Fuel Prices

The other day I was having a conversation with someone about the recent rise in gasoline prices. At some point, they made a comment to me that went something like... "you probably don't even know or care about how much gasoline costs since you bike everywhere." The statement is untrue for a number of reasons.

(from chego101 on Flickr)

Believe it or not, I do drive, occasionally. Surely my Zipcar rates will go up if the price of fueling the cars keeps going up. But I also care for other reasons that don't have to do with driving cars. I fly on airplanes quite regularly, which operate on jet fuel. And the truck that docks at my local supermarket runs on expensive diesel fuel. When I order things online, it doesn't just magically appear on my doorstep. I could go on, but the point is, just because I don't drive a car every day doesn't mean energy inflation has no impact on my life.

Every time I see a story about gasoline prices on local news, it always offers some "tips" for dealing with the situation, and one of the tip always suggests switching to a more fuel efficient car. It's a quick fix that might work in the short-term, but it ignores the fact that we live in a culture where driving everywhere is just assumed. It ignores the reality that developing countries are trying to copy this culture, to what is sure to be a disaster on many fronts.

I've written a lot here about the personal choices we make. We can choose where to live and how we get around. We can choose how often we travel long-distances. But we don't have direct control over how the Chinese or the Indians live as they become wealthier. We have no individual ability to change how our food system operates. So yes, people who don't drive cars should still care about this stuff, and they should understand that driving different types of cars isn't really going to matter.

What's Up With Tourists?

Fedward Potz thinks that DC locals ought to be nicer to summer tourists. There's a number of reasons why these visitors are good for the city, including the fact that they spend money, earned elsewhere, and generate a lot of business because of it. But Potz says it's not just about business, being nice is just the right thing to do.

(from thetejon on Flickr)

The bigger question is, why do people even have such sour feelings toward visitors? Sure, it's annoying that some people stand on the wrong side of the escalators and others hog the sidewalks, but I think it runs deeper than these little annoyances.

Big cities often have two economies - the local economy and the tourist economy. Tourists are a captive audience, they're in an unfamiliar place with wallets open, so businesses understandably charge them a lot of money for goods and services. I once heard that there are dirty-water dog vendors in New York that charge different prices for the same exact same hot dogs, depending on whether they peg you as a local or a tourist. I actually did find it curious that few street vendors in New York have posted prices. You have to ask to find out what stuff costs.

Locals don't want to get trapped in the tourist economy of their own city. I certainly have no desire to go down to the areas surrounding the National Mall and pay a 50% premium on food and drinks at restaurants that are worse than most other places in the city. But I also fear that if tourists start visiting my favorite places, prices will go up and quality will go down. Once businesses become attractions, they will charge higher prices and provide quality of service just good enough to keep people flocking to it.

Writing in Public

Conor Friedersdorf has a few ideas about why working from coffee shops is so appealing. I've been thinking about this lately because I haven't really found a coffee shop near my home where I feel comfortable going and working on a regular basis.

(from Tricia Wang 王圣捷 on Flickr)

A friend of the blog recently told me that he thought the quality of my posts has plateaued. I was disappointed because I think he's right. Of course, working full time means I have a lot less time and resources to devote to writing than I used to, but another problem is that this blog, which used to be authored exclusively from coffee shops, no longer isn't.

The reason I like writing at coffee shops is because I walk in the door with a purpose. When I go to a coffee shop, I have a goal - writing a blog post or two, sending some emails I've been meaning to send... whatever the case, I sit down and set out to accomplish it. The coffee is like a hourglass. When the coffee gets cold, or the cup sits empty, then it's time to go.

Coffee shops are great places to go for bursts of productivity. They aren't places that I'd feel comfortable sitting for an entire day. Occasionally I'll have two cups of coffee, but by the end of the second cup, I'm usually feeling pretty antsy. For that reason, I don't think they're places were people who want to 'telework' ought to go. There's a difference between writing a blog post or two and doing a full 8-hour day's worth of work.

Asian Chipotle

The folks who brought you Chipotle are opening an Asian restaurant concept in DC this summer. It's being described as a fusion of foods from Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam and served in a style reminiscent of Chipotle. It sounds a little weird to me, to be honest, but I think it can work, if for no other reason that the same people made it work so well with food from Mexico.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

This also gives me the opportunity to point out that what makes Chipotle my favorite chain restaurant isn't the concept - it's the food. There are plenty of places that have knocked off the burrito concept - Qdoba, Baha Fresh, California Tortilla, and others, albeit the concept isn't always an exact copy. These places are OK. A few people even like them a little more than Chipotle; but to me, they don't even come close.

You can serve any kind of food in assembly line fashion, but as it's often said in business, "garbage in, garbage out". The concept isn't really all that creative anymore. If this new restaurant can serve food that tastes so good I crave it all the time, then I think they'll succeed.

Zipcar Culture

Zipcar's recent Initial Public Offering didn't just put $175 million into the company's bank account - it gave a lot of people confidence that car-sharing has finally gone mainstream. I personally think Zipcar is about the greatest thing in the world, and one of the ultimate urban amenities.

(from Andrew Currie on Flickr)

When I lived in Dallas, I used to sit around my apartment thinking about how hard it was to live in a top-ten American city without access to a car. It's not just that I didn't own a car, it's that I had no ability to drive anywhere, unless a friend was willing to lend me their wheels. And unfortunately, the city was designed in such a way that you "had" to drive everywhere (or at least that's what everyone told me).

The truth is that Zipcar isn't a solution for car-dependent cities, and it's not surprising that Zipcar doesn't have a presence in cities like Dallas or Houston. Car sharing is one piece of a diverse transportation system. That's why Zipcars tend to be clustered around public transit stations. It's why the orange Zipcar signs on the side of the street double as a bike rack.

Zipcar isn't just a business, it's a tool of urbanism. It provides neighborhoods a tremendous social good. And the fact that it's provided by a for-profit company on the verge of profitability is definitely something to note.
When I visited Williamsburg last year, one thing that I thought made the neighborhood an awesome place was the existence of unique, reasonably affordable and fun attractions. To me, Barcade was the epitome of Williamsburg. So I was a little taken aback when I read that a second Barcade is opening - in New Jersey.

(from Bernt Rostad on Flickr)

A friend of the blog asked if the presence of Barcade might make me warm up to the Garden State a bit. I feel the same way about Northern New Jersey as I feel about Northern Virginia - no doubt there are interesting neighborhoods and fun things to do, but these places will always be overshadowed by the great urban playgrounds right across their respective rivers.

In a sense, I feel a little disappointed when cool urban places move out to the suburbs. Melt Bar and Grilled is one of my favorite restaurants in Cleveland, both because the food is good and the beer list is extensive, but also because the restaurant seemed committed to being urban. I felt a little letdown when I read that the local chain's third location would be located in a strip mall, on the site of a former gas station, in Cleveland suburbia.

The businesses owners would probably say that they're just following the money, they're going to where people want them to go. That's fine - I get that. But where businesses decide to go can really change the perception of their brand. If Barcade and Melt want their brand to be hip and urban, that's one thing. If they start moving into the suburbs because people out there are clamoring for them, then they give up that image in the process.
Whether Living Social's "Dollar Lunch" promotion last Friday was a success depends on who you ask. Some people got lunch at a great restaurant for practically nothing. Others found themselves stuck in insanely long lines, waiting an hour or more for their food to get brought out from the kitchen, or getting turned away all together. Dollar Lunch day went about exactly as anyone could have predicted.

(from oncetherewasagirl on Flickr)

A co-worker and I purchased one of the instant vouchers to a restaurant across the street from our office. We knew it was a gamble, but figured it was worth a dollar. When we walked in the door, the host asked if we had a reservation. We didn't. He responded, "sorry, I can't accommodate you." We left, walked a block down the street, past lines stretching down the sidewalk, and ate at Chipotle instead.

It's not entirely clear who subsidized this promotion. There's talk that Living Social helped foot the bill, but whether they covered the entire cost to the participating restaurants isn't clear.

Who came out the biggest winner from Dollar Lunch Day? I'd say it's probably the restaurants that didn't participate the promotion, like the Chipotle where I ate. These places cashed in on the spillover from those who went out for lunch, but their either couldn't redeem their deal, or didn't have the patience to wait it out. DC's food trucks probably didn't have a bad day either.

And the biggest losers? I'd venture to guess it's the servers and the waitstaff who had to deal with mobs of people, many of whom (from what I read) had no idea how to tip in a situation like this one. Nobody likes working harder than ever and getting paid less for it.

Reverse Commuting

I've never really "reverse commuted", but I know a number of people who do. On one hand, it's a major sign of urban strength and desirability. I think it really says something that there are people who to live it cities, even though it means a commute out into the suburbs. On the other hand, it demonstrates the unfortunate reality that so many white-collar jobs are now located outside of the urban core, even as people flock to it.

(from stevelyon on Flickr)

A lot of people who reverse commute will justify it by saying that reverse commuting is easier than regular commuting. Traffic isn't quite as heavy when you're going against the flow, and I don't doubt that to be true. But it misses the point that commuting would be really easy for the same people if their jobs were also in the city.

I was having a conversation with a friend of the blog recently, and he said the "greenest" commute that a white-collar worker can have is no commute at all - in other words, to telework. Taken to its logical end, his argument is true, but teleworking has issues of its own. After all, if teleworking were so great, why do companies continue renewing their commercial leases?

To me, the "greenest" form of commuting for white-collar workers is for everyone to live close enough to their jobs that they can walk. In any case, the only way this could possibly be accomplished is by designing cities and neighborhoods so that every neighborhood has a mix of uses. We can't turn back the clock on development, and as long as our metros have "places to work" and "places to live" and segregated zoning throughout, there will always be commuters, whichever direction they're going.

Working Out

I've never liked gyms. I've never been perceptive to the idea that if I want to be healthy, the best place to accomplish that goal is in a room with a bunch of cardio and weight machines. After all, I've got a bike, and I've got sidewalks near my house. I could make up excuses for why these aren't good enough for a cardio workout, but it would be a pretty bad excuse. And I'll admit, gyms do typically have free weights that would be helpful in many regards, but for the price gyms charge per month, I might as well buy a set of my own.

(from GaryPaulson on Flickr)

I think Daniel Duane's piece in Men's Journal does a good job helping me understand why I have such lukewarm feelings toward gyms. Ultimately, the problem is that the incentives for gym owners and gym customers aren't aligned. Getting people into shape isn't the way for gym owners can maximize their profits. Duane writes...
Commercial health clubs need about 10 times as many members as their facilities can handle, so designing them for athletes, or even aspiring athletes, makes no sense. Fitness fanatics work out too much, making every potential new member think, Nah, this place looks too crowded for me. The winning marketing strategy, according to Recreation Management Magazine, a health club–industry trade rag, focuses strictly on luring in the “out-of-shape public,” meaning all of those people whose doctors have told them, “About 20 minutes three times a week,” who won’t come often if ever, and who definitely won’t join unless everything looks easy, available, and safe. The entire gym, from soup to nuts, has been designed around getting suckers to sign up, and then getting them mildly, vaguely exercised every once in a long while, and then getting them out the door.
Sadly, this all makes perfect sense. It also explains why so many people seem to sign up for gyms, only rarely, if ever, return. In any case, I'm still perfectly happy with the workouts that I get on my own.
A friend of the blog sent over a link to H.R. 1014 - a piece of legislation introduced a few years and known on the Hill as the ‘No Taxation Without Representation Act’. The bill would treat the District of Columbia as a United States Possession, exempting its citizens from federal income taxes. Even though such legislation would probably never pass in a million years, it leads to an interesting thought experiment about what DC might look like today if it had.

(from Poldavo (Alex) on Flickr)

Washington is already an incredibly desirable city, with some of the highest costs in America, both for living and for doing business. A city except from federal taxes would have been even more attractive, particularly for the rich. The more money you make, the greater the potential savings you can reap by hiding your income from the IRS.

Yesterday, Vincent Gray and members of the DC City Council were arrested while rallying for DC's rights, and they were taken into custody with a giant "Taxation Without Representation" banner in the background. Of course, what they care about isn't so much the taxation side of the coin, it's the representation. A city without taxation might have led to gentrification at a rate that someone like Vince Gray would never be able to tolerate. Fighting for representation is something that everyone, rich or poor, can get behind.

Photography and Place

Greg Ruffing has some intelligent thoughts about how photography can shape the perception we develop about cities. Whatever we want to believe about cities, we can use high quality photographs to confirm our predetermined beliefs.

He says that you can take pictures of the same city, and offer wildly varying perspective on what that city is like. If you want to write a narrative on urban decay, photos of boarded up buildings and graffiti seem to be a popular bet.

(from Scallop Holden on Flickr)

On the other side, colorful photos of a vibrant streetscape can depict hopeful signs of urban renewal. A good photographer can portray a city however they want. We just need to be careful not to read too much into imagery. Seeing a city with your own eyes is the only true way to understand what type of place it is.

Congestion

If you don't believe that congestion exists on bicycle and pedestrian trails, check out the Mount Vernon Trail in Virginia on a nice day. Now that it's spring, I've seen a surge in bicyclists out in the city, and some bike routes are starting to feel a little crowded.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

Most people have experienced auto congestion - there aren't many major cities that don't have the problem with too many cars on valuable road space. It's often believed that bicyclists and pedestrians don't have to deal with serious congestion - maybe it's even a way to avoid it. And that's true, except when it's not. Sidewalks and multi-use trails can get crowded and congested, and when they do, it can be almost as frustrating as being caught in a bad traffic jam.

On the other hand, bicyclists do tend to benefit from safety in numbers. So while it might feel a little slower to get where you're going, and least it's safer. As long as people have to "commute" places, however they choose to do it, there are going to be challenges. The more distance you have to travel, the more opportunities there will be for obstacles along the way.

Film Festival

Last weekend I had the chance to see a few good films at the Cleveland International Film Festival. I've been going to this annual event for years, and it remains the best film festival that I've been able to attend. Granted, I haven't been to any of the 'premier' festivals, like Sundance, Toronto or Tribecca. Cleveland, though, has a lot of unique things going for it that makes it a great event that I'm not sure could exist in a lot of other places.

(from thegilmanator on Flickr)

Tower City Cinemas is the perfect location for the festival. It's a decent downtown theater with eight screens. And since the cinema itself is rarely busy, it's not unreasonable for the event to take over the entire complex for its 10 day run. The centralized location creates an atmosphere, as it allows movie lovers to spend an entire day seeing films in one place and interact with other film buffs. The sheer mass of people creates an environment that couldn't exist if the films were spread out among a handful of different theaters.

In all the years I've been going to the Cleveland Film Festival, I've never been locked-out of a film that I wanted to see. It really doesn't matter if you're a celebrity, a VIP, a major donor or someone who just wants to take in a film. If there's something you want to see, you can find a way to see it.

Of course, it would be a shame if something happened and Tower City Cinemas couldn't host the festival in the future. Or if the event's popularity turns it into an exclusive affair that regular people struggle to find tickets for. But right now, it's the perfect equilibrium. I hope they can maintain that equilibrium for years and years.

Political Game Playing

I feel embarrassed by my congress. I'm not angry, I'm seriously embarrassed. Like, this is the best we can do? These are the best people to put in charge of running the legislature? The recent round of government shutdown talks is especially sad. It's clear that both sides are maneuvering so that they can blame each other for the mess. Whoever the Gallup Poll finds that Americans place blame on will be the official loser in this contest.

(from TalkMediaNews on Flickr)

The debate over spending cuts is especially egregious. Of course it's a noble goal for a country with a deficit problem to talk about solving it. Except the discussion isn't really about solving it - it's about slashing and burning government programs that are politically motivated.

Republicans want to de-fund NPR, but they don't want to withdraw any military operations. They want to strip money away from Planned Parenthood, but they're fine with tax cuts for the rich. They want to fight over cutting spending on relatively marginal programs while ignoring the ones that are truly driving the problem.

It's mind boggling how lock-step our elected leaders walked in approving every piece of defense spending and tax cut that the former president put on the table. And now that we've spent ourselves into a massive hole, they want to cut everything except the biggest programs that got us to where we are.

Bad Sandwich

When I was a kid, I used to get Subway sandwiches once every week. Maybe my memory is clouded because I was so young, but I remember Subway being so much better back then... back when the only bread options were white, wheat or rye; back when there were no toasted subs or salads and you could choose between mustard or mayo, not a half-dozen combinations of each.

(from JaBB on Flickr)

These days, I usually pack my lunch, because leaving the office to go buy lunch everyday gets really expensive really fast. But occasionally I'm not able to pack, for one reason or another; and if I want a lunch that's less than $6, my options tend to be limited.

Often, I opt for Subway, and I always walk in thinking it will be OK, then feel disappointed when I finish my sub. Even when I order it loaded with peppers and mustard and pickles, it still tastes incredibly bland. Half the time the bread seems stale, which amazes me, since they supposedly bake the bread right in the store.

Maybe I'm just going to a bad franchise. Perhaps there are some Subways that are consistently good. I honestly don't know. But I would be curious to know if others remember Subway being better 15 years ago than it is now, or whether it's all just my imagination.

Are There Group Drives?

I'm a fan of participating in an occasional group bike ride (not critical mass) - though I tend to favor those that cater to casual riders, rather than the ones that race through town at break-neck speeds. Group rides are fun. Riding a bike alone can get lonely sometimes, especially if you're going to be out for a while. Riding with other people means you can hang out, have a conversation, and enjoy being outside.

(from saumacus on Flickr)

A friend of the blog recently asked what's so special about these rides. He likes to ride a bike, but sees little point to riding around with other people. Bikes are transportation, cars are transportation, but there aren't motorists getting together and driving around in packs on Sunday mornings, are there?

Even if the primary purpose of both bikes and cars is transportation, the reality is that they both serve other, secondary purposes. People ride bikes for a lot of reasons, and obvious recreation and socialization are one of them. But people also own cars for a lot of seemingly bizarre reasons - and it's hard to deny that car culture is at least as powerful as bicycle culture, even if the way it's celebrated is very different.