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Showing posts from September, 2009

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…

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 Cow…

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. …

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…

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!

Houston, Sprawl, and Travel Distances

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: i…

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…

The Daily Show vs. Good Journalism

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.

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 ticke…

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 …

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 …

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 Cir…

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 …

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 …

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 a…

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 desse…

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 Streetsblogproclaimed 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...

(fromWikipedia)

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.

Contras…

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.

Visit msnbc.com for Breaking News, World News, and News about the Economy

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 …

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 o…

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 t…

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 …

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, …