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Showing posts from November, 2010

Transforming a Car-Dependent City

From January through May of 2008 I lived in Dallas, Texas. As far as the city goes, I wasn’t a huge fan (although I loved interning at Southwest Airlines).

I consistently felt overwhelmed by the car-culture. Everyone I knew drove a car. Almost all of my fellow-interns owned a car (how they afforded it, I’m still not entirely sure). People often talk about how cars offer the ultimate freedom. Living in Dallas made me realize why this belief is so widespread, and yet, why it's so misleading.

From my apartment window I could see construction workers hammering away on DART’s Green Line. Every day I imagined how much different my life would be if it were operating. The northern section of DART's Green Line is scheduled to open in a week, and again I’m caught thinking how my life might be different if I lived in Dallas today.

(from Diorama Sky on Flickr)

Even though I lived only about 3 miles from Southwest’s headquarters near Love Field Airport, walking, biking, or taking public transi…

Building Up, Building Out

I've written before about my opposition to DC's height limit. Yglesias brings up an interesting thought experiment to counter the argument that the height limit is good for underdeveloped neighborhoods in the city. Consider some other inefficient rule about the use of downtown DC space. Maybe the City Council is proposing a rule that everyone in the downtown business district needs to wear blue on Monday, green on Tuesday, red on Wednesday, purple on Thursday, and yellow on Friday. Someone says “you know, that’ll be bad for business.” But the proponents of the new rule say “no way; not only will the impact be minimal, if anything it’ll help the city by encouraging investment in under-developed neighborhoods.”

I say false. The best thing under-developed DC neighborhoods have going for them is proximity and connectivity to the valuable land and economic activity in downtown DC. Measures that reduce the value of that downtown land and activity reduce the value of proximity to down…

Big City Walmarts

Since Walmart announced its intent to develop stores in the District of Columbia, it's been a hot topic. The company's leveraging of the 'food desert' problem has been interesting, and shows that they are clearly appealing to local pain-points to maneuver their way into the city.

(from Lone Primate on Flickr)

Whether or not you like Walmart, their arrival is probably inevitable at this point. I often feel like the people who dislike the store on ideological grounds are loud and outspoken, but not as large in number as you might expect. Walmart isn't going to put its stores in the part of town where its critics live - they know better than that. They're targeting underdeveloped sections of the city and know that they can win support from people there.

In urbanist circles, the debate seems to be boiling down to a question of whether or not Walmart can effectively be 'urban' or whether it's going to stick to its guns and try to force a suburban style supe…

Music Mashup

I've gotten a chance to listen to Girl Talk's new album All Day a few times since I downloaded it last week. I'm really enjoying it and I think it's his best album yet. It has a very good mix of songs from different genres and time periods, as oppose to his last album, Feed The Animals, which seems to rely a lot more heavily on rap and hip-hop songs.

(from Kmeron on Flickr)

There's something about mashups that really appeals to me. Even though I probably wouldn't care to put 95% of the songs that Girl Talk samples onto my iPod in their original form, I get a lot of enjoyment out of hearing them in the remixed format.

Anyway, the new album is available to download at no-cost. I highly recommend giving it giving it a listen. If you haven't listed to a Girl Talk album before, it's a good one to start with. If you have, it's even better than a lot of the stuff that he's produced in the past.

Perils of Higher Education

Ed Dante's article in the Chronicle of Higher Education is probably one of the best pieces I've read in the Chronicle is a long time. It's a fascinating look at the (mostly) secret behind-the-scenes paper writing market.
You would be amazed by the incompetence of your students' writing. I have seen the word "desperate" misspelled every way you can imagine. And these students truly are desperate. They couldn't write a convincing grocery list, yet they are in graduate school. They really need help. They need help learning and, separately, they need help passing their courses. But they aren't getting it.It's really a scathing critique of the failings of higher education. The college degree (as in, the piece of paper) has become so important that students are willing to go to extreme lengths to get it, even if they aren't capable or qualified of getting it on their own.

(from velkr0 on Flickr)

Last spring when I published my analysis of degree densit…

Fast Food

I haven't eaten McDonald's in a long time. I'm pretty sure the last time I ate McDonald's was at a rest stop somewhere in rural Pennsylvania last winter. Here's the thing about fast food... I definitely appreciate that it's cheap and convenient, even if not particularly healthy. The reason I avoid the big fast food giants is because I simply don't like their food.

There is, of course, on exception: Chipotle.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

Consider this... McDonalds and Wendy's serve burgers and fries, two items which I happen to be pretty good at making at home on the grill in the back yard. Subway makes sandwiches, and there are dozens of sandwich shops that make a better product. Domino's and Papa Johns are alright once in a while, but there are so many better places to get a pizza pie. In most instances, whatever food the fast-food giants specialize in, there's another place nearby that serves much tastier grub.

Chipotle is unique, in this sense. T…

Liberal Places

Amanda Hess has a very good article over at TBD that a lot of people in the blogosphere are talking about. When I asked the opinion of a friend of the blog, who lives in a neighborhood near where the incident occurred, this is what he wrote: The article exposes some of the bigoted, racist violence that festers beneath DC's self-congratulatory liberal veneer.This raises an interesting question. What makes a person, or a place, liberal? It's true that Washington DC votes for Democratic candidates over Republicans mightily in every election; and it's generally accepted that Republicans have no place in local politics. But does that alone make nearly everyone in the District a liberal?

(from joseph a on Flickr)

Voting Democratic doesn't make someone a liberal; and similarly, voting Republican doesn't make someone a conservative. These distinctions ought to be better drawn out, because they matter. Looking at past presidential election results or who is representing a dis…

Culinary Destinations

I've been seeing a lot of Tweets lately about Adam Richman's comments on the Today Show proclaiming Cleveland as a best-kept foodie secret. I also think Richman get it right in his explanation of why it's a hidden gem. [Cleveland] has gotten a bad rap because of its history — going into default, the [Cuyahoga] River fire, bad sports teams — but it is the heartland, it’s near great farmland, there’s the historic West Side Market, and you get more bang for your buck there. From my perspective, the fact that out-of-towners aren't flocking to Cleveland and its restaurants is one of the key reasons that they are able to maintain a high level of quality.

(from Through my windshield on Flickr)

As restaurants become popular, and eventually 'destinations', something's gotta give. To keep up with the pace, many destination restaurants raise prices, others sacrifice quality for efficiency, or both.

One classic example is Pat's and Geno's in Philadelphia. These ar…

Blocking the Bike Lane

Lydia DePillis writes about the frustrations of having someone or something blocking a bike lane.
For bicycle commuters, there are few experiences more frustrating than having automobiles block your bike lanes, as if people weren't actually trying to use them for transportation. It's downright dangerous–cyclists don't expect large stationary objects to appear in the middle of their right-of-way, and the more absent-minded of us are prone to run into them.For me, I'm not really worried about running into whatever stationary object is blocking the lane. The bigger issue is having to merge into traffic in order to go around it.

(from tvol on Flickr)

When you have a separated bike lane, motorists tend to expect everyone on a bike to stay in that lane. Problem is, when there is a a bus, car or taxi blocking it, there's nowhere to go but around. Unfortunately, there are motorists who get upset that bicyclists have to cut into the driving lane to get around the obstruct…

Around the Web

In case you're wondering what I've been up to when I'm not writing here...

Over at Greater Greater Washington, I take issue with talking buses. It looks like they might get rolled out in Washington, and that concerns me. Cleveland's RTA first starting running noise-making buses about a year and a half ago, and I've never been a fan. I struggle to understand how they improve safety, and it seems like others agree.

I have a couple of post up at All Opinions are Local. Next year Washington will be home to a few new microbreweries. I'm pretty excited about this, although I'm trying to keep my expectations in check since I've been spoiled by Great Lakes beer. Last month, a new independent movie theater just opened it's doors. It's a much appreciated development in a city with great movie theaters, but dominated by big corporate chains.

Playing the Blame Game

Erik Weber has a nice post up over at Greater Greater Washington that explores what went wrong during the Rally to Restore Sanity. I don't think anyone who attended would agree that it went off without a hitch. The overarching issue was that way more people attended than event planners were expecting. This created some serious transportation problems, and a lot of angry people looking for someone to blame.

(from MissChatter on Flickr)

In this case, there is no single party who's at fault. Blame falls in a lot of different places. The problem is... it's so much easier when blame can neatly in one place; when it's really easy to point the finger in one direction and move on.

So who can we point the finger at? We can blame Metro for not providing enough service to accommodate travelers. We can blame Comedy Central for not ponying up the money to allow Metro to run more trains or for providing WABA with funding to operate a bike valet. We can blame the rally-goers for not mak…

Democratic Government

This post over at ARLnow caught my eye. Arlington wants to take action against plastic bag pollution, but it's hit a roadblock:
Since Virginia is a Dillon Rule state, Arlington must first ask the state legislature for permission to pursue policies not specifically allowed by state law. In past years, the state government has been reluctant to grant Arlington any new taxing power.To me, this brings up interesting issues about representative democracy. If Arlington County wants to tax plastic bags, they need to approval of the state government, which is reluctant to allow them to do so. On the flip side, when DC wanted to impose the same tax, they did it, because they didn’t have to seek the same permission from people with different interests hundreds of miles away.

(from Idiolector on Flickr)

On the other hand, District residents have no representation in the U.S. Congress, which is a significant and commonly-known problem; and by-law, the federal government still has power over the …

Yearly Mile

This time last year someone turned my on to the website Daily Mile. It's a social media tool for keeping a log of exercise activities. I've used it to keep track of how much I bike.

(from teachandlearn on Flickr)

In the past year I biked 2450 miles.

At first glance, it seems like a pretty significant number. After all, that's good for 3 complete trips between Cleveland and Washington - on a bike. At the same time, most of my riding is simply around the city. Getting to and from the places I need to go; and my trips are relatively short. When I biked to college, I only lived a mile and half away from campus. Now, I live a little more than 2 miles from my job.

The more I think about it though, the more I wonder... how do people who own cars manage to put a hundred thousand miles on them in only a few years? It isn't taking long road-trips every week - it's mostly from getting around. Even short distances add up after a while. Medium and long distances really start to add…

Height Restrictions

The New York Times recently had a pretty good article about the height limit debate in DC. It's worth a read.

(from Mdrewe on Flickr)

In general, I think the height restriction is a pretty terrible policy. Unlike some who share this sentiment, I'm not convinced that overturning it will suddenly fix all of the problems it's created. Similarly, the idea that reversal of the height limit will radically change DC's skyline overnight seems overblown as well.

Could a few extra stories be added to the top of downtown buildings? Probably... Would skyscrapers pop up where modest buildings currently exist? Not in the short-term. That sort of transformation would take years or decades to happen.

Ultimately though, I have a difficult time taking the preservationist arguments seriously. If you stand down on the waterfront in Georgetown and look across the river, you see what looks like a downtown. Of course, that's Rosslyn, and the reason it is allowed to exist is because a state b…

Black and White Urbanism

People who don't particularly like urbanism or density like to suggest that supporters of livable places want to make everyone live like Europeans... But not everyone wants to live in an apartment complex, sharing walls with neighbors on all sides. Most of all, people want a yard, grass, a place where they can relax and the kids can play.

(from PlanningComm'rsJournal on Flickr)

This is all understandable. Yards are cool - but they're not all created equally. There's a difference between a modest sized yard and one with enough room for a golf course behind your house.

More broadly, this is a flawed way of thinking about urbanism.

Consider another example. When urbanists say it would be beneficial to get cars off the road, that doesn't mean getting every single car off the road. There's evidence that small reduction in cars can lead to big reductions in traffic congestion. Arguing for more transportation options doesn't mean that every person has to live in one …

Hooked on Netflix

A few weeks ago I wrote about the interesting love that people have for Netflix. I first used the service back in 2006. I had the 2 DVDs at a time plan. It was pretty cool, I saw some great independent films that I would have had a hard time finding otherwise. When I got busy with college I put my account on hold.

(from kristipwrs on Flickr)

I basically forgot about it until last month, when I re-activated my subscription because there were a few movies I wanted to see but was having a hard time finding anywhere else. Now, I have the 1 DVD at a time plan. I pay less money for it, and when you include the Netflix Instant content, get a lot more.

Honestly, I wonder how the casual TV watcher could justify paying significantly more money for cable when so much content, both movies and TV shows, exists on a $9 per month Netflix subscriptions.

Of course, there are things you can get on cable that you can't get on Netflix - live sports, news, the ability to watch shows during their initial r…

Progressive Parking Pricing

Tom Vanderbilt has a really interesting column in Slate about the history behind parking meters, the challenges of current parking policy, and how these might be dealt with in the future.

(from itspaulkelly on Flickr)

Last week I was thinking about how the pricing for Capital Bikeshare (and similar bikeshare systems) might be applied to parking meters. Currently, most parking meters charge a fix rate for a fixed amount of time. For example, 2 dollars per hour. If you want to park for up to a half-hour, you pay 1 dollar. If you want to park for four hours, you pay 8 dollars.

Capital Bikeshare, on the other hand, uses a progressive pricing system. So the longer you keep the bike, the more you have to pay.