Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Some stray thoughts from a trip to Copenhagen

So I'm back in The 'Hagen. Thoughts from last time are here.

A surprisingly large effect of being on holiday is the impact of no longer having data on one's phone. Sitting on a train, one feels what old people must feel like all the time - being the only one with their head up looking around when everyone else is buried in a screen of some form. The temporary feeling of virtue at enjoying one's surroundings is of course revealed to be hollow rationalisation of the worst poser kind, when you start wondering whether you could pick up the train's wi-fi. No, you can't without some email login that sounds too hard, never mind then, the window and people around you were much better anyway.

It is a rare and unusual pleasure to simply spend a day wandering around aimlessly in a city that one has been in once or twice before. It is familiar enough that you don't need a map for decent parts of your walking, new enough that you still find stuff you haven't seen before, and comfortable enough that you don't need to be rushing around a particular checklist of things to get to.

I sat on a bench in the main part of the city, and watched people go by for about 20 minutes. After a while, I began to notice a periodic stream of people walking up, looking in the bins, and then walking off. They didn't look like native Danes, they had slightly more olive colored skin and dark hair. Even in the most famous welfare states, you still apparently get people looking in bins for recyclables. What was odd though, was that there appearance was much less conspicuous than I was used to. Most were reasonably dressed, although cheaply once you stopped to look closer, the bag of choice to carry was a large opaque plastic bag bearing the name of one of the high-ish end retail shops. The overall effect was that of phantom hobos, looking briefly out of place peering into a bin, before slipping off again to disappear in the crowd.

Having hobos collect bottles that are taxed on the way out and subsidised on the way back in for recycling is a particularly useless form of make-work combined with cheap welfare. Since the market value of the bottles is basically zero, and the bottles themselves aren't being cleaned off the street but rather removed from existing rubbish piles, this is pure ditch-digging-and-refilling broken windows nonsense. The actually socially useful task would be to pay the hobos to pick up rubbish off the ground. Of course, if we make this decentralised it leads to moral hazard up the wazoo (swiping entire dumpsters of stuff and claiming it was picked up), and if we solve the moral hazard problem though proper monitoring, we lose the main benefit of the decentralised and freelance way of doing it. Still, I can't help but think there has to be a better way - have a time where anyone can show up and get paid minimum wage for two hours of street cleaning, for instance. There would be some teething issues, but it seems like something worth trying.

The other thing I remember took even longer to notice. I saw a fairly overweight young girl walking down the street, and she looked quite jarringly out of place. What is not seen, as our previously cited guest might have put it. Danes are slim on average - there are some overweight people, but the American right tail of weight just doesn't seem to exist in the same way here. Whatever they're doing seems to be working.

I can't think of the last time I spent an equivalent amount of time observing my own town. Partly this is just taking familiar things for granted, but part of it comes from being in a place that's pleasant to just walk around. There's a lot more to see, and a lot more spots your trip will take you. I think the SWPL types are actually right on this one - American cities are not generally very walkable, and walkability has to be planned in advance, it probably won't spring up organically. What will spring up is nice wide lanes, an extra turning lane, parking on the side of the street, and hey presto!, that 30m of asphalt has made all those charming al fresco cafes you had in mind instantly uninhabitable for the roar of passing cars. If you want walkability, you actually need to do what the Danes do and have extended intersecting streets that are pedestrian only, and make the rest maybe one and a bit lanes total. Walkability, drivability. Pick one. Given we pick the latter for 99.9% of the space in most of our cities, I don't think it would kill us to reserve a tiny bit of the commercial district for the former.

Copenhagen continues to be a lovely place. Long may it be so!

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