Unexpected NIMBYs

This news is a bit old, but I wanted to chime in on this good discussion with some observation about this Washington Post article on the struggle between residents in Washington DC's U Street neighborhood and developers who are turning it into an urban hot spot.

(from flickr user NCinDC)

I'm sympathetic to the view that if people don't want to deal with the noise and vibrancy of a hot neighborhood, they shouldn't have moved into buildings, in some cases, literally on top of the bars in question. On the other hand, I wonder if the way the neighborhood has developed in recent years has made the debate somewhat inevitable.

For instance, take this snippet from the article:
"The thing that I am sad to see is that my block is being dominated by restaurants and bars," said Fishman, who put down a deposit on his apartment in 2003 before plans for the space below his apartment had been finalized. He, like Kelner, often keeps his windows closed when the neighborhood's traffic picks up.
It's possible to argue that he should have seen it coming, but it's more than that. Fishman owns a condo in the Langston Lofts building, which has sold out all of its new condo units, and Urban Turf reports that units are being resold for around $425,000. Union Row, the other building mentioned in the article, has units selling in the range from a few hundred thousand to a little over a million.

Now, if I were currently in Washington DC, would I be interested in living in this neighborhood? Absolutely. Would I be interested in living there when I'm 52 years old? I don't know, I'm not even sure I would be interested in living there when I'm 32 years old; but thirty years is probably the absolute earliest I would be able to pay off a mortgage on any of the neighborhood's condo units, if I could afford one at all. Any building that didn't offer rental units at the market-rate would be out of the question for me.

But many of the buildings springing up along the U Street corridor and in other gentrifying areas of Washington DC are condos, as opposed to market-rate apartments. Obnoxious commercials by the real-estate industry describe home ownership as an investment in the future. A lot of people see it that way, and when they buy, they plan to stay. I'll acknowledge that preferences change over time. The key, perhaps, is that renters are more willing to change neighborhoods to fit their lifestyles; home owners are more willing to change the neighborhood itself.

There are good theoretical arguments in favor of home ownership and its impact on communities. It provides a big incentive to protect property and the neighborhood to retain resale value. It gives an incentive to invest in the long-term success of the community; and it makes it more difficult for residents to flee if things start to change.

College towns are perhaps most infamous for having extremely transient populations. Housing turnover occurs at a high frequency and most students are around for no more than four years, none of them own homes, and most of them are far from wealthy. These neighborhoods aren't inherently bad places to live. They are good for the student population who moves in when they're a certain age and move out a few years later. The neighborhood is designed to cater to that type of lifestyle, and in most cases it works fairly well.

An imbalance of condos and market-rate apartments means that some young people, those best suited to live in a place like U Street, might get priced out early in their adult lives, as entry-level salaries and student debt obligations make coming up with a down payment and monthly mortgage payments difficult. It also means that as individual preferences change over time, there will be more resistance from residents. After all, it's much more difficult and time-consuming to go through the process of selling a condo unit than it is to wait out the remainder of a lease and then move on.

This is certainly a complicated affair, of course. Developers chase profits. If big money is to be made in condo buildings, that's what will get built. If condo prices plummet, perhaps market-rate apartments will have a better shot. I've lived in a big managed apartment complex. I thought it was great and I wouldn't have any qualms about renting a unit in one of them again. But buying a condo... thats another story entirely.

Steve Wynn's Las Vegas

60 Minutes did a feature with Steve Wynn a few months ago, and since it re-aired last Sunday it reminded me of a few observations I wanted to make about the casino industry.

I stayed at Wynn's hotel in Las Vegas, and yes, it is at least as absurdly luxurious as the video makes it out. It's also the perfect example of what Las Vegas has become thanks to Wynn.

Before Wynn opened the Mirage (so I've read), Las Vegas was seedy and dirty. There were no upscale shopping malls. There were no fancy restaurants. There were no rich people who came to spend hundreds of dollars on off-Broadway performances. Hotels were places to sleep, not bastions of opulence. Based on my research, it seems like it was a pretty grimy town.

Whenever I hear that some struggling state has put another proposition on its ballot to legalize gambling and build casinos, I can't help but wonder what their expectations are. Pro-casino advocates typically cite job creation and out-of-town tourism as reasons to build the casinos. Maybe a casino will attract tourists from nearby cities or rural towns who really want to give their away money rolling dice or flipping cards, but its certainly not going to attract the wealth and success that Wynn's Las Vegas does.

States that want to legalize gambling and build casinos might be able to re-create Las Vegas. But it won't be the Las Vegas that Wynn transformed in the 90s. It will be the seedy desert town that existed before that. Not exactly the kind of place where I would want to be...

The Business of Airlines

A friend of the blog passes along this article from the Daniel Gross archives:
The Federal Aviation Act prohibits foreigners from owning more than 25 percent of an American airline... A law that may have made sense when it was enacted in 1938 is clearly obsolete today. What could possibly justify maintaining a law under which an airline's certificate of operation can be revoked if foreign ownership rises above the prohibited threshold? National security? Come on.
In principal, I agree with the silliness of this law. Yes, air travel and the airline business have become politically contentions because of the role they played in the World Trade Center attacks, but it really doesn't make a convincing case for restricting foreign ownership. If foreign companies want to dip their toes into an industry with as much turmoil as airlines, I think they should get a shot.

Though another part of me wonders if the very nature of the airline industry in this country makes real reform difficult if not impossible. I'm certainly no expert, but I did work in the industry for long enough to witness a few of the inner-workings.

It's not unusual for consumers to be price sensitive in any market - it's a fundamental assumption of economics 101. But price sensitivity assumes that goods and services are identical. In the airline business, there are things that can set some airlines apart from others: good customer service, liberal checked bag restrictions, in flight-meals, first class amenities, etc.

Yet many American travelers seem unhealthily obsessed with getting the lowest price on air fare. An entire industry has emerged to help customers compare fares from dozens of airlines on a single screen. Often I'll ask someone which airline they typically use to fly to this city or that. The most common answer is, "I don't know, whoever is cheapest at the time." I've had people tell me that they booked a flight with an inconvenient connection and a multiple hour layover because they saved 20 bucks on the round-trip, even when a non-stop was also available. Or that they drove 300 miles round-trip to use an airport that had fares for fifty bucks cheaper than their home city's.

I find it pretty annoying when news programs go to the airport around the holidays and interview whiny travelers about how bogus it is that the airlines are charging extra fees for checked bags or for soft drinks or whatever. If customers took these things into consideration when buying their tickets, airlines would have an incentive to offer them as part of the fare. As long as customers primarily look at a single, "before tax" and "before fee" price, airlines have a big incentive only to advertise that number. And as long as customers keep doing business with airlines based solely on price, the airlines have little incentive to provide good customers service or keep good track of bags.

I fly on Southwest Airlines 9 out of 10 times I travel long-distances, and I happen to think they have excellent customer service, friendly agents and flight attendants, and reliable flights. Yes, they are well-managed and smarty-operated. They do a lot of things right that other airlines do wrong and they consistently are among the most profitable in the industry. They also have the lowest prices most of the time, and I can't help but worry about what might happen if they didn't. All the little things that makes the airline so great just might not be enough to get many of the price-obsessive travelers onto the plane.

Oil Entitlement

Charlie Gibson's new 20/20 special on oil was OK, not spectacular, but worth checking out if you have the time. The timing seems a little off. This is one topic that was red-hot exactly one year ago. Now it's been pushed to the back-burner, but it's still important to think about. (Sorry, I can't embed the video because ABC apparently isn't friendly about that sort of thing).

The best quote comes from the last minute of the episode:

"You are the problem. You, America... you're the problem, because you're using 25% of the world oil, with 4% of the population. You're not entitled to that." -T. Boone Pickins

So much of the media coverage about oil is an attempt to pin blame somewhere... on dirty oil producing nations, on greedy Wall Street traders, or on corrupt oil companies. It's easy to forget that all of those players wouldn't even much of a game to play if the demand for oil wasn't so strong and growing.

Journey to the Big Apple

Trip Preview

It seems somewhat disingenuous to write about many urbanism related topics despite my having never spent any time in the granddaddy of urban places, New York City. Fortunately, I will be visiting Big Apple for three days in a few weeks.

(from Flickr user M.Bob)

Of course, three days is only enough time to scratch the surface of things to see and do in the city, so to maximize the utility of the trip I've set a few ground-rules.

For starters, I'll rely primarily on my feet and public transit to get around. I'll probably skip the cabs (despite my burning desire to get on the show Cash Cab). If I can get my hands on a bike, I'd like to take a ride around Central Park and a few neighborhoods, but I'm not quite sure if I'll be able to do that.

For food, I will try all of the following local favorites: a New York bagel, a dirty water dog from a pushcart, a Katz's deli sandwich, and a "slice" of New York thin-crust pizza. If there's time, I may check out a few Seinfeld favorites, including Monk's Cafe (ie. Tom's Restaurant) and Papaya King. I also plan to avoid any restaurant that isn't unique to the city. No McDonalds. No Dennys. No Applebees. No Chipotle.

I would like to try to venture beyond Manhattan. Right now I'm thinking of either Coney Island or the Bronx Zoo. Otherwise, any worthwhile suggestions would be appreciated. Hopefully readers of this blog have some ideas of the things I appreciate about cities. And of course, I will surely have plenty of observations to post about upon my return.

Other posts in the Journey to the Big Apple series:
Part Two: America’s Greatest Urban Place
Part Three: Getting Around Town
Part Four: Taste of New York
Part Five: Closing Observations
Tom Vanderbilt has an interesting piece up at Slate about the practicality of using traffic roundabouts in the United States. There are opponents to the idea, of course, because roundabouts are different; and because they would require drivers to learn a new skill. But, as Vanderbilt asks, should that matter?
...a larger question here is whether people who cannot manage to merge at low speed into a counter-clockwise circle and, yes, perhaps even change lanes in that circle, before finding the correct exit should actually be holding licenses that enable them to operate heavy machinery in the first place.
This reminds me of the drivers ed course I took back when I was a teenager. The course was about 90% bureaucracy and about 10% learning. Each class consisted of watching cheesy instruction videos and having the teacher read straight from a government-issued book. There were no quizzes or exams, no homework, all you had to do was show up.

I usually brought homework from school because the alternative was basically sitting for three hours doing nothing. One day a fellow drivers-ed students asked what I was doing. "Translating Latin" I said. "Oh," he replied, "so you can, like, talk to Jennifer Lopez and stuff? Cool." I don't think I even bothered to answer that question.

He passed the class and got a drivers license. Everyone did. And now that he has a license, it's likely that he'll keep it forever, even if he turns out to be a terrible driver. I think Yglesias sums up the phenomenon well:
If having your license taken away from you was more “pain in the ass” and less “crippling disability” then it would be more viable to do it when people exhibit clear patterns of reckless behavior. Meanwhile, literally thousands of lives are at stake.
Even in some of the worst cases, reckless drivers get exceptions for driving to and from work or to chauffeur their kids around. After all, it isn't their fault that all the jobs moved out to the suburbs or that the local transit authority cut back a bunch of routes. Perhaps society is to blame for the fact that cars are now a life necessity to millions of Americans; and society that has to face the consequences of the culture it created.

My Beef with Food Inc.

I finally got a chance to see Food Inc., which I still think stands a chance of being nominated for some documentary of the year awards.

For the most part, the film borrows heavily from a few books, including Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore's Dilemma. It features Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan as authorities on this topic, and much of the story stems from Pollan's book and even uses some of the same characters. (Stop reading here to avoid a spoiler).

My beef with the film is the way it portrays organic foods. In The Omnivore's Dilemma, Pollan goes into pretty detailed criticism of how the organic industry has become controlled by a few powerful firms, how the claim that animals are "free-range" is basically a lie, how much energy is required to produce and transport all of that organic food around the country, and how USDA certification of organic food is more about bureaucracy than it is about public health. The facts, in my opinion, make a pretty compelling argument against supermarket-style "big organic".

Yet Food Inc. goes on to glorify the idea of organic food, taking it as far as suggesting that WalMart's decision to start stocking organic food in its Supercenters is a victory for the world. Say What?

Perhaps the strangest part is that with the purchase of my movie ticket, I received a peach-colored invitation to attend a guided tour of my local Whole Foods "drawing on useful insights... to reinforce proactive messages from the film." I don't think I will be attending.

Cap-and-Trade: Doomed?

Matt Taibbi makes a pretty damning argument against cap-and-trade policy:
Well, you might say, who cares? If cap-and-trade succeeds, won't we all be saved from the catastrophe of global warming? Maybe — but capandtrade, as envisioned by Goldman, is really just a carbon tax structured so that private interests collect the revenues. Instead of simply imposing a fixed government levy on carbon pollution and forcing unclean energy producers to pay for the mess they make, cap-and-trade will allow a small tribe of greedy-as-hell Wall Street swine to turn yet another commodities market into a private taxcollection scheme. This is worse than the bailout: It allows the bank to seize taxpayer money before it's even collected.
I've defended cap-and-trade as a pragmatic compromise to a carbon tax, but I'm starting to question whether a straightforward carbon tax isn't significantly better public policy. This is also the point where I get painfully frustrated with national politics: many of the Republicans on-the-fence over cap-and-trade are outright opposed to a carbon tax. Cap-and-trade has a prayer of passing, a carbon tax does not.

Parking Wars

Time Warner Cable just added a slew of new channels in high definition, and since I rarely venture outside of the 400-range channels, I've probably been missing a lot of good stuff that's out there. Nevertheless, I recently discovered a show that I find hilarious (whether or not that's the show's intent, I'm not sure): A&E's Parking Wars.

The premise of the show is a camera crew that follows around employees of the Philadelphia Parking Authority as they issue tickets, boot cars, and tow vehicles all over the city. Of course, the true entertainment value of the show comes from the people who are in violation of the law and wish to put up a fight on camera.

For that matter, I'm still fascinated by the attitude that surrounds vehicular crimes. A few months ago I suggested that most average people appreciate police protecting their neighborhoods, but the cringe at the sight of an officer with a radar gun on the side of the road. Likewise, A&E's program shows the tendency of people to get pissed off when they get caught breaking the law, refusing to pay fines and using language to suggest that parking enforcement people are the absolute scum of the earth. What other kind of criminal could get a show and sympathy from the viewers?
A few months ago I wrote about the need for public transit to keep up with technology. Now, it looks like things are coming along even more nicely than I could have imagined (via Second Ave. Sagas):

Frankly, this app looks seriously cool, and it is really the first that would make me want to buy an iPhone over any of the other smart phones on the market. Of course, there is no guarantee it will work as well as advertised, but if it does, it really puts a damper on the argument that public transit is too difficult to figure out.

What I would really like to see is a version of this that works with buses, because in many cases, they are legitimately difficult to figure out. Can you imagine being able to type in an end address and have the iPhone lead you to the correct bus stop, tell you which route to take, and have it give you information on where the closest bus is and how long before it arrives?
For all the writing I do about smart growth and transit oriented development at this blog, I thought it would be appropriate to visit the place that perhaps best known for its implementation: Arlington, Virginia. I started the journey by traveling west on Metro's orange line, getting off at the Ballston–MU and walking through Arlington and back toward DC.

The trip covered about 4 miles, starting at the western edge of Arlington's Orange Line corridor, turning north near Rosslyn, across the Key Bridge, through Georgetown, and ending at my hotel on 22nd and M Street NW. Since the different neighborhoods in Arlington each have their own unique feels, I'll cover each separately and wrap up with some general thoughts.

The first thing that struck me about Ballston was the size of the managed residential buildings near the Metro station. It's strange to see taller and more impressive-looking apartment and condo buildings in Arlington when the same complexes are technically illegal in DC.

I didn't spend much time exploring Ballston, there is a shopping mall that I saw from the outside. I know there are a few federal government agencies headquartered in the area, but as it was already after 6:00pm by the time I arrived, I probably missed anything there might have been to see (and I'm not sure there would have been much anyway)

Despite the economic slowdown, Clarendon still seems to be growing, especially in the area right around the Metro station.

I'm typically not a huge fan of suburban "lifestyle centers" and Clarendon reminded me of an extreme example of one of those places, albeit one that the developers actually got right.

I do like the fact that the apartment units seem well-integrated into the development.

I personally think Cheesecake Factory is a pretty overrated establishment, but everywhere I see one it seems to be doing pretty good business.

The Courthouse neighborhood has some interesting architecture and design.

And I like how the Metro station is integrated into the development.

The one thing I found disappointing was that there were so few pedestrians. For a place with so much promise, at 7:00, where was everyone?

Of the neighborhoods in Arlington, Rosslyn has the tallest buildings, most lively streets, and it best resembled a vibrant urban area.

It also seemed more like a central business district than a residential area, so I imagine if I had shown up at noon instead of in the evening, I might have witnessed something very different.

Arlington's Caveats
Not every part of Arlington's Orange Line corridor is easily walkable. The areas surrounding the Metro stations are generally well-developed, but some of the areas in-between were a bit lacking.

A few places made me feel like I was back in a typical car-oriented suburb.

I have to admit, I was a little disappointed with Arlington's street life. The streets weren't empty and they felt completely safe, but they seemed to lack the urban vibrancy that good urban areas exhibit.

Final Thoughts
Compared to the best neighborhoods in Washington, Arlington didn't seem to demonstrate the same urban flare. For comparison, my walk through Georgetown on the way back to my hotel felt much more exciting that anything I experienced in Arlington. Perhaps Georgetown is a poor neighborhood for comparison, but it also isn't centered around a Metro station like the Arlington neighborhoods. Not to mention, other Washington areas, including Dupont Circle, U Street, even Columbia Heights seem to have better street life. That said, Arlington is still a great example of how transit oriented development can be successful; and as far a suburbs go, it is certainly one that I could adapt to living in. Maybe my expectations were way too high or perhaps I missed some of the best parts of the city, but my little walk left me feeling pretty underwhelmed.

Why Cities Need Singles

In light of depressing new reports about Cuyahoga County's population collapse, I've been hearing a lot of local discussion about what struggling cities can do to become attractive to families. They are good discussions to have, but another (possibly more important) discussion that should be taking place is what cities can do to attract singles.

When I say cities, I pretty much mean metro areas, but the point is the same. While families look for certain amenities in the place they live: good schools, safe streets, etc., singles value things a bit differently. Yes, they like vibrant neighborhoods and nightlife and all the stereotypical stuff; but they also like being around other singles. Get the ball rolling and the effect can snowball quite rapidly. Start losing singles and the effect works in reverse..

The reason singles are so important is because they eventually become families. If their metro is a great place for families, there is a good chance they will stay. If it isn't the greatest place for families, there is still a good chance they will stay. Why? For the same reason magazines give people a year's subscription for free - because once you've committed to something, it's psychologically difficult to reverse the momentum. People end up paying for subscriptions to magazines they don't want; and people will stay in the city the already live because it's the default option.

Every metro area has some neighborhood or suburb with good schools and safe streets. Families might be willing to move around in that metro, but in the recruiting game, trying to lure whole families to a new city might be more difficult than it's worth.
I've probably spent more time in Washington, DC than any other city besides Cleveland and Dallas. Nevertheless, every time I go it seems like there is something I haven't yet seen or done. Last week's trip was no exception; here are a few highlights.

Gentrification: Love it or Hate it
My first stop after arriving in town was in Columbia Heights, the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood that has attracted a bit of controversy lately. When I stepped onto the metro escalators I wasn't really sure what to expect when I emerged above ground. When it comes to thinking about transit oriented development, this is exactly what it should theoretically look like. Apartment and condo units are located essentially on top of the Metro station and retail space is utilized on the ground floor.

Even more condo development was under construction on the surrounding blocks. The ground floor retail was of the cheap variety, but it was there, nevertheless.

The DC USA development is about a block away from Metro. I'm very skeptical about whether big box stores like Target and Best Buy belong in urban places. The complex features underground parking, though it looked like they got plenty of pedestrian shoppers going in through the front door. I'm still skeptical about putting these types of stores in urban areas, but I guess if it's inevitable, this is probably the best way to do it.

The surrounding neighborhood had some pretty nice looking row houses. I didn't venture too far away from the Metro, but at least at 2:00 in the afternoon, the neighborhood seemed like a decent place to be.

While I was sitting at the counter at Five Guys eating a big, greasy hamburger, I had a few minutes to watch the foot traffic outside. I understand why people still consider Columbia Heights to be a dicey neighborhood. The people coming out of the Metro station were a very diverse group and I heard at least a few different languages being spoken. There were a few panhandlers around and some others who looked like they simply didn't have anywhere to go. I don't really have much of an opinion about whether selling million dollar condo units to rich people will make the neighborhood a better place or not, but it does appear to be happening at a furious pace.

Spotted: Interns!
I did come across some of the Congressional interns I wrote about recently. True to the stereotype, they were walking around Dupont Circle at night, in their work clothes, wearing bright red ID badges proudly around their necks, and making themselves look silly. I completely understand why people think this is how all interns act. On the other hand, I met some Congressional interns at the Campus Progress conference the next morning, and they were very cool and intelligent people. The difference, it seems, is that the good interns do not walk around touting the fact that they work in Congress and think they run the world. Rather, they blend in with the rest of Washington; it's not quite obvious exactly who they are because they don't necessarily advertise it. I guess this is the classic availability heuristic in action.

Crime and Punishment
Ben Adler has an interesting article in the current issue of Next American City about the high crime rate in Washington, DC. His point is that a city doing as well as Washington should have seen a more significant decline in crime, perhaps on par with a city like New York, which has been doing at least as economically well in the recent past. One thing about Washington, DC that doesn't seem to make sense is that so many of the streets feel very safe. There are large numbers of people out even well after dark and it just doesn't seem like the environment where lots of bad stuff would happen. I guess, on the one hand, that's an accomplishment, that urban streets can feel safe at just about any hour of the day. But it is disturbing to think that they might not be so safe after all.

Metro Escalator Puzzle
I always thought the standard operating procedure for transit escalators was that in a station with three escalators, two are always supposed to move in the direction of passengers exiting the station and one in the direction of passengers entering. The logic, as it goes, is that people stream into the station at a dispersed rate, but when a train arrives and drops off riders, they all rush to the exit at the same time. In other words, imagine that the transit line has headways of five minutes. If 100 passengers enter the station, they might average 20 per minute. But if 100 passengers exit the station, all 100 will exit at once, and the escalators will be virtual empty for the other four minutes. Regardless, I noticed a few stations that had two escalators moving in the direction of entering passengers and only one congested escalator in the direction of those exiting. Is there a reason for this?

Why is the Height Restriction a Good Idea?
In the United States, we seem to like things bigger, better and more spectacular than everywhere else in the world. So why does our capital city look so puny? What if an alien came to earth and was asked which of these skylines is that of the capital of the most powerful country on the planet? Which would he/she pick?

The top picture, of course, is Washington DC. The bottom picture is its neighbor to the west, Arlington, Virginia. Both photos were taken from the Francis Scott Key Bridge. There are a lot of reasons why the height restriction is a bad idea besides image. I'm just surprised more non-wonkish people don't wonder why this policy still exists.

Final Thoughts
As far as urban places goes, in my opinion, Washington DC is one of the best. The number of excellent walkable neighborhoods and a top-notch (by American standards) transit system is something that other cities should strive for. The transient nature of its population is probably of less concern than it is made it out to be. Even though a lot of people do come, stay for a while, and leave, the overall trend looks positive; and really, as the city improves, more people will decide to stick around for good.

Casino ATM Puzzles

Tyler Cowen poses a fun question about casino ATMs:
Should the service fee by high or low? It could cut either way. A low service fee encourages withdrawals and thus gambling, which is profitable for the casino. A high service fee takes in money from the desperate and those with high time preference.
I actually disagree with one of Cowen's primary assumptions: that low fees encourage withdrawals. In fact, I would argue that, in this context, high service fees actually encourage withdrawals. Here is why:

Imagine you walk into a Las Vegas casino with the intention of making a $50 bet on your favorite Major League Baseball team. You check your wallet but find it empty; so you approach the nearest ATM. After swiping your debit card, the service fee notice appears; to withdraw up to a thousand dollars will cost five bucks. Now, you could shop around for a cheaper ATM, but since this is Las Vegas, you guess that all of the ATMs are going to be expensive. So you think, "if I withdraw $100, I will pay a 5% fee for this transaction; but if I withdraw $200, the fee will only come to 2.5%." What do you do?

Well, you're not going to walk away with nothing. You came into the casino to bet on the baseball game. You decide that it would be foolish to withdraw a small amount of money, because the fee will eat away a big percentage of the transaction, so you withdraw more than you originally intended.

This turns out to be ideal for the casino. Not only do they make a windfall on the ATM fee, but now the customer is walking around with more cash in her wallet than she originally intended. It's pretty likely that a gambler lacking strict self-control will give that cash right back to the house.

A truly "rational" gambler would realize that withdrawing more money than she originally intended is a terrible idea. Paying a slightly higher percentage fee isn't a bad thing if it means saving money she would have lost on the casino floor. Plus, that high ATM fee would work as a bigger disincentive to go back and withdraw again once she's reached her pre-determined limit. Fortunately for the casinos, sometimes we just don't act in a rational way.
My recap and thoughts on the Campus Progress National Conference are up on Newsweek's Generation O blog.

One thing I would like to add... I wish I could have gotten better pictures; but amateur camera equipment and a dark room didn't work out so well. Fortunately, there are some awesome pictures posted here. I hope that some videos get added soon as well. Everyone at Campus Progress did a great job with this event and deserves much praise for putting it all together.

Next Stop: Philadelphia

Over the Independence Day weekend a friend and I drove 800+ miles round-trip to visit the city where America was founded, see the places where Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin used to hang out, and explore an urban place we hadn't yet been. This was my first road trip in years, and it reminded me how much I appreciate being able to fly when traveling. Nevertheless, as I wrote last week, as far as car commutes go, this was one of the least stressful I could imagine. In the spirit of reporting on my tour of urban places, here are a few more observations about Philadelphia.

Philly Like Bikes (I think)
Yes, we did have a car, but we parked it in a garage on Friday night and didn't retrieve it until it was time to leave on Sunday afternoon. We brought bicycles and found Philly to be a relatively easy city to maneuver, thanks mostly to the simple street grid and some decent bicycling infrastructure. Granted, we only rode around on Saturday and Sunday, and didn't get much of a chance to experience a lot of real traffic, but I imagine it is still very possible to ride around during the busy times. The great thing about having a street grid like Philadelphia's is that you can get to the same places on a bike as in a car, but some of the less trafficked streets that wouldn't be advantageous for cars to use are great for bikes.

Walk Philadelphia
I was surprised by the number of people out walking downtown on the weekend. Saturday foot traffic probably had something to do with the Independence Day events taking place throughout the city, but the number of people out on Sunday was encouraging; especially for me, coming from a place where downtown streets can sometimes be nearly abandoned in the middle of a weekday. I particularly like these signs placed throughout the city. Not only do they help give pedestrians directions to places they might want to go, but they also give an idea of how long it takes to walk there.

(my photo)

Where's the Pride?
On a number of occasions we told locals that we were visiting Philly for the weekend, and the typical response was "why"? The answer "to see the city and check out the holiday festivities" apparently wasn't enough. Locals wanted to know why we chose to visit Philadelphia when New York City and Washington DC and Boston are all nearby. I understand that the City of Brotherly Love probably often gets overlooked being sandwiched powerful cities directly to its north and south, but there certainly isn't nothing to see or do. As far as cities go, Philadelphia is still one of the country's biggest, and given its history, it has enough touristy stuff to keep Clark Griswald's family entertained for a few days. I don't think it's shocking that anyone would want to visit. It's too bad that some locals make visitors feel bad for doing so.

SEPTA Token Mystery
I only used Philly's public transportation system once, so I didn't get to see much of it. I did know that the cash fare was $2, but if I had a SEPTA token it would only cost $1.45. The challenge, I found, was finding a place that actually sold these tokens. When I asked my hotel's concierge, he said on a Saturday I would have to venture pretty far from the hotel to find them. When I made my way underground to the 34th street subway station, the attendant told me she didn't sell tokes at that particular station, I would have to pay cash, but I could buy them at some of the busier stations downtown.

(from Wikipedia)

Look, I am all for using tokens or swipe cards our touch cards or anything that gives people an incentive to speed up the boarding process and doesn't require riders to carry around exact change all of the time, but why where these tokens not more easily available to purchase? Would a token machine like something found in a video arcade not have been sufficient? These could have been placed at every station and throughout the city. Or maybe there is something important I am missing?

The Cheesesteak Economy
The best known cheesesteak places in Philly are, of course, Pat's and Geno's, on the south side of the city. The night before we visited the cheesesteak capital, we asked a bartender for a recommendation. His complaint was that these two places have become commercialized and touristy and they aren't the places to find the best-tasting cheesesteak. So when we finally made it down, I was surprised by the fact that most of the people in the line wrapping all the way around the building appeared to be locals. Despite our best efforts to blend in, my friend and I probably stuck out as out-of-towners thanks to our cameras and lack of Philly's baseball gear.

(from Wikipedia)

At $8 a steak ($12.50 for a steak, fries and a drink) the whole phenomenon raised a few questions in my mind. Is this really the best cheesesteak in the world? Are the crowds like this all the time? or did we just come at a busy time on a busy day? How profitable are these places? Why don't some cities have anything resembling this? How do these places contribute to the surrounding neighborhood? Anyone willing to shed some light on any of these questions will be greatly appreciated.

Final Thoughts
The Independence Day festivities were fun. As far as fireworks go, plenty of locals claim that they are the best in the country. I don't have much basis for comparison, so I don't really know; but it seems like I've seen enough fireworks in my life that among the "best" displays, there isn't a whole lot of variation. Don't get me wrong though, it was a great show.

The Renter's Stigma

The Ideas issue of the Atlantic that is on newsstands now is pretty interesting. Some ideas are better than others, and I particularly like this one from Felix Salmon:
The housing mess is screaming out for a simple but effective solution... a decree that whenever a bank forecloses on a home, the current occupant has the right to remain in the property indefinitely, simply by paying the fair-market rent. Banks are killing each other by racing to sell their foreclosed houses as quickly as possible, before they fall further in value; this policy would force a cease-fire that would help all of them. It would also put an end to the equally destructive syndrome of soon-to-be-foreclosed-upon homeowners trashing their houses before they’re kicked out. This plan might not single-handedly end the recession. But it would certainly help.
Another step (or perhaps the first step) in accomplishing this idea is to eliminate the renter's stigma.

I was recently talking to a friend about the prospect of living in New York City. The conversation went something like this: "I think it would be great to live in New York City, but the cost of living is so expensive. I would probably have to rent for the rest of my life." It almost seemed like renting a home indefinitely was accepting defeat. I know there are many who feel this way.

I understand why people want to own homes. I also think there are good reasons to question those assumptions. We are subsidizing homeownership, both economically and emotionally. That should probably stop.

Budget Travel

Auto-posted while I am in Washington, DC for the Campus Progress conference.

When most people think of budget travel, images of dirty, run-down hotel rooms and cheap continental breakfasts come to mind. I have stayed in plenty of these "budget hotels" in my life. Thanks to my many years of high school and college policy debate, I stayed at complete dumps, like Red Roof Inn and EconoLodge; typical suburban hotels like Courtyard and Residence Inn. I once stayed at the only hotel in Ann Arbor that had vacancy the weekend of a big Michigan football game. But these places are affordable, so I fully understand why people stay at them. Recently though, I've discovered a new type of "budget hotel" and while it is cheap from a cash perspective, it might not necessarily be like any of the places I just described.

I am a huge fan of the "opaque hotel market" better known as Priceline and Hotwire. At both of these sites, you book hotels without knowing what you're booking. Sound ridiculous? It's actually not so scary.

In the past year or so I've used Priceline to book five hotels and I've never paid more than $100 (plus tax). Where did I stay? There was a Renaissance, Monaco Hotel, Marriot, and a Hilton. In some instances, the rack rate at the Holiday Inn Express across the street was more than what I paid. I used Hotwire once, to book the Wynn Las Vegas for $143 (plus tax), although in fairness, it was a solid 5-diamond hotel and it was on the Saturday night during Memorial Day weekend.

Thanks to websites like BetterBidding (my personal favorite) you can fairly easily determine the going rate for hotels in a given area, strategically calculate your opening bid, and rebid multiple times per day. The website has great guides for everything Priceline and Hotwire, so there's no need for me to discuss them here.

Of course, there are a few caveots. Remember how I said you were blind to where you would be staying? It's true, but you can usually figure out the possible hotels you could be staying using the BetterBidding website. Plus, you select an area where you want to stay, and your hotel will never fall outside of the boundaries marked on the map. The other caveot is that, with Priceline, the rooms are guaranteed for two people, but there isn't always a guarantee you can get a room with two beds. Depending on the city, it is usually worth rolling the dice.

There are also a few disadvantages to staying in nice hotels. Since they typically don't compete with each other on price, you should expect to pay more for everything. Internet access won't be free (in fact, it will often be really expensive) and forget about continental breakfast in the morning. Sometimes this gets on my nerves, but it's ultimately not a huge deal. When I travel, I don't find it very fun to spend time in the hotel anyway.
Auto-posted while I am in Washington, DC for the Campus Progress conference.

Anyone who lives in a city that is part of a much larger state is probably familiar with the city hall vs. statehouse conflicts that often dominate political decisions. Northern Virginia, for instance, a fairly progressive urban/suburban area around Washington DC, often seems to get held hostage by the conservatives who run things down in Richmond (which used to be the capital of the Confederate States of America, I might add). Another example would be New York City, where big-city proposals like Mayor Bloomberg's congestion pricing scheme often get scoffed at by small minds in Albany.

In light of a recent hot topic, the idea of abolishing the United States Senate, I can't help but wonder if a similar unrealistic logic could be applied to state-level politics. What if we carved up states and created state-like entities that look something like existing congressional districts?

Maybe we don't need 435 governments, but they could follow a few basic rules. Primarily, that no state-like government contain more than one Metropolitan Statistical Area (there are currently 363). Also, that these entities retain most of the states rights that currently exist under our system of federalism.

I know this is a very idealist proposal. There are certainly tons of consequences that would come as a result of trying to do this. But at the root of things, is the current system where cities have to compete with each other or with rural dwellers for attention in the state government really the best for all involved?
"That will be $21.25, please".

Pretty expensive charge for merely driving on a road, eh? It's easy to cringe as you hand over a couple of bills and think about how unfair it is that so many roads are "free" but the one you needed to take costs a relative fortune. It's easy to imagine this because comparing a toll road to a "free" road is an apples to oranges comparison, but one that is too often made anyway.

Last weekend ago I drove across Pennsylvania on a high-quality, uncongested highway, and never once slowed below 55mph. The route wasn't very scenic, but it was easy to drive and not particularly stressful. Once we exited the Turnkpike, I drove on a "free" highway into Philadelphia for the next 15 miles. In stark comparison, this highway was congested, slow-moving, and stressful to navigate. Break lights lit up the landscape and I moved a little and stopped; moved a little more and stopped... And this wasn't during rush hour, either. This was at 9:00pm on a Friday night and at 3:00pm on a Sunday afternoon. This "free" highway suffered from what appears to be a simple problem: too many people wanting to use it.

In the discussion on toll policy, it often is portrayed as the drivers who are fighting the war against toll roads, and the non-drivers (the pedestrians, cyclists, and others) who support the policy. I guess because it's compelling political rhetoric to portray the enemy as people who want life for drivers some sort of hell on earth.

Sure, as a driver, it would have been great to have had an identical drive across Pennsylvania and not have had to directly pay cash for it; but it would be counter-factual thinking to imagine what an untolled highway might have been like. For all I know it could have been significantly more crowded, I might have traveled at a much slower average speed, and it might have been a huge waste of time and energy. But I'll never know...

Ultimately, I think the adage that "you get what you pay for" may be very true here. As a driver last weekend, even though it seemed overpriced at first, I think I got what I paid for.
Auto-posted while I am in Philadelphia for Independence Day.

When I was growing up, the suburb where I lived supposedly had the best Fourth of July fireworks around; this year it will not have anything. With the economy putting many municipalities on hard times, it's not surprising that many cities and suburbs are either cutting back their fireworks budgets or canceling shows altogether.

(from Flickr user suneko)

One thing I've never quite understood about local fireworks displays is why there isn't more collaboration among municipalities. For example, why do five medium sized suburbs (say with 40,000 population each) need to organize and fund their own fireworks displays? Why don't they collaborate, pool their funds and host a single kick-ass fireworks display? The launching site for the fireworks could rotate each year or it could be based on how much the municipalities contribute to the fund.

It seems silly to have neighboring cities compete for the best fireworks shows each Fourth of July. If they collaborated, they could each spend less money and the resulting show would be superior to what each little municipality could have put together itself. In the old days, maybe there was some political value for a mayor who could lay claim to the best fireworks around. Nowadays, it seems like there would be a lot more value for a mayor who could cut the city's budget without necessarily sacrificing the quality of the Independence Day fireworks.

Bad for Business

Auto-posted while I am in Philadelphia for Independence Day.

Maybe I'm lucky that I didn't graduate in May like I should have. There are plenty of people from my university who are now two months out of college and still unfortunately unemployed. I think they all understand how tough it is right now. There are a lot of people chasing a few jobs. But it's what happens as they chase those jobs that has caught my attention recently.

Consider this simple question: where do you want to work? Depending on your field, the answers will vary; but if you named a company that does business with customers, it is likely that you are one of their customers.

So when you apply for a job, you might not expect to get hired or even to land an interview. But it seems reasonable to expect a little courtesy and respect. A call or personalized email to let you know that you aren't a fit for the position.. even a few encouraging words might not help. People hate getting blown off. They hate not knowing what is going on and feeling completely out of control in situations. An easy way for a company to piss off some of its best customers is to neglect its job applicants. This seems painfully obvious. And yet, my peers tell me that it is exactly what is happening at many of the places they are applying.

Yes, I know, companies are getting bombarded with applications; recruiters are being overwhelmed and overworked; slowing business is crushing the economy as it is. I'm no expert in human resources, but it seems like now is a particularly bad time to do anything that might turn more customers away from a business. Why don't some get it?


Earlier this year I wrote about the culture of fear; recently there has been more discussion about the idea of letting children roam cities by themselves.

The driving force behind all of this seems to be the obsession that parents have with knowing where their kids are at all times. That's why games of pickup baseball in the park have been replaced with organized soccer leagues. It's why kids get dropped off at school in minivans and SUVs, even if they live within a ten minute walk. And it seems to be the reason why people get emotional and upset when they hear about another parent who lets their kids explore a place beyond the gated walls of the suburban subdivision.

For what it's worth, it seems like the next logical progression in parenting is the application of technology for the purpose of kid-tracking. I imagine that within the next ten years children across the country will carry global tracking devices, and parents can know the whereabouts of these children through any computer or cell phone. These devices might be built into kids' shoes or cell phones. Questions of privacy will probably be raised; courts will set legal precedents, but ultimately I think the technology will win.

I'm confident that this will happen because that's just how quickly technology progresses. Ten years ago kids didn't carry cell phones. Almost no one had one when I was in high school. Yet almost immediately the trend changed. Now it's strange for a high-schooler not to carry a cell phone. I understand the same is also true for middle school and elementary school kids. Ten years ago nobody had a GPS unit in their vehicle, now they're all the rage (even though I still don't like them).

The implications seem less predictable, but I imagine there will be two basic outcomes. Some parents, content with being able to track their kids wherever they go, will actually let them go out to explore. They will start letting kids walk and bike to school again, because instead of watching the child move from the back seat of the SUV to the front door of the school, they can do the same on the screen of their cell phone. On the other hand, some parents might become even more obsessive. They might use the technology to punish kids for anything that looks like suspicious behavior. They will use it as a new excuse to shield their kids from the outside world.

The technology looks inevitable. I only hope it can be used for good.