Washington DC Bleg

It's less than a week before my move to Arlington, VA and I don't want to waste any time getting to know the Arlington or DC once I arrive. So I am reaching out to you, my readers, for help with finding some of my favorite types of places. For what it's worth, I will be living in Ballston and working in Courthouse. Please leave a comment or email me if you can help out!

(from Wikipedia)

Coffee Shops
This can really be broken down into two categories - where to get the highest quality cup of coffee? And the best cafe to go to hang out, write blog posts, or meet up with a friend.

Wing Night
Who has got the best wing nights in town? I've been tipped to a few places with all-you-can-eat specials, but I am more a fan of the 35-cent per wing deals, as I typically am not gluttonous enough to make the all-you-can-eat worthwhile.

Games and Trivia
Are there any good trivia nights? Game nights? Or leagues of any sort?

Solo Happy Hour
For those evenings when you don't want to sit around the house, but you can't find anyone who wants to join you for a beer, where can you go and not feel totally isolated?

Indy Movies
I know about the Landmark E Street Cinema. Are there any other indy theaters? Or even just worthwhile mainstream movie theaters?

Everything Else
Is there anything worthwhile in DC that I may have simply overlooked because it doesn't exist in smaller cities?

Don't Be Stupid

The other day Unsuck DC Metro posted a cell phone camera photo of a guy who decided his suitcase was more deserving of a seat on a crowded train than another human being.

For the past few years, the advice being peddled to the masses is to be careful what you say on Facebook, because you never know who might see it.

(from Flickr user Angelina :))

In the next few years, that advice might change. We might start having people telling us to be careful about doing anything in public. Between cell phone cameras, Twipic, YouTube and everything else, the world might always know when you do something stupid.

Cities of Tomorrow

I really hope that the American city of tomorrow will look very different than the typical American city of today. I actually have some optimism that it will. I don't have a whole lot of evidence, but I do have a theory.

First, watch this video that has been getting a lot of play on the urbanism blogs lately. It's footage of "rush hour" in Utrecht, Neterlands.

A lot of people will look at this video and say that, while nice, it will never happen in an American city; and the reason it will never happen is because Americans don't want to behave like that or that they can't for XYZ reasons.

At the same time, statistics often tell a different story, like this:
According to the Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey, 25 percent of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40 percent of all trips are within two miles of the home, and 50 percent of the working population commutes five miles or less to work.
With numbers like that, we might expect a lot more people to be out on bikes. Maybe not to the extent that they are in Europe, but to some extent greater than the status quo.

Some of the difference is political - tax policy and subsidization, for instance. But much of it is culture. Car culture is very strong here. Very strong.

So why am I optimistic? I was recently talking to a retired guy who was upset that he can't smoke in bars and restaurants in Ohio anymore. "Did you know," he began asking me, "that we used to smoke in the senior cafeteria at my high school? Everybody was doing it back then. Nobody cared." I actually didn't know... but I'd heard that people used to smoke on airplanes and in college classes and places you can't even imagine doing so now.

In the past few decades there has been an incredible change in the culture. Fifty years ago people probably never would have predicted across the board smoking bans. They would have looked around and said "everyone is doing this and everyone likes doing this. It won't change." And really, that's very similar to what I hear about car culture today.
Yes, I am one of the lucky members of the class of 2010 who graduated with an entry-level career on the table. That's not to say it wasn't hard or that the past few months have been all fun and games. I spent countless hours working on applications. I traveled hundreds of miles on my own dime for interviews. I wrestled with discouragement. I skipped going on vacation for my last spring break of college in order to focus on my job search.

(from Flickr user jeremy.wilburn)

If you are expecting me to give you a dozen bullet-points about what I learned in my job search, sorry, you won't find it here.

There is really one thing, above all else, that I learned in my job search: everyone who is a recruiter, job-seeker, HR-manager, or has ever had the responsibility of hiring an employee has an opinion about the "right way" to go about the job-hunt process. But in reality, there are an infinite number of "right ways".

Yes, there are some very obvious dos and don'ts when it comes to finding a job. Don't go into an interview poorly dressed... don't lie on your resume... etc. These can basically be summed up as: DO be a good candidate, DO be polite and personable during the process, an DON'T be stupid.

It's the little stuff that nobody seems to agree upon.

On cover letters... some people believe they are vital and that a good cover letter can make or break whether you get called for an interview. Other people say they're pointless, that few recruiters read them, and that the resume itself says everything an employer needs to know about a candidate. Some people say cover letters are absolutely necessary, and that your application will get shredded if it doesn't have a cover letter.

On video resumes... some people say they are an outstanding way to stand out from the crowd and demonstrate creativity. Other people say they are creepy and too much. Many believe that it doesn't matter because recruiters don't have the time to spend watching them.

On follow ups... some people advice to follow-up within 24 hours of an interview. Others say never follow up before 24 hours. Some say to send a hand-written thank you note. Others believe email is the route that needs to be taken. Some recruiters believe following-up shows initiative and only people who follow up get offers. Others will claim that people who follow-up are annoying and are eliminated from the candidate pool if/when they do.

On social media... some people love it, other people hate it. Some recruiters use it religiously and believe it is the number one best way to interact with people. Others fail to see any value and believe job-seekers ought to get off the computer and get on the phone or out to networking events.

This list could go on and on. The point is that as much as we want there to be, there is no silver bullet. Every hiring person is different, they all have different tastes and preferences, and they are apt to believe that they way their recruit is who job-seekers should cater to.

In the end, so much of job-seeking is a calculated gamble. You might think you're doing everything right and still feel discouraged if things don't turn out. Every job opening, recruiter, and hiring manager is unique. To believe that there are universal "job-hunt secrets" is a matter of unfairly getting your hopes up. Using common sense is probably the best, and most obvious, job-hunt secret.

Car-Free by Choice

When I move to Arlington,Virginia next week I will be car-free... "by choice"! (cue dramatic and scary music). A few people have already commented on my decision to be car-free "by choice" so I want to really dig into what this actually means.

(from Flickr user superciliousness)

On the surface, it's simple. Being car-free "by choice" means that, given my income, I could probably afford to buy, license, fuel, maintain, park, and insure my own vehicle; but I'm not anyway.

The reality is much less cut-and-dry. As fellow blogger Patrick occasionally points out over at Walkable DFW, there are two ways of thinking about this question, and both depend entirely on context.

On the one hand, a person could say something like, "I sold my car and now I have lots of extra money and I can afford an awesome uptown/downtown apartment. Awesome!" Or, on the flip side, a person could say, "I can't afford an uptown/downtown apartment, they are very expensive. So I found a place out in the suburbs, but it's OK, since I own a car I can drive to all the places I need to go anyway."

In both instances, the question of "affordability" is raised. In the first case, the person can't afford to own a car but has a great apartment in a great walkable location. In the second case, the person can't afford a sweet apartment, but has a car. Both of these people have made some sort of sacrifice; but it's typically the guy with the sweet apartment and no car that people pity. He is the guy who is seen as car-free "by choice" for some sort of ideological reason; even if the reason is highly practical.

The cookie-cutter advice I've gotten from "financial planning professionals" is that you shouldn't spend more than 33% of your after-tax income on housing. That means that if I hypothetically earn $40,000 per year, after tax I might have about $30,000 and the max I should spend on rent per month is $825. In a city like Arlington or Washington, this isn't enough to get you a place in most of the desirable neighborhoods. But it's also misleading, because it assumes I'm also paying to own a car. If I'm not, then I have a decent chunk of change left-over. Why shouldn't I spend that on housing?

The way we should think about this question is to determine a person's combined housing + transportation costs and then say that maybe they shouldn't spend more than 45% of after-tax income on that basket. When that's the case, I can afford to spend a lot more on housing so long as I can keep my transportation costs to a minimum. In fact, that's exactly what I plan to do. Why is that so crazy?
Update: December 4, 2010
An article published by the Huffington Post and posted on Yahoo News reports that I find "7,000 degrees within 7,000 square miles" in the Bay Area. This is simply not true. As the post below shows, I find that the city of San Francisco has slightly more than 7,000 college degrees per each of its roughly 47 square miles.


Update: June 10, 2010

If you arrived here via a link or news story that claims that this is a ranking of cities "from smartest to dumbest" please see my follow-up post. These headlines are misleading, incorrect and jump to unfair conclusions about my analysis. In no way do I endorse the conclusion that having a low degree density makes a city "dumb".


Original Post: March 23, 2010
It's becoming increasingly accepted that there is real economic value to bringing a lot of smart and entrepreneurial people together in the same place. This can be tough to measure, unfortunately. Perhaps best proxy we have available is educational attainment - usually measured as the number of people in a particular place with bachelor's degrees or higher, as reported by the Census Bureau.

I have seen this done in two ways. The first approach reports the proportion of college degree holders in a particular city. Usually, college towns like Austin, Texas and other stereotypically "brainy cities" like San Francisco and Seattle do well. The second approach looks at the raw number of people with bachelor's degrees in a particular city. Using this approach, big cities usually do the best, as they should. New York City has a huge population, of course many of its residents will have college degrees.

Both of these approaches have flaws. The theory that there is economic value to having smart people together rests on the assumption that smart people collaborate with each other. You could have a whole bunch of smart people in one place, but if they don't interact with each other, what's the value?

That's why I propose we start using educational attainment density, measured as college degree holders per square mile. I went ahead and collected and analyzed the data; and I've broken the results down into four sections.

Part One: Clusters of Smart People

I started compiling the data when I discovered a problem: there is no reliable report on the land area of metropolitan areas. It could be pieced together using the OMB's definitions of metropolitan areas, but that would have taken forever, and I simply don't have the time to invest.

Instead, I compiled the data at two geographic levels: first at the city level and second at the "urban county" level. I realize that comparing these geographies is not always entirely fair. That's why I'm giving away the spreadsheet with all of my work to anyone who wants to build upon this analysis (download it here).

I picked these cities by looking at the 50 largest metro areas by population and pulling what I deemed to be the "primary city" from each. In two metro areas, the Twin Cities and Bay Area, I pulled two "primary cities".

At the city-level, college degree density breaks down like this:

(click to enlarge)

And at the county-level, it looks like this:

(click to enlarge)

Note: New York City is excluded from the county-level analysis because I had a really difficult time determining its urban county components.

Now, you can look at these graphs and say, "this merely reflects the overall population density in these cities" and you would be on to something...

Part Two: Predicting Degree Density

If we regress degree density on population density we estimate a positive and statistically significant correlation result. At the city-level:

(click to enlarge)

And at the county-level:

(click to enlarge)

An interesting extension is to use a residual analysis to see which places have a higher or lower degree density than the population density predicts.

Part Three: Who's Doing Better or Worse Than Expected

First, at the city-level:

(click to enlarge)

Essentially, what this means is that Nashville has more than twice as many degree-holders as its overall population density would predict. Detroit has less than half as many as its population density would predict. And Columbus and Cincinnati have about as many as we would expect.

Again, at the county-level:

(click to enlarge)

Part Four: Degree Sprawl
Of the cities and county pairs analyzed, population density is always higher (or the same) in the central city than in the urban county. However, in several cases, degree density is higher in the urban county than in the central city. These cities include:
  • Louisville (113 fewer degrees per square mile in the city)
  • Cleveland (108 fewer degrees...)
  • Oklahoma City (26 fewer degrees )
  • Jacksonville (13 fewer degrees...)
  • Nashville (19 fewer degrees...)
  • Indianapolis (7 fewer degrees...)
This data suggests some level of "degree sprawl" in these cities, where college degree holders and sprawling out into the suburbs rather than staying in the central city. While further research would be helpful, this preliminary result is particularly worrisome if you believe that metro areas need strong central cities and strong central cities need a lot of smart people.
I had a pretty irritating discussion with someone recently who wasn't keen on the urbanist lifestyle. From his perspective, the motivation behind walking, bicycling, and living in a dense places is purely ideological. To this person, the only reason why someone would choose to do these things is because they believe such actions are necessary to save the planet.

(from Flickr user Fran├žois Hogue)

Eventually, the discussion devolved, until it got down to him making arguments like:
You call yourself an urbanist but you fly on airplanes? hypocrite. You eat meat? hypocrite. You rent a car and drive places occasionally? hypocrite. You buy packaged food? hypocrite. You ride on elevators in tall buildings? hypocrite. You buy electricity off the grid from corporations that burn fossil fuels? hypocrite.
If I were claiming to be an environmentalist, then I might be experiencing some cognitive dissonance; but I'm not. Urbanism is about more than the environment. It's about improving quality of life. Riding my bike everywhere means I can be mobile, stay in shape, and eat whatever I want. Living in a dense neighborhood means I can have tons of amenities right outside my doorstep. If it turns out that I have a smaller carbon footprint than the person ten miles down the road living in McMansion suburbia with three SUVs parked in the garage, great! But it's not my primary motivation.

Most evidence will show that good urbanism is better for the environment than sprawl (some CATO publications will argue otherwise, but that's a story for another day). But the environment benefits are a side effect of good urbanism. Urbanism alone is not the cure for the environment. If anyone tries to argue otherwise, I simply try to point out that the argument is a straw man fallacy and try to move the conversation to something meaningful. I'm not sure what else I can do, honestly.

Foursquare Etiquette

Foursquare is one of these things that I like some of the time and hate the rest of the time. I've written about it before, mostly to demonstrate that the internet is making location more, not less, important than ever. That said, I witness the spirit of Foursquare being violated day in and day out. I've been biting my tongue for a while, but I'm at the point where I need to say something. I know there are many who agree with me on these questions, and an outspoken minority that doesn't. Before commenting to tell me I'm wrong, please hear me out...

(from Flickr nan palmero)

Foursquare Etiquette Tip #1: Don't add or check into your home.
When you click on someone's Foursquare profile, it tells you a few key statistics, first of among them are a person's "total nights out." This reflects the fact that Foursquare's creators intended the app to be used as a social tool to let you're friends when you're going out. Checking into your home is exactly the opposite, alerting people when you are staying in.

Aside from that, adding your home to the Foursquare database makes it incredibly annoying to find the venues that people actually want to check into. When I open Foursquare the first few results are for venues like "Tom's Crib" and "Jack's Pad" and "Casa de Mom". I've always thought Foursquare should be linked to a more reliable source of venues, like Yelp. But alas, it isn't - please don't fan these flames.

Foursquare Etiquette Tip #2: Don't check into your place of work.
This is going to be a point of contention, I know because tons of people are doing this. But part of the spirit of Foursquare is to encourage people to be repeat visitors of business and aspire to be the mayor. The whole value behind mayorships is to reward the person who visits more than anyone else. People take these things seriously, believe me. So consider this... what if the bartender at your favorite watering hole checked in everytime she has a shift? Or the barista at your local coffee shop? or the cashier at Target? You get the point.

I know what you're thinking... "I work in a cubicle farm and our customers don't come into the office." In this case, does the business have clients or other visitors who do come by? Even in the rare instance that it doesn't, what's the point of checking into your place of work anyway? What does it even mean? That the mayor takes fewer vacation days than everyone else?

Foursquare Etiquette Tip #3: Don't check into places that you are only "passing through" and places that aren't interesting.
You know the people who are mayor of like, 37 venues? It usually seems impressive until you actually look at the list of places where they are mayor. The quintessential example here is people checking into gasoline stations. Why? Seriously, why? I'm yet to hear a good justification for checking into a Shell station. If Foursquare is a tool to inform your friends where you are so that they might decide to come meet you there, checking into mundane and uninteresting places does not accomplish that goal in any way.

There is a really simple litmus test to determine whether you are checking into a worthwhile venue. Consider whether, in the pre-social media days, you would have called or texted a friend and asked them to come hang out with you at a particular place. If the answer is yes, then go ahead and check-in. If the answer is no, then what's the point?
It seems like a lot of people have been taking the "car free challenge" lately. You know, the one where they park the car in the garage, bury the keys in the backyard and see if they can survive everyday life for a whole three months or something... I know, their intentions are good, and it's something substantial to point out to skeptics; but something about these challenges rubs me the wrong way. I don't think they do a great job of demonstrating what car-free is all about.

(from Flickr user Phinzup)

Honestly, the car-free challenge reminds me of something like this... some really overweight, out of shape guy who hasn't exercised in years decides he wants to do fifty push-ups in a row - a daunting task, given the circumstances. So he starts working out a little, doing some training, and at the end of a few months, he succeeds in his goal, and thus proves that there is hope for any of us who want to be able to do fifty push-ups.

What this scenario ignores is that there are plenty of people who can already do fifty push-ups and more without any trouble at all. Similarly, the "car free challenge" makes the baseline assumption that it's impossible to live without owning a car; but it ignores all of the people who do it everyday without the need to document every minor hardship.

The car-free challenge is entertaining. Documenting real-life car-free people would be downright boring.

Plus, these challenges fail to demonstrate the biggest benefit to car-free: the financial savings. Yeah yeah, the person taking part in the challenge doesn't buy gasoline for a little while and reaps some savings. But most are still paying for insurance, they paid to license the vehicle, and even a car sitting in a garage (with a few rare exceptions) is depreciating, albeit at a slower pace than one being driven all over.

Perhaps most importantly, these challenges are misleading. The rules of the game typically stipulate that the participant can't drive at all during the challenge period. The whole spirit behind car-free isn't that you never drive anywhere, it's that you don't own a car. There's nothing wrong with renting, borrowing or sharing a car and plenty of car-free people do just that.
Last year I wrote about why I started carrying cash with me most places I go. It's not that I never use my credit or debit card - I just don't use them for small purchases, like those under ten dollars. A few weekends I witnessed an incident that made me think that more people ought to operate this way.

I was in a hole-in-the-wall kind of place looking to grab some quick food. The woman in front of me ordered something and the total came out to about five dollars. When she tried to pay with plastic, the cashier pointed to a hastily made "cash only" sign on the wall and told her she couldn't use a card; at which point she became verbally hostile and said something like, "people don't carry cash anymore! Don't you know this is the 21st century?! How do you expect to make any sales if you don't take credit cards?" Ironic, of course, because there was a line of people behind her with cash ready and in-hand.

(from Flickr user maury.mccown)

It seems like we've gotten to a point where the big banks have effectively convinced a significant proportion of American consumers that it's the responsibility of merchants to accept credit and debit cards for any purchase of any size, under any circumstance, and they owe it to us under the guise of "convenience". What most of them also probably don't realize is that such an attitude contributes to inflation, and the "convenience" comes at a cost that we all pay for.

Consider this... the first year I lived in a college dorm, there was a big controversy (by dorm standards, anyway) about how much electricity and heat was being used in the building. I don't remember the exact monthly bills that were cited, but they were ridiculous. When the university's housing department kindly asked people to shut down their PCs at night and turn off the lights and TV when they went to class, many students responded by saying "screw you, I pay so much money to live in this dorm that I'm going to be as wasteful as I want to be." The attitude ultimately became self-fulfilling. One reason it costs so much to live in the dorm because utilities are so expensive, and because it costs so much, people are content with being completely and utterly wasteful.

I'm not suggesting that people ought to use cash for every purchase they make; but for the small ones, if people were willing to pay cash, because it's the right thing to do, we all would actually be better off.
Fellow blogger Matt left a comment last week about some potentially burdensome transit cuts in DC and Maryland.
...if Metro gets its way, come September 30, my bus ride is going to increase by 15 minutes. Not because I'm moving, but because Metro is making my bus route longer to compensate for a different one, which they are cutting. Well, actually to be more precise, they are eliminating the direct route and forcing me to change to the indirect route, which they are making even more indirect... The practical outcome will be for me to switch to bike on any day when it does not rain or snow.
The scenario he explains is essentially the same as the one I described back in April, and it's the reason why I quit riding public transit in Cleveland and switched almost all of my trips to bicycle.

(from Flickr user el swifterino)

Here's the reality: all public transit agencies are facing some sort of financial crisis. You need to look no further than T4America's crisis map to see that the problem is not isolated to a few struggling cities. It's easy for people to think this is an isolated problem because most people only ride public transit in a single city; but the problem is undoubtedly widespread.

Some ships have already sunk while others are quickly approaching the tipping point. Whether or not a system becomes devastated or survives these tough times will have a lot to do with its constituents. In cities where a large proportion of professionals and other well-connected and outspoken people use transit, or at least understand its value, the fight will push on for longer. In cities where the "transit is for poor people" attitude reigns, the well-connected people with enough clout to do anything meaningful will just throw up their arms, say "get a car" and move on with their lives.

In cities with both bus and rail service, bus service will be hardest hit - again, because of the constituents that use buses vs. rail. Is it fair? Is it equitable? That's a debate for another time. But it's politics. And ultimately, that's what matters.
In case you've missed the chatter over at my Twitter feed during the past few weeks, the news is in: I have accepted a job in the Washington DC area which I will be starting in June. More precisely, I'll both be living and working in Arlington, Virginia.

As far as this blog goes, I plan to continue to write here at Extraordinary Observations with roughly the same frequency and on mostly the same topics. That said, the blog will become more DC-centric and I probably will have few, if any, posts about Cleveland. Frankly, I feel like there is some intellectual dishonesty to writing authoritatively about a place from a thousand miles away.

As most readers know, I'm a big fan of cities, density, urbanism, and everything that goes along with it. For as much as I talk about it, I haven't yet had a good chance to completely experience it. This seems like it should be as good an opportunity as any to do that. Both Arlington and Washington look like excellent cities for bicycling, and I can't wait to hit some of the area trails and check out some of the weekly group rides.

I'm not going to be that person that says I couldn't wait to get out of Cleveland or that I couldn't stand anything about the city. At the same time, I'm not going to be that person who moves to Washington and then writes an op-ed about how much I wish DC were more like Cleveland. Indeed, Cleveland is a city of gems. I know for a fact there are things I am going to miss. Among them...

The best coffee. Ever.
I started regularly going to Phoenix Coffee when I got a part-time job downtown about two years ago. Every morning before work I would run in and buy a cup of the good stuff before heading up to my office. It wasn't long before I was hooked. There is simply no better coffee in Cleveland. When I moved to the Heights, I started frequenting the Phoenix locations in that part of town.

After I met Carl and Sarah Jones, the masterminds behind the company, my loyalty was forever sealed. One of my biggest fears is that I won't be able to find coffee as good or cafes and friendly as I've gotten used to at Phoenix. I'm willing to admit that I've been ridiculously spoiled when it comes to coffee for these past two years, and the hundreds of dollars I've spent there has been well worth it.

The best libraries. Ever.
I read a lot of books, but I buy very few of them. That's been possible because Cleveland has awesome public libraries. The main downtown Cleveland Public Library, aside from being literally a stone's throw from my office, also owns an incredible collection of books, and if another library in the system has a book that I want, it usually only takes a few days to have it delivered to any other library within the system.

(from Flickr user LouisL)

That's not even saying anything about the Heights library near my home, which has the best A/V department I've ever seen, very reasonable hours, a "quiet room" that actually lives up to its name, and is a great place to work. These libraries consistently win national awards because they really are the best of the best. I'm really going to miss these them.

The best microbrewery. Ever.
There are a lot of craft breweries across America, but there's something about the Great Lakes Brewing Company that stands out in my mind. Not only do they make a product that's typically better than most of the competition, they are located in Cleveland's urban core and essentially function as the central destination in what has become one of the best neighborhoods in the city.

(from Flickr user potatoknish)

Of course, like anything that's truly good, distribution of GLBC products has grown immensely over the past few years. They now distribute in the Washington, DC market, as luck would have it; but there's something about it that just won't be the same. Not knowing that the source of Christmas Ale is just around the corner in November and December. Being able to order a Black and Gold without people asking, "what's that?" The Great Lakes Brewery is truly a gem.

Casual dress codes.
This is a point of contention. Some people don't like that Cleveland has such a casual attitude toward its social gathering places. Some people believe there is a time and place to be casual, but when out in public people should dress and act formally if they want to be taken seriously. Some people believe the casual attitude that exists suggests an "I don't care" attitude in the city. I couldn't disagree more; and I have a feeling it will be a challenge to adjust to DC-culture in this respect.

Cheap. Everything.
My rent is only $400 per month. I can see awesome movies (independent or mainstream) for only 5 bucks on Mondays or 6 bucks on Thursdays. Every night of the week there is a sweet nighly special happening somewhere in town. I can eat 40-cent wings on Monday, $4 personal pizza on Tuesday, 10-cent tacos on Thursday, and very tasty sushi rolls for $3 every day of the week. Even the fancy restaurants (of which I've visited too few) have prices that I could probably afford on an entry-level salary.

Ultimately, the reality is that Cleveland still has many a lot of issues and problems that need to be dealt with. The metro area is badly sprawling, the public transit system is crumbling, and brain drain is undoubtedly occurring (and yes, a finger can be pointed at me). There are still a lot of self-defeating attitudes that are far too mainstream.

Some people have already assured me that I will be back when I'm looking to buy a home or start a family. Perhaps... but it's hardly guaranteed. I just hope that if I ever return to Cleveland, I return to a better Cleveland than the one that I'm leaving.

Coffee Cup Branding

My new goal in life is to own a coffee shop. There, I said it. It's a goal that's pretty far off, if it ever happens at all. Since I can't implement my own ideas now, I will have to stick to criticizing those of other independent coffee shops. I've been visiting a lot of them lately, you know, to gather intelligence and such. Also because I really like good coffee.

One thing that I don't understand is why a coffee shop will serve its to-go coffee in a plain white paper cup with a generic brown sleeve.

(from Flickr user Ingorrr)

I guess I understand why they do it - white paper cups are cheap, probably the cheapest cups on the market. But branded cups seem like a no-brainer when it comes to advertising. Even if a coffee shop does no other marketing, having customers walking around with branded cups, having branded cups sitting on customers' desks, etc. is a sure-fire way for a local coffee shop to get its name out there.

Plus, I'm fairly confident, even if people refuse to admit it, that coffee-drinkers prefer to walk around with a branded cup of coffee rather than a plain white cup. While coffee is primarily about the drink itself, there is some element of culture that goes along with it. People who drink Starbucks believe it somehow fits with their personality. People who drink coffee from a mom-and-pop shop probably feel differently. In that sense, branded cups don't just serve as an advertising vehicle, they also reinforce what customers believe about coffee in relation to their personality. In an industry like coffee, the best customers are the returning customers.
You know how they say you should never buy a house if you haven't been there at night? The same logic should be applied to commuters. To some extent it is; but there's often a missing element.

(from Flickr user ohad*)

People freely choose to make long commutes because it never seems that bad at first, especially when people are trying to convince themselves that it really isn't that bad. But any commute, and it doesn't matter if it's alone in a car, on a bus, a train, bicycle, or whatever... over time, it becomes tedious, boring and repetative. There are traffic problems, weather problems, mechanical problems; and the longer the commute, the more these problems are likely to ruin a person's day. There eventually become many days when people wish they could be instantly transported home at the end of the day.

The decision of whether to make a commute is always made in the time before the commute becomes a regular chore, when it never seems that bad no matter how bad it really is. Once the decision is made, reversing it is extremely difficult; and people don't, they just make the new long commute the new default, and the benchmark against which all future commutes are then measured.

Smart Parking Meters

When urbanists think about parking meters, we typically think that they are necessary to correctly set the market price for parking in a particular urban area. Many of us also think that people who gripe about them simply don't want to pay, and that they don't understand why metered parking makes spaces more accessible when they might otherwise not be. Admittedly, I used to think this way.

(from Flickr user CascadeFoto)

My thinking changed last weekend, when I was out for lunch with a friend of the blog. This person was perfectly willing to pay for a metered parking space, but was aggravated by the meters anyway. Why? Because the meter had a maximum time of 1-hour. After an hour, one of us would have to run out and put more quarters in the meter, a highly inconvenient proposition, even though we were completely willing to pay.

I'd go a step further and say that for people who think they can beat the system and avoid getting a ticket, or who believe 'free parking' is a god-given right deserve any parking ticket that they get. But there is another subset of people, those who simply forget the time at which their meter expires, or intend to run out but lose track of time, or have a pocket full of pennies but no quarters, then get an expensive ticket and then curse the whole phenomenon of metered parking. It's this second group of people that we should think about.

This is an instance in which technology really could be the answer. Meters could be installed with a technology linked to mobile phones so that all payments could be made online automatically. Maybe a person could tell the meter how much time to give them and then pay a pro-rated rate based on the time they use. They could have the option to automatically add more time once the meter expires. Maybe they could set it for an indefinite period of time and pay for all the time they used whenever they return. For the people who don't believe in technology, the meters could still accept quarters and dimes.

It may seem over-the-top now, but in a year or two it might not. After all, it was only a year or two that smartphones even started plaing a significant role in people's lives. Now there are smartphone apps that do things so incredible even I am routinely amazed.

Weather Forecasting

Ever since I started riding my bike regularly, I went from being a casual weather observer to someone who watches the weather like a hawk. If I've learned one thing, it's that weather forecasts are wildly unreliable, so much so that I hardly look at forecasts at all anymore.

(from Flickr user kamoda)

If you watch the weather on television or look at it online, you can typically find a 7 or a 10 day forecast. They usually land in the ballpark when it comes to temperature, but when it comes to precipitation, they barely get it right a few hours in advance, let alone a few days in advance.

That's not to say that Doppler and other radar technologies haven't improved how we understand weather - they have. But they are really only good at telling us what precipitation is happening at the current moment, not necessarily what's going to happen at some point in the future.

For that matter, Doppler technology is really not very complicated to understand in its most basic form. Most people with any level of intelligence can look at radar video and understand what's happening. For a bicyclist, like myself, having weather radar on my phone is pretty much all I need to know whether I'm going to get rained on during a ride or not.

This ultimately begs the question: what value do college-trained meteorologists really provide in understanding weather?
Last weekend a friend of the blog and I ventured 130 miles to east from Cleveland and visited Pittsburgh. In the spirit of other trips I've made to various cities, below is a recap of the visit and a few of my thoughts. Believe it or not, I'd never really spent any time in Pittsburgh (I have gone to Kennywood Park, a fantastic amusement park and way better than the corporate mega-parks in Ohio) so this was a pretty new experience for me.

This post makes a lot of comparisons between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. People often tell me it's unfair to compare Cleveland to Chicago or New York because they are very different places. But how about Pittsburgh? They are metro areas of roughly the same size... they have very similar historic economies (manufacturing)... and they share a similar climate. I'd say that's fair for comparison.

Let's Go Downtown.
Downtown Pittsburgh is legit. It's geographically compact, there are pedestrians and there is some semblance of streetlife even outside of the workday.

(from Flickr user macwagen)

The casual visitor might not notice, but one thing that makes downtown Pittsburgh different from downtown Cleveland is parking. Much of the parking in Pittsburgh is owned and operated by the Pittsburgh Parking Authority, a municipal agency. Much of the parking in Cleveland is owned and operated by private individuals and companies, and the result is that Cleveland has a lot more awful and wasteful surface lots and garages in the central city than Pittsburgh does.

Take a Walk
Pittsburgh is walkable, except when it isn't. On Friday night we ventured across the 10th Street Bridge over to Pittsburgh's South Side neighborhood. I've been trying really hard to come up with a neighborhood in another city that has a similar feel and character, but I'm coming up with nothing.

(from Wikipedia)

When you're walking down East Carson Street, you'd think that the neighborhood is extremely walkable, with crowded sidewalks pedestrians everywhere. But if you venture even as little as one-block off the main drag, you are instantly in a sketchy, unwalkable part of town with no pedestrians, empty sidewalks, and blank walls all around. The same is true in the Strip District, the other neighborhood we visited during the weekend. Stay on Penn Street up to a certain point and there are people everywhere. Venture a little too far to the east and bam! everyone disappears.

Pittsburgh suffers from a few other walkability flaws. The terrain is extremely hilly, so in certain places, that can be a challenge, and the street grid (or lack thereof) is one of the worst I've seen in any city. Pittsburgh might just be the most confusing city to navigate that I've visited. For what it's worth, I imagine that these features also make Pittsburgh challenging to bike.

Local Business Culture
I love the fact that Pittsburgh has so many unique local businesses. And I'm not just talking about bars and restaurants, which most cities have in abundance. There are locally owned retail stores and groceries and sidewalk vendors. Businesses that basically do not exist in Cleveland.

(from Flickr user nooccar)

I wish I could have visited more of Pittsburgh's local businesses during the weekend, but I will have to save that for a future trip.

Urban Amenities
On the flip side, Pittsburgh has certain urban amenities in the city limits that Cleveland does not, and which few people in Cleveland could conceive of existing outside of the suburbs. By that I means that Pittsburgh has at least two downtown department stores (a Macy's and a Saks) and a Whole Foods within the city limits.

In Cleveland, you need to travel away from downtown to get to any of these places. I grew up believing that such places couldn't exist in the inner-city and that's just the way the world works. It's nice to see a city of similar caliber to Cleveland prove that notion dead wrong.

Missing Transit Links
Pittsburgh has a light rail system, 'the T' but where does it go? It didn't really connect to the Southside, and it didn't at all service the Strip District, the two neighborhoods we visited. It also doesn't go to Shadyside or Oakland, the next two neighborhoods that locals recommended we visit.

(from Flickr user Emdee (Maryland) Guy)

I'm disappointed that I didn't get to ride the T, and I know, only a huge urbanism/transit nerd would say such a thing. It seems clear, though, that light rail in Pittsburgh serves a rather specific purpose and connects only a select few neighborhoods. In this sense, it's very similar to the rail system in Cleveland.

We did ride two Port Authority buses, and for the most part, the experience was very meh. Another thing to add to my list of grievances against buses is that it's very difficult to determine exactly where they are going, and there were no maps to help us figure it out. In both instances, we simply hopped on a bus that said "Downtown" on it and hoped for the best. Few visitors (even locals) are willing to do such a thing.

Closing at 4:00 PM
We visited the Strip District on Saturday around noon. The whole neighborhood was bustling with people. Sidewalks were overflowing, businesses were packed with customers and restaurants had lines stretching down the street. We left and came back around 5:30 and it was like an entirely different place, I could barely believe my eyes.

Many of the businesses were already closed. The restaurant where we wanted to eat had been closed since 4:00. For a neighborhood that was able to pull such an incredible number of people during the day, it was disappointing to see it closed for business by late afternoon.

Final (Uncategorized) Thoughts...
In Pennsylvania, you can still smoke indoors in some places (I don't know the exact details of the law) including a number of places that we visited. This is a big thumbs down to Pittsburgh and thumbs up to Cleveland. And yet, at the same time, Pennsylvania has such strict liquor control laws that you can't even buy beer or wine at a Whole Foods. Irony? Hipocracy? I don't know...

There were tons of people walking around in Steelers gear, even though it isn't football season; but I didn't see a single Pirates shirt or cap. I know the Pirates are notorious for being a losing team, but I didn't realize people in Pittsburgh cared that little about their baseball team.

I liked Pittsburgh. It's a nice city. In some ways it's better than Cleveland, in others, not so much. But the real distinguishing characteristic that separates Pittsburgh from Cleveland is the vibe that things are getting better, not worse, in the city, and that people really enjoy living there.
This week I hit one-thousand miles of bike riding, at least since I started keeping track on DailyMile last November. In one respect, this is a post to commemorate a milestone in my bicycling career. In another respect, it's to explain why I've ridden so many miles in the past five months.

(from Flickr user arkiss)

Almost none of my miles have been purely recreational, or in other words, all thousand miles have been accumulated because I used my bike to get from one place to another.

The reason I've biked so many miles in the past five months is because I live in sprawl.

True, my neighborhood is relatively dense, in theory. If you divide the number of people living in University Heights by the square mileage of the city, it comes out to more than 7,000 people per square mile. The problem is that the zoning regulations are egregious. It's not possible to walk out of my door and then to a store right around the corner. For a lot of things, it's not really easy to walk - but it is generally easy to bike, and so I have.

These miles add up quick. How many people tack 15,000 miles onto their car and then at the end of the year wonder how they did it even though they didn't use the car for any cross-country trips? The same idea exists here.

Now, most people who live in my neighborhood cite such sprawl as evidence that the "need" to own a car and drive it everywhere. I don't see it the same way, obviously, but I am confident that if I lived in a denser or mixed-use development, close to school and work, that I would have biked about half as many miles as I have. Or, at least, that recreational miles would have made up a much larger proportion of the total.

Making Dessert

Last weekend was my roommate's birthday, so I went ahead and made a plate of cupcakes for her. In fact, I only made half of the number of cupcakes I could have made from the mix I bought.

I don't do a lot of baking, or cooking of any kind for that matter, so I was surprised when I went to the supermarket buy the items to make the cupcakes and realized how cheap it all costs.

I made cupcakes, but the same box of cake mix could have made an entire cake. Besides the mix I also needed oil, eggs, water and frosting. Here's how the cost breaks down:

Cake Mix: $0.89
Frosting: $1.27
1 Cup Water: Virtually nothing
Three Eggs: $0.75
1/3 Cup Oil: $0.30

Total cost: $3.21. And again, this is for a whole cake. How many healthy meals are out there that can be made for this little money? If you need any more proof of how screwed up the public health priorities are in this country, look no further than this.
I attended my second Phoenix Forum yesterday (you can read my recap of the last forum with Carl Jones here). There was a great turnout and the discussion was very intriguing. I can't say enough good things about the Phoenix Forum series. But alas, this is a post about a few points that Terry Schwarz brought up during the discussion (for background on her work, see here).

Suburbanizing the City
Schwarz brought up the fact that some of the most 'urban' developments in Cleveland are happening on the suburban fringe, in the form of 'lifestyle centers.' At the same time, suburban big-box developments like Steelyard Commons are getting dropped from the sky right into the inner-city. I'm a vocal critic of lifestyle centers, and while I haven't written specifically about Steelyard Commons, I've always felt disappointed that the same stores couldn't have come to Cleveland in the form of a mixed-use development. I have a really hard time with this. I understand where the supporters are coming from, but it also feels like we've made a concession, thrown in the towel, and admitted that they city can't do any better for itself.

The D-Word
An interesting point to consider when it comes to struggling cities and neighborhoods isn't 'why are people leaving', but rather, 'why is there anyone left'? Schwarz noted that even the worst, most run-down, overwhelmingly blighted neighborhood in Cleveland still has 1200 people living in it. This isn't as complex as asking 'why does anyone still live in Detroit'? because leaving one neighborhood for another is much simpler, in theory. Schwarz thinks struggling neighborhoods should be deregulated to the point where property owners can essentially do whatever they think would turn the neighborhood around. There's definitely some compelling arguments in the case that outdated zoning laws and other regulations don't allow for the types of recovery in neighborhoods that they need.

Tough Love for Public Transit
I asked whether transit-oriented development (TOD) is possible in Cleveland. The response was hardly optimistic. Schwarz cited two examples of TOD in Cleveland right now: Ohio City and Shaker Square. While I agree that Shaker Square is an example of what can be done, I'm under the belief that the Rapid station in Ohio City didn't cause the development in the neighborhood, but rather that it coincidentally happens that there is a Rapid station two blocks from the gentrification. This is really a dismal outlook, because it seems that we've accepted that, in shrinking cities, transit just won't play the role that it does in bigger/growing cities. It will exist as a welfare service, to shuttle around the urban poor who don't own a car, but it won't exist as a social service, catering to all those who populate a place.
This is the fourth and final post in the Ultimate Planes, Trains & Automobiles Trip series.

As you may know, every time I visit a city I try to post a few observations when I return home. My recent trip to New York City was no exception. This was my second trip to New York, you can read my previous thoughts here.

Hello, Williamsburg
On Friday night two friends of the blog and I took the L-line subway over Williamsburg. I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. By some accounts it's a fantastic gentrifying neighborhood; by other accounts it's a place overrun by annoying hipsters. While I enjoy a good cup of coffee and other nerdy things in life and I dislike big corporate chain places, I'm hardly a hipster by New York standards. That said, the three of us had a lot of fun in Williamsburg.

One thing I like about Williamsburg is that there are so many great venues, and many of them go out of their way to be unique in some way. Just look at Barcade, quite possibly the coolest place I've been in New York. They have tons of unique beers on tap and old-school video games that only cost a quarter. Where else can you find a place like this?

(from Flick user theleetgeeks)

It also seems like a plethora of Williamsburg bars and cafes have weekly trivia competitions. One bar has a skeeball league. It's the kind of thing that makes me look at the place where I live and wonder, why can't we have things like this back home?

Honk! Honk!
On Saturday night we were walking down one of Manhattan's streets when a couple hailed a cab. The cab stopped, and a luxury car pulled up behind it. Immediately the motorist started honking obnoxiously for the couple to hurry up and get in the cab. Now, there is no doubt in my mind that the motorist's honking caused the couple to move more slowly than they otherwise would have. And the longer they took to get into the cab, the more the motorist honked. Why people can't realize that the world does not revolve around them and that aggressiveness is often retaliated against, even passively, is beyond me.

Cost of Living
Ask anyone who doesn't live in New York about the prospect of living there and they will tell you the same thing nine of out ten times: it's too expensive, only the richest of the rich can afford it. It's the kind of attitude that might lead you to believe that the majority of people hanging around New York City at any given time are bankers, lawyers and doctors. Of course, you only need to spend a little time walking or take a ride the subway to realize that New York is an incredibly diverse place with a wide range of people living there. That's not to say it isn't expensive. That's not to deny that some of those people benefit from rent-control and other benefits. But to say that it's impossible for a regular person to live in New York is highly debatable.

New York is also a city that has more cheap food than just about any other city where I've been. From papaya dogs to thin-slices of pizza to bagels to hole-in-the-wall dives, it's possible to eat for cheap in New York without going out of your way.

(from Flickr user wallyg)

Now, I'm not saying this is the kind of food you want to eat all the time, and I won't deny that it's some of the unhealthiest stuff out there - but it is there.

Spacial Dimensions
I overheard an interesting conversation while I was sipping coffee on Saturday in the West Village. A woman was telling someone about a friend who was moving to New York. She wanted this person to move to the Village, where she lived, but the friend wanted to sign on an apartment on the Upper West Side. The concern was that the distance between those two neighborhoods was so great that the two friends would rarely see each other.

Now, there isn't more than a few miles between those neighborhoods, but the perception was that it was a significant distance. Some would argue that it's merely a question of time. Because New York is dense and congested, it takes a long time, to travel the five miles between the neighborhoods. If you ask people in another city, they would probably say that two points five miles apart are actually very close; and the reason is because it takes very little time to travel.

I just don't buy that line of reasoning. Between the subway and taxis, travel in Manhattan doesn't take as outrageously long as some people suggest. Furthermore, ask someone in a congested but sprawled out city like Dallas or Houston whether five miles is close or far, and they would probably say close, even though it takes forever to travel the distance.

The key, in my opinion, is the perception of how amenities are distributed in a city. If everything a person needs: grocery store, restaurants, dry cleaner, coffee, nightlife, friends, etc. is within blocks of their apartment, then they take that to be the norm, and anything more than a few blocks is considered far. Wheras someone who has to travel many blocks or miles to get to those amenities perceive that to be the norm, and things within a similar radius is considered close.