Nate Silver has been tracking some heat over a post he wrote last week about the Brookings Institution's study of public transit and access to jobs in metropolitan America. The authors have even gone on record to say that there are fundamental differences between what they studied and what Silver thinks they studied.

(from joiseyshowaa on Flickr)

The trouble, I think, is in the all-too-common interpretation that metro area rankings are lists of 'best' and 'worst'. Silver writes:
The report caught my eye because it came to some surprising conclusions. It ranked the top 100 American metropolitan areas on the basis of “access to [public] transit and employment.” I know that I’ve become something of a New York partisan since moving here two years ago, but I was pretty sure that New York was going to rank somewhere near the top of the list, probably along with Washington, D.C., and Chicago.

This seems really strange... I could fathom New York’s being behind Washington — but it has worse public transit than Tucson and Modesto?
The Brookings study clearly didn't set out to create a list of 'best' and 'worst' public transit systems; and I should hope that the Institution's resources would never be put to such a simple-minded task. Forbes or another magazine desperate for web traffic surely will throw together a haphazard methodology to draw such conclusions.

Unfortunately, the knee-jerk reaction whenever a list of ranked cities gets published is to jump to the conclusion that it means something more subjective than what it does. Last year when I ranked cities by college degree holders per capita, I was doing just that: examining how densely populated cities are with college degree holders. Yet many interpreted the post as a "study of America's smartest and dumbest cities". That's the kind of headline that gets attention; but it's not true to what the numbers actually say.

Point is, you can learn something by comparing cities to each other, but various metrics don't always or necessarily make one city better or worse than another.
There's a lot of things I love about DC, but high rent is not one of them. According to Elizabeth Razzi's Washington Post article, DC's price-to-rent ratio is 13, which makes it a favorable market for home buyers. When you think about it, the idea that after 13 years, you'll have spent enough in rent to have paid off an entire home makes buying seem especially lucrative.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

After I saw a pretty sobering presentation last week about housing in DC, including this graph, which shows the inflation-adjusted median rent in the district, I crunched the numbers, but the result wasn't especially encouraging.

Consider a hypothetical young couple. They both have modest careers and earn $100,000 a year, combined. Using the traditional 30% metric, they can afford to pay up to $2,500 on rent and utilities per month. It also means they could afford monthly mortgage payments for a house that costs roughly $350,000 (the exact price depends on the interest rate and other factors). Now, that amount of money won't buy this couple a rowhouse in Dupont Circle, but it might get them a decent condo or house in an up-and-coming part of the city.

Here's the problem. This couple walks into their local bank branch and applies for a conventional mortgage, but the banker says they're buckling down, and she want a 20% down-payment. That's $70,000 on a $350,000 house. Even a couple that brings home $100,000 a year is going to have to save for quite a while before they'll have that much money in the bank.

Now, it's possible that this couple could qualify for an FHA loan, which requires a much lower down-payment. And if they can afford the inevitable maintenance costs and other emergency expenses, then it might be a wise move. I've been critical of home ownership in the past, but the real value of buying is relative to local market conditions, and when renting is so expensive compared to buying, then admittedly it makes a lot more sense than when it isn't.

State of the Blog

As you may have noticed, the frequency of posting here has fallen off a bit in the past few weeks. About a month ago I started a big freelance project that wound up taking significantly more hours than I'd initially estimated. Most of those hours traded-off with the time I would have spent blogging and doing other personal things.

Since late-2008, I've been averaging about 5 posts per week here. And in light of comments that the quality this blog's material has plateaued, I think it makes sense to post less often, but focus on a few longer-term projects - things I've been wanting to do for a while but haven't been able to commit time to. I'm not going away and you can still expect to hear from me here, just not quite as often as you used to.

Maps and Reality

David Alpert recently linked to a study which shows that people make travel decisions based on the scale of maps, even when doing so doesn't make otherwise rational sense. Personally, I don't particularly like maps that distort distance. I think there's some evidence that the DC Metro map does just that, like it or not.

(from OZinOH on Flickr)

Consider these few examples.

When traveling from Arlington, what's the best way to get to Dupont Circle? The obvious choice is to take the Orange/Blue line to Metro Center, transfer to the Red Line, and get off at the Dupont Circle station. But doing so requires unnecessary back-tracking, especially at off-peak times. It's nearly as easy to get off at Farrugut West and walk north along 18th Street. Of course, only someone well-versed in the local geography would know this.

How about people traveling from East of the River to see a ballgame at Nats Park? They could take the Orange/Blue lines to L'Enfant Plaza, transfer to the Green Line, then back-track to Navy Yard; but this scenario is very similar to the one above. It would be just as easy for them to exit at Capitol South and walk south on New Jersey Avenue.

Perhaps the most egregious example comes from people who are going to an event at the Verizon Center. The distance between the Metro Center and Gallery Place stations is so minimal that there's very little reason to transfer if you're coming in on the Orange or Blue Lines. Yet, you'll see tons of people doing exactly that, either before or after the event is over.

Now, there are certainly benefits to using a simplistic map that's very easy to understand; but without orienting it to a more detailed city map, people will use it in some less-than-ideal ways.
I've never been entirely sure how to feel about Fair-Trade coffee products. In theory, it all sounds well and good, but I've never really been convinced that the movement achieves the goal it sets out to achieve. Several times in the past, I've been in the awkward position of choosing between a coffee that I really want, or another "certified" Fair-Trade coffee that doesn't seem quite as appealing.

(from colleen_taugher on Flickr)

Cuppa Joel, my favorite DC coffee roaster, offers an interesting perspective:
...Fair-Trade coffee also presents a number of drawbacks, such as lack of information and lower quality beans. Because certification is only available to relatively large cooperatives, specific details about individual lots of coffee are generally sparse. And, while farmers may participate in a fair-trade coop, they may not sell all their coffee through the coop.

For high-quality growers, they can often fetch a higher price on the specialty market than the set premium available through the coop. As a result, they will sell their lower-quality beans through the coop and reserve the better stuff for the specialty market. There is also the fact that because coffee from the whole coop is sold together, good and bad quality beans are often mixed together, leading to mediocre quality lots.
Admittedly, I don't know a lot about coffee growing, but this seems like a plausible explanation. If Free-Trade is effectively inflating the price of poor quality coffee but not high quality beans, then I'll continue to be reluctant to buy it.

Now, this question is really about exactly how much control farmers have over the quality of their crop. If the quality of coffee is mostly dependent on the quality of the land its grown on, then a farmer with bad land will inevitably be stuck with bad coffee. On the other hand, if there's an art to coffee growing, then Free-Trade certification offers an opportunity for farmers to get more money for a worse product, and distorts their incentives to improve it.

The Parking Gamble

I’ve been thinking about parking a lot since I listened to some very smart people discussing it on Kojo the other day. I think Donald Schoup’s argument against free parking is, economically speaking, very compelling. Yet, no matter how well articulated, you just can’t convince people that getting rid of free parking is anything other than the worst idea in the world. What gives?

(from lodev on Flickr)

City parking is a lot like playing the lottery. It’s a loser’s game, for the most part. But occasionally, if you play enough, you win; and winning the parking lottery sure feels good. I don’t think that people misjudge the value of good street parking spaces. They know they’re highly valuable, and that’s why it’s so exciting to get one. It’s one of the few opportunities in life to truly get something for nothing.

Last winter a few friends and I went to a party in Dupont Circle at 10pm on a Saturday night. Parking in that neighborhood is “free” at that time of night, and there wasn’t a spot to be found anywhere. After circling for a good 15 minutes, we were close to calling it quits and skipping the party. Then, right in front of us, we saw someone about to leave a prime parking space. We took it and the car stayed in that space for the rest of the night. I’ll admit, it felt pretty thrilling to get that spot.

So yes, I get why people think free parking is so great. That doesn’t mean we should base public policy on this lottery mentality.

Not-So-Bad Commutes

Back in March I started a new job in DC, which effectively doubled my daily commute, from 5 to 10 daily round-trip miles. Now, 10 miles round-trip might not sound like much to a lot of people, some would probably even describe it as "short." I've made the trip on bicycle, public transportation and by automobile. Regardless of the mode, the commute is about 60 - 75 minutes back and forth.

(from richardmasoner on Flickr)

The first few weeks, it was just fine; but lately, it's started to get tedious and boring. While I definitely appreciate the extra miles I get in on my bike each week, there are some days I just want to be home and on the couch the moment I leave the office.

The difference isn't insignificant either. Adding 30 minutes to my commute each day means I spend 2.5 extra hours each week, or 10 extra hours each month, just going back and forth from work. It adds up pretty quick.

I know that my commute isn't bad, relatively. I know there are people with unbelievably painful commutes. People who spend hours each day in their cars or on public transportation. One reason, among many, that I suspect people do it is because when the first started, it "didn't seem too bad." It never seems that bad at first, because it's like a new adventure. But after a while it starts to get tedious, and that tediousness turns into boredom, which ultimately festers into frustration. But by then it's usually too late to do much about it.

My lease in Arlington expires in a month and a half, and needless to say, I'm looking forward to finally living and working in the city.

Down an Alley

Last week Darrow Montgomery and Lydia DePillis had a really interesting photo essay and short piece about Washington DC's alleys. It got me thinking about my own experience with these unnamed and relatively unknown roadways. I've been in exactly two alleys in DC - one behind a friend's house near U Street, and another that you have to walk down to get to Well Dressed Burrito.

(from M.V. Jantzen on Flickr)

I think one reason that people don't really know that these spaces exist is because there's very little documentation of them. For example, Google Maps doesn't show alleys among the rest of the streets and avenues in the city. I would never plan to cut through one on my bike because, if I were planning my route on Google, I'd have no idea they are even there.

To help better visualize
the locations of DC's alleys, I downloaded some data from the DC Data Catalog and went ahead and put it into this map. I simply highlighted all of the roadways in red that are labeled as alleys.

You can download a higher resolution version to get a better sense of where everything is. What stands out to me is that alleys are literally all over the city. In fact, there are very few neighborhoods where they aren't prevelent. In today's car-culture, alleys don't have much of a place in society, though they still play an important role in a lot of older cities.
Last weekend my parents came to visit DC. They stayed at a luxury hotel downtown for under $100 per night (thanks to Hotwire). In my travels and experience, I've found that DC has some very low hotel rates if you travel on the right dates. In fact, before I moved I stayed at a couple of very nice DC hotels and never paid more than $85 (plus tax) per night for that privilege. It does raise an interesting question though. How can DC, a city which has unbelievably expensive housing, also offer some of the lowest hotel rates around?

(from Dan_DC on Flickr)

The simple answer is supply and demand. DC's hotel market seems to be primarily event driven. There are enough rooms scattered across the city to cover huge events, but on days when there aren't events? Well, there's tons of vacancy and prices are really low.

Demand for DC's hotel rooms tends to fluctuate based on factors like the day of week, time of year, and what events are happening around town. Demand for living in the city, on the other hand, tends to remain relatively constant. Yes, there are seasonal interns and others that look for housing around the same time each year, but in general, demand is strong all the time.

Like trying to find a hotel room during the Cherry Blossom Festival or a giant political rally, finding a decent in apartment in the city is difficult and expensive. The extremely tight rental market more or less guarantees you'll be paying top-dollar. There are no "deals" or "specials" or guarantees at all. I'll be getting into more details about this in the coming weeks, as I've been thinking a lot about these issues recently. But suffice to say, if we can learn anything from DC's hotel market, it's that supply and demand really does influence the prices we pay.