This is the third post in the Ultimate Planes, Trains & Automobiles Trip series.

I recently took a trip that covered about 1200 miles with stops in three major American cities. I got around exclusively by means other than personal automobile. That's to say, I made a trip that most Americans will never make. How'd it go? Overall, very well. I posted a a recap of my Amtrak train ride last week. This post will cover everything else.

Public Transit
There were two notable things that happened on public transit during the trip. The first is merely amusing, the second is a little more serious.

(from Flickr user wallyg)

On Friday night I walked up to one of the credit/debit-only machines at the 34th Street subway station. After dipping my debit card twice without success, a middle-aged guy came up behind me and asked "what country are you from?" Because apparently the ability to swipe a debit card is a concept foreigners struggle with more than Americans? Moving on...

My friends and I got down to the platform and waited for about five minutes before two police officers started yelling "no downtown trains! No downtown trains!" Wanting to know what was going on, a crowd formed around one of the officers, trying to get to the bottom of why there was no service and what to do about it. The officer said something to the effect of "there was a heinous crime that occurred between 59th Street and 55th Street. We think the perp is running on the tracks, but I don't know anything else, I barely caught that piece of info on the radio." Aside from being annoying, the incident demonstrates the serious problem that some transit systems have informing the public of important events. Especially in New York, there's really no good way for riders to get this information. Cell phones don't work underground and most stations don't have any system in place to disseminate information to passengers.

Bus Travel
I rode BoltBus from New York to Baltimore on Sunday night. Overall this was a good experience, the ride was comfortable and quiet and we departed and arrived right now time. Nonetheless, two things are worth pointing out.

(from Flickr user Stephen Rees)

First, boarding was a minor disaster. The whole idea behind BoltBus and its competitors is that people get picked up on the street corner; so it's just like riding a cross-town bus, expect it goes much further. It's different, at least, in the sense that most passengers (not me) are traveling with huge suitcases and other bulky luggage. This makes for a very crowded street corner. And for whatever reason, once the bus pulls up, people start behaving like animals to get on board. Maybe I just had an unusually rowdy bunch on my bus? But if that type of thing is the norm, it probably needs to be addressed.

Second, the boarding of luggage was highly inefficient. Again, I didn't 'check' any bags, but plenty of people did. Since it was pretty much up to the passengers and the driver to load and unload the luggage from the bus, the results were pretty predictable.

Air Travel
My Southwest flight from BWI to CLE was on-time and lived up to the standards Southwest has set forth. After riding on a train and a bus, the flight reminded me how much time has to be tacked onto a trip by plane simply because of how long it can take to travel to and from airports. While I still support air travel more than your typical urbanist, I also think it's evidence of badly needed transit service connecting cities and their airports.

Commuter Rail
I rode MARC's Penn Line from Baltimore to DC. Overall I was quite impressed.

(from Flickr user skew-t)

For 7 dollars, it hardly broke the bank. The train arrived in Baltimore right on time and the ride down to DC was pleasant. My only complaint is that when I walked into Baltimore's Penn Station, it was very unclear how to buy MARC tickets. After asking 2 or 3 different people, I learned that they can be purchased at the Amtrak ticket window or an Amtrak kiosk. Good to know... too hard to find out.

Taxi Cabs
I have seriously mixed feelings about taxis. On the one hand, I feel like they are a huge waste of money. For short trips, they're not prohibitively expensive, but I also feel like I could walk or bike a short distance for free. For long trips, they can be prohibitively expensive, for me anyway.

(from Flickr user [phil h])

At the same time, I want other people to use them, because I think cities need to have them available as a transportation option. Otherwise a city winds up like Cleveland, which has a few taxis, but that require prior arrangements or reservations to use, and even then, they are questionably reliable. I've also had mixed experiences with cab drivers. I swear that every time I rode in a taxi while I lived in Dallas it was a horrifying experience. But I've had very friendly cab drivers in Las Vegas and other cities. I probably haven't ridden in enough of them to draw any definitive conclusions.

Motor Vehicle Behaviorism

Streetfilms recently interviewed one of my favorite authors, Tom Vanderbilt. Watch:



If you haven't read Vanderbilt's book Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us), get a copy. When I first checked out the book from the public library, I thought I was going to hate it. What would I care about why people behave they way they do when they're driving cars? As it turns out, Traffic is one of my favorite books. It's a fascinating look at the psychology of driving and offers a lot valuable insights into many aspects of urbanism.

Why People Dislike Buses

Every time a city proposes building or expanding a rail transit system, a predictable group of opponents steps in and argues that bus service would be significantly cheaper and accomplish the same goals. Of course, most of these opponents never plan to ride either the eventual bus or train, and thus care very little about the experience that one gets on different modes of transportation. To them, transportation is transportation, so why not go with the cheapest option?

(from Flick user 24gotham)

This neglects the reality that there are people in New York City who have the entire Subway map memorized but have never stepped foot on a bus. There are people in Chicago who walk out of their way to get to an L station instead of hopping on a bus that's right in front of them. And there are people in Washington, DC who pay twice as much to ride Metrorail when the bus could get them to their destination for a far lower fare.

People behave this way because riding a bus is simply a worse experience than riding a train, with almost no exceptions. What makes riding buses so much worse? Here are five reasons to get us started...

Stops
People like to feel like they're going somewhere; they don't like to stop and wait. The beauty of a grade-separated rail transit line is that it only stops at destinations. You step onto the train and it doesn't stop for red lights, stop signs, jaywalkers or anything else. Buses stop for all those things. People hate that.

Traffic
In most cities, congestion is the result of too many cars on a street all at once. Since buses use the same streets as cars, they typically get stuck in the exact same congestion. Nobody likes being stuck in a traffic jam. You could say that being on a bus in traffic is less stress-inducing than being behind the wheel; but that's not the point. A good rail transit system avoids traffic altogether.

Routes
Bus routes are often disorienting. They have too many turns and zig-zags. People can never be entirely sure where they are going. I've also yet to see a truly good bus map. The beauty of a well-designed rail map is that it simplifies something that's actually rather complex. A good map can convince people that they are traveling in a straight line, even when they are turning and zig-zagging all over the place. And since the locations of rail stations never change, you don't have to worry about being detoured away from or losing track of your destination.

Bumps
Buses are bumpy. Anyone who has ever ridden a bus on a really pothole-infested street knows how awful this can be. Trains, by comparison, are typically very smooth.

Perception
People find comfort in rail stations. They feel exposed waiting out on a street corner for a bus and they don't like it. Regardless of how much safer waiting in a rail station actually is, people perceive it to be more so, and thus feel much more comfortable down (or up) in stations than they do out on the street.

Contrarianism

In continuing on my theme about culture and why it can be so hard for people to go against the grain and to do things that aren't necessary considered 'normal', consider a hypothetical twenty-something. He is a professional and works a typical 9-5 office job. He is single and likes to go out to happy hours after work. Every week, he usually goes out four times: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. On Friday and Saturday night he sits at home and watches TV shows recorded on his DVR.


Some people would suggest that this person is a bit of a social outcast because he spends his Friday and Saturday nights alone watching TV. But if you reverse the situation, and say that our hypothetical twenty-something stays at home watching TV Monday through Thursday and then goes out to bars and clubs on Friday and Saturday night, most people would think nothing of it. Few would argue that he's anything other than a typical single twenty-something.

To some extent this is a practical consideration. People have to work during the week; so if they do go out and socialize, they can't go crazy or stay out all night. Some people might also believe going out on the weekend is more fun because they are more people around. For some people, this may be true. To others, who don't like being crammed elbow to elbow every place they go, or who like inexpensive food and drink specials (there aren't many places running specials or discounts on Friday and Saturday) then weeknights are prime-time for going out.

The point is to demonstrate that, even though our hypothetical twenty-something goes out more often than the weekend partier, he is still perceived as less social. That's another example of the power of culture.

New York's Coffee Culture

This is the second post in the Ultimate Planes, Trains & Automobiles Trip series.

You may recall my stated intent to check out some of the coffee establishments that the New York Times declared as evidence that the Big Apple is finally taking it's coffee seriously. I went to four of them during my visit last weekend. Before I get into the specifics of each cafe, I have two general thoughts.


First, I think the NY Time's got the headline wrong. If I'd written it, it would have said: New York Is Finally Taking Its Espresso Seriously. While each of the shops I visited served coffee, it seemed rather clear that the focus was on espresso drinks, with coffee being shunned like an unwanted stepchild. I understand that espresso drinks are popular, but they're not what I drink. I ordered a hot coffee at each cafe, and my opinions formed around the quality of that coffee.

Second, Manhattan coffee shops are primarily grab-and-go kinds of places. I'm writing this post from my favorite coffee shop in Cleveland, but that wouldn't be an option at the Manhattan coffee shops I visited. This is a serious hang-up for me, because as much I think the density and vibrancy of New York City is amazing, I struggle with the idea that the local independent coffee shops aren't places where people can go to relax or socialize or hang-out.

That said, here are a few specific thoughts on the New York coffee shops I visited.

A reader left a very interesting comment on Tuesday's post about car culture. Specifically, I draw attention to this anecdote:
But, a 9-block, 10-minute walk is a long one for people used to driving everywhere, which is to say, for most Americans. So, when we have out of town guests we either have to convince people to walk, or we take the Metro one stop or, if they have a car, we take their car. On more than one occassion, we have convinced our guests to walk 9 blocks to dinner only to have them insist that we take a taxi back home.
That churned my stomach when I read it. The idea that physically able people are so unwilling to walk such a short distance really disturbs me. And yet, it doesn't really surprise me. You only need to look at the way people behave in buildings with escalators and elevators to understand why.

An escalator is an interesting device. In some places, escalators exist to connect two surfaces that would be very difficult to climb on foot, like the deepest stations in some subway systems.

(from Flickr user gilderic)

In most places, though, escalators simply connect two floors - think of the escalators at a suburban shopping mall. Most people will walk to an escalator, stand on a step, and wait for the machine to deliver them to the top or the bottom. In most cases, only a minority will use an escalator to get where they are going faster, as opposed to using an escalator to get to where they are going with less physical effort.

Elevators are much the same. I work in a downtown office building with many elevators. If I need to travel four stories or fewer, whether up or down, I take the stairs. And still, when I do use the elevator, I can hardly believe how many people use it to travel only one or two floors. These are not people who are disabled. These are not people who are carrying large boxes or pushing carts. These are perfectly physically able people who are merely going to another floor of the building. In some cases, taking the elevator actually requires more time because you have to wait for it. Most of these people would probably admit that they could use a little more exercise. In the most egregious cases, people still sweaty from having worked out in the gym get on to the elevator and travel down two floors to their cube.

To some extent, this behavior is outright ridiculous; but it's so common that almost nobody thinks twice about it. It's the stair walkers who are somehow outside of the norm. That's the power of culture. It has the ability to morph attitudes such that people start doing things that make little inherent sense; but they are convinced that they either have no other option or that the alternative is far worse than it actually is.

Riding on a Train

This is the first post in the Ultimate Planes, Trains & Automobiles Trip series.

Last Friday I rode Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited from Cleveland to New York City. It's something I've wanted to do for a while, and now that I've done it, I have seriously mixed feelings about the experience.

(from Flickr user JohnGreyTurner)

My train departed from Cleveland at 5:50 am last Friday morning - right on time; and it arrived in Penn Station around 6:15 pm - slightly early, amazingly. In that sense, Amtrak did exactly what it promised. The coach section was comfortable, with seats similar to what you would find in first class on a plane. It was relatively inexpensive (about $60) and it wasn't an uncomfortable ride. Ultimately, Amtrak got me to where I wanted to go.

Even so, there are a number of things about riding the train that make me seriously question whether I would ever want to do it again.

The Schedule
The problem with the Lake Shore Limited schedule is that it's extremely limiting and inflexible. If you want to take the train from Cleveland to New York, you have to depart at 5:50 am - hardly the most convenient time for most people. But you also don't arrive at Penn Station until after 6:00 pm, so if you are traveling for business, you've already missed the entire business day. If you need to get to New York earlier in the day for any reason, the only option, if taking the train, is to arrive the evening before. This isn't as much a problem on Amtrak lines that have more frequent service; but on those that don't, it can be a deal breaker.

The Waiting
If you think riding a train means boarding and then cruising along the tracks to your destination, you will be in for an unpleasant surprise. There were at least four significant waiting periods during my trip. 1) Immediately after departing from Cleveland the train pulled into a CSX railyard in Collinwood. We stopped and sat for about 20 minutes before rolling east through Cleveland's suburbs - I never figured out exactly why that was necessary. 2) Between Syracuse and Utica the train approached a 'single track' portion of the line. We sat and waited as a CSX freight train crawled through the single-track section. 3) About five miles west of Schenectady we approached another single-track section and waited for an Amtrak train to pass through before we were able to continue. 4) Immediately before entering Albany the train split, with half of the cars continuing to New York and the rest to Boston - the process took about 15 minutes.

All the waiting makes riding the train an extremely frustrating experience. There is nothing worse than sitting there and thinking that if the train were moving efficiently, maybe the trip wouldn't be 12.5 hours long. Maybe you could get to your destination in a reasonable amount of time. The fact that Amtrak has these delays essentially built into the schedule suggests that they are the rule, not the exception.

The Stations
I've said my piece about the location of Cleveland's Amtrak station and I'm going to say it again: it's an awful location. It's inaccessible by public transit (now that RTA's Waterfront Line is defunct), it's not easily accessible for pedestrians, and even if you have a car or someone to drop you off, it's not easy to find. The other stations along the Lake Shore Limited aren't much better. the Buffalo station isn't in the city of Buffalo. The Albany station isn't in Albany. Rail travel is theoretically superior to air travel in the sense that it can deliver people from downtown to downtown, as opposed to suburban airport to suburban airport, but when you don't actually have stations in convenient downtown locations, this benefit goes out the window.

Parking on Campus

I've written about my experiences as a winter cyclist in Cleveland. One of the things that got under my nerves the most was the reaction people had to the fact that I was bicycling 1.5 miles to class at John Carroll on cold or snowy days. Of course, I'll admit, it was slightly crazy for biking in those conditions, and I understand why more people don't do it; but there were a number of people who made note of the fact that they drive to campus in the winter, but they live close enough that they could walk or bike in nicer weather. The question is: do they?

Last Thursday was just about the most perfect weather day you could imagine. I shot two photos around noon. The temperature was 75 degrees, it was sunny, and there was no wind. First, the primary "commuter" parking lot:


And second, the bike rack on campus where I park my bike:


Now, you could look at this and hypothesize that most of those "commuter" students live far away and bicycling or walking is simply not an option. While true for some, the dirty secret is that most of the "off-campus" students, like me, rent a property in the neighborhood and live within a two-mile radius of the campus. It also happens that University Heights, despite being annoyingly suburban in many ways, has a street grid that makes it possible to bike just about anywhere within that two-mile radius of campus on secondary roads.

The university has a serious parking problem: there's way too much. And amazingly, the administration thinks exactly the opposite, that there isn't enough! Most of the university's expansion plans are aggressive about adding more spaces for cars. When they knock down the now vacant old science building, what are they going to replace it with? You guessed it - a new parking lot.

This post is more than a criticism of one university and its parking lots. The reason you have so many people driving less than two-miles to campus on the most beautiful day of the year is because that's the culture. It's normal to drive to campus - expected, even. Walking or biking is what's outside the norm. People don't even consider it.

Every place has its own culture, whether it's a country, city, neighborhood, campus, etc. All else equal, the more dominant car-culture is, the more people you should expect to drive everywhere. You can invest in better bicycling infrastructure, install racks, paint bike lanes, etc; but if you do nothing to challenge the dominant car-culture, then all those new facilities will be underutilized.

Changing the culture solves practical problems too. If my university truly believes it has too few parking spaces, one solution is to encourage fewer people to use them. This makes the university more sustainable in the long-term, as building a never-ending supply of new parking spaces as the campus grows is costly, both financially and politically. Incentivizing fewer people to park on campus is not unreasonable. There are more than a few universities that have strong walking and biking cultures. Many urban universities significantly restrict the number of students who are allowed to park on campus, at any price. And believe me, people aren't turning down offers to good universities because someplace else is offering a cheaper or a guaranteed parking space.
Auto-posted during The Ultimate Planes Trains & Automobiles Trip.

There are more than a few authors and thinkers who are happy to proclaim that we are now living in a truly virtual world. According to them, people can live wherever they want, work wherever they want, and thanks to the internet, commerce can take place instantly around the globe. One's location, it seems, matters less than ever.

To that I say: False. Such claims are almost laughable in their absurdity.

Look at the rise in popularity of mobile apps like Foursquare and other silly social media tools that allow people broadcast their whereabouts to the world. Or how about Twitter's new feature that attaches the location of the neighborhood where a person sends each tweet? If we truly lived in a locationless world, nobody would use these things. But they do, and that speaks volumes.

(from Flickr user Irish Typepad)

If you've ever gone apartment hunting on Craigslist, you may have noticed a common theme across many postings. Every rental property on the market is 'close' to something. No landlord wants to post an advertisement for a property that is far away from shopping, restaurants, employment centers, etc. Of course, many of the advertisements fail to disclose the address of the property, much less describe the location in objective, verifiable metrics. Instead, these postings read something like: 10 minutes to downtown! or 5 minutes to such-and-such university! The 'time distance' is almost always exaggerated and usually farther away than it really is. If location didn't matter, the landlords would exclusively hype the quality of the interiors, or the kitchen appliances. Those things often seem of secondary importance.

Location still matters, don't let anyone try to convince you otherwise. If anything, the internet amd technology has made location more important than ever. The proof is all around us.

Iced Coffee Snobbery

Now that what felt like the longest winter ever seems to have passed, I'm starting to get back into drinking iced coffee. So are a lot of people, it seems; but I've been surprised how many people enjoy iced coffee even though they have absolutely no idea that it's made (or at least should be made) differently than hot coffee.

In fact, a lot of people honestly believe the correct way to brew a cup of iced coffee is to make a pot of hot coffee and then dump ice cubes into it. Aside from melting the ice immediately and severely watering down your drink - this method produces a cup of coffee that is sharply bitter and not pleasant to drink. Even if you brew hot and allow it to chill in the refrigerator, the result is the same. As a coffee snob, I can't allow people to go on thinking this is how it's done.


Last year Yglesias posted some pretty good instructions for brewing iced coffee. In my opinion though, his method can be messy and there's a simpler and better way of making this drink. Read on the see how I do it.

There's been a lot of chatter around the blogosphere since the NY Times ran with this article about the Labor Department's crack down on illegal unpaid internships. The reaction has been predictable. Liberals are proclaiming that it's "about damn time" while the libertarians are crying "socialism" and whining about the infringement on our right to work for free.

This all misses the bigger picture.

Internships are no longer about gaining objective experience. They are about obtaining more semesters/years/credit hours/whatever of experience than the next guy. The reason so many people do so many of them is not necessarily because they want to or because they care about learning something in their unpaid role. The dirty secret is that young people are taking unpaid internships because they are constantly being told that they need to pad their resumes with four or five internships before graduation in order to have a fighting chance at landing that entry-level dream job (or these days, any job). The more unpaid internships that each individual person does, the more social pressure that it puts on everyone else to do them. A classic race to the bottom.

(from Flickr user croncast)

The libertarians want you to believe that if organizations aren't allowed to have unpaid interns, all those awesome unpaid internship opportunities will disappear - a great catastrophe. The logic continues that without all these unpaid internships, college students will be screwed because they won't have all the necessary resume padding when it comes time to start the entry-level career search.

As long as we can reset our expectations, the fact that people will graduate with fewer internships won't matter.

When someone says the reason they are doing something, internship or otherwise, is because "it looks good on a resume," you have to seriously question what's happened. Something that's truly valuable would also look good on a resume, but the reason a person would give for doing it would extend well beyond the superficial benefit of "the resume." We've gotten to the point where people feel (rightly or wrongly) obliged to do things only because they think it's a necessary prerequisite to something they actually want to do in the future. Excessive unpaid internships are about as good an example as you can get.

Fly Through New York

Via Google's Lat Long blog comes this awesome 3D imagery of New York City.



This is seriously cool. One thing that intrigues me about tools like this one is the ability to explore a place you may want to visit before you show up. Being familiar with a new place before you go would definitely inspire more confidence among the visitors. Maybe some people will even go out who otherwise wouldn't have?
Today’s guest post is written by Melinda Urick. Mel runs Pursuit Writing Services and regularly blogs at Life, Liberty & Pursuit of Your Boyfriend. She has lived in Northeast Ohio for almost the entirety of her life. -Rob

I spent most of my teens and twenties bouncing around suburban Cleveland. I crossed the Cuyahoga River, living in properties ranging from an attic on the east side to a big side-by-side house on the west side. It wasn’t until my early 30s that I finally found a neighborhood in Cleveland that really fits. And the neighborhood was right under my nose the entire time – Downtown.

(from Flickr user Sideshow Bruce)

I grew up in Mentor. And even at an early age, I found this affluent east-side suburb incredibly dull and laden with pretentiousness. I knew it was NOT “better in Mentor.”

I've written a lot about public transit here at Extraordinary Observations and I like to think I've been a rather strong proponent for it. But lately I've been feeling much less enthused. The transit service cuts that I've personally experienced, along with riders from across the country, have left me feeling frustrated and defeated when it comes to the issue.

(from Flickr user mgarbowski)

It's now been almost a month since I've ridden public transportation. I've replaced almost all those trips by bicycling. I've found that biking around is ideal for short trips (less than two miles), usually the best option for medium-length trips (2 to 5 miles), and at least as (in)convenient as public transit for long trips (up to 10 miles).

I think what I liked, in principal, about public transit is that it's so cheap (compared to driving) and (in theory) gets me to the places I want to go. I don't have to worry about actually driving (a stressful activity, in my opinion) and I can read a book or a magazine as I'm ferried along to my destination.

Over the past month I realized that bicycling is cheap too - cheaper than riding public transit, in fact (assuming you aren't riding an expensive bike). And while I might not be able to read or write emails or sleep while I'm traveling from one place to another, I am exercising, and that's a form of multitasking about as good as any. I don't have to visit a gym. I don't have to schedule a workout into my day. I don't sit around at the end of the week feeling guilty because I've been "too busy" to exercise all week.

It's not that I don't still think that great cities need great public transit - it's that I've been left feeling disillusioned and fearful that many of America's major cities have hit a tipping point where it's going to be incredibly difficult to get to the point where they should be.
A friend of the blog posed this question to me recently:
Would you rather live in the suburbs of a big city (say, in New Jersey, 15 miles northwest of Manhattan) or the core of a smaller city (say, Downtown Kansas City)?
I think the answer is more complicated than a simple either/or. On-balance, my answer would be Kansas City. A neighborhood is the place were you spend the majority of your time. Being close to Manhattan is neat, but there's still a 15 mile buffer between you and the city. You might visit once or twice a month, but your experience will be limited to that of a 'weekender'. As I recently noted, being close to something 'by car' does not mean you will experience it the same ways that a true local does.

(from Flickr user jonathan_moreau)

But like I said, it's rarely so simple, and brings up another question I've been wanting to address: reverse commutes. In a tough recession, beggers can't be choosers. Maybe you find a job in the suburbs of a big city, say, 15 miles from its downtown. If you're like me, would it be better to live in the same (potentially uncool) suburb as your job? Or would it be better to live in a hip urban neighborhood and drive your car out to the suburbs and back every day.

In this case I would say that it's better to live in the suburb where your job is located. The reason is twofold. First, reverse commutes don't really exist anymore. The typical flow of cars into cities in the morning and into the suburbs in the afternoon is becoming a thing of the past. Now people are driving every whichway at all times of day, so the idea that you can avoid traffic is becoming a fallacy. Second, the added cost and stress that you take on by living far away from your primary responsibility (in this case, your job) refutes much of the benefit of living in a hip neighborhood. If you're exhausted every night from making a long commute, it doesn't matter how much awesome stuff you're coming home to in the evenings. Presumably, you're paying a big premium to live in the neighborhood with cool amenities, but if you can't take full advantage of them, then it might not be a good value.

That said, this is a highly debatable question. If you think about these situations as a fluid long-term phenomenon, instead of as a fixed period in time, then you're in a position to say, "sure, I don't love living and working in the suburbs, but my long term goal can be to find another job in a more ideal area and work my way in from there." At least that's how I would try to think about it.
Back in January I mentioned my desire to ride an Amtrak train sometime in the near future. Next week I'll be doing it. In fact, I figured I might as well take the opportunity to explore a few different modes of long-distance transportation in our country while I'm away.

(from Flickr user jpmueller99)

On Friday morning I'll board a Lake Shore Limited train in Cleveland. About 12.5 hours later (and hopefully on-time) I will arrive at Penn Station in New York City. The decision to pick New York as the destination was made easy by the fact that I won a free stay at the Affinia Manhattan back in the fall. Since hotel is actually a stone's throw away from the entrance to Penn Station, it felt like a sort of calling.

After a two night visit, I'll hop on a BoltBus in Midtown on Sunday night and travel 200 miles south to Baltimore. On Monday I'll take a MARC train from downtown Baltimore to Union Station in Washington for an afternoon meeting. By evening I'll catch a Southwest flight from BWI back to CLE. Of course I'll be using public transportation in all 4 cities. I may even hail a cab or two. As much as I'd like to bike around New York, I don't think I'll be able to make it happen this time.

Now for the bleg: I'm looking for interesting urbanist related sights and attractions around New York City. I saw all of the touristy stuff that I wanted to see during my last visit, so now I'm looking for the cool stuff that doesn't get featured in the guidebooks. I'm also looking for a recommendation on good crabs (for a reasonable price) in Baltimore. I'll probably only have time for one meal, so I'd like to make it a good one.

This will also be the first trip I'll be taking since I got a smart phone. In the past, I've planned out my trips ahead of time, set an out-of-office email and taken a break from technology for a few days. This time, you will probably have to deal with my stream of 'ordinary observations' via my Twitter if you subscribe.
I don't tell many personal stories here at Extraordinary Observations, but I felt like this one deserved attention. In a few weeks, Angels and Airwaves (one of my favorite bands) is playing a concert in Cleveland at the Tower City Amphitheater (or whatever the corporate-sponsored name the venue is called these days) . After work on Monday I took a walk over to the House of Blues to buy my ticket. I walked away empty handed.

(from Flickr user halofive)

The interaction went something like this:
Me: Hi. I'd like a ticket to Angels and Airwaves at Tower City.
Box Office Guy: Oh, sorry, we don't sell tickets to other Live Nation venues here anymore.
Me: Say what? Where can I buy a ticket?
Box Office Guy: Ticketmaster online.
Me: Is that my only option?
Box Office Guy: Pretty much, yes.
So I went online to buy my ticket. The face value is $20. The Ticketmaster fee is $9. That's a 45% premium, for those playing along at home. Like I wrote previously, this is exactly the reason why people hate despise Ticketmaster.

Of course, the U.S. government allowed Live Nation and Ticketmaster to merge into one giant evil corporation racket this year. Does the DOJ know that these shenanigans are happening? For as much as people talk about which industries treat their customers the worst, I don't think it's cell phone carriers or cable TV providers, I think it's the concert industry.
Until last week, I had no idea that this bike rack existed.


It's in the parking garage underneath Tower City in downtown Cleveland. It's in a section of the garage that, if the rack were not there, would nevertheless be inaccessible to cars. Tom Vanderbilt recently argued that lack of decent bike parking is one reason that more people don't ride.
...parking helps make commuters—a lesson long ago learned with cars. Studies in New York found that a surprisingly large percentage of vehicles coming into lower Manhattan were government employees or others who had an assured parking spot. Other studies have shown the presence of a guaranteed parking spot at home—required in new residential developments—is what turns a New Yorker into a car commuter. On the flip side, people would be much less likely to drive into Manhattan if they knew their expensive car was likely to be stolen, vandalized, or taken away by police. And yet this is what was being asked of bicycle commuters, save those lucky few who work in a handful of buildings that provide indoor bicycle parking. Surveys have shown that the leading deterrent to potential bicycle commuters is lack of a safe, secure parking spot on the other end.
I'd add that the fact that many people, bicyclists included, don't know things like the rack in the photo above exists, and that doesn't help. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if that's the main reason there were no bikes on the above pictured rack at the time I snapped the photo, because it was a very nice day and there were many bikes at the rack near my office.

Installing racks in parking garages seems like an easy solution. Almost suspiciously easy. One idea being kicked around in a lot of cities, Cleveland included, is a centralized bike center like the McDonald's Cycle Center in Chicago's Millennium Park. While I think bike centers have a lot of potential, I also think they could be expensive and not necessarily convenient to people's final destinations. A bicycle commuter in Chicago, for example, might have to walk an additional mile or more from the cycle center to her office in the Loop, depending on exactly where she works.

With bike racks in every parking garage, bicycle commuters can be confident that they can find a space in a secure indoor location and as close as possible to their final destination.

How do we accomplish something like this? Some would argue legislation - mandate that all parking garage owners install bike racks. My fear is that if the cards aren't played correctly, this could lead to backlash and opposition from motorists and garage owners, who would argue that people who pay top dollar for a downtown parking space are unfairly subsidizing cyclists (regardless of how true the claim is). I think the carrot approach might be more effective. Instead of raising money to spend on a centralized cycling center, local advocacy groups could buy bike racks and work with garage owners to install them. I'm confident that many parking garages have space inside that, due to the architecture of the building, cannot be utilized for any practical purpose. Even if it takes time for people to start using the bike racks, it's possible to point to an empty rack and say, "well, they couldn't do anything with the space, and it's not costing them anything."

Lastly, and this is key, bike commuters need to know where the good spaces are. I don't think a website with a bike parking directory would be unreasonably difficult to create. I've seen some pretty comprehensive directories for downtown car parking. If people don't know that these amenities exist, of course they aren't going to use them.

Right to Privacy

I've read a few blog posts recently about the shortcomings of privacy settings on Facebook. Some people don't like that you can't pick and choose which of your friends are allowed to write on your wall, or that you can't require approval for the comments, like here on this blog. Others don't appreciate incriminating photos of themselves being posted without their consent. There are many complaints, but I won't get into all of them. To me, this is all incredibly nit-picky considering that participation in Facebook is, after all, 100% optional.

(from Flickr user @superamit)

In fact, I'm a bit annoyed by the fact that there are so many privacy features. Does anyone remember the original thefacebook (notice the 'the' in front of Facebok)? Circa 2005? Back then you had to have a .edu email address from a school that has been approved for Facebook, and everyone from your school had full access to your profile, no questions asked.

I'm pretty sure that's exactly how Zuckerburg intended it. If I got anything out of Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, it's that one of the primary reasons Facebook was created was to make it easier for dorky guys like Zuckerburg to meet girls. That's the reason why you used to be able to do searches "by relationship status" and "by dorm" or "by course". With only a few clicks you could have a neat little list of all the single women in your dorm and in your courses. Pretty efficient, right?

That's all in hindsight now. The course schedule feature is completely gone. You can now restrict who can view and even search for your profile, even if they go to your school. The original intent of Facebook seems all but lost. Of course, now that Zuckerburg is a billionaire, he doesn't need Facebook to serve its original purpose.

The reason people demand all of these privacy features is because they're addicted to Facebook like a drug. If they were truly concerned about privacy, they would simply quit. But they can't - that's the power of addiction. See, if you were addicted to cigarettes and found out they were slowing killing you, the obvious thing to do would be to quit smoking them. Instead, smokers sue the tobacco companies and demand filtered or otherwise less toxic smokes. Maybe it's not a great analogy, but I think it gets my point across.
On Sunday, Cleveland’s RTA implemented across-the-board service cuts. The changes are pretty devastating, depending on where you live and how you depend on the service. In my opinion, Clevelanders will probably look back at Easter 2010 as the day public transit became hopeless and unsalvageable. Even among those of us who support it the most, it's hard to see any glimmers of optimism.

(from Flick user peterskim)

When the cuts were initially announced, I predicted that ridership would fall off a cliff. See… even if the same number of people ride RTA post-cuts (a bold assumption, I know) so long as they ride fewer times per week, ridership is going to take a hit in the chin.

This is exactly how I’ve responded. In the past two weeks, I haven’t ridden RTA at all… nor do I plan on riding it much this month. This is a huge change for someone like me who was consistently riding at least two or three times per week. Now, I use my bike to get to all of the places I want to go, even to the places where I could use RTA, because the service is now so poor that it isn’t even worth the effort of trying.

It’s a brutally vicious cycle because the next time RTA goes to make cuts, they will use poor ridership statistics to justify those cuts. The logic will go: people aren’t using the service, therefore we don’t need the service. Instead, the reality for many people is: I don’t use it because the service has been sliced so thin that it isn't worthwhile anymore.

Let this be a word of warning to cities that have sustainable, albeit struggling transit systems. People respond predictably to service cuts. If you don’t take control and maintain good levels of service, very bad things are going to happen. If the signs of declining revenue are evident, don't wait around, because before long it will be too late.

I've never been a Twitter booster. For all the hype, I could never really figure out the amazing value that people claim it offers. I guess my heart will always be in blogging; but I've recently concluded that local businesses can realize outstanding value through Twitter, if they play their cards right.

(from Flickr user NevilleHobson)

Now, all kinds of businesses have dabbled in the social media world, from start-ups to decades-old small businesses to Fortune 500 companies. But from my experience, it's the local businesses that are best positioned to take advantage of Twitter.

Why? Because when a customer interacts with someone from a local business on Twitter, they can go into that store or cafe or restaurant and a digital interaction instantly turns into an interpersonal interaction. This type of thing simply doesn't happen when huge corporations engage in social media - it can't. It's a matter of practically. If the person running the Twitter account is at the corporate headquarters, they won't be able to interact with customers in any other city. If the company is big enough, they might simply have too many customers in the headquarters city to ever interact meaningfully with them.

Nevertheless, I say that local businesses can capture value on Twitter if they play their cards right, because I've seen many that are simply missing opportunities.

My biggest pet peeve arises when I'm chatting with a local business on Twitter, and I have literally no idea who the person is typing on the other end. It's like I'm talking to the Great Wizard of Oz - the mysterious man behind the curtain. That's why I suggest that all businesses, large or small, should disclose, in their bio, the personal handle(s) of whoever is running the company Twitter account.

I think @SouthwestAir offers a perfect example of what I mean:
Bio: The LUV Airline! Airplanes can't type so @ChristiDay and @Brandy_King are piloting the Twitterverse!
And here is another example, from the interactive agency @Razorfish:
Bio: Global agency; this account managed mostly by @davidjdeal, @heathergately @crys4pr & @eunmac
The reason this is so critical for local businesses is because, when I go into a store or a cafe or a restaurant, I want to know whether the person I've been chatting with online is there. I don't really want to awkwardly ask which of the several employees may be the mysterious man behind the curtain. And if I end up buying something from the very person who I've been chatting with before I walked into the business, that's a huge missed opportunity from them to take that customer relationship to the next level.

Suburban Blight

The LA Times has an incredible article about the Willowalk development in exurban Los Angeles, which has been completely devastated the housing crisis (tip: Greater Greater Washington). Homes that were once selling for nearly half a million dollars are now appraised at a fraction of that value and panicked and desperate home owners are renting out the properties to low-income people with Section 8 vouchers.

(from Flickr user ifmuth)

I wrote about a similar issue recently. Suburbs, because of they way they were designed, will not be able to handle a demographic shift away from the middle-class and affluent to the poor and working-class. Even struggling cities, like Cleveland, have not been entirely devastated by blight because they are diverse enough to float through the toughest times.

If you need proof of what can happen to suburbs when things go wrong, look no further than East Cleveland, Ohio. This is the suburb where John D. Rockefeller and other millionaires once called home. Now, few will contest that it's the least-attractive part of the entire metro area. And it's nearly incapable of helping itself, because it has no tax based thanks to the high proportion of low-income residents. It's best hope is to be annexed by and become a neighborhood in Cleveland, but the city of Cleveland has little incentive to step in and try to clean up that mess.

Even more frightening is that East Cleveland isn't designed like the newer suburbs. It's very close to major employment centers and it has relatively good public transportation options. For suburbs that lack these features, once they hit their tipping point, watch out.