has a growing middle class has become conventional wisdom, and the prospect of a new and expanding consumer market excites investors. How to define the “middle class,” to say nothing of how big it is remains unclear. Uri Dadush and Shimelse Ali show a way forward in their article, “In Search of the Global Middle Class:  A New Index,” recently published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

They suggest that in developing countries, the number of cars in circulation is indicative of the size of the middle class. Car ownership indicates arrival at an income threshold (around $3400 ppp) where households can begin to afford non-essentials.  Further, they say car statistics are usually reliable. So study of car circulation statistics can indicate how rapidly the middle class in a given country is growing.

Using the “car index” they conclude that of South Africa’s fifty million people, almost nineteen million are middle class. This is significantly larger than this African Development Bank’s  study on the size of middle class (PDF) (but smaller if you add the “floating class”—people living on $2-$4 a day).

Given South Africa’s economic and racial inequality, the purchase of luxury cars can also tell us something about how the wealthy have fared.  Indeed, it appears they have done well. 21.5 percent of automobiles sold in 2010 were “luxury.”  (Of G20 countries, in China, it was 2.8 percent;  in Mexico, 2.8 percent, and in the United States, 9.6 percent. Only Germany at 26.6 percent exceeded South Africa.)

The car index appears to support the view that South Africa’s middle class is growing.  With eighty percent of the population black, most of that growth must come from blacks.  But the high percentage of luxury vehicles sold would imply that the nine percent of the population that is white is also doing well.

Certainly the car index accords with what I saw during two trips to South Africa last spring

Finally, for now, a piece I wrote last year on  No quick fix to save our cities, so we’d better start now

Landscapes of Speculation – Case Brown

2010 Rome Prize Winner and P-Rex researcher Case Brown’s examination of the history of speculation makes fascinating reading , from when I first heard him discuss it in a Terragram’s interview to where I recently found this report  posted on his blog, it has struck a chord in me on how we view history and ourselves in relation to our context and restates the essentially global nature of cities from the earliest times till the present day, and that their formation, existence and survival is dependent on people and their inherent natures, which this article postulates are out of our control….

3 Questions:
-Is the primary economic object of speculation land?
-Are our herd-like speculation behaviors instinctual?
-Did speculation behavior first arise in Roman times?

Repeating the same behavior and expecting a different result generally describes insanity. Despite a four-hundred year period of successive speculative mania, populations continue to form asset bubbles decade after decade. The allure of profit from runaway growth triggers our most primal herd response while hijacking our risk perception. Theories abound as to the source of this group behavior–capitalistic abhorrence of limits, an intrinsic anglo-saxon sickness, ineffective regulation, or using the wrong economic model.

But what if the roots of the phenomenon are deeper? If the phenomenon crosses cultural lines, existed before true free-market capitalism, and occurs in various regulatory environments, then we may need to address speculation as part of our biological imperative, not our cultural contingencies. The following investigation comprises the first step in describing speculation as a behavioral trait of Homo economicus. It tentatively assesses whether the protean form of speculation lies scattered about in the rubbled foundations of the Roman villa system.

Monte Circeo, 2000 Years of Investment, modern villas (left) and ancient villas (right)

The rise and crash of the Roman villa system reads eerily like the modern story of American foreclosures crisis-profit schemes of land speculation, frenzied landowners seeking to expand their profits beyond the average market growth, farming negotium(business) from one villa to derive otium (pleasure) from another. The modern financial industry terms this quasi-magical level of compounded profit alpha returns, in contrast to the more average beta returns. Investors, day traders and ‘quants’ spend their intellectual energy feverishly chasing the strategies that will achieve alpha level returns. Their debt-fueled schemes spin out risky ventures like one more residential development in the south Florida swamps or yet another artificial island off Dubai. If this maniacal pursuit of alpha spans two millennia and vastly different cultures, then the roots of our speculative tendencies are perhaps more biological than cultural.

Episodes of Speculation, 1600-2010

The systemic behavior that leads to overdevelopment, real-estate price crashes, avalanches, phase changes in matter, and population crashes are strikingly similar. Theoretical biologists are making the nascent strides in mapping how normal population behavior can build into the more radical swarming behavior that reaches beyond ecological tipping points. In parallel, complexity theorists and economists are attempting to describe the same phenomena in financial markets, forming a new discipline and lexicon called econophysics. The history of speculation provides fertile ground to explore the bio-physical tendencies of Homo economicus