Zenly & customer delight

I signed up to Zenly today (I heard it mentioned in a Devon from Github’s new podcast about urban planning). I signed up to the app because Devon said it gives you a rating of how much of your city you have explored and I’ve always enjoyed tracking my movements.

I’m not sure how the app was described on the podcast but my initial impression is it’s Find My Friends meets Moves, but for teenagers.

The screenshot below, that primes users to give system permissions is clever. I have seen this type of UI a few times in the past, but the very clear highlighted CTA is new. I want to see what happens if I sign up again and click outside the pink area. Will they warn me to click where they want me to click?

Copy

The copy is incredibly playful. Perhaps the style of copy is common for apps targeted at teens. This would explain why I haven’t seen anything like it before.

While importing my contacts they made me feel cool by remarking how many contacts I have.

I really liked this sentence telling me how long I’d been a user for. The copy is positive and I enjoy seeing stats around my usage of a product, even when (especially when?) that’s not core to the product. Part of the reason I like product usage stats is probably because we find it so hard to justify working on them at my current workplace. We can’t justify them as they can’t be easily observed in growth metrics.

London (+) Notes

Tyler Cowen shared some ‘Europe Notes’ written by an American software developer who lived in Germany for a couple of years. I enjoy reading these types of observations about differences in everyday life and wrote up my own on my own time in London as an early 30’s professional working in the technology sector.

As with all notes of this type I acknowledge they suffer from broad generalisation and superficiality. Nonetheless I enjoyed reflecting. Please challenge/correct me in the comments.

Contents:

  1. Personal Safety in London
  2. UK Healthcare
  3. Household admin
  4. London tube
  5. Other London transport
  6. Work and Study
  7. Personal finance
  8. Food
  9. Not otherwise classified

Personal Safety in London

  • Getting your phone snatched in the London borough of Islington where I lived is a real risk. Snatching typically involves someone riding past on a bicycle, or two people on a moped and them grabbing your phone. Once a moped mounted the footpath ready to snatch from me, but they quickly found out I was carrying a packet of crisps rather than my phone so they drove off. A number of friends have had their phones snatched. One friend was held at knife point and forced to log out of their iCloud and factory reset the phone on the spot. Perhaps Apple could build something such that phones can brick themselves 100% reliably to remove the incentive of phone stealing (though I’m sure there is some complication to work out how to transfer the right to brick the phone in case you need to sell the phone to someone else)
  • I am privileged to not worry about my personal safety when commuting. In London, for the first time ever, I proactively changed the way I travelled due to threat of crime. I took a slightly longer way home when I left the running track in Finsbury Park as to minimise the time spent in the park. I altered my route after a group of six people got mugged for their phones by a large gang. When I walk through any parks near my house late at night I make sure not to take my phone out nor 
  • There are often reports of knife crime but that is nearly always between teenagers/young adults in drug gangs according to a friend who is a prosector. There was a spate of acid attacks in 2016 or so but that seems have stopped. I’ve heard some compelling arguments, including by Crown prosecutors, that legalising the softer recreational drugs would kill the main business these gangs run upon.
  • Even with the higher probability of minor theft, London’s density can make it feel quite safe.  My wife said she is more concerned about walking home in Fitzroy North, Melbourne than in Highbury, London given the guaranteed proximity to people in London.
  • Bike theft is rampant. If you don’t have a D-lock, your bike is not a piece of junk, and you leave it out overnight, it’s only a matter of time until it gets stolen. My wife and I rode our bikes to Oxford and they got stolen in the middle of the day from a busy street because we didn’t have a d-lock. Bike thieves have some sneaky tricks too, make sure they haven’t rigged the bike hoop or pole you’ve locked your bike to.

UK Healthcare

  • Brits are very proud and protective of the NHS and think it is world leading. I don’t think I’ve spoken to one medical professionals who’s worked in both Australian and UK hospitals that says Australia isn’t better. I believe Australia spends approximately the same per capita on healthcare as well (though perhaps there are significant underlying differences in the population?).
  • The pay for an NHS nurse working in London is something like £25,000-30,000 while a similar nurse in Australia would get about 20% more. The cost of living in Australia is  lower than in London too. It would be an absolute struggle to survive as a nurse living on your own in London.
  • My wife, a qualified nurse in Australia had to get her nursing registration. It took over 6 months and she was told hers was one of the fastest applications that they’ve seen. It cost over £2,000. One of her friends failed the English test even though English is the only language she speaks. One of her friends failed the nursing test because she didn’t know the colour of the gloves that need to be used for a particular procedure is different in the UK than Australia. Another failed because the depth of compressions when doing CPR in the UK is different to Australia. Two of those people who failed didn’t bother to resit the tests and took up office admin roles. The fact that Australia doctors are allowed to work in the UK with very little extra paperwork but nurses can’t seems weird.
  • In general, nurses in the UK have a lower level of responsibility than in the UK. A lot of jobs that nurses would do are instead done by doctors (e.g. doctors insert cannulas in the UK).
  • A junior doctor I met had asked her work, 9 months ahead of time, if it would be ok to have a certain weekend off to go to a very good friend’s wedding. They were told that it can’t be accommodated. Doctors have to rely on swapping shifts to make it to important life events.
  • You have to register a GP practice near your house and that’s the GP you are expected to go to. Good luck to you if you want to go to a doctor near your work instead. 

Household administration

  • You don’t need to file a tax return by default in the UK. My guess is this stops the ridiculous system we see in Australia where accountants help a large number of taxpayers make dubious deductions. I get a monthly newsletter from my accountant in Australia saying with ‘tips’ like “Don’t forget you can claim up to $80 on sunglasses without requiring a receipt”
  • You need to pay for a TV license if you want to watch free-to-air TV or watch BBC on their apps. We bought one in our first flat but stopped watching free-to-air and BBC in our second flat. The TV Licensing authority kept sending us increasingly threatening letters to pay for a license. I think someone in the behavioural economics team took their A/B tests too far — it really was a case of guilty until proven innocent. The worst thing about it all was we did have a TV license before moving house and we tried to get a refund on the remaining unused portion which took hours of chasing up and many months for the refund to arrive.
  • Mobile phone plans and data in the UK seems to be about 1/2 to 1/3 of the price in Australia. Internet in the UK is amazing. In the UK we had fibre to the home and spent £22 (~$44 AUD) for unlimited 100mbps download speed. UK benefits from high population density but I’d be interested to know if that’s the only explanation for the significantly lower price than in Australia. If it is just due to population density a very back of the envelope calculation would suggest that urban-only telecomms users are probably subsidising users in rural areas to the tune of $5bn, or a rural user is receiving over $1000 subsidy/year.  
  • In the UK rental properties are mostly furnished with all large pieces of furniture, major electical items and cutlery and crockery. It’s an interesting equilibrium that I think is probably better than Australia’s which requires you to transport your. The downsides are that the furniture is often awful, 
  • Electrical plugs aren’t allowed in bathrooms, and light switches are usually outside the bathroom. Electrical sockets and light switches are in bathrooms in Australia and I had never even considered it being a high enough risk to remove the plugs. That said, it does seem that Brits love baths relative to Australians  (our two bathroom flat had two baths whereas in Aus it would be rare to have more than one bath in a house) and I believe the big risk is electrical items falling into the bath. Due to this limitation any hair drying/straightening/electric toothbrush charging is
  • In what seems to be a crazy equilibrium to have ended up in, whether or not an agreed housing sale will settle depends on whether or not any parties are involved in a ‘chain’. If e.g. the seller is only willing to settle once their next house settles then a chain of potentially infinte housebuyers can form. If one person drops out the whole chain can fail. I had some friends in a chain with 7 transactions in it. In Australia it’s standard to agree a fixed settlement date that gives both parties sufficient time to organise their . A chain leads to a lot of uncertainty.

The London tube

  • The tube (the metropolitan subway) is such an integral part of life for so many Londoners. People complain if it’s not running well, but I have had very few conversations with people about how they otherwise view their time spent on the tube. 
  • Transport for London, who run the tube, is one of the only public transport bodies in the world that is profitable. I once thought that being profitable was a good thing but now I see how much road users are subsidised and how expensive the tube can be for some people. I don’t think being self sufficient is a necessary aim for public transport bodies anymore. 
  • A friend interested in trains told me the tube was running close to the maximum number of trains possible in peak hour. If that’s true I guess lowering tube prices might make it even more crowded in peak hours than it currently is. Perhaps they could charge less in off-peak times — I know if I was with a group of people, getting home in the evening with Uber was cheaper than catching the tube. In some ways, it’s unfortunate that the introduction of Uber, etc. into London has eaten into public transport rides.
  • As an example as to how much car ownership is subsidised in London, a car owner only needs to pay £150 for an annual car parking spot in Islington when the land could be put to much more productive use.
  • The tube stops running when they are too many leaves on the track. 
  • My wife caught the tube to work and it took 70 minutes each way. 

Other London transport

  • I rode my bike to work. I felt safer riding my bike to work in London than in Sydney as the traffic is a lot slower in London. In London the danger of riding can mostly be mitigated by the cyclist being aware and careful. In Sydney I was most nervous about fast-moving cars hitting me from behind and there is little I could do to mitigate that. 
  • I really only started understanding the layout of London when I started riding my bike more places. If you catch the tube everywhere you pop up in different locations from underground and never get a sense of how the city fits together. Getting that feeling made me feel like much more like a local.
  • I could count on one hand the people under 40 living in London that I knew that owned a car. 
  • UK postcodes are amazing. You can navigate to somebody’s house by just knowing their 5 character postcode and their flat or house number. These high-precision postcodes also make filling out online address forms easy. I don’t think Australian postcodes serve much of a purpose for individuals except to slightly improve mail sorting. The UK system makes me think there is some success to be had by ‘what 3 words’. I  think the UK structure has some advantages over ‘what 3 words’ because you often know the country the location is in, and an identifiable, ordered numbering system which is necessary for identifying the house/structure once you are at a physical location will often have a need to exist. Because you are always going to need that flat/house number and the country is assumed, you can lower the requirements to just 5 characters rather than the 15 or so of what 3 words. Countries like Australia or US could introduce higher precision postcodes by adding a 3 or 4 alphanumeric suffix to existing 4-5 digit postcodes/zip codes. 
  • Uber had a complete monopoly on London for most of the time I lived there and I wouldn’t have been surprised to learn it was the most profitable city in the world for them. Competition with Uber has only just begun with some new entrants hitting the market in 2019. 
  • It seems like non-electrified bikeshare (e.g. Ofo) failed in London. My opinion is the bikes were clunky, slow and often had terrible brakes.  
  • Uber’s electric ‘Jump’ bike is being allowed in more and more parts of London sometimes with close collaboration with councils. The Jump bikes seem vastly superior to Lime Bikes and at the moment are a lot cheaper. Uptake seems pretty good. 
  • Electric scooters are still banned in London. I think electric scooters will struggle to make a mark in London as the footpaths seem narrow and bumpy compared to most cities. 
  • Cars often park in the opposite direction to the flow of traffic which is illegal in Australia. It’s a small thing but I definitely had a minor heart attack the first few times I rode my bike past these cars as I thought I’d been riding the wrong way down a one way street.

Work and study in London

  • Law and banking seem to be well paid relative to similar jobs in Australia. The creative industries appear to be paid worse. Jobs in technology and the public sector seem to be paid at about a similar rate, if not a little lower than in Australia.
  • The minimum wage is a lot lower In the UK than Australia. As such, service jobs seem to have a lot lower salaries than they do in Australia. I once paid £6 for a haircut that took 45 minutes. A house cleaner is costs about 60% the price of a cleaner in Australia.
  • My wife did a Masters of Public Health in London. She was able to complete it in a year and it only cost £9000 (she got local student fees as we had been living in the UK for three years). Compare that price to an equivalent Masters in Australia where you are looking to pay $50,000 (~£25k) and need two years of study. Interestingly, while masters degrees are cheaper, UK undergraduate fees are higher than in Aus with more onerous repayment requirements.

Personal Finance

  • UK banks are not as user friendly as Australian banks. My unsophisticated understanding is that are also a lot less profitable. Lloyds bank in the UK has 22 million account holders and makes £2bn (~$4bn AUD) profit. Commonwealth Bank in Australia has many fewer customers than that and make $10bn (~£5bn). (NB, these numbers are rough and Commonwealth bank also provides more investment/institutional banking services).
  • Credit cards do not seem to be as big a deal in the UK as in Australia (and light years away to their usage in the US).  
  • Every person under 40 that I know has a Monzo account. It’s easy to sign up for and it makes paying your friends back very easily. 

Food

  • Coffee in London is pretty bad compared to Australia. You pay more and get less. 
  • Chain coffee stores have proliferated in London whereas chain stores like Starbucks mostly failed in Australia.
  • In Australian CBDs there are more gourmet sandwich shops than London. The chain sandwich stores like Tesco and Costa seem to have high staff to store size ratios. 
  • Tips are mostly fixed and added to the bill in London restaurants. I prefer that rather than having the extra task of assessing the quality of the service. 

Not otherwise classified

  • I feel the UK is more liberal regarding personal freedoms than Australia in a number of subtle ways. For example, in the UK people can drink on the street out front of pubs, bike helmets are optional and there is a distinct lack of any newspaper stories about prosecuting small-time personal drug users or petty criminals (which seems to be a favourite past time of newspapers in Australia). Corner stores are open and selling alcohol around the clock. There are some weird things in the UK (like you can’t have a powerpoint in your bathroom) but I think on balance there’s more personal freedom. One big counterpoint to that is the widespread presence of CCTV in London, but I think that is offset by the police being less overbearing compared to in Australia and the US.
  • The day starts later in London than in Australia. My guess is that’s because Australian weather is more conducive to exercising outside before work.  In the same vein, you are unlikely to find a cafe that opens before 8am in London on a weekday. In Australia, cafes mostly open at 6am on weekdays. 
  • Wearing gym gear in public places seems more socially acceptable in Australia than the UK
  • Football (soccer) is clearly the national sport in the UK and there are lots of quirks and rituals around it. An interesting one is a requirement (I think it’s a law) that on particular days all professional football matches must be played at the exact same time and the games aren’t allowed to be televised. This is done to encourage people to go to watch games in person at a nearby local football pitch. One time when this happened I went to a pub where they blacked out the windows, charged £5 entry and illegally streamed the game from a foreign channel which wasn’t subject to the blackout.
  • Off-licenses and fried chicken shops are everywhere in the UK. Most seem so under-patronised that I don’t understand how they can be profitable. 
  • In Australia, if you are walking towards someone else and you want to get out of their way you both step left. Job done. In the UK there is no social norm on which way to step to move out of somebody’s way. I think it might have something to do with the fact that in the UK you drive on the left, but stand on the right of escalators. 
  • The fact that so many places still have separate hot and cold water taps blows my mind. You can’t wash your hands in them.
  • Typically queues will form in an incredibly equitable manner even to the point of extreme inefficiency. Often when there are multiple processing points (e.g. cash registers) the queue will extend as single queue for as long as possible, and it will only splits off into multiple processing points right at the very last minute. For example, at a sandwich store there will be 5 registers open but there will be only one line so people can snake outside the shop door onto the street.

Estonia

  • I spent 150 days in Estonia, mostly in Tallinn in the 4 years I lived in London as I had team members working in our office there. 
  • Tallinn is a small city of 300,000 people. It reminds me of my hometown of Canberra in some ways and seems like a good place to raise a family. The cold and very dark winters are definitely not for everybody.
  • Wages and property prices seem to be about a third of that of Germany and the other richest European countries. You can eat out at a nice restaurant for €25 (food only). Tradable goods prices are fairly equalised within the European Union so their relative price is very high for locals which isn’t surprising but wasn’t something I’d considered much before. For one colleague buying an iPhone was a very big financial decision.
  • English levels are very high. I learned two of Estonian words and that was enough to show I cared. The only time I think I ever met someone who I couldn’t converse with was someone at the cash register of a supermarket on the outskirts of town. 
  • Parental leave in Estonia is incredibly generous. 18 months full pay (up to 3x the national average wage) paid for by the government. There were some people at our company that went for parental leave for 3 years before returning.
  • In Estonia and also in Eastern Europe there seems to be a lot of silent praying on flights and applause when the plane successfully lands. I have asked a couple of  colleagues what they think has driven this level of distrust in aeroplanes but they didn’t have any ideas.
  • At some restaurants you need to pay a very small amount for tap water poured out of a jug  (seems to be about €0.20) but at the same time you get free bread and butter with meals.
  • It’s common practice at a lot of cafes to return your food tray to a rack of trays. That happens in other countries but I felt it was very socially unacceptable if you don’t do it (I’ve forgotten to do it before). 
  • Estonians sometimes leave their babies outside, in appropriate clothing, in the cold for an hour or so at a time. I’ve seen babies just sitting in prams outside the restaurant in sub-zero temperatures while the parents are dining inside. It seems to be widely accepted. If you did this in Australia I wouldn’t be surprised if you were sent to jail.
  • An Uber in Estonia is often less than €3 for a 3km drive between my office and hotel. I don’t understand how it can be so cheap

European cities

  • In general, large cities in Europe seem to be much better places for humans to live social lives than cities in Australia or the US. Australian and US cities seem to be built more around cars, and their lower densities mean that public transport is not as frequent or accessible. I liked the adage I recently heard that you can tell a lot about the health of a city according to the 8/80 rule —  how many people you see below 8 years old and how many you see above 80. I think European cities are well out on front on this dimension.
  • The housing stock is obviously a lot older in Europe, but without as many downsides as I expected. On the contrary it seems that European buildings have better climate control. I can’t believe that Australian housing doesn’t have double glazed windows as a norm. 
  • My favourite cities seem to be the ones that I find least pretentious. Budapest, Lisbon and Amsterdam come to mind. 

Travel in Europe

  • Google maps and/or Citymapper combined with free data roaming in Europe (for mobile plans issued in other European countries) make navigating foreign cities incredibly easy. You can go on holiday without planning much until you get there
  • I prefer city mapper for public transport when travelling as it has a few more features for identifying you are on the right train/bus (e.g. in Berlin, the citymapperl app shows the terminal train station on the line which is how the trains are identified. Google maps just tells you which line to go on)
  • A lot of people I talk to are very snobby about budget airlines and think they will be late/cancelled. I once looked at the data in Australia and it was something like Jetstar budget airline was late 1 percentage point more often than the non-budget airlines . I’m willing to bet on a 1% chance of spending a few hours at the airport to save £50. In general, if the planes are late it’s more likely to be for flights late in the day as I guess that budget airlines are running to a schedule with less buffer in it.
  • Airlines want people to pay money for the best seats but people rarely buy them all up. Check in late as possible to a budget airline flight to avoid getting a middle seat.

Things you should buy

Rob Wiblin wrote a list of things he recommends buying, taking after another list written by Sam Bowman. I found both lists useful and have bought items from both. I thought I’d write down a few things that I think are worth buying that people may not have heard of before.

Milk frother – £5

Rob Wiblin suggested to get your coffee from McDonalds. I think if you are going to do that you may as well just use instant coffee. Some milk/almond milk heated up in the microwave (about 75 seconds for a single mug) + instant coffee frothed with a milk frother is not too bad. The texture added by the frother makes a surprisingly large difference in how good the coffee tastes.

Mosquito bite zapper – £22

As someone who attracts mosquitos, this bite zapper removes the itch from bites very quickly. It applies a couple of seconds of intense, bordering on uncomfortable, heat to mosquito bites. I am not sure the mechanism through which it works (may even be placebo) but I swear by it.

Dark sky weather app – £3

Short term rain prediction is quite accurate these days in places with enough radar coverage. The Dark Sky app lets you see when it is going to start or stop raining in the next hour which can be very helpful, particularly if you you are cycling.

I set the alarm to warn me of impending rain and if I see rain coming I will often depart to my next destination quickly if it looks like I can beat the rain. E.g. if it’s 3pm and I get a notification it will be raining at 3.40pm I may leave work early and finish my work day from home.

NB: I just moved back to Australia and the radar coverage and short term prediction doesn’t work here.

Image result for dark sky weather app

Light alarm clock – £70-£140

This alarm clock gradually lights up the room over time before an audible alarm starts playing. I have the light set to gradually increase of 30 minutes and find that the light wakes me up about 20 minutes into the light phase. The experience of waking up is much less jarring than with a regular alarm. I  tracked the price on camelcamelcamel (an Amazon price tracking tool) and got it for about £80 when it’s usually £110.


Camelcamelcamel.com

Camelcamelcamel is an Amazon price tracking tool. After you’ve found a product you’d like to buy check out the chart with a history of prices. You can figure out if it’s a product that is often available for a much lower price and set an email alert for once it drops below a particular price threshold.

I remember enjoying this short interview (apple podcast link) with the CEO of Camelcamelcamel

Computer stand for improving posture – £50 (or less)

I used to hunch over a laptop a lot. Now I put my computer on a Roost Stand so the screen is at the right level. My posture has improved and I no longer get a sore upper back. The Roost Stand doesn’t seem to be on Amazon, and although there are plenty of cheaper alternatives on Amazon, friends who have bought the alternatives have always been a little jealous of the Roost. One advantage of the Roost is it seems a bit sturdier, slimmer and folds up a bit tighter which is good as I keep it in my backpack ready to use in a hotel lobby or cafe.

I have a macbook so I pair the Roost with an Apple keyboard and a Logitech MX mouse. The Logitech MX mouse cooperates surprisingly well with my mac.

Height Adjustable

Bike with saddle/pannier bag + wet weather gear

Cycling isn’t for everyone, but cycling to work (and avoiding the London tube) was an important part of my London day to day.

An annoying thing about cycling is getting caught in the rain and then being wet and uncomfortable wherever you end up. To mitigate that I always carry wet weather gear and a change of clothes. I have a pannier rack on my bike, and a pannier bag with the following items packed at all times:

Image result for bike with pannier bag

Kindle + Audible paired with Whispersync

Very few of my friends seem to know about Amazon’s ‘Whispersync’ functionality which allows you to alternate between reading the same book on Kindle and listening to it on Audible. I will often listen to a book on Audible while commuting to work and read the book on kindle at night.

Unfortunately you can’t use your Audible membership to take advantage of this — you have to buy the Kindle version of the book on Amazon and buy the Audible accompaniment as an add-on at the same time. Sometimes the Audible accompaniment only costs a few pounds extra, and sometimes it is many multiples of the book.

OSMaps – Free trial or £25/year

OSMaps (aka Ordinance Survey Maps) is an amazing app/website that allows you to see walking paths through the English countryside. It contains paths that you will never find on Google Maps. I have planned a number of walks from train stations to pubs through the countryside. Here’s a one-way route I plotted between two train stations in the North of London

Taotronics earphones

My recent experience with Taotronics wireless earphones have been a little mixed, but I still consider them great value headphones for running and everyday life. They have good battery life, are relatively cheap and stay in my ears (unlike Apple headphones). I had a pair that lasted 3 years with heavy use, including going through the wash twice until I lost them. My only gripe about the new pair is that while my old pair seemed to turn off automatically if they didn’t receive any audio, the new pair stays on indefinitely which often leads to them going flat.

These walking paths exist mostly due to the UK’s ‘right to roam‘ which grants access to the public to footpaths through otherwise private land if the public has been consistently using the path over time.

Muscle Rolling stick

This ‘muscle roller stick‘ is a great self-massage tool

Blender + protein powder

The most valuable change to my daily routine in 2019 is making the same smoothie for breakfast every weekday. I blend a frozen banana, frozen berries, protein powder, spinach, milk (cow, soy or almond) and water with a stick mixer. It’s healthy, tasty and very quick to make.

I chop up a week’s worth of bananas and put them into a single ziplock bag in the freezer. I use chocolate protein powder from bulkpowders.co.uk who perpetually have a sale on (don’t accept anything less than 20% off).

Before I started this routine, I often skipped breakfast or had a less healthy breakfast. Now I never skip breakfast and drink less coffee.

Islington council transport strategy

Here are a few quick thoughts I had about Islington Council’s transport strategy that I sent to the council.

The tone of Islington Council’s Transport Strategy is the right one. It puts walking and cycling (and similar activities) at the forefront of their goals. There are some concrete actions, but not many given the time frame.  

Islington

A few key facts that are important to know:

  • In 2016, 30% of households in Islington owned a car, well down from 40% in 2011. This low rate of ownership is driven by good access to public transport, but also by the fact that Islington ranks very poorly on a number of welfare indicators and a large number of people can’t afford a car (35% of children under the age of 16 live in poverty which is the third highest nationally. 36% of Islington’s population aged over 60 are living in income-deprived households).
  • Almost all of the traffic deaths in the borough are pedestrians, cyclists and scooters/motorcyclists.

Empower locals, and allow them to ‘show, not tell’

The reality is that Islington doesn’t have much budget for a lot of transport improvements. If every change requires external research or extensive public consultation, it is going to be hard to justify doing much. Small things that bring joy to locals won’t ever be done. Time and time again we see that, initially, people are against changes that will take away road capacity for cars. But after the change has been implemented people love the changes. Changes typically improve their lives and their community in ways that are hard to describe. The lesson is that, where possible, you have to implement ideas for a low cost on a trial basis.

As an example of ‘show, not tell’ is in Times Square, NYC. It to be dominated by cars until a transport official went out with traffic cones, lawn chairs and created temporary oasis for pedestrians. “Instead of waiting through years of planning studies and computer models to get something done, we’ve done it with paint and temporary materials. And the proof is in the real world performance of the street.”

Image result for times square before and after

But the changes don’t have to be so large. Check out some of the examples in this report by 880 cities.

Dockless transport

The council has worked with dockless bike share companies and it appears that the rollout of the electric bikes in the borough has been much more successful than the non-electric bikes (probably due to the fact that electric bikes have to be frequently removed for charging so fewer bikes are left to languish in bad locations). Given the success so far, electric bikes should continue to be promoted and the council should:

  • Promote the benefits of dockless bike share to surrounding councils (including Hackney and London city). Right now Islington residents cannot start a journey in Islington and finish their trip in adjacent boroughs.. 
  • Work with providers to promote responsible parking (particularly so as not to impede visually impaired, wheelchair bound, or pram-pushing residents). This can be done by asking companies to specify preferred parking spots for dockless transport + by the council identifying and sharing such locations in an easy, scalable manner for private providers to communicate with their customers.
  • Lobby for the introduction of dockless electric scooters. Currently these scooters are illegal to ride in the UK but they are a space efficient, cheaper, and often preferred alternative to electric bikes.

The strategy around cycle hire contains a few points which require clarification. The points are:

  • “Establish cycle hubs at estates to provide free-to-hire cycle facilities” – What would this look like?
  • “Work with private cycle hire providers and/or the Mayor of London to establish an electric cycle hire system in Islington, to help make cycling accessible to a wider audience.” — If this suggests that local government or TfL should build their own bike scheme I daresay this will be a mistake if the intention is to try and replicate the current privately provided products. I know that in March 2019 DfT announced the launch of a £700,000 pilot to give 11 hotspots in cities, rural and tourist areas the opportunity to trial electric cycle sharing schemes. Has the council learned lessons from this pilot?

Car Parking

The council has an aim to reduce the number of parking permits. There aren’t very clear targets around the aim. The council should also have an aim to reduce the number of on-street parking spaces. They should set explicit targets around these goals.

Right now the council subsidises parking to a great degree.  A parking permit will cost a car owner about £150 per year https://www.islington.gov.uk/parking/parking-permits/parking-permit-costs-table

The land a parking space occupies is very valuable. If that area was incorporated into an apartment, rent would be more than £1500/year. Car users do pay other on-road costs to government, but in general if we want effective use of land we shouldn’t subsidise parking to such an extent. Islington Council should raise the price of non-concessionary parking permits.

As a resident of Highbury Stadium Square (HSS), I can say that more than 50% of the car parks are unused at any given point in time. One approach to reduce on road parking might be to propose opening up some car parking spaces in private developments with under-utilised car spaces for non-resident usage. Right now, according to HSS policy it “it is a breach of planning and the lease to let a space to any one who does not live in Highbury Stadium”. Changing this wouldn’t require any council effort other than convincing HSS management of the idea. If it is commercially viable it could be a win-win-win as owners of the car parks would get increased revenue, car owners get guaranteed parking, and locals could get reduced demand for on-street parking. Private providers could be appointed by developments to manage the identification/verification of non-resident parkers.

There is no mention of RingGo parking in the document. Right now this private provider has a monopoly on issuing parking tickets in Islington. It would be good to understand how RingGo fits into the council’s strategy. The long-term aim should be for multiple providers to compete for the right to provide parking. This may involve Islington Council being the owner of the booking data that they make accessible to booking apps (similar to how travel agents + online websites can book flights for an airline). 

Safer and healthy streets

The strategy aims to make streets more appealing by making them safer + more aesthetically appealing.

School Streets seems to be a good policy but is rolling out slowly. What would it take for it to be sped up? How could we make some of the part-time closures become full-time closures, or at least altering the traffic flow to be one way?

We have a lot of under utilised schoolyards in the borough that should be made available to residents on weekends and after school finishes until dusk, just as New York has done.

Example from 880cities.org

One of the council’s aims is to “Ensure that streets are great places to walk, rest and play by providing seating, greenery, public art and events”.  We need to have a permissive way to allow artists to contribute to our streets. A good example is from the city of St Paul in Minnesota, USA. They printed short, resident-submitted poems into the concrete and got great feedback from their residents. The council could pre-approve some locations for temporary installations and these could be handed over to a local university or community group to install works that fit within a basic set of guidelines. 

Car club parking

The council talks about car clubs in a positive light which is good. It’s worth distinguishing between cars that are used solely for car club use vs. cars that are privately owned but can be rented to locals (let’s call it full car clubs vs. partial car clubs).

Typically, renting ‘partial car club’ vehicles is slightly cheaper than renting a ‘solely car club’ vehicle. Islington council could perhaps do more to encourage use of partial club car types of vehicles. Some ideas that would have low-cost implementation and running costs might be: 

  • If a vehicle has been rented out certain number of times in a year (e.g. 10 times) then the car owner can apply a free parking permit. This would take liaising with car club companies to verify this information but free parking permits might entice people to list their car.
  • Residents that are currently ineligible to get on-street parking permits due to council policy around new development requirements are precluded from renting their car out on car clubs as their private carparks can’t be accessed by non-residents of the development. Councils should figure out a way for these residents to be able to participate in car club schemes, perhaps by giving them access to on-street parking.
  • Council can advertise the policies above, or just the existence of the different car clubs in relevant communication with residents

The policies above should translate to a much higher supply of car club cars, making it more appealing for people to rent one.

Minimising on-street delivery time

It is great to see a novel approach to minimising lorry usage being trialled by promoting a hub-and-spoke warehouse facility that is stocked en masse, but with the last-mile delivery done by cargo bike. Islington council should promote the results of this trial open and transparently even if it is a failure, to help other councils learn from the work they are doing. 

Setting expectations in your side project through a simple ‘reverse vesting’ contract

*This is definitely not financial advice. For all I know it could be the completely wrong way to do things*

*Don’t form a side project for your company unless you have to. We needed to, to list our app on the App Store*

I’m working on a side project with a friend (with the company formed in the UK). There is a small, but feasible chance that it could become a full-time job one day. As all projects involving money should, we have tried to set expectations about what could happen in a range of situations. We have set expectations on what each of us will contribute, both in time and money, at this initial stage and what that will be worth in terms of equity.

We figured out what we thought the long-term split of equity between us should be (i.e. X% for one, 100-X% for the other). We wanted to have the amount of final equity vesting in the project to be dependent on time with the project so if one person decided to throw in the towel then they were rewarded proportionate to their time investment.

An ideal mechanism would be to have our shares vesting over time, but we found out quickly that was prohibitive administratively (we reminded ourselves that our job is to build a product customers love, not give ourselves shares in the most optimal way)

So we issued shares in amounts that we thought reasonable for the long run, and we wrote an incredibly short contract:

“If either party stops working on <Company Name> before 1 January 2022, the company will be entitled to purchase a certain number of shares from that party for $0.01. The percentage of shares to be returned is defined as the number of days between 1 January 2022 and the cessation date, divided by 1095.”

We could have also tried to incorporate this intent as part of our Articles of Association in the UK but that would have meant we couldn’t use the default Articles and that would have required a fair bit of extra work.

We have no idea if this will hold up, or if we’ve done the best thing possible.

Please leave a comment if you have any better advice!

Parkland walk – the best run from Highbury

Running in London is often characterised by running on pavement and road crossings. The 2.75km stretch of Parkland Walk between Finsbury Park and Highgate is a refuge from all of that. It is easily my favourite run from my home in N5, Islington.

Here are some photos I took from my run on 15 Sep at 8am in the morning which was a particularly sunny day by London standards.

The path follows a former rail trail and is maintained by the friends of the parkland walk. Check out their history page to learn about the history of the rail track (including the fact that it nearly became a tube line!), and for the nature and conservation work they are up to, including the wildlife trail open to the public on weekends.

Given how good of a walk it is, it can get pretty crowded on the weekends and dogs off the leash and prams make it necessary to do a bit of dodging in the narrower parts if you are running past 10am. (N.B. this is particularly true in winter when the path can get quite muddy, especially at the start and end of the tracks where it’s narrower). If you run early cross paths with a number of runners and a few walkers and cyclists (I passed about 20 in my 5.5km out and back) but you’ll spend more time without anyone in sight than with.

I enter from the Finsbury Park end of the track, running over a wide set of tracks that form one of the main entry points for regional trains into London Kings Cross.

As you turn right onto the path there is a large building close to the path. I always assumed it was some type of utility building but it turns out it’s an Artist’s Co-op which has occasional open days.


The run is varied, with a lot of remnants of the train track, graffiti and flora.

This adventure playground and the associated building is owned by an employee-owned organisation that provides free adventure playground play for local kids. There was also a small half-pipe for skateboarding next to the path near here here but it got removed recently.

If you run all the way to the end and up a short steep hill, onto the street and turn right you’ll be right at Highgate Station. You can continue to the rest of the Parkland Walk but I usually turn around here as an 8km run is plenty long enough.

It’s a very popular run, as can be seen on Strava heatmaps. If you want to continue running the most popular options at the north are around the perimeter of Highgate Wood, then across to Alexandra Palace, or if you want to run some bigger kms you could run west over to Hampsted Heath. If you want to run further at the southern end of the track, Finsbury Park laps, or heading over to Clissold Park are good options.

RStudio shortcuts (Windows) – for cleaner and faster coding

RStudio has a number of keyboard shortcuts that make for cleaner and faster coding. I put all the Windows shortcuts that I use onto a single page so that I can pin them next to my computer.

RStudio shortcuts

(PDF)

You can also access the list of shortcuts with Shift + Alt + K so the sheet may be redundant to many. However, I found that having a physical copy next to my computer helped a lot while I was still learning the shortcuts.

Some favourites of mine are:

Using code sections/chunks – Use Ctrl+Shift+R to insert a code section and a popup box will appear for you to name that section. Ctrl+Alt+T runs the current code section. When you are done working on a code section you can ‘fold’ it up to improve the readability of your file (Alt+L is fold current code section, Alt+O is fold all sections).

Re-running code quickly – Ctrl + Shift + P will execute the same region of code that was just previously run with the changes made since then.

Deleting/moving stuff faster – Ctrl+D deletes an entire line. Ctrl + backspace deletes the current word as in most word processing software. Alt + up/down moves code up and down lines in the console while Shift+Alt+up/down copies lines up/down.

Switch between plots – To toggle between plots use Ctrl+Shift+PgUp/PgDn (It’s a lot faster than using the arrows above the plots!)