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Showing posts from December, 2010

Year in Review

Today brings a close to another successful year in the blogosphere. I published over 240 posts here at Extraordinary Observations, and started doing some writing over at Greater Greater Washington and WaPo's All Opinions are Local.

(from Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton on Flickr)

Without a doubt, my most memorable piece from this year was the degree density analysis that I wrote about in the spring. When I published it, I thought it was an interesting topic, but had no idea that it would go viral. Nevertheless, I'm glad to have caught the attention of a number of respectable bloggers, even if my findings were misinterpreted and incorrectly reported by other news outlets.

In any case, if you happened to miss them, here's a roundup of some of my favorite posts from 2010.

Everyday Observations
Contrarianism - going against the grain isn't' always such a bad thing, but the power of culture often makes it difficult to do so.The Extra Bedroom Problem - empty bedrooms are a for…

Kids in the City

Carla Saulter has a nice article over at Grist that compares differences in personal safety between cities and suburbs. She writes:
The study found that the most dangerous regions of nine metropolitan areas (Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Milwaukee, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Philadelphia, and Pittsburgh) are the outer suburbs. (Inner-ring suburbs were the safest, with central cities coming in second.) People, especially children, are most likely to be hurt or killed in an automobile crash, and, not surprisingly, automobile crashes are more prevalent in areas that require cars to get around.This is an interesting metric, but it's hardly the only metric that matters when it comes to raising a family. Urban school districts, even the better ones, tend to be poor compared to their surrounding suburbs. For a lot of people, this is all that matters. But there are also psychological factors that I'd hypothesize are barriers to more kids in the city.

(from Ed Yourdon on Flickr)

Not eve…

Who Bikes? Who Cares?

Brian Ladd has a really interesting post up at Planetizen titled The Motorist's Identity Crisis. Historically, he explains, bicyclists and public transit users have been viewed by society as losers, unable to afford to own or operate their own automobile. Now, in some cities, they've become cool trend-setters.

(from nevermindtheend on Flickr)

Of course, because of the way our cities and suburbs are built and designed, cars will continue to be the most practical means of transportation for many, but those who don't drive won't be cast under the same dark shadow that they used to be.

Public transit users, I'll agree, have faced a stigma for a long time. But bicyclists? Is it true that they're viewed in the same light?

Plane and Train Stations

During my holiday travel, I've had the chance to see a few of America's airports, train stations, and bus stops. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule, but in general, airports, once you get past the security checkpoint, are typically pretty decent and comfortable places to wait for your flight. At least that's the case compared to some of the Amtrak stations I've seen.

(from Eddie~S on Flickr)

Consider BWI airport. I travel out of BWI nearly every time I fly to and from Washington. I think the Southwest terminals are pretty nice; then I think of the BWI Amtrak station down the road. Compared to the airport, the train terminal is bland, grungy-looking, and generally not a very pleasant place to sit around while waiting for your train to arrive.

There are still a few great train stations left in America. Union Station in Washington isn't a bad place to catch a train, but Penn Station in New York is hardly a warm or inviting environment. And most of the stations o…

Who Doesn't Love Groupon?

Matt Schwartz has a really great article in Wired about the growth of Groupon and its many competitors, but also the resurgence of clip-out coupons. There's not a lot of people you'll meet that won't say "I love Groupon!" (though many others may have never heard of it). And really, what's not to love? You can get awesome stuff for deep discounts with rarely any issues. It's like the deal that seems way too good to be true, and amazingly, it's legit.

(from camknows on Flickr)

Ultimately, there's one big underlying question: how do businesses that sell groupons make any money? After all, if you're selling $50 meals for $25, or hundred dollar yoga classes for a fraction of the price, that's gotta be seriously slicing into your profit margin.

To this question, there are many explanations. Some people say that retailers can make it up through volume. Others say that vouchers attract new customers who become repeat customers. A few believe that vou…

Snow

Last week DC got its first "real snow" of the winter. The weather event actually reminded me of a few notable things about snow.

(from By bobistraveling on Flickr)

First, it's really not about how much snow falls, it's about how governments and citizens are able to deal with it. When I was in high school, I used to joke that kids in Florida got more snow days, on average, each year, than kids in Cleveland. For better or worse, as snow came down, life generally went on for us. So when three inches of snow falls and people freak out, it's not because it's a lot of snow, it's because they're not good at dealing with the situation.

Second, I think that if people feel safer or more comfortable staying in their houses, then by all means they should. When I wrote about winter bicycling last March, people thought I had an agenda to convince more people to do it. The truth is that it makes life easier for me if both motorists and bicyclists stay off the roads. It…

Noise Pollution

Last week the House overwhelming passed a bill that requires hybrid and electric autos to be noisier. When the bill becomes law, it will be heralded as a win for pedestrian safety. The unfortunate reality is that it's merely a band-aid on a much larger problem that few are willing to address.

(from zombieite on Flickr)

There are so many streets in America that, by design, aren't safe for pedestrians. So many streets were designed to move automobiles at high speeds and it often turns into political football when policy makers are even bold enough to speak up on the issue.

Of course, there's something really twisted about a law to require automakers to make their vehicles artificially louder. Vibrant neighborhoods aren't great because they have lots of loud vehicular traffic; they're great because people can enjoy them outside of their cars. What we really need are safer streets, not noisier cars.

Working Downtown

Anton Troianovski has a nice article in the Wall Street Journal about the reversing trend of white-collar office jobs moving from suburban office parks to downtown skyscrapers.

(from wallyg on Flickr)

I've worked in just about every type of office environment... I've worked at companies in the heart of downtown, deep in the suburbs, and in urban wastelands. I've been at places that are transit and bicycle friendly, and I've been at places where no one has any option but to drive. Personally, I don't think anything beats the amenities and transportation options that come with working downtown. Of course, not everyone agrees.

A lot of the discussion in the article focuses on the theory that Americans like cities again for the first time in decades, they hate long commutes, they want to live close to downtown, and companies are wise to locate where talent is. I think this is mostly true, but I'm not sure it's the driving force behind these movements.

Troianovski m…

Fun With Census Data

Yesterday morning the Census Bureau released its first 5-year American Community Survey estimates. It's the first time since 2000 that we've had any demographic data down to the neighborhood level.

(from quinn.anya on Flickr)

I've been playing around with the data quite a bit since yesterday, and I've got a few ideas for posts in the pipeline; but for now it means that things might be quiet around here for a little while.

In the meantime, you can check out this very cool map over at the New York Times website, which explores a few key variables across the country, and this post over at Greater Greater Washington about the changing population in DC.

The Case of the Missing Christmas Ale

When I left Cleveland last summer, I noted a number of things that I knew I would miss. Among them, some of the best craft beer in the country. Needless to say, I was pretty excited when I heard that Great Lakes Brewing Company would be distributing Christmas Ale in DC this season for the first time ever.

That excited faded quickly, as I realized that it would be nearly impossible to find in the nation's capital. After all, Great Lakes was planning to sell 80% of the seasonal brew in Northeast Ohio - and I understand why that decision was made.

(from The Cleveland Kid on Flickr)
I figured if I could find Christmas Ale anywhere, it would be in the place where it was born, and it was pretty disheartening when I arrived in Northeast Ohio this weekend to find store shelves empty and kegs at local bar dry. There's still two weeks left before the holiday and already Christmas Ale is nowhere to be found, even in Northeast Ohio.

After the great Christmas Ale shortage of 2007, I figured th…

Splitting the Check

Beth Teitell has an interesting article in the Boston Globe about the changing dynamics of how people pay for their meals at restaurants. For a long time, friends would meet to share a meal, order whatever their hearts desired, and split the check evenly when the server brought it out. These days, that's not happening so much anymore.

(from minusbaby on Flickr)

As a student of economics, I couldn't help but come across the restaurant check splitting problem on more than one occasion. It's an illustrative example of how incentives can get warped to the point where they significantly change an individual's behavior.

Typically, the story follows that, in a world where everyone pays for what they order, each person does a cost / benefit analysis to determine which menu item offers the best value for the best price. But when friends split the check evenly, everything changes. Now the incentive is to order the most expensive item on the menu, since everyone else is splitting th…

Visiting Laptopistan

A friend of the blog recently emailed this very good article from the New York Times by David Sax. The author visited Atlas Café in Williamsburg to understand what drives people to set up their laptops in a coffee shop and work for hours.

(from rubenerd on Flickr)

This is a topic that hits close to home for me. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you might be interested to learn that between September 2009 and May 2010, roughly 4 out of every 5 posts published here were written from my favorite coffee shop.

Why did I spend so much time and so much money there? It's not because I needed their internet. I could have just as easily set-up in my kitchen table at home, with a pot of coffee brewed in my French press, and worked. I could have grabbed coffee on campus and worked in the university library. And it's not because I needed coffee or caffeine - I drank plenty of cups of decaf during the time I spent working from my favorite coffee shop.

There's something inspi…

Ideology and Urbanism

Stephen Smith has an excellent post over at Market Urbanism that explores why liberals and conservatives hold seemingly inconsistent beliefs about urbanism.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

I've been thinking about this issue over the past few weeks, and I think Smith is right in suggesting that the elements of urbanism do not fall neatly into liberal or conservative buckets. Good urbanism incorporates elements that both sides should theoretically love, and some elements that they should both hate.

Ultimately this leaves someone who strictly believes in an ideology intellectually torn.

If you're a pro-free market, hands-off government libertarian, for example, then you would oppose government imposed parking minimums (good for urbanism) but also oppose government funded public transit infrastructure (bad for urbanism). If you're a liberal, perhaps you would support walkable communities that reduce carbon footprints (good for urbanism) but also support subsidizing auto-manufacture…

The Miracle of Cities

I finally got a chance to listen to the Cities episode of WNYC's Radiolab. It's an excellent program, especially for those of us that love urban places. If you have an hour of free time, it's worth a listen.

I particularly like the second segment of the show 'The Belly of the Beast" which delves into some of the behind-the-scenes aspects of how cities are built and how they work.

(from Logan Hicks on Flickr)

Last winter I read The Works by Kate Ascher. Even though it's more of a coffee table reference book than something you would read on an airplane, the author does an amazing job explaining how every piece of city infrastructure works, from tap water to electrical wires to subways to street sweepers. The descriptions are easy to digest and the graphics are beautiful.

One thing I took away from The Works is how badly most of us take cities and urban infrastructure for granted. Every day and every week we wake up and expect everything to work, and we get upset eve…

Homelessness vs. Carlessness

Emily, a friend who's guest posted here in the past, recently started a new blog, The Glam Nomad. I'm intrigued by what she's doing. From her About page:
This is a story about a girl who sold all of her earthy possessions except the clothes off her back (ok, she kept a decent amount of her wardrobe, a girl has to dress!) and simply lived life, one day at a time.The other day I wrote about my experience living without a car in Dallas, Texas. Emily's story is about the experience of living without a home in Dallas, Texas. The experiences are similar in more ways than you might think.

(from itselea on Flickr)

The unfortunate reality is that it isn't easy to live without either a car or a home in a city like Dallas. What's striking is that, in a major city, it's nearly as difficult to live without a home as it is to live without a car.

I'm interested to see how Emily's experience plays out, whether she experiences stigma and challenges from people who do…

Housing Swap

A friend of the blog emailed this story about the tiny house movement. Despite the name, people aren't necessarily downsizing from suburban McMansions to 89 square foot shacks. A lot of these tiny houses are getting plopped in yards for use as extra space.

There's still something driving the idea that people really want to downsize. A few weeks ago I was talking to an empty-nester who explained that his home in outside-the-beltway DC is just too much these, now that his adult children are gone and not coming back. Ideally, he and his wife love a condo or apartment in walkable Arlington; but selling their home is prohibitively costly and complicated.

He then told me about an interesting idea: a housing swap.

(from camknows on Flickr)

It goes something like this: a young couple owns a condo or townhouse in the city, but they have a kid and maybe another baby on the way. An empty-nester couple owns a home in suburbia, but it's a lot to maintain and it's far from things. If th…