Best things I’ve read recently (18/09/15)

Marvel Music, Miserable Kids and Masses of Being Mean to Liam Fox

 

Britain is woefully unprepared for the thing I told it to vote for, says Liam Fox (Newsthump)

“Describing other people as ‘fat and lazy’, Fox criticised Britons for not doing anything like enough to mitigate against the consequences of his actions, and said he expected everyone to pull their finger out to make his fantastic notion work.”

Fat and Lazy by Chris Dillow (Stumbling and Mumbling)

“For many of us the fact that some businesses are “fat and lazy” was a key reason to favour remaining within the EU. When Brexiters told us that Brexit would allow us to reach free trade agreements with non-EU nations, our response was a fear that exporters would not quickly or sufficiently step up sales to non-EU countries. You can think of “fat and lazy” as micro-foundations for the gravity models of trade which underpinned the economic case (pdf) for Remain.”

Maybe Stop Asking Kids to Recap Their School Day by Cari Romm (The Science of Us)

“Adolescents may have fun at school with their friends, but they are also in close quarters with scores of peers they didn’t choose,” Damour wrote. “The rough adult equivalent would be to spend nine months of the year in all-day meetings with 20 or more random age-mates — and be expected to bounce home and share enthusiastic updates.”

Tweet of the week:

Video of the week:

Podcast of the week:

This week’s Newsquiz is fantastic or more specifically the spectacular section about Bake Off is. While I have my reservations about Radio 4’s topical comedy, it does have one big thing going for it: Susan Calman.

The inhumanity of immigration controls

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I defy you to tell me this situation is empowering for ordinary people

‘Taking back control of our borders’ means a huge loss of control for individuals

I recently finished reading Fires and Ashes by Michael Ignatieff. This is a political memoir with a difference. Most books in this genre seek to justify their author’s career. Ignatieff begins by acknowledging that his was misconceived from the start and it was only vanity that led him to embark on it. He gave up an academic job at Harvard and a successful career as a public intellectual for a bid to become Canada’s Prime Minister. While he managed to win the leadership of the Liberal Party, this proved to be a disaster for him and the Party. An aristocratic background and affiliation to prestigious universities left him unable to escape an elitist vibe. Worse still he had spent most of his adult life outside Canada, which provided the basis for a relentless barrage of Conservative adverts warning Canadians that Ignatieff was “just visiting”. The result was the Liberals – who’ve governed Canada for longer than not – being outpolled not only by the Conservatives but also the left-wing NDP. Ignatieff was among the many Liberal MPs to lose their seats.

Canada inherited from Britain a Westminster style parliamentary system. That meant that in order to make a run for Prime Minister Ignatieff had to first become a Member of Parliament representing a constituency. That in turn involved him in the grunt work of finding solutions to the problems that an MP’s constituents have with officialdom. Not with policy changes but pleading e-mails and haranguing phone calls. Ignatieff explains that this experience led him to a less enchanted view of the state:

Most of the favours my staff asked for related to immigration. Here the gulf between liberal good intentions and bureaucratic reality widened into an abyss. A country that take in up to a quarter of a million people a year is bound to have a backlog of applicants, but our Citizenship and Immigration service seemed overwhelmed by the tide. Constituents would beg me to secure for some family member from Indian, Pakistan or the Middle East to attend a family christening, wedding or funeral. All of these visas are granted on a discretionary basis and the decisions often seemed arbitrary and unreasonable.

Our party had opened up the country to multicultural immigration in the late 1960s and we had traded on this for domestic support ever since. What we failed to attend to was that a baffling visa process seemed to stand in the path of every family reunion in our visible-minority communities. Multicultural citizenship for these communities was a costly and incomprehensible obstacle course.

I remember particularly two sisters, trained nurses of Indian parentage, who worked with us to get their aging parents over from India so the family could spend their last years together. The sisters took charge of the process. They went back to India and shepherded their parents through medical exams and immigration interviews, but still no visa was forthcoming. Finally, after I made a direct plea to the minister for immigration, the parents, by then in their late seventies, were granted a visa and arrived in Canada to be met by their overjoyed children. A week later the father died. The whole process had taken six years.

There was no single individual to blame for this tragic result – there rarely is – and the sisters even brought my staff flowers to thank them for their efforts. But the political implications were disturbing. Liberals like me, who believed in an empowering government, failed to appreciate what it was like to beg for visas, to queue in a government office, to be kept waiting or to hang around a mailbox every day for a late pension or unemployment insurance cheque.

Reading this brought to my mind Brexit and the slogan of the campaign for it: ‘take back control’.

This was applied first and foremost to the issue of immigration. Vote Leave told us that:

EU membership stops us controlling who comes into our country, on what terms, and who can be removed. The system is out of control.

But who is ‘we’ in this context? Vote Leave would presumably answer the British people. They’d have to do so through the British state. And how will they control it? Through the kind of bureaucracy Ignatieff found so dehumanising.

Having lived and worked abroad I’ve now gone through the process of applying for work permits multiple times. For me it has been an expensive annoyance. I’ve spent days, travelled hundreds of miles and spent at least $1000 to get pieces of paper in my passport. But I’m lucky.

I’ve seen people pay far higher costs than me. For example, the multinational couple I lived with for a few months, who had to navigate a kind of residential slalom – a year in the UK, a couple in the US – so that they could rely on their ability to live together. Or another friend who had to keep flying back to the US while living in the UK in order to maintain her Green Card.

And then there were the people who didn’t get visas at all. My former boss in Vietnam was denied a tourist visa to visit the UK because of fears she’d try and stay and work illegally. Given that she’d built a very accomplished career where she was this just seemed insulting and I can still remember my embarrassment when I heard this. Or the numerous fluent English speakers I’ve met who can’t teach English in Korea because they don’t have passports from what the ministry of immigration considers English speaking countries. That costs them a job and their potential customers a capable teacher.

And of course this is all at the softer end of the immigration system. The one time I got direct experience of the harder side was when I was a legal intern. I took a trip to Campsfield House to help interview inmates. ‘House’ in this case means one of the immigration service’s ‘prison with carpets’. The ‘crimes’ that led to incarceration at Campsfield were typically having the wrong paper work or being the wrong nationality. And the bureaucratic requirements of the immigration system often meshed poorly with the actual details of applicants lives. For example, we have abundant documentary evidence that being gay in Iran or Pakistan can cost you your life. But how do you provide documentary proof that you are actually gay and not just claiming to be in order to get into the UK?

And in recent years its become grimly clear that controlling legal routes into a country pushes people towards illegal ones. Getting away from the nightmare of conflicts in the Middle East and North Africa to safety in Europe requires dangerous journeys in the back of lorries or decidedly unseaworthy vessels. But it’s not like there are not reliable routes into Europe. I could catch a bus or plane. But the people whose live depend on making this journey would find that route blocked by border guards. Thus migration controls can turn a desire for safety deadly.

Up to now I’ve spoken mostly about the impact of immigration controls on potential migrants. Frankly that ought to be enough: migrants are people too. But for some people it’s necessary to show that the ‘native’ population are affected too. Well if you fall in love with foreign national or want to employ one or to have one visit you for an extended period or to have them as a customer for your business or collaborate with them on a project or teach them then you will find yourself enmeshed in the same nightmare world of seemingly never ending paperwork.

A bureaucracy will always struggle to see you as a person rather than a collection of documents. The beauty of free movement within the EU is that it circumvents this tendency. One document, your passport, gives you the same rights as a citizen of the country you are heading to. Before immigration, the cause celebre of British opponents of the EU was overregulation. Yet ironically their push for our departure will create a massive new field of regulation governing migration between the UK and its neighbours. You may feel those regulations are necessary but if so please recognise that they are a necessary evil. If Britain takes back control of its borders, that will mean a loss of control for millions of individual people – many of them British.

Don’t confuse liberalism and radicalism

The Liberal Democrats have another internal grouping, this one is called the Radical Association. Its website explains that it:

“…has been founded out a sense of frustration at the state of the Liberal Democrats and a genuine fear that the party will fail to miss (sic) a once in a generation opportunity to define a unique role in British politics. We exist to enable members to work together to reshape the Liberal Democrats to be the radical, distinctive, pro-European and liberal movement which we know it can be.”

While this description might lead you to believe their aim is to reshape the party’s policy agenda, their concerns seem mostly to be organisational. As far as I can tell the Association is made up of Liberal Youthers who feel the Party is too cumbersome an organisation and when they get more specific about their aims they turn out not be all that radical. A pretty typical example is updating local party websites. So while I’m not hostile to the initiative nor am I remotely enthused.

Nonetheless, I want to dwell on them for a moment because their self-presentation illustrates a Lib Dem pathology. We feel a great pull towards the rhetoric of radicalism. I’ve written about this before. While everyone in the Lib Dems will talk about our radical heritage, we tend to ignore how strong the conservative undercurrents of our tradition are:

“Edmund Burke, who injected [a conservative philosophy] into political consciousness with his critique of the French Revolution, was a Whig not a Tory.  His ideas would underpin much of the Victorian Liberal Party’s ideas about the British constitution: they saw its stability and tendency to gradual evolution to be one of its chief virtues. Then in the mid-Twentieth Century, Isaiah Berlin would, with more than one eye on Communism and Fascism, argue that the plurality liberals so valued demanded that politicians be modest in their aims; utopianism was doomed to fail because we could not agree what utopia would look like. And then in the 1980s, Roy Jenkins would argue that there needed to be a third party to restrain Labour and the Tories from taking Britain on an ‘ideological big dipper’. It also came through strongly in the party’s resistance to the Blair government constantly attempting to reinvent public services.”

I’d suggest that balancing radical and conservative elements has served both our party and currency well. During its heyday the Liberal Party steered Britain through the difficult processes of industrialisation and democratisation without a civil war or revolution. It was very adept at changing our system of government just enough to prevent it collapsing into violent conflagrations. That spared Britain Jacobian guillotines, Bolshevik gulags, Nazi jackboots, and a war between free and slave states.

Given that one of Liberalism’s great strengths is an aptitude for holding these two elements in tension, it’s striking how much more popular one side of this duality is. A reminder that we are the ‘true radicals’ is an easy clap line at any Lib Dem event. The suggestion that we should be rather reluctant to change things unnecessarily, less so.

Despite this, inherent virtue lies in stability not change. It allows people to make plans and become familiar enough with their environment that they can operate in it comfortably. Perhaps this explains why psychological research indicates that we feel losses substantially more acutely than gains.

Which brings me back to the Radical Association’s desire to “reshape the Liberal Democrats to be (sic) the radical, distinctive, pro-European and liberal movement”. Supporting continued British membership of the EU is a quintessentially  conservative position. We know and understand life within the organisation. Leaving it is an experiment undertaken without a convincing rationale that is already begetting instability. Opposing Brexit is the right thing to do. It is the liberal thing to do. But it is not a radical course.

The best things I’ve read recently (22/08/16)

This week: Marx and Corbyn, Democrats and Tammany Hall, and indecisive movie studios

Karl Marx: Greatness and Illusion by Gareth Stedman Jones – review by Oliver Bullough (the Guardian)

“Stedman Jones eventually comes to the conclusion that the pioneers of 20th-century socialism would have found Marx’s true dreams incomprehensible, since they were formed in a pre-1848 world that would have had little if any relevance to them. The eventual message is that Marxist ideology and Marx himself were very different things.

I couldn’t help noticing while reading the book, however, some clear parallels between modern leftist politics and the habits of the old man. Thanks to his obsession with minute points of ideological deviation, his determination to cling to leadership positions despite the increasing irrelevance of the groups he led, his conviction that victory was imminent despite near-overwhelming evidence to the contrary, and his repeated estrangement of potential allies for no apparent reason, Marx would surely have felt at home in today’s Labour party.”

Cinemautopsy: What Went Wrong With ‘Fantastic Four’? by Matt Singer (Screen Crush)

“History seems to have repeated itself this summer. Just 10 days ago Warner Bros. released Suicide Squad, another heavily hyped and very expensive comic-book adaptation with a massive identity crisis. Like Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad feels like two totally different movies sutured together. Some scenes are grim and cynical; others are colorful and jokey. Combined, the two movies suggest the beginnings of an alarming Hollywood trend: Studios greenlighting challenging takes on material, getting cold feet during production, then trying to backtrack to something formulaic and familiar after it’s too late to start from scratch.

With so much money on the line, it makes sense that executives would want to protect their investment (and, by extension, their own jobs). But I’m baffled why they don’t just play it safe in the first place. How do you start with a weird, serious Fantastic Four and wind up with the Thing punching Doctor Doom into a giant sky laser? I reached out to Jeremy Slater, one of the three credited screenwriters of the film, who offered a few insights into early versions of the script, and the thinking behind these massive tentpoles.”

Democrats Should Bring Back Political Machines by Kevin Baker (the New Republic)

“Politics, like any war, is best conducted by professionals. But liberals and the left continue to place their hopes in “outsiders” and “insurgents,” amateurs who rail against the system without the means to reform it. The Green Party, for example, has embarked on yet another presidential campaign to nowhere; as its presumptive nominee, Jill Stein, recently boasted to The Village Voice, “I’m a physician, not a politician.”

Stein seemed to consider this a point of pride. [Tammany Hall boss] George Washington Plunkitt would have set her straight. “Politics is as much a regular business as the grocery or the dry-goods or the drug business,” he observed. “You’ve got to be trained up to it or you’re sure to fail.”

7 ways to fix the Bourne franchise

 

*Spoilers for Jason Bourne and all the proceeding Bourne films*

The Bourne films are clearly popular. Therefore, a lot of people like them. I, however, love them. While I don’t care for the Legacy, the peculiar semi-sequel with Jeremy Renner rather than Matt Damon, I’ve watched each of three ‘proper’ Bourne films – the Identity, the Supremacy and the Ultimatum – at least a dozen times. Including one New Year’s when I binged them all in a single sitting.

Despite this I had reservations about a fifth film. When it was first announced I wrote that[1]:

“Beneath all the shaky cam, parkour and killing people with pens; the Bourne films had a very human narrative arc. When at the start of the Identity we first encounter Jason Bourne on a fishing boat in the Mediterranean, he has absolutely no recollection of who he is. By the end of the Ultimatum he has looked into the eyes of the man who effected his transformation from ordinary soldier to superior assassin and told him “I remember.” Bourne’s very literal identity crisis was the motor of the films and by the close of the trilogy it had been fittingly resolved. Further films are superfluous.”

But things started looking up. Paul Greengrass – the director of the Supremacy and the Ultimatum­ and crafter of many of the franchises’ most recognisable traits – was brought onboard and the trailer looked cool. So I began to doubt my doubts.

Sadly the finished product is deeply underwhelming. Partly that’s a function of the fact that the novelty has worn off. Things that once seemed revelatory now look merely competent. Not of course that we should take for granted the kind of competence Paul Greengrass has. But even the best of the scenes he creates this time round lack the punch of their predecessors. It’s also strangely cold.

Nonetheless, the early indications are that it will make enough money that a sixth film is at least a possibility.[2] If that happens here are some of the ways I feel it could be more interesting than Jason Bourne.

1. Hire a proper scriptwriter

Jason Bourne was the first film in the franchise not to be written or co-written by Tony Gilroy. The job was instead done by Greengrass and his editor. It goes without saying that both of these men have talent to spare but not necessarily as scriptwriters.

Gilroy could make bureaucrats bickering spark with a kind of workaday Sorkinism. For example:

Ward Abbott:       Can you really bring him in?

Conklin:                  I think we’re past that, don’t you? What, do you have a better idea?

Ward Abbott:   Well, so far, you’ve given me nothing but a trail of collateral damage from Zurich to Paris. I don’t think I could do much worse.

Conklin:               Well, why don’t you go upstairs and book a conference room. Maybe you can talk him to death.[3]

In Jason Bourne we instead get dialogue like “we should work together Bourne. We both want to bring down the corrupt institutions that control our society” that is so obviously functional that it sounds like a placeholder added to an early draft of the script that no one got round to replacing. That means that the scenes centring on Bourne’s CIA antagonists – which are essentially all dialogue – subtract rather than add tension.

Fixing this doesn’t necessarily mean bringing Gilroy back. He may be too busy with Star Wars or simply have given this franchise all he has to offer.[4] But the next film ought to have a professional script writer on board. How about  Gregory Burke? He who wrote the very Greengrassian ’71 after all.

2. Bring back Joan Allen

If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs then you might be Pamela Landy. The steely CIA trouble shooter with a moral centre played by Joan Allen was one of the best parts of the Supremacy and the Ultimatum. She gave us someone to root for in the CIA sequences and her return would likely improve any new film.

3. The villain should be played by someone who wants to be there

The Bourne franchise has had a run of interesting and distinctive villains. They’ve all been shadowy CIA figures. However, each actor put a different twist on them. Chris Cooper played his as an unhinged missionary, Brian Cox as a venal figure taking what he can under the cover of official secrecy and hiding his theft under a growing pile of corpses, David Strathairn a loyal agency man – a sort of Sir Humphrey of the CIA – and Edward Norton a sort of dark reflection of Pamela Landy, he efficiently solves problems even if those problems are people and the solution is killing them.

By contrast, in Jason Bourne we have Tommy Lee Jones looking bored. He does things. Those things generally advance the plot but they don’t add up to a portrayal of a real feeling character. That’s partly a product of the poor writing. But mostly its Jones’ responsibility. When he chooses to be, he is a great actor. But of late he seems to be doing a lot of showing up to collect the cheque. When he does he’s pretty unengaging.

So the next instalment needs a better villain. That may well be Alicia Vikander’s character making a return. Overconfident prodigy certainly would be a new kind of antagonist. But there are other actors one could look to. I’d love to see Michelle Yeoh, Mark Gatiss or Peter Dinklage give it a try but only if they are genuinely interested in their character.

4. Draw inspiration from the news. Don’t copy it!

The Bourne films present a rather cynical depiction of the American intelligence agencies. They are shown as corrupt, homicidal, error prone, reckless, disrespectful of both American and international law, and willing to abuse their authority to keep all of that hidden.

Subsequent events have vindicated much of this depiction. The Iraqi WMD programs the CIA verified the existence of turned out to be a hoax. It transpired that the CIA was abducting terrorism suspects of the streets of European cities so they could be tortured by allies with dubious human rights records, a process known as ‘extraordinary rendition’. Edward Snowden revealed a pattern of quite possibly illegal mass surveillance. This was actually less damning than the fact that before Snowden went to the press, a number of other whistleblowers had gone through official channels and been prosecuted for it.[5] And assassination has become a central plank of the war on terror, it’s just been conducted with drones rather than spies.

But whereas the original trilogy was prescient, Jason Bourne is reactive. Real people, issues and organisation are more or less transcribed into the plot. There are stand-ins for Julian Assange and Mark Zuckerberg. Snowden is actually mentioned by name.

That makes the parallels the film draws a) jarringly obvious and b) decidedly unoriginal. Popular culture has already digested the repercussions of the Snowden leak: think of Captain America: Winter Soldier or Person of Interest.

Given Greengrass’ background as a journalist you’d hope for some new insight. In earlier films, he and Gilroy picked up on how the War on Terror was militarising the CIA and imagined why that might be dangerous. This was a process perhaps assisted by the fact that Greengrass had previously done a lot of work focusing on Northern Ireland, so had seen how a war on terror can corrupt security forces. Jason Bourne conspicuously lacks a similar leap of imagination. Which is a pity. It would have been interesting to see Greengrass grapple with say the idea of a return to geopolitical competition between great powers. How would Bourne fit into that world? Might he, for example, encounter a Russian or Chinese treadstone?

Whatever direction they take the Bourne franchise should aim to be ahead of the news not behind it.

5. Bourne needs to grow not regress

A big problem with Jason Bourne is that the eponymous hero doesn’t really develop as a character. Stuff happens to him and his status quo at the end differs from the beginning. But none of this change really gets at who he is. Todd VanDerWerff puts this well in his review of the film for Vox:

..the worst decision Jason Bourne makes is smothering all of this [plot development] with a heaping helping of daddy issues. Bourne wasn’t just made a super spy, see. No, it turns out his father was involved in the creation of the Treadstone program that trained him and took his memory. And, of course, Bourne’s father is dead, so he has no real way to process these emotions.

The sins of the father being at the root of the son’s issues is a very old one in fiction, but it’s rarely done as lazily as it is here. The “Bourne’s dad was maybe evil?!” plot feels so perfunctory that it’s a surprise any of the actors can play it with a straight face.

Even worse is that the film has an effective story it could use to motivate Bourne — his clear questioning of whether the truly patriotic thing to do is remain a rogue CIA weapon. Couldn’t he do some good working for the government again? The film introduces that idea, then shrugs it off in favor of the dead dad stuff. It’s enervating.

In my opinion worse still is that Bourne’s development from previous films is actually undone.

In the early stages of the Supremacy, Bourne’s romantic partner Marie is killed by an assassin targeting Bourne himself. This sets him on a quest for revenge. But along the way he realises that killing on Marie’s behalf would betray her memory. He eventually decides that the way to honour her is not to punish people for their sins but to make amends for his own.

Jason Bourne also sets him on a quest for revenge only this time he kills the people he’s after. It never even tries to square that with his decision in the Supremacy.

 6. Keep it grounded

In general, Jason Bourne is a step down not only from the original trilogy but also the Bourne Legacy which did at least have a properly realised plot and cast of characters. But it made the unfortunate decision to devote a lot of attention to the mechanics of creating super-assassins. All the talk of genetic enhancing pills or whatever took the franchise perilously close to sci-fi which is an awkward fit for a series that’s principal selling point had been being down to earth. Jason Bourne avoids this error and any future films should follow it.

 7. Go somewhere new

Bourne films have a formula. As it has produced 3 great films and 2 ok ones, mucking around with it too much would be a mistake. There should always be fights with improvised weapons, people staring at monitors whilst speaking quickly and a score that is 90% bassline. But Jason Bourne shows signs of staleness. This becomes especially apparent when Greengrass begins self-plagiarising. Dewey’s confession is like Abbot’s, Nicky Parson’s death by sniper recalls Marie’s and the huge car chase through Vegas is basically the same as the one through Moscow at the end of the Supremacy. They both feature Bourne in a car duelling with someone who killed a loved one and has an advantage over him because they are in a larger car. That allows them to trap Bourne’s car on their bumper but just before they can slam him into something, he manages to free his car, so it is his opponent that goes crashing into an obstacle.

But avoiding recreating past scenes isn’t really enough. Even when the scenes don’t appear to be replicas, they still lack freshness. The franchise needs to find a way to reinvigorate itself. I don’t know what that is. But until Universal do they probably shouldn’t greenlight any further instalments in the franchise.

 

 

 

 

Notes:

[1] https://matteroffactsblog.wordpress.com/2014/06/21/the-bourne-prolonging/

[2] http://www.forbes.com/sites/scottmendelson/2016/08/01/box-office-jason-bourne-is-a-hit-but-the-series-has-to-stop-remaking-itself/#1768233976c6

[3] http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0258463/trivia?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

[4] http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/rogue-one-drama-writer-tony-916695

[5] https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/may/22/how-pentagon-punished-nsa-whistleblowers

The idea for this post is shamelessly ripped off from Screen Junkies

 

Hanoi ought to ban cars not motorbikes

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A number of reputable news organisations are reporting that Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, is proposing banning motorbikes from its city centre. I’m hesitant to venture an opinion because a) these reports are not especially detailed and b) while I did live in Hanoi for a while it’s a complicated and rapidly changing city that I only partially understand. Nonetheless, I’m wary of the idea.

The BBC reports that:

The local government wants streets to be motorbike-free by 2025 as part of efforts to tackle congestion, the Thanh Nien News website says. The Vietnamese capital has notoriously chaotic roads, with around five million motorbikes vying for space alongside half a million cars.

That situation is forecast to get worse in years to come: the authorities estimate that by 2020 there will be seven million motorbikes, and the number of cars will double. “This means the traffic situation in Hanoi will become extremely complicated in the next four to five years, so we really need a timely solution to this,” says mayor Nguyen Duc Chung.

The city’s transport authority wants to reduce the number of individual vehicles and boost public transport instead, and its chairman wants the number of buses to double. Construction of a new urban rail system is already under way.

I can’t quite imagine that. Motorbikes so suffuse my memories of Hanoi that I can’t really imagine it without them. It’s basically impossible to go anywhere in the city without seeing them: they are on every road and every pavement. From a distance most shops and restaurants appear to be motorbike showrooms because virtually all their customers arrive on bikes that then get parked outside. There are of course also masses of actual motorbike shops.

I actually rather liked this aspect of the city. While I had a pedal bike rather than a scooter, I appreciated the impact their near universal ownership had on the transport ecosystem of the city. It meant you were allowed to take bikes more or less everywhere and everywhere provided parking for them. There’s also a less tangible aspect to my affection for Hanoi’s bike culture. For reasons that will become apparent there are many reasons that many people disagree but for me bikes are a key part of what gives Hanoi the bustle I so enjoyed.

Of course, if banning bikes really would contribute to improving quality of life then my sentimental attachment to them would count for naught. And the case that it would hinges on a legitimate issue: air quality. The pollution in Hanoi is not at the level of industrial towns in China or India. It forms a thin haze not a thick smog. Nonetheless, it still kills thousands of people a year. Surprisingly, even though they burn less fuel than cars, motorbikes actually emit more of the micro-particulates that cause lung damage. This is apparently a legacy of the fact that governments have tended to regulate them less carefully than cars. Getting people off bikes and scooters and onto public transport (and potentially back onto pedal bikes) might therefore improve air quality.

My fear, however, is that the slack will be taken up instead by cars. Vietnam’s very rapid economic growth is rapidly expanding the number of families who can afford them. Unless that growth falters in a pretty remarkable way, it seems likely that the number of cars on Hanoi’s street will rise inexorably. By contrast, the ability of public transport systems to expand fast enough to match the growth of the city’s population is a much more open question. The opening of the city’s metro is already significantly behind schedule.

Replacing scooters with cars might improve air quality but it is likely to worsen everything else. I’d be especially worried about congestion. Bikes are well suited to Hanoi’s narrow, crowded and often chaotic streets. Even on roads that are packed solid with scooters, their drivers will generally still be able to manoeuvre around each other. Cars can’t. So if you get caught in a traffic jam in Hanoi, after a lot of stopping, starting and waiting, you usually catch up to a car or lorry that was constricting the flow of traffic. Once you get ahead of it you’ll generally find the road a lot clearer. So more cars would be bound to lead to more congestion. That would not only be a hassle for the city’s residents and a drag on business activity but it would also create air pollution problems of its own.

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Not only do cars take up space when they are being used but also when they are not. If the number of cars grows, so will the space that needs to be given over to parking. That means turning over land that could be used for housing, businesses or amenities to the storage of metal boxes. Scooters by contrast are small enough to be stowed in hallways or on patios. Indeed, because they are such a part of Hanoian life such spaces are usually already provided.

Banning scooters but not cars would also have the unfortunate impact of essentially rationing the ability to drive in central Hanoi by income. While many more Vietnamese can afford cars than before, it will be a long while still until everyone can. For some of those who can’t, using a push bike may be an option. But the temperature can hit 40°C in summer and many people use their motorbikes to carry passengers or luggage. So for many Hanoians that won’t be a substitute.

My inclination is therefore that motorbikes still have a constructive role to play in Hanoi’s transport system. Adding railway lines and buses is clearly a good idea. But getting them to the scale where they can replace scooters will take a long time. Longer, I suspect than the cities authorities are allowing themselves. By contrast, cars seem likely to add nothing but congestion. Many cities around the world are trying to wean themselves off reliance on cars. Hanoi is in a position where it can avoid getting addicted in the first place.