Skip to main content


Showing posts from July, 2010

Smart Parking Meters, In Real Life

For all the griping that I've done about the primitiveness of parking meters, it looks like San Fransisco is about to roll out smart, variable-pricing meters throughout the city.

(from Flickr user Jeff.L)

Planet Money has the details:
The system will use electronic sensors to measure real-time demand for parking spaces, and adjust prices accordingly. When there are lots of empty spaces, it will be cheap to park. When spaces are hard to find, rates will be higher."It's basic supply and demand," Shoup said.The range in prices will be huge: from 25 cents an hour to a maximum of $6 an hour, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority.It will definitely be interesting to see how this plays out. If it's successful, it will function as much-needed evidence that Donald Shoup's theories on parking work outside of the halls of academia. It should also highlight the unexpected consequences, of which there are certain to be at least a few.

Recently I&#…

Sharing Car Sharing

A friend of the blog recently presented me with an interesting idea. What if two or more ZipCar members could share a single ZipCar reservation?

(from Flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

Imagine a scenario like this: three roommates want to make a big shopping trip to Target or Costco or anywhere, really. They plan to borrow a ZipCar to get there and to haul all of their new stuff back home. Under the current arrangement, one of them would make the reservation, drive the car, and get billed for the time. What if, instead, they could all jointly sign onto the reservation, and the billing would be split into thirds and charged to each member?

It’s more than just a question of billing. Having joint reservations would mean that any of the ZipCar members could drive the car, not just the single person who made the reservation. This might not be particularly valuable for short trips to the store, but for longer Zip Trips, where switching drivers every once in a while would be a welcome change of pace, t…

The Story of Facebook

I was at the movies last weekend to see Inception when I caught this trailer before the film.

When I heard some of the dialogue I immediately knew that this was going to be a movie based on Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires. I think Ben Mezrich is a very good storyteller. I think his books are incredibly entertaining; they are the definition of 'page turners'. And at the same time, that's the problem - I've never read a biography by any other author that reads the way Mezrich's books do.

It doesn't help that in a preface to The Accidental Billionaires, Mezrich discloses that his primary source for the book is Eduardo Saverin, a character in the story who has a lot of reason not to be fond of Mark Zuckerburg. Maybe Mezrich's interpretation of the story is realistic, maybe it's not. But I wouldn't be surprised if it wasn't entirely accurate.

There's also the inevitable problem that occurs when books turn into movies. With a singl…

The Rise of Intercity Buses

Graham Beck has an excellent article in the current issue of Next American City about the rising popularity of inter-city bus service, the industry's not-so-rosy history, and the challenges it faces as demand for the service grows.

(from Flickr user Cher's Passion)

I've ridden these buses a few times now, and while the experience hasn't been amazing, it wasn't anything to really complain about either, especially for the price I paid. Really, I think the key to understanding why people are responding to inter-city bus service so positively is to look no further than the price of bus travel.

If I wanted to travel from DC to New York City, without driving, I would have essentially three options: bus, train or plane. The problem with traveling by plane is that I'd have to get to the airports, which isn't the easiest thing in these two cities. The buses and the trains offer a one-seat ride to and from essentially the same central locations (downtown DC and midtown …

Apartment Rentals

The Guardian has a nice article about a law in New York, passed this weekend, which bans what legislators call 'illegal hotels' or 'no-tels'. The article doesn't make entirely clear who this legislation will benefit, but it makes it clear who it will hurt: budget-conscious travelers and the New Yorkers who cater to them.

(from Flickr user Stillframe)

This paragraph strikes me as particularly odd:
The bill blames the internet for the rise of illegal hotels, stating that "it is easier than ever to advertise illegal hotel rooms" and "most tourists have no idea they have not made reservations at legitimate hotels until they arrive at their destination". Sites such as AirBnB – which has more than 3,000 properties listed in New York City - maintain they make it very clear that these are residential properties.I've looked on both Craigslist and AirBnB, and I never even once suspected that short-term apartment rental listings were actual hotels. N…

Food Trucks, Flea Markets and Urbanism

There seems to be a whole lot of 'food truck trackers' in DC these days. Personally, I've never eaten at one of these fast-food restaurants-on-wheels, but they seem sufficiently popular among the white-collar professional crowd.

(from Flickr user Mr. T in DC)

When I lived in Dallas, Texas a few years ago, I remember seeing lunch trucks stocking up on daily supplies every morning at the 'Supermercado' across the street from my apartment. For the most part, these trucks filled a specific void in the lunch market - delivering fast, cheap food in mostly ethnic neighborhoods that lacked good neighborhood restaurants.

DC's lunch trucks seem different. They serve a diverse variety of food, from pizza to cupcakes to Vietnamese sandwiches. They park on streets where office workers are concentrated, mostly downtown. They cater to people who don't necessarily lack lunch options.

From an ubranist perspective, these trucks are interesting. I'm sure the cost of obtaining…

Amentities Aren't Everything

The Urbanophile has a very good post up about the implications for Cleveland in its post-Lebron state of being. The post is only minimally about James and actually more about the problems that Cleveland has attracting any new people to the city.

(from Flickr user dchrisoh)

Renn's premise is that Cleveland has pinned it's hopes on "big things" that have generally been a failure in attracting new blood to the city.
Conversely, a real migration problem is that too few people are moving in. As [Cleveland] attorney Richard Herman noted, “New York City and Chicago, like most major cities, see significant out-migration of their existing residents each year. What is atypical is that Cleveland does not enjoy the energy of new people moving in[...]

Cities need new blood. Cleveland isn't getting it. Its circulatory system is shut down. Cleveland needs more natives to leave and more newcomers to arrive. Both sides win. Those Cleveland departees will move on to be part …

The Cupcake Economy

Jacob Goldstein has a great post over at Planet Money about the cupcake economy. He predicts it’s a bubble that will soon pop.

(from Flickr user chotda)

I agree with Goldstein that it’s hard to see how the market for gourmet cupcakes will be able to sustain itself in the long-term. Now, I don’t agree that it’s necessarily a fad and one day people are going to simply quit buying cupcakes. Instead, I imagine what will happen to gourmet cupcake shops along the lines of what happened to Starbucks.

The cupcake market will continue bobbing along until the next recession hits, when people will look at their budgets and realize that they’re spending an absurd amount of money on cupcakes. People will step back, examine the situation and say, why am I paying five-dollars for a single cupcake when I could make two-dozen of them at home for the same money?

Part of the market will shift to homemade cupcakes, part of the market will shift to fast-food restaurants. McDonalds and Dunkin Donuts may eventu…

Exploring Cities

Yesterday night I went and checked out the Bicycle Film Festival here in DC. I only saw one film, Urban Bike Shorts, and I found it to be really well done. I originally sat down to write about the festival, but I didn't feel like there is a lot to say. Instead, I want to touch on my favorite short from the film, "Toyko to Osaka" the story of a group of guys who make a bicycle journey across Japan.

The idea behind the short film is that transportation has too often become a question of two points: the beginning and the end, with everything in the middle just filler. But what happens in the middle doesn't have to be meaningless, it can be a journey, if that's the experience we want.

When it comes to exploring cities, I'm convinced there are few better ways of doing it than on a bike. There is value to exploring as a pedestrian, but by it's very nature, such exploration would take a long time to accomplish.

(from Flickr user adamlerner)

I know that in the past t…

Quality Blog Readership

A friend of the blog emailed this article to me last week. It's the story of how Gregory Levey got hundreds of thousands of people to become a fan of his book's Facebook page, even though the vast majority had never read nor had any intention to read his book.

The whole scenario is fascinating for many reasons. It shows that something can go viral on the internet for the completely wrong reasons. It shows that herd mentality is extremely powerful. And it shows that the quest for the most readers, fans, or subscribers may be vastly overrated.

I have a pretty modest but loyal following here at this blog. Occasionally I'll have a post that gets the attention of some big shot bloggers. I usually see a spike in traffic but it always comes back down after a while. I used to be disappointed by this. Now I've realized there isn't reason to be.

(from Flickr user The Life of Bryan)

Levey's story suggests that having a lot of readers or subscribers is a lot less valuable than…

Visiting Cities

I like to visit cities. And I think most people would probably agree that they enjoy visiting new cities. But the cities we often visit are highly skewed by size. Bigger cities attract more visitors under the belief that they have more going on, and more stuff worth seeing and doing.

Every time I express interest in visiting a smaller city, one that's not one of America's top ten by size (think New York or San Francisco) or known for being a tourist destination (think Las Vegas or Orlando) I get the inevitable question response: why?

(from Flickr user sagarmohan)

When people look at a smaller city and say "there's nothing to do there" or "there's nothing going on there," what they typically mean is, "there isn't an abundance of cheesy touristy stuff there," to which I respond, who cares?

From my perspective, small cities are often ideal for short weekend visits. Hotels are inexpensive, things to do are inexpensive, and frankly, doing '…

The Prevalence of Crappy Mountain Bikes

Last Sunday I went for a ride through DC (the weather was perfect for it) and stopped at Mid City Caffe for a delicious iced coffee along the way. As I was coming out, two guys walking down 14th Street complimented my 15-year old Kent mountain bike that I was unlocking from the bike rack. The noted that they never see nice mountain bikes like mine out on the street anymore, only cheap-looking crappy mountain bikes.

Quick sidebar: I bought my bike about five years ago. I was in the market for an inexpensive used bike for tooling around campus and there was an advertisement on my university's classifieds for a $75 used mountain bike. I called the seller, we arranged to meet on a street corner in Little Italy. I brought along my roommate as muscle. I met the seller, we exchanged the cash for the bike and I was on my way. I've replaced and upgraded many of the components since, but for $75 it has been a great value, though I plan to replace it with a much more efficient bike soon.


The "Not on My Block" Syndrome

My fellow housemate Lis has been writing the About Tonight feature over at DCist for a little while now (yes, two bloggers under one roof - almost too much to handle). One thing she's brought to my attention in regards to posting about local events is the "not on my block" syndrome.

It's pretty much the opposite of the Not in My Backyard problem. It's more like, you know, something cool happening is happening, but it's in another part of town. Boo! Hiss! Not fair! they yell and scream in the comments; why can't this be happening where I live?!

(from Flickr user Ronnie R)

On the one hand, I'm all for being a good local. I think it's highly valuable to reside near your place of work. I think it's worth paying a premium to live near valuable amenities. I think it's worthwhile to get to know your baristas and bartenders on a first-name basis, and not to have to get in a car and drive every time you want to go out.

At the same time, it's worth …

BRT: Lessons from Cleveland

Robert Sullivan has a piece in New York Magazine about the future of bus transportation in New York City. It has beengetting a ton of attentionaround the blogosphere. The article itself is a very well-written piece of journalism and everyone should take the time to read it; but as far as BRT goes, it skims over important details.

Sullivan describes New York's plan for new BRT lines as a 'subway on the street'. This is an ambitious claim - one that I fear the eventual bus lines will not be able to live up to if they aren't done correctly. He writes:
But over the last decade, in a few transit-enlightened cities around the world, the bus has received a dramatic makeover[...] Buses that used to share the street with cars and trucks are now driving in lanes reserved exclusively for buses and are speeding through cities like trains in the street. They are becoming more like subways.The article centers around the Bronx's BX12, with additional references to BRT lines in t…

Coffee Talk

ABC's Nightline did a nice little story on coffee culture in New York City. Watch:

This is all very much along the lines of what I wrote about New York City coffee a few months ago. The focus, at least there, has clearly shifted to espresso.

Now, that certainly doesn't mean that all regular coffee is created equal. Far from it. There are magnitudes of difference between the stuff you get at Starbucks or McDonalds and the stuff you get at a place that really takes it seriously. As a person who still prefers a high quality cup of coffee to a fancy espresso drink, I hope the "indie roasters" don't lose sight of this.

Extreme Weather Bicycling

As the temperature crossed the 100 degree mark in DC this week, I can now officially say that, in the past six months, I've biked in extreme weather at both ends of the meteorological spectrum. You can revisit my post on winter bicycling here.

As I was riding home from work today I started thinking about whether it's more difficult to bike in heat or in cold/snow. They are both challenging, but for very different reasons.

(from Flickr user photoholic1)

In the summer, the key to biking in the heat is wearing cool clothes and staying hydrated. This means I need to wear shorts and a t-shirt on my ride into work, and bring my work clothes with me in a bag and change when I arrive. In the winter, on the other hand, it's easy to wear work clothes during the ride (particularly if the office attire is casual). It's also more practical to wear a backpack in the winter. For obvious reasons, there's less reason to worry about perspiration in the winter.

Heat dehydrates people mor…

Desire for the Undesirable

There's an interesting attitude that tends to pervade in discussions about urban (or suburban) redevelopment, particularly when it comes to rezoning neighborhoods for walkable mixed-use and building for high density. Often, the concern is that the redevelopment will attract a bunch of yuppies, increase the cost of living in the area, and price out long-time residents who like living in a low-rent neighborhood.

(from Flickr user citta-vita)

The situation begs some important questions. Why is the area inexpensive now? Why will redevelopment increase the cost of living in the area? What is it about the redevelopment that will attract people willing to pay big premiums to live in it?

Perhaps the answers stem from the hypothesis that single-use zoning makes the area less desirable. The mixed-use development will increase the desirability of the neighborhood. A more desirable neighborhood will shift the demand curve to live there up, which will attract people willing to pay more to live th…

My First ZipTrip

Last Saturday morning I got my first chance to find out if ZipCar lives up to the hype. The occasion was a friend of the blog coming into town for the holiday weekend. In my attempt to be a good host, I offered to do an airport pick-up at BWI. The experience was rather exhilarating for my first ZipTrip; and it really put the service to the test. But maybe I ought to start the story from the beginning...

(from Flickr user citta-vita)

Making the Reservation
I made my reservation about two weeks in advance. I picked a Honda Civic parked behind a Citibank in Eastern Market. The cost was $7.75 per hour. I figured the pick-up would take about an hour, but ZipCar has pretty stiff penalties if you're late. Plus, you never know when a flight might get delayed or something else could potentially go wrong; so I went ahead and booked the vehicle until 10:30 - a 2.5 hour reservation that I thought would give me plenty of buffer time.

Public Transit Problems

Last week David Alpert and I ran a post over at Greater Greater Washington about the cost of commuting by car vs. public transit. There's a lot going on in the post, including the point I make toward the end about changing variables - a point that goes mostly ignored among the many comments.

(from Flickr user nj dodge)

I hear it over and over again, every time a transit agency raises fares or cuts service, people cry foul, then threaten to switch to driving. It happens like clockwork. Some even go as far to make comments like, "these changes are so terrible that everybody is going to start driving!”

I wrote on this same topic last summer:
These threatening comments illustrate an elementary error that people make in every day game theory: they consider what's in their best interest while ignoring what everyone else might do. See, if a monthly subway pass goes up by $20, then I might personally be better off driving in a car... but only if nobody else comes to that same conclus…

Psychology of Life

Since it's a holiday I'm going to go ahead and post a TED Talk. It's a good one though, don't worry.

Anyone with a basic understanding of behavioral economics has heard all of the material that's in Daniel Kahneman's talk before. What's really interesting is the discussion that begins at 17:00 about the personal income and happiness.

I've seen this statistic is used by both people who want to argue that money buys happiness and those who want to argue exactly the opposite. The difference is whether the data point begins or ends at the $60,000 inflection point. What Kahneman's point suggests is that we shouldn't worry about the strength of the relationship on either side of that point; we ought to focus instead on getting and staying near that point.

I guess what this means is that the ideal career goal isn't necessarily what most people would cite: being successful and making a lot of money. The idea career goal is more like: making just the ri…

Working in Suburbia

I've done a lot of writing here about urbanism, suburbia and commuting. A lot of my posts revolve around the idea that people work in cities and live in suburbia. I often get criticism by people who don't. So I've decided that when it comes to sprawl, people working and cities and living in suburbs isn't the key driver. White-collar companies that locate their offices deep in suburbia are the drivers of sprawl.

(from Flickr user MarkPritchard)

Despite the growth of job sprawl, as it's been called, metro areas are still set-up to accommodate people who live in suburbs and work in cities. Transit typically runs in peak directions during peak hours. There are park-and-rides in suburbia. Downtown areas are more conducive to bicyclists than suburban areas. These systems are designed to give options to people who live in suburbs to get to work in cities. And of course, people who live in cities and work in cities have similar options at their disposal.

It's an entirely …