It doesn't feel like it, but it was only 6 or 7 years ago that Chipotle Mexican Grill was the hottest new thing. Back then there were plenty of cities that didn't have a Chipotle or that only had a single location. I used to get excited about the prospect of eating one of their delicious San Francisco style burritos. Now, it just feels like another run of the mill eating experience.

(from Wikipedia)

It makes me wonder when the next big food phenomenon is going to sweep the country?..

Energy and Trucking

NOW aired a pretty good episode last Friday about the issue of moving freight. Watch:

I have one major beef with NOW's presentation: there is almost no discussion of oil, energy, or how energy prices will impact future economic trends. The assumption is that growth leads to higher demand for stuff which leads to higher demand for freight services. That's fine, so long as we also assume that oil prices will be stable in the foreseeable future. I don't think that's particularly reasonable.

The reason why it's economical to have highly a centralized manufacturing network is because moving stuff is cheap. And the reason why moving stuff is cheap is because oil is cheap. As oil becomes come expensive, the whole system starts to break down.

In the short-term, higher energy prices will probably lead to inflation, much like they did last summer. But at some point it will become more economical to grow produce and other food in many locations rather than in a few locations. The same can be said for manufacturing other goods as well (although the exact tipping point may be different). If energy prices cause a structural shift in how we manufacture and consume goods, then it's entirely plausible that demand for shipping services could shrink, even as the overall economy grows.

Black Market Textbooks

It's that time of year again. Classes start on Monday. I haven't gone to the university bookstore yet, but I probably will soon enough. I'll have to figure out which classes I can get away with not buying the books, since I'm sure none of my professors will be using open-source texts. There is little that gets me angrier than the textbook racket market. For that matter, I'm actually surprised there isn't really much of a black market for bootleg textbooks.

(from flickr user wohnai)

What is a bootleg textbook? I've never seen one. I imagine it's a PDF document with all the pages scanned in. Given the level of sophistication in the bootleg music and movie market, it seems like textbooks might logically follow.

There will always be some people who actually want to own dead-tree copies of certain books or who are rich enough not to care how much they pay. With something as notorious as textbooks, there might even be people who make bootlegs as a political statement. Yes, scanning the pages requires some effort, but so does bootlegging a CD or DVD. And all it takes is a single person to get the ball rolling. Plus, my guess is that college dorm rooms are where much of the piracy in music and movies takes place anyway; so it doesn't seem like a stretch to suggest that if these folks don't like paying for music or movies, they certainly can't like shelling out big bucks for textbooks.

Yes, there are consequences to piracy, and I'm not endorsing it personally. But in the larger scheme of things, a sophisticated bootleg market could force reorganization in the textbook world the same way that Napster and all the other file sharing programs led to the legitimate iTunes market. I have nothing against buying books. I buy books I don't even need for classes. It's feeling ripped off that really pisses people off.

This post is as much of a bleg as it is anything else... for anyone who knows the answer or has a reasonably educated guess: why haven't bootleggers focused much attention on college textbooks?
In less than one week, Cleveland's RTA is going to raise it's fares again, to $2.25 per ride. It was only a year ago that the cost of a ride was $1.75. I understand that transit agencies across the country are having a budget crisis. I'm even more worried that raising fares is going to badly backfire.

(from flickr user DistractedMind)

For those unfamiliar with supply-side economics, (and don't feel bad if you are) the Laffer Curve basically argues that the government's tax rate should be set as such that it maximizes government revenue. At a rate of 0%, government won't collect any revenue for obvious reasons; but at 100%, government also won't collect any revenue because people either won't work (no point in working if you can't keep your income) or hide all of their income from the tax collectors. Thus the ideal tax rate is high enough to bring in revenue but not so high to keep people from working or hide their income.

Now, consider the case of transit fares. Over the summer I worked 3 to 4 days per week, so I made about 6 or 8 transit trips per week. For the sake of argument let's just say I worked 3 days per week (since that is more comparable to what my schedule will look like during the coming semester). At $2 per ride, my weekly transit spending was $12. If fares are raised to $2.25, my spending would rise to $13.25. But, if I rode my bike to or from work just once per week (something I've been considering for a while anyway, and the fare increase will probably be the tipping point), my weekly transit spending drops to $11.25.

I think the demand curve for transit service is more elastic than the discussion often suggests, particularly among professionals and those with other means of getting around. Remember, it's not a simple question of whether I am going to use transit all the time or none of the time - it's a question of how many times per week I am going to use it - and as the exercise above demonstrates, I can still be a fairly regular rider, but total revenue collected on me could nevertheless drop.

This is a frightening proposition because transit systems that badly need the revenue could be left worst than before. Really, for all the "bailing out" that the federal government has been doing lately - it's actually sort of amazing that it's come to this.

Cell Phones on Subways

Second Avenues Sagas notes that Washington DC's Metrorail will soon have cell service for most carriers, while "New York’s own MTA continues to fall further and further behind its technologically-advanced competitors."

I'm usually in favor of all kinds of new technology, but in this case, I don't think that cell phone blackouts in subway tunnels is such a bad thing. Personally, I use my cell phone very little. But there are, of course, people constantly having conversations.. Sometimes loud and obnoxious.. Often about nothing particularly important.

What confuses me is that people seem to oppose cell-phone use on airplanes but want it in subways and trains. Ultimately, both are cramped forms of mass transportation, after all.

When I lived in Texas last winter, I didn't have cable TV. At first I thought it might be the worst thing in the world, but it didn't turn out so bad. Then I moved back home and watched TV all the time. The difference was availability. Having TV was nice, but life went on just fine without it. Similarly, having cell phone service in subway tunnels might be nice, but life has and will function without it.

Most transit systems are in some sort of financial crisis. There are a lot of things I'd like to see money (even small amounts) spent on before underground cell phone infrastructure.

Better Than the Book...

I never thought I'd watch a movie and say, "wow, that was better than the book!" Even in the cases where I read the book after I see the movie, I usually find it to be superior to the big-screen version. Not anymore... Even though it's been out for a while, I finally got a chance to watch Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist.

Not only was the movie better than the book, it was significantly better than the book. Aside from a solid cast (including Michael Cera and Kat Dennings) and the fact that the movie was able to incorporate the "playlist" in a manner impossible in the book, the storyline in the movie was simply better-written. The book was raunchy with obnoxious dialogue and seemed to be targted toward audience of pre-teens. The movie script was intelligent, funny and written for adults.

The whole thing makes me wonder what other movies are out there that are actually better than the books on which they are based?

A Free Parking Compromise

I recently came across this story from a Bay Area news source. The short version is that Oakland passed higher parking meter rates and local business owners aren't happy about them.

(from flickr user Chris Tirello)

This quote in particular caught my attention:
Lydia Wallenberg of Grand Flowers said parking used to be difficult in the afternoons near her shop. "And now, you can just drive by and pretty much pick your parking spot, which means people are going somewhere else to buy," Wallenberg said.
OK - if this anecdote is true, it sounds like all of the parking spaces near this store used to be almost completely filled and now they aren't.

Now, having every parking space taken may look perceptually good to this business owner. On the other hand, if additional shoppers show up and can't find any place to park, they will probably leave and go someplace else anyway. But there is really no way to measure the number of people who don't stop because they couldn't find a space to park. It also seems like Oakland may have raised the meter rates too much, if there are many empty spaces.

Perhaps there can be a simple compromise in this situation: free parking for 30 minutes (or otherwise) and metered parking thereafter. This system allows those that are legitimately interested in running in and buying something to shop without an additional parking charge, but it prevents people from taking the best spaces (like those in front of the stores) and sitting on them all day and night.

I've used meters like this (I don't remember where) and didn't think it was a terrible compromise. Parking doesn't necessarily have to be all or nothing, after all.

Journey to the Big Apple

Closing Observations

This will be my last post in the Journey to the Big Apple series. I've covered quite a few topics and made a number of observations thusfar. This final post will cover all of the assorted topics that I've missed. I spent three days in New York City, which certainly wasn't enough time to scratch the surface of things to do or see. There are thousands of blogs in the city covering nearly every topic imaginable. It took a long time to make my first trip to the city, and I'm sure I will be back again.

Iced Coffee Mania
I'm a big coffee guy, but I almost always drink it hot. Iced coffee is typically more expensive and tastes weaker. So why do people buy it? For that matter, why do so many more people in New York seem to drink iced coffee rather than hot coffee?

(from flickr user SheWatchedTheSky)

Yes, I drank an iced coffee while I was in Las Vegas earlier this summer. It was about 110 degrees, so hot coffee simply would have been uncomfortable. I didn't drink any iced coffee in New York, but I did buy a hot coffee at Zabar's (which was quite tasty). But as I was walking down Broadway brazenly trying to drink my beverage while walking I ended up spilling it all over myself. Oops. Then it hit me... iced coffee is infinitely easier to drink on the run. In New York, where people walk everywhere, run up and down subway steps, and are generally always moving, drinking iced coffee is simply way more convenient.

Trash. Everywhere.
New York used to have a pretty bad reputation for being a dirty city. I was actually surprised how much trash lines the streets today.

(my photo)

In fairness, I understand that there really isn't anywhere to put all this trash other than out on the street, but as the day progressed, the city felt like it was getting increasingly dirty. By about 2:00am (when this photo was taken) it had gotten pretty bad.

Where Are the Books?
The New York Public Library on 42nd Street was definitely worth visiting. The architecture is amazing and the building's interior is beautiful.

(from flickr user wallyg)

There is tons of space to relax, read, or spend time on a laptop. One thing I couldn't find though... the books. Where are they? I guess I'm used to walking into public libraries and finding stacks of books everywhere, so this one caught me a little off guard.

I Luv Southwest Airlines
The Southwest Porch gives Bryant Park an awesome touch. There were comfortable chairs, places to relax, food, craft beer, and wifi.

(from flickr user nutsaboutsouthwest)

I'm really can't help but wonder, "how many companies would actually do something as cool as this?" Now, I don't know how this is affecting Southwest's new Laguardia business or if there is even a way to measure that; but it certainly can't hurt the company's image in New York. I'm glad I got to check it out while it's still around.

Coney Island's NIMBYs
I've been a fan of amusement parks since I was a kid, so I always appreciate visiting new parks. Now, Coney Island isn't exclusively an amusement park, per se, nor is it the kind of place I could imagine spending more than a few hours, but it is an interesting place.

(from flickr user wallyg)

Mayor Bloomberg has big plans to revitalize the neighborhood and make it into a year-round destination where people really want to go. Some are opposed to the mayor's plan on the grounds that it could take away from the character and the seedy atmosphere that is Coney Island. While that is certainly a valid concern, and I wouldn't want to see the area to be come "Times Squared", I do sincerely fear that if something isn't done, Coney Island could soon go the way of Euclid Beach, Riverview Park and other formerly great urban amusement parks - it really appears to be going down that path.

Economics of Street Vendors
At some point during the weekend I jokingly commented that New Yorkers could theoretically live exclusively off of stuff that could be bought on the street. It seemed like someone was selling just about everything you might need: food, clothes, sunglasses, jewelry, dvds, etc.

(my photo)

While I was down on Wall Street I noticed that the stand in the photo above had an extraordinary line, while the vendors on either side of him had virtually no line. At first, I thought it might be detrimental to those around Sam, but the more I thought about it, I wondered if the market for street food is governed by the same forces as coffee shops. And if so, does having a wildly successful street vendor next door have the same effect as having a Starbucks open next door to a struggling mom-and-pop coffee operation?

The Best Part
In New York City, it felt like everything was "right there". Regardless of whether I wanted food, drinks, to catch a movie or a show, it rarely seemed more than a walk or subway ride away. The people I encountered underground and on the street are people that I might never interact with if my daily life consisted of moving from one parking space to another. No matter how much time I might spend in New York, I bet there will always be something new.

Other posts in the Journey to the Big Apple series:
Part One: Trip Preview
Part Two: America’s Greatest Urban Place
Part Three: Getting Around Town
Part Four: Taste of New York
Yglesias thinks professional football stadiums belong in the suburbs:
A baseball stadium or a basketball/hockey arena are used frequently enough to be perfectly viable elements of an urban neighborhood. Nevertheless, the tendency is for governments to subsidize their construction to a degree that goes far beyond what can be justified. But a football stadium just doesn’t work, it’s a hugely inefficient use of land, and thus ought to be exactly where FedEx Field currently is—a pretty peripheral area in the suburbs.
I'm not a huge fan of football and I think baseball and basketball are both better sports to watch. But I do think that there is some truth to this point. One other aspect that sets football apart from baseball or basketball is, for better or worse, the tradition of tailgating.

(from flickr user momboleum)

Football fans seem to have an affinity to sitting outside in the cold for hours on a Sunday morning drinking cheap cans of beer out of the back of a truck and tossing a football around. Aside from a truck and some beer, one crucial element to the tailgate party is acres of surfaces parking lots. In the suburbs, this isn't much of an issue - but in cities, it isn't ideal.

So when stadiums do get built in downtown areas, like Cleveland Browns Stadium, you wind up with awful nearby surface parking lots that, like the stadium itself, is useful only a few times per year. I think most football fans might say they prefer the team to be in the city than the suburbs, but suggest that their surface lots might get taken away so new mixed-used development might occur or lakefront redeveloped might happen and many of them won't be very happy at all.

Grade Point Complaints

Daniel Hamermesh wonders if his university's adding +/- to the grade point scale will change the level of student griping. I think the answer is yes. At least for a little while...

(from flickr user jakevol2)

The simple reason is that there will be more opportunities for complaining. Imagine that under the old system, a class has some students that get an 81%, some get a 86% and some get an 89%. They all receive a 3.0 on their transcript. The students with 81% won't complain since they are on the low end of the spectrum and know they got a good deal. The students with the 86% won't complain since it's hard to argue that they should get an A. But the students with the 89% might complain on the grounds that they are "right on the border" of an A.

Now imagine the system has +/-. The students with 81% will now complain because, just a semester ago, that same score got them a 3.0 - now it gets them a lousy 2.7. The students with the 89% will probably complain too, still on the grounds that they are "right on the border". But now those with the 86% might complain as well, as they are "right on the border" of the B+. More cutoffs makes for more opportunities to complain about them.

Nevertheless, the level of griping will probably level-off as people get used to the new system and the mindset that "I would have gotten this grade last semester" goes away. It might take a few semesters, but I imagine it will happen eventually.
The research folks at the Cleveland Fed have come through with a simple yet understandable explanation of systemic risk in the financial system.

If there is one positive impact that the financial crisis has had on the discipline of economics - it has created a huge demand for "common sense" economic explanations. A lot of people want to know about this stuff, they just don't have the time, patience, or background necessary to extract these concepts from the math-heavy and jargon-filled working papers that economists typically rely on to communicate their ideas.

Journey to the Big Apple

Taste of New York

As mentioned in my trip preview post, I planned on eating a few specific items during my visit: a New York bagel, a dirty water dog from a pushcart, a New York deli sandwich, and a "slice" of New York thin-crust pizza. I did get a chance to try all of them. I also stayed true to my word and avoided all chain establishments. New York City, I'm sure, has its share of excellent (albeit expensive) restaurants. One day I would like to dine at some of them, but for now, my budget called for sticking to the lower-end diet.

It's Less Expensive Than You'd Think
For all the hype about New York City being so much more expensive than anywhere else in the country, it really surprised me how easy it was to find inexpensive food. All four of the pizza places where I ate, for instance, charged less than the Sbarro in the food court near my office. Many of the vendors selling food on the street wanted less money than I'd seen back home. The bagel stores charged less for a bagel and cream cheese than the Einstein Brother's Bagels on my campus. Coming from Cleveland, which is supposed to have an extremely low cost of living, I was truly surprised at the deals that could be found in the city. Now, I'm sure that a basket of goods at the Midtown Whole Foods is pricier than the same basket at my suburban Whole Foods, but overall the difference wasn't outrageous, and give the variety, I thought it was a cheap-food lovers dream.

Hot Dogs
When I first arrived in Midtown and was wandering the streets in amazement I got pretty hungry so I stumbled into Chelsea Papaya. For less than three bucks I got a chili cheese dog. It was loaded with toppings and extremely delicious. Probably the best hot dog I've had in a while. The guys working inside thought I was from Chicago (I guess based on accents) and made some banter about how Chicago-style dogs aren't as good as New York Papaya-style dogs. I couldn't disagree. Later that afternoon I stopped at a street vendor near Wall Street. He was selling hot dogs for $1.50. I got two with mustard - they weren't amazing, but for the price and convenience, you couldn't go wrong. And of course I had to get a famous Nathan's dog while down at Coney Island.

I went with another chili cheese dog at Nathan's. My buddy, Bubba, bought two dogs with onions. Although I think there is a limit on how good a hot dog can be, it wouldn't have been right not to at least give them a shot.

Saturday morning seemed like an appropriate time to try some New York City bagels. We went to Bagel Maven in Midtown. I tried to order an asiago bagel, but they didn't have any. In fact, they didn't even seem to know what I was talking about, so I went with an everything bagel and plain cream cheese. Bubba went with a whole wheat bagel and strawberry cream cheese.

Overall they were toasted perfectly, such that the outside was crunchy but the inside was soft. A bagel with cream cream cheese cost between $1.75 and $2.00 depending on whether you picked a premium cream cheese, but overall a great deal. Although I didn't notice it myself, Bubba claimed the menu had weekend prices that differed from weekday prices. He thought weekend prices would be more expensive because the customers were more likely to be tourists. I thought weekday prices would be more expensive because they would do a heavier volume of business.

I was most looking forward to the pizza. Over the weekend I sampled a slice from four different places: two in Manhattan, one in Brooklyn and one in Queens. Bubba also found a place in the East Village at 1:00am selling plain cheese slices for $1, though I wasn't hungry so I didn't get one (though I now regret it). If you're not familiar, New York-style pizza has a thin crust and is typically folded when eaten.

Some places certainly served a tastier slice than others. Two of the places I visited reheated the pizza for a few minutes before serving it, giving it a crispier crust; the other two served it straight from behind the counter, making for a floppy crust. A slice of cheese typically ran from between $2.00 and $2.50 and one-topping was a little more. Overall I like the New York-style a lot more than pan-style, deep-dish-style, or Chicago-style. I've read that the high-quality tap water in the city makes the pizza so good. Whether or not that's realistic or a figment of the imagination, I'm not quite sure.

Deli Sandwich
WikiTravel hypes the New York deli sandwich as one of the "must haves" while in the city. We stopped at the world-famous Katz's Delicatessen on Saturday night around 9:00pm. The place was packed and lines fairly long. When it was my turn, I ordered a half pastrami on rye, matzah ball soup, and a Dr. Brown's root beer. For whatever reason, they also give you a plate of pickles with the order.

As far as traditional Jewish dishes go, this was certainly very good. The sandwich had meat piled high and the mustard was exceptional. Unfortunately, I don't have much of a taste for this type of food. This was also the most expensive meal of the trip, coming in at about $15 plus tip. Nevertheless, it was filling and I am glad we gave it a try.

Tom's Restaurant
Also known as Monk's Cafe. Anyone who watches Seinfeld probably knows all about this place. Tom's Restaurant is actually located on West 112th and Broadway, which is a bit of a distance from Jerry Seinfeld's fictional apartment on West 81st Street.

I knew that the interior of Monk's Cafe on TV was actually a set in Los Angeles, but I was still a bit shocked when we walked inside.

The restaurant is much much smaller than what you see on TV. There is a counter and some booths. The isles are very tight and there is virtually no room to wait if a table isn't ready when you arrive. There were two people waiting when we walked in. They sat down at a booth and then about five minutes later we were seated at a booth. I ordered the strawberry pancakes. Bubba went with eggs and hash browns.

Overall the food was typical diner fare and the prices were inexpensive ($7 for my dish, $4.35 for Bubba's). The atmosphere of the restaurant was one where everything moved a million miles an hour. You walked in, ordered, the food arrived quickly, and in less time than it took to pay for the check, busers had already cleared our table. This might not be the kind of diner where you go to hang out for an indefinite period of time like they did on Seinfeld, but it certainly is good if you're hungry and want some cheap grub.

Food Wrap-Up
Over the course of the weekend we probably ate at about ten of New York's restaurants or food stands. The great thing about the city is that you could eat at a different place for every meal of every day and it would still take years before you could claim to have tried a fair proportion of them. Perhaps that's another reason why New Yorker's eat out for so many meals. Sure, cooking in small apartment kitchens may be challenging, but with such incredibly variety and amazing hidden gems, it would be hard to get bored of the same old thing all the time.

Other posts in the Journey to the Big Apple series:
Part One: Trip Preview
Part Two: America’s Greatest Urban Place
Part Three: Getting Around Town
Part Five: Closing Observations

What to Do About Cars

David Alpert has a great post up at Greater Greater Washington about the debate over how cars belong in urban places. Anyone interested in this topic should read it (and the comments).

It's worth reiterating that the idea that society can either have cars or not have cars in our cities is an obvious false dilemma. Plus, it's not really in anyone's best interest to have one or the other anyway - they key is a good balance.

Take traffic, for instance. Nobody likes traffic; but the more people who drive, and the longer the distance those individuals drive, the worse that congestion gets. The same is true for transit. Having a bus or train with someone in each seat isn't necessarily a bad thing, especially if means the service is popular enough to maintain frequent service; but having a bus or train packed wall to wall isn't really comfortable for anyone.

In nearly every instance in this country, nevertheless, the balance is tilted toward the auto side of the equation, making life difficult to drivers and non-drivers alike.

Journey to the Big Apple

Getting Around Town

New York is the only city in America where the majority of households do not own a car, and even though many do (even Jerry Seinfeld, George and Kramer all owned cars on TV) they are far less reliant on them for day-to-day living. It's the idea that this type of thing is acceptable and common that intrigues me. For all the stigma that plagues American transit systems, on the New York subway you might find yourself next to a Wall Street trader or a homeless man playing a harmonica for money or a tourist from Russia. There is no first class, business class - its all coach. Whether you sit or you stand has a little to do with luck and a little to do with timing.

Of course, subways aren't the only means of transportation in New York. Taxis and buses are everywhere. I saw fewer bicycles than I expected, although my understanding is that bicycle ridership is growing. Surely there is much I didn't see, but here are a few transportation-related observations.

New York Without Subways
Urbanists throughout blogosphere have been excited this week over the predictions that Michael Frumin made about what New York would look like if people drove cars instead of using the subway. Of course, his picture isn't really realistic. The same number of people wouldn't come to Manhattan every day nor would gigantic parking garages blanket entire neighborhoods. Instead, New York would probably look more like Dallas or Houston, which are both huge metro areas designed under the assumption that everyone will drive their own car. Having lived in Dallas and visited Houston more than once, I can honestly say that I'm thankful there are cities designed very much unlike them.

The Airport Route
My flight landed at Laguardia a little before 10am. I'd seen horror stories posted online about getting from the airport to Midtown. There is no subway station near Laguardia and the only connections are local buses that go into Queens and one that crosses over into Harlem and Morningside Heights. Nevertheless, I decided to give it a shot.

(from flickr user Kramchang)

I boarded the bus at exactly 10am, rode to the Astoria Blvd subway station and arrived in Midtown at 10:45am. For two bucks, it was a great value and not particularly inconvenient. I had a similar experience on the trip back. I agree with those who think it would have been useful to run an express bus to Astoria rather than a local bus - perhaps similar to the B30 bus that runs from the Baltimore-Washington airport to the end of Washington's transit system. I probably would have been willing to pay a premium fare for it - but what exists now isn't terrible. At least I don't have any complaints about the two times that I used it.

Metrocard Waste
I wasn't particularly impressed with the fare collection system on buses and subways. By the end of the weekend I was carrying three Metrocards in my wallet. I bought the 1-day unlimited pass each day (I would have preferred a 3-day unlimited pass if it existed), but it wasn't clear whether or not I could refill the card I already had, so it turned out to be easier to just buy a new one. There certainly has to be a better way of collecting fares.

(from flickr user Magitisa)

What a lot of waste.

Other posts in the Journey to the Big Apple series:
Part One: Trip Preview
Part Two: America’s Greatest Urban Place
Part Four: Taste of New York
Part Five: Closing Observations

Journey to the Big Apple

America’s Greatest Urban Place

In discussions about urban design, the conversation often turns to how New York City got it right. Some believe that using the Big Apple as a basis for comparison is unfair and that no other American city will ever (or at least soon) be able to duplicate its successes. To some extent I think there is some truth to that point. The density and the vibrancy of the city are at least partially thanks to the fact that there are always people everywhere. And the reason there are people everywhere is because there is something happening on nearly every corner. And the reason there is so much happening is because streets are packed with places to live, work, or have fun; not with parking lots, poorly designed buildings, or other wasteful uses of space.

Now that I’ve seen it, the idea that other cities will have much trouble copying it is a plausible idea in my mind. Honestly though.. what a shame. In a country as great as ours, there shouldn’t just be one New York City – there should be many several like it from coast to coast. Anyway, continuing on the topic of urbanism, here are a few additional observations from my recent trip:

Times Square Bummer
When I was in 5th or 6th grade, MTV used to broadcast Total Request Live from a big glass studio overlooking Broadway, and I always thought it looked like the coolest place in the world. Maybe I should have seen it coming, but wow, Times Square was lame. For blocks there was nothing but corporate chain restaurants and uninteresting tourist traps. When my buddy, Bubba, and I got hungry, we walked for blocks looking for a single pizza place that wasn’t a Sbarro or Famiglia and it wasn’t until we were outside of the touristy area altogether that we found what we were looking for. That said, Times Square is still great in terms of urban design, it’s just that many of the food and retail offerings were the exact same things I could have found at any suburban shopping mall in America.

Car-Free Streets
I was excited to see the prototype “Car-Free Broadway”. It was great for pedestrians to be able to spread out through the whole street and enjoy the neighborhood rather than try to cram onto an undersized sidewalk. Streetsblog contends that the project has had a positive impact on the city.

Although I didn’t get to experience it firsthand, Sunday was the first of the city’s “Summer Streets” events, where Park Avenue was closed to car traffic in the morning and pedestrians, bicyclists, roller skaters, stroller pushers, and others came out to enjoy of the city. This made me wonders what the city would look like if one of the avenues and maybe a few of the east-west streets were permanently closed to vehicle traffic and the streets intelligently arranged to accommodate bike and pedestrian traffic (as opposed to the free-for-all arrangement in the video above). I imagine the argument against it is that every one of the avenues is necessary to prevent Manhattan’s traffic from becoming total gridlock. But an avenue serving bikes would have a significantly higher capacity than one serving cars. If enough people took advantage of it, the trade off might just be significant enough to make it work.

Sore Feet
Truth be told, I’m not in the greatest shape. I’m not in terrible shape – I can ride multiple miles by bike without any problem, so I wasn’t expecting to have any trouble navigating the city. Like I mentioned a few weeks ago, my plan was to use my feet as a primary source of transportation. By my estimate I probably walked about 25-30 miles over the three day period. To my liking, things seemed to be measured in (somewhat) concrete distances. Instead of “the park is 5 minutes away” people said “the park is 20 blocks away”. The downside to all of this walking was that I didn’t arrive wearing the best shoes and suffered from an unfortunate case of sore feet. I imagine if I lived in New York, the combination of buying better shoes and getting in better shape from all the walking would take care of that problem fairly easily.

Forget the Drive-Thru
Spotted on the Upper-West Side: this is first McDonalds “walk-thru” window that I have ever seen.

I think this says two things: (1) New Yorkers are in such a hurry that the process of going through the front door and into the restaurant might be enough of an inconvenience to deter them from making a purchase. (2) McDonalds will adapt to any culture if it is good for business. I suppose McDonalds could have forced stores in Manhattan with drive-thrus if they really wanted; but presumably they understood that the cost of operating it and the sales it would generate don’t justify it.

Other posts in the Journey to the Big Apple series:
Part One: Trip Preview
Part Three: Getting Around Town
Part Four: Taste of New York
Part Five: Closing Observations

Why I Quit CNBC

Daniel Gross has a nice piece over at Slate about why CNBC's rating have been in a tailspin lately. This is an interesting topic to me because I used to watch a lot of CNBC. Now I watch none.

The basic problem CNBC faces, at least from my pespective, is that it simply has way too much time to fill and not enough content to fill it. It's similar to the problems Jim Cramer or big-name newspaper columnists have to deal with. Jim Cramer makes so many bad stock picks because every single night he has to go on TV and pick something... newspaper columnists have to crank out material on a fixed schedule. If they had the ability to communicate only their best stuff, they would probably have a much higher rate of success.

But CNBC isn't even efficient at delivering the news that is important. They have shows designed for day traders (Fast Money), shows for amateur traders (Mad Money), a show that appeal the right-wing ideologues (Kudlow and Company), and a number of shows in the morning and afternoon that seem to cater to an audience of people with the TV on as background noise. What they don't have is a single show that just tells people what they want to know.

Compare this to, say, public television's Nightly Business Report, which accomplishes more in a half-hour than CNBC accomplishes in a whole day. It covers the day's top stories; equity markets, credit markets, and commodities. The same is true for public radio's Marketplace and for NPR's Planet Money.

CNBC just isn't a good way to get the business news I want. And I doubt it will change any time soon.
I like independent movies. In Cleveland, there is a single theater are two theaters, one of which is the Cedar Lee, that shows such films. I've been going there for five or six years; certainly not as long as some of its loyal patrons, but long enough to have seen a few of the neighborhood's changes over the years.

(from flickr user three sad tigers)

For what it's worth, Lee Road in an acceptable (although far from extraordinary) example of urban design. It features a nice mix of retail, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and of course, the movie theater. Everything is built out to the sidewalk and metered parking is available on Lee Road and behind the buildings. In a few unfortunate spots, parking is available on the side of buildings and leaves awkward gaps for pedestrians who might want to walk along the sidewalk.

When I started regularly going to the theater years ago, the city-owned surface parking lot behind the theater building had meters in every space. The price was 25 cents for every half-hour (or something similar) and was enforced from 8am - 6pm. So, in essence, if you attended any of the evening movie showings, parking was free. Despite the free parking, I never once failed to immediately find a spot in the lot; not on Saturday nights or on Monday nights (when the theater has its best deals of the week). If anything, at least in the evening, there were probably too many spaces in the parking lot that could have been put to better use as something else.

Needless to say, I was a little puzzled when the city started construction of a new gigantic four-story parking garage to replace some of the surface parking spaces. If there was already plenty of parking, even at no cost, what good would adding more spaces be?

According to this Heights Observer piece, the garage was built as an incentive for a private developer to construct a new condo and retail complex in the neighborhood; but the development fell through, and now the city is stuck with a $6 million plus garage and tons of parking spaces that are consistently empty. And, to top it off, a potentially vibrant urban neighborhood is left (at least for now) with a big vacant lot right in the middle of its main strip.

The real disaster, I think, is that the lot in question used to have a glut of free parking; but now, despite an even bigger supply of spaces, meters are enforced 24/7. I imagine the new meter fees are an attempt to generate some badly needed revenue to pay for the costly garage.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to charging for parking, far from it. If supply and demand dictated that spaces could be more efficiently allocated by raising meter rates, I'm all for it. But in this case, more spaces were built when their necessity was predicated on a condo development that never happened. The fact that the city is overpricing something that is already in surplus could be potentially harmful to the businesses in the neighborhood.

This is really a story of government incentives gone bad. Local governments give tax breaks and other financial incentives for developers to bring people to neighborhoods all the time. In this case the incentive came in the form of a multi-million dollar parking garage, because, presumably, the developer didn't think he would be able to sell any condo units or retail space if people couldn't park cars nearby. That's an unfortunate result of our culture, but it's especially unfortunate because those condos never got built, and everyone was left essentially worse than before. Visitors to the neighborhood now have to pay more to park while gaining nothing of value. Businesses have to deal with the potential decrease in sales that comes from premium-rate parking. And the city has to make good on the bonds it issued to build the new parking spaces.

Perhaps if the economy turns around another developer will move forward with the plans to build the condos and bring people to the neighborhood. But given the fragility of urban neighborhoods in struggling cities like Cleveland, I only hope there isn't any serious damage in the meantime.
Auto-posted while I am in New York City.

We are a society obsessed with rankings. We have rankings for the best colleges, the best companies to work for, and the best city for one thing or another. Whether people admit it or not, these lists drive what colleges people look at, what jobs they apply for, and what cities they visit or ultimately make home. Unfortunately, the lists are basically useless. They are often arbitrary and unscientific and their creators have specific agendas that don't necessarily keep the readers' best interest in mind.

The list that recently struck a nerve was Forbes's list of the best cities for singles. Yglesias correctly notes that most of these lists are ridiculous, but that this one "seems unusually ridiculous".

Local media eats this stuff up. In Cleveland, Forbes' singles list got coverage by all local media, including the newspaper and TV news, as well the tourism industry. The weird thing is that Forbes ranked Cleveland 14th out of 40 cities, not even in the top quartile. But I guess it blew expectations out of the water, since a lot of locals (myself included) expected Cleveland to be near rock bottom.

What bothers me the most is when media refers to these lists as "studies". Little could be further from the truth. Studies typically require some sort of academic rigor and the ability to prove that data confirms the hypothesis. Ranking lists are often nothing more than arbitrary formulas dreamed up by magazine editors for the purpose of selling magazines. The creators know that regardless of the crap they publish, local media outlets will go wild for it. They have little incentive to do a good job, they just have an incentive to grind data through their "proprietary formulas" and publish as much of it as possible.

The best way to put these lists to rest is for newspapers and TV stations to stop reporting on how their city did every time a new list comes out. Unfortunately, this seems easier said than done, and I doubt it will happen soon.

No Love for the Kindle

Auto-posted while I am in New York City.

Despite the hype, I have virtually no interest in buying an Amazon Kindle (or any similar technology). I understand the concern that publishers have about this device crushing their industry, but from my point of view, the Kindle just isn't a great deal.

First, from a purely dollars and cents standpoint, the Kindle would take a while for me to see a return on investment. The unit itself costs $300. Most new ebooks sell for $9.99, which, at best, is about half of what Amazon charges for the hardcover or paperback. At that rate, the Kindle wouldn't have paid for itself until after at least 30 ebook purchases. Perhaps there are some who buy that many books in a year. I read that many books per annum.. but most of my reading material comes from the public or university library, so it would probably take a few years for me to buy enough books to make Kindle worth the initial investment.

Second, I simply don't like carrying high-end electronics with me anymore. I used to bring my laptop in my backpack wherever I traveled, but I've recently stopped, because it's simply too valuable to risk something accidentally happening to it; and the value I derive from having it with me at all times isn't particularly high. Likewise, carrying a Kindle in my backpack all of the time would give me something else to worry about losing or having stolen. A hardcover book isn't something I would get bent out of shape about.

Of course, lowering the price of the Kindle would respond to both the economic and psychogical objections I have; but until that happens, I don't plan on becoming a Kindle user.

End of an Era

Three months ago Newsweek brought a handful of young people together to follow the career of President Obama. Yesterday I published my final piece on the Generation O blog. Congress is on its traditional August recess and life in the political sphere is about to take a breather (to some extent). It's been a pleasure participating in Newsweek's great project and an archive of my contributions can be found here. Finally, I want to give a big thanks to Aku Ammah-Tagoe for putting everything together and working with us over the summer.
A lot of people rely on local TV news as a primary source of information. This has always baffled me. I usually can't stop myself from rolling my eyes at the teaser spots the networks air during prime time TV shows. It's been a while, consequently, since I've actually sat and watched an entire episode of the local nighttime news. How bad could it be?

I went ahead and watched the 11:00pm news on one of Cleveland's TV stations (I won't say which, but I think most people would agree that it's the worst of them). So here you have it; a liveblog of yesterday night's local news:

11:01 - Opening intro: Lots of flashy colors and sounds.

11:02 - Top Story: “Otis the Dog” got tasered by Lakewood police and has now been kicked out of the suburb for threatening police! The owner is moving out of town and some people are boycotting the suburb by threatening not to spend any money in Lakewood. Local business owners are concerned about losing customers. A few are interviewed on air. An online petition to boycott Lakewood has been signed by 31 people, some of whom aren’t even from Ohio! A reporter live on the street reiterates everything that has already been blown way out of proportion.

11:03 - A black bear that has been bothering people in the suburbs was shot with rubber bullets. If you see the bear, stay away!

11:04 - A women is mugged and tased at a suburban mall outside of Macy’s. The 911 call is played on the air. The woman is OK. Suspects are still on the loose.

11:04 - GM is not selling enough cars, despite the success of cash for clunkers. They will cut more jobs.

11:05 - Foreclosure filings in Cleveland and the suburbs are still a problem. Hundreds of homes are being sold at auction for huge discounts. Numerous people at the auction are interviewed on the air.

11:06 - Passengers who were injured on an international flight talk about their experience. Photos of the cabin of the plane are shown.

11:07 - Exclusive Story: Showdown at gunpoint outside of a state prison. Confusing explanation of what happened. Tapes from 911 calls are played. A reporter conducts a condescending interview with a police authority.

11:09 - Weather report: mostly cloudy skies, a few light showers in the west part of the state. Temperatures in the mid-70s. Dry forecast for tonight and tomorrow morning; maybe showers in the afternoon. Similar forecast for Akron.

**Commercial Break**

11:15 - The “Foot Fetish Fugitive” strikes again! This creep is wanted for more than a dozen misdemeanors in Portland. He approaches women in the shoe department of Target and asks them to try on shoes. He even licked one victim! Three women are interviewed on the air about their experience with the shoe pervert. An interview with a local police officer is shown on the air. The guy is still on the loose.

11:17 - A fake ATM at the Riviera Casino in Las Vegas has been stealing personal info and not dispensing any money. An unknown number of people have been duped.

11:17 - Report on the custody battle over Michael Jackson's kids. More Michael Jackson gossip…

11:18 - Sarah Palin might be getting divorced after 21 years of marriage to Todd Palin. Both Palins deny the rumors of divorce.

11:18 - Eminem makes a threat at Mariah Carey in one of his new songs. Apparently he is blackmailing her for some reason…

11:19 - Some nonsense about Tiger Woods farting at a golf event. CBS is refusing to say who actually did it.

11:20 - The family of a girl whose iPod exploded claims Apple tried to shut them up.

11:21 -Doctors say kids need more vitamin D. Without it they are at risk for bone and heart disease.

11:21 - A local band has the same name as the local news station. Interviews with band member claim the news inspired them. A reporter stands outside the club where the band is playing. More interviews with so-called “groupies” at the club. The band has recorded two CDs and might go national! I suspect the name of the band might be a mockery of the news station, but they really spin it as something exciting.

**Commercial Break**

11:27 – The Cleveland Cavaliers are fined for leaking their schedule early.

11:27 - Footage of the Browns training camp. The new coach is making the team work hard, unlike the old coach who was a lazy bum.

11:27 - Jets players got in a fight today during practice. Their coach isn’t upset.

11:28 - OJ Simpson might be released from jail.

11:28 - A basketball game between Italy and Canada ends in a bench-clearing brawl. Italy won the game.

**Commercial Break**

11:32 – Weather summary. Seven day forecast.

**End of news**

I guess a good question to ask is: what else happened in the world yesterday that the local news didn't tell us about? The Senate was getting closer to extending Cash for Clunkers. A big earthquake hit California and Mexico. Iran's President was confirmed for another term. Obama reiterated no middle class tax hikes. More frustration with health care reform. The Postal Service considered more cutbacks and Post Office closings. Secretary Clinton left for 7-nation Africa trip. In local news, a drowning at a local water park leaves questions unanswered. The EMS chief is ordering paramedics to cancel vacations. There are many other stories I am surely missing.

Perhaps today wasn't the busiest news day, but there is a whole lot you would have missed if you only checked the local news. But hey, at least we got to hear about "Otis the Dog" and the ferocious suburban black bear and the foot fetish creep out west. If it wasn't for the local news, I probably never would have known...
I've been making almost all of my small purchases with cash nowadays. I didn't always operate this way - I used to be the king of whipping out a debit card for everything: a cup of coffee, a Chipotle burrito, a bottle of Pepsi... I thought it was my right to make every purchase with plastic. At some point I even thought I was doing businesses a favor by not making them deal with cash all of the time.

(from flickr user sroemerm)

I used to get annoyed when businesses would put hand-written signs on the cash register that said something like "$15 minimum credit card purchase". How could they expect people to carry cash all the time? If they didn't take debit cards, they were going to lose business; it seemed like these places asking for minimum purchases had something coming. Then I noticed something about the places that had these signs: most of them were local mom-and-pop stores. The kind of businesses that I really want to succeed. The kind of places that I don't mind spending a little bit more money in. If I paid with plastic, that was real money that was coming off of their bottom lines. And who was that money going to? Big banks and credit card companies? It didn't seem right.

A friend was recently telling me about how upset he was that a local restaurant had a $15 minimum for credit card purchases. He was even thinking about ratting them out to Visa and Masercard; after all, these minimums violate the retailer's agreement with the credit card companies. The problem, the more I thought about it, is that ratting the restaurant out might have one of a few undesirable outcomes:
  1. The restaurant loses its ability to accept credit cards and customers would have to pay in cash anyway.

  2. The restaurant would get a slap on the wrist and they would start accepting credit cards for all purchases and eating the fees. If the place was struggling, this would be like salt in a wound.

  3. The restaurant would raise its prices across the board and every customer, regardless of how they pay, they would incur higher costs.
All of these scenarios make either the customer or the business or both worse-off in the long-run. The only winner in these exchanges are the banks. You really have to think hard to piece the puzzle together because, as Kevin Drum writes, the whole process is invisible.

But it doesn't stop there. Even after I started paying with cash at local businesses, I kept using my debit card at places like Chipotle and Dunkin Donuts. In fact, so did a lot of people. One night when I got stuck in an excruciatingly long line waiting for a burrito, I made a mental note of the number of people paying with plastic; it was at least half on that particularly night. Chipotle doesn't have a minimum purchase sign on the register, nor do they make any comments when you hand them a plastic card. They swipe it, hand you a bag, and you're on your way.

Big corporations like Chipotle have the ability to pass rising costs on to consumers. And the more people that pay with credit or debit cards, the higher their costs. Thus by extension, the higher their prices. That's not cool. Barring a change in the policy that governs credit card transactions, it seems like the only way to keep money with the businesses that earn it is to pay with cash. It's slightly less convenient, but it's usually worth it.

Public Sphere Stigma

I've been keeping track of all the books I've read this year. I really wanted to write some book reviews, but it hasn't exactly happened as planned. Anyway, since January, I've read slightly less than 40 books. A few of them I received as gifts, and a few I bought new on Amazon. The rest all came from the public library. I also checked out a handful of books that I returned after reading 25 pages because they just weren't good. By my estimate, assuming a cost of $15 per title, I would have paid about $500 had I bought all of those books new.

(from flickr user shanebee)

To some extent, public libraries are perceived as welfare establishments - a place for people to go and relax or play checkers on Yahoo Games because they have nowhere else to go. But there doesn't seem to necessarily be a huge stigma against regular, well-to-do people who want to check out books from the local public library because they want to read. Yes, bookcases have become status symbols in some circles; but I don't think I've ever heard someone condescendingly say, "You go to the public library? You can't even afford books?"

At least I don't hear it to the same extent that I hear people condescendingly say, "You ride the bus? You can't even afford to drive a car?" A very unscientific poll I conducted on Twitter recently reveals that, in most cases, public transportation is at best on par with public libraries in terms of respectability. In plenty of places, public libraries are more socially acceptable than public transportation.

Maybe it has to do with the fact that the auto industry has overwhelmed us with advertising. Or maybe transportation is seen as one of life's necessities, but reading books is just a luxury. Whatever the case, public transportation promoters in this country might learn something from public libraries. I don't know exactly what... but if more people saw the same value in public transportation that they do in public libraries, perhaps some of the systems wouldn't now be in such desperate shape.

Bag Tax!

The Center for American Progress says the time is now:
A bag tax works by charging shoppers a fee—typically between 5 and 30 cents—for every bag they get in a store. This fee drives consumers to buy reusable bags and change their habits. It also causes high-quality reusable bags to emerge and diffuse because it’s a market solution. The resulting revenue can be used to raise awareness, to pay for environmental clean up, or to subsidize reusable bags...

The case for a national bag tax is clear. Plastic bags are a huge and growing problem. They’re not free, either, since retailers pass on the costs to consumers. In comparison, good reusable bags pay for themselves in no time. Bag taxes have been proven effective, and many other countries have passed them. It’s time that we do, too.
Last summer I made my case for getting complimentary plastic bags out of retail culture. I find the subsidization argument particularly compelling. Bags aren't free, customers pay for them via higher retail prices, which can be especially difficult to notice in places like supermarkets, where customers tend to buy a lot of items at low prices. I often do grocery shopping in small doses. Sometimes I only buy a few items and can carry everything without a plastic bag (so long as the cashier doesn't force one upon me). It's frustrating to think that the person at the next checkout double-bagging a gallon of milk contributes to the price I pay for my own items.

This is a good argument because it appeals to people who don't give care about the environment or who think that recycling plastic bags is just as good. It appeals to people who only care about themselves and who hate doing favors for anyone else. It appeals to the people least likely to support a policy like the bag tax at all.