BRT and Bikes

I've written critically about Cleveland's BRT, the Healthline, several times in the past. My criticism still stands - there are things about BRT that simply make it worse than rail transit. However, there is one thing about the Healthline corridor that I'd been taking advantage my last year in Cleveland that deserves to be recognized.

(from Flickr user jeffschuler)

Even though my bike commute to work was 8 miles, it was a very easy 8 miles. The first half of the trip was through Cleveland Heights, were I was able to ride on secondary residential streets where there was very little traffic. The second half of the trip was down Euclid Avenue, where I took advantage of the vastly underutilized bicycle lanes.

During this 8 mile commute, I never had to maneuver around a bus.

This is the result of several factors. The first is that I was able to use secondary residential streets in Cleveland Heights. Unfortunately, such streets don't exist in many suburbs, because they are often opposed by residents who believe through streets will lead to heavy vehicle traffic. I can attest that this is an unfounded concern. The second factor is that bus service in Cleveland has been slashed and burned, to the point where there just aren't a lot of buses left out on the street. This is certainly not a good thing. The third factor is that the median stations and bus lanes on the BRT guaranteed that a bus would never cross the bike lane.

In both Arlington and in DC, there are many streets with bike lanes, which typically protect bicyclists from cars, but not from buses, which pull into the bike lane to load and unload passengers. For all that's wrong with Cleveland's BRT, I can now admit that, as a bicyclist, I took that corridor for granted.

Elevated Green Space

New York Magazine has a preview of the second phase of the High Line set to open in about a year. As an urbanist, the idea behind the High Line perplexes me. I walked the linear park when I was in New York in April and felt entirely underwhelmed.

(from Flickr user wallyg)

Perhaps the number one thing that I love about Manhattan is how completely walkable the city is. I'm yet to visit a city where a pedestrian can walk for mile-long stretches and feel safe, comfortable and among interesting surroundings. The concept of climbing a set of stairs, walking next to fake railroad tracks and shrubs, and then climbing down somewhere along the stretch is not particularly appealing to me.

Yes, this is a green space that exists in a city that is so dense that green space has become a hot commodity; but my experience is nothing like that of Central Park or even a small neighborhood park. High Line is a linear park, so there are no ball fields or basketball courts, you can't ride a bike up there, so aside from walking or jogging, there isn't a lot to do.

I don't think High Line is necessarily a bad idea. I just don't quite understand the hype.

Thoughts on Silverdocs

I love film festivals, so when I heard about Silverdocs, the documentary exclusive film festival in Silver Spring, Maryland, I got pretty excited. I made the trek from Virginia to Maryland last Friday night, and even though only had the opportunity to see two films, both were very good.

(from Flickr user Kevin H.)

This puts my experience from the Cleveland International Film Festival into perspective.

There was really a lot of excitement and buzz surrounding CIFF that I simply didn’t feel with Silverdocs. Maybe it’s because Silverdocs was out in Maryland rather than in the city; maybe it’s because it played at a theater with only three screens; maybe it’s because there’s so much stuff going on in DC that a film festival doesn’t dominate the local culture for its entire duration – I honestly do not know.

Both films I attended were on standby when I checked on Friday morning, but both screenings had empty seats. I seriously question if it makes sense for film festivals to hold so many tickets for standby. I understand that pass-holders need to be accommodated, but there has to be a more accurate way to predict how many of them will show up. More pre-sale tickets will put more people in the seats at these festivals. I am very confident about this.

One day I’d like to get out to Sundance or Toronto or one of the big-name festivals, just to see how they compare. Overall, Silverdocs was a very nice film festival, even if more low-key than CIFF.

Crime and Punishment

This distributing article appeared a few days ago and Streetsblog highlighted it last week. I copy and pasted the article here, making a few minor changes. My changes appear in red.
An 18-year-old Chicago man pleaded guilty today to aggravated battery with a deadly weapon for intentionally stabbing a random man in Brookfield in 2009 while drunk shortly after his friend allegedly stabbed another random man.

Cook County Judge Carol Kipperman sentenced Armando Reza to 10 days in the county jail followed by two years of intensive probation that will require treatment for alcohol abuse and a strict curfew.

Assistant State's Attorney Mike Pattarozzi said had the case gone to trial, the evidence would have shown that about 6:30 a.m. on May 31, 2009, Reza and a friend, Erik Fabian, 20, of Chicago, were in Brookfield wielding a large butcher knife.

Fabian was allegedly wielding first and purposely stabbed one man before they stopped and exchanged the knife so Reza could take a turn. A short distance from the first incident, Reza stabbed a 34-year-old Brookfield man, knocking him to the ground near Maple Avenue and 31st Street.

They were arrested a short time later. Reza's blood alcohol level was .158, nearly twice the legal limit, Pattarozzi said.

Neither victim sustained life-threatening injuries. Fabian, who is also charged with aggravated battery with a deadly weapon, is scheduled to appear in court Monday.

As Streetsblog reports, both attackers got off with essentially a slap on the wrist. If the crime had played out in the way described above, would the judge given a slap-on-the-wrist 10-day sentence? Would society shrug as these guys went right back to the street?

On Being Cheap

There's a a great episode in Seinfeld where Elaine describes George as "very careful with money" as a polite way of calling him cheap. This greatly offends George. There's still a social stigma to being cheap, but there shouldn't be.

(from Flickr user zingersb)

It ultimately boils down to this dilemma: you should typically spend no more money than what you have, but if you don't earn a lot of money, what do you do?

If you don't earn a lot of money, there are more-or-less two roads you can follow.

Road #1: be careful how you spend money, scope out deals, buy everything on sale, use coupons, buy stuff used, don't buy things you don't need, etc. In other word: be cheap.
Road #2: run up debt.

The other day someone told me that cheap people aren't any fun. The reason: sometimes people want to go out on a Saturday night and have a fancy dinner or throw a credit card at the bartender and not worry about it. Cheap people aren't likely to go for something like this. Even so, that doesn't mean cheap people never go out. They might go out during the week instead of the weekend to take advantage of good deals. Of course, as I've written before, that's socially faux pas as well.

Somehow, society has gotten this dilemma backward. There is a social stigma to road #1 but road #2 is completely normal, acceptable even. Maybe it has to do with the fact that being cheap is visible to everyone around you, but heaps of debt can be effectively hidden? You can be completely in debt but put on a big production that makes you look like a high-roller. If you're cheap, you just look cheap.
Straight Outta Suburbia has a great post about how backward the thinking has gotten toward parking and traffic violations in America:
Remember applying for jobs? There's often a question about criminal history that will read something like "have you ever been convicted of a crime except for a minor traffic violation?" I've decided I really hate the premise of this question. What is a "minor" traffic violation? I've got a new premise. If you're in traffic, there are no minor violations. Motor vehicles have the power to maim and kill. Accordingly, we should have a humorless attitude about the safety laws that apply to them.
On the topic of safety and humor. It's been an interesting week regarding traffic safety. First we got this Pew report which shows that adults text while driving at a rate higher than you'd expect. Then on Monday the front page of USA Today published a chart (no permalink available) that shows 'activities people have done while driving' - with the results as:
  • 72% - eaten sandwiches, burgers
  • 29% - kissed
  • 28% - sent texts
  • 23% - taken off clothes
And it's worth bearing in mind that these numbers are conservative, because people actually had to admit to doing them.

(from Flickr user poka0059)

What's worse is how many people describe these statistics as 'fun' or 'funny'. It's really not. People are effectively admitting that they are bad/dangerous drivers. And the worst part is that they probably think of themselves as good or excellent drivers, because thusfar they have multitasked in this way without negative consequences. As Tom Vanderbilt notes in his book Traffic, every time a person drives someplace and doesn't get into a wreck, it bolsters their confidence in their driving skill, even if they had close-calls that could have potentially ended much differently.

This suggests something important about traffic safety. Whenever there is a wreck, whether between cars, bicyclists, pedestrians, or whoever, it's immediately labeled and almost always later described as an 'accident'. But that's not always accurate, because an accident is something that happens ' without an apparent cause'. If someone is texting or changing clothes or eating food and then they smash into something or someone, that's not an accident; that's a wreck caused by the fact that the driver is not operating the vehicle appropriately.

Consider this: if a first-time driver went to the state BMV and in the middle of the final 'road test' started chomping on a sandwich or shooting off text messages, would the state officer deem this person competent enough to possess a drivers license?
I've read two interesting pieces lately about coffee, beer, and the struggling brands behind them. The first is this post from Doc Searls on Starbucks' announcement to offer free wifi at all of its stores (in case, like me, you haven't been in a Starbucks recently, apparently they still do not offer free wifi). The second is Eric Felten's article in the Wall Street Journal about how light beer sales have been sluggish lately, even despite the recession, which theoretically should boost sales of such products.

(from Flickr user Man in a bowler hat (Epzibah)...)

What both of these situations have in common is that the products are broken. Starbucks coffee is not good; light beer is not good. Yes, many people do and will continue to buy both of these things, but just enough people have stopped buying them that the balance is being tipped in the opposite direction. So even if you write these people off as snobs who are being haughty, losing them as customers is really hurting these businesses.

The other aspect that both of these situations have in common is that the brands are attempting to remedy declining sales with marketing and PR that don't address the root problem. Light beer commercials have never really had anything to do with beer, but these days they seem particularly pointless. Free wifi at Starbucks locations is something the company should have done long ago, but it does nothing to address the quality of the coffee.

I kind of like Eric Felten's suggestion. Wouldn't it be something if these brands pulled a Domino's Pizza and admitted that the quality of the product has suffered, but that they are committed to fixing that? It won't happen though. At least not by a long shot.

On the Oil Spill

I haven't really commented on the oil spill yet. I have a few thoughts, so I'll try to keep this post to-the-point.

(from Flickr user iampeas)

First, I keep hearing and reading statistics about how much oil is floating out in the Gulf. One of the more interesting numbers is that amount of oil in the Gulf is so great that it could power the entire U.S. for a few hours. A few hours? To me that says more about the insane amount of energy we consume on a daily basis than it does about the amount of oil that's been spilled.

Second, the fact that the oil spill has not really been reflected in the world market price for the commodity shows just how insignificant the spilled oil is having on global supply levels. This is important because it suggests how fragile the whole system is. Only a tiny fraction of the overall amount of consumed oil can have devastating economic and environmental consequences if something goes wrong.

Third, I've been hearing about people boycotting BP gasoline stations as a means of "voting with their dollars". These demonstrations are fruitless if the alternative is buying the same gasoline at an Exxon or Shell station. While BP is getting most of the bad PR, it's oil companies in general that are ultimately to blame. Transocean, the rig contractor that BP was using, contracts with many different oil companies. This incident could have happened to any of them.

Obsessed with Speed

I love how walkable and bikable my new home is; but I've got to admit that I'm still not entirely used to seeing so many other cyclists and pedestrians on my trips around town.

As I’ve noted before, I’m still pretty much an amateur when it comes to bicycling. I ride the used bike I bought five years ago (though I have replaced most of the components), I don’t own a single piece of spandex, a jersey, and I don’t ride particularly fast. Occasionally I’ll pass another rider who is poking along, but usually I’m the one being left in the dust.

(from Flickr user Vincent J. Brown)

I don’t ride outrageously slow – I usually average 12-14 mph on flat terrain. My ride to work is at an average speed of about 10 mph, but that’s including a slew of red lights that I stop for.

When I bike to work in the morning, I’m not trying to get a rigorous workout. I don’t feel like I need to go 25 mph and race to the office as fast as possible. I’m not entirely sure why other riders feel the need to.

The worst part, though, is attitude from bicyclists that make it seem like I’m inconveniencing or slowing them down. Bicycling should be an activity that anyone can participate in, not just those who own an expensive road bike and can zip down the street at high speeds. I know I’m only speaking of a minority of bicyclists here, but it's at least a little disheartening to see it from anyone.

Saturday Satire

This video has already gone viral, but if you haven't yet seen it - please take 3 minutes out of your day to do so. The folks at UCB Comedy have made a fantastic satire depicting a coffee spill at BP headquarters.



For what it's worth, I think UCB is one of the best comedy groups around. Seeing a live improv performance during my recent trip to New York City was one of the highlights of the weekend. If I lived in the city, I would seriously go to their shows all the time.

Oh, and more on the oil spill soon...

Identity Crisis

One of the best things I learned during college (or at least during the internships I did during college) was not to become a generalist. A much better strategy is to find something you can do best and specialize in it. If it works for people, it ought to work for businesses.. and yet, since moving to Arlington, I've found more places than I expected that apparently act as "jack of all trades, master of none".

There are coffee shops that also want to be gourmet restaurants and upscale bars. There are restaurants that try to be brunch-mecas on Saturday morning and the hottest dance club by Saturday night. There are bars that come across as laid-back places to watch sports during happy hour and attempt to transition into upscale lounges after sundown.

I feel like many of these places are mediocre at the few things they do and great at none of them.

(from Flickr user wallyg)

If I ever own a coffee shop or a restaurant or a bar, I want my business to be known as the best place in town for something; whether it's the best cup of coffee or the best wing night or the best tap of draft beer.

When I visited New York, I think what appealed to me about Williamsburg is that many of the bars around the neighborhood have some kind of gimmick. There's the place with the awesome 25-cent old-school arcades games; the place that gives you a free pizza with every beer; and the place that's known for its skeeball league. It's a business model I can get behind.

Lock Up Your Bike

This is from last year, but it's still a great video worth watching (similar videos can be seen here and here).



It's good to know these things, but it's also sad to realize how easily someone can take something that doesn't belong to them. Ultimately, bike locking is a question of deterrence. Any lock can be cut with enough time and effort, but a rational thief is going to target the easiest bikes to steal. Using a good locking technique doesn't mean a bike can't be stolen - it just reduces the probability it will be the one that gets taken.

What we really need is a lo-jack type system for bikes.

My New Car

I just got a new car. Well, it's not really mine per se... last week I signed up for ZipCar here in DC.

(from Flickr user Rakka)

I haven't actually driven any of the ZipCars yet, so I can't speak to what I like and dislike about the service. Honestly, I have a hard time imaging ever really needing to use it. I've got my bike available for most trips and so far it's been working just fine for me.

I think of the membership as a sort of insurance for those theoretical emergency situations that people talk about - when life absolutely cannot go on without a car... Based on my calculations, even if I drove a ZipCar for ten hours a month (which I certainly don't imagine doing) it would still cost less than owning my own car that sat in the garage and was never driven. That doesn't sound like a bad deal at all...

Parking Meter Technology

This is a parking meter outside my new office. It accepts coins of all value; and it takes credit and debit cards. I haven't really played around with one yet, so I'm not entirely sure what their capabilities and limitations are.


I love seeing this technology in place, especially after recently expressing my frustrations with technologically non-advanced parking meters.

I think this technology has a lot of promise. For instance, one thing that people hate about parking at meters is that you never know exactly how long you're going to need to stay parked. If you're feeding coins into the meter, inevitably you wind up either overpaying for time you don't use or not putting in enough change and getting a ticket. Even though getting a ticket is the worst case scenario, neither is particularly ideal. With the credit card technology, we could potentially charge motorists for exactly the number of minutes they spend parked in a particular space.

There are potentially other improvements to inefficient parking that these meters could provide, I hope to see more of them around the neighborhood soon.
It's been almost three weeks since I posted my analysis of college degree density. And to say that the post has gone viral would not be untrue. That said, the way the data analysis has been reported has not always been entirely accurate or fair. Interpretations are being drawn that I never intended to be made.

This is a ranking list, but it's not the type of best/worst of list that I've criticized heavily in the past. Instead, this is merely a sorting of data, with few subjective interpretations.

Thus, to call San Francisco the "smartest" city in America or Jacksonville the "2nd dumbest" city is an extrapolation of my analysis -not my conclusion. If these headlines offended anyone, please understand that media, particularly local media, wants sensationalist headlines, and this seems to have been an easy way for some of them to get them. Nowhere in my original post do I ever call or imply that any of these cities are 'dumb'.

There are college grads that live in all of the cities in my analysis and there are high school dropouts in every one of those cities as well. What a city like San Francisco has that a city like Oklahoma City does not have is a lot of degree holders living in close proximity to each other. The reason this matters is because many economists and urban theorists now subscribe to the belief that 'human capital' drives economic growth, and that collaboration among entrepreneurial people is valuable. That doesn't mean a city with low degree density is 'dumb' - it means that it isn't well positioned to take advantage of economic growth that stems from human capital.

Indeed, a degree is not synonymous with intelligence. We all know someone who graduated from college and has zero common sense or knowledge of the world. Some of America's greatest entrepreneurs were drop-outs. Unfortunately, short of administering an IQ test or asking for the SAT scores of everyone in a given city, their educational attainment is the closest and most widely available proxy we have to measure this variable.

There are significant flaws to my analysis that I'm willing to acknowledge. Comparing geographies is inherently flawed because geographic boundaries are arbitrary. The city of San Fransisco, for example, is 46.7 square miles (excluding water), New York City is 305 square miles, and Jacksonville is 767 square miles. Is it fair to compare these cities to each other given these constraints? Not entirely.

The better approach would be to draw a circle of equal size around the central business district of each city and measure the degree and population density in that circle. This is difficult for two reasons. First, because my GIS skills are rudimentary and would require a great deal of my time. Second, because the data is too highly aggregated and we wouldn't be able to get a good sense of specific neighborhoods and blocks until the release of the 2010 Census.

People have been looking at this analysis and asking: Who are you? How are you qualified to make these comparisons? To which I say that I honestly don't think it matters who I am. I believe degree density is a simple analysis using publicly available Census data and that I was simply the first person to actually put it together. It doesn't matter if a PhD economist or a middle-school wiz-kid downloaded the tables and formatted the charts because, ultimately, they would come out the same in each case.

People in cities with low-degree density need not be offended by the result of this analysis or think of their cities as 'dumb'. This is a false dilemma. Many of the blogs and news stories about my analysis either ignore or don't understand the importance regression and residuals components (parts 2 and 3 of the original analysis). Because degree density and population density are very strongly correlated, the explanation for why a city has a high or low degree density will almost always be answered with the explanation that city has a high or low population density. Which brings me to my last point...

If society values degree density, and from the responses I've gotten, it sounds like many people do, then the simplest strategy for achieving higher degree density is to increase population density. But are cities and the people that live in them willing to take those steps? Are we willing to move past the suburbanization and sprawl that has ravaged American metro areas for the past several decades?
Last year I wrote about my tepid enthusiasm for ebook readers like the Kindle. Now that the iPad is on shelves, people seem to be trying to convince me more than ever that I need to get with the times and stop reading paper books.

I do not own one of these devices, nor do I plan to buy one in the near future. But a lot of people are buying them, I won't deny that. They are buying these devices because they are doing a cost/benefit analysis that I believe is oftentimes incorrect.

(from Flickr user atmtx)

Consider this... if a hardcover book costs $20 and the ebook version costs $10, buying the ebook would result in a $10 savings per title. If the iPad costs $500, then after 500/10 = 50 book purchases, the iPad will be paid for, right? Not quite.

Books are an asset. When you buy a new book, you can do several things with it. You can read it. You can stick it on a shelf. You can rent it out. You can loan it out. You can give it away. You can sell it. The book may depreciate in value, but it will probably always be worth something. And the cash flow you can generate on your book depends entirely on how you wish to use it as an asset.

An ebook is different. Once you download it to your reader, it's been "consumed". You can't rent it out. You can't loan it out. You can't give it away. You can't sell it when you're finished reading it. So to say that buying ebooks results in a $10 savings per title assumes that once a hardcover book is purchases, that's the end of the story. Often, it isn't the end of the story.

And of course, we could get into questions of whether ebooks purchased today will exist in any form ten or twenty years down the line. We know that hardcover books will stand the test of time. Imagine if, two decades ago, publishers decided it would be a great idea to distribute works on 5-inch floppy disks. Would anyone still have those titles today? Would they have advanced as technology advanced? Nevertheless, I digress... because this is really another discussion entirely
I have a lot of pet peeves, but one thing that drives me absolutely nuts is the approach many people take to travel. Expectations have spiraled out-of-whack, to the point where an entire secondary industry has popped up so that people can nickel and dime and squeeze every penny out of their air fare.

There's really no reason to be surprised that airlines are charging extra for everything. People shop for fares by comparing the base fare and then buying the cheapest one. Airlines know this. They have to exploit it to get business.

(from Flickr user GHAVA)

In theory, there should be a lot more brand loyalty in the airline industry than there is. Flying is a pretty intimate experience for many people. It can make or break a trip. It can make for a great weekend away or it can ruin a vacation. The airline experience is crucial to many trips. I've written before about the reason why many airlines have poor customer service. It's a rational response to the knowledge that enough customers will return if the price is right.

So when the US Department of Transportation announced that it intends to require airlines to disclose all fees during the booking process, many of these same travelers praised the DOT. But it overlooks important points. Why do airlines oversell flights? Because so many people don't show when they're supposed to, and demand a refund, and it costs airlines money. Why do they charge for bags? Because people demand cheap fares, and airlines have to in order to sell tickets.

Ultimately, it's a race to the bottom. But what the DOT is doing shouldn't be called protecting customers. What DOT is doing changing the system so that customers can make the rational price comparisons that they haven't been able to make on their own. The rational price comparisons that may have avoided the fees and surcharges that people hate so passionately.

Road Rage

I've got to admit that I'm not really accustomed to aggressive drivers. Aside from my brief stint in Dallas, Texas, most of the motorists in the places I've lived have been generally calm. Now I'm back in a place where where aggressive motoring is part of the culture.

(from Flickr user WSDOT)

Why do people behave this way? I'm pretty sure one driving factor has to do with illusions of control. There are many people who believe that one of the great things about driving is the ability to feel "in control" of a huge two-thousand pound machine. To make it go faster than a human could ever possibly go on their own. To steer it in exactly the way that they want to go.

The problem is that drivers in many cities have virtually no control. Traffic lights get in the way. Construction gets in the way. Pedestrians get in the way. Police get in the way. Other cars get in the way. And this makes people angry, because automobile advertising has done its best to convince people of the incredible power that driving can. Problem is that it's often just an illusion. A dream that will never be fulfilled.

The Center of Ohio

Last weekend I visited Columbus. Much like my experience with Pittsburgh, I'd never visited before, despite living relatively nearby. This trip was a little different than most of my city-tour trips. Since I was staying with a friend of the blog, I was out in the suburbs, rather than downtown, where I typically prefer to set-up base. Some of my comments on Columbus may reflect that reality.

Don't Walk
Columbus is special in the sense that many of the neighborhoods in the city-limits would be suburban municipalities in other metropolitan areas. I stayed in Hilliard, which is technically in the city of Columbus, but certainly not an urban area. There are serious walkability problems. While the subdivisions do have sidewalks, many of the arterial roads that connect them to commercial activity do not. So while you can walk around the residential subdivision, you can forget about walking to anywhere you need to go. To rub salt on the wound, the subdivision where I stayed didn't even have street lights, so you could also forget about walking anywhere after dark.

Maybe this is the norm in suburbia and I'm just not used to it. It also reminded me of a fundamental flaw with tools like Walkscore, which calculates the distance between an address and amenities. Even though this particular subdivision gets a "car-dependent" label based on its score, that score is still inflated due to the fact that Walkscore doesn't know about the sidewalk and street light problem.

Feed the Meter
Because of where I was staying, driving was pretty much the only option to get down to Columbus's central city neighborhoods. We parked at a meter in the Short North neighborhood, and frankly, I was impressed. Most of the meters had cars parked at them, but there were a few open spaces when we arrived. Would that have been true if street parking were "free"? Probably not. The meters seemed fairly priced and had a 6-hour limit. The best part was that they accepted quarters, dimes and nickels, so if you have a pocket full of change but no quarters, you'd still be OK.

(from Flickr user Ryan Stanton)

I can't stop thinking about technology when it comes to parking meters. Will there be a day when we can put our phone number into the meter and get a call or a text 15 minutes before it's about to expire? Will there be a day when we can feed meters over the internet? I hope so.

Dead Zones
One problem I've experienced in a number of Midwestern cities, including Cleveland and Pittsburgh and now Columbus, is that there are walkable neighborhoods, but there are dead zones in-between them that make it awkward and uncomfortable to transition between them on foot. The dead zones aren't necessarily dangerous or unsafe, but they're dodgy. They have blank walls, closed business, and empty sidewalks.

In Columbus, I experienced this while walking between the Short North and University district. There is a stretch of N. High Street that simply isn't pleasant to walk. At least it's unpleasant enough to make us opt for taking the bus back to the Short North.

Walkable but disconnected neighborhoods present a dilemma for urbanisits. Yes, it's great to have walkable neighborhoods, but if there are dead zones between them, good transit needs to fill in the gap. Otherwise you wind up with a disproportionate number of people driving into the neighborhood, and then driving back out and on to the next neighborhood. This leads to a disproportionately high demand for parking spaces which in the worst cases destroys the very vibrancy that makes the neighborhood great.

I don't entirely blame people who drive everywhere in Columbus. The COTA bus system isn't very user friendly. I used Google Maps on my phone to determine which bus I needed to take to get back to Short North. It said to get on the #2. When the bus pulled up it said "2D High and Mound". For someone with no idea where High intersects with Mound, this information is essentially useless and not very confidence inspiring. I got on the bus and got to where I wanted to go, but I understand why people would feel iffy doing what I did.

Opportunities on High
Before I visited Columbus, someone told me that it's a very easy city to navigate because "everything is on High Street". While obviously not meant to be taken literally, there is some truth to the point. While there are buses and some "share the road" signs thrown up along High Street, the reality is that it's a corridor still basically owned by the cars.

Columbus is a city with a bus-exclusive transit system, but when it comes to thinking about light rail or BRT, the opportunities along the High Street corridor are enough to make most urbanists visiting for the first time drool.

(from Flickr user phxwebguy)

In my mind, I imagine a streetcar running up and down the length of high street, from North to South Columbus, at least, connecting OSU with the Short North and Downtown and German Village and everything else in between. I imagine bike lanes along the side of the road. Columbus is a great city for biking because the terrain is so flat. It's a shame to let that asset go to waste. Maybe my thinking is too idealist, but a well-designed project could easily transform Columbus is a greater city, in my mind.

Sister Cities
Ohio is rare in that it has three major cities and at least four other well-known secondary cities. Perhaps the best way I've heard the cities describes is as follows...

Cleveland has an east-coast feel. Similar to some of the gritty industrial cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore. Columbus is the quintessential Midwestern city, with ties to Chicago. And Cincinnati is certainly the most "southern" of Ohio's cities, with cultural similarities to some of the other cities in the south. Now that I've been to all of Ohio's cities, I've got to admit that there is some truth to this claim.
Dear Cleveland,

By the time you read this I will have already left for my new home in Arlington, Virginia. A few weeks ago I wrote about a few of the many things I'm going to miss about the Forest City; and because this will probably be my last Cleveland-focused post on this blog, I want to make one final plea... and I want to make it clear why people like me aren't sticking around.

(from Flickr user laszlo-photo)

Check the Attitude
Yes, there are many people with an awful self-loathing attitude. But it's more than that... I've often felt like there is an attitude that things are the way they and there's nothing we can do about it. I wrote about how frustrating it was last winter to ride my bike places and deal with the people who didn't understand how I could possibly do it or enjoy it. I wrote about how frustrating it is to watch so many people driving to my campus in their cars on the most beautiful spring day of the year. It's frustrating to feel the intense desire to live in a walkable urban place and feel like so few others feel the same way. It's disheartening to meet so many people with great ideas for Cleveland and watch how much they struggle to build any meaningful momentum for those ideas.

Bring in the Immigrants
Here are two facts: 1) Cleveland has a severe residential vacancy problem. 2) Cleveland has some of the fewest number of immigrants of major American cities. Maybe I'm thinking too simplistically, but these two issues seem neatly intertwined. Yes, I get it - most Northeast Ohio natives don't want to live in the city of Cleveland. The schools are horrible, there is crime, the suburbs are so leafy and so inexpensive. But Cleveland will never thrive as a donut comprised of suburbs. If locals aren't going to move to the city, maybe immigrants will. At least it seems worth a shot.

College Grads Need a Reason to Stay
Most Clevelanders will cite "great universities" as one of the region's greatest assets. It sounds great on paper, for example, to say that Cleveland has the #1 top rated school in the whole state of Ohio and some of the top-ranked universities in the country. The problem is that there are far too many people who come to Cleveland, study for four years, and then skip town. It's a vicious cycle that's made worse by the fact that people form social circles here, and as people in their circles start to break apart and people move away, it gives everyone in the circle less reason to stay. True, there are many people who go to college in Cleveland and they stay, because it's easier to stay than to go. But there are also far too many people, myself included, who haven't found that compelling reason to stick around when opportunity calls elsewhere.

Don't Assume Everyone is Coming Back
I've been told on multiple occasions that I will move back to Cleveland at some point in my life, probably when I want to buy a home or start a family, because I can get a fantastic suburban home outside of Cleveland for a fraction of a big city. Everyone in Cleveland knows somebody who moved to New York or Boston or San Francisco and hated those cities. How their friends hated how crowded those cities are. How they hated living in a tiny apartment. And so they moved back. Everyone in Cleveland seems to have friends that moved to Chicago and complain about how bad the traffic is and how expensive the monthly rent is. We need to be careful of falling into the availability bias trap. People who live in Chicago or live in DC and sing praises for Cleveland still live in another city. There's a reason for that, whatever it is, and we need to better understand the situation.

Farewell, Cleveland - It's been real. Best of luck.

Rob
Jamelle, a friend of the blog, writes about the link between obesity and the differences in grocery habits between low-income and high-income people. It's not surprising to me that rich people shop and Whole Foods and poor people shop where stuff is super cheap. It's also not surprising that the 'typical basket' at a Whole Foods has much healthier foods than the 'typical basket' at a Kroger.

(from Flickr user kalebdf)

Jamelle says one problem is that we overlook the challenge of food preparation.
...if there’s anything I’ve learned from watching my friends attempt to navigate the kitchen, it’s that cooking isn’t obvious. Unless you’re familiar with the basics of preparation and cooking, the act of taking a few ingredients — some cornmeal, a bushel of greens, an egg — and making a meal is mystifying. Poor people are simply less likely to have access to that kind of knowledge.
This basically describes me. If more than two or three ingredients are involved, I can't do it. It doesn't matter if I have a cookbook with exact recipes. It doesn't matter if I have a Youtube video to demonstrate - it's a skill that's lost on me. Maybe it would improve if I invested more of my time into the activity, but so far I have not.

Fortunately, food is only one side of the health coin. In the past few months I've been biking so many miles that I can basically eat whatever I want anyway, whether its a buttery grilled cheese I make at home or a plate of wings I order at my favorite bar.

In fact, one thing I noticed while biking everywhere this spring is that the activity is one primarily engaged in by hipsters, yuppies and hardcore cyclists. Yes, that's stereotyping, but I do it to point out that I see more well-to-do people, Whole Foods shoppers if I may, out in the bike lanes than I see low-income folks. In Cleveland, this is interesting, because the new bike facilities on Euclid Avenue cut through many of the city's lowest-income neighborhoods, but most of the people I see using the facilities use them for the same purpose as me: to cut from University Circle to downtown.

This is really too bad. Aside from the health benefits, more bicycling would reap significant financial benefits for people who need them the most. I can only imagine the reason that so few low-income people do it is a matter of culture. Whether education and other initiatives can change that culture is the question?

Bar Economics

After a months of delays and an incredible level of hype, the new Melt Bar and Grilled opened last week two blocks from the house I just moved out of. For as long as I remember I've always wanted to live "right across the street" from some wicked cool place, like Melt. For a week and a half, I did.


But I digress... I was able to visit twice before I moved. While most people obsess over the place because of the sandwiches, I think the bar, with 70 seats and 30 beers on tap, is the best of Melt's features. Actually, it's not just the variety and the diversity, it's the prices. Beer prices at Melt are some of the cheapest in Cleveland Heights, even for many of the microbrews. I'd guess that about half of the beers on the menu are priced at $3.50.

So my question is: why so cheap? I've heard a few competing theories on this question, which I'll discuss below. If the owner of Melt wants to set the record straight, I welcome his comment. Until then, it's mere speculation.

Theory 1: Beer prices are kept low in an attempt to appease people waiting for a table. Melt has become someone notorious for long wait times for tables. Unfortunately, the Cleveland Heights store is in a bit of an urban wasteland - not particularly far from other destinations, but not so close that most people would leave and go walk to them. Why not grab some beers while waiting for the table? People don't like feeling like they're being gouged because there is no place else to go, so maybe Melt uses inexpensive beer to make people feel better about waiting 2 hours for a table?

Theory 2: Beer prices are priced low because Melt makes big profit margins on their sandwiches. I think this seems plausible to people who don't know much about the restaurant industry, but from what my research has turned up, drinks almost always have higher margins than food. That's not to say Melt isn't making any money on the sandwiches, but those sandwiches are very labor intensive compared to drinks, and I think that eats heavily into the profit margins.

Theory 3: The beer prices are set at the point that maximizes the bar's revenue. For those who remember Econ 101 from college, this is the point at which the marginal cost and marginal revenue curves cross. The idea here is that high prices will lead to fewer sales but more revenue per sale while low prices will lead to higher sales but less revenue per. At the profit maximizing price, the bar sells just the right number of drinks to make the most money possible. Maybe Melt's seemingly low prices are simple the result of this?