OWD #4: Supersonic planes, levitating trains, & electric automobiles
December 23rd, 2020
Mobility is central to living in every city. In this episode, we discussed how different communities tackle the question of transportation, and how culture shapes how different transport technologies get adopted.
As usual, the conversation traveled far and wide across the globe. We talked about Bolivian intersections, Japanese trains, French jets, Thai motorbikes, German cars, Swiss crosswalks, and more.
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Devon (00:00:15): Hello, and welcome to the fourth episode of Order Without Design. I'm Devon, and in this series I get to talk about cities with the most interesting couple I know, Alain and Marie-Agnes. In our last conversation, we talked about sanitation and public health. It included astonishing stories of their experience with these systems, in the dozens of cities where they've lived and worked.
Devon (00:00:36): One highlight was when Alain recounted the time that he had his appendix removed in Yemen, and discovered that the doctor had run out of Novocaine. Anyways, I won't spoil the ending for you, but if you haven't heard that episode I highly recommend it. Today we'll talk about transportation. Since thes have lived and worked in so many cities around the world, they have a broad and deep perspective on the factors that affect how transportation systems function in different contexts.
Devon (00:01:02): So for the first question, some countries are notorious for reckless driving. They treat stop signs as suggestions rather than a rule. The drivers will weave in and out of lanes without signaling. Meanwhile, other countries have a reputation for extremely cautious drivers. What's the cause of this huge difference?
Alain (00:01:20): I think it's not regulations, it is norms. People in some countries, respect rules by tradition, and other do not. The rules of the road, are about the same in every country. In some countries there is, maybe, a complete distrust of government. I'm thinking of probably one of the worst type of traffic I've seen, is in Egypt. In Cairo, but also in Egypt, in general. And I think that it comes from a mistrust of government, that everything government does is suspect of corruption.
|The streets of Cairo, Egypt
|A highway in Singapore.
Alain (00:01:59): It could be also that in countries that have been occupied for a long time by foreigners, people have less confidence in government than in countries which have been self-governing. And Egypt, maybe people do not remember that, but the last time Egypt were governed by Egyptians were by the pharaohs before Ptolemies, and then the next time was when Nasser took over from King Farouk, I think, in 1956 or something like that. King Farouk was imposed by the British in Egypt . And he was originally an Albanian, so he was not an Egyptian.
Alain (00:02:42): So I think that if you are governed by a foreign power, anything you do against the rule of the foreign power is patriotic, and you are encouraged to break the rules. And I think that breaking driving rules is a bit like that, I think.
Devon (00:02:58): That's super interesting.
Alain (00:03:00): It's a hypothesis, of course, but the long shadow of history, I believe in that. That people have a narrative of history, and they have a certain attitude, again, norms, who are different from regulation. The fact that you respect some regulation or you don't respect them, and if nobody respect them, it's unenforceable. If you bring a cop from Singapore, and you bring him in Cairo, the guy will become nuts within 24 hours because he will not be able to enforce the law, because everybody break the law all the time.
Devon (00:03:33): What if you replace the entire Egyptian police force with Singaporean police force? What do you think would happen then?
Alain (00:03:41): I think you will have to do the opposite. You have to replace the entire driving force of Egypt with Singaporeans, of course you won't have enough Singaporeans, because it's the drivers, really, that make the norms. If you have a policeman who try to enforce a law but he has 100 offenders in 10 minutes, he will not be able to do his job. By the time he writes a ticket, there will be 20 people who have passed the red light without stopping.
Marie-Agnes (00:04:10): You were talking about Singapore was so regulated, and people will obey the law. And one time you were saying if you import a number of foreigners in Singapore and they don't cross when the light is for pedestrians, they cross at any time, it happens in many cities-
Alain (00:04:33): Like you do.
Marie-Agnes (00:04:34): Like I'm doing many times, especially in Switzerland where people are so obeying of the law, and there is no traffic and no one dare to cross the road if the light doesn't come green for the pedestrians. But if you import many people like me in Singapore, the police will be overwhelmed.
Alain (00:04:58): Overwhelmed, yes, yes. Yes, you see that. But that reinforces, again, the point. Look at the countries which are very respectful of law. You could have Switzerland, for instance. You'll have the Scandinavian countries which has never been occupied by other countries. You will have New Zealand, Australia, also. They are very respectful. They're a country which have a tradition to be self-governing.
Alain (00:05:27): So in the US, actually, the US contradicts my theory a bit, because New York is not really respectful. But say, other cities are more. But let's say San Francisco, I think, is more respectful of traffic than ... So I don't know. Maybe in the case of New York it's the very large number of immigrants. I understand, if I remember well, something like 45% of people who live in New York are not born in the US. So most probably, they were born in countries which were they were not self-governing in a traditional way. I don't know, I'm trying to justify my theory.
Devon (00:06:04): It sounds like if you ... According to that theory, then it would predict that the way you learned how to drive, depending on where you were, would then predict how you behaved later. If you learn how to drive in, I don't know, India, which I think has a very, very ... Crazy drivers, then you come to the US, do you think that you would be more likely to have crazy driving norms? Like disrespecting the rules a little bit more? Or do you think we can assimilate quickly into whatever the norms are of the area that you're in?
Alain (00:06:33): I think you assimilate if you're alone. If you learn to drive, if you have your license in Egypt or in India, but for some reason you move to Singapore or Switzerland, I am sure within a week you'll follow the rules because you'll have accumulated so many tickets, because you are the only one to do it.
Alain (00:06:53): And so I think it's not so much how you learn, it's more the practice. Let's say you adapt to the norms of your peers, and if your peers are breaking the law in a way ... That's what an Egyptian taxi driver told me one day, when I asked him, "Why do you go through the red light without stopping?" And he says, "Well, because everybody does it." So you see, it's game theory in a way, that you expect other people to behave in a certain way and you adjust your behavior to the way other people behave.
Devon (00:07:29): Yeah, I was told a story by one of my friends who was from Argentina, and he spent some time in Bolivia. And he said that in Bolivia, there are a lot of intersections where people don't stop at all. They completely ignore the light, keep going, and they'll just go, go, go. And then, as soon as there's a gap, then the other side will start going and go, go, go. And so everyone gets really stuck because if there's enough traffic, then there's just this constant stream and you can never break through.
Devon (00:07:58): And in that case, I think, I follow the rules pretty carefully when I'm driving in the United States. But if I was in Bolivia and I have to get where I'm going, I think I would probably do the same thing, because otherwise you're just going to be stuck there because you're never going to find that gap at the same time as the green light.
The streets of Bolivia.
Alain (00:08:15): Yes, right. Yeah, so that's game theory. You adjust to what you expect other people to do.
Devon (00:08:21): Let's say, I think Sweden, for instance, or Singapore, both have pretty strict driving norms, and people are very cautious on the street. What would you do? Let's say you wanted to make their norms more dangerous and you wanted people to be more reckless on the road. How would you cause that cultural change?
Alain (00:08:38): I would import five million drivers from Cairo. But you have to do it at the same time. If you import them 10 or 100 at a time, it won't work.
Devon (00:08:47): I see. So if they come in a steady trickle, then they'll get integrated into the local norms?
Alain (00:08:53): Don't forget that also, in Singapore, like also I would say New Zealand or Switzerland, certainly, it's not only the cops who intervene. It's also the people who look at you. In Switzerland, they will say, "Why'd you cross? It's not your turn to cross," because they expect people to follow the rules. And for them, this is a rule.
Alain (00:09:14): And so I think it's enforced also by the population, not necessarily only by the cops. You see everybody standing and looking at you and you feel a little bad, self conscious, so you don't do it any more.
Devon (00:09:27): Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. I wouldn't be surprised if the social norms were actually stronger than the policing norms in a lot of places, where you don't do it because you don't want your friends to judge you, more than that you're worried about the police.
Alain (00:09:41): That's right, yeah. Yeah. In a certain way, that's why in the United States, you mow your lawn, and you feel obliged to mow your lawn if the grass is too high. You feel a little self conscious, also, compared to the neighbor. You are very comfortable having tall grass in your yard, but you feel that other people might object ... And you try not to antagonize your neighbors.
Devon (00:10:05): Transportation is a really big part of a culture. I think it's something that's kind of underrated, when people talk about the culture of France or the culture of Japan. They usually talk about the food or the wine, or the way people talk and the language, but I think the way people move around really affects the culture and vibe of the city as well.
Devon (00:10:25): The kinds of interactions that you have with other people are very different if you're in a car versus on a bike, versus on the subway, versus walking around. And you two have lived in a lot of different cities, and worked in even more cities. I'm curious, how does the mix of transit modes impact the culture and vibe a city that you've been in?
Alain (00:10:43): When we arrived in Yemen, I will say that in Sanaa, there were probably 300 or 400 cars, so very, very few cars. Most people would have either motorcycles, and there were not that many either, and then donkeys and camels. But most people in Sanaa would just walk. The city at the time was 80,000 people, and pretty high density, so you could walk.
Alain (00:11:08): There is no doubt that if you are one of the few people with cars, you tend to be a little more ruthless because people fear you. They know that they are going to be hurt more than you, and it give a sense of hierarchy, which is very unhealthy.
Alain (00:11:29): I think also then after that, when people get richer and there are more people having cars, let's say 20% or 30%, which is the case now probably in urban India at least. Then you still have the arrogance of the people with cars, saying that, "I have acquired this car. This is new. This give me a certain power over other people," and the feeling that the roads are designed for cars, the cars have priorities.
Alain (00:11:59): So it give a sense of hierarchy which is very unhealthy. I think that the country which are more middle class and have an older tradition of being rich, that mean the car is not a new thing, probably drive more carefully. When I was in Nepal the first time in 1963, there were no roads between the two main cities, Kathmandu and Pokhara, and people walked the distance. It's about 200 kilometers, if I remember well, between the two cities. And there was a trail, and people were walking. Entire family were walking from one city to another with their luggage.
Alain (00:12:44): A lot of porters, also. They hire a lot of porters. There no animals, because in the mountains there were a lot of staircase which were carved in the rock in the mountain. So it was a country where just everybody walk. And rich people would have porters, and poor people just carry their own load. It give a completely, also, different attitude. I found it very nice, but I was young and very healthy, and liked to hike, so that was fine. Maybe at my age now I would not find it so nice to walk with a load 200 kilometers.
Devon (00:13:19): Maybe you just have to get a porter, then.
Alain (00:13:21): Yes, maybe. I could afford a porter, probably.
Devon (00:13:23): Marie-Agnes, how about you? What cities come to mind as having interesting transportation networks, and how did that affect the culture there?
Marie-Agnes (00:13:30): Yeah, we were living in Thailand. You'd be stuck in traffic for hours without almost moving, and then you realize that you were not alone. Public transport was not too well organized. Most of them were kind of motorbike with three wheels, with some seat on the back. Those one were more flexible, and the most motorbike being not as large as a car, so they would be passing in front of you continuously and squeezing in between lines of car.
Buses, minibuses and taxis share the streets with private vehicles at Ratchadamri Road, Bangkok. Wikipedia
Marie-Agnes (00:14:08): And after then, some time, the city decided to have some bus transportation be organized. And things get a little bit better, but still, the richer people didn't take the public transport. And we were working for a company run by the government, National Housing Authority. And they have the good idea to have an air conditioning bus, very comfortable, so we abandoned our car and took the air conditioning bus. We did not mind riding in the bus and be stuck in the traffic because it was very nice to be in a cool atmosphere and you could read. At that time, we didn't have internet, but I believe now they may have WiFi on the bus and you can start shooting some emails there and there, or reading your email in the bus.
Getting around Bangkok by bus.
Marie-Agnes (00:15:10): Public transport, I should say, is a plus for a city, especially when it's comfortable. I don't see, in New York, unfortunately, me taking the metro or a bus, because they are not as comfortable and you cannot rely too much on the metro. You can, but many time we were ... At one point, living in New York for three months in Manhattan, and we were commuting from the place in Battery Park to NYU, New York University.
Marie-Agnes (00:15:44): And many time, we have to calculate the time traveling, saying instead to take 20 minutes, we'll take close to 45 minutes. Double the time, because subway were not on time. The subway would stop in between station. You were in the dark. So it's the comfort of public transportation is really a necessity for many people, especially for old people like we are.
Devon (00:16:14): Right, yeah, and if you have an option that you can afford, that's more comfortable, then you might as well take that. But then it ends up resulting in more of a separation of different types of people, which is probably unfortunate.
Alain (00:16:25): Yeah. I usually try to take public transport in all the cities I work in, just as an experience and to see. I like to go to the end of the line to see what happens there. Say in some cities like, again, for instance in Seoul or in Beijing or Shanghai, taking the subway is a pleasure. It's kind of comfortable. I remember in Mumbai taking the suburban train, and I could not get out at the stop I was trying to get out because it was so crowded.
Alain (00:16:58): So after that my Indian friend told me, "You have to know, if you take the train, three or four stations before your station, you have already to move closer to the door. If not, you will never be able to exit, and you'll have to take, after, the train in the other direction in order to get to your station."
A train in New Delhi. Hindustan Times
Alain (00:17:17): So you see that you need an experience like that to ... I think it's useful to always ... I mean, if you are interested in cities, to take public transport sometimes. Not always, but sometime, in order to have experience and most people experience, it give you a very good idea of what the city's like.
Devon (00:17:37): I remember seeing some Tweets about people being quite frustrated, I believe it was with the Board of the MTA in New York, I think. And a bunch of the board members drove to work every day instead of actually using the subway or any of the public transport, which I'm pretty sympathetic to that frustration, because how are you really going to know what the priorities are if you're not using the system?
Alain (00:18:01): Absolutely, yes. Absolutely, yeah.
Devon (00:18:04): So, Marie-Agnes, yesterday you shared with me an article about the 15 minute city idea that the Mayor of Paris is pushing forward. Can you describe that idea? And I'm super curious to hear both of your reactions to that.
Marie-Agnes (00:18:17): Yeah, the Mayor of Paris who get reelected recently, the big program now is to make Paris walkable and have maximum 15 minute from your place you leave, to the place you work, the place you shop, either walking or bicycling. And as you know, cities are not only good like a Club Med, where you do your 15 minutes exercise every day in the morning and 15 minute coming back.
Marie-Agnes (00:18:51): A city, ... And Alain may explain better, it's part of his book, the city is job market. It works if you can go from one part of the city to another within less than an hour. And for Hidalgo, the Mayor of Paris, if she wants to implement this kind of program, she will have to make a number of street cyclable or pedestrian, and enlarge the sidewalk or do ... And she started already, do convert some of the main interior of Paris, especially along the Seine River, converted to only pedestrian and bicycle.
Marie-Agnes (00:19:38): And before it was the two side of the Seine was highways, and now of course the Parisian who were living in the center of Paris loved this idea. But that penalized all of the other people who need the car to provide services to the city. So Alain can jump on it and explain more, but a topic of things, Paris is not Rotterdam. It's not Amsterdam, it is much larger, and the cities need good transportation.
Alain (00:20:16): Yeah, sometimes it's ... The model is usually Amsterdam, or Copenhagen. Amsterdam is 700,000 people, and Copenhagen, depending the way you count, about a million, million and a half. And it's completely flat. The municipality of Paris is two and a half million people, but it's surrounded by suburbs and it's a city of 10 million people.
Alain (00:20:39): So she's the mayor of the two and a half million people who are in the center of the city, very well served by heavily subsidized public transit. The subway of Paris is really pretty good. The station are renewed and redecorated periodically, and so you could have, if you have a job in Paris, and you live in Paris, you probably ... Maybe 15 minutes would be difficult, but say 20 minutes, 25 minutes would be rather common.
Alain (00:21:11): Unfortunately, Paris now, the Paris municipality, that means the constituency of the mayor, is entirely gentrified. She's not saying every Parisian should have 15 minutes trip, she's saying only the people who are in the gentrified area, with a transport system paid at 90% by the French tax payer, should be able to have 15 minutes.
Alain (00:21:39): And of course, even that, it's a luxury. She had this idea that jobs will be created a bit everywhere. Jobs tend to concentrate in some area, and less in others. So when it comes to things like the grocery store or schools, or things like that, yes. And in Paris, they are already well distributed, because they're zoning yo prevent shops to establish whenever they like ... There is no zoning which differentiate residential from commercial in Paris, even for an office building. You can convert a house into an office building, or an office building into a house, or a grocery store, without practically any permit.
Alain (00:22:21): So that's already achieved. What the mayor doesn't seem to understand is that people go to Paris to work, and more and more jobs are in fact outside the municipality of Paris boundary. I think I show that in my book, because that's part of this gentrification. Many companies find that real estate is so expensive in Paris, again, because of the amenities which are there, which are so attractive for people who are rich enough to afford it.
Alain (00:22:52): So many job have moved outside Paris municipality to the suburbs, where there, of course, they are out of reach from the superb transport within the municipality of Paris. So it's a bit elitist, and strangely enough, she's a socialist but she's a socialist elected by elitist people. By the people who have gentrified the city. So it's a very interesting aspect of politics, I think.
Devon (00:23:13): Aesthetically, I think it seems sort of for the people, by the people, sort of thing? Just, it sounds nice and it sounds like it's a good thing, it's going to make little villages inside of Paris, so I kind of see how those two things go together even though actually, the results of such a system would be quite anti-socialist.
Alain (00:23:40): It's very inequitable, because it's the people who can afford a house of a million dollars or more who'll have free transport. And the people who live in the suburbs, the people who are baking the bread and contributing to the economy of the city, eight million people, will be outside this system and will have to drive because some who work in Paris could take public transport. But most of the other from suburb to suburb have to drive, and they will not benefit from this system. On the contrary, they will be penalized.
Alain (00:24:24): And then there are ... In a city like Paris, you have also a lot of people who absolutely need a car to go around. For instance, if you are an electrician and you are repairing the electricity of buildings and things like that, you cannot take the subway. You have to have a car, because you have your tools, you have your material there.
Alain (00:24:45): If you are a plumber, if you deliver ... You have all these restaurants in Paris. People have to deliver wine and beer and food to restaurants, so they have to drive, and they are penalized. That mean that instead of, let's say, if you are delivering beer to restaurants in Paris, instead of doing 10 delivery in the day, you are going to do three because there are so few roads that you can use.
Alain (00:25:15): And that means that either your salary will be much less or that whatever you deliver will be much more expensive. Probably a bit of the two. So it's not really well thought of, it's kind of a utopian ... And very elitist. It's very elitist, because again, the jobs which remain in Paris, except for the service job, again, in restaurants are corporate jobs. But many of the corporate jobs are the highest paying job. You have corporate lawyers or the headquarter of corporation in Paris, but most of the employees will be in the suburb because real estate is so expensive.
Alain (00:25:56): So again, it's extremely inequitable. But of course, the name Paris means the municipality. That means there's two and a half million people who are living in the center of Paris, so it's a ... But the gentrification in the last 50 years have been incredible. I mean, if I compare to the time when we were students, there were really working class neighborhood inside Paris municipality. And you don't see them anymore.
Alain (00:26:26): And also, many of, let's say, the grocery store, the store where just ... A common store have been replaced by high end stores like haute couture or a thing like that. So I'm not against it. I think it's a normal phenomenon. But to pretend that this is for the people is not quite true. There is an enormous gentrification.
Devon (00:26:56): Do you think that Anne Hidalgo, that the mayor, understands this dynamic and she's sort of cynically pushing it forward as a nice political move because the people in her district who voted her in support it? Or do you think she actually just doesn't really understand the dynamics and she believes that this will have a positive impact and an equitable one, but in fact, that's not the case?
Alain (00:27:18): I think she's part of what the French call the gauche caviar, the caviar left. It's people who are intellectuals, you know, they are part of the elite. They make a good living. They feel a little bad about it because the French that are always raised on the ideal of the French Revolution, of Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. And they compensate, let's say they are in a privileged situation by pretending that they are very ... They want to share, they want to be social ... And I think it's, she probably knows inside herself that it's not quite right... But her constituency is this gauche caviar, also. It's caviar left.
Alain (00:28:01): And so in a way, it's a good way of getting reelected too. The people who have a one or two million dollars house in Paris don't care so much about the electrician who is going to fix their air conditioner or anything like that. I mean, the guy will always come anyways, so that's not one of their problem. And they are very unlikely to go and work in the suburbs.
Alain (00:28:27): But you could see the anger of people during the Gilets Jaunes, the demonstration. I don't know if you have followed that in Paris, before the COVID. There were these demonstration every weekend. People were coming from the suburbs or from the province to Paris, and they were trashing monuments, but also high end restaurants, high end shops. And that was really this anger. I mean, I don't think this was legitimate. Vandalism is never justified. But there was this anger against this enormous gentrification that benefited from enormous subsidies.
Marie-Agnes (00:29:10): I will add that also, she was elected because there is a big movement, as in many other countries, the Green have been electing Hidalgo because she promised also to have more green space in a city in Paris, and she's converting parking into parks. Not bad, but the things are, the people, the Parisian, love the idea to have a park next door. That makes apartment more valuable because you have a park next door. So the movement of Green are also pushing this idea of having transport, having less car in the city, and go by foot and go by bicycle.
Devon (00:30:02): How will that impact the people who live in the suburbs?
Alain (00:30:05): It will be worse than them, I mean when ... The contrast between the life in Paris and the life in the suburb will be much, much larger. Suddenly over there, it's so ... Because Paris is full of monument which are extremely well maintained. There is a large central government budget to maintain those monuments. For, let's say, the bridges on the Seine, some of them which were built in the 19th century, have golden decoration on it. And this gold is reapplied.
Alain (00:30:38): I mean, I'm not sure it's real gold, but say, the maintenance is extremely expensive, and it's extremely well done. But it's done with the tax payer money, so you have this little enclave in the middle of this big city of Paris, of 10 million people, for two and a half million people, where the money of the state is concentrated as a prestige thing.
Alain (00:30:59): And again, I am not saying it's bad, necessarily. But it's certainly very inequitable. So it's going to create a lot of resentment from the people living in the suburbs. We just know that about it.
Devon (00:31:12): There's also that rule ... I'm going to definitely mispronounce this, but the "fuseaux". I don't know, my Spanish accent is now coming out. But the perspective protection rule that you wrote about in your book. How does that affect these dynamics, too, and the height limits as well?
Alain (00:31:28): That's why many of the jobs have left Paris. The amount of floor space in Paris, again, when I say Paris I mean the municipality, two and a half million people, it's limit ... And by the way, it's a very fixed limit, because it has a highway around it, the Peripherique, which were where the fortification of Paris were before.
Alain (00:31:49): So you know exactly when you enter Paris and when you leave Paris for the suburb, because there is a physical barrier. These "fuseaux de protection", which protect the view from one area of Paris to some monument, the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre or a thing like that, make Paris like a theater in a way.
Alain (00:32:10): It's very beautiful. It's a very ... But, of course, it prevents any addition of floor space within Paris. So as the economy develop, and business cannot expand within Paris because you have this absolute limit to the floor space which is there. Corporations tend to keep their headquarter in Paris for the prestige,but for only a few offices and conference room.
Alain (00:32:37): But all the workers are moved to the periphery, where then there is not such limit. And land, of course, real estate is much cheaper. So you have this dichotomy, that having the headquarter ... And now, by the way, it's all the more possible because of the Internet. Before, the employees and the bosses and the management had to be in the same building because the exchange of communication in the firm was through memos, which were typed. So the paperwork has to move back and forth within the administration, and you had to be together.
Alain (00:33:14): Now with the Internet, you could have the ruling elite of a company in a building in the center of Paris where 90% of the worker are in some lousy suburbs, at 20 kilometers from there. And it doesn't affect the management at all, because they communicate by internet and so all the information is transmitted even faster than it was when they were all in the same building. So this is convergence of things, it's quite interesting, and the effect it has on social segregation.
Devon (00:33:46): That's fascinating, yeah. I mean, it sounds like the tradeoff that the municipality has made is to preserve central Paris as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with the gold plated bridges, and the monuments with the great view throughout the whole city. But then there's this cost of pushing jobs and people outside of the city core.
Alain (00:34:04): Right, yeah, yeah.
Devon (00:34:06): That's a fundamentally political choice. How did they arrive at that decision?
Alain (00:34:09): The French are very proud of Paris, because it's only large city in France. Paris is 10 million. The next cities, Marseille and Lyon, both of them are one million. So it's a huge drop, and that's because of the centralization of the French system, centralization which came at a time of themonarchy, but was even reinforced at the Revolution.
Alain (00:34:34): And the French Revolution took place in Paris. It was really a Parisian thing, and it was imposed on the province to the point that they were provincial states, which would be the equivalent of states in the United States. For instance, Provence or Gascony, where entities traditionally which were rather large. And the Revolution destroyed all of that, and divided the country into 90 departments.
Alain (00:35:04): So imagine if the United States had Washington DC, and then everything else would be a county. You will have the federal government and the county government, without states. You will have an enormous centralization of power, by necessity, and this is exactly what happened in France. So this centralization of power, then, resulted in even a democratic government tend to spend more money in the place where they live. The deputies, they live in Paris. They may represent Marseille, but they basically live in Paris, so they will spend more money on Paris maintenance.
Alain (00:35:43): And, of course, Paris is the symbol of France much more than Marseille or Bordeaux, or something, where the United States is so much more decentralized, or even a country like Germany, for instance. It's much more decentralized by definition. Berlin is one thing, but you have Hamburg, you have Stuttgart, you have Frankfurt. You have Munich. Each city is a bit equivalent, in a way, with a very different personality. That's not the case in France, where Paris completely dominates. Everything is done in Paris.
Alain (00:36:17): So in a way, the privilege of Paris reflect a very deep cultural tradition in France against starting from the 17th century, Louis XIV, and reinforced, interestingly enough, by the Revolution.
Devon (00:36:32): One country that's very similar to France in this regard is Japan. Tokyo is one of the biggest, by far the biggest city in Japan, and it's really very quite centralized there. Do they have similar histories that caused that centralization, or did they centralize for different reasons?
Alain (00:36:49): I suppose that it's a bit similar, although it's a different story. The shogun, traditionally, were a very centralized power. And then they moved. And then when they were replaced again by the emperor, the idea that there is an emperor was, I think, reinforced the thing. And yes, it's possible that it's a bit equivalent, although a city like Osaka is still very large. Osaka is what, 25 million, I think? Yeah, something like that, 30 million people. I mean, it's not insignificant.
Alain (00:37:16): Tokyo itself is 40 million, if I remember well. But Tokyo Yokohama is close to 40 million, so it's a big city. But there is more a hierarchy of city, I think, in Japan. But it's possible, too, that the power of the central government in Japan is very high. Maybe similar to what it is in France, kind of a centralized power.
Alain (00:37:44): For instance, the Japanese have an industrial policy for distributing industry and subsidizing industry within the country, which is very similar to France, too. France has exactly the same system. So it's possible.
Alain (00:37:58): I think that even a country like Mexico, if Mexico City is 25 million people and the next city is much smaller, it's again because of centralization of power. Although Mexico is a federal republic, but still, the political power is really in Mexico City. And when sometime Mexican planners are saying, "Well, we should encourage the growth of smaller cities, Mexico is unmanageable," things like that, but this will never work unless the change the centralization of power that's inherent, again, probably the republic. Maybe it come to the history of the republic
Devon (00:38:39): I wonder how the Shinkansen in Japan impacted centralization of the country. For people listening, the Shinkansen is the high speed train system, and it's been around for about 50 years in Japan. And it links a bunch of different distant Japanese regions with Tokyo, and the whole purpose of it was to aid economic growth and development around the country.
Devon (00:39:01): But my instinct, now ... I'm curious if you two agree with this. My instinct is that by connecting all of these regions to Tokyo, it just accelerated the consolidation into the center of the country, and into Tokyo, because now everyone can be linked up to headquarters of their company, and there's less regional development. And I say that descriptively, not normatively. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But does that make sense to you?
Alain (00:39:26): I think that in itself, the high speed train could promote decentralization. It could. But if you combine the high speed train with the demographic problem that Japan has since about 30 years now, aging population, then I think that the growth of Tokyo ... Tokyo now is practically the only city which is growing in Japan, and it's growing not ...
Alain (00:39:55): The population of Japan is shrinking slightly, so it's growing because young people are coming from smaller city. If they look for a job, they want to look for a job in Tokyo, not in a city where you have a majority of old people. And Tokyo also is much more attractive for young people because of its amenities, restaurant, thing like that.
Alain (00:40:19): As soon as a city is dominated by old people, the quality of the amenities disappears. So I think that the centralization now, the growth of Tokyo, is explained more by the demographic. And it's possible that the fast train allow young people to go to Tokyo several time to test the water, find a job, and then go back home. And then eventually, settle in Tokyo. That's possible.
Alain (00:40:53): But I think that it could go either way. For instance, when they established the TGV, which is a bit equivalent of the Shinkansen, in France, a rapid train between Paris and the province, I know that in my own town of Marseille, as soon as the TVG reach ... So we were at five hours from Paris instead of 12 hours, it increased the real estate crisis in Marseille, increasing housing prices, and the same with Nantes and Bordeaux, the other big cities.
Alain (00:41:27): So I think that the fast train could go either way. And then France could be either way. I'm not so sure that will be a big influence in reinforcing, let's say, the primacy of the capital.
Marie-Agnes (00:41:43): In Japan, when we were there, we went to a small town on the west coast of Japan, Toyama. The mayor was trying to ... There was a fast train, from Tokyo to Toyama, it took two and a half hours. And the mayor was very concerned, because all the young people were leaving Toyama and moving to live close to Tokyo, and only the old people would stay there. And the city of Toyama was doing well before the fast train, and suddenly, you have all the suburb of Toyama get deserted by the young people.
Marie-Agnes (00:42:27): And so the mayor wanted to suppress the infrastructure for the outskirt of Toyama, because it was too costing to provide services to the few houses who were still occupied. And he proposed to the old people to move to the center of Toyama in converted school, all the stadium and everything, for lodging for the old people. And giving to the old people the chance to be living in an apartment building with all the amenities, doctors, nurse, hospital close by. All the service that old people need to attract those old people back to the center, and eliminate all the infrastructure that was provided before for the larger area were doing well before.
Marie-Agnes (00:43:26): So this is, again, the fast train was a big problem for the Toyama city, and I don't know if you'll have the chance to get back the young people. The mayor was giving incentive to Microsoft people to have their office in Toyama, thinking that the young people will not have to commute anymore to Tokyo.
Marie-Agnes (00:43:50): But things didn't work ever, so there is a lot of problem with the young people want to have access to more job and change job eventually, and if you are in a small town now, it's not so easy. Maybe with the Internet, how we've ... The young people will be going back to the country. But who knows what's next?
Devon (00:44:17): Yeah, the incentives there are so interesting. A friend of mine lives in Japan and he told me about these residential taxes that Japanese cities impose on you, so I'm going to get the details wrong, but basically you're supposed to pay 10% of your tax to the town that you live in directly.
Devon (00:44:34): For many people that is Tokyo, but there was this rule that was passed a little while back called the Hometown Tax, and basically the rule said something like, "If you send 3% of the 10% back to your hometown, then you get a rebate on where you currently live." So say you grew up in Kyoto, but now you live in Tokyo. Instead of paying 10% to Tokyo, you could send 3% back to Kyoto and only pay 7% to Tokyo.
Devon (00:45:04): And some of the smaller towns started realizing that they didn't actually define what hometown meant. There was no specific definition of saying you had to be born there. It was just sort of this fuzzy term, and so they started sending gifts to people who gave the 3% back to them. And some of those gifts would end up being extraordinarily expensive, for instance, if you gave 3% back, they might spend up to 2% to buy you plane tickets to come visit your hometown, and basically you get a free vacation.
Devon (00:45:37): And there's this whole system now of gifts that towns will give you, and people will often choose particularly idyllic towns that they have basically no connection to. But they just want a free vacation, to go visit.
Alain (00:45:50): You know, when the government want to tinker with thing like that, usually it doesn't work very well. It create all sort of distortion in a funny way.
Devon (00:46:00): What have been times where governments have tinkered like that, but it actually worked out okay?
Alain (00:46:06): That's a difficult question. I'm sure it does work at times, but I cannot think of anything right now. Well, in France we have a Minister of Culture, which a big budget. It's a very prestigious position, so André Malraux, the writer, was a minister. And he established a tax, in a way, a maintenance tax on buildings. At the time, the buildings of Paris were completely black because of the pollution from cars, and so all these buildings , which are built in a very beautiful kind of yellowish stone, were in fact completely black.
Alain (00:46:48): And so Malraux established an obligation for every owner of building to clean their façade every 10 years, I think, which is quite expensive if you have a stone façade. It has to be done in a certain way. You cannot use any chemical product because it will damage the stone. But the government took also the obligation to clean, also, all the monuments, including Notre-Dame and all these monuments that are in France.
Alain (00:47:22): So there is no doubt that it created a much more attractive Paris. There was a huge difference after the law Malraux, but it made also housing much more expensive, because you had this large expenditure of maintenance for the building. So you see, again, it's a thing which it's nice in a way, but it backfire on the people. Paris is more attractive physically, but it eliminate the poorer people from Paris. And it was a government decision, which I do not, by the way, necessarily criticize. I think that ...
Alain (00:48:04): But we should be aware when we do something like that, that we are making a tradeoff. And maybe for the image of France and Paris, or maybe for the image that the French have their own country, it's a good thing to have a very beautiful Paris with façades which are clean and nice. But it has a consequence socially, and maybe we have to compensate the people who are losing by doing something in their province or something like that. I mean, if we are aware of the consequence. The problem is beautifying an area without thinking of the impact it will have on the people.
Marie-Agnes (00:48:48): The Malraux law was not only for Paris, also the cities like Marseille. They have an obligation every 10 years to clean the façade. And it's a budget that now is part of the maintenance, and I think it has, in the cities in France, most of them, are so beautiful.
Marie-Agnes (00:49:14): And they make a lot of effort, having flowers in the main street and on the entrance. And if you visit any place in France, it's really so attractive and so much diversity from one place in France to the other, if you go to Brittany, or if you go to Provence. It has so much character. It has so much beautiful.
Marie-Agnes (00:49:42): And I think the French appreciate and like it very much, and of course, it's expensive too ... It's more expensive, but I think we love, the people love nice things.
Devon (00:49:56): It is unfortunate, though, that the building owners have to pay for it. Because it sounds like it's really an externality from the drivers, so if I were the Queen of France, I think I would try to make it like a gas tax or something to fund all of this.
Alain (00:50:10): Yes, I completely agree with you on that. But a gas tax will be paid by everybody, and especially now, a gas tax is paid more by people who have old cars than people who have new cars, because there's a huge difference in-
Marie-Agnes (00:50:27): Technology for cars.
Alain (00:50:29): ... efficiency. And so it would be an extremely unpopular tax, where here, the appearance is that, "Oh, it's owner of building who are paying." So therefore, a lot of people rent in Paris, so they feel they are not affected. And in fact, they were affected. But I agree, yes, that would be the best way to do it. Unfortunately, well, another thing which backfired, you're asking something which backfired ... No, you were asking for a positive thing.
Alain (00:51:01): So, another thing which backfired in France, they discovered, when global warming start being a concern, that a diesel car emit less carbon dioxide than the regular gasoline. So they decided to subsidize diesel, and so they subsidized diesel to the point a liter of diesel used to cost, I think, half of the price of a liter of gasoline because of the tax difference. And some other countries of Europe did the same thing.
Alain (00:51:36): So most manufacturer in Europe start making diesel cars, and then you realize that the diesel produce much more pollution than the gasoline, and you end up with terrible air quality that was not like that before in Paris and all that. So again, it's a goodwill subsidy to manipulate certain things which backfire. When you introduce a subsidy in something, you have to be very, very careful about all the side effects.
Devon (00:52:05): Oh, dear. So it sounds like they just had the science wrong. They thought diesel was better, and it turned out to actually be worse.
Alain (00:52:12): When Volkswagen cheated on the test, for them, they had invested so much in diesel, they didn't want ... They knew that diesel was polluting, in all honesty. And when the European Union put those new law about pollution, not only about carbon dioxide, but also NOx or particulates, they realized that they would have to retool entirely, to move from diesel to something else.
Alain (00:52:42): There was no such thing as clean diesel. So they decided to cheat on the test, and they developed this very clever software which could identify when the car was passing a test, and when it was on the road, so they could cheat on the test. And then they could sell their cars passing the standards. And it was only discovered in the United States by some academics who wanted to understand better all the pollution vary at different speed on the road, and they realized that the tests were fake.
Devon (00:53:18): Wow, so it sounds like Volkswagen, in a certain way, was painted into a corner where they had been encouraged by the government to do this diesel RMD, and develop cars that way, because it was subsidized, which is really the government sort of blessing that entire direction. And then later on, the government turned around and was like, "Okay, and we're going to add these other tests which actually make all of that investment that you've made moot."
Alain (00:53:43): That's right, yeah. And by the way, first, it was Volkswagen who get caught. But then they discovered that other manufacturer, like Renault for instance, did exactly the same thing. But they were not caught at the same time. But, because again, it was a big ... I mean, I'm not so sure it was survival, but it was certainly to their advantage. I mean, it would have caused a big financial upheaval if they had to suddenly convert all their car from diesel to regular gasoline.
Marie-Agnes (00:54:14): Yeah, and now the French government is subsidizing the electric cars, even the bicycle. If you have an old bicycle now, if you want to go back to your bicycle and you need some little repair before you use your old bicycle, you have a 50 Euro bonus if you go to a repair shop and the repair shop will charge you the price for repairing your bike, but you will have, from the government, the 50 Euros so your price for repairing will be less than it will have been normally. So there is all sort of things like this that the French love to get from the government. The French have a feeling that these things are normal, everything has to be provided by government.
Devon (00:55:13): That's really interesting. What impacts has the subsidy for electric vehicles had on Paris and other French cities?
Alain (00:55:21): For the moment, they are just starting, so we don't know yet.
Marie-Agnes (00:55:24): Less pollution.
Alain (00:55:25): But my problem with it is that as soon as you define a subsidy, you define also sometime a technology, so in a way, you select a technology which is not necessarily the best when you start a new thing. For instance, you know the French were probably the first to develop a quasi-Internet, run by government, what? In the '70s? The Minitel. It was free. It was a government service, and it allows you from a terminal in your branch on the telephone, in your house, for instance, to buy a train ticket or plane ticket or a thing like that. To check the hours when films were playing in a cinema.
Alain (00:56:12): So it was a bit like the Internet, except you could not send messages to other people. You could send message only to the administration and thing like that. You could probably pay your taxes that way. But it was free. It was entirely subsidized by the government, so the more successful it was, the more expensive it became for the tax payer. So eventually you don't make any more progress. You try to restrict the number of user, because it costs so much. So it's opposite of a free enterprise, when they are successful. Then they can expend their service and be cheaper.
Alain (00:56:47): Here, if it's free, then it becomes more expensive so you tend to restrict it. So eventually it disappeared, and it was replaced by the Internet. But I think French there get to the Internet later, because they had this Minitel in between which was, in a way, very convenient, but prevented them to shift to the Internet. I remember debates with my mother about it. She was a big fan of the Minitel and she didn't want to hear about computers, because she thought the Minitel was doing very well.
Devon (00:57:19): There is definitely a certain arrogance to subsidizing a particular technology, because you're really saying, "We know enough. We're going to pick this winner and ignore all of the others." And the Minitel, it sounds like, was actually quite useful, but with the diesel, clearly, they picked the wrong one.
Alain (00:57:37): Right, yeah. Well, you could ... We are talking about transport, so we could talk about the Concorde, too. The Concorde was a government enterprise between the British and the French to subsidize transport, supersonic transport, which was also a beautiful plane. I mean, it was well done. But commercially, completely unviable, because the technology became effective, it manufactured the plane just at the time of the oil shock. So gasoline was costing much more, and the Concorde, to fly between Paris and London and to New York, in terms of gasoline I think it consumed something like five time more than the normal flight.
Alain (00:58:23): And the plane was much smaller. If you were a passenger, it was an enormous bill. So they had to subsidize every passenger's ... The price on the Concorde was equivalent of a first class ticket plus 25%. There was no other class. But even this first class ticket was subsidized, so they gave ... By the way, at the time, of course Air France and British Airway could not even fill their plane with passengers at this price, so they gave a discount to the World Bank so that we could use the Concorde. So it was very nice for us, of course, and when I discovered that my champagne on the Concorde was subsidized by the French tax payer, I shifted to British Airways. I thought, "Well, at least let the Brits will pay for my champagne."
Alain (00:59:14): But you know, you have this absurd situation where you have a government subsidizing luxury transport. But justifying, because of the prestige of having a ... And they selected a technology at the wrong time. There is another example like that, by the way. It was the slaughterhouse of Paris. Up to the '50s, '60s, traditionally, the cattle were brought from the province to Paris and there were a number of slaughterhouses in the northeast of Paris, where the cattle were slaughtered. A bit like the big slaughterhouse of Chicago in the old days.
Alain (01:00:00): And then, the meat was distributed in Paris, but also then sent to the province by train, by refrigerated train. So the government decided to have another slaughterhouse, which would consolidate all the smaller slaughterhouses there in one area, and it was supposed to be all automatic. They introduced electronic in it. A lot of people worked on it. It was apparently a superb system, when they just finished it. It took many years and billions of dollars to finish it.
Alain (01:00:34): Suddenly the technology have changed, because refrigerated trucks became much cheaper than they were before. And so there were a lot of very small slaughterhouses where the cattle were, in Normandy or wherever the cattle were. And then the meat was sent already slaughtered, cut. Was sent to either Paris or wherever they were going by refrigerated truck.
Alain (01:00:59): And there was no need any more to bring millions of cattle every year to Paris to be slaughtered, and it was ... So this enormous building was finished, with all the electronic in it, and the government didn't know what to do with it because nobody wanted to operate it. And so they decide to ... The only way ... The building stood empty for a long time.
Alain (01:01:25): And then there were squatter in it, and the squatters were rock bands. You know, rock bands in Paris have the problem that it makes a lot of noise, and Paris is dense. So it's difficult to play rock, to especially rehearse rock music, without the neighbors complaining. So they found that moving into this enormous empty structure, they could rehearse, the rock bands.
Alain (01:01:49): And then it became a center of rock music. Eventually, the state converted it into a music center. So it's a very, very funny story. That's all, again, selecting a technology long in advance by the state, without really looking at alternatives ... Where money is no object, like the Concorde, can lead to some absurd things.
Alain (01:02:13): Now, the outcome, maybe, is not so bad. I don't know if a slaughterhouse transformed into a rock rehearsal room is a good thing, I don't know.
Devon (01:02:24): What was the name of the slaughterhouse?
Alain (01:02:27): It's called La Villette. No, it's opposite side of Rungis, yeah. No, Rungis was a success, actually. The wholesale food market of Rungis was a success. You know, the other operation was to move Les Halles of Paris. Les Halles, which was described by Zola, where you have this central food wholesale market in the middle of Paris next to the Pompidou Center.
Alain (01:02:50): And they moved it to the southern part of Paris, next to the old airport. And that was very successful, so I have to give credit here for that. That was extremely successful.
Devon (01:03:02): It's interesting to think about which sorts of projects are appropriate for the government to take on and which ones are not. I know you've spoken in the past about how important it is for some sort of central system, most likely a government, to lay out the grid and certain types of infrastructure can be built on top.
Devon (01:03:21): But then of course, it sounds like the Concorde maybe wasn't the appropriate thing for them to be working on. What do you see as the dividing line between the types of projects that a government, and really, almost only a government can do, and the sorts of things that should be left to the market and left to human ingenuity?
Alain (01:03:39): Infrastructure, I think, is certainly the main structure in our network, because if you have a network of highways or trains, or ... You need to have the power of government to expropriate eminent domain. And because when you acquire of right of way for a road or a train, you are supposed to pay market price for the land. But it's not the market, because if somebody doesn't want to sell, this person is obliged to sell, because the parcel of land is on the right of way. You don't have a choice to buy another piece of land, so it's not really market.
Alain (01:04:23): So that, I think, the government has a monopoly on this possible acquisition of land. And that's why they are better at developing infrastructure. But when it comes to selecting technology, I think they are not so good. And that's what bother me with global warming, is that very often now governments are selecting technology other than giving ...
Alain (01:04:52): One good example of government action is DARPA, in a way, or some project of DARPA, where instead of selecting the technology, they define the performance. Performance is let's say, "We want a vehicle which will be self driving in the desert, 100 miles, and that's the speed that is requirred." And that's the only thing they define... And you have enough firms that compete ... And they give a price to the firms or researchers who fulfill the requirement.
Alain (01:05:19): I think that's a good investment on the part of government. But mostly, I think that government could invest not in technology, but in fundamental research, for which there is no real market. And fundamental research now, we know in science, eventually we will have consequence for very, very useful and commercialized technology.
Devon (01:05:44): That makes sense. So it sounds like the line here is infrastructure that requires something like eminent domain, or requires coordination at a level that private company really couldn't provide. Because I think I would say that internet access and something like Minitel to me seems like infrastructure, but what you're saying is something like that doesn't actually require nearly as much coordination as building a train track, because the train track has to cut through land that already exists whereas the internet system doesn't have to do that as much.
Alain (01:06:19): Right, yeah. And if you have a server or a tower or something, you can move it wherever you want. I mean, you have some requirement, it has to be a certain location, but you don't have an absolute location. Where sometimes, for instance, if you have a water plant or a sewer treatment plant, there is usually an optimum location for it, for environmental reasons. So then you have to use eminent domain for it. But those, of course, could be after that could be operated by the private sector. But the initiative has probably to come from the government.
Devon (01:07:02): I know the Japanese train system is almost entirely private, or entirely private. And I always wonder, since they sort of operate like the government, and I'm sure that the Japanese government does have a lot of communication with them about how things work, I've never totally understood how those public/private partnership type things work. Can you speak a little bit to that, and how decisions are made by private companies?
Alain (01:07:27): The water company in France has always been private since ever, for some reason. So the government of course regulates them, because it's a utility and they have a natural monopoly. But they operate it privately and competitively. The same with the highways. There is a network of highways in France which was entirely developed privately, although the rights of way were acquired by the government and let's say, linking which city to which other city was decided by government ...
Alain (01:08:01): But as soon as the design was done, it was entirely built and operated, and is still now operated, privately. So they are all toll roads, by the way. All the highways in France have toll roads, and they are private toll roads. And one problem has been in developing country, where the government is usually rather ineffective. They are very weak, technically. The people who have a lot of technical skill very often go in the private sector, not in the government.
Alain (01:08:38): So there have been a tendency at the beginning with the financing by the WorldBbank to say, "Well, why don't we ask the private sector to operate like France's water supply, or develop a water supply system?" And it has not been very good, because if the government is not good at supervising this, this public/private partnership, then it's a complete disaster because you have a private monopoly, and it doesn't work very well.
Alain (01:09:12): So in a way, it's only country where the government is pretty competent that you can increase the efficiency by introducing the private sector. If you introduce the private sector in a monopoly situation like the water supply, for instance, but with a very weak government, you will end up with a pretty bad result.
Devon (01:09:36): Although I suppose if you keep the water supply under the care of the government, when the government is weak and perhaps corrupt as well, that's also probably not a good outcome. So maybe ...
Alain (01:09:47): The only good outcome is to, of course, reform the government. And then you can maybe consider having a more efficient system by having ... But let's if the reason for privatizing is because the government is weak, it's too early to do it. The outcome is not good. So the outcome is not good either way, if as you say, the government operate it then it's not competent. It's not very good.
Devon (01:10:15): What are the specific steps that you've seen weak governments take to reform themselves to solve this problem?
Alain (01:10:21): I think it comes slowly, through democracy and information. I don't think there are steps, magic steps that you can do for ... The press has a role to play. For instance, I have seen in India where there is really a free press, and very kind of dynamic. The press have pretty good journalists who are really digging into a problem like water supply or transport, or even building regulations. And they do a pretty good job, and eventually, they have enough middle class who read the newspaper and read those technical article so that it create a constituency for reform and better services. So I think that this is ...
Alain (01:11:02): But it's a long thing. It's not something you do in three years or four years. And it has, in a way, very little to do with the amount of money you put in it. The World Bank has tried many time to reform governments, to give incentive either by paying them more, by training, by all sort of thing, to have better government in country which had weak government. And it has to come from the people.
Devon (01:11:31): It sounds like a recurring theme here, is that you can make a lot of infrastructure changes and they might make a difference. But if the people don't really care for it, or if the cultural norms say that something is low status, then they're not going to use it.
Devon (01:11:46): You mentioned in some middle income countries, owning a car is a big status symbol. Maybe you could make the buses as nice as you want, but those people are probably going to keep driving their car because it sort of heightens them and makes them feel good about themselves, and separates them from other people. So you have to change the culture before you can really change the infrastructure.
Alain (01:12:07): Absolutely, yes. I completely agree with that, yes.
Devon (01:12:10): We're coming up on our time now, and I have so many more questions, so I think we're going to have to save the second half of this for a part two on the transportation topic. But this was so much fun, as always, and is there anything else that you two want to add before we sign off?
Alain (01:12:26): No, thank you. I cannot think of, but I'm looking forward to the next set of questions.
Marie-Agnes (01:12:31): Thank you, Devon.
Devon (01:12:33): Thank you.
Alain (01:12:33): Thank you.
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