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've been thinking about Donald Shoup's book The High Cost of Free Parking - a book sometimes dubbed the 'bible of parking design and planning'. I've checked this book out from the library more than once, but I'm yet to read it all the way through. Yes, Shoup's book is well-researched and thorough, it's very much like a textbook - the kind of textbook you trudge through for a class but get little pleasure out of reading. It's the kind of book that few people outside of a very narrow audience will ever think about picking up.

Parking is an important topic though. It's unique is that something that most Americans deal with in their lives every single day, even people who don't regularly drive cars. I wish Shoup would write a condensed version of the book, aimed at a wider audience, that would help make his ideas easier to explain to those who don't so much care about the details of it all.

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, this might actually make some sense.

I can see this being one of those features that only few members ever use, but that those few who do really appreciate. As far as the feasibility of establishing a system like this, I honestly have no idea.

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 single exception, I always find the book to be better. If you look at what happened with another of Mezrich's books, Bringing Down the House, which was later turned into 21 - the director of the movie altered Mezrich's story significantly; even going so far as to change the role of major characters.

Oh, and of course, this new movie could become instantly irrelevant if it turns out that Mark Zuckerburg isn't even the majority owner of Facebook.
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 Manhattan).

Let's say I wanted to do a weekend (Friday - Sunday) trip one month from now, and I wanted to travel from DC to New York. The round-trip rates I would pay, if I booked right now, would vary depending on the time of day that I pick; but roughly, it would be:

Acela Express: $270.00
Northeast Regional: $98.00
Boltbus: $38.50
Megabus: $26.50

Of these, the Acela Express is certainly the fastest and nicest option. It's also 9 times as expensive as Megabus. Is it 9 times more valuable to ride than the Megabus? Probably not.

It's not just that inter-city buses are competing with planes and trains, it's that they are blowing them out of the water when it comes to fares. And again, while the service may not be top-notch, people seem to be willing to accept that when they pay so little, they shouldn't expect a lot in return anyway. So long as they can get to and from their destination reasonably quickly, and reasonably on-time, that's good enough.

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. Now, I've also never actually rented from anyone on these websites, and certainly there needs to be caution taken by anyone who would potentially do it, but I question the idea that 'most' or even a significant number of people are legitimately being deceived.

I've traveled to quite a few American cities, and the rack rates at New York's hotels are seriously through the roof. And because these hotels have a reputation to manage, I believe most would rather leave a room empty than advertise a low enough rate to get it filled. That's not to say you can't get good deals. I've stayed three nights in nice Manhattan hotels for less than $100, thanks to Priceline, which goes to show that the market rate for New York City's hotels isn't always what you see advertised.

The unfortunate losers in this legislation are the people who are welcoming hosts and their guests who will have to look for accommodations in New York City's already overheated hotel market. I don't know how big the market for short-term apartment rentals is in New York City, but in theory, this legislation should have the effect of driving already inflated hotel prices in Manhattan even higher.
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 the appropriate permit is probably quite high and requires tons of politicking, but once it's in the possession of a lunch truck, they have the ability to set-up shop on a highly desirable block during peak eating hours, and when the day is over, the can go and park in some cheap parking space on the outskirts of the city.

A similar phenomenon happens every weekend when flea markets pop up all over. These events bring retail to a neighborhood during the time of week when the highest number of people are theoretically out shopping. Given the high retail rents in many parts of DC, these types of businesses probably couldn't survive if they had to operate out of a regular brick-and-mortar store. But given the right circumstances and they can and do exist.

All of this raises the question of whether it's OK for an urban neighborhood to go without a ton of specialty stores and restaurants, so long as the neighborhood retains those merchants in a more modest form?

One complaint about gentrification is that businesses that have been around forever get forced out so that a bunch of 'yuppie' stuff can come in. I'm sympathetic to this concern, but I've also seen neighborhoods so devestated by vacancy that you couldn't pay any business to move in. We live in a reality that will never be perfect, so if there's a way to produce neighborhood vibrancy without destroying historic charm, it seems seriously worth looking into.
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 of the new energy other cities so desperately need.
In a sense, Renn is absolutely right. Why don't people come? Does Cleveland have nothing to offer? If you asked a typical Clevelander, they'd probably name off a few great things about the city, including: great universities, word-class hospitals, amazing metroparks, a world-renowned orchestra, and professional sports teams. It's wrong to suggest that Cleveland lacks amenities. The reality is quite the opposite - it has great amenities.

This misses the point. All big cities have amenities. They all have universities. They all have hospitals. They all have bars and 'hip neighborhoods'. Most have multiple sports teams and concert venues. Many have great parks. These amenities are great once you're settled in a city. But they aren't necessarily the things that draw people there in the first place.

Now, ask someone who is transplanting themself to a city like New York or Chicago and there is a decent chance they will say the things they find appealing include: the vibrancy, the energy, the freshness, the opportunity, the culture. These are abstract ideas, not individual amenities, but they are strong enough to draw in new people, even if amentities alone could not.

These abstract qualities aren't assigned only to the biggest big cities. Transplants use similar language to describe Austin, Texas and Portland, Oregon. These are cities roughly the same size as Cleveland, but perceived in a very different light. Even if they're far-from perfect, these cities are growing and new people are excited about going to them. Something is going right.

Of course, the question of the day is how a city can elevate itself to point where people see it as valuable abstract qualities. I do not know the answer to this question. But the evidence is pretty conclusive that trying to sell a city on amenities alone isn't going to do the trick.

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 eventually jump on the cupcake bandwagon. That will be the confirmation that the cupcake ship has sailed.

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 two months I've seen things in DC that longtime residents have never seen; and there is still so much I haven't. Motorists tend to stick to car-friendly streets that allow them to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. Pedestrians tend to stick to areas that they feel comfortable walking. But a bike is fast enough that you can see a reasonable amount of the city in a short period of time, but slow enough that it doesn't make it all look like a blur.

In my opinion, it's not just the best way to explore the city you live in, it's the best way to see any city.

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 you might think. In many cases, what the masses really want isn't good content or good writing, it's a forum to spew their opinions where lots of other people will see them. This could theoretically explain the popularity of many newspaper websites that allowed unmoderated comments and why so many commenters often appear to have not even bothered to read the article they are commenting on.

At the end of the day, I have no intention of doing anything with this blog than writing about things that I, and other people, care about. If that means I have 100 readers who care instead of a million who don't, then that's just fine.

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 'local-favorite' stuff can often be the most fun anyway. Obviously small cities have things to do, locals spend their time doing something... and usually you only have to ask to find out what those things are.

Time is finite, so even in a place with infinite things to do, only so many of them can be done in a single weekend. Even native New Yorkers often admit they have never experienced many of them gems of the Big Apple. How can a weekend traveler expect to experience them all as well?

This isn't meant to say that big cities aren't worth visiting. Indeed, they are very fun, and I've visited many of them myself in the past few years, but small cities have things to offer too. Maybe they aren't places you could ever imaging living full-time, but for a short visit, they can be fantastic.
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.

So what prompted these guys to comment about my bike? I think there is some truth to the claim that most of the mountain bikes you see people riding around the city are cheap. Why?

The culprit, I believe, is big box stores.

(from Flickr user fourstarcashiernathan)

If you walk into a legitimate bike store and talk to a salesperson, the first thing they will ask is what you plan to use the bike for. If you say riding around the city, they aren't going to sell you a mountain bike. If anything, they'll steer you toward a decent hybrid.

On the other hand, when you walk into Walmart or Target, you see a big wall full of bikes, but there really isn't anyone to help you figure out which model is best. Mountain bikes, when they're on the shelf next to other types of bikes, look tough and sturdy and reliable. They're like the SUV of bikes: big and heavy and inefficient. They seem great until you realize something more energy efficient may have made a lot more sense.

So people who shop at big box stores wind up walking out with cheap mountain bikes (for what it's worth, most of the bikes sold at bix box stores look and feel cheap). A person shopping at a bike store will only walk out with a mountain bike if they legitimately plan to do offroad riding, even then, they will probably opt for a decent mountain bike. And thus, the prevalence of crappy mountain bikes in the city may be explained by the fact that people who bought from a bicycle for the purpose of city riding store probably didn't opt for the mountain bike.

Of course, this is more than just about bikes. Big box stores sell all kinds of cheap high-end goods: TVs, electronics, appliances, etc. Without the expertise of a salesperson a customer might find at a specialty store, people walk in and look for things that look nice and cost little. I can't help but wonder how often people wind up buying stuff that they may never completely realize is a poor value.
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 recognizing that in a big city like DC, there are many vibrant neighborhoods, most relatively accessible to each other. There is a lot of cool stuff going on, and it's not always going to be on the block where you picked to live. That's one thing that makes big cities so great. You have all the stuff that's in your neighborhood. The stuff you can claim as "your own" but you also have an entire city, with entire neighborhoods worth exploring. It's too bad some people don't venture out and explore them.
Robert Sullivan has a piece in New York Magazine about the future of bus transportation in New York City. It has been getting a ton of attention around 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 the 'transit-enlightened cities' of London, Cleveland and Bogota.

(from Flick user soopahgrover)

Admittedly, I've been a pretty harsh critic of BRT. I've heard the promises, witnessed the hype, and experienced the letdown. I lived in Cleveland and traveled the Euclid Corridor frequently during my last year in the Forest City. I watched with frustration a BRT line that is frequently referenced as a 'transit success' by people who, I believe, have often never ridden it.

Sullivan enthusiastically describes the BX12 in the Bronx and the promise such a line could bring to the rest of the city. His description is eerily similar to what people were writing about the Healthline a few years ago:
All of the sudden, though, here it comes: the Bx12. Right away, you see it’s different. A different paint job—new branding, as the transit people like to say—and bright-blue lights flashing on the header. Buying a ticket is different, too: You pay before you board, from a little box like a MetroCard vending machine that offers you a receipt. In the world of transit planning, boarding time is everything, and the receipt streamlines the process. “You just hold on to it,” a woman offers, shouting from under her earbuds. She smiles. “It’s much faster.”
Before I go on, I need to say this now and make it loud and clear: I do not think that public transit infrastructure is a waste of money. I think that when we compromise these projects to appease people who do think this stuff is a waste of money, we wind up with poor results.

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.
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 more quickly, so carrying a lot of water is key. Cold weather is just uncomfortable, so having the appropriate clothes, coat, hat, gloves, etc. is required. Although most people can't fathom biking through snow, it's less difficult than they'd think, particularly in a place that takes care of its streets. In fact, biking in rain is much worse than biking in snow. I'll take 30 degrees and snowing over 40 degrees and raining anytime. Wind, on the other hand, can be challenging, and it tends to be a lot worse in winter than in summer.

Here's the thing... yes, I know, it's not particularly comfortable to bike in either extreme heat or extreme cold, but the range in which it is comfortable biking is actually quite large. I think people would be surprised how nice it can be to bike in 40-degree air, so long as you have the right clothes, and the same can be said for biking in 85-degree temperatures. It doesn't have to be exactly 65 and sunny to have a good ride.
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 there.

But that begs yet another question... why is a mixed-use type of neighborhood so desirable in the first place? Maybe the answer is that truly good walkable neighborhoods are so few and far between. There simply aren't enough of them.

Defenders of sprawl will continue to argue that suburbanization occurs because people prefer it and want it. Often, they point to a typical American metro area, with tons of people living in suburban subdivisions and say "look at all the people who live in these places. Obviously they want to live in these places."

This is actually like making an apples and oranges comparison.

Consider a hypothetical farmers market. There are only two items sold there: apples and oranges. Half of the customers prefer apples and half prefer oranges, but 90% of the total inventory is apples and only 10% is oranges. What's going to happen? Oranges are going to be very expensive, apples will be cheap, and a lot more apples will be sold than oranges.

Would it be fair, thus, to use that as evidence and conclude that people obviously prefer apples to oranges? Because hey, look at all the people walking away from the farmers market with apples in their bags. No, this isn't fair; but it's more-or-less the evidence that defenders of sprawl use and will continue to use.

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.

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 conclusion.
In a city like Washington or New York or Chicago, which are already notorious for traffic and congestion, if everyone who used public transportation switched to driving, the result would be utter chaos. Even if it were true that driving was slightly cheaper before everyone came to this realization, it would absolutely not be true after they took action.

For transit systems in crisis, the decision always boils down to a question of service cuts, fare hikes, or a combination of both. In almost every case, service cuts are the worse outcome.

Dan Malouff does a good job explaining that service cuts lead to a death spiral that can devastate a system. While people gripe about fare hikes, service cuts cause real damage to peoples’ lives. You need to look no further than New York City - the city with America's "best" transit system - to see how life has changed for people after MTA killed two subway lines and numerous bus lines to preserve fares at their current level.

Service cuts are so devastating because they leave people without real options. Fare hikes are less dangerous than they often appear to be because inflation causes the price of everything, including driving, to increase over time. We can look at inflation-adjusted fares over time, but that’s only a useful exercise if we also look at the inflation-adjusted cost of alternatives.

Ultimately, fare hikes upset people and they make driving look more attractive. But as people take to their cars, a new equilibrium is established. Service cuts, on the other hand, push people into cars without giving people a real (even if more expensive) alternative. This is bad for commuters, and it’s really bad for cities.

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 right amount of money at in a career that isn't overly stressful or demanding and that allows for plenty of leisure in your spare time. The question I have for career bloggers or anyone else with an opinion on this question is, how do you get to that precise point?

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 different story if you work in an Office Space style campus out in suburbia. If you do, there is likely a single option for getting to work: drive.

Now, this is great for some people, especially if they live near the suburban office and would drive alone to work no matter where the office was located.

On the other hand, I know several people, recent college grads, who landed jobs at companies out in suburbia. In a few instances, they faced a frustrating dilemma. They wanted to live in the city, but a reverse commute out to the suburbs wasn't appealing. They'd have a long commute, they'd have to pay for a place to park near their home, and they'd have to drive there every day. At the end of the day, many throw up their arms and moved into suburbia, where the rent is cheap, parking is free subsidized and the commute is short. It's not the neighborhood they imagined residing in fresh out of college, but with limited options, it made sense.

The reason I bring this up is because every time I write on this topic I get a comment or an email about personal preference. Usually, it goes something like this:
Tons of people prefer to live in the suburbs, they hate the city, if they drive around everywhere, it's because they want to. Stop telling people how to live their lives.
But the anecdote above demonstrates that it's not always exclusively about preference, sometimes it's about practicality. And preference is not constant; it can only be as strong as the options that people have available to them in their lives.