Iran in 2012

I haven't visited Iran since October 2003 but on my previous blog I promised that I had made the last entry. Now I am visiting again for the first time since then.

I had some more observations: they were about the bike sharing scheme in Tehran, the traffic issues, and the internet censorship.

Something very important for those who live in Iran is the inflation, but I don't live in Iran so I don't experience it. It's a serious issue if your salary is not increasing with inflation but it didn't seem to be affecting the people I talked to - usually a secular English-speaking elite. But coming from Australia everything seemed incredibly cheap. It cost $50 for a 20 minute 20 km taxi ride from Toowong to the International Airport in Brisbane about midnight, and in Iran it cost $45 for a 6 hour taxi ride from Tehran (Shariati South) to Shahsavar, about 250 km by road (130 km as the crow flies). However, that 250 km was a much more congested and stressful experience, and I always wonder why the Airtrain finishes so early in Brisbane.

The Tehran bike sharing scheme. There doesn't seem to be much information on the web about this scheme in English or in Persian. You can try googling "pilot docharkheh" in Persian but it doesn't come up with much. There is a March 2010 post from a bike sharing blog and not much else in English. I visited the station outside Sarsabz metro on 3 September.

Here's the station from the outside.

The rest of the information is from Milad, the attendant at the Sarsabz metro.

There are 40-45 stations in the east of Tehran; each station has 30-40 bikes with some smaller and some larger. From Sarsabz, 60-70 bikes are hired per day in a manual process although everyone's details are stored in a computer system. Extrapolating, this is a hire rate of about 1-2 trips per bike per day.

Women are more interested in hiring bikes then men but it is not possible and hijab is given as the usual reason. It is of course hard to say whether this demand is actual demand or just demand because they are forbidden to use the scheme.

The stations are open from 7am to 7pm every day except for Fridays and public holidays. The cost is 2,000 tomans ($1) for registration and after that the scheme is free. The funding comes from the government (probably the Iranian and Tehran local government) in order to reduce traffic congestion. Riding on footpaths (or green bike paths) is ok though the bike symbols are quite faded near Sarsabz. I am not sure if footpath or road riding is more common. Bike riding in Tehran looks pretty scary in this video.

There are two kinds of bikes - the green single speed bike and the orange three speed bike. I'm not sure on whether the three speed has an internal hub or not - will have to check photos.

The green single speed bike is solid steel and I would guess it weighed at least 17 kg. The estimated cost of each bike was 80,000 tomans ($40). Every bike has a helmet attached and a registration plate. Foreign tourists are unable to hire the bikes as you need to provide a "shenasnameh" (birth certificate) and "carte melli" (national ID card) and photographs.

There is an age limit of 15-60 but the upper limit is not strictly enforced as he showed us an 80 year old member. Students at schools aren't allowed to use the three-speed bikes as repairs can be expensive. There is no fine for returning the bikes after the 7pm deadline - just a warning and they'll disable your account for four days.

Apparently there is a female MP in the Majlis who suggested glass cages for an Islamic bike - searching I could only find Elaheh Sofali talking about Islamic bikes in 2007 and various discussions. Obviously there is no law against women riding bikes in Iran, but "ghanoon nist" (there is no law) and so there might be hassles, although I was told there are no problems after 11pm. But women cannot use the scheme, even though the application lists only the ID and photo requirements.

The traffic issues. There are many more cars in 2012 than when I visited in 2003. I had been told even in 2005 that the traffic was much worse than 2003. The cheapest car is now the Kia Pride, which is 11 million tomans, or about $5,000. This is within reach of many Iranians and it seems to be a sign of prestige just to have a car. (I know - it can't be prestigious if everyone owns one - but hopefully you know what I mean. Maybe it's like other societies where men feel pressure to own one to transport women around even if they'd rather not have one.) This compares to $10,000 for the cheapest total price for a new car in Australia, the Chinese Chery J1 - Chery had controversial asbestos problems recently. Congestion also seems to have increased considerably. As you may know, ironically, Ahmadinejad is a doctor of transportation engineering from IUST. Tehran won an sustainable transport award for implementing such schemes as the BRT and bike sharing scheme last year. The BRT did work pretty well when I took it from Sharif to Darvazeh Dolat the other day around 7pm, but it was a bit crowded.

I read recently that Guangzhou was moving to limit new cars but I have the feeling that idea is not going to take off in Iran soon. Perhaps it's another parallel with America - the "free market" rules - for example I can't see a "limit new cars" idea in Iran or America "no matter what".

The Tehran pollution and congestion is very bad and they are working to provide sustainable transport, but as I said it's kind of prestigious to own a car. The first person I visited from the airport was my old Persian teacher Mr G in Pasdaran. I asked him what changed in Iran and one moment he said congestion just turning (right, I suppose) from the street Bustan Yekom into Pasdaran is really bad, and the next he talked about how he, his daughter and his son had four cars between them and it was so difficult finding a place to park them all - for example he couldn't move out of his place and build somewhere else in the same street as there was nowhere in the street to park all the cars.

Here's some pictures - there's a time limit on when you can turn into Garusi St off Shariati St. A taxi driver dropping me off didn't turn into the street because of this limit and the camera in the street, but another taxi driver has just obscured his license plate at the beginning of the street and taken the plastic off out of range of the camera.

The internet censorship. This is just a joke - the censorship is widespread but completely inconsistent. There's a website called blockediniran which does a pretty good job and gets almost everything right. Of course that website is itself blocked in Iran, but it doesn't capture all the nuances and inconsistencies as there are redirects and sometimes a mobile site works when the main site doesn't. As I said the censorship is considered a joke as everyone just uses freegate or tor to get around it - it's not a cat and mouse game at all, as the mice are much more nimble than the cat. It's just a huge waste of time and money on the part of the Iranian government.

Basically what I'm saying is I can't see a pattern except for that some random Western websites have been blocked. I don't think the group in the government (TCI) has any idea what they're doing; there is no clear strategy - bans are just slapped on whenever and no-one there has "stepped back" and asked obvious questions like "won't censoring _almost everything_ just annoy people and make _everyone_ use a VPN?", "if we allow a search for dating / lyrics but people can't visit the search results, won't that make the people just use a VPN?" or logical related questions like that. If they were thinking at all they'd be asking "if we block access to the outside world's news for Iranians, might that not increase the probability of misunderstandings and thus increasing the chances of unintended conflict with the outside world?".

So they probably know everyone uses a VPN and that's why the censorship is so half-arsed - they're just going through the motions. I'm sure there are some parallels with Soviet Russia here.

Also blocked results just get redirected to peyvandha.ir so it's obviously you're being blocked - there is no ambiguity similar what apparently happens in China, where you don't know if you're just getting a timeout or not.

It does get annoying when I'm visiting someone's house and using a mobile device (without a VPN set up on it, like my iPhone). Then I experience the inconsistency. Here's some examples.

Starting with the most popular alexa sites - facebook, youtube and twitter are blocked.

Similarly orkut, myspace, friendster, blogger, and wordpress are blocked but blogfa.com is not blocked.

london2012.com works on my phone - just redirects to m.london2012.com. But according to blockediniran it's stilled blocked.

youporn, redtube, xnxx, megaporn, livejasmin are blocked. Google queries like sex, porn, cunt, dick, fuck, fucking, boobs etc are blocked but "tits" works - and these are ok as substrings so sussex, scunthorpe etc work.

Many lyrics websites are blocked. Some like letssingit.com, stlyrics.com, leoslyrics.com, lyrics.com, directlyrics.com and lyrics.wikia.com are not blocked, which is bizarrely inconsistent. Probably this means that whoever was doing the blocking has no idea what they were doing and also isn't very familiar with English.

azlyrics.com, metrolyrics.com, lyricsfreak.com, lyricsmode.com, songlyrics.com, lyrics.net, lyrics007.com, songmeanings.net, lyricsmania.com, elyrics.net, absolutelyrics.com, lyricsty.com, lyricsbox.com, lyricsdepot.com, directlyrics.com, and sing365.com are all blocked.

nytimes, washingtonpost, sfexaminer and latimes are not blocked, but sfgate, foxnews, cnn and huffingtonpost are blocked. reuters and afp are not blocked. If sfgate is blocked because it's from that den of sin San Francisco then it's inconsistent for sfexaminer not to be blocked.

amazon.com is not blocked but amazon.co.jp and amazon.co.uk are blocked.

google.com is not blocked but google.com.au is blocked - which is pain for my iPhone searches!

ibnlive.com is not blocked but rediff.com is blocked.

The mobile versions of smh, theage, and brisbanetimes are not blocked but abc.net.au, smh, theage, brisbanetimes are blocked.

news.com.au is blocked but afr.com and ninemsn.com.au are not blocked.

Dating sites like rsvp.com.au, okcupid.com, alt.com, lavalife.com, and match.com are blocked, but eharmony.com are pof.com are not blocked.

Israeli news websites like haaretz.com, jpost.com, arutzsheva / israelnationalnews, and ynetnews are all blocked, which is a really really stupid idea as of course it leads to more misunderstandings between Israel and Iran.

rferl.org, bbc.co.uk and voanews.com are blocked.

hulu, netflix and pinterest are blocked.

The bizarre: livestrong.com and www.columbia.edu are blocked - presumably Columbia is because of goaskalice.columbia.edu the health website which contains sexual health information, rather than because Ahmadinejad didn't like the place after visiting there. Livestrong.com - I have no idea.

iranian.com is blocked - too much criticism of the government I guess. Similarly aggregator / news sites like gooya and balatarin are blocked.

tripadvisor has been unblocked since a blockediniran twitter post of 28 May 2012 mentioned it as blocked. This still seems to be incorrectly reported by blockediniran as it works from my mobile.