Year in Review

Today brings a close to another successful year in the blogosphere. I published over 240 posts here at Extraordinary Observations, and started doing some writing over at Greater Greater Washington and WaPo's All Opinions are Local.

(from Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton on Flickr)

Without a doubt, my most memorable piece from this year was the degree density analysis that I wrote about in the spring. When I published it, I thought it was an interesting topic, but had no idea that it would go viral. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have caught the attention of a number of respectable bloggers, even if my findings were misinterpreted and incorrectly reported by other news outlets.

In any case, if you happened to miss them, here's a roundup of some of my favorite posts from 2010.

Everyday Observations
  • Contrarianism - going against the grain isn't' always such a bad thing, but the power of culture often makes it difficult to do so.
  • The Extra Bedroom Problem - empty bedrooms are a form of residential vacancy, but that's not now most people think about it; and it impacts how and where they choose to live.
  • The Cupcake Economy - people are willing to pay seemingly insane amounts of money for gourmet cupcakes. Is it the result of supply and demand? or is something else going on?
  • Why Did Geauga Lake Fail? - when a historic amusement park closed its doors, a lot of speculative theories began floating around. I believe the park's downfall was the result of failed real-estate speculation.
  • Climate Change Rhetoric - using the term 'global warming' instead of 'climate change' is really doing a disservice to those who want to do something about it.
  • 20-Somethings - the Millennial generation behaves the way it does for a variety of reasons, many of which are external and outside of their control.
Urban Thinking
  • Urbanism is not Environmentalism - urbanism has many environmentaly-friendly elements, but it's primary goal is livable communities, not environmental protection.
  • What Seinfeld Teaches Us About Parking - Seinfeld, a show about nothing, actually teaches a lot of useful things about parking.
  • The Psychology of Unlimited Transit Passes - unlimited ride passes offer urban dwellers a sense of freedom that they don't get if they have to pay every time they make a trip.
  • Transforming a Car-Dependent City - living in Dallas, Texas gave me a new appreciation for urbanism; but now that a new section of DART's Green Line is open, Dallas might become more livable.
  • Not My Lifestyle Kind of Center - when I struggled to ride my bike to a local 'lifestyle center,' I realized what makes these places so egregious.
  • Why People Dislike Buses - in theory, buses are inexpensive alternatives to rail travel; in reality, there are many reasons that people don't like riding buses.
  • Nobody Walks There - my former neighborhood near Cleveland suffered from difficult-to-use sidewalks in the winter, but the bigger issue is that the area simply isn't designed to be walkable.
  • Re-Thinking the Role of Public Transit - when public transportation goes from being a public service to a welfare service, everyone suffers.
  • The Tale of Two Suburbs - suburbs aren't all created equally, poor design makes some much less livable than others.
  • BRT: Lessons from Cleveland - cities that want to implement BRT should learn from what Cleveland has done, not blindly copy the flaws from its system.
Coffee Culture
  • Visiting Laptopistan - before I moved to Washington, much of what appeared on this blog was written at my favorite coffee shop. There's something wonderful but hard to explain about working from a cafe.
  • French Press On-Tap - any coffee shop that uses the word 'gourmet' to describe what it serves ought to offer a French press coffee option.
  • Iced Coffee Snobbery - brewing a cup of coffee and sticking in the fridge really shouldn't be considered iced-coffee. The cold-brew method is definitely the way to go.
  • Coffee Roasting Snobbery - roasting coffee at home is inexpensive and produces some of the freshest coffee you'll ever taste. It's also not as hard as you'd think.
  • Coffee Cup Branding - why more local and independent coffee shops don't serve their to-go drinks in a branded cup is something that baffles me.
Travel Reports

Kids in the City

Carla Saulter has a nice article over at Grist that compares differences in personal safety between cities and suburbs. She writes:
The study found that the most dangerous regions of nine metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) are the outer suburbs. (Inner-ring suburbs were the safest, with central cities coming in second.) People, especially children, are most likely to be hurt or killed in an automobile crash, and, not surprisingly, automobile crashes are more prevalent in areas that require cars to get around.
This is an interesting metric, but it's hardly the only metric that matters when it comes to raising a family. Urban school districts, even the better ones, tend to be poor compared to their surrounding suburbs. For a lot of people, this is all that matters. But there are also psychological factors that I'd hypothesize are barriers to more kids in the city.

(from Ed Yourdon on Flickr)

Not every city that people want to live in today was always hospitable. New York, Chicago, Washington all went through some very bad times. Ask someone who lived in one of these metro areas during the 70s or 80s and I guarantee you'll hear stories about now-hip neighborhoods where "nobody used to go". When you've witnessed the downfall of a neighborhood, are those memories always lingering in the back of your mind?

I'd suggest that only in the past few years have people of parenting age experienced cities post-turnaround. Some of them don't remember the time when "you didn't go there".

There's also something to be said about crime itself. Historically, crime has been highest in urban areas because criminals were there, people with the means to do so moved out. Of course, just because suburbs have historically had lower crime than cities, it's fallacious logic to believe that it will continue to hold forever.

I don't expect to see babies flooding into cities immediately, but as the "you're nuts" attitude becomes less and less prominent, maybe more people won't be so quick to assume it's a bad idea.

Who Bikes? Who Cares?

Brian Ladd has a really interesting post up at Planetizen titled The Motorist's Identity Crisis. Historically, he explains, bicyclists and public transit users have been viewed by society as losers, unable to afford to own or operate their own automobile. Now, in some cities, they've become cool trend-setters.

(from nevermindtheend on Flickr)

Of course, because of the way our cities and suburbs are built and designed, cars will continue to be the most practical means of transportation for many, but those who don't drive won't be cast under the same dark shadow that they used to be.

Public transit users, I'll agree, have faced a stigma for a long time. But bicyclists? Is it true that they're viewed in the same light?

Plane and Train Stations

During my holiday travel, I've had the chance to see a few of America's airports, train stations, and bus stops. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but in general, airports, once you get past the security checkpoint, are typically pretty decent and comfortable places to wait for your flight. At least that's the case compared to some of the Amtrak stations I've seen.

(from Eddie~S on Flickr)

Consider BWI airport. I travel out of BWI nearly every time I fly to and from Washington. I think the Southwest terminals are pretty nice; then I think of the BWI Amtrak station down the road. Compared to the airport, the train terminal is bland, grungy-looking, and generally not a very pleasant place to sit around while waiting for your train to arrive.

There are still a few great train stations left in America. Union Station in Washington isn't a bad place to catch a train, but Penn Station in New York is hardly a warm or inviting environment. And most of the stations outside of major cities barely deserve the designation as a 'station'. A 'stop' or 'platform' is probably more realistic to what they are.

In theory, things like aesthetics shouldn't really matter. How fast, frequently, and reliably trains, planes or buses operate, plus how much they cost should drive peoples' travel decisions. But deep down, these things still matter. I'm not suggesting it's worth rushing out and investing resources in amazing train stations right now, but over time, it's something that really should be kept in mind.

Who Doesn't Love Groupon?

Matt Schwartz has a really great article in Wired about the growth of Groupon and its many competitors, but also the resurgence of clip-out coupons. There's not a lot of people you'll meet that won't say "I love Groupon!" (though many others may have never heard of it). And really, what's not to love? You can get awesome stuff for deep discounts with rarely any issues. It's like the deal that seems way too good to be true, and amazingly, it's legit.

(from camknows on Flickr)

Ultimately, there's one big underlying question: how do businesses that sell groupons make any money? After all, if you're selling $50 meals for $25, or hundred dollar yoga classes for a fraction of the price, that's gotta be seriously slicing into your profit margin.

To this question, there are many explanations. Some people say that retailers can make it up through volume. Others say that vouchers attract new customers who become repeat customers. A few believe that vouchers attract people, but then when they arrive, they wind up spending well in excess of what they're allotted. Plus there's the fact that not everyone redeems their vouchers before the expire. A redemption rate less than 100% means that at least some of the cash is getting pocketed.

The best thing about Groupon, and its copycats, is that it allows people to experience places in a city they might not have ever been, planned to go, or even knew existed. I can really only afford to eat at so many of DC's restaurants on an entry-level salary, but having a voucher means that maybe I can visit a few more.


Last week DC got its first "real snow" of the winter. The weather event actually reminded me of a few notable things about snow.

(from By bobistraveling on Flickr)

First, it's really not about how much snow falls, it's about how governments and citizens are able to deal with it. When I was in high school, I used to joke that kids in Florida got more snow days, on average, each year, than kids in Cleveland. For better or worse, as snow came down, life generally went on for us. So when three inches of snow falls and people freak out, it's not because it's a lot of snow, it's because they're not good at dealing with the situation.

Second, I think that if people feel safer or more comfortable staying in their houses, then by all means they should. When I wrote about winter bicycling last March, people thought I had an agenda to convince more people to do it. The truth is that it makes life easier for me if both motorists and bicyclists stay off the roads. It would be a lot more difficult for me to ride if there were tons of bicyclists out on the street.

Third, interestingly, many of the sidewalks in Arlington were salted and cleared while the streets were still a slushy mess. This is really the first place I've ever lived where the needs of pedestrians seemed to be considered at least equally to the needs of motorists. Now that I've gotten used to busy street-life, I can definitely notice when I go back home or to a place where it doesn't exist; but the snow really gave me a new perspective on walkable urbanism.

Noise Pollution

Last week the House overwhelming passed a bill that requires hybrid and electric autos to be noisier. When the bill becomes law, it will be heralded as a win for pedestrian safety. The unfortunate reality is that it's merely a band-aid on a much larger problem that few are willing to address.

(from zombieite on Flickr)

There are so many streets in America that, by design, aren't safe for pedestrians. So many streets were designed to move automobiles at high speeds and it often turns into political football when policy makers are even bold enough to speak up on the issue.

Of course, there's something really twisted about a law to require automakers to make their vehicles artificially louder. Vibrant neighborhoods aren't great because they have lots of loud vehicular traffic; they're great because people can enjoy them outside of their cars. What we really need are safer streets, not noisier cars.

Working Downtown

Anton Troianovski has a nice article in the Wall Street Journal about the reversing trend of white-collar office jobs moving from suburban office parks to downtown skyscrapers.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

I've worked in just about every type of office environment... I've worked at companies in the heart of downtown, deep in the suburbs, and in urban wastelands. I've been at places that are transit and bicycle friendly, and I've been at places where no one has any option but to drive. Personally, I don't think anything beats the amenities and transportation options that come with working downtown. Of course, not everyone agrees.

A lot of the discussion in the article focuses on the theory that Americans like cities again for the first time in decades, they hate long commutes, they want to live close to downtown, and companies are wise to locate where talent is. I think this is mostly true, but I'm not sure it's the driving force behind these movements.

Troianovski mentions the fact that Detroit, a city that few would disagree is in bad shape, lured Blue Cross Blue Shield back downtown by offering a generous incentive package. To me, this suggests that companies are primarily motivated by the almighty dollar. It also serves as evidence that cities and suburbs are, to an extent, in a zero-sum game to land companies and jobs. So when urban mayors dismiss companies leaving downtown and rattle off talking points about cooperative regionalism, it concerns me.

Fun With Census Data

Yesterday morning the Census Bureau released its first 5-year American Community Survey estimates. It's the first time since 2000 that we've had any demographic data down to the neighborhood level.

(from quinn.anya on Flickr)

I've been playing around with the data quite a bit since yesterday, and I've got a few ideas for posts in the pipeline; but for now it means that things might be quiet around here for a little while.

In the meantime, you can check out this very cool map over at the New York Times website, which explores a few key variables across the country, and this post over at Greater Greater Washington about the changing population in DC.
When I left Cleveland last summer, I noted a number of things that I knew I would miss. Among them, some of the best craft beer in the country. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I heard that Great Lakes Brewing Company would be distributing Christmas Ale in DC this season for the first time ever.

That excited faded quickly, as I realized that it would be nearly impossible to find in the nation's capital. After all, Great Lakes was planning to sell 80% of the seasonal brew in Northeast Ohio - and I understand why that decision was made.

(from The Cleveland Kid on Flickr)

I figured if I could find Christmas Ale anywhere, it would be in the place where it was born, and it was pretty disheartening when I arrived in Northeast Ohio this weekend to find store shelves empty and kegs at local bar dry. There's still two weeks left before the holiday and already Christmas Ale is nowhere to be found, even in Northeast Ohio.

After the great Christmas Ale shortage of 2007, I figured that the Great Lakes had gotten pretty good at predicting seasonal demand and keeping up the production process. After all, I don't remember having trouble finding the stuff last winter...

Maybe there is a legitimate reason the brewery didn't produce more of their highly popular beer this year. Or maybe the conspiracy theorists are onto something when they say that these shortages are designed to maintain the "cult following" that Christmase Ale has developed over the years. The harder it is to get your hands on, the more that Christmas Ale fanatics have to savor every sip.

Whatever the case, I feel disappointed that this happened. I still think Great Lakes produces some of the best craft beer around, but to be able to drink it, you first need to be able to find it.

Splitting the Check

Beth Teitell has an interesting article in the Boston Globe about the changing dynamics of how people pay for their meals at restaurants. For a long time, friends would meet to share a meal, order whatever their hearts desired, and split the check evenly when the server brought it out. These days, that's not happening so much anymore.

(from minusbaby on Flickr)

As a student of economics, I couldn't help but come across the restaurant check splitting problem on more than one occasion. It's an illustrative example of how incentives can get warped to the point where they significantly change an individual's behavior.

Typically, the story follows that, in a world where everyone pays for what they order, each person does a cost / benefit analysis to determine which menu item offers the best value for the best price. But when friends split the check evenly, everything changes. Now the incentive is to order the most expensive item on the menu, since everyone else is splitting the cost. In the end, you wind up with a table full of people ordering expensive dishes they wouldn't have otherwise wanted, and walking away at the end of the night with a lot less money in their bank accounts.

Really though, I'm not sure I understand at what point it became so offensive for people to pay their fair share. Maybe it's because I'm young or because I've never had any money; but I've always been under the impression that the default among friends was to split a check based on what you ordered and only what you ordered.

For that matter, if I wasn't able to pay my fair share, there's no doubt that I'd go out a lot less often. Being able to budget what I can afford to spend on a night out is important. Otherwise, I'd have to skip out on outings where I knew people were going to spend like crazy and that I'd get stuck with a big share of the bill.

Visiting Laptopistan

A friend of the blog recently emailed this very good article from the New York Times by David Sax. The author visited Atlas Café in Williamsburg to understand what drives people to set up their laptops in a coffee shop and work for hours.

(from rubenerd on Flickr)

This is a topic that hits close to home for me. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might be interested to learn that between September 2009 and May 2010, roughly 4 out of every 5 posts published here were written from my favorite coffee shop.

Why did I spend so much time and so much money there? It's not because I needed their internet. I could have just as easily set-up in my kitchen table at home, with a pot of coffee brewed in my French press, and worked. I could have grabbed coffee on campus and worked in the university library. And it's not because I needed coffee or caffeine - I drank plenty of cups of decaf during the time I spent working from my favorite coffee shop.

There's something inspiring about writing from a good coffee shop - it's a feeling that's hard to describe. I enjoyed being able to chat with my barista friends about whatever came to mind. I liked seeing all of the customers come in and out of the cafe, and saying hello to the ones I knew.

Of course, this all raises questions about "squatters" and coffee shop etiquette and whether people like me are really ruining the very businesses that are propping us up. I think Sax's explanation of why so many coffee shop owners still invite laptop users in is on-point:
While the people behind the screens spent a paltry $6 to $10 per day, their true value is as a draw for more profitable takeout customers, Mr. Lorenzetti said. From the moment the door opens at 7 a.m. until it closes at 9 p.m., the place is buzzing, a productive society, visible from the street through wraparound windows. “People come in to buy food and coffee to go, because they see a full crowd,” he said. “They think ‘Hey, this place must be good if I can’t even get a table.’ ”
This is something which I can definitely relate to. There's not much that's more awkward than going into a business where you're the only customer. I know it's not an entirely rational response, but it's true.

I've come to appreciate that finding a good coffee shop to work is not easy. It has to be warm and welcoming, keep good hours, serve tasty drinks, and have plenty of space. Most coffee shops are really good at one or two of those things. Very few are good at all of them.

Ideology and Urbanism

Stephen Smith has an excellent post over at Market Urbanism that explores why liberals and conservatives hold seemingly inconsistent beliefs about urbanism.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

I've been thinking about this issue over the past few weeks, and I think Smith is right in suggesting that the elements of urbanism do not fall neatly into liberal or conservative buckets. Good urbanism incorporates elements that both sides should theoretically love, and some elements that they should both hate.

Ultimately this leaves someone who strictly believes in an ideology intellectually torn.

If you're a pro-free market, hands-off government libertarian, for example, then you would oppose government imposed parking minimums (good for urbanism) but also oppose government funded public transit infrastructure (bad for urbanism). If you're a liberal, perhaps you would support walkable communities that reduce carbon footprints (good for urbanism) but also support subsidizing auto-manufacturers to protect union jobs (bad for urbanism).

To be a true urbanist means you have to set hard political ideologies aside. It means that you need to accept that urbanism draws upon ideas from both liberalism and conservativism, and that it's OK to cross the ideological aisle.

Urbanism, after all, shouldn't be about propping up a political ideology. It should be about creating livable, walkable, affordable neighborhoods. And it should be about making life better for the people who live in them.

The Miracle of Cities

I finally got a chance to listen to the Cities episode of WNYC's Radiolab. It's an excellent program, especially for those of us that love urban places. If you have an hour of free time, it's worth a listen.

I particularly like the second segment of the show 'The Belly of the Beast" which delves into some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of how cities are built and how they work.

(from Logan Hicks on Flickr)

Last winter I read The Works by Kate Ascher. Even though it's more of a coffee table reference book than something you would read on an airplane, the author does an amazing job explaining how every piece of city infrastructure works, from tap water to electrical wires to subways to street sweepers. The descriptions are easy to digest and the graphics are beautiful.

One thing I took away from The Works is how badly most of us take cities and urban infrastructure for granted. Every day and every week we wake up and expect everything to work, and we get upset even when minor problems occur. But given how much truly goes into making a city run, to me it's actually something of a miracle that things work with the precision and the efficiency that they do.

Homelessness vs. Carlessness

Emily, a friend who's guest posted here in the past, recently started a new blog, The Glam Nomad. I'm intrigued by what she's doing. From her About page:
This is a story about a girl who sold all of her earthy possessions except the clothes off her back (ok, she kept a decent amount of her wardrobe, a girl has to dress!) and simply lived life, one day at a time.
The other day I wrote about my experience living without a car in Dallas, Texas. Emily's story is about the experience of living without a home in Dallas, Texas. The experiences are similar in more ways than you might think.

(from itselea on Flickr)

The unfortunate reality is that it isn't easy to live without either a car or a home in a city like Dallas. What's striking is that, in a major city, it's nearly as difficult to live without a home as it is to live without a car.

I'm interested to see how Emily's experience plays out, whether she experiences stigma and challenges from people who don't understand what she's doing, and what unexpected events happen along the way.

Housing Swap

A friend of the blog emailed this story about the tiny house movement. Despite the name, people aren't necessarily downsizing from suburban McMansions to 89 square foot shacks. A lot of these tiny houses are getting plopped in yards for use as extra space.

There's still something driving the idea that people really want to downsize. A few weeks ago I was talking to an empty-nester who explained that his home in outside-the-beltway DC is just too much these, now that his adult children are gone and not coming back. Ideally, he and his wife love a condo or apartment in walkable Arlington; but selling their home is prohibitively costly and complicated.

He then told me about an interesting idea: a housing swap.

(from camknows on Flickr)

It goes something like this: a young couple owns a condo or townhouse in the city, but they have a kid and maybe another baby on the way. An empty-nester couple owns a home in suburbia, but it's a lot to maintain and it's far from things. If these two couples could find each other, they could swap homes, continue paying the mortgage on the property they own, and live essentially rent-free in the other.

Admittedly, it sounds good in theory. I'm not sure how easy it would be to find a situation in which the swap would be mutually beneficial.
From January through May of 2008 I lived in Dallas, Texas. As far as the city goes, I wasn’t a huge fan (although I loved interning at Southwest Airlines).

I consistently felt overwhelmed by the car-culture. Everyone I knew drove a car. Almost all of my fellow-interns owned a car (how they afforded it, I’m still not entirely sure). People often talk about how cars offer the ultimate freedom. Living in Dallas made me realize why this belief is so widespread, and yet, why it's so misleading.

From my apartment window I could see construction workers hammering away on DART’s Green Line. Every day I imagined how much different my life would be if it were operating. The northern section of DART's Green Line is scheduled to open in a week, and again I’m caught thinking how my life might be different if I lived in Dallas today.

(from Diorama Sky on Flickr)

Even though I lived only about 3 miles from Southwest’s headquarters near Love Field Airport, walking, biking, or taking public transit were all significant challenges. Between streets with missing sidewalks, heavily congested arterial roads, and bus routes that didn't serve the area where I needed to go, my options were limited; so much so that it was easier to spend my energy lining up rides from co-workers to and from work every day.

If the Green Line existed when I lived in Dallas, I could have lived in many potential neighborhoods and had easy access to my internship. I would have spent a lot less time worrying about getting to and from work. I might have left Dallas feeling a lot differently about the city. Who knows, maybe I wouldn't have stayed for that whole summer.

When the Green Line opens next week, the city isn't immediately going to shed its car-loving image, but it is a step in transforming a city where live revolves around the automobile into one that's more livable for everyone else.

Building Up, Building Out

I've written before about my opposition to DC's height limit. Yglesias brings up an interesting thought experiment to counter the argument that the height limit is good for underdeveloped neighborhoods in the city.
Consider some other inefficient rule about the use of downtown DC space. Maybe the City Council is proposing a rule that everyone in the downtown business district needs to wear blue on Monday, green on Tuesday, red on Wednesday, purple on Thursday, and yellow on Friday. Someone says “you know, that’ll be bad for business.” But the proponents of the new rule say “no way; not only will the impact be minimal, if anything it’ll help the city by encouraging investment in under-developed neighborhoods.”

I say false. The best thing under-developed DC neighborhoods have going for them is proximity and connectivity to the valuable land and economic activity in downtown DC. Measures that reduce the value of that downtown land and activity reduce the value of proximity to downtown DC, and impair the chances of development in under-developed neighborhoods.
From my perspective, the biggest problem with Downtown DC, or Downtown [insert major city here] is that it's not mixed enough in its uses. The balance between people who live there and who work there is too lopsided. This leads to the unfortunate "closed by 5pm" syndrome that leads people to write-off downtowns as viable places.

(from StreetsofWashington on Flickr)

But that's not the only problem. People have to live somewhere. If they work downtown, chances are that they're going to live in a neighborhood or in the suburbs.

Commuting lost distances is awful, and more and more people are coming to realize this. An easy solution is to bring a company to where its people (or more specifically, its executives) are living. In many cases, that's the suburbs.

So yes, a weak business environment downtown will push some economic development outward, but not necessarily into underdeveloped urban neighborhoods. In the worst cases, it weakens both the downtown and the surrounding neighborhoods by pushing everything out toward the fringe.

Big City Walmarts

Since Walmart announced its intent to develop stores in the District of Columbia, it's been a hot topic. The company's leveraging of the 'food desert' problem has been interesting, and shows that they are clearly appealing to local pain-points to maneuver their way into the city.

(from Lone Primate on Flickr)

Whether or not you like Walmart, their arrival is probably inevitable at this point. I often feel like the people who dislike the store on ideological grounds are loud and outspoken, but not as large in number as you might expect. Walmart isn't going to put its stores in the part of town where its critics live - they know better than that. They're targeting underdeveloped sections of the city and know that they can win support from people there.

In urbanist circles, the debate seems to be boiling down to a question of whether or not Walmart can effectively be 'urban' or whether it's going to stick to its guns and try to force a suburban style super-center into the middle of the city.

Cleveland got a big-box Walmart a few years ago when I was living there. In fact, the whole complex where it's located, Steelyard Commons, is painfully suburban in just about every way. At the time, and even to this day, people get upset when its criticized. "We're lucky to have anything and there's is no room to complain" seems to be the frequent retort.

Fortunately, Washington is a stronger city right now, with more powerful urban interests. If Wal-Mart builds stores that sufficiently mesh with the historic neighborhoods where they're going, it will show that the 'one-size fits all' attitude need not apply. If they don't, it will demonstrate the power of this huge corporation to get things done in the way that it wants things done.

Music Mashup

I've gotten a chance to listen to Girl Talk's new album All Day a few times since I downloaded it last week. I'm really enjoying it and I think it's his best album yet. It has a very good mix of songs from different genres and time periods, as oppose to his last album, Feed The Animals, which seems to rely a lot more heavily on rap and hip-hop songs.

(from Kmeron on Flickr)

There's something about mashups that really appeals to me. Even though I probably wouldn't care to put 95% of the songs that Girl Talk samples onto my iPod in their original form, I get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing them in the remixed format.

Anyway, the new album is available to download at no-cost. I highly recommend giving it giving it a listen. If you haven't listed to a Girl Talk album before, it's a good one to start with. If you have, it's even better than a lot of the stuff that he's produced in the past.

Perils of Higher Education

Ed Dante's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is probably one of the best pieces I've read in the Chronicle is a long time. It's a fascinating look at the (mostly) secret behind-the-scenes paper writing market.
You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing. I have seen the word "desperate" misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren't getting it.
It's really a scathing critique of the failings of higher education. The college degree (as in, the piece of paper) has become so important that students are willing to go to extreme lengths to get it, even if they aren't capable or qualified of getting it on their own.

(from velkr0 on Flickr)

Last spring when I published my analysis of degree density, a lot of people shot back with the comment that having a degree doesn't make a person smart. I agree. There are plenty of instances in which the type of degree, or the school where it was given, only tells a piece of the story. There's so much more to a person that the degree they hold; but we don't have good tools for measuring intelligence and skill, so we often default to a person's college degree.

Dante's piece is value in that it explains what happens when we overvalue the college degree. We've gotten to the point where people see it as something worth any cost, even if the debt (literally and figuratively) they take on to get it becomes a serious burden once they have it.

Fast Food

I haven't eaten McDonald's in a long time. I'm pretty sure the last time I ate McDonald's was at a rest stop somewhere in rural Pennsylvania last winter. Here's the thing about fast food... I definitely appreciate that it's cheap and convenient, even if not particularly healthy. The reason I avoid the big fast food giants is because I simply don't like their food.

There is, of course, on exception: Chipotle.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

Consider this... McDonalds and Wendy's serve burgers and fries, two items which I happen to be pretty good at making at home on the grill in the back yard. Subway makes sandwiches, and there are dozens of sandwich shops that make a better product. Domino's and Papa Johns are alright once in a while, but there are so many better places to get a pizza pie. In most instances, whatever food the fast-food giants specialize in, there's another place nearby that serves much tastier grub.

Chipotle is unique, in this sense. Their burritos are incredibly difficult to copy and make well at home, and most knock-offs can't do justice to the quality of the food they serve.

So what would it take to get me to eat McDonald's more than once a year? It would take food that's better than anything else that's available. And that's definitely not going to happen.

Liberal Places

Amanda Hess has a very good article over at TBD that a lot of people in the blogosphere are talking about. When I asked the opinion of a friend of the blog, who lives in a neighborhood near where the incident occurred, this is what he wrote:
The article exposes some of the bigoted, racist violence that festers beneath DC's self-congratulatory liberal veneer.
This raises an interesting question. What makes a person, or a place, liberal? It's true that Washington DC votes for Democratic candidates over Republicans mightily in every election; and it's generally accepted that Republicans have no place in local politics. But does that alone make nearly everyone in the District a liberal?

(from joseph a on Flickr)

Voting Democratic doesn't make someone a liberal; and similarly, voting Republican doesn't make someone a conservative. These distinctions ought to be better drawn out, because they matter. Looking at past presidential election results or who is representing a district in Congress tells you something about that place, without a doubt; but it alone can't tell the whole story.

Culinary Destinations

I've been seeing a lot of Tweets lately about Adam Richman's comments on the Today Show proclaiming Cleveland as a best-kept foodie secret. I also think Richman get it right in his explanation of why it's a hidden gem.
[Cleveland] has gotten a bad rap because of its history — going into default, the [Cuyahoga] River fire, bad sports teams — but it is the heartland, it’s near great farmland, there’s the historic West Side Market, and you get more bang for your buck there.
From my perspective, the fact that out-of-towners aren't flocking to Cleveland and its restaurants is one of the key reasons that they are able to maintain a high level of quality.

(from Through my windshield on Flickr)

As restaurants become popular, and eventually 'destinations', something's gotta give. To keep up with the pace, many destination restaurants raise prices, others sacrifice quality for efficiency, or both.

One classic example is Pat's and Geno's in Philadelphia. These are the "go-to" tourist destinations for cheesesteak; but they've fallen out of favor with locals. From my experience, they're good, but in catering to the masses, they lost the sense of being great.

Cleveland has a few things going for it that other cities don't. Even though the economy is weak and unemployment is high, people who do have jobs have incredible purchasing power because the cost of living is so low. Plus, the low cost of commercial spaces makes the cost of opening a new business very low, which also allows restaurants to keep prices low for the quality of what you get.

So yeah, I'm really not surprised that people consider Cleveland to be a best-kept secret. I believe that every city has great restaurants. You don't have to be in New York to eat good food. Cleveland might not have as many of them as bigger cities, but that's OK. Just because the expectations are low doesn't mean that's the reality.

Blocking the Bike Lane

For bicycle commuters, there are few experiences more frustrating than having automobiles block your bike lanes, as if people weren't actually trying to use them for transportation. It's downright dangerous–cyclists don't expect large stationary objects to appear in the middle of their right-of-way, and the more absent-minded of us are prone to run into them.
For me, I'm not really worried about running into whatever stationary object is blocking the lane. The bigger issue is having to merge into traffic in order to go around it.

(from tvol on Flickr)

When you have a separated bike lane, motorists tend to expect everyone on a bike to stay in that lane. Problem is, when there is a a bus, car or taxi blocking it, there's nowhere to go but around. Unfortunately, there are motorists who get upset that bicyclists have to cut into the driving lane to get around the obstruction, and they take their anger our on that rider, rather than the person who's illegally blocking the bike lane.

I want to believe that someone who double parks knows they're doing something wrong. They know someone is going to be inconvenienced so that they can leave their car in a place where it doesn't belong. But thinking that blocking a bike lane only makes life worse for the bicyclist is too simple. The reality is that it can cause a much larger chain reaction that impacts everyone in traffic.

Around the Web

In case you're wondering what I've been up to when I'm not writing here...

Over at Greater Greater Washington, I take issue with talking buses. It looks like they might get rolled out in Washington, and that concerns me. Cleveland's RTA first starting running noise-making buses about a year and a half ago, and I've never been a fan. I struggle to understand how they improve safety, and it seems like others agree.

I have a couple of post up at All Opinions are Local. Next year Washington will be home to a few new microbreweries. I'm pretty excited about this, although I'm trying to keep my expectations in check since I've been spoiled by Great Lakes beer. Last month, a new independent movie theater just opened it's doors. It's a much appreciated development in a city with great movie theaters, but dominated by big corporate chains.

Playing the Blame Game

Erik Weber has a nice post up over at Greater Greater Washington that explores what went wrong during the Rally to Restore Sanity. I don't think anyone who attended would agree that it went off without a hitch. The overarching issue was that way more people attended than event planners were expecting. This created some serious transportation problems, and a lot of angry people looking for someone to blame.

(from MissChatter on Flickr)

In this case, there is no single party who's at fault. Blame falls in a lot of different places. The problem is... it's so much easier when blame can neatly in one place; when it's really easy to point the finger in one direction and move on.

So who can we point the finger at? We can blame Metro for not providing enough service to accommodate travelers. We can blame Comedy Central for not ponying up the money to allow Metro to run more trains or for providing WABA with funding to operate a bike valet. We can blame the rally-goers for not making it clear that so many of them were going to go. We can blame Mother Nature for giving us the most beautiful autumn weather.

If only Metro had run more trains... if only Comedy Central had paid for more service... if only more people had biked... if only fewer people showed up at the Mall... if only it had been rainy or snowy or cold... maybe none of this would have ever happened?

In Washington, Metro is the bad guy. Anyone who has used Metro more than a few times has had at least one frustrating experience. It's usually chalked up to bureaucratic incompetence. Often, this is a fair criticism. I've experienced my share of frustrating Metro situations. It's so easy to blame Metro when something goes wrong.

Comedy Central, on the other hand, is the good guy. After all, they host two awesome late-night comedy shows. And without them, there wouldn't have been a rally at all.

The tendency is to hold the bad guy to a much higher standard. There's also a tendency to look for a single fall-guy. In this case, that's Metro. Regardless of how much of the transportation disaster can be traced back to them, and regardless of whether people are willing to defend them, they'll still bear a brunt of the anger, because it's really really easy to unconditionally blame Metro.

Democratic Government

This post over at ARLnow caught my eye. Arlington wants to take action against plastic bag pollution, but it's hit a roadblock:
Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Arlington must first ask the state legislature for permission to pursue policies not specifically allowed by state law. In past years, the state government has been reluctant to grant Arlington any new taxing power.
To me, this brings up interesting issues about representative democracy. If Arlington County wants to tax plastic bags, they need to approval of the state government, which is reluctant to allow them to do so. On the flip side, when DC wanted to impose the same tax, they did it, because they didn’t have to seek the same permission from people with different interests hundreds of miles away.

(from Idiolector on Flickr)

On the other hand, District residents have no representation in the U.S. Congress, which is a significant and commonly-known problem; and by-law, the federal government still has power over the District. But on local issues, DC is often able to govern itself, which is why DDOT, it seems, can implement such progressive changes to the city’s transportation infrastructure that cities in Virginia and Maryland struggle with.

In a way, it’s a look at what cities might be like if their interests weren’t co-opted by people who don’t live in, nor have any interest in, the city itself. More broadly, it's a question of democratic government. Is it always superior to give people a say on issues that don't have a direct relationship to those issues?

Yearly Mile

This time last year someone turned my on to the website Daily Mile. It's a social media tool for keeping a log of exercise activities. I've used it to keep track of how much I bike.

(from teachandlearn on Flickr)

In the past year I biked 2450 miles.

At first glance, it seems like a pretty significant number. After all, that's good for 3 complete trips between Cleveland and Washington - on a bike. At the same time, most of my riding is simply around the city. Getting to and from the places I need to go; and my trips are relatively short. When I biked to college, I only lived a mile and half away from campus. Now, I live a little more than 2 miles from my job.

The more I think about it though, the more I wonder... how do people who own cars manage to put a hundred thousand miles on them in only a few years? It isn't taking long road-trips every week - it's mostly from getting around. Even short distances add up after a while. Medium and long distances really start to add up after a while.

That's the thing about distance - it's so hard for the human mind to comprehend it. If I told someone I biked 2450 miles in a year, would they think that was a lot? What if I told them I biked 47 miles per week? Or 6.7 miles per day? Do the math - it's all the same.

I honestly believe this is how a lot of people wind up driving incredibly long distances for everything. Because when they break it down by day, it's a comfortably small number. But we don't live in a single day. Ultimately, all those days add up.

Height Restrictions

The New York Times recently had a pretty good article about the height limit debate in DC. It's worth a read.

(from Mdrewe on Flickr)

In general, I think the height restriction is a pretty terrible policy. Unlike some who share this sentiment, I'm not convinced that overturning it will suddenly fix all of the problems it's created. Similarly, the idea that reversal of the height limit will radically change DC's skyline overnight seems overblown as well.

Could a few extra stories be added to the top of downtown buildings? Probably... Would skyscrapers pop up where modest buildings currently exist? Not in the short-term. That sort of transformation would take years or decades to happen.

Ultimately though, I have a difficult time taking the preservationist arguments seriously. If you stand down on the waterfront in Georgetown and look across the river, you see what looks like a downtown. Of course, that's Rosslyn, and the reason it is allowed to exist is because a state border just happens to fall in-between.

Reversing the height limit now could make DC look like few other American cities. Instead of a few skyscrapers downtown, you'd probably see dense development occur around Metro stations, not unlike what's happened along the orange line in Arlington. It's hard to roll-back development that's already occurred; and that development has happened under a pretty strict height limit.

Black and White Urbanism

People who don't particularly like urbanism or density like to suggest that supporters of livable places want to make everyone live like Europeans... But not everyone wants to live in an apartment complex, sharing walls with neighbors on all sides. Most of all, people want a yard, grass, a place where they can relax and the kids can play.

(from PlanningComm'rsJournal on Flickr)

This is all understandable. Yards are cool - but they're not all created equally. There's a difference between a modest sized yard and one with enough room for a golf course behind your house.

More broadly, this is a flawed way of thinking about urbanism.

Consider another example. When urbanists say it would be beneficial to get cars off the road, that doesn't mean getting every single car off the road. There's evidence that small reduction in cars can lead to big reductions in traffic congestion. Arguing for more transportation options doesn't mean that every person has to live in one specific way.

But back to this question of yards. It's entirely possible to have a nice house with a yard and still be in a relatively dense area. A lot of inner-ring suburbs were designed this way. They're not cities, but they're not over-the-top car-dependent places either. Dense doesn't have to mean over-crowded. Dense can be exactly what people who claim they don't like it actually want.

The Cost of Transportation

PBS's Blueprint America put together this piece on high transportation costs in car-dependent suburbia.

That pretty much sums it up. A lot of this has been written here in the past. It's a tough issue to deal with, and it's not getting any easier.

Hooked on Netflix

A few weeks ago I wrote about the interesting love that people have for Netflix. I first used the service back in 2006. I had the 2 DVDs at a time plan. It was pretty cool, I saw some great independent films that I would have had a hard time finding otherwise. When I got busy with college I put my account on hold.

(from kristipwrs on Flickr)

I basically forgot about it until last month, when I re-activated my subscription because there were a few movies I wanted to see but was having a hard time finding anywhere else. Now, I have the 1 DVD at a time plan. I pay less money for it, and when you include the Netflix Instant content, get a lot more.

Honestly, I wonder how the casual TV watcher could justify paying significantly more money for cable when so much content, both movies and TV shows, exists on a $9 per month Netflix subscriptions.

Of course, there are things you can get on cable that you can't get on Netflix - live sports, news, the ability to watch shows during their initial run... there's value to that stuff that some people will always be willing to pay for. But for someone who doesn't need all that stuff but still wants access to TV and movies? Netflix is really great.

Progressive Parking Pricing

Tom Vanderbilt has a really interesting column in Slate about the history behind parking meters, the challenges of current parking policy, and how these might be dealt with in the future.

(from itspaulkelly on Flickr)

Last week I was thinking about how the pricing for Capital Bikeshare (and similar bikeshare systems) might be applied to parking meters. Currently, most parking meters charge a fix rate for a fixed amount of time. For example, 2 dollars per hour. If you want to park for up to a half-hour, you pay 1 dollar. If you want to park for four hours, you pay 8 dollars.

Capital Bikeshare, on the other hand, uses a progressive pricing system. So the longer you keep the bike, the more you have to pay.

Yesterday, Dave Itzkoff had this to say over at The Caucus:
Is the rally just a fun way to spend an afternoon with entertainers, comedians and 200,000 of your closest, most apolitical friends? A covert promotion for progressive causes on the eve of a crucial midterm vote? Is it, as one writer has already argued, the Woodstock for the millennial generation? (Hey, man, if you didn’t blog about it, you weren’t really there.)
I was there. Now I'm blogging about it. As far as rallies go, my experience was about the same as every other rally I've ever attended. It was crowded. It was uncomfortable. It was hard to hear. And it was even harder to see. I may have been able to say "I was there" but the person watching on CSPAN from home can actually say that they saw the event.

(from TalkMediaNews on Flickr)

What's curious about this rally is that it never really had a clear agenda. Was it supposed to be a mere mockery of the event that Glenn Beck hosted in the summer? Or was it supposed to be a legitimate movement by liberals to generate support prior to the midterm election? Based on the signs I saw at the event, the answer isn't clear. There were people there who were obviously just making fun of Tea Partiers. There were others with political agendas. And there were a few who just seemed to be defending the fact that they're not crazy, as some folks on the right side of the isle have suggested.

I'm generally lukewarm when it comes to these types of events. In the next week there will be big fights over the estimated attendance. There will be arguments on Cable TV news about whether Glenn Beck or John Stewart "won" the game of bringing people to the national mall to stand around for a couple of hours. Supporters from each side will predictably try to claim victory is this "game". But the two sides will never come to an agreement.

At the end of the day, I walked away from the Rally to Restore Sanity feeling underwhelmed. The event was unbelievably hyped, so I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people walked away feeling the same way. The big question, in my mind, is what these rallies are really hoping to achieve?

Parking Prices Visualized

Big hat-tip to Housing Complex for linking to this report by the National Parking Association that shows parking rates for Central Business Districts throughout North America.

There's a lot of data in the report. I pulled out some of the stuff I thought would theoretically be the most relevant to everyday parking. I've barely gotten a chance to dig into this stuff, but here are a few simple graphs I pulled together comparing parking rates in various cities.

This first graph is the price of lot / garage parking for the first hour.

(click to enlarge)

Decline of NASCAR

Via Yglesias, NASCAR viewership is in a downward spiral. Executives are trying to figure out what's going wrong.

(from Ray Horwath on Flickr)

From the article, it seems that they've formulated a few theories. One blames a switch from ABC to ESPN. Another speculates that moving the start of races to 1pm is to blame.

Maybe they're missing the obvious answer: it's just not that interesting.

Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of people explain why NASCAR is popular. I'm not oblivious to the reasons that so many people tune in and attend races. Like any sport, there will be die-hard fans who tune in every week no matter what. But if you want to understand declining ratings, you need to forget about those people and look at the casual fan.

A few months ago, during the winter Olympics, the game that seemed to catch a lot of attention at sports bars (at least from my experience) was curling. Interesting, because almost no one in the U.S. plays or watches curling on any regularly basis. So why was it so popular? Because it's fun to watch, but only in very small doses. If it were on all the time, most Americans wouldn't care. But during those two weeks every four years, people like to tune in and see it.

Perhaps NASCAR is experiencing something similar. People were really into NASCAR for a while, and now some of them are bored. To maintain the ratings that NASCAR was pulling down, they needed to retain a lot of casual fans.

Transit and Gentrification

Treehugger analyzes a report from Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy that suggests that good transit leads to gentrification in neighborhood where it's built. The argument follows that this is problematic, thus, because it pushes out people who need public transit and allows people to move in who can afford alternatives and only want transit as a luxury.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr)

I'm not going to refute that a lot of transit-oriented-development, especially in a city like DC, is designed to cater to the District's well-off population. But I'm not convinced that this is absolutely harmful to the low income residents in the city.

Consider an alternative... Well-off people live exclusively in the suburbs. They can afford cars, so it doesn't much matter whether their neighborhoods are well served by transit. The problem here is that a lot of service-sector jobs will follow the money. Businesses like restaurants, retail stores, etc. Low income workers, on the other hand, live in the city. They have decent public transit options near their homes, but those transit options don't extend into the suburbs, where a good chuck of working-class jobs now exist.

In a perfect world, the working-class would live in the same neighborhoods as their service-sector jobs. Unfortunately, this is rarely the reality.

The solutions to these issues are very complex, and I know that I don't have all the answers. But in thinking about transit and gentrification, it's definitely more of a question of whether those who can least afford it live near public transit; because if public transit can't take them to the places where they need to go, what value does it really have?

Responsible Riding

The Alexandria Times has an article about a new bike signal the city recently installed along the Mount Vernon Trail.

(from ajfroggie on Flickr)

I'm glad to see this type of infrastructure being installed in Alexandria. For me, it's more about practical considerations (doing something about dangerous intersections) than about making a statement (bicyclists have the right to the road).

Whether or not any more of these signals get installed will depend on whether or not bicyclists respect what they've been given.
Alexandria City Hall has rolled out the first traffic light for cyclists in the state, but they want to make sure bikers won’t ignore the safety signal before buying more.
This is an interesting situation. For one, because 'bicyclists' as a group do not behave in exactly the same ways. Yes, there are people who ride through stop signs and lights. There are others that don't. How many people have to ignore the new safety signal before it's deemed that 'cyclists' aren't behaving properly? 10%? 50%? More?

Imagine this point was made in regards to typical vehicle infrastructure. For instance, "we'll build a new highway, but if motorists speed on it, we're not building any more." That doesn't happen. Instead, speed limits are enforced (sort of, anyway).

The debate over whether bicyclists should follow street laws often boils down to a dispute over whether or not it's actually safer to follow the rules literally. But if a bicycle-specific signal is installed, that theoretically means it's programmed for the maximum safety of bicyclists. If some riders don't respect that, perhaps there should be enforcement to punish them, not a refusal to install any more infrastructure - a move that would instead punish all bicyclists .

Political Culture

Last week I watched Frontline's documentary Obama's Deal. Like most of PBS's work, it's a well-told story and a well-produced piece. One thing I that caught my attention was the portrayal of Washington's political culture. I think that if I didn't know anything about the city, I'd probably think that nearly everyone in the city was a well-paid, high-powered lobbyist hell-bent on influencing Congress.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

Without a doubt, politics is a major part of Washington culture. It would be strange if it weren't. But I don't feel like it dominates the culture to the extent that media often portrays it. Government is the region's top industry, but most federal employees are executive branch bureaucrats or contractors, with little or no connection to politics.

When I walk around Capitol Hill, something I like to do on the weekends, it feels like a pleasant urban neighborhood. I'm yet to bump into a well-known politician or lobbyists who you'd think would be chasing them. It's just regular people living seemingly regular lives.

A few weekends ago I was sitting at Peregrine Espresso on the Hill, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper. It was busy, so table space was limited. Two guys asked if they could share the table. Of course I said yes. As it turns out, one of them was a rocket scientist (he's worked for NASA for years and worked as a physicist in London before that) who lives on the Hill. The second guy was a professional squash player from Europe who was vacationing in DC before catching a flight to Chicago the next day. Both were really interesting guys. Neither had any connection to politics.

Even though I can't deny that DC is inherently a political town, I feel like local politics, not national politics, is just as dominant. And why shouldn't it be? The people who live in DC are concerned about what's happening in their neighborhood, as least as much as they care what's happening in congressional committees. National media focuses on Washington as the home of national politics, because it is - but that's not all it is, and I'm glad it's not.
Last Saturday I got a chance to take the new Capital Bikeshare for a spin. I was really excited to give it a try, and now that I have, I'm left with a lot of mixed feelings. No doubt, I'm beyond happy that DC has a bike share system as sophisticated as this. The potential is definitely there. I just feel like the system isn't quite perfect yet.

(from DDOTDC on Flickr)

I successfully took 5 CaBi trips and I had two unsuccessful trip attempts. During both of those failed attempts I got to a station that had only 1 bike left in the docks, but for weird technical reasons (that I won't get into here) I wasn't able to take a bike out of the dock.

Overall, my feelings about CaBi can be summed up below.

The Good: The bikes are in good shape and they ride nicely. Granted, they are heavy and you can't ride very fast on them, but I didn't experience any mechanical problems on any of the bikes. The brakes worked well, the gears shifted smoothly and the tires were fully inflated. The front rack was a nice touch. I personally didn't use it but saw a number of people carrying their bags on the rack. I also found the smartphone app to be a huge help in finding CaBi stations.

The Bad: When the system doesn't work, it's difficult to figure out what to do. In one instance, I had difficulty docking a bike, but I couldn't find instructions anywhere about what to do if the bike isn't docking properly. After a call to CaBi's support number, the issue was resolved. The built-in lights on the bikes are pretty cool, but I wish they stayed on when you weren't pedaling. At night, you effectively go dark whenever you stop.

The Ugly: CaBi doesn't accept AmEx or Discover for 24-hour memberships. This is personally problematic for me, as I don't have a Visa or MasterCard credit card. I brought my helmet along for the ride - I wouldn't ride without it in DC. This might be an issue if I ever became a real member, as I'd need to carry my helmet with me anytime I wanted to make a trip. I'd be stuck if I ever wanted to make a 'spur of the moment' ride across town.

French Press On-Tap

A few weekends ago I stopped by my favorite coffee shop while I was visiting Cleveland. I was excited to see a few new menu innovations, including French press coffee on-tap.

(from Toronto Rob on Flickr)

The concept is simple. Brew a pot of coffee in a French Press and serve upon request. It's both quick and delicious.

I know that the regular old cuppa coffee isn't quite as popular these days in a coffee culture dominated by espresso drinks; but there are some people, like myself, who simply prefer a regular cup of joe. Shops can charge a premium for French pressed coffee. I'd pay it. I'm sure other coffee snobs would too.

Really, I think any coffee shop that uses the word 'gourmet' to describe what it serves ought to have some French press option. You can buy the best beans on earth, but the brewing process is going to make a huge impact on how that coffee ultimately tastes. Coffee still has a place among espresso, as long as it's done well.