Thursday, December 30, 2021

Sint Maarten / Saint Martin

Of course it would take me until the end of the year to finish writing a post about a trip I took back in July...

Anyway, last summer's visit to Sint Maarten / Saint Martin - the island is divided between The Netherlands and France, hence the two names - was a "family" affair in that myself, Corinne, Kirby, my mom, my brother and his wife all made the trip. Dad was originally supposed to go, too, but it was only after mom had made the reservation at the timeshare that he realized his passport had expired, and due to significant backlogs in passport processing he was unable to get a new one before the trip. (It was probably for the best, given his mobility issues; he would have had trouble with a lot of the excursions we ended up making.)

This was technically not my first trip to Sint Maarten; it was a port of call on our 2015 Eastern Caribbean cruise and we took a shore excursion to Maho Beach, which is arguably Sint Maarten's most famous tourist attraction, to watch planes land. However, I really didn't spend any time on the island itself, meeting its people or eating its food, until this trip.

While Sint Maarten is technically a semi-autonomous "constituent country" of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, it is culturally Anglo-Caribbean. Saint Martin, on the other hand, is an integral part of France (although English is spoken as much as French and dollars are accepted as readily as Euros). The cars (including my rental) even have standard French plates! This meant that this vacation technically represented my first trip to France, as well.

Neither side if the island is doing particularly well right now; on top of the effect that the pandemic is having on this island's tourist-dependent economy, there are still the lingering effects from Hurricane Irma, which devastated the island in 2017.

Here are some photos of the trip:

The pool area of our timeshare, with Dawn Beach in the distance. Although everything appears fine, if you take a close look at the building to the right you'll see some patches in the walls. It was damaged by Hurricane Irma and is still being repaired. As we traveled around the island we came across innumerable buildings that are still in disrepair, four years after Irma made landfall.  

The courthouse in Philipsburg, which is the capital of (Dutch) Sint Maarten.

Kirby pretends to ignite a (replica) cannon of the Dutch West Indies Company in Philipsburg. The company held the island's trade monopoly during the Dutch colonial era.

An (almost) empty beach in Philipsburg.

Pandemic and Irma in a nutshell: repairs are being made to the jetty in the foreground, while several cruise ships idled by COVID-19's shutdown of the cruise industry, including the Royal Caribbean Rhapsody of the Seas that we sailed on during our trip to Greece a few years ago, are docked at the cruise terminal in the background.

Fort St. Louis overlooks Marigot, the capital of the French side of the island. The fort was originally built in 1789.

A typical Street scene in Marigot, with stores and boutiques and cars with French plates. Driving on this island was an adventure. The roads were narrow and winding, with no left turn bays (which meant a lot of time stopped in traffic while somebody in front of you waited to turn) in . Most major intersections were roundabouts (which I personally don't mind); I only came across one traffic signal on the entire island. Finding parking could also be difficult at times.

Looking down at Marigot from Fort Saint Louis. Before the pandemic, a ferry ran between Marigot and the British island of Anguilla, which would have made for a fun day excursion. Alas...

Kirby poses with the Tricolore atop Fort Saint Louis.

Another (mostly) empty beach. This is Kim Sha beach in Simpson Bay, west of Philipsburg.

The sun sets over Simpson Bay.

Long Beach in Baie Longue. We stopped here on a catamaran excursion, which visited several beaches and snorkeling spots along the southern end of the island.

A view from the catamaran of some of the homes and resorts on Pelican Key, on the Dutch side of the island. 

A cluster of restaurants on Orient Bay, on the French side of the island. We did most of our dining on the French side of the island. The food was excellent! 

Princess Juliana Airport was heavily damaged by Hurricane Irma, and several years later only makeshift repairs have been completed. It was also extremely crowded. 

While we enjoyed the trip, this is the last time I am going to travel internationally until the Coronavirus pandemic is over.* It was a real hassle, and knowing what I know now (articles like this one would have helped me, had I found them ahead of time) I probably wouldn't have done it. The hoops we had to jump through - getting a COVID test within 72 hours of travel, filling out a form on Sint Maarten's website and waiting to receive authorization to travel, purchasing mandatory "COVID insurance” on that same website, printing everything out so that test results and travel authorizations could be verified both in Miami (where we flew out from) and at Princess Juliana, checking our temperature every morning and reporting it to Sint Maarten health authorities via a special website for tourists - were considerable, and a failure at any point would have doomed the trip. 

We also had to get tested in order to return to the United States, which our timeshare did, for $100 per person, utilizing a "doctor" using an in-home rapid test that miraculously showed everybody as being COVID-negative in a matter of minutes. American Airlines accepted the negative test document he gave all of us when we checked in to fly back home, but the process was shady as hell.

Finally, two personal notes about future travel plans:

  • First, I am not going to take my son on any more trips unless he has his own room with his own bed. His (oftentimes tiresome) teenage surliness aside, it really wasn't fair for him to have to sleep on the pull-out sofa in the living room, next to the kitchen where people woke up early to eat breakfast and talk. It interrupted his sleep and made him grouchy.
  • Second, I am going to try to stick to a minimum of two weeks for vacation. This isn't always easy and calls for me to plan and reserve my vacation time carefully, but one-week vacations are simply too short. You don't feel like you've had any "time off." (To be sure, we did spend a couple of days visiting some of Corinne's friends in Florida before we flew on to Sint Maarten, so this vacation ended up being about a week and a half long. It still felt too short.)

Here's to hoping that there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is the current pandemic, and that everybody can have wonderful vacations in 2022. 

Happy New Year!

*Exclusively domestic travel for family vacations also makes sense, given my father's aforementioned mobility issues. When you travel domestically, you can expect most facilities - airports, hotels, museums, etc. - to abide by ADA regulations. Traveling internationally, you can't always expect such accommodations.

After-hours metered parking coming to Midtown

Given Midtown's bustling nightlife scene, this should have been done a long time ago:

A series of proposals from ParkHouston could lead to more metered parking throughout Midtown, extended meter hours and a requirement for some residents to purchase permits to park in front of their homes. Midtown would have what's called a Parking Benefit District that would eventually take portions of the revenue generated and use it on public projects of all kinds.

The city is taking public comment on the proposals, which ends Jan. 15. Anyone wishing to submit a comment can visit the ParkHouston website

On most city streets with meters, paid parking ends at 6 p.m., meaning drivers are able to park for free just about anywhere in the evening hours. Meters in and along Washington Avenue, the River Oaks shopping center on West Gray, Memorial Park and Rice Village operate past 6 p.m. Parking lots underneath downtown's elevated freeways are also metered until 11 p.m.

In September, the city quietly extended metered parking hours to midnight on a block of streets in Midtown bordered by Fannin, Pierce, Bagby and Tuam streets. The recent change came after a city study conducted in February found that street parking was booming well into the night, according to Maria Irshad, assistant director of ParkHouston. 

The area within these streets constitutes the epicenter of Midtown's bar and club scene, and traffic within this area can actually become very congested on Friday and Saturday nights as people search for places to park (although, in my experience, Uber and Lyft drivers stopping in the middle of the street to pick up and drop off passengers probably contributes to congestion as well.) The aim of this change is to increase parking space turnover as well as generate some revenue:

ParkHouston theorizes that by metering parking to midnight on Midtown's most popular streets, it will reduce the number of cars circling for free parking, encourage people to take other modes of transportation and also increase the number of carpools. 

If created, the Midtown Parking Benefit District will take 60 percent of the meters' net revenue after 6 p.m. A board of residents and business owners will decide how to allocate the funds, which can be used for a variety of purposes from increasing pedestrian safety with crosswalks or commissioning public art. A parking benefit district along Washington Avenue created in 2013 used funds to create custom bike racks and pays for off-duty Houston police officers to patrol the roadway, Irshad said. Projects must be made on public property, but the scope is otherwise limited to the imagination of the board. 

Extending metered parking hours into the evenings in busy nightlife districts and directing those parking revenues into parking benefit districts (as opposed to just dumping all parking revenues into the city's general fund) are two recommendations that UCLA professor and The High Cost of Free Parking author Donald Shoup put forth when he spoke at a Kinder Institute webinar at the beginning of the month.

Once this is implemented, I'm sure there will be some whining from Midtown clubgoers who now have to pay for on-street parking that was formerly free. I feel no sympathy for them. Nobody is entitled to a free parking space, especially in places such as Midtown where it is in high demand. Furthermore, it's never been easier to pay for parking: the electronic meters accept credit cards so you don't have to mess with change anymore, and there's also a parking app that works not just in Houston but in hundreds of other cities and towns in the United States. 

I'm a bit more sympathetic to Midtown residents who might be required to purchase annual permits to park along streets affected by the new rules: unlike visitors, they're not parking on Midtown streets by choice. If I'm reading the article correctly, however, annual permits for residents are not going to be part of the initial roll-out. 

On-street parking is a valuable asset, day or night. These new market-based parking rules for Midtown are a no-brainer.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

RIP Richard Rogers

Another one of my favorite architects has shuffled off this mortal coil:
Pritzker Prize-winning architect Richard Rogers, whose landmark buildings include the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the 3 World Trade Center tower in New York and London's Millennium Dome, has died aged 88. Rogers "passed away quietly" on Saturday evening, his representative Matthew Freud of Freud Communications confirmed to CNN on Sunday.

He was one of the most distinctive architects of his generation, with an architectural style that was both instantly recognizable and highly adaptable.
My favorite Rogers building - in fact, one of my favorite buildings overall - is the Lloyd's of London headquarters, which he designed back in the '80s.
In 1986, Rogers, then working as the Richard Rogers Partnership, would complete another famous building in the same style: the Lloyd's of London headquarters. It, too, was heavily criticized at first, but it is now one of the city's most iconic buildings. In 2011, the Lloyd's building received Grade I listed status, making it one of the few modern buildings to receive Britain's most prestigious designation.
Like the Pompidiou Center, the Lloyd's building is an example of "Bowellism" or "inside-out" architecture closely associated with Rogers, wherein normally "internal" facilities such as elevators, stairwells and HVAC ducts are moved to the exterior of the building, in order to a) maximize internal open space and b) make the building more interesting to look at.
The architect also received the Pritzker Prize -- popularly known as the Nobel Prize of architecture -- in 2007. 
Rogers was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 1991. In 1996, he was made a life peer for the Labour Party and created Baron Rogers of Riverside.
Not a bad life. Thank you, Sir Rogers, and rest in peace.

Wednesday, December 08, 2021

American Athletic Conference Championship: #16 Houston 20, #3 Cincinnati 35

The Cougars hang tough with the Bearcats for a half, but a (ticky-tack) pass interference call and a Clayton Tune interception in the third quarter both led to easy Cincinnati touchdowns that swung momentum in the Bearcats' favor. Cincinnati becomes the first "Group of Five" team to reach the College Football Playoff.

The Good: Houston QB Clayton Tune threw for 250 yards and two touchdowns. Nathaniel Dell was his biggest target, with nine receptions for 152 yards and a score. Kicker Dalton Witherspoon, who had struggled through the season, made both of his field goal attempts. The UH defense shut out the Bearcats on third and fourth down conversion attempts: they were 0-9. The Coogs dominated time of possession, 40 minutes to 20 minutes, proving that...

The Bad: ...time of possession is the most meaningless statistic in football, because Cincinnati's average scoring drive was just a minute and a half long. Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder passed for 190 yards and three touchdowns, while Cincinnati RB Jerome Ford embarrassed the UH defense by rushing for 187 yards (including touchdown runs of 72 and 49 yards). Clayton Tune was intercepted early in the third quarter - the game's only turnover - and was sacked a whopping eight times.The Cinci defense also held the Cougars' running game to under 100 yards and no touchdowns.

What It Means: In order to have won this game, the Cougars would have had to have played flawless football, avoiding any turnovers and limiting big plays by the Bearcats. They were able to do neither against one of the best teams in the nation. That being said, eleven wins and a conference championship game appearance isn't a shabby outcome for the Cougars, and certainly exceeded my expectations for them this season.

(For the record, I also thought that the CFP committee was going to screw Cincinnati out of a playoff berth, and am pleasantly surprised at being proven wrong, although I can't help but wonder what the rankings would have looked like had Oklahoma State gotten that last yard against Baylor on Saturday.)

Cincinnati will play Alabama in the Cotton Bowl, with the winner moving on to the national championship game. Houston will face Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl on December 28th. 

The bus driver shortage crisis

Given my profession, I have been well aware of the operator labor problems public transportation agencies are currently facing. Transit consultant Jarrett Walker believes it's a genuine emergency:

I know we’re having a lot of emergencies and it’s hard to keep track, but many US transit agencies are looking at devastating service cuts due to a shortage of bus drivers.  Drivers are quitting or retiring early much faster than agencies can replace them.  One friend told me their agency is losing 10 drivers for every one they hire.

Here in Portland, TriMet is cutting 9% of its service, bigger even than the cuts in the Great Recession.  I’m seeing similar cuts all over the US.

Can you blame the bus drivers?  The job was always hard, and now it’s more dangerous in two ways: People breathe on drivers a lot, not always masked, and the mental health epidemic is showing up in more rudeness and bad behavior.  Worst of all, some US cities are seeing a rise in assaults on drivers.

Meanwhile, there’s been huge growth in delivery jobs, some of which pay decently and don’t involve dealing with people.

I'm seeing this problem locally as well. Local agencies like METRO are struggling to keep their heads above water because they're having trouble finding drivers; as a public agency, it's simply hard for them to compete against the wages and benefits that private delivery companies like Amazon and UPS are currently offering. This means that METRO is unable to add back the service that they had to cut at the beginning of the pandemic as much as they would like. This in turn effects everyone who uses transit - whether it be suburban workers who are beginning to return to the office or "essential" workers who, even during the height of the pandemic, relied on public transportation to get around - because buses come less frequently, are overcrowded, or don't operate at times of day (i.e. late evenings) when people need them. 

Transit faces an uncertain future as it is, with people still wary of being in close quarters on buses and trains and more people working from home. But it's still a critical part of our urban infrastructure that needs to be adequately staffed in order to be effective (and no, driverless buses are not "coming to the rescue" anytime soon). 

Walker has a couple of suggestions for transit riders and concerned citizens alike:

What can you do?  Advocate for funding, but also:

  • Be kind to your bus driver. If you have a moment, watch them in action.  Notice how hard their job is, and how much they have to deal with.  Thank them.
  • Be kind to your transit agency management.  It’s a terrible moment for them.  They’re as horrified as you are by having to cut service.  (You can be kind to them and still be mad at them for some things. But be sure that what you’re mad about is really their fault.  The driver shortage isn’t.)

This advice may sound simplistic, but it’s actually practical.  Kindness is a powerful form of activism.  A lot of it can add up to big change.

Wednesday, December 01, 2021

#19 Houston 45, Connecticut 17

The Cougars concluded the 2020 regular season with a trip to Connecticut and had little trouble defeating one of the worst teams in FBS for their eleventh win of the season.

The Good: Clayton Tune threw for 301 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, nor was he sacked. Jake Herslow and Jeremy Singleton both had 100 or more receiving yards, while the UH ground game combined for 160 rushing yards and two scores. The Cougar defense tallied seven sacks and recovered a fumble, while special teams blocked a field goal. 

The Bad: The Cougar offense sputtered early in the game, as they turned the ball over on downs twice. A bad Laine Wilkins punt (four yards!) in the second quarter set up the Huskies' first touchdown. Ike Ogbogu came in for Tune in the fourth quarter and was immediately intercepted for another UConn touchdown. 

Given how bad UConn is, of course, none of these miscues made much of a difference in the outcome of the game.

The Could-Have-Been-Really-Bad: Running back Alton McCaskill was hurt and had to exit the game for the second game in a row. Receiver Nathaniel Dell also took a nasty hit and got knocked out of the game as well. Both are reported to be okay and should play this weekend; however, it goes to show the risks associated with playing what is essentially a meaningless game late in the season.

What It Means: The Cougars have notched at least eleven wins for only the 5th time in program history and currently have the nation's third longest winning streak (behind Georgia and Cincinnati and tied with Louisiana-Lafayette). 

Speaking of Cincinnati, the Coogs now travel to face them for the American Athletic Conference championship game on Saturday. At stake for Houston is an opportunity to spoil the Bearcats' aspirations for a CFP berth and secure themselves a trip to a New Year's Six bowl.

North Texas spoils UTSA's bid for a perfect season

The University of Texas at San Antonio was one of three undefeated football teams in FBS heading into the last weekend of the regular season; in order to secure a perfect season, all they had to do was notch a win over a 5-6 North Texas team in Denton. It didn't go well.

No. 15 UTSA’s undefeated season ended in a blowout as North Texas running backs DeAndre Torrey and Ikaika Ragsdale combined for five touchdowns in a 45-23 rout of the Roadrunners on Saturday.

Quarterback Frank Harris had two of UTSA’s three lost fumbles among six overall before sitting the second half at UNT’s rain-soaked Apogee Stadium, a 10-year-old facility where a Top 25 team had never played.

UTSA (11-1, 7-1 Conference USA), which never started with more than five consecutive wins in the program’s first nine seasons, is still hosting the conference championship game Friday night against Western Kentucky. No. 1 Georgia and fourth-ranked Cincinnati are the remaining undefeated FBS teams.

The Roadrunners, ranked 10th nationally in rushing defense, had given up six touchdowns on the ground all season. The Mean Green (6-6, 5-3) matched that late in the third quarter of their fifth consecutive victory that followed a six-game losing streak as UNT earned bowl eligibility.

Playing in cold and wet conditions, the Mean Green took advantage of UTSA miscues as well as a ground attack that gashed the Roadrunners for 340 rushing yards and six touchdowns. North Texas outgained UTSA by almost 100 yards and dominated time of possession. 

After the game UNT head coach Seth Littrell described the win as "the biggest win I've had and we've had as a program." He's got a point: going into this game, North Texas was 1-47 all-time (!) against ranked teams.

While the Roadrunners were never in the hunt for a College Football Playoff berth, an undefeated season could have sent them to a New Year's Six bowl, depending on how other conference championships played out. Aside from that, an perfect season would have been a tremendous accomplishment in its own right for UTSA's relatively young program. 

Alas. USTA's streak was ended - they're no longer even ranked in the AP top 25 - while a North Texas program which had been left for dead earlier in the season extended its own winning streak to five games and is now bowl eligible. It's a truly remarkable end to UNT's regular season, and a stinging loss for the Roadrunners. 

Both schools are currently members of Conference USA but will continue to play each other when they both join the American in a couple of years.

Underdog Dynasty and the Denton Record Chronicle's Brett Vito have more. 

Incidentally, the UH Cougars open the 2022 season at UTSA.