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 good.

I think it says something when the best cups of coffee come from the simplest brewing methods: French press, pour-over cone and Chemex. Sure, they require a little work and a source of hot water, but honestly, it's really not that much extra work considering how much better the final product is.

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 with "non-revenue". That's true in a few cases, but not across the board. A non-profit can have customers and funders, the same way a corporation can have customers and investors. A non-profit does not have to be a charity that relies entirely on donations to stay afloat. It's bad deductive reasoning to think that because all charities are non-profits, that therefore all non-profits are charities.

Consider two hypothetical banks. One is non-profit credit union and the other is for-profit bank. They're both relatively conservative, don't engage is risk-taking, and at the end of the year, each has $1 million leftover after it's paid the bills.

What does the for-profit bank do? It divvies up the money and cuts checks to the owners (shareholders) based on how much of an ownership stake each person has. What does the non-profit bank do? It gives a raise to its employees and re-invests the rest of money back into the business, so that it can grow and expand and better serve its customers.

Which of the hypothetical companies is better to work for or do business with? Plenty of people would say the non-profit bank, despite the broad claim that there's "no money in non-profits".

Of course, the world isn't as simple as this; but for-profit companies lay off employees, slash benefits, and screw their customers all the time. To say that they're acting in their best interest because they're motivated by profit is only partially true - it's their owners that are motivated by profit. Sometimes, the employees and customers are also the owners, but not all of the time. When they're not, there can be conflicting interests.

Saying "there's no money in non-profits" is as vague as saying there's enormous money in the field of law. Some attorneys work for corporations, others work for governments. Some work for rich clients, others are public defenders. Some prosecute the bad guys, others defend them. How much money there is to be made in law is pretty contingent on exactly what type of law your practice.

Sometimes the non-profit model works, other times it's not the best fit for an organization. Sometimes, like in the case of banks and credit unions, they can even exist side-by-side.

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 requires great repayment. So yes, I get why people don't love it.

There's also a lot of things that fuel constant complaints. TSA has become the prime example of everything that's wrong with doing things in the name of "security". The problem is, if it's true that TSA is mostly in the business of "security theater" and the reasons for its existence is arbitrary (that some bad people chose to abuse airplanes rather than trains) then there's a real risk that TSA could be applied to other forms of transportation if something terrible were ever to happen.

The reality is that traveling is difficult and expensive. It doesn't matter whether it's a trip cross-country or a commute from the suburbs to the city. The longer the distance, the more painful it's probably going to be, regardless of the mode of transportation used. When I hear people talk about how much they hate to fly, I think what they often mean is that they hate to travel.
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 not the only reason why it's such a big problem.

When homes go into foreclosure, they should get taken by banks and sold at auction for the price they're worth, allowing investors to pick them up and rehabilitate, or allowing new buyers to own a home for a price they can afford. But banks themselves are walking away from these homes, because they're literally worth zero dollars. When you look at it at the scale of the metro area, you realize that there is a big glut of housing supply on the market that's driving down prices across the board, and in these extreme cases, all the way down to zero.

Believe it or not, the house I lived in before I moved to DC went through foreclosure. In 2008, the bank holding the delinquent mortgage sold it for $23,500 to an owner who rehabbed it, and then sold it the following spring for $96,000 (these numbers are all public record, in case you were curious). This is what should happen in a healthy market. Foreclosure shouldn't necessarily mean vacancy, but too often in Cleveland, it does.

The Cleveland metro area is made up of the five counties around Cleveland - Cuyahoga, Lake, Geauga, Lorain and Medina. Between 2000 and 2010, two important but divergent trends emerged:
  • The population of the Cleveland metro area fell roughly 3 percent.
  • The number of housing units in the 4 counties excluding Cuyahoga grew more than 13 percent.
In other words, homes kept getting built between 2000 and 2010, even as people were fleeing the metro area. And most of these new houses were getting built in the suburban fringe counties. If you want to understand why there's an oversupply of housing in the Cleveland area, look no further than these counties.

The fact that there were more houses but fewer potential buyers created an imbalance. When houses started to go vacant, no potential buyers stepped up because there were no potential buyers out there. If there had been potential buyers, houses might have gone through the process that my former house did. Many instead became vacant, because folks looking to buy a house had plenty of areas to look, and the weakest neighborhoods were obviously the first to go rotten.

But there's more. Now that the bulldozers are starting to demolish houses and even entire blocks in the name of stabilization, it's creating a metro area where tons of vacant undeveloped land is being created in the urban core, while developers are simultaneously building on greenfields in the fringe counties. Slowly but surely, it's creating a "donut hole" that will make the entire metro area weaker.

Getting urban neighborhoods stabilized should rightly be the top priority, and Cleveland has decided that demolition is the best way to accomplish it. Unfortunately, years or sprawl and overbuilding, fueled by a foreclosure crisis, has created this reality. Further sprawl isn't going to make the situation on the ground any better.
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 rising crime.
Leinberger goes on and cites several examples of urban neighborhoods that have transformed from slum to hip in recent history: Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington.

I don't know much about Capitol Hill or Virginia Highland, but I do know something about Logan Circle and German Village. One very important (and I think non-trivial) quality that they share is that they both have a high quality, durable housing stock that has held up very well, given its age, all things considered.

When I think about what made cookie cutter houses in suburbs appealing to people, in addition to the square footage and the yards and the school systems, I really suspect that one of the things that people were drawn to was the absolute "newness" of everything. People love having new stuff - new appliances, new counter tops, new floors. When stuff is brand new, it's almost guaranteed to be in style. When it's brand new, it's not in need of immediate repair. There's a lot to like about brand new.

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, the postal service decided that mail should cost the same amount, whether it's going to a central city or a fringe suburb - whether it can be delivered on foot or has to be driven from the post office in a truck.

Maybe cities would be able to subsidize suburban postal service in a world where the population was heavily living in cities, but today, that's just not the case. Even worse is what's happened in "hollowed-out" cities where postal carriers still have to do routes, but the fact that a significant number of houses are vacant destroys the efficiencies they once enjoyed.

It's one example of what a mess we've got on our hands.

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 already shaping up to be a long political season.

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 late fall and winter, which is why I've never found the "Christmas in July" events at bars in Cleveland appealing. Christmas Ale is good because you only have it for 2-months out of the year, then you stop. If it were around for any longer I suspect it would probably start to taste not-so-good and its popularity would wane.

In a way, I feel the same way about pumpkin. When September rolls around, like many others, I'm gung-ho about pumpkin - pumpkin pie, pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies... but by November I'm pretty sick of it. I don't eat any pumpkin for another year, and then the cycle continues.

Some foods and drinks are seasonal because of mother nature. You harvest certain crops at certain times of year. Others are seasonal because it makes more sense to consume them when the temperature outside is a certain way. Christmas Ale falls into the latter category; but in a way it's also artificially seasonal, in the sense that the brewer decides to stop selling it on January 1st, rather than February 1st or March 1st. That's probably a smart move on their part, at least in terms of keeping the mystique and allure alive.
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.

(from Images_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 exist in the other.

First and foremost, renting in DC is a hedge against inflation. This isn't so much the case in other cities, because inflation isn't much a problem in other cities. Between 2000 and 2010, I calculated that real-dollar rents in DC increased 52%, compared to only 8% nationally. For a home-buyer, that means that whatever your monthly payment is on the day you close is going to be (roughly) the same for the next 30 years. In an inflationary environment (and I would not hesitate to classify DC's rental market this way), buying locks you into a predictable payment for the long-term.

The biggest wildcard, of course, is maintenance and repairs. This is especially true if you're drawn to DC's beautiful Victorian housing stock, much of which is old and fragile. You never know when you're going to need a new roof, when you might have a problem with the foundation, or a pipe in the basement might burst.

The thing is, when you pay as much as, say, $2,000 a month for your mortgage, repairs suddenly feel a lot less outrageous. Need a new stove or dishwasher? The price is basically the same no matter where you live, but in DC, it might cost less than one monthly payment. In other city, it might be equivalent to several payments. When you think about it on that metric, it doesn't really seem so bad. That's not to say it's a cost that doesn't exist, but psychologically, it doesn't feel as painful, compared to someone who has to spent the equivalent of a year's worth of mortgage payments on home renovations.

If I were living in Cleveland today, I believe I would still have very little interest in buying. In Cleveland, there's a pretty significant risk that your house might decline in value. There's a risk that if/when you want to sell it will sit on the market with no interested buyers. There's a risk that you'll have a hard time finding a good tenant to rent it out to. These are all much much smaller risks in DC.

In Cleveland, you can get a luxury apartment or even rent a whole house for under $1,000. For that little, I'd happily invest my remaining discretionary income in stocks and bonds. This is much less feasible when rent makes up a large portion of your income. Like it or not, homeownership is a form of "forced savings", and when you're putting as much as $2,000 a month toward the mortgage, that adds up fast. Even if the home turns out to be a dud as an "investment" and you sell it down the road for what you paid, you're still walking away with a lot of cash in the bank that otherwise would have simply been "consumed" on rent.

I'll end this by saying that for some people, homeownership will never be a good deal. The responsibilities you take on when you buy is something that will cause them more anxiety than it's worth. And there are others who will want to buy, no matter where, or what the cost and the risks. It's the people in the middle, like myself, that I think are most heavily influenced by place.

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 problem is that it's counter-factual thinking. It's easy to imagine cruising down the Turnpike at 65 mph with minimal traffic and say "I want to pay less for this," but you can't, because if there were no toll, then a key variable would change, and there's nothing to say it wouldn't be just as packed and congested as any other "free" interstate.

Honestly, I cringe at the thought of ever driving to Virginia Beach again, in slow-moving, stop-and-go traffic. I dread the delays, the red break lights, and the sea of vehicles ahead as far as the eye can see. I hate the complete unpredictability of the drive and not having a good idea of how long it's going to take.

So yes, as a driver, I think tolls can be great. As a consumer, sometimes it makes sense not to always be totally cheap. Often it's better to pay more to get something that's a better value. When it comes to my highway driving experience, I think that's exactly the case.

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 sludge. Starbucks, at least, is consistent and predictable. In other words, it's safe.

When I went to Virginia Beach in August, I was almost entirely unfamiliar with the city. Once at the hotel, I opened up Yelp on my phone and searched for nearby restaurants. I found a pho place within a mile that had great reviews. Once I was on the beach, I used my phone to locate a highly rated coffee shop behind the boardwalk and a seafood restaurant on Lake Rudee. If it weren't for Yelp, I might not have visited any of these places.

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 I could gather, it seemed to work pretty well.

What Groupon effectively changed was a few things.
  1. Removed blackout dates from discounts
  2. Applied discounts to the entire menu
  3. Offered a one-time email blast advertisement to a huge mailing list of people
The first two benefits don't necessarily help businesses. A restaurant that's expecting a full house on Saturday night doesn't want a bunch of people coming in and redeeming Groupons. They want them in on a Wednesday evening when there are seats to fill. Similarly, bars sell half-price wings and burgers as a loss leader, knowing that people will still order drinks, the real money-maker. When Groupons apply to drinks, it really distorts that logic.

I'm not sure how anyone can be surprised that businesses are going back and doing what they've always done. Groupon seemed like a good idea, and like I've written before, is probably dying a slow death. Everybody wanted to try it at least once. And those businesses that didn't like it will probably never do it again.

That said, I do find the "Instant Deal" technology that LivingSocial rolled out a few months ago to be pretty interesting. Unlike the daily deals, the instant deals can be used as a sort of "revenue management" tool for businesses. If a restaurant has empty seats to fill, the manager can log into an account and run an instant deal. If the place is packed, they don't need to offer anything. If there's a reason to think these websites will continue to thrive, I expect it to be the result of these instant deals.

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 boilerplate template filler on some pages), but when it's complete it will serve as a great guide to coffee and coffee shops in DC. One thing that's been on my to-do list for months is to write a "comprehensive guide to DC coffee" but I think DistrictBean already beat me to the punch.
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. Dreamworks will have an exclusive agreement with Netflix. Microsoft is going to enter the market and offer streaming service through its XBox gaming system. There are even more potential start-ups to come.

The result could be a slew of competitors, all of whom offer different content libraries. So, if you want to watch a Sony movie, you've got to go to one service, if you want to see a movie distributed by Warner Brothers, you've got to look elsewhere. This is very similar to premium cable stations, all of whom have agreements with different studios. A movie playing on Starz won't be available to watch on HBO.

When everyone was upset with Netflix last month, many of them opted to keep the streaming service and drop movies-by-mail (or at least the most vocal among them did). I went ahead and did exactly the opposite. While the streaming service is very convenient, it lacks content. So I concluded access to a much bigger content library is more valuable than access to some content instantly.

Even many of those who stuck with Netflix streaming service gripe about the limited amount of good content. Perhaps they're hoping that over time the Netflix library will go. I'm not sure it's going to grow enough to satisfy a lot of people.

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, if you want cable TV or cable broadband, Comcast is your only option. They also happen to have dreadful customer service, so when your blood is boiling after spending hours on the phone trying to get your service to work, the thought of switching to somebody else is highly appealing.

Ticketmaster is another example. They're virtually the only game in town when it comes to concert tickets, and the "fees" they charge have upset plenty of folks. There is a legitimate fear that once a company becomes a monopolist that they'll jack up prices and screw customers who no longer have anywhere else to turn.

Zipcar, for what it's worth, has gone above and beyond for me on more than one occasion. I've found their service to be excellent, and even when new competitors enter the market, I'll keep my Zipcar membership. The truth is that they do have competition, it's just from different modes of transportation, not from other car sharing companies. When I need to go somewhere, it's not necessarily a question of which car sharing service to use, but what mode of transportation to use.

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 on the supply side of the equation. After all, the price of housing is measured as the equilibrium of supply and demand. If you ignore the demand-side, of course you're going to be perplexed when you see a boost in supply accompanied by a rise in price levels. It doesn't put a lie to the theory. In fact, it proves the theory.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

I tackled this issue recently, arguing that we can't really talk about the "housing market" because housing isn't homogeneous. People are willing to pay more for high-quality housing than they are for low-quality housing. So if you change the type and quality of housing in a neighborhood, you alter the underlying structure of the market itself, and the price at which people are willing to pay to live there, all else equal.

But let's set that aside for a moment and assume, for argument's sake, that housing is a commodity. From a theoretical perspective, we can draw the housing market as a series of simple charts, similar to what you might remember from an intro to microeconomics course.

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 problems; but in DC, when a business closes, it's usually replaced by a different, more upscale, more expensive business. In Cleveland, when a business fails, it often becomes a vacant storefront. So while yes, it's frustrating to see 14th Street losing its unique character as its long-time businesses close for another upscale restaurant I can't afford, I like to think that I haven't lost touch with the reality that the situation could be so much worse.

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 find their produce in a big on-screen list, you have to wait for an employee to come over and properly ring up their beer and wine, you have to watch them fumble with coupons. It's often a total mess.

If self-checkouts were exclusively for customers with less than 10 items, all of which have bar codes and aren't alcoholic, then I'd be all for it. For that matter, I wish there were more express lanes generally, but stores have apparently decided they aren't worth it.

Working at an Amusement Park

I really liked This American Life's Amusement Park episode. 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 people.

Despite all that, so many people genuinely loved working at the park. I don't think it had to do with the work itself, which was incredibly boring and repetitive. It certainly wasn't dealing with customers, most of whom were fine, but enough of whom were demanding, offensive, and obnoxious. No, I think it was the fact that going into work was like going and hanging out with a big group of friends. It was the social aspect of it all.

I always thought turnover at the park was relatively low, all things considered. The stories on This American Life reminded me that it's probably the same story at every amusement park in America, and it has more to do with the people you work with than the work you do.

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 beef formed into a patty and slapped on a bun.

I think what's happened is that we've gotten so used to McDonalds and Burger King that Big Macs and Whoppers have become the new "normal" when it comes to hamburgers; so any burger that's prepared properly, from fresh (not frozen) beef, and served with fries that didn't come from a bag in the freezer, seems like something amazing.

I guess I'm not quite willing to pay so much for "gourmet burgers" because I can make something nearly as good at home for a fraction of the price. Sure, I might not be able to come up with the same combination of toppings and sauces, but that's OK. On the other hand, I'm willing to pay for good sushi, because even though I could make sushi at home, I can't make it easily or well at all. There's a skill involved in making sushi that I simply do not have.

There is still one restaurant that I still tried - Ray's Hell Burger. Ray's claim to fame is that they raise grass-fed cows and age the meet to perfection. In that sense, it's not just that they're putting exotic toppings on regular burgers (they also do that), but that they're actually offering a product that you can't get anywhere else.

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 foremost, on the assumption that housing is a commodity. Consider a different commodity market - wheat. If wheat prices are very high, one way to bring them down is to boost production and flood the market with more wheat. This works because wheat actually is a commodity. Every unit of wheat is more-or-less the same as every other unit, so the price is whatever price the market dictates.

Housing is different. There are many unique types and styles of housing, some of which are more desirable than others. When demand for housing rises in a neighborhood, rents will rise, regardless of the type or quality of the housing. A neighborhood might have century-old rowhouses, 70s apartments, and brand new luxury buildings. If demand is rising in that neighborhood, rents for all types of these units will rise.

But what if a neighborhood doesn't have any vacant land sitting around waiting to be developed? How do you increase the supply of housing when there's no place to build new housing? Basically, you have to knock something down and replace it with higher density housing.

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 soon as it begins operating.

A lot of people look at neighborhoods in urban areas and comment about the amazing transformation that has occurred over the years. Everyone knows of at least one where "nobody in their right mind" used to go that's transformed into something that's incredibly desirable. H Street is interesting because you can literally see it happening right now. It's like being able to see 10 years into the future, knowing more or less what the neighborhood will become.

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, there are other destinations that people often make unnecessary transfer to reach, as I wrote about a few months ago. Adding "ballpark" to the Navy Yard station name may seem harmless at first, but what it does is to announce that it is the one and only station to use if you want to get to a game.

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 finally says:
You can't just have water... this is not like a park bench where you just come in and sit down. It's a business.
When it comes to third spaces, you can't have it both ways, but this is especially true in DC, where the overhead cost of doing business is extraordinarily high. Topher notes that the retail space Barnes & Noble is vacating is going on the market for $65 per square foot.

Over on 14th Street, Lydia Depillis calculates that the space soon to be vacated by Miss Pixies will go onto the market for $80 per square foot. This is by no means pocket change, and any business willing or able to pay such prices needs to have incredible revenue flow.

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 twice as sprawly as Dallas?

Cities are hard to compare because there's no standardization in terms of where a city ends and its suburbs begin. I've been thinking about building "core" areas and "fringe" areas for big cities for a while. Maybe now that the 2010 Census data is mostly available I'll actually find some motivation to get it done.
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 traveler, on the other hand, got called by a client who is in the middle of a major emergency. She needs to be at the client's office tomorrow and is willing to pay whatever it takes.

Let's imagine it's the day before, and the airline prices the fare at $100 to "fill all the seats." Both travelers buy the fare, and the airline earns $200. Now let's say the airline instead charges $500. Casual traveler stays home, business traveler buys the fare, one seat goes unfilled, and the airline earns $500. Charging a really high last-minute fare is obviously more lucrative than offering a really low fare to fill the seats.

Now, this basic example might be oversimplifying the reality of the air travel market, but even in aggregate, the principle holds. If the airline were able to fully engage in price discrimination, they would charge casual traveler $100, business traveler $500, earn $600 and have no empty seats.

Of course, airlines already do this by offering the low fare to anyone who buys it in advance. But price discrimination is extremely difficult to do at the last minute, especially these days, when the internet makes fares extremely transparent. They might be able to dump some of them off on the gray market (ie. Priceline, Hotwire) but they won't advertise a super low fare.

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 this up to mere snobbery, but I think it's too bad. I first learned about the cold brew method from a barista friend who made it at my favorite coffee shop back in Cleveland. I do think there's some irony in any coffee shop that claims to serve gourmet drinks and then cuts corners like this.

Fortunately, there are a few coffee shops around that do iced coffee right. Also fortunately, it's so easy to do at home.

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 like the downtown of any other city I've been to. It actually feels a lot more like the suburban "lifestyle centers" that I've critiqued in the past. Now, is the area walkable? Yes, absolutely - after you've driven there and parked. Even though I was staying in a hotel about a half-mile away, there was no other realistic way of getting to the area except by private vehicle.

(from ohdearbarb on Flickr)

In urbanist circles, there's a lot of chatter about walkable urbanism; but what exactly does that mean? A place can be walkable, but that doesn't mean it's urban.

One of the reasons I've had such mixed feelings about Arlington, VA is that it's walkable, but it isn't urban. In theory, Clarendon and Dupont Circle are very similar neighborhoods. They have a lot of the same stores and restaurants and they're both walkable and transit accessible; they just feel like totally different places.

I think there's a distinction to be drawn between walkable urbanism and walkable suburbansim. Walkability is a small piece of a much bigger pie. We can build walkable places virtually anywhere we want. Building a city, and making it actually look and feel urban... that's a much bigger challenge.
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 health conscious than riding in a motorized vehicle? Yes. But you can't confuse a side effect for the primary motivation.

The truth is that riding a bike is significantly less expensive, and in DC, quite a bit easier, than driving a car, for many trips. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, black or white; owning and riding a bike will always cost less than owning and driving a car. Unless you're riding a really expensive bike, it's probably also less expensive than using public transportation.

Back when owning a car was still considered a privilege, not a right, it was something that was exclusive to a group of people because of how much they could afford to spend. So when a city spent money on driving infrastructure, it really could be argued that it was a handout to the rich. And yet, that's the same argument that's used today - but with bikes! It takes a real imagination to come up with a reason why bicycling infrastructure is disproportionally beneficial to rich people. Sadly, listen to the discourse and you'll see that it doesn't always come off as that much of a stretch.
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 products: a damage waiver for $17.99 per day, supplemental liability protection at $12.99 per day, and personal medical coverage at $2.99 per day. That's a lot of money, especially considering that the rate for the car was $19.99 per day, and while I opted for the supplemental liability coverage, I didn't need to buy the other two from the rental company.

The problem with this system is that, because it's hard for people to understand what they're being asked to sign up for, some will opt in to everything, potentially overpaying; while others will decline everything, thinking it's a bad deal, and drive away at more risk than they wanted to be.

Clear, simple, and reasonably priced insurance options are needed for those who don't have their own auto insurance.

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 live in a blame-the-victim society. If a motorist hits a bicyclist, and the bicyclist isn't wearing helmet, no matter who's at fault, the first thing you'll hear is that the bicyclist didn't have helmet. People will say the bicyclist should have known better. A few might even say that they had it coming. Whatever the case, it's something I would never want to deal with.

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 navigation system, but it's not completely unrealistic. I recently heard of two friends, en route to DC, who wound up driving on a two-lane road up and down through the Appalachian Mountains, because the GPS device in the car told them to exit the interstate and take the more "direct" route.

There's really a big difference between using GPS as a backup, in case you get lost, versus using it as your primary navigation, doing anything and everything it tells you to do.

GPS devices don't just give occasional bad directions, they're also distracting. A person staring at a GPS screen or typing in an address is just as guilty of being distracted at a motorist texting, emailing or tweeting on a cell phone. Megabus blamed a crash that killed four people on a driver who was distracted by a GPS.

In my teenage years, I did as much driving as any suburban teen needs to do, but I never had a GPS. It wasn't long ago that you asked for directions when you were going out, and trusted that the person giving you directions had a strong grasp on the area. These days, I sometimes ask people if they need directions to something, they'll say, "no, I have a GPS."

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 them on that market. Netflix rents out those DVDs, and the money the earn pays for those discs; anything it earns beyond that is profit.

The streaming business is a completely different ballgame. How do movie studios price these products? What's a fair price for Netflix to pay for them, given that a Netflix customer can hypothetically watch as much content as there are hours in the day? If a company doesn't want Netflix to stream its content, it has ultimate veto power. It can't necessarily stop anyone from buying its DVDs on the market, but it has control over digital products.

Movie studios have it made right now. They saw an opportunity to make a lot of easy money selling to Netflix, and they knew Netflix customers would put the blame on the company they once loved. That seems to be exactly how it's playing out.
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 for it. If not then it's not worth your time.

I don't want this post to come off as an angry consumer rant in seek of some sort of satisfaction. I accept the poor quality of Megabus. What makes me upset is that I really want there to be a great inter-city bus service that can connect cities and get people where they need to go. I want there to be competition for transportation between cities that are too close to fly and to expensive to travel by train. But the prerequisite is that the service has to be acceptable. It has to be clean, safe and on-time. Megabus fails on at least two, if not all three of these metrics.

I really wish I didn't have to write this post, because I really wanted to like Megabus, and I really tried to give them the benefit of the doubt. Unfortunately, sometimes things just don't work out the way you want them to.
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 traffic exiting the Whitehurst Freeway. Or I could ride up to N Street, though I've found that it can be just as traffic choked as M.

Georgetown is a major choke point in DC's bicycle network. It's definitely the most efficient way to get from North Arlington to downtown DC, but if you aren't comfortable riding through heavy city traffic, you might not be likely to make the trip.

DC isn't alone in having this problem. When I lived in University Heights and worked in downtown Cleveland, 7.5 miles of my commute were smooth sailing, the half-mile up or down Cedar Hill was treacherous; an that single choke point was probably enough to stop many otherwise interested people from biking into the city.

I know that any meaningful bike infrastructure in Georgetown is likely a pipe dream right now. But it's an interesting thought experiment that helps demonstrate how relatively small choke points can have relatively large impacts on a transportation network.

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 belief that people subscribe to a single transportation ideology and rarely or never deviates from it. If a local government closes a street and makes it exclusively for pedestrians, that's bad for drivers and great for walkers. But what makes someone a driver or a walker? Does a person who drives most places never walk? Does a person who walks most places never drive?

I often see and hear comments like, "I would walk/bike more if it were safer or easier or more convenient." So it's reasonable to believe there's at least some interest in these things, even among people who literally drive everywhere.