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 points within the circle. As a city sprawls outwards, the average difficulty of going from one random point to another grows exponentially, while the difficulty of commuting directly to the center increases linearly.
I've written about this before. From a worker's perspective, the real value in having all jobs centrally located is that there's much greater predictability. If you want to switch jobs, you'll know that your commute will be exactly the same. If you lose your job, you know that whatever you find will be in relatively the same place. There would be no awkward decision calculus about whether or not to take a job that requires a painfully long commute.

Of course, this is purely hypothetical and not how the world works. I live in Arlington, Virginia, because that's where my job is. If I'd have been working in DC, I probably would have considered different neighborhoods. I was lucky to have the option to live close to my job.

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 marketing pitch is that they'll pick you up in a convenient location, right on the street, and by saving money on overhead, can pass that cost onto the customers.

As these bus companies grow, it becomes harder to maintain on-the-street pickups, so the pressure to consolidate into centralized bus stations grows, or regulatory pressure will push them into less-than-desirable locations.

This reminds me of the age-old bus vs. rail debate, not just for long-distance travel, but for any kind of travel. Bus are almost always a less-expensive alternative to rail. Sometimes, flexibility is cited as an advantage, but it's not always advantageous. Train stations will never move; bus stops can disappear or move overnight, routes can be altered or canceled easily.

I can pretty confidently say that in 5 or 10 years there will be trains making trips between DC and New York. As for these low-cost buses? I certainly can't make the same claim with any level of certainty.

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 say on their area of interest than does an average person; but the flaw is thinking that everything an expert says must automatically be correct, by virtue of their degree or title or awards, while everything that anyone else says in conflict with that point of view must be wrong.

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 fabric. The truth is that every motorist wants to have a gasoline station convenient to where they live, the just don't want it to be too convenient.

Toward the end of the piece, MacDonald shares an interesting tidbit about the future of gasoline stations in DC.
Stacy Milford operates Circle Exxon, a station and garage near Chevy Chase Circle that one of Mamo’s companies purchased as part of the multi-station deal in June 2009. Milford says it’s unsettling to know that once his lease runs out in a couple of years, Mamo may find it more lucrative to sell the property for condos rather leave it as a gas station...

“We are really a real estate company,” he says. “We’re in it for the real estate.” Mamo considers the coming transition inevitable, given the high cost of D.C. real estate and predictions about “peak oil,” alternative fuels, and electric cars that might eventually make gas stations obsolete. “Long term, the real estate is where the value is,” he says.
I'm not sure the situation is quite so simple. Without being an expert on DC's zoning code, I imagine that converting a gas station into a condo building requires, at the least, an act of City Hall. But assuming it could happen, is it really the worst thing in the world? Off the top of my head, I can identify a number of stations in the District that, if they went away and never came back, I and many people would take no issue with it.

In a walkable city, if demand is for development that further supports walkability, then allowing that change to happen isn't such a terrible thing.

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 roasting my own beans in the back yard again. It's fresh, it's delicious, it's inexpensive, and if I roast a bad batch, I really don't have anyone to blame but myself.


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 monthly premiums are high, but the co-pays on doctor visits and prescriptions are very low. Thus, as she explained, she might go as often as possible to "get her money's worth".

Personally, when it comes to health insurance, I'd rather pay a lower premium and higher co-pay, since I don't go to see a doctor all that frequently. Unfortunately, there's not always an option. People are lucky to have any employer-provided insurance these days, often times it's a single plan that you either opt-into or you don't. For me, that's exactly the case.

There aren't many people who can look at you with a straight face and say that the American health care system isn't pretty wacky. On the one end of the spectrum are people who desperately need care but aren't seeing a doctor when they need to because they can't afford it. Then on the other side of the spectrum are people who are over-consuming health care because they want the best bang for their buck.

One thing that both of these scenarios have in common is that people respond to incentives.

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 mindset' and the fact that it's hard to think about getting places using routes other than those you would take in a car.

(from vpickering on Flickr)

If you pick two points, an origin and a destination, and ask a motorist and a bicyclist to make the journey - chances are that they'll take completely different routes, with the bicyclist traveling the same streets as the motorists only when absolutely necessary, or when the major arterial road has bike lanes that are able t safely accommodate bicyclists.

When someone gives me a ride someplace, I'm often reminded that there are whole sections of the city that I rarely or never see, because, unless these places are a destination, they're only places that you would pass through in a car.

Bicycling infrastructure is awesome and makes getting around cities a lot easier; but that's especially true in cases where street systems were originally designed exclusively for the use of cars. When there are plentiful side streets and secondary roads available, regardless of whether they have bike lanes painted on them, they're often the best ways to get from point A to point B.

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 slashed.

Is it good politics? Well... I can't really deny that it is.

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 the jobs that we all ought to want. These are supposed to be the jobs that we go to college for and spend lots of money on a degree for. They are supposed to make us happy. How often is that actually the case?

What I love about The Parking Lot Movie is that, as the movie comes to an end, we find out that most of the attendants eventually do find a career that most people would consider respectable. It was just during that brief time they worked collecting money from motorists that people assumed, because of what they did, that they were a certain kind of person destined for a certain kind of life.

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 draft laws to prevent them from maximizing their revenue, but if the incentives are strong enough, drives will ignore them anyway.

My personal incentive - to travel somewhere for as little money as possible, clashes strongly with the incentive of cab drivers. So I'm really not surprised that my experience riding in taxis has been less than amazing.

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 - the largest and most important American city with strict height restrictions.

New York and DC share some important similarities - they're both wildly expensive places to rent a home or an office or open a retail business. These two cities also look very different - DC has a flat skyline with short buildings, and Manhattan is an island of skyscrapers. Glaeser would say that both would benefit from more building, because what matters is that's less supply than demand in both places, even if New York already has lots of tall buildings.

Still, it's an uphill battle to convince preservationists in DC that tall buildings would work, when 200 miles to the north we have a city with the tallest buildings and the highest rents. Glaeser's explanation for why it is this way is a good start, I hope he take take the analysis to the next level and really try to show why DC specifically would benefit from more skyscrapers.

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 quality dive bars is a combination or economic and political consequences. It's true that it's very difficult, legally, to open a bar in DC - but I still think there's concern that even if you could open a bar anywhere you wanted in the city, high rents for many retail spaces would make it fairly difficult for a divey bar to thrive.

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 spring.

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, because it's owned by a giant bank that makes its money through banking products and services. Even if the ING Direct cafe is a loss-leader, if the advertising buzz it generates translates into new accounts, it has served its purpose.

In DC, some people get upset about the prospect of having their neighborhood "Adams Morganized" - which basically means that the storefronts will all turn into restaurants and bars, which are a lot more profitable than dry cleaners and pet stores and coffee shops.

One way neighborhoods try to prevent this from happening is to zone a lot from a very very specific use, like a dry-cleaner. But that seems particularly inefficient, since you are forcing a specific type of business into a particular lot. Another option is to artificially lower the rent for a dry-cleaner who wants to open a shop - or give the dry cleaner a cash subsidy. While this theoretically seems less fair, it also allows them to choose the storefront that makes the most sense for their business. The ING Direct Cafe in Philly is where it is today, at least in part, because maximizing profits at that store isn't one of it's driving goals.

At the end of the day, there are no easy solutions to these problems, at least none that seem overwhelmingly obvious to me.

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.
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 motorists alike.

There's certainly value to being able to travel at high speeds. There's also significant disadvantages. Cities just aren't meant to be places where cars blast through at high speeds. Unfortunately, that's still what many have become.
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 from that same window. If we wanted tokens, we could purchase them at a station that had token machines (this one did not) or the local supermarket.

I'd like to think that there's a reasonable explanation for why SEPTA operates like this, but I'm yet to hear it. The process for purchasing tokens is confusing, odd, and outright silly. I can understand how people get turned off by a transit agency that makes them jump through such hoops.

Using public transportation should be as easy as reasonably possible, and transit agencies should make this part of their mission. I can sympathize with people in Philly who might not use the SEPTA system because it's overly complicated, which is sad, because it's a reason that's likely the fault of the agency and completely correctable.