Price Discrimination

It's kind of amazing to think that it hasn't even been a year since I bought my first Groupon. My first voucher cost $9 and was good for $20 worth of Thai food at a great restaurant in Cleveland Heights. One evening I took my girlfriend and my voucher to the restaurant and everything went without a hitch.

(from Groupon on Flickr)

At the beginning, the Groupon model made a lot of sense to me. - it was simply a bunch of people getting together to get a sort of "bulk discount." It's that knowledge that gave me confidence that the deals were legitimate, rather than a big hoax, like most "too good to be true" deals usually are.

both the coupon industry and the retail industry is now facing. I wonder how many people truly understand the original idea behind Groupon, versus those who take for granted that they get really good deals every once in a while for no apparent reason?
In theory, Groupon's business model is "group coupons": If enough people sign up, the deal "tips" into action (because Groupon is so large, almost all deals now tip). In practice, Groupon's original idea—to encourage users to form groups to negotiate with merchants—seems to have disappeared. The notion of user empowerment has likewise vanished amid intense competition for the direct-to-consumer e-mail marketing business.
I'm starting to worry that Groupon is causing a unique type of inflation, where merchants raise prices in order to compensate for the increased amount of business Groupon is driving to them. I don't have good evidence that it's happening, but I'd believe it if someone else does.

Worse, merchants are starting to put restrictions on their Groupons (sometimes within the terms of the deal, sometimes not) that make these vouchers significantly less valuable. A friend of the blog told me about a recent visit she made to a local restaurant. When she tried to cash in her voucher, she was told the deals aren't valid after 9pm. This was nowhere in writing, but the business refused to accept the voucher nevertheless.

Price discrimination is nothing new in the business world. Every Monday I used to eat 40-cent wings and drink very cheap beers at my favorite bar in Cleveland. The bar offered different deals based on the day of the week, but the idea was simple... the deals were best on Monday and Tuesday and got progressively worse throughout the week, until the weekend, when there really weren't any deals. Point is... businesses have been engaging in price discrimination long before Groupon existed, and they were better able to control the terms.

Playing With Numbers

I just finished Charles Seife's book Proofiness. It's an OK read - the writing leaves a lot to be desired, and some chapters turned out much better than others. In any case, Seife's thesis - that numbers are being abused in many realms of life - is compellingly argued.

(from Koen Vereeken on Flickr)

One theme that emerges throughout the book is that media and journalists are particularly notorious for abusing any number that they can get their hands on. It's assumed that numbers are purely objective, because 2 plus 2 always equals 4; but statistics are only valid if they're based in logically-grounded theory. Often, they aren't.

I've had my own experience with this. Last spring I did an analysis of college degree density in America's largest metro areas. The post was divided into four sections. The first section was a simple list of geographies, sorted by college degree holders per capita, which I calculated by dividing the number of people with a college degree by the land area of the city (or county).

I knew that such a list, on its own, was bogus, because the number of college degrees per-capita would simply be a function of the number of people living in a given geography. So parts 2 and 3 of my analysis used regression and residuals analysis, respectively. In my opinion, this was by far the most interesting finding of the analysis. When controlling for overall population density, how do various cities and counties stack up?

When the post went viral, nearly all of the coverage focused on the first section, with virtually no mention of the rest of the analysis. This was extremely frustrating, especially when dramatic headlines popped up describing on section of my analysis as a study of cities "from smartest to dumbest" or something like that. Unfortunately, in order to discover why the numbers look the way they do, readers had to click through to my original post, because too many media sources weren't giving them the information they needed to draw appropriate conclusions.

Visiting Cleveland

Charles Michener has a nice article in Smithsonian Magazine about Cleveland's urban renewal. It's pretty typical cheerleading, as far as the writing goes, and it seems to be part of a broader trend in travel writing - authors visit Cleveland, a city written-off by the rest of the world, and discover it's actually got a lot going on. Maryann Haggerty had a similar revelation, writing in the Washington Post, last fall.

(from RobMacKay on Flickr)

Personally, I think Cleveland is an excellent city to visit. When it comes to what makes Cleveland worthwhile, Michener hits the nail on the head.
Unlike the gaudy attractions of New York or Chicago, which advertise themselves at every opportunity, Cleveland’s treasures require a taste for discovery. You might be astonished, as I was one Tuesday evening, to wander into Nighttown, a venerable jazz saloon in Cleveland Heights, and encounter the entire Count Basie Orchestra, blasting away on the bandstand. Or find yourself in Aldo’s, a tiny Italian restaurant in the working-class neighborhood of Brook-lyn. It’s a dead ringer for Rao’s, New York’s most celebrated hole-in-the-wall, only here you don’t have to know someone to get a table, and the homemade lasagna is better.
Cleveland is a city of gems. There are tons of great places to visit once you know they exist - it's the process of discovery that makes some people uncomfortable. When you visit New York or Chicago, there are guide books that will tell you exactly what to see and do. As long as you stick to the script, you can have a very predictable time.

The problem with mass-marketed attractions is that many of them are popular simply because they're popular. They're not popular because they're necessarily the best parts of the city or the most exciting things to do. You can visit New York or Chicago and spend an entire weekend surrounded by other tourists, rarely interacting with locals or spending time doing the things that they like to do. That's something that's unlikely to happen in Cleveland.

At the end of the day though, there's still a major disconnect between visiting Cleveland and living there. Visiting means that you can spend a few days experiencing a lot of really awesome gems, dining on great food and paying next to nothing for the opportunity. Visiting means you don't have to worry about the region's weak economy, its frustratingly bad government, its bad sprawl problem or its concentrated poverty.

Despite its problems, Cleveland is great to visit because it means you really don't need to worry about everything that's wrong. I'll be in Cleveland a few days from now for the Cleveland International Film Festival, undoubtedly one of the city's best gems.

Poker Pros

I really liked Jay Caspian Kang's NY Times Magazine article about the high-stakes online poker players who throw thousands or millions of dollars around in a single poker session. It's been a while since I've played poker, online or off. I still enjoy a good live game, but I've never been particularly into online poker.

(from maorix on Flickr)

Online poker is almost an entirely different game from live poker. Yes, the fundamental structure and the rules are the same, but the style of play is so incredibly different.

In live poker, you sit around a table, playing one hand and one game at a time. You have plenty of time to think, to look into your oponents' eyes, and to react to what's happening around you. In live poker, bluffs are called out because of a person's facial expressions, their body language, as well as their play history. You get to feel real chips in your fingers, and see a real stack sitting there in front of you, growing and shrinking.

Online poker is an entirely different beast. Online poker players often sit at 4, 8 or 16 tables at one time. They don't take time to watch every one one of their opponents. They can't see anyone else that's playing in their games, and "bluffs" are called based on how a player should theoretically be playing their hand. Online, there are no chips, just digits on a computer screen, winning and losing is just a debit and credit to a digital account.

I don't find online poker very fun. It's not a social game that you can play when you want to spend time with your friends. It's a high-paced video game that you play when you're bored or want to make money fast. I guess your preference is really just a matter of what you want out of poker itself.

Urban Freeway Myths

NPR aired an interesting piece last week about cities that are thinking about tearing down their urban freeways. It's a reversal of a decades-long trend of building new freeways and adding lanes whenever possible. In many cases, these roads simply don't make cities better or more livable places.

(from bankbryan on Flickr)

I really have two separate comments to make about NPR's story. The first is a general statement about freeways - they aren't cheap to build and they aren't cheap to maintain. Today, plenty of cities are motivated by the almighty dollar to remove this infrastructure. It's clear that freeways aren't sustainable in the long-term, so long as we insist that they be available for "free" to whoever wishes to use them.

Perhaps more importantly though, is the question of who really benefits from an urban freeway. The NPR story quotes an annoyed Cleveland motorist who doesn't like the idea that the freeway she uses to commute to work might go away.
To Clevelanders like Judie Vegh, the whole idea of tearing down a freeway just sounds crazy. "I think it's a pretty bad idea for commuters because I commute every morning downtown," she says. Vegh takes the West Shoreway each day from her home in the nearby suburb of Lakewood, Ohio. When she learned that the city plans to convert this freeway into a slower, tree-lined boulevard, she was not amused. "If it was 35 miles per hour, I would just be later than usual," Vegh says.
I was curious how much time someone saves commuting from Lakewood to downtown Cleveland via freeway, so I did a little playing around on Google Maps.

Let's say you start at Bunts Road and Detroit Avenue and you commute to Public Square. You could take Detroit Avenue - a 5.4 mile trip that Google estimates would take 11 minutes. Or you could take the Shoreway - a 6.2 mile trip that Google estimates would also take 11 minutes. Depending on your starting and ending points, the estimates always stay roughly the same - it takes about the same amount of time to drive from Lakewood to Cleveland on the Shoreway as it does on city streets.

But of course these are just estimates and maybe it is slightly quicker to take the Shoreway to get to downtown. How much faster? Given the short distance and Cleveland's generally light traffic, probably no more than a few minutes. Nevertheless, Angie Schmitt writes that Ohio state bureaucrats are doing everything in their power to ensure that Cleveland doesn't have anything resembling the tree-lined boulevard the NPR story hints at.

The ultimate question becomes, why should Cleveland have to give up one of its greatest assets (access to the lakefront) so that some commuters can save, at best, a minute or two commuting downtown? The first time I ever visited Chicago I was envious of the city's beautiful lakefront, even resentful that Cleveland has so badly squandered the opportunity to offer its citizens something similarly valuable.

Turning Cleveland's Shoreway into an urban boulevard is one of those no-brainier public policies that would benefit many at the cost of a few. Yet, frustratingly, as long as the suburban commuter is able to wield a large amount of political leverage, too cities will continue to be places that exist for people drive into for work, and little else.

Matthew Shaer has a very well-written article in New York Magazine (albeit difficult to swallow at times) about the battle over bike lanes in New York City. It's an interesting case of NIMBYism that makes you wonder how much of it comes down to legitimate concern over the new infrastructure, versus a simple fear of change.

(from Steven Vance on Flickr)

What irks me the most is the too-common belief that bicyclists exist because they have some great ideological agenda. Consider this quote from one of the primary opponents of Park Slope's bike lanes.
We walked next door to see the camera rig, Hainline now bundled up in a boxy barn coat. “I’m not saying bikers are ignorant,” she said. “They’re just holy. They really think they’re doing work for the environment if, instead of taking the car a block, they take the bike to go to the food co-op. That’s touching, and it’s in the right direction. But it’s silly.”
I'm not saying that Hainline is ignorant, she just has no facts to back up such a claim. Bikes are transportation. I don't understand why people refuse to understand this. In a big city like New York, they're fast, efficient, affordable means of getting around. And how sad is it that it's sillier that people are riding bikes to a food co-op rather than driving a car one block to get their groceries?

If I made a list of reasons why I bike around in DC and Arlington, the benefit for the environment would be very low on my list. That's not to say that my actions are marginally better for the planet than driving a car; it's that I don't really have much faith that what I'm doing can compensate for the incredible industrial environmental damage that I have virtually no control over.

Relative Quality

I have a new post over at All Opinions Are Local, thinking about the problems that exist with public transportation in Washington, DC.

(from Dsade on Flickr)

By most measures, Washington has one of the best public transportation systems in America. The city will continue to have some of the best transit for years to come. The problem is that it doesn't mean that it's great or that it's getting better.

People have a tendency to judge things relative to other things. It's hard not to. So as long as DC has better public transportation than City A or City B, we ought to be happy with it, right? Well, no; not if the systems in every American city are getting worse at the same pace.

The only benchmark we really should be considering is how good public transportation is relative to itself. Is Metro better this year than it was 5 years ago? Is it more reliable? Does it offer a better value? If the answer to these questions are 'no', then there's a serious problem, even if it's still better than whatever most other cities can offer.

Freedom to...

Last week Yglesias commented on the ideological similarities between urbanists and Tea-Partiers, but concludes that the Tea Party isn't likely to take an interest in urban issues since most of them don't live in, or have any personal stake in cities, whereas, many of their political opponents do.

(from katerkate on Flickr)

I think another issue is that when talking about policies that best constitute liberty or freedom, it can be difficult for people to figure out when the government is actually taking less of a role, versus when they're taking on more power.

For instance, I could say that government ought to end sprawl subsidies. It should stop funding roads and public utilities. It shouldn't have bailed out auto manufacturers and shouldn't continue to make policy that is primarily auto-centric. Of course, the flip side of this argument is that doing so would mean that the government wants to make us live like in dense cities like Europeans. Is it true? No. But it's a compelling argument to someone who wants to believe it.

Similarly, I could say that it's the result of big government intervention that developers and businesses are forced to over-supply parking spaces in American cities. But a tea-partier could turn around and say changing the law just infringes on their right to park for free. I could say that we ought to toll highways, and someone on the other side of the fence would say that it's government trying to pick the pockets of ordinary citizens.

I recently mentioned that sometimes it all comes down to what's the default. Right now, sprawl in the norm, so any policy designed to reverse sprawl actually looks interventionist, even if it's designed to let the market, not the government, influence outcomes.

Partying Down

Earlier this year I discovered Party Down on Netflix. I'd never heard of the show before, and apparently neither had many others. It was canceled after 2 short seasons on Starz (on a similar note, I had no idea the premium movie channel even produced sitcoms). It's really a shame; because it's one of the best-written sitcoms I've seen in a long time.

Since Party Down doesn't need to conform to typical network standards, it's in a league of it's own, barely compatible to other great sitcoms like Seinfeld, How I Met Your Mother and The Office. It's the kind of show that's so good because it's pure in form, rather than trying to be something marketable - it's a show that's well written and excellently acted.

It's possible that Party Down might eventually return to cable - it wouldn't be the first time a canceled show returned years after its network told it to go packing. Or perhaps, given the changing nature of the television industry, maybe Netflix will bypass the networks and pick up the show on its own, giving life to potentially dozens of other programs that were canceled because the marketers at major networks couldn't convince the masses that it's worth watching.

Unlimited Rides

Michael Perkins is advocating for unlimited-ride passes on Washington DC's Metro. I'm fully supportive of his initiative, though I have to admit that I'd probably never buy one.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr)

Right now, my primary means of transportation is my bike, and my secondary means is Metro. I like it this way. I like getting out in the fresh air. I'm not a huge fan of the daily "orange crush". I appreciate being able to stay active so easily. And I especially like saving $4.80 (round-trip) every workday that I don't use Metro.

If I had an unlimited pass, my behavior would surely change. I'd bike less and ride Metro more. I'd feel like I was getting a bad deal not using my unlimited ride pass more (even though that's irrelevant since it's a sunk cost anyway). Every time I thought about hopping on a train or a bus, I wouldn't have to first ask myself "is this worth it"?

Now, if you take the word bike from above and replace it with car, then an unlimited ride transit pass actually has significant social benefits. And since most people are currently not getting around town like me, having a compelling incentive to switch from motoring to Metroing would hardly be the worst thing in the world.

Fill'er Up

Angie Schmitt writes that Americans are getting squeezed by high gasoline prices again, just as it looks like there might be light at the end of the recessionary tunnel.

(from mtsofan on Flickr)

It's now 2011. We've been through this before. It's hard to say with a straight face that $4 per gallon is really all that surprising. There's something about fuel price inflation that seems to get under people's skin more than other types of inflation. I think I may have an idea of what it is...

High gasoline prices shatter the illusion that cars offer the ultimate freedom of mobility. In fact, it proves exactly the opposite - that too many people now have no choice but to drive everywhere, and that driving comes at the cost of feeding themselves and their families. People usually say that they choose to live in car-dependent places for one reason or another, so when the prices of getting around those places becomes prohibitive, their hands are tied.

Cars really do offer unlimited freedom, in an imaginary world of no congestion and fuel made of magic dust. Reality is just so very different.

Dollar Bills

The PNC Bank ATM near my house (as well as numerous others across the city) allow customers to withdraw cash in increments of $1. Of course, I think this is pretty awesome - but it's still one step away from perfection.

(from dipdewdog on Flickr)

While the ATM allows me to get money in increments of $1, it doesn't let me pick the bills that I want. For example, if I want $19, it gives me a ten and 9 ones. If I want $39, it gives me a twenty, a ten and 9 ones.

I prefer paying for small purchases with cash, when it's reasonable. Cash comes in particularly handy when you're out with a big group and everyone is tossing money into the pot at the end of the night. But it's only as convenient so far as people have correct change. If three friends get together for drinks, each spends ten-bucks, then they only have twenties in their wallets when the check comes, it doesn't really help.

One reason I think some people are reluctant to pay for stuff with cash is that they don't want to stop at an ATM all the time. But another reason is that $20 bills aren't always the easiest to spend. Make it easier for people to get exactly the bills that they want, and maybe people will use cash more often. Then again, this flies in the face of the banks themselves, which have a strong incentive to keep people using plastic, even when it's completely unnecessary.

City Downsizing

Chana Joffe-Walt has an interesting story over at Planet Money about Youngstown's attempt to stabilize its population, while giving up all interest in economic growth.

(from jmd41280 on Flickr)

I've heard Youngstown praised for its role in the "shrinking cities" movement. If a city is truly hopeless, relying on big projects to try to turn things around is entirely futile. The problem that often doesn't get discussed is exactly how cities shrink. Metro areas grow in a predictable pattern, starting downtown and expanding outward, with the newest development typically happening along the fringe.

Joffe-Walt explains some of the challenges.

The problem with shrinking cities is that they don't shrink in a smart, organized way. It's chaotic. Thousands of people will leave one neighborhood, and maybe a dozen people will stay behind.

In a perfect world, shrinking a city would mean reversing sprawl - pushing people and commerce from the outside back toward the center. Of course, this isn't how it works and there's no easy way to make it work. Instead, the risk is that we wind up with a bunch of doughnut hole cities - places with a few people and businesses remaining along the fringe, but nothing left in the center.

Sidewalk Wars

It wasn't until recently that I discovered that sidewalks, something I never imagined to be even remotely controversial, can lead to some of the most heated debates you'll ever witness. S. Mitra Kalita has a pretty incredible article in the Wall Street Journal about the debates over installing sidewalks in suburban America.

(from chrissuderman on Flickr)

Consider this blurb, which made me cringe the first few times I read it.
Claude Pagacz, a retired carpenter and longtime resident, successfully opposed sidewalks on his side of the street. "What concrete adds to the value of my house," he says, "I have no idea."
You could say the same about a of things. What value does an extra couple square feet of grass add to the house? Or a tree out front? Or a bigger driveway? My hypothesis is that you could run a multivariate regression using home price and home attribute data and find that a sidewalk actually does add value to a housing unit, controlling for all other variables. But at this point it's just speculative, so let's move on.

Municipalities should require that all new building include sidewalks. And the reason they ought to require it is because sidewalks need to be the default.

Honestly, I think the debates that are raging about sidewalks aren't even really about sidewalks - they're about change. Some people, for one reason or another, are scared of change, don't like it and don't want it. If the default is no sidewalks, then the prospect of installing sidewalks frightens them. If, on the other hand, sidewalks have been around for as long as people have lived in their home, I bet that they'd fight to preserve them if the debate were ever flipped on its head.

I'm not aa Realtor, but how often do home-buyers actually reject a house, or refuse to look at one, because of the presence of a sidewalk out front?
In a few hours we'll know the 65 teams that will compete for the NCAA men's basketball championship. And of course, over the next 4 days, office workers across America will spend their lunch hours meticulously filling out their bracket. In the past, in preparation for the tournament, I collected a lot of statistics and crunched a lot of numbers; but I've never done particularly well.

(from GoonSquadSarah on Flickr)

As it turns out, my statistical models performed modestly. My bracket was incredible average - it wasn't close to winning, but it was hardly the worst in the pool. It's possible that my model itself was flawed (it was rather simplistic), but the real story is probably that there's just too much variability in college basketball to use past performance to predict future success.

In that sense, using numbers to pick winners in college basketball reminds me of a lot of the statistical models used in the social sciences. Sure, they provide insights into real events, but they're not always bulletproof, especially when it comes to making predictions. The real risk is in assuming that, just because numbers are involved, whatever the "tell us" must be the truth.

The real key to winning a March Madness pool is to think about the tournament as a game theory question, rather than a mathematical equation.

Weekend Video Break

Via 2nd Avenue Sagas, this is a really nicely made video that encompasses the feeling to emerging from underground into a place that's new and unknown.

If you're a fan of short films, or subways, I'd recommend Subway Stories, a collection of ten short films that all take place in the New York City subway. You'll probably find a few fun cameo appearances to boot.

Death of Good Movies

Mark Harris has a pretty damning criticism of Hollywood film studios over at GQ. His argument, which I think is correct, is that movie companies no longer care about making good movies, even if a good movie might be profitable; they've gotten to a point where the thing that matters more than anything else is marketability.

(from The City Project on Flickr)

Personally, I feel like the ratio of bad to good movies has become frustratingly high. There are weeks when I look at the list of movies playing at theaters around town, and maybe one captures my interest. I like going to see movies at the theater, I really do; but if I'm going to fork over 11 bucks to do it, I want to see a movie that's going to be genuinely enjoyable. Those types of movies are getting harder and harder to find.

This is one of the reasons I love film festivals, where the goal is to showcase good films, whether or not they're marketable or valuable from a sales perspective. Film festivals offer a glimpse into films that are based on good stories, even if they aren't backed by huge budgets or star well-known actors. The real value of these movies is that they're interesting, unique and enjoyable.

Unfortunately, film festivals usually only last a week or two, and then they're gone again until next year. Many of them, including one of my favorites, the Cleveland International Film Fest, relies on funding from corporate sponsors and charitable donors to break even. Maybe it's true that there isn't a business model that can support good movies. Sure, a few festival films always get picked up for wider distribution, but most of them go quietly into the night... enjoyed by a few, never-known to the rest.

Coffee and Inflation

Have you noticed that it's getting more expensive for a daily caffeine fix?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that wholesale commodity coffee prices are at an all time high, and coffee shops just can't eat those costs anymore. I recently paid $3.00 (tax included) for a 20 ounce drip coffee at a local coffee shop. That's by-far the most I've ever paid for a cup of Joe.

(from ropesandpulleys on Flickr)

$3.00 is the exception, not the rule. Still, there's no denying that prices are going up, and it's almost guaranteed that they won't drop, even if the price of commodity green beans does.

Coffee inflation is interesting, because it happens in a way that's less noticeable than other goods and services. I know people who watch the price of gasoline like a hawk. They known, down to the penny, what a gallon costs at all times. Similarly, people are well aware when their rent or mortgage payments increase, for example. So why less attention to coffee?

It probably has to do with the fact that coffee prices aren't posted on giant boards all over the city for every person to see on a daily basis, like gasoline. Coffee is also generally a relatively small daily expense. Even if the monthly total that people spend on the drink is high, what's a couple more cents every day? This is unlike rent, where even a small increase can appear to be very large.

My coffee consumption isn't going to go down because the prices is going up. I still enjoy what economics call consumer surplus - what I pay is actually less than what I'd be willing to pay. For now, that works for me.
Generally, I'm a fan of Groupon. I've used the service (and it's main competitor, Living Social) to purchase well over a dozen deal vouchers since I discovered the sites about a year ago. Until recently, each of those purchases went without a hitch. Last month, I purchased the FTD Valentine's flower Groupon and had my first taste of what happens when a Groupon deal goes bad.

(from Jeff Tabaco on Flickr)

The flower "deal" was bad news from the beginning, when FTD tried to charge inflated prices to customers who purchased the Groupon, thinking, apparently, that nobody would notice. But people did notice, and they were not happy about it. Eventually, FTD and Groupon came to some sort of agreement where FTD would refund the difference of the inflated prices that voucher customers purchased.

Knowing that my girlfriend isn't a huge fan of cut flowers, I instead ordered a rose plant to be delivered to her office on Valentine's Day. At least, with a potted plant, she'd be able to enjoy it for more than a week or so.

FTD delivered a sick-looking plant, shipped via UPS from Georgia to Ohio, that was dead within the week. I reached out to FTD, citing their "7 Day Satisfaction Guarantee". Their automated email system said they try to respond to correspondences within 24 hours. Two weeks later and I haven't heard a word. My girlfriend sent a similar complaint, citing disappointment with the rose plant. Again, no response from FTD.

In an effort of last-resort, I reached out to Groupon to let them know what happened. They issued a refund for my Groupon the same day. While the situation was ultimately resolved, I'm disappointed that it had to come to that.

Based on my experience, I can surmise that one of two things happened. Either 1) FTD is a truly incompetent company that simply can't handle the business that it gets, or 2) FTD regrets partnering with Groupon and treats the customers who used vouchers differently (ie. worse) than customers who paid with cash. Whichever the case, FTD will never heard a positive word spoken about them from me.

For some businesses, it simply doesn't make sense to partner with Groupon, I get that. Somebody has to pay so that customers can get good deals, and often, that's the business itself. But if a business does decide to go through with it, it's not wise to start treating those with vouchers as second-class customers, and it's certainly not good for Groupon when that happens, either.

Freedom of Choice

A few years ago I read Barry Schwartz's very good book The Paradox of Choice. I was reminded of the book's hypothesis over the weekend when I came across Mike Darling's piece in Spirit Magazine, reiterating that more choices sometimes make us less happy than fewer choices.

The quintessential example has become the supermarket, where every product has a seemingly endless array of options. What if, instead of 100 slightly different pasta sauces and a thousand different wines, there were just a few? Would that make us more content with whatever we pick?

(from rick on Flickr)

I think it's dangerous to universally claim that more choices make us worse-off. I think it's more fair to say that excessive choices make us unhappy. Or, as an economist might say, increasing choices offer diminishing, and eventually negative, returns. In the beginning, we like having more things to choose from, but at some point, that happiness levels-off and eventually begins to decline.

Of course, the debate about choice becomes more nuanced when you think about it. Is it good that my neighborhood has a lot of different bars and restaurants that I can choose from? Sure - I think so. Furthermore, would it be best if every one of those restaurants offered a menu with every type of dish on it?

It wouldn't, so long as that huge selection makes it difficult for restaurants to focus on making anything particularly well. Sticking with the restaurant example, I think this is one reason why Chipotle is able to enjoy enormous success, while many knock-off burrito restaurants struggle. I hate walking into a burrito place and seeing a menu with 20 or 30 pre-selected combinations. The simplicity of the Chipotle menu offers a feeling of comfort.

I've long believed that if I ever get to a point where I'm able to own my own bar or restaurant, it's going to be hyper-focused on something. Maybe I'll have a bar that serves the best wings in town; but it won't serve anything else, just wings.

Some people will get turned off by this concept. They'll say, "I don't like wings and won't come to your bar, but if you served burgers, I'd buy one." That's probably true, for people who don't like wings. But if my bar can succeed in being the #1 wing spot around, then I won't need those burger customers anyway. If I make wings and burgers that are both just OK, that's not going to have people knocking down the door either.

Biking to the Airport

Tom Vanderbilt remarks on a comment that it's surprisingly pretty easy to ride a bike to LaGuardia airport in New York; but finding a place to lock it up at the terminal that's a challenge.

(from sindändùne on Flickr)

I think most people would agree that airports don't need racks for people to leave bikes, because who in their right mind would bike to catch their flight? By the very nature of air travel, the fact that people carry a lot of awkward luggage, that airports are usually on the fringes of cities, and that flights often leave very early in the morning and arrive very late at night, makes it kind pointless for most travelers to ride a bike.

The real benefit of having safe bicycle routes to airports, places to lock up bikes, as well as good public transit, is more for the benefit of the employees than it is for travelers. Airports employ large numbers of service-sector and blue-collar workers. Being able to get to an airport without having to drive, park, and potentially shuttle into the jobsite is a huge benefit. Otherwise, you limit those jobs who can either reasonably drive themselves to work, carpool, or who have to awkwardly commute on insufficient public transit.

Urban Ruins

Over at TNR, Noreen Malone makes the case that we ought to abandon our obsession with photos of urban ruins, perhaps best exemplified by shots of urban Detroit. I haven't been to Detroit since 2008, so I can't speak about the city with any level of expertise; but I do think it's a stretch to say that Detroit, despite the bad shape that it's in, is the absolute ghost town that photos often make it out to be.

(from Rosh - New media photographer on Flickr)

Consider that Detroit currently has a population around 900,000. The Metro area is 4.4 million strong, making it just a bit larger than metropolitan Phoenix. Detroit's problem is not that it's necessarily a ghost town - its problem is that it's rapidly shrinking, which causes a whole host of further issues.

Malone continues...
By presenting Detroit, and other hurting cities like it, as places beyond repair, they in fact quash any such instinct. Looked at as a piece of art, they're arresting, compelling, haunting ... but not galvanizing. Our brains mentally file these scenes next to Pompeii rather than a thriving metropolis like Chicago, say, or even Columbus.
That's an interesting comparison, because I'm confident that, with enough effort, I could find shots of Chicago and Columbus that look pretty awful. For that matter, I could find shots of New York or Washington or Dallas or Houston that make these cities look like they're in pretty terrible shape. Unfortunately, I'm not sure there's any big city in America that doesn't have at least some urban neighborhoods that aren't in the best shape.

Economically speaking, Detroit is a lot worse-off than many other American cities. But perceptually, Detroit, Cleveland and other rust-belt cities probably come across as being in much worse shape than the economic weakness actually makes them. These photos create a notorious feedback loop, where people become so convinced that these cities are terrible places that they never go there to see for themselves.

Marketing Public Transit

Erik Weber has an excellent post over a at The City Fix about the responsibilities that public transit agencies have to their customers (or potential customers) when it comes to marketing and advertising. He argues that there's a balance that must be upheld between what a transit agency promises and what it actually has the ability to deliver.

(from MIAD Communication Design on Flickr)

Last year I wrote about an egregious marketing effort by Cleveland's RTA. After receiving a bit of recognition from the American Public Transportation Association, the transit agency plastered "Best Transit System in North America 2007" stickers all over their buses and trains. They were finally removed in early 2010.

It would be one thing if someone, anyone, thought that Cleveland was competing for the best transit system in all of North America. Realistically, that simply wasn't the case. So the marketing campaign made the transit agency look out-of-touch and arrogant. And it only makes the transit agency look incredibly bad as it's raising fares and cutting service, but maintaining the marketing pitch of "best in North America".

There's certainly value in highlighting the things that transit agencies do well. But making blanket statements like "best of the best" will rarely achieve what it's designed to. Unless you actually happen to be the absolute best, or at least have people who believe that to be the case.

Life Rolls On

For those who aren't yet aware of the news, next week I'll be joining a large think tank in Washington, DC as a research assistant. I'm really excited to move into a field that really fits my interests. A lot of the work I'll be doing will center around cities, housing and community development, which is really my bread-and-butter.

(From Jon's snaps on Flickr)

I also got to reminiscing about my first 9 months in the DC area. When I moved, my goal really was to experience as much of the city as possible, and I'm pretty content with what I've accomplished. I've ridden my bike many miles through many of the city's neighborhoods. I've drank a lot of cups of coffee, started trying to figure out what makes a gourmet burger so sought-after, and I'm still on the hunt for an excellent everything bagel. I've played my fair share of trivia, visited some outdoor festivals, and feasted on food cooked in the back of a truck.

I think it's pretty fair to say that I'm not struggling to find things to do.

The flip-side of this is that I often feel frustrated because there's only so much that I can't do. Between the long hours I worked at my first post-college "real-world" job and my rather tight budget, I frequently find myself needing to sit an inning out.

I hope some of that changes in the coming months. Now that I'll be in the heart of the city every day, I'll be closer to a lot of the action, and while I don't drastically expect to change my blogging habits, I do hope to contribute to Greater Greater Washington and All Opinions are Local a lot more than I currently do. I do have a lot of DC-specific ideas for posts in the pipeline that you may see here or elsewhere in the blogosphere during that time.

As with any life change, it's difficult to know exactly how it will play out, but I'm hoping for the best.