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Showing posts from September, 2010

Bikes on Campus

My alma mater just launched a new bike co-op program on campus. Props to everyone at John Carroll who made this happen.

(from kbrookes on Flickr)

Time will tell how successful the co-op turns out to be. They currently own 18 bikes, which is about 1 bike per 250 students, faculty and staff (give or take a few dozen). The program has a noble mission, from the article:
The mission of the Bicycle Co-op is to encourage faculty and students to ride bikes to campus rather than drive. This will cut down on traffic in and around the University. JCU is a small campus, such that walking between buildings isn't long or far. The way it's set up, the co-op seems most useful to people who live on-campus and want to go to places off-campus; not the other way around. So for example, instead of getting in a car and driving to Target or Whole Foods or Lee Road, students might instead borrow a bike and ride to wherever they're going.

I've been critical of the university's parking agenda…

It’s Not All Downtown

Maryann Haggerty has a pretty good article in last Friday’s Washington Post about a road-trip she recently took to Cleveland. Like most travelers, Haggerty thought, by default, that the place to start her trip is downtown. However, due to a (very rare, if I must say) shortage of hotel rooms in Cleveland, she wound up staying in Ohio City.

(from shrocket on Flickr)

Downtown Cleveland is, admittedly, pretty barren on the weekends. Yes, there is stuff to see and do, but the atmosphere is lacking. At the same time, isn’t this true these days of most big city “downtowns”? I ride by bike through downtown DC on the weekends and it often looks like a ghost town. Sure, there are tourists making their way from hotels to the sites, but it seriously lacks energy. Or how about downtown Manhattan? Aside from the tourists taking photos of the NYSE and Trinity Church, it can be downright freaky to walk on nearly empty streets in the shadow of towering skyscrapers.

If you really want to experience Clevel…

Party in the Street

Yesterday I took my bike out to two more of DC's neighborhood festivals - Clarendon Day and Barracks Row Fall Fest. I had wanted to stop by the 17th Street Festival, but I got a flat tire on my bike and had to head home to fix it. The two festivals I did attend were fun, though a noticeably different experience than the H Street Festival that I wrote about last week.

(from Flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

Unlike H Street, both Clarendon and Barrack's Row are pretty fully developed. They have nice streetscapes. They're well-maintained and look nice to anyone who visits. Like H Street, they both have a nightlife scene, although each caters to a fairly unique audience.

These festivals are great because, for one day, the neighborhood gives the street completely back to the people. It's kind of like a small-scale version of what New York City has done with Times Square. Of course, the fact that these events only happen about once a year is part of the draw; but that's not to say …

The State of Extraordinary Observations

For the past two years I've been pretty consistent about publishing here at Extraordinary Observations. With an average of 5 posts per week, I've done my best to keep this a fairly lively place. I don't plan to cut back on blogging, but it is likely that you'll see less content here.

This week I joined the Washington Post's All Opinions are Local team. You can expect to see about one original article over there each week. And for folks who may be more old-fashioned, I'm told the pieces occasionally make their way into WaPo's print edition.

(from Flickr user dionhinchcliffe)

I've also been hoping to do a little more serious writing for Greater Greater Washington. My start over there has been slow, mostly because I wanted to get more acclimated to DC rather than jumping in head-first. Yesterday I had a post over at GGW about the parking situation at a soon-to-be-opened Trader Joe's store in Arlington.

So... what changes can you expect to see here? I'l…

The Role of Cities in Film

Last weekend I saw The Town, Ben Affleck's new crime thriller. The movie is good, in the sense that it keeps you entertained for two hours. But it's not great, because it keeps you entertained with completely unrealistic and over-the-top shoot-out scenes on the streets of Boston.

(from Wikipedia)

What The Town does do well is to thread Boston into the story. Sure, every movie has to be set somewhere, but way too many movies are only set somewhere because they have to be. How many movies take place in LA because that's where it's being filmed, and because it's easy to write the movie about LA? How many movies are based in some other city and then filmed in LA anyway, crushing any hope of realism for the setting?

Affleck's depiction of Charlestown might not be 100% accurate, but in general, it does a pretty good job of making the city of Boston a crucial piece of the film.

I think the reason I likeNick and Norah's Infinite Playlist is primarily because of the way…

Up-and-Coming Neighborhood

On Saturday afternoon I headed over to Northeast DC to check out the H Street Festival. I've been over to H Street a couple of times now, but this was really the first I got to see it in the middle of the day. It's a neighborhood in transition, and one that I'd like to really watch closely over the next few years to see how it evolves.

Between the construction that has really ripped up the street and a rate of vacancy that goes back to a time when nobody in their right mind came to this part of town, Sometimes it honestly does look like a bomb went off and blew everything up.

At the same time, new businesses are opening, quite rapidly I might add. A lot of the new bars have clustered between 13th and 14th Streets. These are definitely some of the edgier bars in DC. They have a lot more character than places downtown that fill up with suits every day after work. A lot of people describe H Street as "gritty" - a quality that adds to the charm of the neighborhood. The…

Tour Guiding

Yglesias doesn't like the rules for tour guides in DC. Admittedly, I find them pretty annoying too, especially because I think it would be a lot of fun to give tours of DC by bike. But without the license, I don't qualify. At the same time, I can't help but wonder how different a tour guide license is from a college degree?

(from Flickr user -Andrew-)

Think about it. College degrees aren't required by law for most jobs, but they often serve at the de-facto license. Even jobs that once required a high school education and clerical skills, like Administrative Assistants, often have minimum degree requirements these days.

Matt describes the process for being licensed as a tour guide:
To be a tour guide in DC, in addition to getting a basic business license and paying taxes, you need to apply for a special tour guide license (PDF) a process that involves $200 worth application fees, license fees, and an exam fees. You need to fill out a long application.Long applications? I di…

French Pressed Coffee To-Go

My favorite coffee company was featured by a local news station in a story about the rising price of commodity coffee beans. Watch:

When it comes down to it, I truly like to drink coffee. Not espresso, not any of the dozens of espresso derivatives. I just like a good, delicious cup of coffee.

It's unfortunate that so many coffee shops have demoted coffee to a drink that they serve because they have to, but don't put much effort into. I understand that espresso drinks are popular, but I also wonder how much of their popularity has to do with the fact that regular drip coffee fails to live up to its potential.

A lot of coffee shops have some sort of "French press service" which I think is very cool. But you really need to bring a friend along and plan to stay for a while. If you're by yourself, it's a lot of coffee to drink. If you want a coffee on the go, forget about it.

I can definitely get behind a French press to-go option. I hope more coffee shops decide to …

A Few Short Films

Over the past week and a half I got to check out a few dozen short films at the DC Shorts Film Festival. This was my third film fest since moving to DC (the first being AFI's Silverdocs and the second being the Bicycle Film Fest).

(from Flickr user M.V. Jantzen)

Overall I thought the event was well done. Some of the short films were definitely better than others. Though one great thing about shorts is that, if you don't like any film in particular, it's only a few minutes before it's over and the next one begins.

I get the feeling that this is an event spearheaded by creative types. What it lacks is good organization and management, which is where I see room for improvement.

Most notably, the ticketing is pretty awful. I got my tickets online through Eventbrite. After I made the initial purchase, it said my tickets would be emailed to me at a date closer to the show. About a week before opening day, I got an email with my tickets. One of them was for the wrong screening. F…

Sprawl Killed My Hometown

Angie Schmitt has a very good post up at Streetsblog about the devastation that suburban sprawl has brought on the city of Cleveland.

(from Flickr user gwdexter)

When I lived in Cleveland, I often felt like sprawl wasn't an issue that was discussed openly and objectively enough. Bring it up, and the conversation would often regress to a simple defense of suburbs. To me, one problem was that few people were willing to stick up for the city. It was generally accepted that well-to-do people lived in suburbs because suburbs were objectively better. People preferred them over the city. It was just a better place to be. Not to mention that a good chunk of the few people still in the city wanted to move to the suburbs too.

Here's the thing... every American city has suburbs and every American city has sprawl. New York City has sprawl. Washington DC has sprawl. San Fransisco has sprawl. What Cleveland has is donut sprawl - nice suburbs surrounding a hallowed-out city. Cleveland has subur…

Suburbia's Ironies

Via ARLnow, the Washington Post has a really sad story about a man in Fairfax County who was murdered because of his advocacy for speed humps in his neighborhood. Say what you will about crime in the city, but for being one of the wealthiest and perceptually safest places in the region, this is seriously twisted.

(from Flickr user afagen)

To me, this points to one of the ultimate ironies of suburbia. There's a conflict between wanting to live on a quiet street with low-speed traffic, and the desire to drive a car at high speeds to get everywhere. Because suburbs are typically built at low densities, single use zoning and without street grids, driving to stuff is a necessity. Everyone wants to drive fast, they just don't want other people driving fast near their home.

Theoretically, though, speed humps are only useful in places where the streets weren't correctly designed in the first place. Streets with narrow lanes and lots of intersections tend to calm traffic by their desi…

Chain Restaurants

Chuck Salter has an interesting article in Fast Company (via Yglesias and Marginal Revolution) about the popularity of chain restaurants like Olive Garden and Red Lobster.

(from Flickr user Erik&Reny)

Readers of this blog know that I'm not much a fan of these types of restaurants. I think some chains are OK. I really like Chipotle. My favorite place for wings and beer back in Cleveland was a 14-store chain. I'm not necessarily against them in principle, so much as I am because they typically just aren't that good. Better alternatives often exist.

What's more interesting to me is how these restaurants are dispersed throughout metro areas. Look at the DC metro area. Sure, it has some chain restaurants in the city, but the proportion of chains to independents is much lower in the city than it is on the fringe in Virginia and Maryland.

This is generally the case in most metro areas, although the proportions differ from city to city. Why is this the case? Do people in citie…

Amusement Parks and Parking

If you've been to an amusement park this summer, you know they're expensive. On top of the ticket prices and the food prices, at most parks, you've got to pay to park your car.

(from Flickr user Don Solo)

At some of the big corporate parks, this can be as much as $10 to $20 per car. Why do they do this? Arguably, the high cost of parking hurts their business, driving away potential customers who would come if parking was 'free'.

OK, maybe not. But that's essentially the argument that some planners make when designing neighborhoods. 'Make sure it's got parking, lots of it,' they'll say. 'And it's got to be free, otherwise, nobody is going to come.'

Amusement parks typically have gigantic, sprawling surface lots, and rarely, if ever, is every space in that lot filled. This is more or less the opposite problem that a lot of cities face: no charge for parking but no immediately available spaces either.

Amusement parks are destinations. They&#…

Accepting Imperfection

The Big City has some great photos of London's new Bicycle Superhighway. Go ahead and click through to check them all out.

(from Flickr user Matthew Black)

As you can see, the superhighway isn't without its issues. I'm not really surprised, although I imagine a few optimists will feel disappointed. London's superhighway is still a great concept that other cities should seriously look at. At the same time, it shouldn't be blindly copied and its shortcomings shouldn't be ignored.

To me, this is a lot like Cleveland's Healthline BRT, something I've about quit a bit over the past few years. It's not that the Healthline doesn't have good qualities and do some things well.. it's that it's far from perfect.

When we look at other cities as models for urban design, there's a huge temptation to ignore the drawbacks that other city is facing, and just say: Hey, let's do this. It's totally awesome and working out great for this other city. T…

Millennials' Net Worth Problem

A few weeks ago I responded to Robin Marantz Henig's article about twenty-somethings. Lately I've seen a number of articles on this theme. They all seek the answer to a fundamental question: why are Millennials acting so out of the ordinary? What's different for them than previous generations?

There isn't a single answer, but personal finance undoubtedly plays a huge role. There are two trends that have converged to make life less than rosy for Millennials.

Trend #1: Real average student loan debt is high and continuing to grow.
Trend #2: Real average income for bachelor's degree holders has peaked and is on a downward trajectory.

Data on student debt is admittedly hard to find, especially data that goes back more than two decades. Nevertheless, The Project on Student Debt has data-points for a few cross-sections of time. I used the CPI to deflate everything into 2008 dollars. It looks like this:

(click to enlarge)

Then there's income. Real income for bachelor's …

Netflix Love

James Ledbetter has a nice piece in Slate about why Netflix is really a stronger company that people think they are.

(from Flickr user

I first subscribed to Netflix back during college. I had four weeks off for winter break and needed something to keep me amused for a while. Netflix worked out perfectly. At the end of the break, I suspended my subscription. I re-activated it again the following winter during break. It was incredibly simple, and I was impressed with the fact that Netflix's billing only charged me for exactly what I used.

People talk about Netflix and how it's doing so much better than its competitor, Blockbuster Video. I don't think that's entirely fair though, because Netflix is way more than just a video rental service. Netflix's main competitor, from my perspective, is cable TV.

When I think about Netflix now, it's a question of whether I want to re-activate my subscription, or sign up for cable. When it comes to price, Netflix is…

What Seinfeld Teaches Us About Parking

I haven't been watching a lot of Seinfeld lately. I guess it doesn't help that I don't have a TV or cable anymore. Nevertheless, I've been thinking about the show lately. Even 12 years after it went off the air, it still manages to stay relevant to so much of every day life.

From an urbanist perspective, the show highlights a lot of the great things about cities. The four main Seinfeld characters live on the Upper West Side (aside from a few brief stints living elsewhere in the city). They walk to a lot of places in the neighborhood. The ride in cabs quite frequently, and occasionally use the subway. And except for Elaine, they all own cars at various points throughout the show.

(from Flickr user #9)

I count at least four parking lessons that we can take away from Seinfeld.

Gourmet Hot Dogs

Danielle Douglas has an article in tomorrow's Washington Post about a new restaurant, called DC-3, opening on Capitol Hill next week. The cuisine?.. Gourmet hot dogs.

(from Flickr user stu_spivack)

Maybe you're thinking what I'm thinking: how could the words 'gourmet' and 'hot dog' possibly go together? I don't think they can, frankly. A hot dog, not matter how good you want it to be, is still a hot dog. You can dress it up with lots of fancy toppings, you can boil it in beer, you can inject it with cheese and other delicious fillings, but at the end of the day, it's still a hot dog.

According to Douglas's piece, "gourmet dogs at DC-3 will cost about $6 with a side order."

Here's the thing, I'm not against hot dogs. I'd love to see a couple of Gray's Papaya knockoffs open up around town. There's just something about the whole turning inferior food into gourmet pub fare that rubs me the wrong way.

On the other hand, a few…

The Business of Baseball

Phil Birnbaum recently had a pretty interesting article in Slate about the business behind Major League Baseball. He contends that the Pittsburgh Pirates, despite being notoriously awful, is actually a pretty profitable business organization; and as the result of MLB's goofy revenue sharing scheme, there's good reason to believe spending more money to win more games would actually reduce profits.

(from Flickr user daveynin)

We can't know exactly how MLB team spending will effect profitability, but let's temporarily assume the Pirates are being a profit-maximizing enterprise by being terrible. Does that mean the team's owners are content with being losers?

Maybe, but maybe not. While owning a professional sports team is, in many instances, a great way to make money; most professional sports owners are already successful and wealthy business people well before the time they purchase a team. There are plenty of sports owners with gigantic egos. Profits have value, braggi…

Every City Needs a GGW

Lydia DePillis has the cover story in this week's Washington City Paper. Her 4000-word essay is a generally well-written and in-depth look at David Alpert and Greater Greater Washington.

(from Flickr user thisisbossi)

I've been sporadically writing for Greater Greater Washington in the first few weeks since I moved to DC, but I've been a loyal reader since 2008. GGW is a blog that's become so influential that it's easy to overlook the fact that, 3 years ago, it didn't even exist. It's a blog that I'm lucky to have in my city.

GGW is a blog that every city needs to have. Unfortunately, few do.

If there is any city where this kind of project could be successful, Washington DC is the city. This is a place with the perfect combination of highly educated, progressive and politically wonkish individuals. There is no doubt to me that GGW is an asset to Washington DC. Whether you agree or disagree with the general opinion of the blog, its existence brings issue…