Friday, July 13, 2012

Reflections About Low-cost Airlines During My Trips

As an industrial and system engineer, I am always interested in the airline system. Since I travelled to Barcelona, Paris and Rome during the summer program, I had good chances to analyze the low-cost airlines with both observations and personal experiences.

The low-cost airlines such as Ryanair offer surprisingly cheap tickets. The tickets I bought for my Barcelona trip were only 50 euros, which is 20% cheaper than the bus ticket. In addition, the airplane only took less than two hours to fly from Madrid to Barcelona while the bus from Madrid to Barcelona took more than six hours. The fare of the Ryanair is so low that I hardly believe that Ryanair can make any money. Despite my worries, Ryanair still gained 4.3 billion of revenue in the first half of 2012. Therefore, I became even more interested in the Ryanair’s lost-cost business model.  

There are several keys in the Ryanair’s low-cost business model. The first one is online booking system. Although using Ryanair’s website is a painful experience, I have to admit that Ryanair heavily relies on its website to sell tickets, and the Ryanair’s website system helps to save costs and gain benefits for the company. First, the Ryanair’s website is not fancy, even ugly-looking, but it provides enough basic features. This will save a lot of design fee of the website. The website also provides more than 20 languages thus satisfy many foreigners demands.  During the booking process, Ryanair website would alert you about the expensive charges for oversize luggage and take any possible chances to sell the company’s luggage and other items. The website also prompted information about car rental and hotel booking. While affecting the quality of online booking experience for the passengers, the Ryanair online system did a good job in the online shopping promotion and selling of add-on services.

The second key of the Ryanair’s business model is to provide no-frill services during the flight. Ryanair eliminate all non-essential services such as entertainment systems, free drinks and complimentary food. In addition, Ryanair even charge a big amount of money for using airport check-in desks.  Therefore, Ryanair could reduce the costs of services significantly and decrease the numbers of the crew. I remember there were less than 4 flight attendants in my flight from Madrid to Barcelone. And one passenger was charged 4 euros for just one bottle of water. In order to promote the customers to use its website, Ryanair charges customers who use the airport check-in desks. They even charge heavy for the checked bags. A poor guy in Barcelona airport was charged one hundred euro by Ryanair in my flight because his luggage was overweight. In addition, there were no seats assigned on the boarding passes, so passengers usually have to form a queue before boarding to get desirable seats.

The third key is the location of the airport. Ryanair usually flies from more remote airports. For example, the flight from Madrid to Barcelone actually landed in a remote airport in Ginova. And there was one and a half hour driving distance from Ginova to Barcelona. That airport was only occupied by Ryanair and the airport was small and outdated. This can save the company a large amount of money in investment of airports because the cost of the land in this area is much cheaper.

Although I did not have a pleasant experience with the low-cost airline during my flight from Madrid to Barcelona, Ryanair’s low-cost business model is successful and attracts many customers to choose this company every day, because the company provides a really affordable options for passengers. Ryanair’s system is meaningful for me, an industrial and system engineering student to analyze.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Royal Architecture

Royal Architecture

The Parque del Retiro is situated in the most populated area of Madrid. It is located east of the city’s center and accessible by train from different points of the city. The park serves as Madrid’s main recreation area in a city where green space is limited and exclusive to households. The park was created in the early 16th century at the request of the Spanish monarchs as an area of retreat for the royal court. It went trough several additions and renovations through out the years, as did the city of Madrid. The city eventually expanded outward and surrounded the park with busy city streets and densely populated buildings. The park was design by architects at the request of the monarchs for their private use. This is is why there are many royal artifacts such as statues and symbols throughout the park.  It was not open to the public until the late 19th century and since then there has only been the creation of new rose gardens. In a sense the park has been shaped by the extravagances of Spain’s Kings and Queens since the 16th century. Today the park serves as the cities lungs and green space, which brings a healthy lifestyle for Madrileños. The name Parque del Retiro or Park of the Retreat serves its purpose as a place that draws people away from the hustle and bustle of city life and into a zone of relaxation. It is a reminder to the Spanish people of a once powerful and wealthy monarch as well as their democratic and modern present day society. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Public function of the Retiro Park

The Retiro Park used to be a property of Hispanic Monarchy. I think the Retiro Park has done a really good job to transform the original royal retreat park to a public park, and let it fit into the local Spanish community very well. There are several amazing attractions such as the beautiful artificial lake, the Retiro Pond, the magnificent monument of King Alfonso XII, the fountain of the Falling Angel, the museum and the crystal palace. I like the park because of its very considerate design and layout. Those attractions are in a comfortable walking distance between each other and there are clearly two different zones in the park. The first one is the north area. It is a more dynamic area because it combines the Retiro Pond, the monument of King Alfonso XII and the fountain of the Falling Angel. People can hang out here, jogging, rowing, and walking. The second part is the east part which is more tranquil. This part has the museum and the crystal palace, and garden. People who prefer tranquility can enjoy their leisure time by walking on the serpentine sandy paths, breathing the fresh air, exploring the crystal palace, and visiting the modern art gallery. In general, Local people come to the park very often. 

In China, there are many royal retreat parks in Beijing, such as the Royal Garden and the Summer Palace, and the Houhai “back sea” park. There are two types: with admission fees and free admission. Some places like Royal Garden and Summer have admission fees, so most of the visitors are tourists. Besides that, the sizes of the attractions are much larger. The Royal Garden is 12000 and the Summer Palace is 70000 , which is almost 50 times the Retiro Park. So people going to the royal park in China are rather to complete a “must-do task” than to enjoy it in leisure time like the Retiro Park. And others like Houhai “back sea” park, the local government turned it into a bar and restaurant area. So the atmosphere is more commercial than tranquil. Local people usually go to these places to enjoy themselves. I think Chinese government can learn some lesson from the Retiro Park and find a balance between the two extremes. 

I Miss Backyards.

Retiro Park is usually compared to Central Park in New York. The park is huge, green, in the heart of a city, and actually makes you forget you are in a city. One other major comparison is that it is everybody’s back yard. The 7 story apartment buildings and close quarters remove people from nature. Grass is a commodity in Madrid. Retiro does an excellent of serving as Madrid’s backyard. When you think about what you do in backyards, you conjure the following: relaxing with friends, eating food, tanning, and maybe even exercise. What you don’t think about is that your backyard also serves as not only a place for you to be by yourself outside, but also a place for a pet such as a dog to have its own space as well. These last two are less explicit, and you can see that the engineers while designing the park had them in mind. Retiro seemed to be the place people would run and work out, tan, have a picnic, and most other activities associated with massive parks. While having the necessities like benches and shady grass, there were also bags to clean up after dogs everywhere, cafes to meet with friends, and a general place to escape the city. In my opinion, this ability to escape the city is what is most crucial about Retiro. While in the middle, you cannot tell you are in a hustling, bustling, breathing place of concrete, brick, and asphalt. It gives the citizens of Madrid a place to unwind and spend some time with their dog, friends, and their thoughts.

The Retiro Park Experience

Retiro Park is one of my favorite places in Madrid, and a must see when visiting the city. Originally a park for the royal family, Retiro has transformed into a central  icon of the city. It is a perfect place to spend a weekend afternoon walking through the gardens, having a picnic on the grass, going rowing on the lake, or running down the many trails that surround the park. One thing that I have noticed about Madrid in general, compared to the other cities we have visited, is that Madrid has actual parks with grassy areas that form the center of the city and create a public recreational space. The other cities have plazas and squares spread throughout the commercial and residential areas, which are excellent in creating a sense of communal space, but lack the traditional park aspect. Having a public space such as Retiro park makes sense when considering that most Madrileños spend the majority of their time outside of their small apartments. The park is centered around the large lake close to the main entrance of the park, with the pathways radiating outward from the fountain circles spread throughout the park. The park also has large monuments, such as the Crystal Palace, rose gardens, and numerous statues, including the one dedicated to the Angel Caido. These monuments are located further within the park, off of smaller, winding, shaded paths from the main lake and fountain junctions. The park is designed so the lake forms the major public space, while the fountains, monuments, and grass areas spread throughout the park provide more private spaces. This is important to create a variety of unique park experiences for tourists and Madrileños alike, in the recreational center of the city.

Civil Engineering in the Planning Phase

            Retiro Park is the product of contemporary thinking in a city whose life has spanned several centuries.  The spider web of a street layout that in Madrid is typical of older European cities that have grown in response to citizens’ needs instead of according to a premeditated block system organization.  Parts of the business district to the northwest of the Accent center are developed in blocks, but in general, the city follows an old style of randomized development similar in manner to other older metropolitan areas like Athens, Paris, or Rome.
            It is curious then, to experience a place like Retiro Park in such an old city.  Retiro is a textbook example of a “green space” designed by civil engineers into a large metropolitan area.  Another example of such a space would be Manhattan’s Central Park.  What is interesting to notice though, is that Retiro is roughly shaped as a rectangle.  Central Park is a perfect rectangle, but that is understandable because of the more recent thinking—with respect to Madrid’s age—that went into planning Manhattan as a uniform system of streets and avenues.  It was curious then, to experience Retiro Park in all its “green space” glory.  Retiro Park is a functioning respite for all Madrid’s citizens to enjoy as it has its own lake, museum, turtle pond, variety of different grassy fields, and crystal palace modern art exhibit.  With all these different features conveniently squeezed into shape that looks like it fits between a few city blocks, Retiro Park is a juxtaposition of a new idea in an aged city, and one could not help but feel a little bit of Alice in Wonderland Syndrome after wandering back toward the Atocha metro station for some delicious Cien Montaditos.

Ben Harstad
June 11, 2012
WRIT 340
Retiro Park Blog Post

Soccer Fields & Associated Civil Engineering

            The art of creating soccer fields comes down to the perfect balance of engineering and landscaping, and the Retiro park soccer fields are no exception.  The natural landscape of the Retiro park area is naturally very hilly and differentiating in terms of altitude, so the ability of creating the perfectly flat fields in the middle of the park shows the capability of the civil engineers who designed it.  The basic layout of the soccer fields include a total of two indoor-sized (smaller than outdoor regulation size) fields that lay parallel next to each other.  In the designing and construction of this facility, the civil engineers needed to take into consideration everything else that was being constructed in the park, including the excavation necessary for the lake, and the addition of land to be added to the spiraling path to summit the highest (man-made) elevation in the park.  Through all the construction of the park, dirt needed to be properly distributed to the location in the park where in was needed, and pulled from the placed that had extra to give.  In the case of the soccer fields, they are in an overall elevated area compared to its immediate surrounding, and the rest of the park.  To create this perfectly flat, elevated space (that is large enough upon which to place multiple soccer fields), the engineers would have had to realize that they extra dirt would need to be removed from the equally large man-made lake that was created in the park.  It is this desired balance that needed to be planned for and achieved, not solely between the fields and lake, but all other aspects that were included in the construction of this park. 


             An interesting engineering aspect of Retiro Park lies below the surface.  It is not a thing of beauty or awe as much of the park emits.  It is beautiful in that it is invisible; its absence makes the park more scenic.  It is the underground bathroom.  It’s such a brilliant idea- I always wonder why more things aren’t constructed underground in an urban environment to save space, beauty and utility.  I’ve been told that it is expensive and difficult to get through approval processes in the city.  I think that it was definitely worth it in this case, as removing the pockmark a restroom building would put on the park makes the utility of the park much better.  People go to Retiro to relax, play, and enjoy the quiet and naturalness of nature.  People also need to go to the bathroom while doing so.  Short of going completely all-natural, placing the manmade building below the ground in an unobtrusive manner solves both of these needs perfectly.  When I passed by the area the first few times, I did not even notice the small sign denoting servicios.  I did notice the fence surrounding a staircase into the ground, so the next time I stopped by my curiosity caused me to check it out, and I was pleasantly surprised by their upkeep and ease of access.  Not only does was it convenient for me, but I suspect it is actually more efficient.  The city’s water pipes are located underground and having the water be accessed closer to the source undoubtedly reduces the energy and effectiveness of the process, even if by a little.  Therefore, I cannot see any negatives to doing this and it improves both the aesthetic beauty and civic performance of Retiro Park.

Buffing Up Retiro Park

    Retiro Park is a vast, gorgeous park filled with greenery and culture.  You can row a boat around the pond, sleep in the shade, take a walk, or ponder how the spray painted guy is floating in midair.  However, something that Retiro Park does not do is promote exercise like parks around the United States do.  Sure you can walk, jog, roller blade, or bike around the park, but the park doesn’t promote any form of really strenuous exercise.  In the U.S., almost every large park has basketball courts, tennis courts, or a soccer field.  In addition, a lot of parks have pull up bars and places to do sit ups and crunches.  If a person doesn’t feel like spending the money to join a gym, all they need to do is head over to the local park to get the exercise they need to stay fit and healthy.  After seeing Retiro Park, I really started to wonder how there were no fat people in Spain.  It seems like there should be.  People spend half their day sitting at bars and cafes, and you don’t see many people going to the gym.  I believe the reason few Spaniards are fat is because they flat out don’t eat as much as Americans do.  They have a coffee for breakfast, drinks and a few small tapas for dinner, and a moderate sized lunch some days.  In all, Spaniards probably eat half as much as the average American does.  Some people might think this is a good thing, but I think Spaniards can live healthier lives with a more balanced diet and more exercise, and Retiro Park could help promote this different type of lifestyle.  Retiro has big open green spaces, and one could be used for a nice looking soccer field with goals.  Instead of just kicking the ball around, people would actually play games, which is a much more physical activity.  A cool skatepark could be installed in Retiro, which would both promote exercise for younger Spaniards and keep them out of areas such as the Palace.  Also, there are a lot of snack places in Retiro with unhealthy snacks, and some could be replaced with fruit stands to promote better health.  Walking around, anyone can see Retiro is a great park, but these improvements would be both easy to do and be beneficial to the community.          

Public Gym

Retiro is a beautiful park in the heart of Madrid that provides the locals an area to relax or run or meet up with friends. Among the many things designed in the park for Madrilenos to use is a public gym. With various workout machines including a pull up bar, monkey bars, and push-up machines, locals and visitors essentially receive a free gym membership. These machines are simple apparatuses black and yellow apparatuses filling up a 300 square meter area of the park. This area is used by a surprising number of passer-byers, with a few people utilising the machine at almost any time of the day.

We Americans have an opportunity to learn from this resourcefulness. With an obesity epidemic and rising rates of diabetes, America's health could use a pick-me-up to say the least. Providing the population with free work out machines can help those who don't have access to them. Beyond that, this has the potential to cultivate a work-out culture which many would argue could do more for the health of the American population than providing every individual with free gym memberships. Parks in the United States are all geared toward children or sports fields, but it is just as useful to provide a public area that adults can use to work out on a daily basis. It makes sense for governments to invest in these adult playground which would improve their citizens' health and well-being.

Retiro park does a great job of providing Madrilenos a place for many different kinds of activities, including a serious work out. We should learn from them and model work our parks around the United States as an experimental avenue to improve America's health.


Park Design Government Propaganda!

            As an American who rarely gets to see a beautiful public park, walking through the Parque del Buen Retiro in Madrid is truly an inspiring experience.  This area seems to have something for everyone: music, art, theatre, recreational sports, places to read and even competitive chess.  It is even interesting for engineers because of its complexity and well-designed layout.  I noticed while wandering through the park that somehow I always ended up making it back to the lake in the middle of the park.  The park was likely designed this way so that all visitors would be pulled toward the monument to king Alfonso XII that is situated on one side of the lake.  I found this fascinating for two reasons.  The first one is that the layout facilitates people meeting together and having a sense of togetherness and community as everyone will eventually end up in the same place.  The second reason is that the monarchy specifically designed this area as the focal point of the park and installed a gigantic monument to the king.  This acts as a constant reminder to the citizens of the power and size of the monarchy.  Another notable aspect of the design of Retiro Park is that most of the main avenues that lead to the great monument are named after countries that Spain conquered, like Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.  It is clear that as you walk toward the monument to the monarchy you are treading all over the countries that Spain has taken over and used to promote this very regime.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Madrid Metro Station

When I came here in Madrid, the first thing that got my attention was Madrid’s metro system. Since I was born in China and am very familiar with Shanghai’s metro system, so I find several differences between these two metro systems.
First, the metro stops are very different. In Shanghai, there are many shops in the metro stops, even though the stops are underground. There are many different shops: restaurants, fast food, clothing, groceries, and kiosks. Some metro stops are even built under the shopping malls, so when you get out of the subway, you have to go through the first floor of the shopping mall. But in Madrid, I seldom see any business in the metro stops except the tickets selling machines and vendor machines. I think Shanghai Metro is smart because it creates more opportunity for small business and those shops also bring convenience to people. It is a win-win solution. 
The second difference is that in Shanghai metro system. In Shanghai Metro station, the waiting area is in the middle of two tunnels. In each tunnel, there is only one lane for the metro. However, in most of Madrid metro stations, there is only one tunnel with two lanes in the middle of two waiting area. I think, the reason behind this that in Shanghai, there are much more
 In the ranking of Metro systems by annual passenger rides, Tokyo metro is the no. 1, 3.161 billion rides in 2010 and Shanghai is the no.5, 2.101 billion rides in 2011. Madrid is only no.17, 634.5 million in 2011. So building the waiting area in the middle can let people change direction more easily and decrease the total space of the metro stations while have larger waiting area to fit more people.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Roman Aqueduct of Segovia

Visiting the Roman aqueduct of Segovia was truly a Civil Engineering Marvel. Built in the first century by the orders of Roman Emperor Vespasian, this aqueduct served the town of Segovia for nearly 2 millenniums. The aqueduct transports water from the Fuente Fria River in the nearby sierra some 20 miles away, naturally separating the sand from the water near the beginning of the aqueduct. For about 800 yards the aqueduct travels with a one percent grade. It is nearly 100 feet at its tallest point with 20 feet of foundation. There are 88 arches from the point it crosses ancient city walls to its final destination, the Alcazar. It contains two sets of arches; the bottom sets of arches have a width of about 15 ft. and the top set has a width of 16 feet. The bottom columns are wider and longer in size and the upper columns are shorter and smaller in width. The water travels on a U shape hollow with dimensions of 1x8 and 1x5 on top the aqueduct. It was partially destroyed by the moors in 1072 and repaired by the catholic monarch in the 15th century. The most astonishing part about this aqueduct is that it contains not a single drop of mortar, the entire structure is being held together by gravity. This is a very impressive structure considering the time it has survived and its simple yet effective design.