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Showing posts from July, 2009

Unexpected NIMBYs

This news is a bit old, but I wanted to chime in on this gooddiscussion 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 t…

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…

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 …

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 m…

Licensing Heavy Machinery Operators

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 …

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 …

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 politi…

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 progra…

The Evolution of Transit Technology

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?

Visit to Smart Growth's Headquarters

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 technica…

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…

A Stroll Around the Capital

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 aw…

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 withdra…

Campus Progress Follow-Up

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 cha…

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 o…

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…

Rethinking the United "States"

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 43…

Why Drivers Should Love Tolls

"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, e…

The Politics of Fireworks

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…

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 …


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 a…