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 form of residential vacancy, but that's not now most people think about it; and it impacts how and where they choose to live.
  • The Cupcake Economy - people are willing to pay seemingly insane amounts of money for gourmet cupcakes. Is it the result of supply and demand? or is something else going on?
  • Why Did Geauga Lake Fail? - when a historic amusement park closed its doors, a lot of speculative theories began floating around. I believe the park's downfall was the result of failed real-estate speculation.
  • Climate Change Rhetoric - using the term 'global warming' instead of 'climate change' is really doing a disservice to those who want to do something about it.
  • 20-Somethings - the Millennial generation behaves the way it does for a variety of reasons, many of which are external and outside of their control.
Urban Thinking
  • Urbanism is not Environmentalism - urbanism has many environmentaly-friendly elements, but it's primary goal is livable communities, not environmental protection.
  • What Seinfeld Teaches Us About Parking - Seinfeld, a show about nothing, actually teaches a lot of useful things about parking.
  • The Psychology of Unlimited Transit Passes - unlimited ride passes offer urban dwellers a sense of freedom that they don't get if they have to pay every time they make a trip.
  • Transforming a Car-Dependent City - living in Dallas, Texas gave me a new appreciation for urbanism; but now that a new section of DART's Green Line is open, Dallas might become more livable.
  • Not My Lifestyle Kind of Center - when I struggled to ride my bike to a local 'lifestyle center,' I realized what makes these places so egregious.
  • Why People Dislike Buses - in theory, buses are inexpensive alternatives to rail travel; in reality, there are many reasons that people don't like riding buses.
  • Nobody Walks There - my former neighborhood near Cleveland suffered from difficult-to-use sidewalks in the winter, but the bigger issue is that the area simply isn't designed to be walkable.
  • Re-Thinking the Role of Public Transit - when public transportation goes from being a public service to a welfare service, everyone suffers.
  • The Tale of Two Suburbs - suburbs aren't all created equally, poor design makes some much less livable than others.
  • BRT: Lessons from Cleveland - cities that want to implement BRT should learn from what Cleveland has done, not blindly copy the flaws from its system.
Coffee Culture
  • Visiting Laptopistan - before I moved to Washington, much of what appeared on this blog was written at my favorite coffee shop. There's something wonderful but hard to explain about working from a cafe.
  • French Press On-Tap - any coffee shop that uses the word 'gourmet' to describe what it serves ought to offer a French press coffee option.
  • Iced Coffee Snobbery - brewing a cup of coffee and sticking in the fridge really shouldn't be considered iced-coffee. The cold-brew method is definitely the way to go.
  • Coffee Roasting Snobbery - roasting coffee at home is inexpensive and produces some of the freshest coffee you'll ever taste. It's also not as hard as you'd think.
  • Coffee Cup Branding - why more local and independent coffee shops don't serve their to-go drinks in a branded cup is something that baffles me.
Travel Reports

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 every city that people want to live in today was always hospitable. New York, Chicago, Washington all went through some very bad times. Ask someone who lived in one of these metro areas during the 70s or 80s and I guarantee you'll hear stories about now-hip neighborhoods where "nobody used to go". When you've witnessed the downfall of a neighborhood, are those memories always lingering in the back of your mind?

I'd suggest that only in the past few years have people of parenting age experienced cities post-turnaround. Some of them don't remember the time when "you didn't go there".

There's also something to be said about crime itself. Historically, crime has been highest in urban areas because criminals were there, people with the means to do so moved out. Of course, just because suburbs have historically had lower crime than cities, it's fallacious logic to believe that it will continue to hold forever.

I don't expect to see babies flooding into cities immediately, but as the "you're nuts" attitude becomes less and less prominent, maybe more people won't be so quick to assume it's a bad idea.

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 outside of major cities barely deserve the designation as a 'station'. A 'stop' or 'platform' is probably more realistic to what they are.

In theory, things like aesthetics shouldn't really matter. How fast, frequently, and reliably trains, planes or buses operate, plus how much they cost should drive peoples' travel decisions. But deep down, these things still matter. I'm not suggesting it's worth rushing out and investing resources in amazing train stations right now, but over time, it's something that really should be kept in mind.

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 vouchers attract people, but then when they arrive, they wind up spending well in excess of what they're allotted. Plus there's the fact that not everyone redeems their vouchers before the expire. A redemption rate less than 100% means that at least some of the cash is getting pocketed.

The best thing about Groupon, and its copycats, is that it allows people to experience places in a city they might not have ever been, planned to go, or even knew existed. I can really only afford to eat at so many of DC's restaurants on an entry-level salary, but having a voucher means that maybe I can visit a few more.


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 would be a lot more difficult for me to ride if there were tons of bicyclists out on the street.

Third, interestingly, many of the sidewalks in Arlington were salted and cleared while the streets were still a slushy mess. This is really the first place I've ever lived where the needs of pedestrians seemed to be considered at least equally to the needs of motorists. Now that I've gotten used to busy street-life, I can definitely notice when I go back home or to a place where it doesn't exist; but the snow really gave me a new perspective on walkable urbanism.

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 mentions the fact that Detroit, a city that few would disagree is in bad shape, lured Blue Cross Blue Shield back downtown by offering a generous incentive package. To me, this suggests that companies are primarily motivated by the almighty dollar. It also serves as evidence that cities and suburbs are, to an extent, in a zero-sum game to land companies and jobs. So when urban mayors dismiss companies leaving downtown and rattle off talking points about cooperative regionalism, it concerns me.

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.
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 that the Great Lakes had gotten pretty good at predicting seasonal demand and keeping up the production process. After all, I don't remember having trouble finding the stuff last winter...

Maybe there is a legitimate reason the brewery didn't produce more of their highly popular beer this year. Or maybe the conspiracy theorists are onto something when they say that these shortages are designed to maintain the "cult following" that Christmase Ale has developed over the years. The harder it is to get your hands on, the more that Christmas Ale fanatics have to savor every sip.

Whatever the case, I feel disappointed that this happened. I still think Great Lakes produces some of the best craft beer around, but to be able to drink it, you first need to be able to find it.

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 the cost. In the end, you wind up with a table full of people ordering expensive dishes they wouldn't have otherwise wanted, and walking away at the end of the night with a lot less money in their bank accounts.

Really though, I'm not sure I understand at what point it became so offensive for people to pay their fair share. Maybe it's because I'm young or because I've never had any money; but I've always been under the impression that the default among friends was to split a check based on what you ordered and only what you ordered.

For that matter, if I wasn't able to pay my fair share, there's no doubt that I'd go out a lot less often. Being able to budget what I can afford to spend on a night out is important. Otherwise, I'd have to skip out on outings where I knew people were going to spend like crazy and that I'd get stuck with a big share of the bill.

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 inspiring about writing from a good coffee shop - it's a feeling that's hard to describe. I enjoyed being able to chat with my barista friends about whatever came to mind. I liked seeing all of the customers come in and out of the cafe, and saying hello to the ones I knew.

Of course, this all raises questions about "squatters" and coffee shop etiquette and whether people like me are really ruining the very businesses that are propping us up. I think Sax's explanation of why so many coffee shop owners still invite laptop users in is on-point:
While the people behind the screens spent a paltry $6 to $10 per day, their true value is as a draw for more profitable takeout customers, Mr. Lorenzetti said. From the moment the door opens at 7 a.m. until it closes at 9 p.m., the place is buzzing, a productive society, visible from the street through wraparound windows. “People come in to buy food and coffee to go, because they see a full crowd,” he said. “They think ‘Hey, this place must be good if I can’t even get a table.’ ”
This is something which I can definitely relate to. There's not much that's more awkward than going into a business where you're the only customer. I know it's not an entirely rational response, but it's true.

I've come to appreciate that finding a good coffee shop to work is not easy. It has to be warm and welcoming, keep good hours, serve tasty drinks, and have plenty of space. Most coffee shops are really good at one or two of those things. Very few are good at all of them.

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-manufacturers to protect union jobs (bad for urbanism).

To be a true urbanist means you have to set hard political ideologies aside. It means that you need to accept that urbanism draws upon ideas from both liberalism and conservativism, and that it's OK to cross the ideological aisle.

Urbanism, after all, shouldn't be about propping up a political ideology. It should be about creating livable, walkable, affordable neighborhoods. And it should be about making life better for the people who live in them.

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 even when minor problems occur. But given how much truly goes into making a city run, to me it's actually something of a miracle that things work with the precision and the efficiency that they do.

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 don't understand what she's doing, and what unexpected events happen along the way.

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 these two couples could find each other, they could swap homes, continue paying the mortgage on the property they own, and live essentially rent-free in the other.

Admittedly, it sounds good in theory. I'm not sure how easy it would be to find a situation in which the swap would be mutually beneficial.