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Showing posts from April, 2010

Transportation Around America

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 frien…

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 exper…


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.

(photo by Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

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-somethi…

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 …

Escalator & Elevator Culture

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 …

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 ext…

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 simp…

Location, Location, Location

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 ma…

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 …

Unpaid Internships: Race to the Bottom

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-leve…

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?

Journey from Suburbia to Central City: One Blogger's Story

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.”

My Dying Love for Public Transportation

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 …

Big City Burbs or Smaller City Core?

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 b…

The Ultimate Planes Trains & Automobiles Trip

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 S…

Live Nation's Ticket Racket

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 peo…

A Simple Solution to Bike Parking

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 th…

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'…

Death of a Transit System

On Sunday, Cleveland’s RTAimplemented 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 plac…

Twitter Works for Local Businesses

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 th…

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, f…