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Showing posts from November, 2009

Not the Point of High Speed Rail

Track Twenty-Nine draws my attention to this article about South Bend, Indiana's lobbying for a stop along a proposed high speed rail corridor. One thing concerns me, though:
If the federal government approves funding for a high-speed rail line through South Bend, passengers here could travel to Chicago's Union Station in just one hour. Such a project would have a profound effect on life in South Bend, making it easier for residents to commute to jobs in the Windy City, local officials say.There are a lot of good reasons to invest in high speed rail infrastructure. Extreme commuting isn't one of them. Now, this article doesn't specify that people would use this for their daily commute, but there are reasons to think that's the case.

(from flickr user satosphere)

I've heard this argument applied elsewhere. While recently discussing the 3-C Corridor in Ohio, someone said, "wouldn't it be great if we had high-speed rail here?.. you could live in Cleveland an…

24 Hour Cities

This American Life is probably one of the best programs on public radio. Yesterday's new episode is one of my favorite yet - five stories that all take place in the middle of the night. Download it on your iPod, listen to it at work, while you jog or whatever. If you haven't heard the show before, it's worth at least an hour of your time.

(from flickr user CC Chapman)

I get frustrated at times when I'm having a good night of writing, the clock strikes 10:00 and I have to leave my favorite coffee shop. There really aren't many other places to go at that hour in my neighborhood. Once things close for the night, they're closed for the night.

Recently I was in one of the more "happening" parts of downtown on a Tuesday night. The streets were dead. The person I was with commented that I shouldn't expect much and if I came back on Friday or Saturday night the neighborhood would be hopping. Regardless, that isn't what makes for a great 24-hour city.

A gr…

Thinking About Transportation

Aaron Naparstek of Streetsblog says it best in this interview with PBS's Blueprint America.

The most interesting point comes at the end, when Naparstek notes that livable streets have become perceived as elitist, which is a actually a big problem. In a sense, they are elitist - they're very expensive. You have to have a lot of money to comfortably live in them. I can relate, because I don't have a career and I don't have much income at the moment. There's nothing I could appreciate more than more affordable urban communities; but with such a small supply, of course the prices are going to get bid up by the people who really want to be there.

Another Black Friday for the Books

I don't have a crazy video this year, as it seems the Black Friday crowds have been behaving a bit less like animals this year than historically (see my posts from 2008, 2007, and 2006 if you're interested in that) but I still have a few comments. Take this article from my local paper that I woke up to this morning:
As it neared 5 a.m. this morning, a line of 100 or more Best Buy shoppers wrapped around the store at Steelyard Commons. Several people had camped out overnight, including Ronnie Bolanos of Cleveland. He said he came out last year, and ended up being too late to take advantage of deals on a limited quantity of items. He wasn't going to let that happen again: This year he showed up at 7 a.m. on Thanksgiving, meaning he spent almost 24 hours outside the store.It's more than just waiting patiently for 24 hours... it's spending an entire holiday at a big-box shopping plaza. It's spending it out in the cold and in the rain and the snow.

The popularity of t…

Boomerang Kids

The Associated Press is running a story about "boomerang kids" that's been getting some attention around the blogosphere. There's no doubt that more college grads are living with their parents than in the past, but to pin it entirely on the recession misses other important points.

College was a lot less expensive in the early 80s, the last time unemployment was as high as it is today; and college grads carried a lot less debt back then too.

There's also the cultural aspect, which exacerbates the problem. What 18 year old isn't anxious to leave home and go live on their own, no matter the cost? Plenty of teenagers choose to go to a college far away from where they live, others go to school in their hometowns. Almost none of them wants to live with their parents. But living away at college is actually very expensive. In the neighborhood where I go to school, the typical rent is about $400-$500 (depending on the number of roommates and quality of the housing and s…

Boycott Happy

The LA Times has an interesting story about the American Family Association being up-in-arms about corporations not using the word "Christmas" in their holiday advertisements. This year, they're calling for a boycott of Gap and its brands on these grounds.

It's a pretty bad commercial, but if you watched it, you'll notice Gap actually does use the word Christmas. It's almost as if the American Family Association has a pile of pre-written forms, they merely fill in the name of the (presumably) offending company and the rest is magic. Sometimes if I wonder if these organizations actually don't want what they're demanding, because, once they get it, what do they have to make noise about anymore?

Taxi Cab Payments

Daniel thinks taxi drivers are missing out on some business by refusing to accept credit and debit cards, even though they are required by law to do so. I think this is an instance in which mandating that all cab drivers accept plastic payments leads to unintended consequences.

(from flickr user sunface13)

I understand why cab drivers don't want to accept credit or debit cards. Cash isn't subject to a "processing fee" - an amount that can be significant, particularly for small fares, like those under $10 or $15. Cash is also better when it comes to tips. People paying with cash often round tips up, especially if they need change. People paying with plastic often calculate an exact percentage tip. Not to mention that cash tips are easy for cabbies to hide from the tax man..

It seems like, if credit and debit fares were truly valuable, some cabbies would willingly exploit that market. They could put big stickers on the side of the car or a sign on top so potential custome…

Don't Tax College

Hard for cash, Pittsburgh's mayor wants to establish a new 1% tax on gross college tuition paid by students. It's an awful idea for generating revenue; but unfortunately, Pittsburgh might be able to pull it off without immediate negative consequences.

(from flickr user Niemster)

College has already gotten so expensive to the point that a lot of students now simply roll their eyes and accept these things as another cost of the college experience. At the beginning of every semester, universities bill students for tuition, and then they tack on a bunch of seemingly arbitrary fees and surcharges. Many schools ask for a few hundred bucks for a parking space. Textbooks can be a hundred bucks or more each. When it's all over, it's actually not that difficult to ask students to fork over another few hundred bucks, and they'll do it, because the sticker shock will be long gone and they're numb to the fact that these are large amounts of money.

With any tax, the big risk is…

Popcorn Subsidies

Consider this for a moment: if you go to see a movie this Saturday night, the ticket will probably cost between $8 and $10; if you want a bucket of popcorn, you'll probably pay at least another $5 for the salty snack. On the other hand, one of my favorite bars has a popcorn machine, just like at the movies, and if you go into there this Saturday night, you can eat as much popcorn as you'd like, and it's free!

(from flickr user Justinsanity)

Popcorn at the movies is the quintessential "pricing puzzle". Everyone wants to know why it costs to much to buy something that they know costs almost nothing to produce. Further, how does the bar get away with passing out free popcorn while the movie theater charges an obviously inflated price?

The answer is that in both cases popcorn is being used as part of a cross-subsidy. In the case of the movie theater, popcorn is subsidizing the ticket cost; but in the case of the bar, popcorn is being subsidized by beer and other drinks.

Saturday Satire

I don't know what it is about satire that pokes fun of big-shot Washington lobbyists, but it just seems to easy to come up with good material. Thank You For Smoking, for example - hilarious. Now Streetsfilms has this short video featuring Veronica Moss, lobbyist for the Automobile User Trade Organization.

My favorite line: "This is not Italy. This is not... a piazza!"

Dealing with Palin

Andrew Sullivan writes:
This is only the second time in its nearly ten-year history that the Dish has gone silent. The reason now is the same as the reason then. When dealing with a delusional fantasist like Sarah Palin, it takes time to absorb and make sense of the various competing narratives that she tells about her life. There are so many fabrications and delusions in the book, mixed in with facts, that just making sense of it - and comparing it with objective reality as we know it, and the subjective reality she has previously provided - is a bewildering task. She is a deeply disturbed person which makes this work of fiction and fact all the more challenging to read. And the fact that she is now the leader of the Republican party and a potential presidential candidate, makes this process of deconstruction an important civil responsibility. We take this seriously as we always have. We want to be fair to her, and to her family, and to the innocent people she has brought into the spo…

Towpath Trail Review

I biked it about a week and a half ago, from Cleveland (about mile marker 5) to Peninsula (about mile marker 24 or 25) and back. My overall impression is that the Towpath a nice resource for recreational purposes, but it's difficult to imagine it evolving into a solid network that bike commuters can realistically use to get around.

(from flickr user jacobgutierrezflores)

The ride itself, along the trail, is very nice; but there are a few things that I thought could be better.

First, it's very challenging to get in and out of the Cuyahoga Valley. This is problematic because there really isn't much down in the valley, and many people come from an area of a significantly higher elevation. I think the elevation change is about 500 feet from the Towpath to many of the surrounding areas. And while this isn't necessarily the most ridiculous hill in the world, it is very challenging for those who aren't in the best of shape (considering I rode over 50 miles on the trip, I lik…

Fast Food Loss Leaders

Marketplace had a pretty interesting story last week about the economics of the McDonald's dollar menu, and how it's squeezing profitability for a lot of store franchisees.

I haven't been into a McDonald's in a long time, so I can't speak from experience, but it seems like one major problem is that it's difficult for McDonald's to effectively utilize loss-leaders if a lot of people are simply buying things off of the dollar menu and nothing else. Back when I was in high school, I recall regularly going into Wendy's and picking items off of the value menu and never buying any of the more expensive items.

This is different than if my favorite bar offers a burger and beer for five bucks on a certain night of the week. In that case, the bar only needs to sell about one regularly priced drink to make up for (and possibly even profit) from the deal. And based on my experience, that's usually not a difficult goal to achieve.

The Parking Free-For-All

I can't get enough of the show Parking Wars on A&E that I blogged about a few months ago. The more I watch, the more I notice a few repeating trends.

(from flickr user lobstar28)

Few parking violators admit to wrongdoing. This might just be selective editing by the folks at A&E, but it seems like everyone who gets busted for a parking violation wants to put up a fight about it. This doesn't surprise me. When I worked the rides at an amusement park, people would routinely violate safety rules. When informed, rather than accepting the error and saying "sorry, I didn't know" many would lash out and refuse to admit any wrongdoing.

Most of the violators who get upset are upset at the wrong person. Blowing up at the person writing the ticket or booting your car really is pretty pointless. It's the lawmakers who should really be the object of hostility; but the blue-collar foot-soldiers often take the heat. This also doesn't surprise me. People at airports …

Academics & Wikipedia

I know many academics who detest Wikipedia (not all of them, of course, but a noteworthy number). And I wholeheartedly disagree.

I don't think there is a single greater tool for educating ones self on a wide variety of topics than Wikipedia. It doesn't matter what I want to know about, I can learn about it there. It's really a depth vs. breadth debate... Wikipedia can tell you a little about a lot of topics, but it fails to tell you a lot about any single topic.

To which I think there are two important considerations. First, many Wikipedia entries now feature a pretty comprehensive 'works cited' section where you can go for more in-depth look at the topic in question. Second, the peer-reviewed journal articles that academics treat as the gold-standard of research knowledge are basically useless to anyone who doesn't already have an in-depth understanding of a particular topic. Even if they do, the articles are often locked-up and isolated from the public; availab…

Oh Christmas Ale

I've been accused of writing about too many serious topics on this blog, so... here's a fun video from comedians Jim Tews & Mike Polk.

For all the criticizing I do of Cleveland, there are a lot of things to love; and if I ever leave, there will be many things I will miss. Besides the Great Lakes Brewery, I'm not sure what I'll do without a strong Phoenix Coffee to wake me up in the morning, a public library where I can get basically any book whenever I want, or a neighborhood where every night of the week a different bar has an and beer for $5 deal that even a frugal guy like me can afford.

If only some of the macro problems weren't so daunting... if only.

Want to Fix Downtown Cleveland? The Answer is at Cleveland State.

Downtown Cleveland needs 25,000 residents to become a 24-hour urban center.

I don't know where the magic 25,000 number came from, exactly; but it's been tossed around quite a bit, and it seems pretty reasonable. We're only about 40% to that goal, so the harder question is: how is Cleveland going to attract 15,000 more people to come live downtown?

One answer seems so obvious it's amazing more people aren't talking about it. Cleveland and CSU need to work together to get more students to come live on-campus.

(from flickr user Steve Aresman Thomas)

There are about 16,000 students who attend CSU, only about 5% of them live in university-provided housing. There are also another 1500 faculty and staff - some of whom already live in downtown housing.

When I was in high school almost nobody talked about going to Cleveland State. It didn't get much respect, and going there meant you'd probably be a commuter and live with your parents. The inability to move out and live …

So You Want to be a Southwest Airlines Intern?

My personal website must have pretty decent SEO - because in the past year, I've received about two dozen emails from aspiring Southwest Airlines interns looking to draw on my experience in search of their own dream internship. In the past two weeks alone a few new emails have already started rolling in...

(from flickr user San Diego Shooter)

If you've found your way here, you might be hoping for the silver bullet; a secret tip that will propel you above the competition. Unfortunately, I do not know any inside secrets. I can only share my experience as an internship candidate about two years ago and, rather than responding individually to future emails I anticipate to receive, I hope that potential interns will find the information posted here valuable.

Understand: Southwest Airlines is a very unique company. The corporate culture at Southwest is truly unlike that of nearly every other company. But you probably already knew that, since it now seems mandatory for every management,…

RTA Ridership Model Update

Last month I built a statistical ridership model for Cleveland's RTA system. One major concession was that I excluded a service-level independent variable because I lacked sufficient data to include it in the model. Unsure how to resolve this issue, I recently received this email from someone at the Maryland Transit Administration:
The service level data not in your model is actually a huge factor driving ridership-if the system isn’t seen as robust due to meager service offerings, fare prices and population don’t matter. I think if you add service levels to your model, you’ll see that it adds a good chunk of explanatory power, and that it may even be collinear with population. As population departs, tax base declines, service has to be cut, and so on. For the share of transit system users that are transit-dependent, poor service means they will find other ways-ride sharing, moving, etc.-to get to where they need to go. Transit use is always optional, and the elasticity is differen…

Intelligent Urban Thinking

There are a lot of books out there about urbanism, city-living, sprawl and other such topics. Some are excellent, others have put me to sleep. Michael Sorkin's Twenty Minutes in Manhattan is one of my new favorites. Although the description on the inside flap describes the book as a story of the walk from the author's apartment in Greenwhich Village to his architecture studio in Tribeca, the book is so much more; from a history of zoning and tenant laws in New York to an analysis of street grids and the subway to the many parks that blanket the urban landscape. The book can be dense in parts and some topics seem very long-winded and without organization. Overall, it's a nice read for someone interested in New York City and the urban realm that encompasses it.

In particular, there are three topics that Sorkin got me thinking more about; things which I hadn't really paid much attention to before.

Rent Control - there are few topics that get as much bad press in economics …

Why Internet Gambling Thrives

Now that the cool new thing in state politics is for voters to rewrite state constitutions and promote casino construction in their backyards, one question to think about is the impact the all of these new brick-and-mortar casinos will have on internet gambling. The answer, I think, is: virtually none; and the reasons are both political and economic.

(from flickr user .mw)

It's easy to understand why people think there will be a trade-off. We use the ambiguous term "gambling" and assume that casino games are interchangeable; but internet gambling is focused heavily on two games: poker and sports-betting. Brick-and-mortar casinos, on the other hand, dedicate more floor space to slot machines than anything else. This equation is unlikely to change anytime soon.

As far as sports-betting goes, federal law makes it effectively illegal in every state outside of Nevada. That's great for the bookmakers in Vegas and Reno, but it's annoying as hell for anyone who wants to mak…

Dear Sirius-XM, I Quit

After being a loyal customer for 2.5 years, I called and canceled my Sirius-XM subscription this week. It wasn't a spur of the moment decision, Sirus-XM has been getting on my nerves for a while and the ultimate result is that they lost my business. I went from thinking that Sirius Satellite Radio was one of the best purchases I've ever made to deciding it wasn't worth it anymore. How? The story begins in the spring of 2007...

The Honeymoon Period
I had just finished my second year of college and was on track to start my summer job. Back then, I naively believed that spending over an hour a day driving back and forth from work in a car was "completely normal" and that I might be able to make my drive pleasant. So I bought new car speakers from a friend and a Sirius car unit from In May 2007 I activated my subscription.

The price tag was $12.99 per month and I was instantly hooked. The number of music channels was awesome and the fact that there were no c…

The Danish Way

Last week's episode of NOW was pretty great.

I think the whole 'electric cars can save the world' attitude can be easily misinterpreted, because the reality is that in a city like Copenhagen, there will still be a sizable number of people who never own one. It's a unique city in the sense that it's both very expensive to drive and very reasonable to get by without ever driving. That's not true of most American cities.

So you could replace every SUV in America with an electric vehicle; for that matter you could replace every internal combustion engine vehicle with an electric one, and we'll still have a plethora of problems. Electric vehicles won't solve traffic or congestion, they won't slow sprawl, they'll still cause tens of thousands of deaths every year and they'll still need a place to be parked for 95% of their lives. Even this completely unrealistic "best case scenario" isn't really very progressive in the scheme of things…

What Free Burritos and Traffic Congestion Have in Common

Occasionally Chipotle has promotions where they give away a free burrito to anyone who shows up. Apparently Halloween is one of these occasions, which I discovered last Saturday night when I showed up craving a burrito and found a line wrapping all the way around the store.

(from flickr user LSykora)

I took my business elsewhere.

Most highways in the United States suffer from the "free burrito problem". When I go to Chipotle, I expect to pay $5.50 for a burrito. I expect the line to be anywhere from no wait to a ten minute wait; but nothing like the line I saw on Saturday, which I suspect might have taken a little over an hour to maneuver.

Every morning people take their cars and curse the congestion on the "free highways" they use to get to wherever they're going, even though it's pretty much exactly what they expect. And there are strong political constituencies to keep things this way.

Of course, there are plenty of alternatives to Chipotle, so even though I …

The Weird World of Movie Piracy

Last Sunday's 60 Minutes took a look into the world of movie piracy. Take a look.

I have a really difficult time understanding how there is such a huge market for this kind of thing in the United States. I can understand why there might be a market for a product like music, even textbooks, because theoretically you can make a near-perfect copy of the original and the bootleg would be only marginally different (if at all).

Movies are a different beast. People listen to music on their ipods and in their cars; but they go to a concert to experience that music live. People go to the movies for an experience they can't get at home - watching a movie on a giant screen. The reason I wouldn never want to watch a bootleg DVD of a new movie is the quality gap. The 60 Minutes story describes bootleg movies being made by people sitting in the back row of the theater recording on tiny spy cameras . There's no way that the bootleg can even come close to the quality of the original.

I alway…

Reverse "Crowding Out"

Daniel has a few interesting things to say about the plans for Chicago's North/Clybourn L station. First let me say that I think any transit improvement is worthwhile. But I also think we have to consider the potential risk that this could pose in the long term - a sort of reverse "crowding out" of public investment in transit infrastructure.

(from flickr user konomike)

Here's the concern: Apple might spend a few million bucks renovating the North/Clybourn station, but Apple itself might never see a direct financial return on its income statement. The net beneficiaries of the improvement will be the public, who will use the station, and other businesses in the area, who will free ride off of Apple's investment. For Apple, it will primarily be an act of corporate goodwill.

The risk is that transit systems become reliant on these acts of corporate goodwill, which are never guaranteed. A more reliable idea for transit improvement would be some sort of public and privat…