Yesterday, Dave Itzkoff had this to say over at The Caucus:
Is the rally just a fun way to spend an afternoon with entertainers, comedians and 200,000 of your closest, most apolitical friends? A covert promotion for progressive causes on the eve of a crucial midterm vote? Is it, as one writer has already argued, the Woodstock for the millennial generation? (Hey, man, if you didn’t blog about it, you weren’t really there.)
I was there. Now I'm blogging about it. As far as rallies go, my experience was about the same as every other rally I've ever attended. It was crowded. It was uncomfortable. It was hard to hear. And it was even harder to see. I may have been able to say "I was there" but the person watching on CSPAN from home can actually say that they saw the event.

(from TalkMediaNews on Flickr)

What's curious about this rally is that it never really had a clear agenda. Was it supposed to be a mere mockery of the event that Glenn Beck hosted in the summer? Or was it supposed to be a legitimate movement by liberals to generate support prior to the midterm election? Based on the signs I saw at the event, the answer isn't clear. There were people there who were obviously just making fun of Tea Partiers. There were others with political agendas. And there were a few who just seemed to be defending the fact that they're not crazy, as some folks on the right side of the isle have suggested.

I'm generally lukewarm when it comes to these types of events. In the next week there will be big fights over the estimated attendance. There will be arguments on Cable TV news about whether Glenn Beck or John Stewart "won" the game of bringing people to the national mall to stand around for a couple of hours. Supporters from each side will predictably try to claim victory is this "game". But the two sides will never come to an agreement.

At the end of the day, I walked away from the Rally to Restore Sanity feeling underwhelmed. The event was unbelievably hyped, so I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of people walked away feeling the same way. The big question, in my mind, is what these rallies are really hoping to achieve?

Parking Prices Visualized

Big hat-tip to Housing Complex for linking to this report by the National Parking Association that shows parking rates for Central Business Districts throughout North America.

There's a lot of data in the report. I pulled out some of the stuff I thought would theoretically be the most relevant to everyday parking. I've barely gotten a chance to dig into this stuff, but here are a few simple graphs I pulled together comparing parking rates in various cities.

This first graph is the price of lot / garage parking for the first hour.

(click to enlarge)

Decline of NASCAR

Via Yglesias, NASCAR viewership is in a downward spiral. Executives are trying to figure out what's going wrong.

(from Ray Horwath on Flickr)

From the article, it seems that they've formulated a few theories. One blames a switch from ABC to ESPN. Another speculates that moving the start of races to 1pm is to blame.

Maybe they're missing the obvious answer: it's just not that interesting.

Don't get me wrong, I've had plenty of people explain why NASCAR is popular. I'm not oblivious to the reasons that so many people tune in and attend races. Like any sport, there will be die-hard fans who tune in every week no matter what. But if you want to understand declining ratings, you need to forget about those people and look at the casual fan.

A few months ago, during the winter Olympics, the game that seemed to catch a lot of attention at sports bars (at least from my experience) was curling. Interesting, because almost no one in the U.S. plays or watches curling on any regularly basis. So why was it so popular? Because it's fun to watch, but only in very small doses. If it were on all the time, most Americans wouldn't care. But during those two weeks every four years, people like to tune in and see it.

Perhaps NASCAR is experiencing something similar. People were really into NASCAR for a while, and now some of them are bored. To maintain the ratings that NASCAR was pulling down, they needed to retain a lot of casual fans.

Transit and Gentrification

Treehugger analyzes a report from Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy that suggests that good transit leads to gentrification in neighborhood where it's built. The argument follows that this is problematic, thus, because it pushes out people who need public transit and allows people to move in who can afford alternatives and only want transit as a luxury.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr)

I'm not going to refute that a lot of transit-oriented-development, especially in a city like DC, is designed to cater to the District's well-off population. But I'm not convinced that this is absolutely harmful to the low income residents in the city.

Consider an alternative... Well-off people live exclusively in the suburbs. They can afford cars, so it doesn't much matter whether their neighborhoods are well served by transit. The problem here is that a lot of service-sector jobs will follow the money. Businesses like restaurants, retail stores, etc. Low income workers, on the other hand, live in the city. They have decent public transit options near their homes, but those transit options don't extend into the suburbs, where a good chuck of working-class jobs now exist.

In a perfect world, the working-class would live in the same neighborhoods as their service-sector jobs. Unfortunately, this is rarely the reality.

The solutions to these issues are very complex, and I know that I don't have all the answers. But in thinking about transit and gentrification, it's definitely more of a question of whether those who can least afford it live near public transit; because if public transit can't take them to the places where they need to go, what value does it really have?

Responsible Riding

The Alexandria Times has an article about a new bike signal the city recently installed along the Mount Vernon Trail.

(from ajfroggie on Flickr)

I'm glad to see this type of infrastructure being installed in Alexandria. For me, it's more about practical considerations (doing something about dangerous intersections) than about making a statement (bicyclists have the right to the road).

Whether or not any more of these signals get installed will depend on whether or not bicyclists respect what they've been given.
Alexandria City Hall has rolled out the first traffic light for cyclists in the state, but they want to make sure bikers won’t ignore the safety signal before buying more.
This is an interesting situation. For one, because 'bicyclists' as a group do not behave in exactly the same ways. Yes, there are people who ride through stop signs and lights. There are others that don't. How many people have to ignore the new safety signal before it's deemed that 'cyclists' aren't behaving properly? 10%? 50%? More?

Imagine this point was made in regards to typical vehicle infrastructure. For instance, "we'll build a new highway, but if motorists speed on it, we're not building any more." That doesn't happen. Instead, speed limits are enforced (sort of, anyway).

The debate over whether bicyclists should follow street laws often boils down to a dispute over whether or not it's actually safer to follow the rules literally. But if a bicycle-specific signal is installed, that theoretically means it's programmed for the maximum safety of bicyclists. If some riders don't respect that, perhaps there should be enforcement to punish them, not a refusal to install any more infrastructure - a move that would instead punish all bicyclists .

Political Culture

Last week I watched Frontline's documentary Obama's Deal. Like most of PBS's work, it's a well-told story and a well-produced piece. One thing I that caught my attention was the portrayal of Washington's political culture. I think that if I didn't know anything about the city, I'd probably think that nearly everyone in the city was a well-paid, high-powered lobbyist hell-bent on influencing Congress.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

Without a doubt, politics is a major part of Washington culture. It would be strange if it weren't. But I don't feel like it dominates the culture to the extent that media often portrays it. Government is the region's top industry, but most federal employees are executive branch bureaucrats or contractors, with little or no connection to politics.

When I walk around Capitol Hill, something I like to do on the weekends, it feels like a pleasant urban neighborhood. I'm yet to bump into a well-known politician or lobbyists who you'd think would be chasing them. It's just regular people living seemingly regular lives.

A few weekends ago I was sitting at Peregrine Espresso on the Hill, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the paper. It was busy, so table space was limited. Two guys asked if they could share the table. Of course I said yes. As it turns out, one of them was a rocket scientist (he's worked for NASA for years and worked as a physicist in London before that) who lives on the Hill. The second guy was a professional squash player from Europe who was vacationing in DC before catching a flight to Chicago the next day. Both were really interesting guys. Neither had any connection to politics.

Even though I can't deny that DC is inherently a political town, I feel like local politics, not national politics, is just as dominant. And why shouldn't it be? The people who live in DC are concerned about what's happening in their neighborhood, as least as much as they care what's happening in congressional committees. National media focuses on Washington as the home of national politics, because it is - but that's not all it is, and I'm glad it's not.
Last Saturday I got a chance to take the new Capital Bikeshare for a spin. I was really excited to give it a try, and now that I have, I'm left with a lot of mixed feelings. No doubt, I'm beyond happy that DC has a bike share system as sophisticated as this. The potential is definitely there. I just feel like the system isn't quite perfect yet.

(from DDOTDC on Flickr)

I successfully took 5 CaBi trips and I had two unsuccessful trip attempts. During both of those failed attempts I got to a station that had only 1 bike left in the docks, but for weird technical reasons (that I won't get into here) I wasn't able to take a bike out of the dock.

Overall, my feelings about CaBi can be summed up below.

The Good: The bikes are in good shape and they ride nicely. Granted, they are heavy and you can't ride very fast on them, but I didn't experience any mechanical problems on any of the bikes. The brakes worked well, the gears shifted smoothly and the tires were fully inflated. The front rack was a nice touch. I personally didn't use it but saw a number of people carrying their bags on the rack. I also found the smartphone app to be a huge help in finding CaBi stations.

The Bad: When the system doesn't work, it's difficult to figure out what to do. In one instance, I had difficulty docking a bike, but I couldn't find instructions anywhere about what to do if the bike isn't docking properly. After a call to CaBi's support number, the issue was resolved. The built-in lights on the bikes are pretty cool, but I wish they stayed on when you weren't pedaling. At night, you effectively go dark whenever you stop.

The Ugly: CaBi doesn't accept AmEx or Discover for 24-hour memberships. This is personally problematic for me, as I don't have a Visa or MasterCard credit card. I brought my helmet along for the ride - I wouldn't ride without it in DC. This might be an issue if I ever became a real member, as I'd need to carry my helmet with me anytime I wanted to make a trip. I'd be stuck if I ever wanted to make a 'spur of the moment' ride across town.

French Press On-Tap

A few weekends ago I stopped by my favorite coffee shop while I was visiting Cleveland. I was excited to see a few new menu innovations, including French press coffee on-tap.

(from Toronto Rob on Flickr)

The concept is simple. Brew a pot of coffee in a French Press and serve upon request. It's both quick and delicious.

I know that the regular old cuppa coffee isn't quite as popular these days in a coffee culture dominated by espresso drinks; but there are some people, like myself, who simply prefer a regular cup of joe. Shops can charge a premium for French pressed coffee. I'd pay it. I'm sure other coffee snobs would too.

Really, I think any coffee shop that uses the word 'gourmet' to describe what it serves ought to have some French press option. You can buy the best beans on earth, but the brewing process is going to make a huge impact on how that coffee ultimately tastes. Coffee still has a place among espresso, as long as it's done well.

On Craft Beer

I finally got a chance to see the documentary film Beer Wars. It's very good and I'd recommend it to anyone with any interest in beer or the business behind it.

(from Rex Pechler on Flickr)

Occasionally I hear a discussion about why the craft beer industry is growing even as sales from the giant brewers are on the decline. It seems like the obvious answer is: big-name light beer just isn't that good. And once people have had a taste of something they really like, they're going to stick with it.

At the same time, the film gets into interesting issues about distribution and retail shelf placement. Sure, I have my favorite beers, and I know where to get them. But I can't get them at the Harris Teeter near my house. That supermarket is heavily stocked with light beers and stuff from the giant corporate brewers. So for me, it's a lot less convenient to get good craft beers. Not impossible, but not simple, either.

So it makes you wonder what people would be buying if they could get anything at the store that's most convenient to their home? In theory, people would be buying even more craft beer. So it's understandable that the giants are doing everything in their power to hoard shelf space wherever they can.

Financial Comfort

The other day Aaron Morrissey posted about a report that calculates a single person in DC needs to earn $32,000 in income to be financial secure. The reaction to this statistic has been, not surprisingly, debatable.

(from Andres Rueda on Flickr)

These types of discussions are primarily discussed in terms of income, which isn't the right way to think about it. As I've written, debt and net-worth is what really matters.

Consider three hypothetical twenty-somethings in DC. The all work the same job, they have the same modest income, they live in the same neighborhood and pay the same rent. The first person has no debt. The second person has $10,000 in debt. The third person has $100,000 in debt. There is a significant difference in the financial situations of these three people, even though by the most commonly reported metrics, they're doing equally well.

Beyond that, there's the perception that people spend within their means. So someone who drives a fancy car and eats at restaurants 5 nights per week and wears nice suits must earn more income than someone who takes the bus eats at home and prefers a casual look. Without a doubt, appearance is important to a lot of people in DC, but it's not a good way to understand someone. In a lot of cases, it may be nothing more than a disguise.

Inside Struggling Cities

Palladium Boots has this great three-part video series about Detroit, hosted by Johnny Knoxville. There isn’t any attempt to hide the city’s blight. Rather, the focus is on attempts to repopulate the city and build a new culture from scratch.

Click through for parts two and three.

What cities like Detroit have going for them is a low cost of everything. Like it’s mentioned in the video, it’s not just about cheap rent. Detroit has affordable commercial space; and they have a local government backing off from micromanaging businesses because they know they're lucky to have anything these days.

Struggling cities really need to capitalize on this. It's more than about simply giving artists a place where they can work without constant anxiety over bills. A few months ago Marketplace did a story on Cleveland's upscale restaurant scene. Most people don't know it exists, because in aggregate, Cleveland's economy is very weak.

What makes Cleveland's restaurant scene unique is that the restaurants are both upscale and not outrageously expensive. You don't need to be wealthy to enjoy a great meal at a nice restaurant. This makes the city unique. It's something that New York or Chicago can't offer. In those cities, you do need to be wealthy if you want to patronize comparable restaurants.

Local governments need to encourage this type of development. Otherwise, it won't matter how low the rents or the commercial leases are. If the red tape is too thick, little will get done.

Corporate Cafeterias

I did a lot of internships during college, and as a result, I worked for a lot of different companies. I worked for a Fortune 500 company, a quasi-governmental organization, a start-up with 3 employees. I've pretty much experienced the spectrum of workplaces. Some of the places where I worked had caffeterias in the offices, others didn't. Admittedly, the cafeterias were convenient; but ultimately, that might not have been such a great thing.

(from iwouldstay on Flickr)

Not all companies, or all cafeterias, are created equally. An office deep in suburbia, or in an urban wasteland, simply might not have any lunch options within easy walking distance. In these cases, a cafeteria would provide a lunch option that differs from the typical brown bag from home.

But what about a company in a downtown skyscraper? For people that work in these buildings, there are plenty of lunch options within easy walking distance. The cafeteria is one of many options available during the lunch hours.

Even in downtown areas that aren't particularly vibrant, lunch hour is the one time during the day when people actually make their way out onto the street. It's the time of day when downtowns really come alive.

I have a hard time getting behind cafeterias in downtown office buildings. Yes, they're very convenient for office workers; but the food is rarely amazing and the prices aren't much cheaper than what you'd find at a typical lunch spot. From an urbanist's perspective, a cafeteria that incentivizes people to stay in their offices all day isn't good for street life. It isn't good for local businesses, and it isn't good for the city.

No Urbanism in Las Vegas

Paul Goldberger has a nice review of Las Vegas's City Center project over in the New Yorker. Last year I expressed intrigue with the idea of building a "city in a city". From the video and pictures that were floating around during the project's construction, it looked like it might be a legitimate urban space right on the Las Vegas strip.

(from SheepGuardingLlama on Flickr)

The completed project doesn't seem to have lived up to that expectation. Granted, I haven't been there or seen it with my own eyes, but it sounds like City Center is less of a city and more of an amusement park that kind of looks like a city. Goldberger writes:
CityCenter is laid out not for pedestrians but as a machine for moving vast numbers of cars efficiently. There are wide ramps coming off the Las Vegas Strip, auto turnarounds, and porte cochères—all good for traffic flow but hardly what you would call urban open space. There has been an attempt to tuck the site’s enormous garages out of sight—employee cars alone number in the thousands—but they are no less visible than at any number of the Strip’s other big hotels. Like its competitors, CityCenter has no real streets. You can glide over the project on a monorail, but there is no pleasant place to walk, except inside the buildings.
Well, that's disappointing.

This inspires an interesting discussion about density and urbanism. Density can be an asset to cities, neighborhoods and urban spaces - but density alone doesn't create good urbanism. To me, City Center sounds a lot like the suburban "lifestyle centers" that I've criticized in the past. They're designed to look like neighborhoods, but few people actually live in them. There's virtually no transportation network (aside from roads connected to a parking lot) and it's not self-sustaining. The only way to keep it going is to constantly bring people in from outside the gates.

Biking on a Trail

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means for a city to be "bicycle friendly". Obviously, it means that a city is a good place to ride a bike. But that just leads to another question: what makes a city a good place to ride a bike?

Bicycle facilities are a good start. I'm fortunate to live in a place that has a lot of them. Bike lanes, multi-use trails, etc. I use most of this infrastructure every day, but I disproportionately use the on-street stuff more than I use the trails. In my four months living in Arlington, I just haven't had a great experience with the trails.

(from dailyjoe on Flickr)

Multi-use trails aren't just for bicyclists. They're also for walkers, joggers, runners, roller-bladers, dog-walkers, or just about anyone that's not on a motorized vehicle. They're great for recreation and for exercise. They're a little less great for getting places or training for the Olympics. I use my bike for transportation, so it's important that the trails go places that I need to go. Often, they don't - or they take me out of my way. For getting around, I find the on-street bike lanes a lot more convenient.

Riding on a trail is a completely different dynamic than riding on a street. When you're on the street, you're sharing the road with cars. It's the motorists who can cause a lot of damage if they aren't careful. On the trail, that dynamic reverses. Bikes are the dominant vehicle. Cyclists have the responsibility to watch out for slower moving traffic. To me, it's nerve-wracking. In a lot of ways, I feel similar biking on a trail as I do when I'm driving on a busy street.

I understand the allure of multi-use trails. There's something comforting about knowing that there aren't any cars to get in your way. And trails are superior to poorly designed streets, and streets designed only for high-speed traffic. Unfortunately, a lot of cities and suburbs have far too many of these streets, which make trails look disproportionately attractive to those who like riding bikes. I'm lucky to be in a city with great urban bicycling facilities, so I know that there can be a good middle ground.

Coffee and Coffee Shops

I really enjoyed Tim Carmen’s column in last week’s City Paper about coffee shops around Greater DC. Since I moved, I’ve made it a goal to visit all of the local shops in Arlington and DC. I’ve actually been to quite a few, although fortunately DC has so many local coffee shops that I still have a lot of places to go.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

What makes a coffee shop great? Is it about the drink? Or is it about the experience? It’s definitely about both. Unfortunately, it’s hard for a lot of coffee shops to pull-off both.

When it comes to coffee itself, the best cup in town is up at Qualia Coffee in Petworth. What makes this place unique is the attention to detail they keep at every step in the process, from the moment the beans are roasted until brewing process is complete. I’m also a big fan of Peregrine Espresso on the Hill and I’ve enjoyed the coffee I drank at Mid City Caffe on 14th Street.

Unfortunately, I’m yet to find a coffee shop in DC that I can definitively say offers a great experience. Northside Social has a lot of space, but it’s not particularly comfortable to me. Java Shack in Arlington has a really nice outdoor patio, although the number of patio days left this year is getting smaller and smaller. And for what it’s worth, I like the interior design Mid City Caffe has utilized, as far as making efficient use of its limited space.

I’m not sure if DC will ever have the “perfect coffee shop” – it’s not easy to pull off in any city where the cost of doing business is very high. I’ll keep looking for it though, and enjoying DC’s many good coffee shops in the meantime.

Around the Web

As mentioned last week, I’m doing a little blogging away from home.

Over at Greater Greater Washington, I take a look at the impact the proposed Southwest / Airtran merger will have on air travel in the region. As a traveler highly loyal to Southwest, anything that has the potential the alter the Southwest experience worries me, so I hope that little changes once the acquisition occurs.

On All Opinions Are Local, I make the case for a fully implemented bicycle sharing in DC. Whether or not it’s politics as usual – the fact that CaBi stations are getting nixed and renegotiated is concerning. For each bike station that doesn’t get installed, the entire system becomes that much less useful.

The Social Network

I saw The Social Network last weekend. It's entertaining. If you want to see an entertaining movie - go see it. I won't give away any spoilers in this post.

The movie is a drama. It's a work of art. But it's supposed to be about a true story - the founding of Facebook. So I'm really uneasy about the idea that accuracy can take a back seat, so long as the film is a well-written piece of art.

(from deneyterrio on Flickr)

I've now read two stories about Facebook and seen one film. The first, Ben Mezrich's book The Accidental Billionaires, is admittedly an entertaining read; but not without issues. The main issue is that Ben Mezrich is unfortunately known for writing questionably accurate depictions of events in order to create page-turning books. But at the end of the day, I wasn't there and I can't judge whether Mezrich is being fair to reality. The bigger issue with Mezrich's book is that it uses Eduardo Saverin as its primary source. And anyone who's read The Accidental Billionaires or seen The Social Network knows that Saverin has pretty significant motive to tell a story that's not favorable of Mark Zuckerberg.

Now we have the movie version of a questionably accurate book. It's written by Aaron Sorkin, a screenwriter who's freely admitted that he barely understands Facebook or the social web.

Lastly, we have Jose Antonio Vargas's profile of Mark Zuckerberg in the New Yorker. It's a great profile, and it's a piece that leaves you scratching your head, because many of the things we learn about Mark Zuckerberg in the article are things that aren't portrayed at all in the book or the film. At the end of the day, Vargas actually sat down with Zuckerberg; Mezrich and Sorkin didn't.

When Aaron Sorkin wrote The West Wing, he wrote it about a fictional administration. What if the main charter instead was Bill Clinton or George Bush? The show made for good drama without presenting itself as reality. That's what makes The Social Network different. There are plenty of people who will walk out of theaters accepting, on-face, that what they just saw is exactly what happened.

Thinking About Food Trucks

In last week’s Washington City Paper, Tim Carman does a great job analyzing the controversy surrounding the growing number of food trucks blanketing the city. I really like Carman’s piece because it takes a pretty balanced look at the different players in what’s shaping up to be a major legislative battle. There are a lot of interested parties with something to lose.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

This is an interesting topic to me. It’s something I’ve written about previously. But I think there are two angles that get overlooked in Carman’s piece. First, how do food trucks really impact restaurant markets? Second, how do food trucks affect streetscapes?

Food Truck Economics
The prevailing opinion among brick-and-mortar restaurant owners and the Business Improvement Districts that represent them is that food sales are zero-sum. So a truck that sells food to people must therefore take sales away from other restaurants. I’m not sure I buy it. There’s a compelling reason to think food trucks could create new economies of agglomeration, which would actually benefit brick-and-mortar restaurants.

This is particularly true downtown, where lunch options are often bland and limited. What food trucks could do is get people to come down from their office buildings instead of brown bagging their lunch or eating at the company cafeteria. Obviously more research is needed on this question, but it’s not fair to assume that all food sales have to tradeoff.

I’ve only eaten at a few of these trucks (my office isn’t in a part of town that seems to attract them) but my experience hasn’t been all that amazing. Yes, the food is tasty, but you have to remember that it’s food from a truck. It’s prepared, cooked and served in the back of a tiny, tiny vehicle; and there really is a limit to how good it can be.

Food Truck Urbanism
How do trucks impact streetscapes? On the one hand, getting people out onto the streets and sidewalks creates a vibrant atmosphere. At the same time, sidewalks crowded with people to the point where no one can get through is problematic. And since these trucks just drive away at the end of the day, there’s the question of whether they ultimately hurt the neighborhoods where they do their business.

I'm inclined to conclude that, in general, food trucks improve the streetscapes where they park - at least while they're there. That said, I think the fact that food trucks actually do drive away every night means that they can only complement vibrant places, not create them on their own. Ultimately, a neighborhood will need to attract real brick-and-mortar businesses to thrive.