What Sprawl Isn't

Last week I saw a number of people tweeting this post on Archinect, which shows an image of Los Angeles, and the cities that you could "fit" inside of its boundaries. The author opens with this:
Los Angeles has infamously been known for its urban sprawl. A recently released map makes it look like LA could easily swallow several major US cities inside its bloated city limits belly.
What gets under my skin is the suggestion that a city is sprawly because it covers a lot of land area. There are a lot of ways to measure sprawl. Municipal boundaries are not one of them.

(from Kaizer Rangwala on Flickr)

I've been using the example of Dallas and Houston for a while now. Here are major cities in two of the five biggest metro areas in America. They are culturally similar, geographically connected and economically interdependent. The city of Houston has roughly twice the population as the city of Dallas. It also covers about twice as many square miles. Does that make Houston twice as sprawly as Dallas?

Cities are hard to compare because there's no standardization in terms of where a city ends and its suburbs begin. I've been thinking about building "core" areas and "fringe" areas for big cities for a while. Maybe now that the 2010 Census data is mostly available I'll actually find some motivation to get it done.
I travel semi-regularly. I probably fly about about ten round-trips per year. Fortunately, it's reasonably affordable, because I'm always able to get great fares. When someone asks me for advice on finding good fares, I say three things. 1) don't travel on peak days (Friday and Sunday) 2) don't travel during peak seasons (Thanksgiving, Spring Break, etc.), and 3) book early.

(from mikecogh on Flickr)

Booking early is so much more important than a lot of people realize. It's almost never better to wait until the last minute, and there's good reason for it. Now, a lot of people would say, "isn't it in the airline's best interest to sell a seat at any price rather than to let it go empty during the flight?" The answer is no; and here's why:

Imagine two customers. Casual traveler will only fly if he get get a really incredibly low fare. The most he's willing to pay is $100. If he can't get that fare, he'll just stay home. Business traveler, on the other hand, got called by a client who is in the middle of a major emergency. She needs to be at the client's office tomorrow and is willing to pay whatever it takes.

Let's imagine it's the day before, and the airline prices the fare at $100 to "fill all the seats." Both travelers buy the fare, and the airline earns $200. Now let's say the airline instead charges $500. Casual traveler stays home, business traveler buys the fare, one seat goes unfilled, and the airline earns $500. Charging a really high last-minute fare is obviously more lucrative than offering a really low fare to fill the seats.

Now, this basic example might be oversimplifying the reality of the air travel market, but even in aggregate, the principle holds. If the airline were able to fully engage in price discrimination, they would charge casual traveler $100, business traveler $500, earn $600 and have no empty seats.

Of course, airlines already do this by offering the low fare to anyone who buys it in advance. But price discrimination is extremely difficult to do at the last minute, especially these days, when the internet makes fares extremely transparent. They might be able to dump some of them off on the gray market (ie. Priceline, Hotwire) but they won't advertise a super low fare.

Bad Coffee

It's been a hot summer, and I've been drinking iced coffee exclusively for the past few months. I've also been buying very little from coffee shops lately, because most of them don't do iced coffee the right way.

What is the right way? Cold brewed.

It's the method that produces delicious iced coffee with very little acidity and bitterness and strong coffee flavors. It's a shame that very few coffee shops in DC adhere to this method.

(from life serial on Flickr)

I can't speak for every coffee shop, but a friend of the blog who used to work as a local barista told me that baristas had direct orders from the shop owner not to cold brew iced coffee. Even though it's the superior method, it's the most time intensive (it can take 24 hours to brew a large batch of the stuff and usually requires advanced planning). Plus, enough customers have probably never had cold-brewed iced coffee, and they don't know what they're missing anyway.

You could chalk this up to mere snobbery, but I think it's too bad. I first learned about the cold brew method from a barista friend who made it at my favorite coffee shop back in Cleveland. I do think there's some irony in any coffee shop that claims to serve gourmet drinks and then cuts corners like this.

Fortunately, there are a few coffee shops around that do iced coffee right. Also fortunately, it's so easy to do at home.

Walkable Suburbanism

Last weekend I traveled south to Virginia Beach for a quick weekend vacation. I'd never been to the area, and aside from the oceanfront, I was curious to see what the city itself had to offer. The Hampton Roads metro area is surprisingly big. It's the 36th largest in the U.S. and roughly the size of the Austin, TX and Indianapolis, IN metro areas.

The beach itself was about exactly what I expected - miles of sand and boardwalk with more than enough hotels and tourist attractions dotted along the way.

(from Michael Buck on Flickr)

The boardwalk and parallel bike path made the area quite pleasant. For the most part, I've found that tourist destinations are walkable and pedestrian-friendly. The oceanfront would be a completely different place if the boardwalk were instead an 8-lane highway. Fortunately enough, it isn't.

Virginia Beach's "downtown" is another story. Technically in the central business district, the Virginia Beach Town Center feels nothing like the downtown of any other city I've been to. It actually feels a lot more like the suburban "lifestyle centers" that I've critiqued in the past. Now, is the area walkable? Yes, absolutely - after you've driven there and parked. Even though I was staying in a hotel about a half-mile away, there was no other realistic way of getting to the area except by private vehicle.

(from ohdearbarb on Flickr)

In urbanist circles, there's a lot of chatter about walkable urbanism; but what exactly does that mean? A place can be walkable, but that doesn't mean it's urban.

One of the reasons I've had such mixed feelings about Arlington, VA is that it's walkable, but it isn't urban. In theory, Clarendon and Dupont Circle are very similar neighborhoods. They have a lot of the same stores and restaurants and they're both walkable and transit accessible; they just feel like totally different places.

I think there's a distinction to be drawn between walkable urbanism and walkable suburbansim. Walkability is a small piece of a much bigger pie. We can build walkable places virtually anywhere we want. Building a city, and making it actually look and feel urban... that's a much bigger challenge.
Alex Baca has a great article in this week's City Paper about what bicycling really means to people, versus how the activity is frequently perceived and described by those who don't like it. She covers a lot of the themes I've written about at this blog, all rolled together nicely into one piece. Definitely click through and give the article a read.

(from carfreedays on Flickr)

It's worth reiterating that there's really no such thing as a "bicyclist" in the same way that there's no such thing a a "motorist" or a "pedestrian". People get around in different ways for different reasons, and they don't all behave the same as each other.

The idea that all people bike all do it because they think they're doing something for the environment is silly and unrealistic. First and foremost, bikes are inexpensive and convenient ways of getting around. Are they more environmentally friendly than a motorized vehicle? Yes. Are they more health conscious than riding in a motorized vehicle? Yes. But you can't confuse a side effect for the primary motivation.

The truth is that riding a bike is significantly less expensive, and in DC, quite a bit easier, than driving a car, for many trips. It doesn't matter if you're rich or poor, black or white; owning and riding a bike will always cost less than owning and driving a car. Unless you're riding a really expensive bike, it's probably also less expensive than using public transportation.

Back when owning a car was still considered a privilege, not a right, it was something that was exclusive to a group of people because of how much they could afford to spend. So when a city spent money on driving infrastructure, it really could be argued that it was a handout to the rich. And yet, that's the same argument that's used today - but with bikes! It takes a real imagination to come up with a reason why bicycling infrastructure is disproportionally beneficial to rich people. Sadly, listen to the discourse and you'll see that it doesn't always come off as that much of a stretch.
I've got a new post over at Greater Greater Washington exploring the ins-and-outs of rental car insurance for people who don't have auto insurance. It's a shame that the options available are so limited, and I hope that they improve as insurance companies figure out that this is an untapped market.

(from Roger Penguino on Flickr)

I rented a car last weekend, and made sure to keep mental notes about how the conversation about rental insurance went down.

We filled out all the paperwork inside, the Enterprise rep decided which car to give me, then he grabbed the clipboard and we walked outside. In fact, the conversation about the insurance didn't begin until I was nearly ready to drive away. The rep casually asked if I wanted to opt for the "full coverage". I asked him to explain, at which point he gave a confusing explanation that hardly told me what I'd be getting.

It wasn't until I took a look at the paperwork to see that he wanted me to buy three products: a damage waiver for $17.99 per day, supplemental liability protection at $12.99 per day, and personal medical coverage at $2.99 per day. That's a lot of money, especially considering that the rate for the car was $19.99 per day, and while I opted for the supplemental liability coverage, I didn't need to buy the other two from the rental company.

The problem with this system is that, because it's hard for people to understand what they're being asked to sign up for, some will opt in to everything, potentially overpaying; while others will decline everything, thinking it's a bad deal, and drive away at more risk than they wanted to be.

Clear, simple, and reasonably priced insurance options are needed for those who don't have their own auto insurance.

Risk Assessment

Does wearing a helmet make a bicyclist safer? Yes. And no. This story has been getting a bit of attention this week. British doctors are arguing that helmets shouldn't be mandatory by law, because such a law might discourage some people from bicycling, which would stop them from benefiting from exercise. It's a classic cost/benefit analysis where the costs exceed the benefits.

(from Rennett Stowe on Flickr)

Taking that point and asserting that helmets make bicyclists less safe is a stretch; but I saw that claim tweeted many times earlier in the week.

Helmets aren't required in DC, and other American cities, but bicyclists should still use them. Why? Because helmets are like an insurance policy that covers you from the risk of being perceived as irresponsible. Even if you don't believe that they're all the great at protecting your skull, you'll never be worse off in a situation if something happens. And if nothing ever happens? What have you lost?

Unfortunately, we live in a blame-the-victim society. If a motorist hits a bicyclist, and the bicyclist isn't wearing helmet, no matter who's at fault, the first thing you'll hear is that the bicyclist didn't have helmet. People will say the bicyclist should have known better. A few might even say that they had it coming. Whatever the case, it's something I would never want to deal with.