In my planning a trip to New York City for later this summer, I researched the prices for Major League Baseball tickets and found (not surprisingly) that both Yankees and Mets tickets seem a bit more pricey than tickets for my favorite Cleveland Indians. Why is it this way?

There are potentially dozens of variables that factor into an MLB team's average ticket price.. Winning teams can probably ask for more money than losing teams. Teams that were successful in the previous season probably can get away with charging more for tickets in the current season. Some ballparks have fewer seats than others, so basic supply and demand would dictate that ballparks with seat shortages should sell tickets for more money than ballparks with seat surpluses. Some teams are infamous for having horribly fair-weather fans and others will garner fan support no matter how awful the team is playing.

When I lived in Dallas I attended a handful of Texas Rangers games. There were plenty of fans who attended, but the games were far from sell-outs. Plus, the tickets were pretty cheap and I took advantage of a few nice promotions. One friend had a theory that I found compelling: unlike MLB teams that play in downtowns or neighborhoods of big cities, the Texas Rangers play in Arlington, a suburb wedged in-between Dallas and Fort Worth but not particularly convenient to either. The Dallas-Fort Worth metro area is the fourth biggest in America, so there should have been plenty of people within driving distance of the team, but few turned out. This got me thinking, does the type of place were teams play have any impact on variables like attendance and ticket prices?

Before I go on I should disclose that this analysis is only a slice of a potentially much larger pie. It only tests the relationship between two variables and doesn't attempt to control for any of those mentioned above; and it only uses two baseball seasons of data because that's all I found easily available. Population density is a better statistic than say, total population, but it still suffers from the problem of arbitrary geographies and city sizes. Population data is from the Census Bureau's 2007 American Community Survey (and Statistics Canada for Toronto data). Ticket price data comes from this Boston Globe piece.

For the most part, MLB teams play in the cities they are named for. For teams named after states and aside from the Rangers, the Florida Marlins play in Miami Gardens; Arizona Diamondbacks in Phoenix; Minnesota Twins in Minneapolis; and Colorado Rockies in Denver. The Tampa Bay Rays play in St. Petersburg and the Los Angeles Angels in Anaheim. The two Chicago teams are the only that both share the same geography. For the New York City teams, I used Bronx County data for the Yankees and Queens County data for the Mets.

Finally, the graphs:

There is a positive relationship between population density and ticket prices. The correlation coefficient is slightly higher than 0.5 for both. This obviously does not indicate a causal relationship, but it is interesting, nevertheless.

Someone could replicate this methodology using NBA or NFL data, but I think baseball is the most appropriate. NFL teams play very few games per season and suburban stadiums are common. NBA teams do play in many of the same places as MLB teams, but the basketball season is only about half as many games as baseball.

Gambling Freedom

Barney Frank recently introduced another piece of legislation to overturn the government's internet gambling ban; something I've said before should be done. I was a little baffled (though not particularly surprised) when I saw this Fox News piece:
Reps. Barney Frank, D-Mass., chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, and Peter King, R-N.Y., unveiled legislation Wednesday that would enable Americans to legally gamble online... But the legislation grants the Treasury Department far-reaching power over online gambling.

The bill would allow the Treasury secretary to license and revoke licenses of Internet gambling Web sites under the guise of protection Americans' personal freedoms to gamble and consumer protection concerns.
Under the guise of personal freedom? Really? The current law does its best to prohibit Americans from gambling online entirely - a clear infringement of government in our lives. The alternative would be complete government hands-off in the internet gambling market. But that would make it easy for internet gambling companies to evade taxes and it would deny consumer protections to players. There really isn't anyone that thinks it is the best solution.

Being licensed and regulated by the government would give internet gambling companies a powerful marketing tool. It would also give the companies that receive licenses a sort of monopoly power over the market that they would be happy to exploit. After all, most consumer banks are happy to advertise that they are members of the FDIC. And what customer would want to do business with an institution where their money wouldn't be safe when an obviously better alternative exists?

If licensing and regulation works for the casino gaming industry in Nevada, it seems appropriate to apply a similar model to the internet gambling industry.

Say Yes to Traffic

Transportation for America’s new satire about traffic is pretty entertaining. Of course, eliminating "free" roads could drastically reduce congestion, but most people, like the main character in the video, don't seem to want any of that.

American Ethnic Food

Jackie Simone has an interesting post up at Campus Progress about the Americanization of different types of ethnic food. Her argument is that this process forces immigrants to surrender their cultures and traditions. Depending on the interpretation, I would be cautions about suggesting that anyone is forced to give up anything when it comes to selling food.

When I lived in Texas, there were basically three options if you were craving a burrito. There were San Francisco burrito places (Chipotle, Qdoba, etc.), Tex-Mex places, and Mex-Mex (authentic Mexican) places. I personally have a fondness for San Francisco burritos, but many of my co-workers loved Tex-Mex. I lived in a largely Hispanic neighborhood and had plenty of opportunities to visit Mex-Mex restaurants; but when I ate at them I noticed that most of the customers were.. Mexican. When it came to the food, I just didn't think Mex-Mex was very tasty. Authentic Mexican is simple and bland compared to its Americanized counterparts. You can't go into a Mex-Mex restaurant and expect to walk out with a two pound tortilla stuffed with ten different fillings.

In other parts of the country there probably isn't much of a market for Mex-Mex. Sure, Tex-Mex and other varieties compromise some authentic Mexican traditions, but the owners of the restaurants are running a business, after all. If no one has a taste for the food, what can you do?

Trifter has a great post about McDonald's menus from around the world. Did you know that in India they don't sell traditional Big-Macs since Hindus don't eat beef? In Japan the McNuggets are made out of shrimp? Or that in Greece the burgers are wrapped in pitas? Do these variations mean McDonalds is sacrificing its American culture and tradition? Sure. But like the owner of the neighborhood Chinese or Mexican restaurant, the goal at the end of the day is to sell food. For whatever reason, different cultures have different tastes.

When in Rome, eat like the Romans do.
Dan Ariely's new TED talk was released last week.

His book, Predictably Irrational, is one of my favorites and the research Ariely does is some really interesting stuff. I also just finished reading Tim Harford's new book, which is a defense of rationality - I was a little disappointed. I typically think Harford's columns are good and The Undercover Economist was entertaining. Of course, I think people are rational most of the time. It's what drives me nuts about policy that incentivizes things like sprawl because people respond to those incentives. But we do occasionally make mistakes in reasoning. They might not be life-altering mistakes, but then again, if we're unaware we're making them, how do we even know?

Road to the Future

If you haven't checked out PBS's Road to the Future documentary yet, watch it here (I would embed the video, but it doesn't seem to be available for embed). Overall I think they do a good job of providing an overview of the three cities in question (Denver, New York and Portland).

I'm still a little confused about why Denver is used as the poster child for suburban sprawl. While I can't deny that sprawl is happening there, it is happening in a lot of other places too. Denver's light rail system opened fifteen years ago, has six lines and about 70,000 daily ridership. That's pretty impressive for a city that is supposed to be all about sprawl. I wonder, for instance, why PBS didn't choose a city like Kansas City, which has more freeway lane miles per person than any other city and recently saw voters reject a proposal for light rail in the city.

New York is certainly the ideal when it comes to urban living, but I'm not sure it is the best example of what we should strive for. When talking about what cities could become, we shouldn't assume anyone will ever become another Manhattan. It's probably more appropriate to look at cities like Boston, Chicago or Philadelphia as examples of places with strong urban cores to be emulated.
As promised, here are a few observations from my four days in Las Vegas. Keeping in the tradition of this blog, I'll focus on aspects of urbanism, transportation, and otherwise obscure economics. I can't really comment on how the region as a whole of doing, because I simply didn't see any of it.

The strip is a very urban place.
The strip itself is a surprisingly urban place. There are tens of thousands (maybe more) hotel rooms, condo units and timeshares in only a few square miles. Skyscrapers dominate the area. Most rooms are within walking distance of restaurants, entertainment, gambling, stores, bars and clubs. There is public transportation and cabs available for getting around (but more on transportation later). The strip seems safe and has plenty of pedestrians at just about every time of day. Of course, Las Vegas also has a reputation as being one of the worst sprawled out places in America. If you have a window seat on your flight you can easily see the subdivisions and suburban landscapes that have made the region notorious in urbanist circles.

Tourism is hurting. Badly.
You don't have to look hard to find articles about the decline in Las Vegas tourism since the recession hit. I was surprised how obvious this fact is to visitors. The shuttle van I rode from the airport to my hotel had a tourism "ambassador" aboard who spent about 15 minutes talking to us about places to visit, handing out coupons for certain attractions, and pitching some really incredible "deals". Helicopter rides on the strip that used to sell for hundreds of dollars were going for fifty. Casinos were handing away free chips if you were willing to take a tour of the property. My understanding is that these ambassadors are relatively new. In the days before the recession, hotels and casinos simply didn't need any extra help getting people in the door.

Prices vary more wildly than expected.
I was surprised with how big the range in prices were at various places on the strip. Casinos with popular high rollers rooms were right next to dive-type places with regular Joes making $3 bets on craps. Fancy hotel bars selling $7 bottles of Bud Light could be across the street from a less fancy place selling pints of Bud for a dollar. Obviously there is a price to be paid for environment anywhere, but it seems to be even more extreme in Vegas.

Walking is more difficult than it should be.
When you see the strip on TV or in pictures, it really doesn't look particularly big. When you hit the street and start walking, it's easy to realize how much farther away things are than they may appear. As I mentioned before, there are pedestrians out at just about every time of day, but the sidewalks seem inadequate to handle the foot traffic. There are a number of choke points along the strip where pedestrian traffic grinds to a painfully slow flow. If you are a fast walker like me or you're in a hurry, this can be an incredibly frustrating proposition. Considering that Las Vegas Boulevard is over ten lanes wide in many places, it seems appropriate to wonder why one lane on each side couldn't be converted into improved sidewalks for pedestrians.

Transportation is a mess.
In general, the transportation situation in Las Vegas is simply a mess. Taxis and shuttle vans are really the only options for moving between the airport to the strip without renting a car. Obviously taxis are popular options at any city's airport, but it can be frustrating when there aren't other (more affordable) options available. On Sunday morning, the line for taxis at the MGM Grand was easily over a hundred people long and required about 20-30 minutes of waiting before you could catch a ride.

There were two options for non-cab public transportation on the strip, the Duece (bus) and the monorail. The monorail is fast, reliable, and has five minute headways. It is also expensive and has other shortcomings (more on that in a moment). The Duece is slow, unreliable, and always seemed to be jam packed. Many of the riders seemed completely unfamiliar with public transit; they did not know how to pay the fares, didn't understand why exact change was required, and seemed to become upset as the bus got more crowded. A bus could be delayed for minutes at each stop while riders figured out how to pay fares and squeeze in. Once the bus started moving, battling Las Vegas Boulevard traffic guaranteed a slow crawl up and down the strip.

The Monorail represents a missed opportunity.
I bought a 24 hour monorail pass for $13 and probably got my money's worth. But at 5 bucks for a one way ride, it is probably the most expensive public transit system in the country. Nevertheless, the real missed opportunity is the fact that the monorail is only useful except when it isn't. For example, I traveled back and forth between the MGM Grand and Harrah's a number of times, and the monorail was a great way to do it. But if I was trying to get from the Luxor to Treasure Island or from the Monte Carlo to Encore it would have been highly inconvenient. The problem is that the monorail alignment is behind the hotels on the east side of the strip. If you are on the other side of the street, you have to cross and walk all the way through a casino to get to the closest monorail station. That can be a lot of out-of-the-way walking depending on where you're going.

Every time I rode the monorail there were other riders, but it was never packed like the Duece. My understanding is that it typically runs under capacity expect for during events at the convention center when it can't handle the crowds. The monorail could have been infinitely more useful if the alignment had been along Las Vegas Boulevard, either above or below the street. Unlike other elevated rail systems, the monorail has a small footprint and is not particularly obtrusive. Aligning it right on the strip would have made travel between just about any two points easy. And based on the number of people that use the Duece bus service, I can't imagine wouldn't attract plenty of riders.

Final Thoughts
Las Vegas is unique in the sense that the strip is a highly urban area where few locals actually live. For that reason, aside from the big hospitality corporations there doesn't really seem to be much of a local lobby for improving transportation situation or pedestrian friendliness of the strip. And the transient nature of tourists means there can't really be a mobilized group of individuals to push for anything. Now that Las Vegas has become Foreclosure City, my guess is that locals have bigger concerns than improving life on the strip.
In light of Obama's credit card reform legislation, credit card companies are arguing that the glory days may be coming to a close for their most responsible customers. That could mean an end to airline miles, cash back and possibly even annual fees.

I wonder how much of this is a PR stunt simply designed to generate opposition to the credit card reform bill. I have one credit card and have never carried a balance on it. It seems like these threats of fees and reduced bonuses are being marketed to people like me. Further, I'm supposed to be upset that I can't get as much cash back because some other irresponsible borrowers won't be able to flood the banks with profitable interest payments and fees.

From where I'm sitting, it seems like my credit card has already made major cutbacks. I used to be pleasantly surprised to see how much cash back I would get at the end of each month. I recently made a few big travel purchases and barely got enough cash back to get a Big Mac meal at the airport. It's too bad that I don't get as much cash from the credit card company anymore, but I'm not upset. I probably don't need any extra incentives to spend my money right now, anyway.

If I'm asked to start paying the credit card company each year for the right to have a card, I'll probably cancel the account. Yes, most banks desperately need cash right now, but certainly there will be someone willing to buck the trend and offer decent cards to responsible customers. If not, my bank, ING Direct, offers a credit line on my interest-yielding checking account. I've never used it, but in theory, I probably don't even need a credit card at all.

Of course, there is another option that the banks aren't talking about: accept lower return from the credit card business.

Props to Ray LaHood

The expectations were never particularly high for the Republican from Illinois. I liked Rep. Earl Blumenauer for the position. Many in the urbanist community were hoping for someone truly progressive, or at least a Democrat... perhaps someone not connected to an evil corporation like Caterpillar.

It's hard to complain about much of what LaHood has done (or not done) so far. He pitched a vehicle miles traveled tax that even the president thought was too liberal. He's behind high speed rail proposals and increased fuel efficiency standards. LaHood might not be as big a proponent of bicycling as someone like Jim Oberstar, but he has extended a few olive branches.

The biggest disappointment so far has probably been the decision not to reform New York City's airports, but no one is perfect.

My props to LaHood for exceeding expectations.

M&Ms in a Jar

I recently found myself at a break-room style work gathering that featured a popular party game: guess the number of objects in a clear container. There are many variations of this game, perhaps the most common is to guess the number of M&Ms in a jar.

I'm the type of person that likes to know how games are played and whether there are any optimal strategies. I submitted my guess. I lost. I wanted to know what I could have done to improve my chance of winning.

M&Ms in a jar is such a frustrating game because it seems too simple, and yet the ability to guess accurately is incredibly difficult. With enough players, the range of guesses can be pretty extreme. When I played this game I saw people attempt to utilize a few interesting strategies. One person counted the number of candy pieces on the edge of the jar and used the equation for the volume of a cylinder to calculate the total M&Ms. But that doesn't really work if you don't know the dimensions of the jar or if you don't count the M&Ms on the edge accurately. Another person tried to weigh the the jar in one hand an a known number of M&Ms in another; but that doesn't work if you don't know the weight of the jar itself. Often times the winner of this game seems to be someone who simply got lucky.

In order to generate an edge, you have to know the expected value of playing. Let's say the winner gets a $50 Starbucks gift card. Let's also say that there are 50 players. Further, we'll assume that no player is more skilled than another, so the winner is basically chosen randomly. Because there isn't any cost to play, the expected value would look like:

E(playing) = (probability of winning)(payoff)
E(p) = (1/50)($50 Starbucks card)
E(p) = $1.00 in Starbucks or about half of a cup of coffee

So if an individual can't really become "skilled" at this game, is there anyway to improve the expected value of playing? At first I didn't think there was, but then it hit me. Players can generate an edge by tapping into the wisdom of crowds.

Now imagine that ten players secretly form a consortium in a back room. Each member writes a guess on a piece of paper and then they calculate the mean value of the guesses. The consortium submit their guess under a single name and agree to split the prize evenly if they win.

What does the expected value for these players look like? Well, it depends. Because the consortium will have a better chance of winning than individual players (essentially, it will be more "skilled" at the game and the more players in the consortium, the higher the skill level) the expected value will be higher than $1. But it also depends on how many people are playing the game, how many people agree to pool their guesses and split the prize, and whether or not any other groups have formed. If all 50 players agree to work together and split the prize, then the expected value returns to only $1 and the game isn't any fun at all. My guess is that there is a normally distributed type curve that can take these variables into account to determine an optimal strategy. If someone is willing to crunch the numbers and figure out what it is (or if someone already has), I will be impressed.
When I was in high school, George Will visited as part of a professional speaker series. He probably got overpaid to come talk about baseball for an hour, but at least he knew his audience, I guess. Will hasn't been having a great year. First he got himself into trouble for using dubious facts to pen a rant against global warming. Then he went a tirade against jeans that was just, well, a little weird... Now he's taking on Ray LaHood, bicycling, progressive transportation, Portland, and anything else that's loosely related.

So far, the response to Will's newest column has been tremendous.

Yglesias notes that Will's premise relies on statistics that aren't just misleading, they're blatantly false. He also wonders if the editor(s) who let the mistake slide is going to do anything about it. The Overhead Wire points out that the Great Society Subway has created real wealth in the Washington, DC area. Amanda Marcotte takes down a number of Will's arguments. LeBlanc has her own scathing critic. My favorite, nevertheless, has been a direct response from my new favorite Congressman, Earl Blumenauer.

I don't really have much to add, but I am curious that not many have caught this sublte jab at carbon footprints.
Last year California's attorney general, Jerry Brown, 71, the state's once (1975–82) and, he hopes, future governor, was a prime mover behind a new law that would deny certain state aid to communities that do not adopt "smart growth" plans. They are supposed to herd Californians into higher-density living near mass-transit rail lines in order to reduce their carbon footprints (tire prints, actually).
Emphasis mine. I get it. George Will doesn't believe that global warming is an issue. But you don't have to think global warming to acknowlege that individuals who live in densely populated areas have lower carbon footprints. That's what I take from this Brookings report, anyway.

Viva Lost Vegas

Current recently aired an eye-opening and pretty disheartening episode of Vanguard that looks at the impact of the economic recession on Las Vegas.

American Public Media also recently did a piece on Las Vegas (or Foreclosure City, as they've come to calling it). Definitely worth a listen.

I'm leaving for Las Vegas tomorrow afternoon. I don't plan on traveling off the strip, but it nevertheless should be interesting to see what attitudes in general are like.
You'd think that cities with high unemployment would be the last places where new college graduates would be flocking, right? Not necessarily, according to Conor Dougherty's Wall Street Journal piece:
The worst recession in a generation is disrupting migration patterns and overturning lives across the country. Yet, cities like Portland, along with Austin, Texas, Seattle and others, continue to be draws for the young, educated workers that communities and employers covet. What these cities share is a hard-to-quantify blend of climate, natural beauty, universities and -- more than anything else -- a reputation as a cool place to live. For now, an excess of young workers is adding to the ranks of the unemployed. But holding on to these people through the downturn will help cities turn around once the economy recovers...

Portland's bleak job market might seem like a reason to stay away, but some of the newcomers say the pull of a different city is greater than the fear of unemployment. Some had already lost their jobs where they used to live, so there wasn't much keeping them there. "A lot of people figure there aren't jobs anywhere, so they might as well be where they want to be," says Mark McMullen, a senior economist at Moody's
I recently asked what a city that has been bleeding young people for years is doing to lure (or retain) people like me. The response? "If we had jobs to offer to guys like you, we would be teaming with young people." I almost feel bad for leaders who believe this to be the case. As Dougherty's article makes clear and I can anecdotally confirm, for many young people, choosing a place to live is about so much more than just jobs. And in a somewhat cruel twist of fate, it's probably going to be the cities that are attracting young people during this recession that will come out of it the fastest and the strongest.
Miles O’Brien is hosting a new PBS documentary called Road to the Future. Set your DVRs because it is scheduled to air this Wednesday, May 20th at 8:00pm Eastern.


I'll be back with my comments sometime after it airs. PBS's documentaries are usually great.
American Public Media has produced an awesome audio documentary on the tradition of "the American dream". An interesting takeaway is that "the American dream" has been defined over time by circumstances that once made perfect sense. For example:
  • The GI Bill made is possible for millions of young veterans to attend college for free. At the time, the relative scarcity of people with college degrees made the cost/benefit analysis a highly valuable proposition for many veterans.

  • Suburbanization came about as a result of a housing shortage crisis. When vets got back from WW2, there simply wasn't anywhere for them to live. The government scrambled to provide adequate housing for its veterans and thus came the suburbs.

  • In the 1970s, racking up huge amounts of personal debt was merely a way to hedge against inflation. You weren't "smart" if you weren't borrowing and spending as much as anyone would lend you. Only fools weren't piling up debt.
Habits seem to be sticky, even when the rationale behind habits no longer makes so much sense. Today, college is expensive and the payoff for graduates is declining. Suburbanization has continued unchecked despite the fact that there is no longer a shortage of housing in many markets. Now, some urban areas have so much vacancy that their population could increase substantially without the neighborhoods beginning to feel crowded. We still rack up tons of debt even though inflation has been relatively low and the number of bankruptcies in the 90s and 2000s absolutely exploded.

Traditions, by their very nature, aren't particularly rational. Why should we do something today simply for the reason that we did it yesterday? A lot of families have a spring-time tradition where they hide plastic eggs filled with jelly beans around the house. When kids are young, this activity is fun and exciting. Every year that goes by, the tradition seems less fun and more goofy. When the kids are in their twenties, it makes no sense at all. Fortunately, most families discontinue the habit once they realize it doesn't make sense anymore. The consequences for continuing this Easter tradition is pretty low, but the stakes for continuing many of "the American dream" traditions are definitely a lot higher.
I recently bought the spring issue of two magazines for the first time: GOOD and Next American City. If you are interested in urbanism, sustainability, transportation, or related topics, these are two awesome publications.

In fairness, they can be a bit hard to find without a subscription. I found GOOD at Whole Foods and Next American City at a Joseph Beth; but if you can get your hands on a copy, definitely check them out.

Delaware's Sports Bet

ESPN's E:60 program recently did an interesting segment on Delaware's interest in bringing sportsbooks to the state.

The NFL and NCAA's public relations departments really need to get some fresh arguments if they want to continue opposing legalized sports wagering. The idea that putting sportsbooks in Delaware or New Jersey or on the internet would instantly lead to rampant cheating is silly. Why? Because if players want to wager on their own games, it is as simple as calling their confederate in Southern Nevada and having her walk into the Las Vegas Hilton and make the bet.
I haven't yet commented on Obama's "Vision for High Speed Rail" because my feelings are mixed. I do think that big inter-city transit projects can be beneficial, but I'm fearful that if we don't do them correctly, they will wind up as major boondoggles. As you can see, the Vision calls for big rail expansion in the Midwest, including an alignment from Cleveland to Cincinnati via Columbus (also called the 3-C corridor).

According to this article from The Plain Dealer, Governor Ted Strickland is already pushing for an Amtrak passenger rail service on the 3-C corridor, including a joint station near i71 and West 150th that would connect the 3-C corridor to RTA's Red Line. The route would continue to an "expanded" version of Amtrak's existing station on Lake Erie. This map shows the likely 3-C alignment in blue and the RTA Red Line in red.

(Click to Enlarge)

This map is a zoomed in version showing the downtown Cleveland Amtrak alignment, again in blue, and the RTA Red Line alignment.

(Click to Enlarge)

Inter-city rail service derives value from the fact that it can take people from the center of one city to the center of another. It eliminates the need to travel to the outskirts of the city to get to an airport or spend a ton of money on a taxi to get to your final destination. The other major benefit of rail service is that it has many connections to local transit service.

Consider the case of the Acela Express line, which is typically considered the single instance of successful high speed rail in the United States. At the northern-most end of the line, Boston's South Station provides connections to Boston's Red Line (heavy rail), Silver Line (BRT), a number of commuter rail lines and bus lines. In New York, Penn Station connects directly to the Long Island Railroad, New Jersey Transit, subway lines, local bus routes, Greyhound and Megabus. In Philadelphia, 30th Street Station serves SEPTA and New Jersey Transit rail lines, and has bus, subway, and trolley connections. In Washington, Union Station has a direct connection to the Metro's Red Line, MARC commuter rail, VRE commuter rail, and local and regional bus lines.

Back to Cleveland.. Under the above alignment, the 3-C corridor would connect to the Red Line near the airport and (possibly) the Waterfront Line at the Lakefront station, assuming the Waterfront Line isn't eliminated by the time 3-C begins service. It would have no direct connection to the Healthline and no direct connection to any of the downtown bus lines. The Lakefront Amtrak station is basically in the middle of nowhere and Amtrak would have to do some serious work to make a connection that would be walkable from downtown.

Ideally, the 3-C Corridor would be routed into Tower City and provide a direct connection to all three local rail lines, the Healthline, and all the downtown bus lines. Tower City is exactly the type of station that high speed rail is supposed to be centered around. I don't know if it isn't being considered for political reasons, cost reasons, engineering reasons, or whatever, but my fear is that building a rail corridor using the proposed alignment will doom the entire project to immediate and long-lasting failure. And that's bad for everyone, but particularly for Cleveland.
Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting new piece in The New Yorker about how the Davids of the world can successfully defeat the Goliaths. The key, according to Gladwell, is that the Davids cannot win if the concede to playing the game by Goliath's terms. He gives a few examples of how and when David has proven successful:
  • Vivek Ranadiv√© coached a twelve-year old girls basketball team to national success by using full-court pressure against teams that were otherwise bigger, faster and stronger than his.

  • T. E. Lawrence's band of warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks without suffering any major casualties themselves. They accomplished this by coming at the Turks from the unprotected desert, rather than attacking Medina directly.

  • Doug Lenat, a computer scientist with no military experience, won a virtual war-game by employing a goofy strategy of using a fleet of defenseless, immobile ships and sinking his own ships after they were attacked.
If Gladwell's thinking is correct, then any time a game is played and one player is inherently better than the other, it is clearly in the best interest of the weak player to utilize a David-style unconventional strategy. I think the argument makes sense, but it relies on the assumption that the winner of the game is objectively determined. In some games, that is not the case.

In high school and college policy debate, there is no explicit scoring system. At the end of each debate, some judge will tell both teams who won and explain why. The problem is that different people decide winners in different ways. Some of them may be sympathetic to the Davids, but many of them will hold a favorable attitude toward the Goliaths.

Imagine that the girls' basketball games that Gladwell describes aren't scored the way we expect them to be. What would happen if the referee got to decide how many points each basket was worth? What if, at the end of the game, he announced that he assigned fewer points per basket to the team that utilized full court pressure because he didn't think the game should be played that way? It's entirely possible that the team that made fewer baskets and employed the non-conventional strategy would still lose the game.

Greg Whitley's HBO documentary Resolved tells the story of two high school policy debate teams. The Goliath comes from Highland Park, Texas - a rich enclave in Dallas with very talented debaters. The David team is from Long Beach, California - an urban high school suffering from the typical public school problems that have become common in urban school districts. They too, are incredibly talented debaters. At the end of the story, however, the Goliath team has achieved the highest in debate success and the David team has not. The reason seems to be because the people deciding the winners and losers of these debates were more apt to side with Goliath than with David. And as long as David was forced to play by Goliath's terms if he wanted a chance to win, his odds were certainly not good.
If someone were to ask me which local company I think is the "greenest" in town, I would probably say the Great Lakes Brewing Company. They do everything from recycling to producing alternative fuels to investing in energy efficiency. They sponsor a major sustainability event every summer. I first learned about the triple bottom line concept because of them.

Last week the Center for American Progress highlighted a number of breweries that have embraced eco-friendly ethics. What I find curious is: of all the businesses and all the industries, why have beer companies taken the lead on sustainability?

Does the brewing process somehow make environmental friendliness easier to accomplish? Do beer executives share an outlook that most other executives do not? Is sustainability a marketing ploy designed to sell more beer? Are they doing it out of guilt because they produce a product that has caused so much pain to so many families?

I honestly do not know what the connection is, but I do find it interesting. If anyone can fill in some of the pieces of the story, please do share!
Nate Silver crunches the numbers:
I built a regression model that accounts for both gas prices and the unemployment rate in a given month and attempts to predict from this data how much the typical American will drive. The model also accounts for the gradual increase in driving over time, as well as the seasonality of driving levels, which are much higher during the summer than during the winter... The model predicts that given a somewhat higher unemployment rate but much lower gas prices, the lower gas prices should have won out: Americans should have driven slightly more in January 2009 than they had a year earlier. But instead, as we've described, they drove somewhat less. In fact, they drove about 8 percent less than the model predicted.
If you got caught up in the mathematical jargon, it's as simple as this: gasoline prices became so cheap after last summer that we should have taken advantage of them and driven more than ever. The fact that we didn't tells us something important. If you click through to Silver's article you will see a graph that looks like it would be useful if Esquire didn't try to make it look really slick and 3-D like.

What will be really interesting is to see how this plays out over the summer when gasoline is seasonally most expensive and driving is at its seasonal high. If the model holds, then we might actually be on to something..
This week Newsweek launched a new online project called Generation O (for Obama, of course). I will be a contributing blogger over there for the next three months.

Meet the bloggers here and add the feed to your reader. Don't worry, Extraordinary Observations isn't going anywhere, so you'll be able to keep up with my thoughts on urbanism, economics, and everything else over the summer.

Stress is Relative

It's the time of year when college students across the country are freaking out about exams, term papers, and everything else. You can see it on Facebook, where people post statuses about being "crazy-busy" and "ridiculously stressed". You can overhear it at the library, where people talk about pulling all-nighters studying for some exam or pouring their heart into a ten minute PowerPoint presentation.

I vaguely remember those days of pure anxiety. But I don't think I've felt truly stressed out about a class since my sophomore year. I haven't pulled any all-nighters in over two years. I get just about everything finished on time, and the quality of the work (at least papers and presentations) is noticeably better. What's the secret? I have a (not very scientific) theory...

When all I was doing was going to school, getting perfect grades seemed like the only thing I had going for my future. When I started working part-time, it became much more obvious that stressing out about every quiz and every paper just isn't worth it.

It seems counter-intuitive. After all, time spent working is time not spent not spent studying or doing something else potentially productive. That extra twenty hour per week should help alleviate stress, not increase it. I guess its funny how it works sometimes.. now I can't help but chuckle in my head when I read and hear about how "insane" everyone's lives seem to get around this time of year.
The economic crisis has claimed a lot of victims. Companies have failed. Jobs have been lost. Health insurance taken away. Now it looks like the next victim will be underprivileged college students.

When I was in high school, applying to college was all about getting into the "best" school. Money was on the back burner. If you were smart enough, you could get scholarships. If you weren't, there was this wonderful thing called "financial aid". Loans could cover the rest, and since we would all graduate and make more money than we could possibly imagine, it hardly mattered how much we borrowed.

The tides have turned. The possibility of graduating into unemployment is extremely real. The risk of having financial aid yanked during the toughest times is something that needs to be considered. In a story that started floating around the blogosphere last week, NYU's administration started calling future students and telling them that if they can't afford the $50k plus per year price tag, they might be better off elsewhere. Earlier this month NPR reported that conversations about college have shifted from the quality of schools to the price of attending. Cost has sudden become a primary consideration.

It's likely that the most elite schools will have the least difficult time riding out this economic crisis. Pent-up demand to attend the nation's top schools is still overwhelming. These universities can accept a lower caliber of student as long as he/she is willing and able to pay. Elite universities might not be able to offer financial aid, but it doesn't mean they won't fill every seat in the incoming class.

Andy Kroll writes that the impact is a deepening inequality in America's universities. In some ways, he is absolutely right. The elite schools that have traditionally been dominated by the best and brightest are becoming dominated by the wealthiest and most privileged. On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who fully depend on financial aid to attend even modest state schools are choosing not to attend at all because they can't afford anything.

On the other hand, the situation is also decreasing intellectual inequality. The smartest young minds used to segregate at Ivy League and other elite universities, but now the high school class valedictorian might find herself sitting next to an average C student in a two hundred seat lecture hall at a big public university. Whether it's a shame that the most talented individuals can't attend the most elite universities for financial reasons is debatable, but it leads to one last important point.

We have to learn to stop assuming that graduates from the traditionally top schools are inherently smarter, harder-working or more talented people than those from less elite universities. Recruiters should focus on a person's accomplishments and ambitions. To find the highest quality graduates, it might no longer be as simple as showing up at career fairs at the Ivy League schools and assuming that every person in the room is superior to anyone else in the world. At the end of the day, the average student from the elite university might still be smarter than the average student from the state school; but there will be a plethora of hidden gems buried at every school. It would be a shame to let them go unnoticed.

Demographic Analysis

Nate Silver's TED talk about racism and political elections is extremely interesting, and I think the ideas about urban design he presents toward the end are the best part.

I wish I could be a mathematical wiz like this guy.