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Showing posts from February, 2009

High Speed Rail Alternatives

NPR's Morning Edition aired a nice story on Tuesday about the Obama administration's interest in high speed rail investment. Given my enthusiasm for urbanism and transit, it may surprise some readers to find out that I do not get particularly excited about the prospect of high speed rail. It's not that I'm opposed to it in principal, but I don't do nearly as much traveling from city to city as I do around cities. I don't think the air travel is nearly as bad as people make it out to be (although this could stem from my uncharacteristic loyalty to Southwest Airlines) and I question whether a high speed rail network really makes logistical sense.

One of the biggest downfalls of air travel (and biggest potential advantages of high speed rail) in our country is that airports are almost always located on the fringes of cities - making it particularly inconvenient to travel from a city's airport to the city itself. To me this is an opportunity to improve rail tran…

Playing With Numbers

Felix Salmon's new piece in Wired is an extremely interesting look at an aspect of the financial meltdown I didn't know much about. The situation raises a lot of questions about the advantages and the limitations of data - or more accurately, how we apply data. The reliance we now put on numbers is actually sort of amazing. A hundred years ago very little data even existed. What did was difficult to utilize, as any calculations had to be made by hand, with nothing more than pencil and paper. Advanced statistical techniques either hadn't been invented or were hardly reasonable to carry out.

It's not that having a lot of data is inherently a bad thing; it's that there are seemingly endless mathematical functions and formulas we can apply to them, and then even more interpretations and conclusions to draw. I always cringe a little when people use phrases like "it's all in the numbers" or "this is what the data says" because numbers themselves ca…

Politics of Transit

Last Friday's episode of NOW is one of the best I've seen on the politics of transit systems in America.

There are a ton of takeaways from this episode, but one that I drew attention to recently is the issue of local leadership. I don't know much about Pat McCrory, but along with other mayors like John Hickenlooper of Denver, the issue of transit development has been at the heart of their agendas. When we look at various cities that are building new transit systems and pushing urban development and wonder why some are excelling and others continue to flounder, it may be as simple as taking a look at who is running city hall.

This brings up a dillemma for transit advocates. Given that some cities have leaders that are more willing to embrace transit and properly develop their cities around these systems, is it beneficial to concede projects in some cities if it means more progress in others? In other words, is it better to build two mediocre transit systems, one in a place wi…

The Problem with Categorization

I've come across a few bloggers recently linking to a Pew Research report about whether Americans would prefer to live in a place with more McDonald's or Starbucks stores. For whatever reason, we are obsessed with categorically based data. What do women like? What do young people prefer? How about minorities? The problem, of course, is that a single person falls into multiple categories, and not all of them are always good descriptive fits.

If someone from Pew were to call me and ask whether I would prefer to live in a place with a Starbucks or a McDonald's, I would without a doubt answer Starbucks. Now, I'm not particularly likely to visit either of these chains, but I think the only time I've eaten at a McDonald's in the last year or two has been at 6am in an airport when there is basically nothing else available. Starbucks, on the other hand, isn't a place where I would buy a cup of coffee on a regular basis, but it is a place where I would go to meet a f…

David Brooks and Sprawl

I didn't think I'd be able to go without eventually writing a response to David Brooks's recent column about suburban sprawl, car dependence, and America's love affair with them, but plenty of people have already beaten me to the punch; Ben Fried's and Alex Marshall's pieces are both particularly good, so I will leave you with them to provide you with a dose of Friday afternoon reading material.

Inside the Meltdown

PBS's new Frontline documentary on the brief history of the financial meltdown is awesome. Seriously. This is by far one of the best hours you can spend during your week.

Admittedly, before seeing this, I only knew this story from bits and pieces I'd collected along the way. Now, the whole chain of events is a lot more clear.

Good Cop, Bad Cop

I didn't think I would love Tom Vanderbilt's new book Traffic when I picked it up a few weeks ago; after all, I can't stand driving, so what value would there be for me in a book with the subtitle "Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)"? As it turns out, Vanderbilt's book is one of the best I've read this year, and has really got me thinking about the psychology of driving in a lot of situations.

When it comes to opinions about police, some people have extreme opinions one way or the other, and they tend to be rather outspoken; but most would accept that they are more or less necessary to keep society functioning. That is, of course, unless they're in a car.

If we're on foot, we like seeing officers on the street. We appreciate the fact that if we see something we don't like we can just yell out across the street and help will be right on the way. And we like the fact that the presence of police should theoretically deter crime …

Suburbanization Made Sense for a While

Richard Florida's cover story in the March issue of the Atlantic is worth reading for a lot of reasons, but my favorite takeaway is a paragraph buried toward the middle:
Suburbanization—and the sprawling growth it propelled—made sense for a time. The cities of the early and mid-20th century were dirty, sooty, smelly, and crowded, and commuting from the first, close-in suburbs was fast and easy. And as manufacturing became more technologically stable and product lines matured during the postwar boom, suburban growth dovetailed nicely with the pattern of industrial growth. Businesses began opening new plants in green-field locations that featured cheaper land and labor; management saw no reason to continue making now-standardized products in the expensive urban locations where they’d first been developed and sold...But that was then; the economy is different now. It no longer revolves around simply making and moving things. Instead, it depends on generating and transporting ideas. Th…

Postal Conspiracy

After the discussion from a few weeks ago about the role that sprawl has played in the USPS's financial situation, I caught a letter to the editor in last Thursday's Plain Dealer that I thought deserved a response. The letter comes from Susan DiFranco of Columbia Station, Ohio. A town of about 7,000 on the outer-suburban fringe of Cleveland.
I recently read that the U.S. Postal Service is having financial difficulty and is weighing its options. One option is to deliver five days a week, which would save approximately $3.5 billion. A lot of businesses operate Monday through Friday; I don't see a huge problem with a five-day-a-week delivery system.

The other option is to close down rural stations, leaving their residents no post offices at all. This option would be the same as shutting down all of the post offices in the city and having all of the mail coming and going from the main post office on Orange Avenue. How many people would want to drive down to Orange Avenue to pick…

Visas for Home Buyers

Tom Friedman's column from earlier this week proposes an interesting idea for stimulating our economy:
Leave it to a brainy Indian to come up with the cheapest and surest way to stimulate our economy: immigration. “All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate — no Indian bank today has more than 2 percent nonperforming loans because not paying your mortgage is considered shameful here. And we will start new companies to create our own jobs and jobs for more Americans.” I mentioned this idea to a co-worker, originally from Pakistan. He said he personally knew of more than 100 people who would jump at an offer like this, even if buying a home was a pre-condition to receiving the Visa. That seems pretty amazing to me.

The End of "Drive Til You Qualify"

A hot new report from the Urban Land Institute posits that residents in the Washington DC metro area can't necessarily find more affordable living in far-flung suburbs like they used to be able to. The reason is relatively simple: any savings in housing are offset or even surpassed by commuting costs; non-car alternatives and a high number of District and inner-suburb residents who get around by transit, bicycle, and foot brings down the average cost of getting around for those close to and in the city.

On a recent trip to Washington, DC a friend of mine remarked that high rents in the area are overrated because the costs are easily offset by the fact that you can live a fulfilling life without a car. The point may seem obvious, but becomes more clear when you actually do the calculation. I've pointed out the statistic from AAA that the average cost of car ownership is now about $8000 per year. Given that cost structure, perhaps you can only afford monthly rent of about $700. W…

The Carpooling Non-Alternative

In the debate over whether cities should do a better job of providing transit services to its citizens or cut back on what they already provide for monetary reasons, carpooling is often thrown around as a reasonable alternative. In theory, if every person who drove to work alone, in their own car, traveled with a buddy instead, it could solve problems from energy consumption to pollution to congestion. From a personal finance standpoint, it could save people a ton of money in fuel, tolls and parking. So it's reasonable to ask why so many people, even in places where carpool lanes provide an even greater incentive to carpool, still drive alone, everyday?

The typical assumption is that few people actually live and work in the same places. For a carpool to be effective, you and your neighbor would have to both work in the same part of town. Even so, why is it that there are married couples live in the same house and work in the same building, but drive two different cars to work? Shou…

Car Free America

Last week the Center for American Progress rounded up various rankings of the best cities in America to be without a car. For the most part, there is a pretty strong consensus about which American cities are best for non-drivers, and a lot of the places are ones I identified last summer.

With all the talk about federal stimulus dollars and what projects the money should and should not be funding, it can be easy to forget that good, walkable urbanism can't exactly be forced down the throats of cities that don't want to embrace it. The places identified above got to where they are primarily thanks to local leadership committed to creating and maintaining these types of places. Some of them may have been built in part with federal dollars, but so have highways and roads the line America's least pedestrian-friendly cities. At the end of the day, the old adage that "all politics is local politics" still rings true.

Perverse Political Rhetoric

Ryan Avent's new piece in the American Prospect is excellent in detailing how stimulus provisions that exclude funding for transit and rail are a step in the wrong direction; one paragraph in particular caught my attention:

Perhaps worst of all, the Senate, like the House, declined to specifically
direct funding toward operating costs for transit systems. While capital
spending to repair and enlarge transit systems is absolutely necessary to meet
long-term environmental (and economic goals), those investments do nothing to
keep trains and buses running right now. With gas tax and general budget
revenues plummeting, systems nationwide are cutting service, increasing fares,
and sacking employees. And while grants to state governments may be used to
cover some of the shortfall, state officials will face strong pressure to plug
other holes first, stimulus concerns aside. Multi-jurisdictional systems in
particular may be out of luck, as governments prove reluctant to devote money to
systems that …

Time and Distance

Tom Vanderbilt links to a interesting new study by Ohio State University psychologist Dennis Shaffer. When asked to describe the length of the white stripes on streets and highways, people significantly underestimated reality:
Each dashed line measures 10 feet, and the empty spaces in-between measure 30 feet. So every time a car passes a new dashed line, the car has traveled 40 feet. But in this study, people consistently judged the lines and the empty spaces to be the same size, claiming that both were two feet.This is an amazing finding to me and shows that we aren't just bad at estimating distance, we're terrible. For every 40 feet that we travel, the brain apparently thinks we travel a mere 4 feet.

I wonder if this is the same reason why people typically describe distance with non-constant variables? When I lived in Dallas, people almost never described distance in miles, it was always in minutes or some otherwise subjective unit of measurement. It drove me crazy; but not ju…

Not Watching in HD

I came across this interesting tidbit about HDTV over the weekend:
In-Stat reports that 17 million of the 39 million U.S. households with HDTV, or 43.6 percent, don't watch in HD. The finding is based on a recent survey of consumers and defines "HD programming" as paid high definition services from cable and satellite providers and free broadcasting over the air. Packaged media, such as Blu-ray disc and video games, are not included.

Michael Paxton, an analyst for In-Stat, told CDFreaks that there are two main reasons why so many HDTV owners are still watching in standard definition. Cost was a major factor, with consumers saying they didn't want to fork over extra fees to lease an HD set-top box or to get HD channels. Also, consumers often said the amount of high definition programming wasn't enough to justify the extra effort.I wonder if these results are skewed either by people who think they are watching shows in HD when they aren't or by people who don'…

You Know People are Anxious When...

Bloggers have been linking to this Consumerist post from last week and describing it with words like “sad”, “depressing”, and “wow”. I’m not trying to argue that the economy isn't in bad shape, but judging the health of the economy based on how many resumes recruiters are receiving for open positions is a poor metric to use.

Imagine a simple hypothetical economy with 1000 people – all of whom are in the workforce. At 5% unemployment, things look OK. Out-of-work individuals are searching for jobs; others apply to new positions while gainfully employed or out of fear of losing their current job. Perhaps 100 out of the 1000 people in this imaginary economy are applying for work. Further, they send out an average of 10 resumes each. Thus, there are about a thousand resumes in circulation.

Now the hypothetical economy delves into deep recession and unemployment doubles. Desperate for work, people start sending out an average of 20 resumes each. So now there are 200 people sending an aver…