Year in Review

It was a pretty good year for me in the blogosphere. I managed to publish over 270 posts here at Extraordinary Observations, I blogged for Newsweek's Generation O over the summer, and I wrote a handful of guest posts around the internet.

Just in case you missed anything or started reading in the middle of the year, I compiled a few of my favorite posts from 2009 (organized by topic). Here's to a new decade of great blogging!

Everyday Observations
  • Casino ATM Puzzles - Las Vegas casinos charge a seemingly absurd fee to withdraw cash from their ATMs; but there might be a perfectly reasonable explanation for it.
  • Coffee Shop Squatters - I write a lot of blog posts from my favorite coffee shop and I do it because the coffee shop is very accommodating. I'm skeptical of the claim that coffee shop squatters are actually bad for business.
  • Why Are Beer Companies So Green? - for whatever reason, it seems like beer producers are among the most environmentally friendly businesses in the economy. I'm not quite sure why.
  • In Praise of Southwest's 'C' Boarding Group - many people dread getting a Southwest boarding pass with a big C on it. I appreciate being one of the last to board the plane.
  • The Politics of Fireworks - it really doesn't make sense for individual suburbs to put together their own Independence Day celebrations. But they do it anyway.
  • Why is the MLB Season So Long? - Major League Baseball's regular season is extremely long relative to its post-season. Could a few reforms make baseball more interesting?
Urban Thinking
  • Why Cities Need Singles - some cities seems overly concerned with attracting families; they ought to be investing more resources to attract young singles.
  • Universities and Youth Magnets - Richard Florida often argues that "great universities" attract young people to certain cities. I disagree.
  • Population Density and Baseball - why do tickets for some MLB teams cost so much money while others are dirt cheap? It might have something to do with how many people live around the ball park.
  • How "Rapid" is BRT? - when I finally got to ride the Healthline BRT in Cleveland, it seemed painfully slow. Crunching the numbers confirmed my hypothesis.
  • The Renter's Stigma - we are in the midst of a housing crisis. The stigma that exists against renters might have fueled it and is now making the problem difficult to solve.
  • Lessons from North Texas - the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium in Arlington, Texas can teach us some valuable lessons about parking, transit, and suburban development.
  • Reckless Lawbreakers - I often hear criticism of bicyclists for disobeying traffic laws. The reality isn't so black and white.
  • Seven Questions for Ryan Avent - one of the web's smartest urban bloggers answers a few of my questions.
City-Tour Reports
  • Journey to the Big Apple - a five post series about the city that many people consider the greatest urban place in America.
  • An Atypical Look at Las Vegas - Sin City is infamous in urbanist circles for being a sprawled-out hell; but the Strip is a surprisingly urban place.
  • Next Stop: Philadelphia - Philly is a great city to walk or ride a bike. As far as their civic pride goes, it could use a little improvement.
  • A Stroll Around the Capital - gentrification, million-dollar condos, crime, big-box development, and unpaid interns.. the stuff that makes Washington, DC what it is.
  • Visit to Smart Growth's Headquarters - Arlington, Virginia is famous for its forward-thinking transit-oriented development. As far as suburbs go, it's one of the best, but it wasn't exactly what I expected.

Transit Lessons from Las Vegas

Metropolis Magazine has a very cool article about the mostly unknown history of the Las Vegas Monorail. After my Vegas visit last spring, I wrote about the monorail as a huge missed opportunity on the strip. It seems like the article's author, Karrie Jacobs, agrees.

(from flickr user http2007)

Despite its shortcomings, there are a few things about the Monorail that seem relevant in light of the public transit crisis facing cities across America. Specifically:
  • The LV Monorail makes money.
  • The LV Monorail is privately owned.
  • The LV Monorail is completely driver-less.
For the most part, no other transit system in America can be described by all three points (or even two of them).

On the first point, it's important to keep in mind that LV Monorail fares are high, very high. A single ride costs $5 and an all-day pass runs $13. That's at least a 100% price-premium over most American transit systems. But plenty of people still pay. That's the beauty of doing business in Vegas. When people are throwing around chips worth a lot more than a single ride, what's another 5 bucks here or there? It also helps that the Monorail's costs are kept pretty low, but I'll get to that point in a moment.

Regarding the ownership, the reality is that the Monorail is operated with a different objective (to maximize profits) than most transit systems (to maximize social welfare). One reason this can occur is because the owners don't own any other transit lines. Since they don't have to subsidize money-losing service (as most transit services do) the Monorail actually operates fairly efficiently.

Lastly, the Monorail is completely automated with no on-train operators. Although it's usually nice to have someone on the train in the event that something goes wrong. The reality is that it's an insurance policy with very high premiums. The overall success of the LV Monorail in this regard seems to be evidence for the inevitability of computer-controlled transit systems. It will be a long-term transition, both because of necessary technology upgrades and union labor issues, but it's not theoretically impossible.

I'm not writing this is as practical or politically-feasible advice for struggling transit agencies, but it's definitely something to think about.

Airborne Deterrence

There’s bit a bit of editorializing about the risk posed of airplane attacks and a few probability statistics thrown into the mix. Predictably, the federal government amped up its ‘security’ at airports and politicians have made empty statements about the importance of such measures.

(from flickr user emptyhighway)

Ultimately, if another attack along the lines of September 11th never happens, it won’t be because of the visible presence of ‘security’ at airports, it will be because of the deterrent effect that comes from the expectation of such an attack. Here’s a quote from an Associated Press article yesterday:
Passengers aren't only responding to obvious acts of terror. In June, two off-duty officers handcuffed a traveler who took off his clothes and kicked and punched a flight attendant on a US Airways flight to Los Angeles from Charlotte, North Carolina. In April 2008, passengers duct-taped a drunken man to his seat after he attacked a United Airlines flight attendant on a trip to Los Angeles from Hong Kong. "Aggressive intervention has become the new societal norm," said Bill Voss, an expert at the Flight Safety Foundation in Alexandria, Virginia.
That’s important. The reason 3 out of 4 planes crashed into the United States in 2001 was because passengers, crew, pilots, etc. didn’t know how to handle the situation. Now, everyone does, and a rational enemy will recognize that fact. As the character Basher says in the movie Ocean’s 13, “You don't run the same gag twice, you do the next gag.”
Today’s guest post is written by Emily Richardson. Emily is a young professional and marketing expert for a major airline. She lives in Dallas, Texas. The opinions expressed below are exclusively her own. -Rob

When it comes to travel, I'm spoiled. For three years now, I've worked for the best little airline in the country and I love it! I completely take for granted that I can wake up on a Saturday morning and decide to spend the night in Vegas, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles... I can have my pick of over sixty fabulous destinations on a whim. I can't wrap my mind around planning a trip in advance. I just check the schedule and go!

I've been very lucky in my travels that weather and other acts of God haven't affected my plans. It was bound to happen though, and it did on Christmas Eve. I was happily on my way to the airport on the morning of December 24th. My gifts were wrapped and my cards were signed. I was ready to celebrate with my family as we do every year. Just as my shuttle pulled up to the curbside baggage check at Love Field in Dallas, an unknown number popped up on my phone. It was an automated message from the airline. The perky voice on the other end said that my flight to Oklahoma City had been canceled due to weather. No big deal, I thought. There are two more flights; surely they're not all canceled. I can always hop in a jump seat with the flight attendants (another nice employee perk) if the plane is full.

(from flickr user artwitsyl)

Once inside the airport I checked my suitcase full of gifts and proceeded to the gate where the next flight to Oklahoma City was scheduled to depart. I stood in line behind a thick crowd of stressed-out holiday travelers, thinking that they were worried about getting re-accommodated on this flight while I would be nice and cozy in a jump seat. My worst fears were realized when I heard the gate agent announce, "All flights to Oklahoma City have been canceled." Great. I overheard another agent tell a couple, "You could try Tulsa. There's a flight leaving in one hour." Bingo! I thought. I made my way down to the next gate and signed up for the jump seat assuming there would be a lot of passengers transferring to this flight. I planned to rent an SUV at the Tulsa Airport and make the ninety-mile drive to Oklahoma City, just in time to join my family for Christmas Eve mass.

Book Reviews

Back in January I guessed that I would read about fifty books in 2009. That was actually a pretty accurate prediction. You can check out my Shelfari profile for the full list, and here are some thoughts on my six favorites (not all of these were published in 2009, I just got around to reading them in 2009), in no particular order:

The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein - You don't have to be interested in economics to find this book fascinating. It's an in-depth criticism of Chicago School economics, Milton Friedman, Jeffrey Sachs, and the concept of economic 'shock therapy'. Klein explores the historic significance of transition economies in a depth that most sources on this question fail to wrestle with. The Shock Doctrine is extremely well-researched and reads smoothly the whole way through.

Traffic by Tom Vanderbilt - I never would have expected to enjoy a book with the subtitle "Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us)", given my feelings about car-culture; but Vanderbilt's book is about so much more. Traffic explores the science behind what happens to us when we get behind the wheel of a car. We learn that humans did not evolve to maneuver vehicles at high speeds, and for many people, driving is psychologically damaging. Most people think driving is simple. Most people are wrong.

The Fence by Dick Lehr - I discovered this book entirely by accident while browsing the "new arrivals" section of the public library on a lazy Sunday. The book tells the story of Michael Cox, a plainclothes Boston police officer who was beaten nearly to death by his fellow officers at the end of a high-speed chase of a group of thugs. Lehr goes on to tell the story of the subsequent finger-pointing, denial, cover-up, court cases, and struggle for reparation. The Fence is a spectacular piece of writing and journalism.

Pedaling Revolution by Jeff Mapes - OK, so this is my dorky urbanist/cyclist book for the list. I initially read a review in Next American City and decided to give it a shot. My expectations were not particularly high; what would a book about bicycling actually have to say? The history of bicycling in the United States is a lot more comprehensive than I realized, and while the U.S. as a whole is not very bicycle friendly, there really are a few places that are leading the way. I also appreciate that the author, like myself, is not a hardcore bicyclist, but is enough of one to present these issues seriously.

Winner Takes All by Christina Binkley - I picked this up after my weekend in Las Vegas. Binkley is a journalist and has written for the Wall Street Journal, and the book reads like something I would expect from a journalist. I find the story of the development of Las Vegas fascinating, particularly how such a seedy town became such a bastion of opulence. Winner Takes All tells the story of the three big casino moguls in Las Vegas and gives some insight as to why no other city is or will be like Sin City.

What the Dog Saw by Malcolm Gladwell - I'm typically not a fan of books of essays, but Gladwell's was really excellent. I had not read about two-thirds of the pieces, since they pre-dated my magazine reading days, and I was more than happy to re-read the others. Gladwell has an amazing talent, the ability to take even the most mundane topic and turn it into a page-turner. Would you have any interest in reading a several thousand word article about ketchup? or women's hair dye? I probably wouldn't. Unless it's written by Malcolm Gladwell.

In Defense of Gift Cards

Today is Christmas, so it seemed appropriate to write a post about Christmas gifts, specifically giftcards. Giftcards are big business, but they've developed a bad reputation. Take this rant by Barry Ritholz, for example:
Nothing says “I am both thoughtless and inconveniencing” like a gift card. They let the recipient know that you couldn’t be bothered actually picking out a present, so here is a cash equivalent — only so much less convenient than the crisp paper kind of cash. And, you can only spend it in one place. How much do gift cards suck? Each year, $5 billion in gift cards go unclaimed, forgotten about or lost. That’s how much people value them — they throw away $5 effen billion dollars worth every year! They are an expensive and inefficient way to say “I feel obligated to get you something, but don’t know what.”
In some cases, Ritholz is right. If someone gave me a giftcard to a business where I had zero interest in being a customer, I might put the card in a drawer and forget about it. But that's only a problem if the gift-giver is really bad at giving giftcards; and if they are, they are probably really bad at picking out a 'normal' gifts too. Typically, giftcard givers have at least some idea of the stores I like.

(from flickr user yum9me)

The supposedly 'more efficient' alternative, giving cash or a Visa/Mastercard/AmEx giftgard, is definitely a worse option; here's why: if someone gives me cash for Christmas, I might spend it on something fun for myself, or I might spend it on something really lame, like rent or textbooks. If someone gets me a giftcard to Chipotle, one of my favorite restaurants, I'd be pretty happy. With the Chipotle giftcard, I have an extra incentive to go since my burrito is already paid for. If I didn't have the giftcard, I might opt for a cheaper restaurant I enjoy less or eat macaroni-and-cheese at home, since my own cash would be on the line.

Giftcards give a little 'nudge' to do things I enjoy but might otherwise feel guilty about spending my own money on. In economics-speak, giftcards eliminate the opportunity cost of life's little pleasures. Since I can't spend my Chipotle-money on rent or textbooks, there's really no harm in going and scarfing down a burrito. That's what makes it a good gift, it's something I can treat myself too, even if I otherwise wouldn't have because the opportunity cost was a little too high.

Police and PR Problems

Ed Morrison writes that some suburban police around Cleveland have developed a bad reputation for their strict enforcement of traffic and parking laws. Apparently all it takes is one or two parking tickets or moving violations for people to feel utter resentment for the place where they received them?

As I've written before, this is at least partially the product of car-culture. There are many otherwise model citizens who become lawbreakers only once they get behind the wheel of a car. Before long people begin to develop a sort of Pavlovian conditioning to the sight of a police car. They tense up and cringe at the thought of getting "busted by the cops" in presumably a similar way that a smash-and-grab crook would feel if some officers walked into the store he was about to rob.

(from flickr user KCIvey)

I'd be thrilled if the suburb in question moved some of its police to foot patrol or bike patrol. Both pedestrian cops and bike cops have the deterrent effect that is helpful in controlling crime in a certain area (like a dense neighborhood where many people visit at night); with the added bonus of eliminating the negative feelings that many people feel for police patrolling in cars.

What's Wrong with Wall Street?

Everyone seems to have an opinion on this topic. What I don't like about many of the 'what's wrong with Wall Street' articles these days is that they're written from a backward-looking perspective and in the context of the financial crisis. What would be great is if someone had explained everything that's wrong with Wall Street before any of this happened.

Fortunately, someone did. Two guys, actually. I don't know how I've missed this book over the years, but Monkey Business by John Rolfe and Peter Troob seems to have slipped under my radar. If you have any curiosity about how screwed up the world of investment banking is, or need any justification to steer away from it as a career path, this is your book.

As far as the writing goes, it's a memoir written by two authors who tell their stories independently. Each author's work appears in its own font, although the progression is logical and well-connected. It's a quick and easy-read. The language borders on obnoxious and offensive (in true spirit of Wall Street culture, I suppose), but retains some aspects of humor.

The ultimate takeaway is that the business of Wall Street is mostly childish nonsense and game-playing. And almost everyone on the inside knows it; but they either refuse to admit it because they love the culture or wealth and hubris, or they're in denial and unable to admit that what they spend literally all of their time doing contributes little real value to society.

Declining Homeownership

Susan Lee was on Marketplace today talking about the benefits of declining homeownership. Have a listen:

I couldn't have said it better myself. If you're interested in what I've had to say anyway, here are some of my posts on this topic from the past.

More on Internet Gambling

CNBC aired a pretty good special about illegal gambling last week (I don't think you can watch online, but it's worth checking out if nothing else is on TV).

(from flickr user heipmann)

As I've written before, internet gambling has a distinct edge over brick-and-mortar operations because it has lower operating costs and can offer lower fees, vigs and commissions and a wider variety of betting options. It's the reason why professional sports gamblers, even if they live right next to a casino in Nevada, still make illegal bets online. Even if casino gambling became fully legal in all 50 states, it wouldn't eliminate the demand for online bets.

The Downtown Parking Fallacy

Via CEOs for Cities, the Hartford Courant tells a sad story of what's happened to their downtown in the past few decades.
Since 1960, the number of parking spaces in downtown Hartford increased by more that 300 percent — from 15,000 to 46,000 spaces. This change has had a profound and devastating effect on the structure and function of the city... as one historic building after another was demolished. And what did the city gain from this assiduous drive to provide sufficient parking? Was it able to grow more prosperous by providing more jobs and housing for more people? If this was the desired outcome, we can consider the past 50 years to have been an abysmal failure. Over the period that parking was being increased by more than 300 percent, downtown was losing more than 60 percent of its residential population, and the city as a whole lost 40,000 people and 7,000 jobs.
The question is: what sparked all of this? At some point in time, there must have been a demand for downtown parking, obviously. Why was there a demand? Because downtowns are historically the places that people go to work, shop, eat, drink, etc. They are the lifeblood of the city. They are a place people want to spend their time.

The problem with the argument that we ought to go ahead and supply parking spaces to meet hypothetical parking demand is that it suffers from a statistical modeling error: when you change some variable (like the amount of parking) all other variables remain constant. There is no reason to believe this is the case.

Downtowns were great places long before many cities went on a rampage to install new parking facilities. Imagine a hypothetical city with 10,000 parking spaces downtown. It's a vibrant core, with pedestrians, street-level storefronts, buses, streetcars, and trolleys. It's the kind of place where people like to go. Now imagine the city proclaims it a goal to triple the number of spaces over the next decade. Obviously, they need space, so buildings get demolished or renovated. These new lots create "dead zones" where pedestrians feel less safe walking the streets, so storefronts lose business, some fail, causing still fewer pedestrians to want to venture out. Meanwhile more cars means more traffic and fewer transit riders. Eventually the trolley and streetcars stop making runs entirely. And this is all happening as the new supply of parking is being created.

(from flickr user pinprick)

If you survey people in cities and ask if they'd like to see more parking downtown; most will probably answer yes, because in their mind, parking will be added, but not at the expense of the things that make the downtown great as it is; they imagine being able to experience downtown in its current state, but a little more conveniently.

Unfortunately, this usually isn't how it plays out. Downtown cores weaken, and the people who said they would prefer the new parking decide don't want to go downtown, claiming there is "nothing to do downtown anymore". It's actually telling that the cities with some of the most expensive downtown parking are also the most vibrant urban cores. It reminds me of the Yogi Berra quote: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded". In this case, it would go something like: "Nobody wants to go downtown and park their car, all the spaces are taken and they're really expensive."

In Defense of Suburbia

I don't have one, but Canada's National Post recently ran a 3-part series (part one, two, and three) defending the virtues of suburbia. Each article begins with this:
Lampooned in movies, TV and books, the suburbs have always been maligned, but is it as bad as urbanites think? In this last of a three-part series, Post Homes looks at how a community can create contentment.
Maybe it's true in Canada (or the imaginations of the conservatives who publish the National Post)?.. It's a stretch to say that suburbs in the U.S. have always been maligned. Actually, I like these articles, not because I necessarily agree with the content, but because it means people are actually starting to defend the position that suburbs are great, rather than simply accept it as a fact of life.

(from flickr user Dean Terry)

On a related note, I've never really enjoyed news stories about people who take "car-free" challenges and such. While it's nice to have evidence that it can be done, it also means that the prevailing assumption is that it's otherwise impossible.

Drive-Thru Culture

Tom Vanderbilt has a nice article in Slate about the business and culture of drive-throughs.

It's been quite a while since I've used a drive-through (possibly because I don't frequent a lot of businesses that have them). I think the article makes a few potentially misleading claims about drive-throughs, nevertheless. Vanderbilt notes that McDonald's does about 65% of its sales through the drive-through window; and that the company once demolished a store in California when the local government used an ordinance banning drive-throughs to prevent a remodeled McDonalds from having one. Stories like this might lead you to believe that drive-throughs are universally necessary for the success of fast-food.

Not every McDonald's has a drive-through. I don't think any food-court location has one, nor do some McDonald's stores in urban areas where retail space is limited. And don't forget the walk-up window I spotted at a McDonald's in Manhattan over the summer.

I think the reality is that McDonald's and other businesses will adapt to whatever culture is most profitable. If that means drive-throughs across suburban America - that's what they'll do. If it means sidewalk service in New York City, that's what you'll get. In that sense, the popularity of drive-throughs seems like more a symptom of car-culture than the cause of it.
Miles O’Brien is back with another PBS documentary about urbanism and the future of transportation.

O'Brien hosted the documentary Road to the Future last spring about the state of public transit in America. I have high hopes for this new film, which is scheduled to air on February 8th at 10:00pm.

Enough with the Pity

I suspected that bike commuting in the winter would have its challenges, but the challenges have turned out to be a bit different than I anticipated.

(from flickr user Antony Pranata)

The cold isn't so much a big deal. Strong winds have been challenging, though. I think the worst part, however, has been dealing with the people who feel the need to comment about how awful it must be that I'm riding a bike in the winter.

I first noticed this back in October. It was about 45 degrees in the morning - a great temperature for riding, as it turns out. While I was locking my bike up in front of the building I was going into, a woman on her way to work stopped and mentioned "how cold I must have been on my ride". Now that the temperature has gotten really cold, it's not even worth mentioning that I rode my bike to wherever I am. I really do not need the pity.

Value of a Degree

Time has an interesting piece about the cost and value of a college degree.

(from flickr user tantrum_dan)

There are two notable points made in article. First, this quote from Marty Nemko:
Marty Nemko, a career and education expert who has taught at U.C. Berkeley's Graduate School of Education, contends that the overflow in degree holders is the result of many weaker students attending colleges when other options may have served them better. "There is tremendous pressure to push kids through," he says, adding that as a result, too many students who aren't skilled become degree holders, promoting a perception among employers that higher education doesn't work. "That piece of paper no longer means very much, and employers know that," says Nemko. "Everybody's got it, so it's watered down.
To some extent, the system is broken. Last week I wrote about people who self-select courses and professors not because they want to learn something or take away anything of concrete value from the course, but simply because they know they are likely to get the highest grade for the least amount of effort. Since then, I've had several people admit that this is exactly what they do. I understand the incentives they're responding to; the system is set up so that what you get out of a course isn't necessarily proportional to what you put in. The article goes on:
The devaluation of a college degree is no secret on campus. An annual survey by the Higher Education Research Institute has long asked freshmen what they think their highest academic degree will be. In 1972, 38% of respondents said a bachelor's degree, but in 2008 only 22% answered the same. The number of freshmen planning to get a master's degree rose from 31% in 1972 to 42% in 2008. Says John Pryor, the institute's director: "Years ago, the bachelor's degree was the key to getting better jobs. Now you really need more than that."
This reminds me of an anecdote I read in an economics book recently (I wish I could remember which book). The first woman to wear high-heeled shoes was at a distinct advantage being several inches taller than everyone else. But as more women started wearing them, the advantage started to fade. Eventually, high-heeled shoes generated no relative advantage, but became a sort of "requirement" in social situations. Granted, there's a big difference here, in the sense that a society is better off when everyone is well-educated, but there really isn't much social gain from women who appear a few inches taller. The problem is that the cost of educating everyone is so painfully expensive.

The Great Recession has had some strange impacts. There are people in my class who aren't even bothering to look for work, because enough people have told them they can just "ride it out" in grad school. I'm not complaining if it means less competition in my own entry-leveljob search, but for the people I care about, I'm not sure how it will ultimately play out. Two years from now, if the economy recovers, which person will be theoretically more employable?.. a bachelor's degree holder with two years of full-time professional experience? or a master's degree holder with none?
There has been talk of revitalizing Cleveland's Euclid Avenue for as long as I can remember. It took a while, and now it's been about a year since the big transit project itself has been officially considered "complete". Hows it turning out? Depends who you ask... Michelle Jarboe's recent front-page Plain Dealer article points to $3.3 billion in new investment along the corridor as evidence of forward progress. Roldo counters that such logic is post hoc ergo propter hoc and that most of the $3.3 billion in development was inevitable, without or without the transit development.

(from Wikipedia)

Before I go on, let's back up a bit. Last year I wrote that the Healthline represents a big missed opportunity in Cleveland. Instead of routing the BRT into East Cleveland, project planners should have continued the line from University Circle into Cleveland Heights. Instead, we have redundant transit service in East Cleveland (which is served by both the Healthline and the parallel Red Line) and a lack of good transit service in Cleveland Heights, an otherwise dense and urban inner-ring suburb.

I've also argued that the Healthline is very slow as far as rapid transit goes. By my calculation, Cleveland's BRT travels at an average speed of about 10.6 mph. Although faster than a typical local bus, it's still significantly slower than the Red Line and notably slower than both the at-grade sections of the Blue and Green lines in Shaker Heights.

Admittedly, I'm not an expert on this topic. I travel the Euclid corridor several times per week, either on my bike or via public transit. What I can share is based on those experiences.

Midtown, loosely defined as the part of town between the Cleveland Clinic and Cleveland State, is still a pretty depressing place. I would describe it as: vacant lots and parking lots. It's especially disheartening to ride in the evening, after dark. Not only are there virtually no people, but there are not even many cars on the street, either. Don't get me wrong, there are some businesses in the area, but far fewer than one would expect in an up-and-coming urban area. This could change, no doubt; I've seen evidence of miraculous turnarounds in urban neighborhoods that people thought could never occur. There's no reason to think it's not possible, but right now, from the ground, it's really a stretch to say it's been a major success.

One metric we can use to gauge the effectiveness of the Healthline is to look at how many people are using it for the purpose of getting to the places that are supposedly beneficiaries of the transit project. For example, on a Friday or Saturday night, how many of East 4th Street's visitors step off the Healthline and into the restaurants and bars? I think the answer is: very few. This is in contrast to cities where you often spot folks on public transit who are obviously going "out on the town."

The key to analyzing the dynamics of the Healthline requires an understanding of both the destinations it connects and the people who live along the line. This is where a disconnect exists. For instance, who typically spends time on East 4th Street? From my experience, young(ish) professionals and people with a decent amount of discretionary income. I suspect that a decent number live in one of Cleveland's gentrifying neighborhoods (downtown, Ohio City or Tremont) or in the inner-ring (Lakewood or Cleveland Heights). The likely reason why few people use the Healthline to go to East 4th Street is that few of the people who would go there actually live along the line.

The same applies to the cultural institutions. Who goes to see the orchestra? or to the art museum? While it's true that the Healtline connects people to these destinations, it doesn't necessarily connect the right people. This isn't meant to be a discriminating point. Anyone could theoretically go to the orchestra if they had the will to buy a ticket and go. But the orchestra doesn't market itself randomly, they target the people they know are likely to enjoy that sort of thing.

How about the universities? Between Cleveland State and Case Western Reserve, there are about 30,000 people who attend or work at these places. In the case of Cleveland State, I've already noted that the school has very few students who live "on campus" and suggested that its growth strategy focus on housing for its students. Regardless, many live off-campus, drive, and park in CSU's (relatively) inexpensive parking lots. Some CSU people live along the Healthline, but fewer than the ideal.

University Circle is interesting as well. I would argue that Case Western students typically live in one of four locations: north-side of campus dorms, south-side of campus dorms, Little Italy, and Cleveland Heights (this may be difficult to visualize if you don't know the area, unfortunately, my attempt to make this into a map ended in utter frustration).

If people want to get from University Circle to downtown, how are they going to do it? It's reasonable to suspect that everyone who lives on the south-side of campus to use the Red Line. It's closer and faster to where they live. The people who live in Cleveland Heights might take the Red Line, although having to take a bus first and then transfer could be a deterrent for some (and no such connection to the Healthline yet exists). The folks in Little Italy might use the Healthline, but once RTA opens it's new Little Italy Red Line station, I'd expect folks in the neighborhood to use it. That leaves everyone who lives on the north-side of campus. The Healthline is the most convenient, but the new Little Italy station won't necessarily be inconvenient, and it will be quite a bit faster...

On the other hand, a recent article in Case's student newspaper noted that 27% of the schools' undergrads never even bothered to pick up an unlimited-ride transit pass, already paid for by"student fees".

Ultimately, that's a lot of words to make this point: building a bunch of destinations along a transit line only goes so far if you don't have the right kind of complementary residential development. There is definitely a ton of potential along Euclid Avenue. There's plenty of opportunity to convert some of those vacant lots and parking lots into something valuable. It's a matter of getting it done, which is a lot easier to say than to do.

Holy Grail of Sports Betting

Last Sunday 60 Minutes did a story about Tim Donaghy and the 2007 NBA betting scandal.

What I find most interesting is the idea that an enterprising sports gambler could generate an edge simply by studying the referees. Most books written on this topic focus on player and team statistics and suggest means to calculate a winner based on performance data. The problem is that such a model assumes that referees are all the same and there really isn't such a thing as fair and unfair outcomes. If what Donaghy says is true, then simply studying the refs might be enough to make a killing on these games.

Corporate Brand Coverups

Last week I made a big deal about the fact that Starbucks is opening stores disguised as an independently-owned businesses. The reality is that this isn't a new phenomenon; but it does seem to differ by industry.

When it comes to branding, it's often said that the key is consistency. An example I hear often goes like this: you're on a cross-country road trip, driving through a state you've never visited, and you're hungry. You pull off the interstate and approach two buildings. On the left is a McDonalds. On the right is a "Bob's Burger Shack" which also sells cheap greasy burgers and fries. In this case, most people will opt for McDonalds. Not necessarily because the food is good or because Bob's food is bad; but because McDonald's is consistent. It's tolerable. It's low-risk.

Last weekend I ate at Fat Head's, a brewpub in suburban Cleveland. They do a pretty good job of hiding the fact that the brand originally comes from Pittsburgh. For instance, many sandwiches are named after Cleveland culture: The Dawg Pounder, The Cuyahoga, and The Euclid Beach Burger. A friend of the blog who convinced me Fat Head's was worth a visit had no idea another location existed. I'd bet many of the restaurant's customers didn't know either.

Breweries and beer companies seem more likely than most to engage in this behavior. Rock Bottom Restaurants, a Denver company, has over a hundred restaurants across the country. From my experience, they do the same thing as Fat Head's, naming food and beer based on the local culture.

Or think about Blue Moon, the orange-colored beer that got a bit of attention back when President Obama held the famous "beer summit" at the White House.

(from flickr user maya the bee)

Although technically brewed by Molson Coors, the giant international beer corporation, you wouldn't know it from reading the label on the bottles, which claims the beer is produced by the Blue Moon Brewing Company (presumably some sort of subsidiary). Indeed, it would be tough to claim Blue Moon as a "craft beer" if enough people knew it was produced in huge quantities and distributed like any of the other "king beers". Nor does it appeal to beer snobs to claim a product produced in the same facility as some of the most infamously bad beer out there.

This brand differentiation seems to be strongest in products with a strong "snob" factor. In which case, the fact that it's happening with coffee and beer seems pretty reasonable.

Who's Unemployed?

Mint has this nice little satire cartoon about the intricacies of the unemployment rate.

This helps explain, first of all, how news from last week can claim a net-loss of jobs and simultaneously a net-decrease in the unemployment rate.

I took a microeconomics course right around the beginning of the crisis, and one topic that often came up for debate was whether a person was unemployed, given some specific context. Consider, if someone graduates from college but the next day don't have a job, are they unemployed? What about a month afterward? The answer is certainly a lot less straightforward than you'd think.

On Grade Inflation

This is about my least favorite time of the year, mostly because it's hard to go anywhere on a university campus without being around some of the most anxious individuals alive. People become obsessed with grades, some willing to go to great lengths to avoid the grade that probably reflects the level of work they've put into the course over the past few months.

(from flickr user ccarlstead)

It's generally accepted that grade inflation exists. A distribution of GPAs at many colleges in America would be highly skewed and probably wouldn't look much like a normal distribution. To an extent that's the result of the fact that students who do poorly are more likely to drop out and students who do well are likely to remain. But even controlling for that, I think its reasonable to say that the typical GPA today is higher than it was a generation ago.

There's a second type of grade inflation that I think has significant implications. Earlier this year I wrote a post called Good School, Bad Teacher, questioning whether someone is better off at a "good" school with bad teachers or vice-versa. I thought of this again while overhearing two classmates in a computer lab discussing their schedules for next semester. For these two, a primary consideration for course selection was whether a course was considered "easy or hard" and whether the person teaching it was likely to hand out mostly high grades.

It's possible, of course, to self-select courses and professors that will yield the highest grades, even if you don't take much away from the courses. I'm taking an economics course right now that only has ten people in it. It's valuable, but very challenging; and since it's not a required course for graduation, even in the economics department, there isn't much demand for it. Nevertheless, I'm undoubtedly better off for having take nit.

So the question is: who's better off?.. someone who takes valuable but challenging courses and professors and learns a lot, even at the cost of potentially lower GPA? or someone who self-selects cupcake courses and "easy" professors and graduates with higher grade points?

Brand Management

Jon Cook has an interesting post up at Reuters about the extent to which Starbucks is going to open new stores that people aren't supposed to know are owned by Starbucks. He calls it a "brand crisis" - I'd say that's pretty accurate.

(from flickr user ๛Abdulrahman`ρнσт σgяαρнєя` )

I've been known to be fairly hostile toward corporate chain businesses. I try to avoid them whenever possible, but I think people get confused about why I feel this way. It's not that I dislike corporate chains simply because they are chains, I dislike them because they typically sell a good or service that's worse than an easily available alternative.

Starbucks is a great example. There are two reasons I would patronize a Starbucks: 1) I am meeting someone there and it's in a convenient location or 2) I'm at an airport, it's 5am and nothing else is open. I can get stronger and better-tasting at my favorite coffee shop. If Starbucks opened a new store in my neighborhood "disguised" as something else, and I didn't know this fact, but the coffee tasted the same, I probably still wouldn't go there, because the product is still inferior. This is the problem I have with a lot of the casual-dining chain restaurants. I have almost no interest in eating at a Chili's, Applebees, Bennigan's, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday, etc. Generally, the food tastes bland and I can get a much better meal elsewhere.

One chain that is ahead of the pack is Chipotle. I've eaten at many San Francisco style burrito places in many cities, and in many cases, Chipotle sells the best food. Obviously every chain had to start-off selling something that a lot of people wanted to buy. It seems like rapid growth is often related to deteriorating product quality. That's too bad.

Distance, Not Time

Colby left this comment earlier in the week:
I've seen somewhere else a comment about thinking in terms of distance instead of time. Can you explain the benefit or reason for such an approach? Whenever I ask 'How far?', I don't really care about the distance - and when I receive the answer 'XX miles', I do the calculation in my head to determine the time it would take to travel. Thanks.
Good question. I think there are a few reasons why measuring distance in time is less than ideal.

(from flickr user theevilmightyf)

I think what gets on my nerves is that time can only give you, at best, an approximation of how far away something is, whereas distance is precise. If someone asks me how far I live from campus, I could say 1.5 miles, or I could say 10 minutes. In fact, I could also say 8 minutes. See, when I ride my bike to campus, it's all uphill, and takes a bit longer than the ride home, which is all downhill. That's a 20% time discrepancy; but the distance never changes.

Deriving time from distance is an easier task than the other way around. When I say I live 8 miles from my office, you get an idea of where I live relative to where I work. How long it takes me to get there depends on a number of factors. Am I driving a car? Is it rush hour or the middle of the night? Am I on a bike? The bus? Is it a bright summer day? Is there a foot of snow on the ground? Even if driving, what's my route? Where I live, I'd have to drive several miles to get to the nearest highway - that makes a big difference because if I lived right next to an on-ramp, the trip could take a significantly different amount of time. So when I say I live 8 miles away, you can reasonably translate into some amount of time, given the necessary circumstances.

In my experience, most people are actually very bad at estimating travel times. Back when I used to commute to campus from my parents' house, I traveled a distance of 12 miles. If I were to ask people how many minutes they thought that took, the most common answer was 20 minutes, which is a pretty significant under-estimation. It actually took 30 minutes. People are also pretty bad at estimating distance too, but distance is easily verifiable as long as I have access to Google Maps. Some people refused to believe it took 30 minutes to travel 12 miles. It was only my word against theirs.

Movie Pricing

Nicholas Tabarrok had some interesting thoughts about movie industry pricing recently at Marginal Revolution. He points out that all movies at a given theater are priced the same, regardless of the demand for the individual films. I was reminded of this while sitting in a movie theater last Friday night that was at least 80% vacant. I was seeing the 10pm showing of The Messenger, so I paid the full price of $9. I don't know how many people were seeing the other movies that night, but presumably the "main feature" sold the most tickets.

(from flickr user Kevin H.)

Ideally, the theater manager would price the movies such that every customer pays the most they would be willing and every showing sells out. Consider this: if the theater where I saw The Messenger has a capacity of 100, and the manager sold 20 tickets for $9 each, she brought in $180 in revenue; but had she charged only $2 per ticket and sold out the theater, she would have brought in $200, plus she would have gotten an additional 80 potential concession customers (who might actually be more likely to buy popcorn or candy since their ticket only cost 2 bucks!). But this isn't how the system works. Why?

Aside from politics, union rules, and other arbitrary regulations, I think it's an information problem. If the theater manager wants to sell out every showing, she has to price every film and every showing differently - then she has to somehow manage to advertise all of those distinctions. For instance, if customers don't know they can see the 10pm showing of some film for only 2 bucks, many won't show up, the movie still won't sell out, and the manager might make less money.

There might be a better way. By pricing movie tickets the same way that airlines price their fares, theater managers might be able to generate more revenue and customers might be able to spend less on movies. A classic win-win scenario.

Imagine a system where customers could go online, and based on how early they buy tickets, how many people are expected to attend that showing, and how many people have already bought tickets, customers could can get a discounted rate. The prices would be determined entirely by how the theater manager expects to maximize revenue, possibly using a tiered system, or possibly using historic attendance data. Whatever the case, this might mean the 7pm showing on a Saturday night offers no discounts, but the 10pm showing offers some small discounts. And of course there would be a "walk-up" price, which would be equivalent to the full price that theaters charge now.

There are caveats, of course, but at least in theory, it just might work.