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Showing posts from 2011

Brewing a Good Cup of Joe

For a while now I've been enjoying food shows - mostly stuff on the Food Network, like Good Eats and Iron Chef; but recently I've started watching America's Test Kitchen, which really is a fantastic show. Like many things on public television and public radio, America's Test Kitchen does a good job of communicating information without diluting it with a lot of fluff.

Another one of the things that makes the show so good is that they don't just show you recipes, they review different brands of ingredients and different pieces of kitchen equipment. Here's a segment that they did on drip coffee machines.



Not surprisingly, most of these machines make a pretty bad cup of coffee. To me, the idea of paying a hundred or more dollars for an appliance that makes coffee as bad as a cheapo machine makes me cringe. Of course, the reviewer does make a good point - fancy bells and whistles may simply be disguising the fact that the "guts" of the machine aren't any…

Profits at Non-Profits

Last week I was walking home from work, and without my iPod and earphones, had little ability to block out the loud conversation taking place behind me. One woman was telling another woman that she needs to get out of the non-profit sector because "there's no money in non-profits".

Meanwhile, over at Mother Jones, Josh Harkinson has argued that non-profit credit unions often serve their customers and their employees more effectively than giant corporate banks. I think this points to a fundamental misunderstanding, by a lot of people, about what it means for an organization to operate as a non-profit.

(from I-5 Design & Manufacture on Flickr)

There are some complicated legal and accounting details when it comes to classifying non-profits, but I think it can be summed up as simply as this: A non-profit organization is an entity that does not have owners or shareholders; a for-profit company is an entity that does.

A lot of people think "non-profit" is synonymous …

Traveling by Air

Later today I'll be boarding a plane and flying to Ohio for the holidays, just like I did last month for Thanksgiving, and dozens of other times this year, for a variety of reasons.

Last month I heard a pretty interesting interview on public radio with Andrew Thomas, who's written a book about the airline industry. I've always felt like kind of an out-of-place urbanist when it comes to air travel. From my experience, many urbanists love trains, buses, and bikes, while air travel often seems to get shunned along with the automobile as an occasionally necessary evil.

(from thomas23 on Flickr)

Without a doubt, one of the biggest downsides of airports is that they're almost always on the outskirts of cities. Train stations, on the other hand, tend to be centrally located. A downtown-to-downtown trip by air often involves ground transportation on both ends that can be expensive, and frankly, a pain. Asking someone for the "airport pickup" is a favor that usually requ…

How Demolition Came to Mean Stabilization

Yesterday's lead story on 60 Minutes was about vacancy and abandonment in Cleveland. This is an issue that hits close to home for me.

I started studying the problem in 2008. Back then the pressing question was how to target HUD money to strategically knock down blighted houses. The amount of money that HUD had to distribute wasn't nearly enough to take down all the vacant and abandoned houses, so using it wisely was key, and it still is.

I want to emphasize that even though 60 minutes may have opened a lot of eyes to demolition in Cleveland, it's not something that's new. The idea of knocking down houses as the means to saving neighborhoods may seem counter-intuitive, but it's been the prevailing strategy for several years now. Detroit has been following a similar strategy as well.



I do want to add something to the 60 Minutes analysis - a piece of the story that I don't always feel gets told. Foreclosures may have fueled vacancy in Cleveland, but foreclosure is no…

Cities, Urbanism and the Appeal of "New"

There's been a lot of chatter around the blogosphere about Christopher Leinberger's New York Times op-ed that I think really hits the nail on the head when it comes to the issue of what's ahead for fringe suburbs.

(from Mark Strozier on Flickr)

Basically, the hypothesis presented is that fringe suburbs are headed downward, and I think this piece of evidence is really the most damning.
Many drivable-fringe house prices are now below replacement value, meaning the land under the house has no value and the sticks and bricks are worth less than they would cost to replace. This means there is no financial incentive to maintain the house; the next dollar invested will not be recouped upon resale. Many of these houses will be converted to rentals, which are rarely as well maintained as owner-occupied housing. Add the fact that the houses were built with cheap materials and methods to begin with, and you see why many fringe suburbs are turning into slums, with abandoned housing and r…

Sprawl Killed the Mail

The fact that the U.S. Post Office is basically a failing enterprise is nothing new. Figuring out where things went wrong is becoming a common theme in the blogosphere.

(from Bennett V on Flickr)

Jordan Weissmann has this post over at the Atlantic that proposes several compelling theories, but it glosses over one that I've written about in the past: sprawl.

Sprawl is a problem for the postal service for the same reason it's a problem for regular citizens... you have to drive everywhere, gasoline is expensive, traffic is congested, it's hard to get places, etc.

When I think about a postal carrier doing a route in a city, I imagine them taking a push card and walking from the post office to houses and offices. The number of pieces of mail they can deliver per ounce of effort has got to be so much higher than the carrier who has to drive, in his/her truck, from one house, then to the next house, then to the next house.

Of course, for reasons of "fairness" or otherwise, t…

Politics Without Context

Someone sent me a link to this video today. It purports to show Mitt Romney as a wild flip-flopper. Watch for yourself.


Is Romney really incapable of holding a single position on these issues?.. maybe, probably; but this video provides zero real evidence, because all of the clips have obviously been sliced and diced, cherry picked, and presented without any relevant context.

This is what is so offensive about politics. The folks who made this video (apparently the Democratic National Committee, as it turns out) know that there are people who will actually be persuaded by it. To me, that says that they believe either a) people have already made up their minds and just want to make themselves feel good about their decision or b) people are not independently-minded enough to think beyond these carefully selected clips.

I don't care for Romney, but I'm also not persuaded by this sort of video. Sadly, it's going to continue, because enough people are. It looks like it's alread…

Seasonal Scarcity

Earlier in the month when I was traveling in Ohio, I got to drink some of the first Great Lakes Christmas Ale of the season. I've always been intrigued by its popularity. Even though it's a seasonal beer and only sells for two months of the year, it's the second highest selling beer in GLBC's entire portfolio.
For a beer that popular, it must be good, right? I've always thought so; but I recently looked it up on Beer Advocate, and found that the reviews are not nearly as overwhelmingly positive as I might have expected.
(from The Cleveland Kid on Flickr)
The primary complaint appears to be that it's overly spiced. Beer fanatics, it seems, don't like a lot of "stuff" in their beer. I get that. It's much like a coffee fanatic who doesn't want sweeteners, dairy or other flavors distracting from the taste of the drink.
Even so, I do think the seasonal scarcity is what makes a beer like Christmas Ale so good. You really can only drink the stuff in…

A Change of Heart on Homeownership

Emily Badger has a though-provoking article over at The Atlantic Cities about the desire, even in today's market, to buy a home, rather than to rent. If there's one topic that I've had a major change of opinion since I started writing this blog, this would be it.
(fromImages_of_Money on Flickr)
Nearly three years ago I sat down and wrote a four-post series about why I thought owning a home was a rotten deal. Today, I feel nearly the opposite. What's changed in the meantime is the place where I live. I believe that place, even at a subconscious level, is a major driver in opinion on this topic, all else equal.
To understand further, it's important to recognize the difference between the place I was living then (Cleveland) and the place that I'm living now (Washington DC). These are two wildly different housing markets, both on the rental and the sales side. Buying in one has benefits that don't exist in the other. Renting in one has benefits that don't exis…

In Defense of Road Tolls

I don't do much driving, but this year, I've made a couple of long-distance trips. The first was a round-trip between Washington and Akron - about 700 total miles. The second was the round-trip between Washington and Virginia Beach I did back in August - about 420 total miles. The first trip cost an extra $30 in tolls. The second trip was "free" as we often think of it. The first trip was generally low-stress and easy to drive. The second trip was high-stress and challenging to drive. Both trips took roughly the same amount of time (6 hours each way).
(from Joming Lau on Flickr)

When I tell people that I paid $30 to drive on the Pennsylvania and Ohio Turnpikes, they usually respond with "oh, what a ripoff" or "that's really expensive" or something of the nature.
I think the price is completely worth it.
See, people want to drive on a road as nice as the Pennsylvania Turnpike, with as little traffic, they just want it to be "free". The…

Yelping

There's a really interesting article over at GOOD about the power that Yelp has on local businesses. It describes my behavior pretty accurately, and makes me realize just how crucial a tool Yelp has become in my own life; and also for the businesses I patronize.

(from roboppy on Flickr)

Of course, Yelp has been around since 2004, and the idea of rating and reviewing businesses is nothing new. What is new is that a significant number of people now have smart phones, iPads, and other devices that can access to Yelp whenever and wherever they want.

Recently I was thinking about the appeal of Starbucks. It's not a place I go very often for a cup of coffee, but I do visit occasionally. Imagine you're on a road-trip, and it's getting dark, so you decide to pull over at the next rest stop. Inside the food court there's a Starbucks and a place called Carl's Coffee. Which do you pick? This Carl might have the best coffee in America; but he also might serve some truly awful…

The Groupon Effect

Last week this headline caught my attention: "Pizzeria Eschews Groupon, Offers Own Half-Off Deal". The article is about a gourmet pizzeria in Arlington that will offer half-price pies every Monday... all you have to do is walk in and ask for the deal.
(from afagen on Flickr)

There's nothing novel about businesses offering discounts on slow days. These discounts have been around for as long as there's been commerce. Groupon and it's endless copycats have been around for about 2 or so years, and already we've forgotten about what life used to be like before they existed.
When I was in college, I ate 40-cent wings every Monday. That's more than 50% off the menu price, and no coupon required, just come on any Monday after 3pm and order them. This bar also had specials on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Half-price pizzas, steak dinner for under 10 bucks, and 5-dollar burgers. It was designed to bring people in during the slowest part of the week, and from what …

Talking Coffee

Kojo Namdi did a very good show on coffee last Wednesday. Click through and listen to the segment, it's about a half-hour long and it's very good. They even produced this little video up at Qualia Coffee (hands down the best coffee shop in DC).



The show covers a number of coffee-related topics that I've written about here, including home roasting and culture around good coffee. Coffee is an interesting drink because the quality can vary so wildly depending on how it's roasted, ground and ultimately brewed. And unlike wine or beer, coffee is always made to-order. Someone can appreciate good wine, but wine is fermented and then stored in glass bottles. Beer is brewed and then canned or bottled. Someone who appreciates good coffee has to also appreciate the process by which its brewed in the moments immediately before it's enjoyed.
Also, for what it's worth, if you're in DC, check out the new website DistrictBean. It's not 100% there yet (I find some boilerp…

Streaming Video Will be Like Cable TV

Streaming video is the wave of the future? Right? That's what Netflix seems to believe, and what a lot of people are really wishing will be true. I'm not quite as optimistic.

(from craig1black on Flickr)

I actually see a future where streaming video is more like premium cable than like a high-tech video rental store.
With cable, if you want to watch an HBO series, you have to pay for HBO. If you want to watch a Showtime series, you have to pay even more for Showtime. On the other hand, the old "video store" concept ensures that, no matter which movie you want to rent, you can go to any rental store and find it there. We have the first sale doctrine to thank for that; and it's the reason why you can find virtually anything on Netflix. Unfortunately, no such thing exists when it comes to streaming video.

Already, streaming video providers are starting to sign contracts with content producers, some of them exclusive deals. Fox recently signed a deal with Amazon. Dreamwo…

On Monopolies

Lydia DePillis wonders if competition will really improve car sharing in the District. I'm not too certain it will, as I wrote over the summer. In any case, plenty of people are happy that there's competition coming, because they love the idea of competition. Monopolies, on the other hand, have a pretty bad reputation.

(from masck on Flickr)

Not every market is perfectly competitive. Sometimes monopolies can and do provide goods and services more efficiently than several competing companies. This is usually the case in industries with high start-up and capital costs, which is very much the case with car sharing. The monopoly chapter of any intro to microeconomics textbook lays this out pretty clearly.

When people say they don't like monopolies, I think what they're really saying is that they don't like taking on the risk that the monopolist is going to fail to provide good customer service or reasonable prices.

Comcast is a great example of this. In much of the DC area…

Housing Markets 101

Stephen Smith has a post about housing and gentrification that I think hits on some good points, but it only tells one piece of a bigger story about how housing markets works. He opens with this:
When libertarians (and liberals) argue that increasing the supply of urban housing will lower the price of urban housing, they’re drawing on some pretty basic and well-established economic concepts. And yet, the coexistence of gentrification and housing supply growth seem to put a lie to that theory – in cities across America, we see neighborhoods adding housing while still seeing rapid increases in the price of housing. From the point of view of the poor and often non-white residents who are being pushed out, the market remedy of increasing supply just doesn’t seem to be working.
Count the number of times the word "supply" appears. Now count the number of times "demand" is in the above paragraph. Herein lies a major problem with this discussion: it focuses way too heavily o…

A Tale of Two Coffee Shops

I've got a new post over at Greater Greater Washington about two coffee shops in my neighborhood. A block apart from each other, one opened just a few months before the other closed. In a twisted way, the situation shows that 14th Street is both a desirable place where businesses want to be, and a place where it's nonetheless difficult to run a business.

(from NCinDC on Flickr)

When I lived in Cleveland, it was painful to watch businesses fail. Usually, it happened because there weren't enough customers, and the businesses couldn't generate sufficient sales. It happened because businesses just couldn't get people in the door and at the end of the day that was hardly any money in the till.

In DC, it's like the polar opposite. On 14th Street, businesses are closing because they can't afford the rent. They need affordable retail space in order to survive, and they simply can't get it in a neighborhood that's becoming popular.

Both situations demonstrate pr…

Against the Self-Checkout

Retailers are finally starting to get rid of self-checkout lanes at their stores. I'm neither surprised nor heartbroken by this development. I've found self-checkout to be more trouble than it's worth, and I avoid it whenever possible.

(from pin add on Flickr)

My beef isn't with self-checkout itself, it's with the fact that it's poorly implemented in a lot of stores. It could be a great substitute for the "express" checkout, because there are some stores I don't even bother shopping at if I'm not buying a full basket of stuff, because I have no choice but to stand behind people doing their heavy shopping.

The real problem with self-checkout is that there's no predictability. When you get into a regular line behind someone with a cart full of stuff, you can reasonably guess how long it's going to take for the cashier to ring them up. When you get in line behind someone at the self-checkout, you have to wait for them to awkwardly try to fin…

Working at an Amusement Park

I really liked This American Life's Amusement Parkepisode. I spent four summers of my teenage life working at an amusement park, so this was something I could certainly relate to. There's something special about working at these parks that, even years later, I've never fully been able to wrap my head around.

(from Steve Snodgrass on Flickr)

As far as jobs go, amusement park jobs look awful on paper. When I worked as a ride operator, I earned minimum wage (if I remember it was something like $5.25 an hour at the time). We usually worked 60 or more hours per week, and got 1 day off every week. "Open-to-close" or "OC" was a term that everyone knew. We worked many of those shifts.

Since we were classified as "seasonal employees" under Ohio law, we weren't entitled to overtime, benefits, or anything else you might expect from full-time employment. If you worked hard maybe you'd get promoted, earn $8 or $10 per hour, and get to manage a team of…

The Truth About Gourmet Burgers

Last winter I set out to figure out what's so special about the gourmet burger craze in DC. At the time, I couldn't understand why people were so excited about a simple food that's not especially difficult to make at home. Over the course of the year, I've eaten at about half a dozen of DC's "gourmet burger" restaurants. I've found them to be more similar to each other than unique, and hardly anything to write home about.

(from frivolous_accumulation on Flickr)

One thing that all of these places have in common is that they're surprisingly expensive. I went to BGR and the "lunch special" set me back over $10. A burger, fries and drink at Good Stuff Eatery was $14-something. And a burger, fries, and shake at Shake Shack during lunch cost me $16. The burgers are "unique" in that they often have toppings and sauces that you might not usually put on a burger, but at the end of the day, you're still just eating a piece of ground be…

Housing as a Commodity

I recently got a chance to read Ryan Avent's Kindle book The Gated City. I have a lot of respect for the author. I think he's one of the smartest people around when it comes to urban economics. I even interviewed him here on this blog back in 2009. As far as the book goes, it's very good, and I recommend it to anyone reading this post.

There are two points that I wish wish would have gotten fleshed out more in the book, and in discussions of housing markets more generally. I'll cover one today, and the other later.

A recurring argument amongst writers like Ryan Avent and Matt Yglesias and Ed Glaeser is that the housing market suffers from a supply/demand imbalance. More specifically, there isn't enough supply, and that's the reason why so many neighborhoods in so many cities are unaffordable. If only we could boost the supply of housing to meet the demand, we could bring down, or at least stabilize, rents.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

This idea rests, first and fo…

Neighborhood Transformation

Yesterday I rode my bike over to check out the H Street NE neighborhood festival, followed by a screening at the DC Shorts film festival at the Atlas Theater. Ever since major construction finished on H Street NE this summer, it's become clear as day that it's now only a matter of time before the area becomes another established, trendy DC neighborhood. After last year's festival I wrote that the neighborhood still looked like a wreck, and I tried to imagine its future . In only 12 months, it's amazing how much things have changed.

(from DDOTDC on Flickr)

If I had money to invest in real-estate, H Street, or Near Northeast, or whatever people are labeling the area, is definitely where I'd buy. The area has a very nice housing stock, consisting of many historic rowhouses. Some need work, while others are already in the process of renovation. Though it's not "well connected" to the rest of the city at the moment, the new streetcar should change that, as s…

Metro Station Name Drama

David Alpert has a nice take down of many of the poorly conceived Metro station renames that have been proposed. He cites the Navy Yard-"W" rename as an especially egregious example, but many of the others he mentions are nearly as frustrating.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

Ultimately, the questions that must be answered with regard to these renames are: who benefits? and why? The renamers would argue that it benefits anyone (though disproportionately visitors) who want to travel to various destinations in DC via Metro and aren't familiar with the layout of the city.

At first glance, renaming "Navy Yard" to "Navy Yard-Ballpark" seems like a fine idea, since it is the station that most Nationals fans use to get to games. I say "most" because some do arrive by exiting at Capitol South and walking down New Jersey Avenue. In fact, for anyone coming in on the Orange or Blue lines, Capitol South is often a better place to exit the system.

Similarly, th…

DC's Disappearing Third Places

Earlier in the week, Topher Mathews wrote about the loss of one of DC's third places - the Barnes & Noble bookstore in Georgetown. While it's no surprise that the brick-and-mortar bookstore industry is on its way to becoming ancient history, it's nevertheless sad to see the neighborhood lose its store. Topher writes:
What made Barnes and Noble a particularly great Third Place was that it offered Georgetowners and visitors alike a place to escape from the heat or the cold (or just the crowds), but you didn't have to pay anything to use it.Herein lies the dilemma. Whatever purpose Barnes and Noble serves to the community, at the end of the day it's still a business. And like all businesses, it needs to make money to survive.

(from grilled cheese on Flickr)

This all reminded me of the "Bubble Boy" episode of Seinfeld. Jerry and Elaine go to eat a diner in upstate New York, Elaine proceeds to order a glass of water, and after some back and forth, Jerry final…

What Sprawl Isn't

Last week I saw a number of people tweeting this post on Archinect, which shows an image of Los Angeles, and the cities that you could "fit" inside of its boundaries. The author opens with this:
Los Angeles has infamously been known for its urban sprawl. A recently released map makes it look like LA could easily swallow several major US cities inside its bloated city limits belly.What gets under my skin is the suggestion that a city is sprawly because it covers a lot of land area. There are a lot of ways to measure sprawl. Municipal boundaries are not one of them.

(from Kaizer Rangwala on Flickr)

I've been using the example of Dallas and Houston for a while now. Here are major cities in two of the five biggest metro areas in America. They are culturally similar, geographically connected and economically interdependent. The city of Houston has roughly twice the population as the city of Dallas. It also covers about twice as many square miles. Does that make Houston twic…

Why So Few Last Minute Airline Deals?

I travel semi-regularly. I probably fly about about ten round-trips per year. Fortunately, it's reasonably affordable, because I'm always able to get great fares. When someone asks me for advice on finding good fares, I say three things. 1) don't travel on peak days (Friday and Sunday) 2) don't travel during peak seasons (Thanksgiving, Spring Break, etc.), and 3) book early.

(from mikecogh on Flickr)

Booking early is so much more important than a lot of people realize. It's almost never better to wait until the last minute, and there's good reason for it. Now, a lot of people would say, "isn't it in the airline's best interest to sell a seat at any price rather than to let it go empty during the flight?" The answer is no; and here's why:
Imagine two customers. Casual traveler will only fly if he get get a really incredibly low fare. The most he's willing to pay is $100. If he can't get that fare, he'll just stay home. Business t…

Bad Coffee

It's been a hot summer, and I've been drinking iced coffee exclusively for the past few months. I've also been buying very little from coffee shops lately, because most of them don't do iced coffee the right way.

What is the right way? Cold brewed.

It's the method that produces delicious iced coffee with very little acidity and bitterness and strong coffee flavors. It's a shame that very few coffee shops in DC adhere to this method.

(from life serial on Flickr)

I can't speak for every coffee shop, but a friend of the blog who used to work as a local barista told me that baristas had direct orders from the shop owner not to cold brew iced coffee. Even though it's the superior method, it's the most time intensive (it can take 24 hours to brew a large batch of the stuff and usually requires advanced planning). Plus, enough customers have probably never had cold-brewed iced coffee, and they don't know what they're missing anyway.

You could chalk…

Walkable Suburbanism

Last weekend I traveled south to Virginia Beach for a quick weekend vacation. I'd never been to the area, and aside from the oceanfront, I was curious to see what the city itself had to offer. The Hampton Roads metro area is surprisingly big. It's the 36th largest in the U.S. and roughly the size of the Austin, TX and Indianapolis, IN metro areas.

The beach itself was about exactly what I expected - miles of sand and boardwalk with more than enough hotels and tourist attractions dotted along the way.

(from Michael Buck on Flickr)

The boardwalk and parallel bike path made the area quite pleasant. For the most part, I've found that tourist destinations are walkable and pedestrian-friendly. The oceanfront would be a completely different place if the boardwalk were instead an 8-lane highway. Fortunately enough, it isn't.

Virginia Beach's "downtown" is another story. Technically in the central business district, the Virginia Beach Town Center feels nothing lik…

Cost Effective Transportation

Alex Baca has a great article in this week's City Paper about what bicycling really means to people, versus how the activity is frequently perceived and described by those who don't like it. She covers a lot of the themes I've written about at this blog, all rolled together nicely into one piece. Definitely click through and give the article a read.

(from carfreedays on Flickr)

It's worth reiterating that there's really no such thing as a "bicyclist" in the same way that there's no such thing a a "motorist" or a "pedestrian". People get around in different ways for different reasons, and they don't all behave the same as each other.

The idea that all people bike all do it because they think they're doing something for the environment is silly and unrealistic. First and foremost, bikes are inexpensive and convenient ways of getting around. Are they more environmentally friendly than a motorized vehicle? Yes. Are they more he…

Insurance for the Auto Uninsured

I've got a new post over at Greater Greater Washington exploring the ins-and-outs of rental car insurance for people who don't have auto insurance. It's a shame that the options available are so limited, and I hope that they improve as insurance companies figure out that this is an untapped market.

(from Roger Penguino on Flickr)

I rented a car last weekend, and made sure to keep mental notes about how the conversation about rental insurance went down.

We filled out all the paperwork inside, the Enterprise rep decided which car to give me, then he grabbed the clipboard and we walked outside. In fact, the conversation about the insurance didn't begin until I was nearly ready to drive away. The rep casually asked if I wanted to opt for the "full coverage". I asked him to explain, at which point he gave a confusing explanation that hardly told me what I'd be getting.

It wasn't until I took a look at the paperwork to see that he wanted me to buy three pro…

Risk Assessment

Does wearing a helmet make a bicyclist safer? Yes. And no. This story has been getting a bit of attention this week. British doctors are arguing that helmets shouldn't be mandatory by law, because such a law might discourage some people from bicycling, which would stop them from benefiting from exercise. It's a classic cost/benefit analysis where the costs exceed the benefits.

(from Rennett Stowe on Flickr)

Taking that point and asserting that helmets make bicyclists less safe is a stretch; but I saw that claim tweeted many times earlier in the week.

Helmets aren't required in DC, and other American cities, but bicyclists should still use them. Why? Because helmets are like an insurance policy that covers you from the risk of being perceived as irresponsible. Even if you don't believe that they're all the great at protecting your skull, you'll never be worse off in a situation if something happens. And if nothing ever happens? What have you lost?

Unfortunately, we …

Bad Navigation

NPR has a really interesting story about the pitfalls of using GPS devices for driving directions. I've always been skeptical of them, and never owned one (though I do have Google Maps on my phone). I certainly understand the value they theoretically provide, but they've completely changed the way a lot of people drive, and it's not necessarily for the better.

(from Jobriga on Flickr)

The first time I experienced GPS was in 2008, while I was living in Dallas. A friend of mine had one, and since I bummed a lot of rides with him, I got a chance to see if it lived up to the hype. 2 out of the first 3 times we tried to use the GPS, it failed to get us to where we needed to go. After that, the GPS stayed in the glove box; we didn't need it to get around the city.

There's a scene in The Office where Michael Scott drives a car into a lake because the GPS gives him bad directions. It's an exaggerated case of someone who's completely reliant on a technological navigati…

Consumer Ignorance

Until last week, I don't think I knew any Netflix subscriber that didn't love the service. Now, it seems like they haven't got a friend left in the world. Netflix had a good thing going; it offered something for a price that was probably a little too good, and I'm actually not surprised that it's now coming to an end.

(from kristipwrs on Flickr)

In reality, Netflix suffers from a problem that a lot of service companies do. Its customers don't understand how the business actually works, and those customers misdirect anger when they aren't happy about something. For proof, search for any popular TV show on Netflix that isn't currently offered as an "Instant" title. There are tons of people who believe that someone at Netflix only needs to push a magical button and any show can stream to every home in American instantly.

The movie rental market makes sense, when you think about it. Netflix buys DVDs on a market. Movie companies make money selling th…

What's Wrong With Megabus?

After having some not-so-great luck with Megabus last winter, I decided to give the low-cost bus carrier one more chance during a trip to Pittsburgh last weekend. Unfortunately, that experience has led me to write-off Megabus forever.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

It doesn't seem like long ago that Megabus was a concept that people were seriously excited about. After all, it was a concept that was supposed to make something as dreary as bus travel hip, what with the free wi-fi and power outlets and guerrilla marketing efforts. Maybe that could have happened, but Megabus is just too damn cheap. It's "cheap" in every sense of the word - cheap fares, cheap service, cheap reliability. Sure, it's an improvement over Greyhound, but that doesn't mean much in reality.

I've heard Megabus described as a 50/50 proposition. On average, half the time the trip will be perfectly acceptable, the rest of the time it won't. If the low fare is worth that gamble, then go fo…

Thoughts on Bike Networks

Richard Layman shares some interesting thoughts on the bicycle network in DC. He presents it in a way that makes very clear that the success of a bicycling network isn't measured by simply summing up the lane miles, but by understanding how infrastructure connects to itself.

(from Jason Pier in DC on Flickr)

When I was living in Arlington and working in downtown DC, my daily commute took me through Georgetown; a pretty awful place to ride a bicycle. During the morning and afternoon rush, M Street NW becomes a six-lane highway, with traffic lights timed to speed as many cars into and out of the city as possible.

By the afternoon it's total gridlock as masses of pedestrians try to maneuver through the neighborhood at the same time that commuters try to flee back to Virginia. From the Key Bridge, there really aren't any good alternatives to M Street, either. I could cut down to K Street, but then I'd have to climb back up as I ride east into downtown, plus deal with the traf…

Winners and Losers

I found Elisabeth Rosenthal's recent New York Times article difficult to stomach. The language she uses makes it sound like urban and transportation policy is a zero sum game in which there are drivers and non-drivers. Yes, sometimes policy benefits some and harms others, but it's not always so black and white.

(from John Niedermeyer on Flickr)

It's fairly well established that building and building road and highway infrastructure induces demand and makes life marginally worse for many motorists. But it's counter-intuitive to think that all this spending is bad for the people it purports to benefit, so it's an easy political sell.

A similar point could be made about parking fees and tolls. These are always spun as being anti-motorist, even if they improve efficiency for the people who use them. Nobody wants to pay for something that they could get for free - I get that. Sometimes, though, you just can't get something for nothing.

Ultimately, this comes back to the …