Skip to main content


Showing posts from February, 2011

Geometric Balance in Cities

Stephen Smith has a pretty good post over at Market Urbanism about why cities have centrally located downtowns and why that's a good thing. It's really interesting to think about the geometry of cities, becaus almost every American city, from New York to Omaha to Phoenix, has a downtown with at least a couple of skyscrapers in it. Even cities that we might consider badly sprawling, or lacking any decent form of public transit, or too small to put on the urbanist radar, still have downtowns with tall skyscrapers. There must be a good reason why.

(from sakeeb on Flickr)

Smith describes the long-term benefit of having jobs located in the center of the city.
But frankly, I’m not convinced that it’s these sorts of “edge downtowns” are realistic long-term solutions. To see why, you have to understand why downtowns developed in the center of metropolitan areas to begin with. Geometrically, the center of a circle will always be the point that’s closest to the average of all other poin…

Inconvenient Bus Travel

I have a lot of mixed feelings when it comes to inter-city bus travel. I understand the benefits of riding these buses to get from one city to another. I certainly appreciate the low cost. I've also had bad enough experiences to make me question whether I ever want to give them my business again.

Lydia DePillis writes that Megabus and Boltbus are both moving their operations from a great location in downtown DC near Metro Center, to much less desirable locations, in lieu of construction that's about to begin on CityCenterDC.

(from kenudigit on Flickr)

This is a really unfortunate turn of events. While Boltbus's new location won't be too terrible, Megabus's new pick-up and drop-off point at North Capital and K Street will be significantly worse. One of the great things about these bus operators, at least compared to Greyhound, is that you don't have to get to an awful bus station in a bad part of town. Or at least you didn't used to have to... And their marketi…

Expertise on Expertise

Noreena Hertz's very good TED talk recently became available. The full lecture is worth watching, but I think it can ultimately be summed up by this one line: "we've become addicted to experts".

As a blogger, I've experienced the expertise debate first-hand. After all, I write a blog that covers themes like cities, urbanism, economics, etc. And who am I? I'm just a guy with a bachelor's degree. Or, as many people would accuse, hardly an expert on any topic.

Without a doubt, there are some fantastic blogs out there, some of them are written by people with advanced degrees in the topics they write about; but others are written by people who simply have a genuine interest in these things. In many cases, I believe that if you removed the bylines and asked readers to identify whether a given author is an "expert" or merely a "hobbyist", it would be a challenge.

At the end of the day, it's probably true that a person with a PhD has more to …

The Corner Gas Station

If there's something I really know very little about, it's the ins-and-outs of the gasoline station business; so Christine MacDonald's cover story in last week's City Paper was pretty eye-opening. I would have never known, for example, that half of the gas stations in DC, and a quarter of them in the metro area, are owned and operated by a single company.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

When it comes to city-design and urban form, gasoline stations aren't very friendly. By their nature, they can't exhibit the attributes that fit into a walkable neighborhood. They leave sidewalks facing fuel pumps, rather than homes, stores or businesses. And because of the high turnover of cars coming in and out, they can be challenging places for pedestrians to maneuver around vehicles.

At the same time, gasoline stations are an essential infrastructure that every city needs. The challenge is figuring out how to make them accessible to neighborhoods without interrupting the urban f…

A Coffee Snob's Dilemma

It probably doesn't come as much surprise to anyone who reads this blog regularly that I'm a little picky when it comes to coffee and coffee shops. I love local, independent shops. Since I've moved to DC, I've made it a point to visit as many as I can. There is one thing that binds the DC area's local coffee shops together - many of them source their product from Counter Culture Coffee.

(from pchow98 on Flickr)

I'd like to think I've given Counter Culture a fair shot to impress. I've drank it at numerous coffee shops. I've bought the beans and brewed it at home. For whatever reason, I just can't seem to get into it.

So while my objective opinion is that Counter Culture Coffee isn't all that great, I also feel like I must be missing something that other coffee snobs get - otherwise, why would all these local shops be selling the stuff?

Honestly though, I'm really looking forward to spring, when the weather gets warm enough that I can start ro…


If the book Freakonomics could be summed up in one world, it would be 'incentives'. I was reminded of this book recently when I saw the Freakonomics documentary. The mini-stories in the film were all very well produced; but you won't learn anything new from the movie that you hadn't already taken away from the book.

I'll be the first to admit that I'm incredibly receptive to incentives in my everyday life. I'm the person who rushes to get a bunch of food and drink orders in by 7pm to cash-in on happy-hour specials. I'm the person who chooses where I go out to eat depending on which night of the week it is and which restaurants have daily specials. Part of this has to do with my cheap-by-necessity nature, which I've written about in the past, but a lot of it has to do with the fact that incentives work.

(from WarmSleepy on Flickr)

A friend of the blog was recently telling me about the health care plan she receives as a benefit from her employer. The mon…

Transportation Mindsets

Tom Vanderbilt has a really interesting post about a bicyclist in Connecticut who the author shadowed on one of his daily 65-mile commutes to work. Vanderbilt writes...
I traveled from Northern Westchester County, to Joe’s office in midtown Manhattan (I then continued home to Brooklyn), via a carefully chosen, if not always evident, path that wound through bucolic gated communities in Greenwich, Ct., underneath the concrete underpasses of the city’s edges, to the delivery-truck laden warrens of the Bronx. I was admittedly intrigued by the unusual nature of the commute itself (for me, it was around 65 miles, one way) — in articulating a kind of “secret” way to get into the city...When you ask people if they'd consider commuting by bike to work or to run errands or for any other reason, many of them will think about it, then ultimately conclude that it's not safe or not easy to go about their lives by bike. I think a lot of that's the result of the 'motorist minds…

Political Scare Tactics

I don't write about national politics here much anymore, but I've been seeing a theme on Facebook and Twitter that I just couldn't ignore. House Republicans want some pretty significant budget cuts, some of which are pretty enormous. If they get their way, all government funding to NPR and PBS would be gone; Americorps would be eliminated entirely.

(from jcolman on Flickr)

Frankly, it doesn't seem likely that Americorps or public broadcasting funding will be gone next year, but it does seem like a good tactic to divert attention from some of the other cuts that Republicans actually want.

People will 'like' Save NPR pages on Facebook, and they'll fill out petitions and contact their congressperson to save Americorps. At the end of the day, it will look like a small victory when these programs are removed from the list of budget cuts. Meanwhile, while everyone's still distracted, plenty of smaller, but nevertheless important government programs will get slas…

Working at a Parking Lot

Last week I watched The Parking Lot Movie on Netflix Instant - it was by far the best documentary film I've seen in quite a while.

At first thought, the idea of a story about a ragtag group of guys who work as parking attendants seems baseless; but the film explores topics ranging from car culture to class politics to the very nature of work. It's the perfect lens for exploring issues that we frequently experience but aren't really in a position to observe.

It's so easy to assume that anyone working at a parking lot must have nothing in life going for them - that they're there because they have no other options. The idea that someone actively seeks out a job collecting money from people parking cars would seem absurd to a lot of people.

So how is it possible that the guys that work at the Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia not only want to work there, but also enjoy the work that they do?

Society holds this belief that jobs that bring status and money are …

Transportation by Cab

I'm pretty torn when it comes to taxi cabs. Personally, I hate riding in them, and avoid them whenever I can. On the other hand, I appreciate that I live in a city where they're plentiful and easily available in the event that I need a cab to get somewhere quickly.

(from vpickering on Flickr)

Even in DC, I've heard plenty of cab horror stories. There are cab drivers who, despite the law, refuse to let someone in their cab before determining where they're going. There are drivers who won't make a run to a quiet part of town on a weekend night, and would rather do short runs between popular neighborhoods. I've heard of cab drivers who only pick up groups of people, while leaving leaving single riders stranded. The list goes on...

The cab business isn't glamorous, and drivers are responding to simple economic incentives. It's more profitable to make runs in popular parts of town, it's more profitable to drive groups of people, etc. Local government can dr…

Up, Up and Away

I really like Ed Glaeser's article on Skyscrapers in this month's Atlantic. It's interesting because it offers a historical perspective on very tall buildings that I was mostly unfamiliar with. Glaeser also does a very good job of explaining why skyscrapers are (theoretically) beneficial to cities and the people who live in them.

(from Geff Rossi on Flickr)

Unfortunately, I think the article leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Glaeser talks a lot about New York City, and how restrictions on new buildings result in ridiculously high rents. His counter-example in Chicago, which he contends is much less restrictive when it comes to new building and, as a result, has much lower commercial and residential rents.

But no discussion of building restrictions would be complete without a look at the cities that have outright height limits. Glaeser describes two - Paris and Mumbai. Aside from a single mention of Crystal City, Virginia, there's no other reference to Washington, DC -…

Dive Bars Revisited

After I wrote about dive bars in DC last week, Alex Block made a few good points in the comments. DC's general lack of dive bars, he says, is the result of zoning and restrictions that make it really difficult to open new drinking establishments in the District.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

Ryan Avent has shared some thoughts on this topic in the past. In the Washington area, you can’t have a place that’s both really good and quiet in a neighborhood-y sort of way. That’s largely because it’s very difficult to open new bars. And the result is a pernicious feedback loop. With too few bars around, most good bars are typically crowded. This crowdedness alienates neighbors, and it also has a selecting effect on the types of people who choose to go to bars — those interested in a loud, rowdy environment, who will often tend to be loud and rowdy. This alienates neighbors even more, leading to tighter restrictions still and exacerbating the problem.Ultimately, I think DC's lack of quali…

Winter Bike

It's probably premature to post this in the middle of February, but I wanted to touch on a topic that I've visited in the past - winter bicycling. Last winter I did it in Cleveland, this year in DC.

(from twicepix on Flickr)

I think the most interesting thing I can say about winter biking in these two cities is that, even though there is a lot more snow in Cleveland, it's actually harder to bike around DC in the winter when it does snow.

In DC, it takes longer for snow to get cleared (if it gets cleared at all). On many streets with bike lanes, snow gets piled in what's usually the parking lane, and cars go ahead and park in the bike lane. From my experience, trails become virtually useless until the snow and ice on them melts away, and sidewalks on key bridges don't get the treatment that they probably deserve.

One thing that's similar in both places is that salt really takes a toll on your bike. Despite my best effort, I'll be buying at least a new chain come…

Banking Over Coffee

I banked with ING Direct for years before I moved to DC (at which point I and had to switch banks, for reasons I won't get into here). I finally saw an ING Direct Cafe when I was in Philadelphia a few weekends ago.

(from DJOtaku on Flickr)

As far as coffee shops go, it wasn't bad. They served Peet's coffee and there was a decent amount of space inside to hang out. Aside from the ATM in the corner, it didn't look much at all like a bank, except of course, that it was basically one giant advertisement for ING Direct.

This type of concept brings up questions relating to cross-subsidization and retail diversity in a high density neighborhood. A coffee shop is a valuable amentity to a neighborhood. Coffee shops are also inherently difficult businesses to make money from, since overhead costs are high, they require a lot of labor, and the revenue generated per sale is very low.

Of course, it doesn't really matter if the ING Direct Cafe makes any money peddling cups of coffee…

The Perfect Narrative

Last weekend I watched King of Kong on Netflix. I rated it 5 out of 5 - something I do only about once out of every 50 movies I see.

The rest of this post contains a few spoilers, so if this is a movie you're interested in seeing, and I would recommend it, this is the place to stop reading.

Hope for Cities

A few years ago I stumbled across some incredible photos of New York City on the SkyscraperCity discussion board. The photos are so stunning for the simple fact that New York, during the 60s and 70s, looked like nothing short of a war zone; and if you look closely, there are several photos where you can easily recognize streets and blocks that are now some of the most desirable in the city.

(from meophamman on Flickr)

These photos are the reason why I don't believe you can give up on a city, any city, no matter how hard times have gotten there. Someone looking at these photos at the time when they were shot would have been completely justified in believing that New York was hopeless, doomed, and would forever be a brutal, dangerous place where people wouldn't go. Time has show that to be anything but the truth.

Do Dive Bars Require Dive Economies?

On the western-end of South Street in Philadelphia is a dive bar called Bob and Barbara's. The atmosphere is laid-back, the beer is cold, and the prices are cheap. Almost unbelievably cheap. Even on a Saturday night, with a band playing jazz in the back of the bar, you can sit and drink 'citywide specials' and never pay more than $3.50.

(from TimCullen on Flickr)

At one point during my recent trip to the city, someone joked that it's cheaper for a group of friends to rent a car, drive to Philly and spend a night out there than it is spend a night out in DC. The crazy thing is, when you crunch the numbers, it's not actually all that far-fetched.

Bob and Barbara's is hardly the only dive in Philly - they're all over the place. The question that's been on my mind for days is... why do so few of these places exist in DC?

Road Safety

An article that appeared in USA Today last week describes an interesting metric for measuring road safety - traffic fatalities per 100,000 population and per 100 million miles driven. Using this metric, big cities come out on top. DC takes the #1 spot.

(from Wayan Vota on Flickr)

Now, I don't think this necessarily describes a city's road "safety". Rather, it explains the probability of being fatally injured in a traffic incident. These are two different concepts, although they are likely correlated in a positive way.

This is additional evidence that what really matters when it comes to the severity of traffic injuries is the speed at which traffic moves. Slow traffic reduces the likelihood of death, but it also means spending more time in traffic (theoretically). Unfortunately, for the past half-century, we've favored infrastructure that allows vehicles to move fast, and the result has been roads that aren't particularly safe for anyone, pedestrians and motoris…

Let's Make Transit Less Complicated

Last weekend I got a chance to spend a bit of time in Philadelphia. This is the second time in a few years that I've visited the city. It's a very cool place, and I appreciate many of its unique offerings. One thing, however, that drove me crazy, was a public transit system that seemed stuck in the early 1900s.

(from Eric Harmatz on Flickr)

On Saturday morning a few friends and I walked to the 46th Street station on the Market-Frankfort Line. SEPTA is one of the few systems in America that still uses tokens. While most cities have moved to farecards or electronic smart cards, Philly requires you to buy a small coin to take advantage of the discounted fare.

When we got to 46th Street, we approached the woman sitting in the fare booth. She wouldn't sell us tokens. The token window (which is independent of the attendant booth and staffed by a different person) is only open on weekdays. We could pay the attendant the $2 cash fare, but she was completely unable to sell us tokens f…