Tax the Poor

Living in Ohio gets annoying every year around this season. A casino issue seems to be on the ballot every year. The debate doesn't seem to be clear-cut along party lines. Both liberals and conservatives want it; and both liberals and conservatives don't.

(from flickr user LU5H.bunny)

One argument on the liberal side that I almost never hear, even though it's really one of the best arguments against a casino, is that it's a tax on the poor.

When people think of gambling, they think of Las Vegas, with the bright lights and the high rollers. They think of places like Bellagio and The Venetian and the Wynn - places that cater to whales. They forget about cities like Detroit, Michigan or Gary, Indiana or Shreveport, Louisiana - places where gambling is much less glamorous. Here is Mark Lange in the Christian Science Monitor with some numbers:
In 1999, the bipartisan National Gambling Impact Commission found that 80 percent of gambling revenue comes from households with incomes of less than $50,000 a year. More remarkably, players with annual incomes of less than $10,000 spent almost three times as much on gambling -- in aggregate, real dollars -- as those with incomes of more than $50,000. With the aggressive encouragement of state governments, US gamblers -- most of them scraping by on limited incomes -- had to lose $84 billion last year in casinos and lotteries for the states to raise $24 billion in new revenues.
There are two primary responses to this point. One is that gambling is inevitable because poor people will just play the lotto if they can't gamble in a casino. The second is that gambling is inevitable because millions (maybe billions?) of dollars are leaving the state and being given to casinos in other states without one in Ohio.

Both points are true to an extent. Yes, poor people play the lotto hoping to hit it big. But the lotto is different from casinos in the sense that it is much less exciting, less adrenaline-inducing, and generally just less fun. Give people a game that's both exciting and gives them an opportunity to hit it big, and you could easily entice people who would get bored with the lotto.

On the second point, it's true that some people leave one state to gamble in others. Who are these people? Are they retirees taking charter buses to other states to spend a lazy afternoon with friends playing penny slots? The truly poor are not spending much money in neighboring states because they cannot even afford to travel to those places. Put a casino in their backyard and yes, they will start going.

Lastly, because of the way casino corporations are structured, it really is taxing the poor to give to the rich, since only a proportion of gambling revenue will go back to the state, the rest will go to shareholders in the casino (all of whom will probably be rich).

I'd like to start hearing some advertisements with arguments along these lines, rather than nonsense about whether or not the casino will create the promised number of jobs. The opponents of casinos need to start giving people a reason to oppose the issue, not merely a reason not to support it. This is an issue that is important to the long-term vitality of cities, but we focus only on the immediate future. Regardless of my own opinions about gambling and whether or not I would ever visit one in Ohio if it were built, unless I buy a condo in Las Vegas, I'm not very interested in living in a city with casinos.

Lessons from North Texas

The parking situation disaster at Cowboys Stadium that I wrote about last week is actually teaching some valuable real-world lessons about design and transportation.

(from Wikipedia)

Here's the thing.. it's become such a expectation in Texas that parking be "free" everywhere (by free, of course I mean subsidized by someone else) that charging drivers directly for the privilege is seen as some sort of earth-shattering outrage. Take a look at this whiny and obnoxious piece from Drew Magary of NBC-DFW:
Parking. It’s one of those secret, forgot-you-were-going-to-have-to-pay-it-until-you-have-to-pay-it expenses that slowly drains your will to live and often keeps you from venturing outside of your house and into the greater world at large. I particularly despise parking because it comes at the end of your journey, when you have, in theory, arrived at your destination. Only you haven’t. You gotta find a spot, and you gotta pay dearly for it. And if you’re going to see the Cowboys this fall, you’re really going to pay dearly for it.

[There are] 115,000 potential people in place, at a stadium that has precisely 12,000 spaces on site, all of which cost up to $75 each. There are an additional 18,000 spots within a mile of the new digs, also costing between $50 and $75... You could carpool, but that’s for dirty treehuggers.
I imagine that this author might balk at the idea of public transit providing service to the new stadium. It's hard for anyone who would never use it to see any value. But there is value, potentially incredible value, both to those who would use the service and those who still prefer to drive and park. If a fraction of the Cowboy's fans took transit from Dallas to Cowboys games, that could shift the demand curve for parking spaces to the left (by how much I'm not positive), making life better (read: cheaper) for those who wish to drive and park. But they can't - Dallas cannot provide any transit options thanks to local politics.

Regardless, this is not an entirely far-fetched idea. People take DART to Dallas Mavericks and Dallas Stars games, even though parking is cheaper and (I believe) more plentiful (on a parking per seat basis). I know, I know.. football is a different beast than other sports, and I would never expect a majority of fans to take transit to an NFL game, especially not a Cowboys game, but even a fraction of total fans would be enough to make a difference.

The point can really be applied beyond sports to any city. How much traffic would there be in New York City if nobody rode the subway? How much more would parking cost in Washington, DC if everyone who worked there had to park a car? What would Portland look like if nobody rode a bike? The answers to these questions are unknown and counter-factual. But the point is this: if you are a driver in any one of those cities; never once use public transit or get on a bike or walk anywhere in your life, your experience as a driver would be a lot worse if everyone started living the same way.

The Evil of Anonymity

Connie Schultz points out some obvious problems with anonymous blog commenters in her Sunday column. In many ways, she's absolutely right. On the other hand, why did it take her so long to finally write this column?

The evil of anonymity has been known to anyone who has participated in an internet discussions at any point in time. Before blogs there were forums and message boards. Some were moderated, others were free-for-alls. The difference in the quality of discussion was like night and day. The ones that were closely monitored had the opportunity for decent discussions; those without any rules were always reduced to the least common denominator, pushing away those with anything worthwhile to say and leaving only the nonsense and banter that had almost no value.

Schultz's take is:
Anonymous comments also alienate many thoughtful readers, who are the majority of people who read newspapers. When readers complain to me about ugly comments, I urge them to weigh in, but most balk. It's like trying to persuade your friends to visit a great tavern in a bad neighborhood: They want nothing to do with that side of town.
This basically describes me. I read a lot of blogs and a lot of news articles. The solution to offensive anonymous comments is actually very simple, but the burden lies with the content provider, not the reader: delete them. Any time a post is dominated obnoxious comments, it makes me wonder what value the author actually sees in them and why I should bother adding my own opinion?

I think there is another problem that might go overlooked when it comes to newspaper comments. A city's newspaper is supposed to be a voice of reason for a particular place. By extension, it isn't a stretch to think that commenter opinion represents the opinion of people in that place. When out-of-towners visit a city's paper for whatever reason and all they see is comments dominated by people who can't write properly or form a respectable opinion or say anything good about their own city, what are the visitors supposed to think about that city or the people who live there?

Why I'm an Urbanist

I think some blog readers believe that the opinions I've expressed here about urban policy and urban culture are beliefs that I've held my whole life. I think they want to believe that I was born and raised in Greenwich Village, that I've never driven a car, visited a big box strip-mall or seen a subdivision with my own eyes. It's convenient to think that I simply misunderstand something about suburban culture and life.

The truth is that I've probably spent more time residing in suburbs and living a suburban lifestyle than many of those who share a passion on urban topics.

I was born and raised in a suburb. The suburb, in fact, that is legally responsible for zoning laws that have haunted communities all over America. I grew up believing that it was "normal" for wealth to flow away from cities. That the more miles you put between the downtown of a major city and some neighborhood, the more likely the people living there were to be rich.

I went to high school in an urban area, commuting about 1.5 hours every day for four years via public transportation. I had to wake up at 6am to catch one of two buses that would take me where I needed to go. I thought that having a drivers license would bring the greatest freedom in the world. After all, without one, I really was basically "stuck" in the suburb where I lived. My teenage job was far away from home. I commuted, alone, by car, over 50 miles round trip, every day. The drive took about an hour an a half. I thought this was completely normal. When I told people at work how far away I lived, many of them would respond with, "oh, that's not too far".

Since then I've lived in both cities and suburbs. I lived in some walkable neighborhoods and car-dependent neighborhoods. I've lived car-free in some places and in others I've needed on a car for everything from commuting to college to going out for a cup of coffee.

Go through the archives on this blog and you'll see that there was a time when I believed that electric cars, alternative fuels and technologically-advanced vehicles would solve the world's problems. There are few issues I've had such a major change in opinion as that one.

Ultimately, my opinions about urbanism stem from the fact that I've experienced a number of places and spaces. I'm not merely preaching the one lifestyle that I've always lived; nor am I stuck in the "grass is always greener" mindset. At the same time, when people bring up the fact that different people value things differently, I can't help but think back to my own past, when I "valued" certain things because I hadn't lived the alternative and because everyone was telling me that what I was doing was the right thing.

Happy Birthday!

Believe it or not, it's been about five years since I started blogging here at Extrordinary Observations.

(from flickr user Rob J Brooks)

If you don't believe me, go ahead and check out the archive, but be warned, I did start blogging back when I was 17, and admittedly, was pretty young and naive. Here's to the next five years - thanks for reading!
Ed Glaeser appeared on Morning Edition last week and praised Houston for "providing middle-income Americans with a really astonishingly high quality of life." Have a listen:

One thing that strikes me is Glaeser's comment that Houston is a success in the sense that you can live really far away from stuff (distance-wise) but not actually be too far away from stuff (time-wise).

Think about this: the average commute time in Harris County, Texas is 28.2 minutes, according to just-released 2008 American Community Survey data. The average commute time in New York County (Manhattan) by comparison, is 30.4 minutes. The total commute times are very similar (with Houston having a slight advantage) but the means of commuting are radically different. In Harris County, 77.3% drive in a car - alone. In Manhattan, 84.3% commute by walking, biking, riding public transportation or taking a taxi.

So are commutes in Houston just slightly less miserable than those in Manhattan? The answer is: it depends. Alex Marshall has an awesome article in Governing Magazine on this question.
Years ago, I drove 35 minutes each day from Virginia Beach to Norfolk to a job as a schoolteacher. Because I lived blocks from a freeway and the school was blocks from an off ramp, I was able to drive at 60 mph almost the entire way. Not a bad commute—but a tiring one. When you drive at high speed on a freeway, you need to pay attention or you may kill someone, yourself included.

Now I live in Brooklyn, and I commute 45 minutes to my office in Manhattan. This involves a 15-minute walk to the subway, a five-minute wait for the train, and a 20-minute subway ride, plus a five-minute walk to work. This is longer than my old 35-minute commute by car but it’s less tiring. I enjoy the morning (and evening) walk. I can read or watch TV (my newest bad habit) on my iPhone while on the subway—or talk to strangers, which is something I enjoy.

I make this comparison to point out that, when it comes to transportation, time is an elastic, subjective, almost mystical thing. One minute spent traveling one way is not the same as another. Yet we seldom acknowledge this. This squishy side of transportation has little place in serious policy discussions at city council tables and in legislative chambers. It isn’t easy to start talking about how transportation feels.
And this is basically exactly what Glaeser is doing in his analysis. He assumes that a minute spent commuting in Houston is the same as anywhere else. He blasts places like New York and Boston for having unfairly high costs of living and praises Houston for not. He argues that the difference in living costs in different metro areas is the result of government regulation, or the inability of the free market to set prices, rather than the desirability of those places themselves within the market.

But if we toss out that assumption for a moment, then we can ask whether Houston commuters are paying a higher price in the way that they commute that Manhattanites do not. And we can ask whether living close to something distance-wise is actually more valuable than living close to that same thing time-wise. I think anecdotally most residents of Houston would laugh at the suggestion that light traffic and short commutes are a major selling point of their city; and while most New Yorkers could rag on the NYC Subway all day, like somebody picking on their sister, they will defend it to the death.

Bagel with Cream Cheese

Here is an economic riddle that has been bugging me for a while now. At the Einstein's Bagels on my college campus, a bagel costs 99 cents. Fair enough. A bagel with cream cheese costs $2.19 - meaning the price of the topping, cream cheese, is more expensive than the bagel itself. But I know that cream cheese itself is not an expensive item - I can buy a tub of cream cheese at Whole Foods for $1.50 and it will be good for about 6-8 bagels.

(from flickr user pirate johnny)

At first I thought maybe it was just the particular Einstein's location that was ripping people off. But then I noticed it just about everywhere I looked.

There are few other toppings that I can think of which exhibit this phenomenon. McDonalds might charge a slight premium for a cheeseburger over a hamburger, as might most restaurants. But even so, it would only be a fraction of the cost of the main dish. What Einstein's is doing would be the equivalent of a Five Guys asking $5 for a hamburger and $11 for a cheeseburger. It just doesn't seem quite right.

Yet spend any amount of time in this Einstein's and there will be plenty of people who order the bagel with cream cheese anyway. I can suggest two possible explanations. If anyone has another theory to add, please do.

1. People don't notice because the price is still very low. The hamburger/cheeseburger example is easy to notice because $11 is a lot more than $5; but the bagel example is harder, because even though the proportions are the same, $2.19 just doesn't seem that much more expensive than 99 cents. And, you might think, $2.19 is a great deal and one of the cheapest things on the menu.

2. The demand curve for bagels with cream cheese is highly inelastic. Perhaps there are people who will not eat a bagel if it is not topped with cream cheese. I don't think anyone caries around a tub of cream cheese with them on campus, so Einstein's can get away with charging a huge premium for cream cheese simply because the customer is not price sensitive to it. Either the customer will buy the combo or will buy nothing - there is no middle ground.

Whatever the case, I will continue buying the bagels and bringing them home where I can apply my own cream cheese for a much lower price.
Christopher Hitchens draws our attention to the role that The Daily Show now plays in mainstream news media in his new Atlantic piece.
The merry month of July 2009 had barely witnessed the spectacle of Al Franken eventually taking his seat as the junior senator from Minnesota when, immediately following the death of Walter Cronkite, Time magazine took an online poll to determine who was now “America’s most trusted newscaster.” Seven percent of those responding named Katie Couric. Nineteen percent nominated Charles Gibson. Twenty-nine percent went for Brian Williams. But the clear winner, garnering 44 percent, was Jon Stewart of The Daily Show.
I've been hearing the point from a lot of liberals recently that John Stewart, Stephen Colbert and the rest of the comedians are producing excellent pieces of news and journalism - and that measured against the benchmarks of what is supposed to be "good journalism", the Comedy Central guys are blowing everyone else out of the water.

But I'm pretty sure they don't take much pride in this accomplishment. When I saw John Oliver at the Campus Progress Conference in the same month the infamous Time poll was taken, I think he made it clear that calling the Comedy Central programs better journalism than cable or network shows is really a very very sad statement.


There is a fine line, of course, between being "good" at something and being "better than awful" - the terms are not synonymous.

Oliver's point, which I think is correct, is that we have to stop hyping the work that guys like Stewart and Colbert are doing, and we have to start getting outraged at the despicable state of television journalism. It's easy for a news junkie to write off most of the stuff that airs on CNN or Fox News as trash, but that trash is making money, not the stuff that we ought to care about.

It's a challenging situation, no doubt. Praising comedians for being better than real journalists probably will not be very helpful.

Long-Distance Bus Travel

The City Fix recently posted about the growing popularity of long-distance bus lines connecting big cities. I think another interesting question is: why are the fares on these bus routes so cheap? Prior to a few years ago, if you wanted to travel by bus, Greyhound was basically the only choice. Now, depending on where you live, there can be a dozen or more options for bus travel.

(from flickr user compujeramey)

I don't have a lot of experience with these bus lines - I did ride a Megabus once. I didn't think it was the greatest thing in the world; but for the price, it was certainly reasonable.

If I wanted to make a trip from Cleveland to Chicago during an upcoming weekend in October, I have two bus options: Greyhound or Megabus. The Greyhound fare is $132. The Megabus fare is $30. Not only that, but Megabus has only one stop, in Toledo. The Greyhound has two stops in Ohio and another five stops throughout Indiana. For the Cleveland-Chicago city-pair, only a fool would buy a ticket on Greyhound.

Still, $102 is a huge fare discrepancy. How do these megabus-type companies manage to keep prices so low? Here are a few ideas:

1) Overhead - Greyhound operates a network of 2400+ bus stations in cities throughout the U.S. and Canada. That means they also employ thousands of people to sell tickets, clean bathrooms and manage other employees. It means they pay rent (if they don't own the stations - I'm not sure whether or not they do). Megabus, on the other hand, picks up and drops off on street corners. Megabus has no infrastructure to maintain or non-driver employees to worry about. I think this is typically the most common assumption for why their fares are so low.

2) Unions - Greyhound drivers are organized in a union, Megabus drivers are not; and frankly, Megabus drivers seem a bit aloof, from my experience. I wouldn't be surprised to find that Megabus drivers are paid much less than other unionized commercial vehicle drivers.

3) City-Pairs - You can basically get from any two cities on Greyhound, Megabus-type lines are much more limited in their city pairs. Think about this: let's say that Cleveland-Chicago is a profitable route. If there is someone who wants to go from, say, Sandusky, Ohio to South Bend, Indiana, they take a seat from someone who might otherwise travel from Cleveland to Chicago. Surely Greyhound has some profitable city-pairs and some money-losers. It seems reasonable to think that Greyhound uses its profitable city-pairs to subsidize the money-losing ones. Megabus-type lines eliminate this problem by only running routes between profitable pairs.

Greyhound has a reputation as being a pretty terrible way to travel, so the fact that Megabus-type lines are becoming so popular says something... Traveling by bus might not necessarily be more comfortable or fast as travel by plane or high-speed rail, but given the low price of fares, it's an interesting value proposition.

It's a Texas Thing

Michael Lindenberger has a nice piece in the Dallas Morning News about the transportation (and parking) disaster in the suburban city of Arlington, Texas. Unlike just about every other sports stadium or arena in the country, if you don't have a car or someone to drive you, forget about getting to a Cowboys game any other way.

(from flickr user ladybugbkt)

It's not that Arlington's leadership is being stubborn or has no vision, it's that the citizens won't support transit and they don't want to pay:
Voters in the past three decades have rejected three initiatives that would have dedicated sales taxes to transit, including twice since 2002. "They don't want it," said former Arlington Mayor Elzie Odom, who retired as mayor in 2003. "It doesn't do any good to argue. We have done that three times. The residents who bother to go to the polls just won't have it."

Voters did approve the new stadium, which cost $1.1 billion and was paid for in part by a half-cent sales tax increase. Even the new stadium, and the traffic troubles that come with it, haven't persuaded voters to think again about transit, he said.
This is one of the cultural and political things that drove me crazy when I lived in Dallas. Unlike many big cities, which are typically overwhelmed by liberals, Texas cities (sans for maybe Austin) have a strong proportion of conservatives. These are people oppose public services like transit on principle, because they don't want to impose taxes or they don't think a government agency can competently provide the service, and the result is that it becomes very difficult to make policy that best serves the public.

Lindenberger says that Cowboys owned parking lots will charge around 75 bucks per car and might not even be particularly close to the front gate of the stadium. Now, I'm all for charging premiums for parking, as long as there is a reasonable alternative. If it's really expensive to park, but I can take transit or my bike instead, that's acceptable. But when it's really expensive to park and automobiles have a monopoly on the transportation situation, that's a big problem.

Reckless Lawbreakers

A reader sent this email in response to Monday's post on bike commuting. This type of hostile and not very constructive email would typically go straight to the trash, but I've heard this argument multiple times recently and it warrants a response.
You bike commuters think you are on top of the world. There is no way that I or any other driver can take bikes seriously as a form of transportation as long as they keep riding dangerously and breaking the law. I see bikes going through stop signs and red lights and weaving in between cars all the time. Drivers aren’t going to start sharing the road until you start following the same rules that we do.
It’s true. Sometimes bike riders break traffic laws. Since receiving that email, I decided to pay attention to traffic infractions. The reality is that I rarely see other bicyclists while I am out, but I sure see a lot of cars. Here are a few things I observed in the past three days:
  • more cars to count driving obviously above the posted speed limit.
  • 10+ cars proceed through stop signs without coming to a complete and full stop.
  • 10+ cars turning without signaling.
  • 8 cars parked illegally.
  • 2 cars turn right on red at an intersection marked "no turn on red".
  • 1 car run a red light (I think it might have even been at an intersection with a camera).
  • 1 car pass a school bus while the bus's lights were flashing and stop sign was out.
  • 1 car almost smash into a city bus for attempting to turn left at an intersection marked “left turn on arrow only” - his light was red.
And of course this doesn’t include the legal, but “risky” behavior I also saw, like a woman applying eye makeup behind the wheel and multiple people sending text messages (or emails or Tweets, who knows).

So, borrowing the same logic from the email I received.. I just don’t think I can take motor vehicles seriously as a form of transportation until drivers (notice how I’m presuming all drivers engage in equally bad behavior) start respecting the traffic laws and behaving safely while operating their vehicles.

The intent of this post isn’t to defend that bicyclists are inherently different than drivers or to argue that traffic infractions never occur. The intent is to point out the double standard that exists in these discussions.

Jaywalkers typically don’t break traffic laws because they want to be reckless lawbreakers. They do it because they think they can safely get across the street without waiting for the light. Drivers speed because they think they can safely go faster than the posted limit. Bike riders roll through stop signs because they think they can safely make it through without coming to a full stop. In all three cases, the pedestrian/driver/bicyclist occasionally makes a bad judgment that results in an accident.

I hope we can move past the banter and get to the real heart of these discussions, like how street space can be efficiently allocated and how bicycling trades off with traffic congestion. The debate shouldn't be a war, it should be a question of how different modes of transportation can be mutually beneficial.

More BRT Thoughts

Last week I pointed out that Cleveland’s BRT, the Healthline, is annoyingly slow. I still think it is, but I do have two more things to say on this topic before I put it to rest.

(from flickr user Jason Rossiter)

A friend of the blog asked if I could compare the speed of the Healthline to the old #6 bus that it replaced. My thanks to Gloria Ferris and Jeffrey Gifford for helping me locate old #6 timetables. As it turns out, the Healthline is an improvement. The old #6 traveled at average speeds between 7 and 8 mph, compared to 10.6 mph on the Healthline. That said, being able to beat a tortoise in a race doesn’t necessarily make you fast.

Speaking of races, I also hypothesized that I could ride faster than the Healthline on my bike, and I got my change to put it to the test last Friday. I left work at 3:00pm and pulled up to a Healthline bus shortly after at a red light at Cleveland State. There was a gusty headwind that afternoon, so it took me noticeably longer to get to University Circle than it normally would. Nevertheless, I still handily beat the Healthline in the 4 mile race to University Circle.

Why I Don't Attend Protests

The 9/12 protests have been getting a lot of coverage in the liberal blogosphere. It's true that there are some real crazies out there and their behavior is at least a little frightening. On the other hand, some of the liberal commentary seems to be implying that conservative protesters are uniquely evil. Take a look at this photo which has been floating around, but first, read the caption:
This brave man walked through the anti-health care crowd with his large poster and was immediately set upon by the crowd. One person spit on him, while others pushed and tried to grab his flag until the police intervened. Most of the crowd around him turned on him like rabid dogs, yelling epithets and things like commie, why dont you leave this country etc. Impressively, he remained unflappable and had this little smile on the whole time.

(from flickr user foramenglow)

This man is indeed very brave. But I think the savage behavior he encountered is unfortunately the nature of large-scale protests these days. Can anyone honestly say they expected this man to be treated respectfully when he showed up with that flag? What would a group of, say, anti-Iraq war protestors have done if someone showed up waving a Dick Cheney flag at one of their events? I highly doubt the Dick Cheney supporter would have been treated with respect and invited to engaged in an intellectual fireside chart over the merits of the Iraq War.

Protests have a tendency to bring out the worst in people and reduce the debate to the lowest common denominator. This isn't to downplay the historic role that they have played in shaping progressive movements in this country and elsewhere. But these days, with all the technological progress we've made, with people now editorializing and twisting every little event to fit their ideological point of view, I honestly wonder if protests will ever be the useful tool of change that they once were.

NPR on Bike Commuting

I love this story that All Things Considered aired last week.

I've become an amateur bike commuter since moving to a less "car-dependent" part of town. I have to be honest though.. it can be depressing pedaling the 8 miles to work at 7am on a weekday morning and not seeing any other cyclists on the road. I ride a few year old mountain bike with hybrid tires. I can't ride particularly fast and I don't own a single piece of spandex. I am by no means a pro.

My honest opinion is that bicycle commuting is really not that difficult. I've heard people give every excuse in the book for not doing it, but there is one that I rarely hear, "I tried it for a week and it just wasn't for me." I don't think its because everyone who gives it a shot falls in love with it - I think its because so few people, at least around here, actually try.

Egregious Zoning Laws

I've expressed my dislike for zoning laws in the past. Like other urbanists, my biggest objection is that zoning segregates residential homes from retail and office space and makes it arbitrarily difficult for people to get from the places they live to the places they want and need to go.

Now, right in my backyard, a new zoning debate is brewing; a debate over a type of zoning perhaps even worse than the worst type of Euclidean zoning.

The short version of the story is that John Carroll University owns four apartment buildings directly adjacent to its campus, but which sit in the city limits of Shaker Heights (the rest of the campus is in University Heights). The mayor of Shaker Heights wants a zoning law that would (among other things) cap the number of students allowed to live in each university-owned apartment building (hypothetically, at something like 50% or 75% of total occupancy, although I don't think official numbers have been released).

I'm not even going to try to defend college students as good neighbors. Yes, they can be immature and obnoxious and loud and stay up all night. Yes, they are highly transient and many don't live in the same place for more than a few months at a time. But the question of good neighbor/bad neighbor is a judgment call as is. Plus, this is a really a question of practicality.

Having apartment units on or very close to the JCU campus means that the students in those buildings will walk to and from class, the library, the gym, and whatever else they might be doing on campus. It means fewer awful surface parking spaces will need to be allocated on for commuters, and it means an overall more-connected and better-integrated campus.

The reality is that students have to live somewhere. Shaker Heights seems to be betting on the outcome that if they can "zone" students out of the most convenient apartment buildings, that they will disperse throughout University Heights, Cleveland Heights, South Euclid and other surrounding suburbs. That might be a decent outcome for NIMBYs trying to rid their suburb of college students, but its really bad for everyone else.

Herein lies the broad problem with zoning... it allows local governments to essentially hand pick what kind of activity is allowed to take place on privately owned property, and local governments often aren't very good at it. Euclidean zoning laws say people can't live in an apartment on top of a grocery story, so people have to travel long distances to get to one. Remember, an arrangement like the one in the photo below is against the law in many places across America; the answer to why is more about politics than about practicality.

(from flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

Similarly, Shaker Heights wants to restrict students from living near campus, so the alternative will be for them to travel a longer distances to get to it. I'm not defending the market as perfect in every instance, but in this case, excessive government regulation is not good.

Lastly, I honestly believe that this type of zoning borders on the unconstitutional. I am not a lawyer and may be missing something glaringly obvious, but it seems to be one thing for government say that a residential home can't be used as a factory, or to prohbit people from living in a restaurant. It's entirely another to say that a specific demographic group cannot occupy more than a pre-determined number of apartment units, even if they are able and willing to pay.

Regional Culinary Traditions

Last winter I watched the episode of Man vs. Food where Adam Richman travels to Minneapolis to eat Jucy Lucys. I have been craving one ever since.

(from flickr user Adam Kuban)

The problem is that there doesn't seem to be anywhere in Cleveland that sells a Jucy Lucy. I asked a buddy who is from Minneapolis, but he claims to not know of anywhere outside of the Twin Cities where you can get a hamburger with gooey cheese cooked in the middle.

I could, in theory, just make one myself. The recipe isn't at all complicated; but I won't do it for the simple reason that my cooking skills are awful. I tried making a cheesesteak recently which, unfortunately, turned out horribly. If I didn't know how good a true Philly cheesesteak is, I might have inadvertently written it off as no good.

Anyway, back to my point. I admittedly don't fully understand why some culinary traditions in the US are so strongly tied to a single region. I understand why international differences in taste are such, but with as much migration that takes place inside the US every year, it's surprising that some traditions are able to stick to a region. I mean, surely there has to be a market for Jucy Lucys in dozens of cities - anywhere where people eat cheeseburgers seems like a good candidate...

Until then, I may just have to add Minneapolis to my city tour if I want to get my hands on a nice Jucy Lucy.

Children in the Government

Obama's health care speech yesterday night made clear something depressing about the current state of U.S. politics - we have children in our government and they are acting very childishly. Consider first his point about the "death panels".

It reminds me of children on a schoolyard playground. Somebody makes up a bogus rumor about some other kid; some popular kid with social authority starts acting like it's true, and before you know it, the falsity has become an accepted fact on the playground.

And then there is the now infamous heckling incident...

This guy (Joe Wilson) is like a child who can't sit still for an extended period without causing a scene. He is the kid whose mom is embarrassed to bring him to church or to a restaurant because she knows he will act embarrassingly obnoxious. He is the child who has no respect for adults because he thinks everything they say and do is wrong. He makes a meaningless apology because his mom says he can't have any dessert if he doesn't.

There is nothing wrong with engaging in good debate on these issues. There is something wrong with acting like children on a playground. When I was in high school, I knew a guy who was on the opposite end of the political spectrum as me. We couldn't agree on anything. But I enjoyed having lunch with him, talking to him in the hallway, because he actually had smart things to say, intelligent responses to arguments, and he actually considered the opposing view. This is in contrast to most of the other 15 year-olds, at the time, whose political beliefs stemmed from what their parents told them to think. They too, acted like children, and it was not easy or constructive to have a political conversation with them.

How "Rapid" is BRT?

I'll admit, I am a little late to the party on this one. It's been nearly a year since Cleveland launched its new BRT, the Healthline, and since Streetsblog proclaimed the line was getting "rave reviews". Now that I live in a part of town with better access to the Healthline, I finally got a chance to take a ride. My overall impression: wow, the Healthline is really painfully slow...

(from Wikipedia)

Perhaps my expectations were too high, but for all the hype, the improved boarding platforms, pre-paid fare system, dedicated bus lanes, unique traffic signals, and the fact that it has "rapid transit" in the name, I think I was justified in believing that its speed might be somewhat synonymous with rapid.

The official schedule lists an 8am weekday trip from East 105th & Euclid Avenue to Superior & East Roadway as taking 23 minutes. That's a distance of 4.08 miles. Calculating it out gives you the average speed for the trip as a whopping 10.6 mph.

Contrast this with the Red Line, an actual rapid transit line. On a comparable trip, from the University Circle Station to the Tower City Station, the schedule lists the ride as taking 13 minutes. The route is 5.34 track miles long, giving it an average speed of 24.6 mph.

I haven't actually timed it, but I am pretty confident that I could ride my bike down the Euclid Avenue corridor at least as fast as 10.6 mph. So why is the Healthline so slow?

For one thing, there are probably too many stops. If a subway or elevated rail line had been built along the same corridor, I suspect there probably would be about half as many stops. Bus lines always have way too many stops; some local buses have a stop at every single city block. The Healthline has them slightly more spaced out but still relatively close together. The unfortunate thing about designing the system with so many stops is that it makes it that much more difficult to develop around any single one of them, a problem I suspect that Healthline will face if the economic climate in Cleveland is ever favorable to development again.

The second problem is that there is an overabundance of traffic lights and the Healthline doesn't seem to be technologically advanced enough to efficiently cruise through them. I always imagined that true BRT would be equipped with some sort of GPS or a similar technology that would change the traffic lights just as buses arrive so that they would never sit at a a red light... kind of in the same spirit as emergency vehicles that can manipulate traffic lights to get where they are going more quickly. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the Healthline. Sitting at long red lights is the name of the game.

Needless to say, I was disappointed with the Heathline from a speed aspect. Eucid Avenue looks great, though. The bike lanes are definitely the best part (although I will have more to say about that soon). So there certainly has been improvement along the corridor; but the improvements have more to do with aesthetics and bicycle improvements than with transit itself.

I hope this serves as a lesson to cities that are thinking about investing in BRT instead of rail. I think The Overhead Wire is correct in arguing that you get what you pay for with BRT. When interest groups argue that BRT is a cheaper alternative to light or heavy rail, an important question to ask is exactly why it is so much cheaper. If you want to do BRT right, and you want it to truly be a form of rapid transit, then you're going to have to pay, anyway.

Running the City

Since I was off on Monday and there wasn't much on TV, I tuned into the Today Show for the first time in many years. There was, nevertheless, one story that caught my attention.

As touristy as it is, I really do appreciate a good guided tour when visiting a new city. My favorite tours are definitely the guided bike tours that a lot of cities have now, since they are able to cover a good distance in a short period of time and because they usually let you keep the rental bike for the rest of the day. The one problem that I have is that these things are often more expensive than I can afford. 25 or 30 bucks for an hour-long tour seems pricey to me; and according to the Today Show's piece, these running tours cost 72 dollars for an eight mile run. Yikes.

The Price of Being Passionate

Wow, it's been a long time since I blogged about national politics here at Extraordinary Observations; nevertheless, the recent news about Van Jones's resignation really has me feeling down. If you don't know much about Jones, I strongly recommend this profile from the New Yorker or this interview with NOW. Jones resigned this weekend because of what he calls a "vicious smear campaign" attacking his past life and activism.

(from flickr user House Committee on Education and Labor)

For me, one takeaway that the rest of the blogosphere seems to be overlooking is that we now live in a country where doing or saying anything controversial in the past could torpedo your future as a high-ranking public servant. If this keeps up, the only people who are going to qualify for these positions will either be 1) those who know from an early age that it's what they want to do an meticulously manipulate the events of their lives to fit a profile of who we think a high-profile public servant should be or 2) people whose lives are incredibly unexceptional and have never done anything that could be used against them in the future.

I wonder if I've already disqualified myself from high-level public office. I'm probably much more transparent than the average person. I've written opinionated stuff all over the internet. Anyone who really wanted could take some snippets of my writing, mix in some false allegations, demand I apologize for some less-than-intelligent things I've said, and build a convincing case against me.

Fly or Drive?

In the spirit of Labor Day travel, Nate Silver has a nice post up about the costs and benefits of driving vs. flying. I tend to agree with most of Silver's analysis, which would put me at odds with many of the post's commenters.

(from flickr user YoLoPey)

Based on the arguments that people are making in favor of driving over flying in moderate to long distance trips, I cant help but wonder if a lot of it has to do with a difference in their level of travel skill?

Some are complaining about having to get to the airport early, stand in long lines, undergo invasive TSA searches, and being asked to show their ID "a million" times, etc. The reality is, those probably were concerns in the earlier part of this decade, but 2001 was almost a decade ago and I think a lot of the bad stereotypes are still around.

Once you get to know the airports you use, you learn how long the lines typically are, how long it takes to walk to the terminal, etc. I know that when I fly on Southwest out of Cleveland, I can expect the line security line to be about ten minutes long, the walk to the terminal about five minutes. I know I don't need to get to the airport particularly early. Further, I know how to efficiently pack my carry-on and I know whether or not my belt or watch will trigger the metal detector. An inexperienced traveler has plenty of opportunities to make mistakes that could make for a less-than-pleasant plane trip.

I understand the reasons people prefer to drive on trips, but I personally can't stand it. Driving long distances is a painful experience that causes me anxiety. If traveling a moderate distance, say, from Cleveland to Chicago or Cleveland to Washington, DC, I would definitely prefer to fly, even if the door-to-door travel took exactly the same amount of time. Yes, dollars and cents cost has something to do with it, but it's also about the level of anxiety that different forms of travel impose. For me, driving is significantly worse.

Why I Hate Ticketmaster

Yesterday's Planet Money's podcast had a pretty good explanation of why Ticketmaster is able to get away with its evil pricing practices. It's a short podcast, so go ahead and take a listen.

Here's the story in a nutshell: for every concert, sports event, children show or whatever, there are a fixed number of tickets available and a certain number of buyers willing to pay for them. The Ticketmaster price, after the fees and surcharges, is basically the equilibrium price for those tickets. I guess that makes sense...

(from flickr user Godverbs)

The reason I (and presumably many others) hate Ticketmaster is because of the way the company presents the price of its tickets.

Here's an example. Last winter, Angels and Airwaves, one of my favorites bands, was headlining a tour which was coming to Dallas (where I was living at the time). For what it's worth, it was a great show and one of the best concerts I have been to; but I digress. I probably would have been willing to pay up to $75 to see the show. I logged on to Ticketmaster. The tickets were listed at $32, so I went ahead and bought one. But by the time I actually had the ticket in my hand, my credit card had been charged about $50, meaning the fees and surcharges amounted to more than 50 percent of the ticket's listed price.

Now, theoretically, I should have been thrilled. I was willing to pay $75, I only paid $50, so my consumer surplus was 25 dollars. But I wasn't happy. I was quite angry, because when I first inquired about the price of the tickets, it appeared that my consumer surplus would be closer to $43. Psychologically, what originally looked like a great deal now became only a good deal. I wanted the great deal back!

Ticketmaster pisses people off because they screw with expectations. If the equilibrium price point for that Angels and Airwaves concert was really $50, I would have probably been more satisfied if Ticketmaster had listed the price as $50 and not charged any over-the-top fees.

This strategy basically seems to be the opposite of what every retailer on the planet utilizes. Think about going to a store like a JC Penny's. Nearly every item is always "on sale". You can look at something in the store that used to be really expensive, now it's marked down and is much less expensive, and it feels good to make that purchase, regardless of whether or not you actually get a good deal. JC Penny charges less than the price you are originally presented with. Ticketmaster charges much more.

I can understand why Ticketmaster's pricing strategy might work in a competitive market. Airlines have tons of fees tacked on to their base fares because buyers are really bad at taking the "full cost" into consideration during the purchasing process, and many will book a flight with a slightly lower base fare thinking they are getting a good deal. But Ticketmaster is a monopoly, so they have no need to advertise ticket prices lower than what they are going to change. Where else am I going to get my concert tickets? But they do, and it makes them one of the most hated companies in the world of business...

Improving Google Transit

I love Google Transit - I think it is one of the best Google features since the original Google Maps - and I'm fortunate to be in a city that has handed their data over to Google (I sympathize with the folks that aren't so lucky). Google Transit does have one major flaw, however - it doesn't have the option of bike + transit combos.

(from flickr user karenwithak)

Say I want to go someplace that is farther away than I'd like to bike for the full trip, but using transit requires multiple transfers to get to my destination. A good example for me would be if I wanted to go from school to work. The trip is about 9.5 miles by bike.

When I enter the details, Google gives me three options for getting there via transit, but none of them are particularly appealing. The quickest option (1 hour and 9 minutes) requires me to take a bus, then a light rail, then another bus. That's a three seat ride with two transfers, enough to make even the most dedicated transit rider cringe.

But if I had my bike... I could easily ride to the light rail, take my bike on the train downtown, and then ride the rest of the way to the office. The total travel time would be less than if I exclusively used transit, but would be less exhausting than biking the whole way.

Now, Google Transit technically gives me enough information to figure this out on my own. If I really wanted to exercise this option, I could just ignore the bus rides that I don't want to take - but it would be nice to have the bike + transit combo given explicitly, if nothing more than for the sake of convenience. Plus, it's always nice to know all of your options.

The Whole Foods Price Myth

Now that my closest grocery store is a Whole Foods, I've been going there fairly regularly. People have asked "how can you afford it?" and "isn't it really expensive?" I think the answers to these questions depends on how we thinking about value and cost.

(from flickr user kalebdf)

The Undercover Economist wrote about this phenomenon in his book by the same name, pointing out that an identical basket of goods actually cost less at Whole Foods than it did at his local Safeway, but that a typical basket of goods cost more at Whole Foods. The reason is that the average shopper at a Safeway is more likely to opt for cheapo value brands and other inferior products, whereas shoppers at Whole Foods are more likely to go for premium stuff.

In which case, it's really not so much about the store as it is about the shopper.

Plus, Whole Foods's 365 brand is noticeably less expensive than some of the other stuff in the store and, in my opinion, actually quite good, unlike some other crummy store brands. Since I'm not particularly concerned about organic, so as long as it tastes good, it's a winner in my book.

Lastly, because it's relevant, I'm with Michael Pollan on this question of the Whole Foods boycott. If I stopped doing business with otherwise good companies because their executives were bad at keeping their mouths shut on politically contentious issues, it would probably just cause a new set of problems.