My last year of college, I was infamously bad at cooking, and more of my meals than I should probably admit were enjoyed at local watering holes. On-face, eating out seems way more expensive than cooking, but I had a solution to that... I would only order the daily specials at local restaurants. For example, 40-cent wing Mondays, half-price pizza Tuesdays, or $5 burger and fries Thursdays.

(from Kevin H. on Flickr)

A friend of the blog once asked, "what if you don't feel like eating pizza on Tuesdays or Burgers on Thursdays?" It caught me off guard, because I never really ate meals based on what I felt like (sans for the occasional evening visit to a restaurant). It was always just based on what I figured I could afford.

These days, I cook a lot more; but my meals are still meticulously planned. Every Wednesday I get the Harris Teeter circular, I look at the best sales and make a meal plan based on that. On Friday I get the weekly "e-Vic" email, make adjustments based on those sales; then on Saturday I go to the store and get a week's worth of groceries. I still don't eat based on what I feel like on any given day.

Planning out meals saves money in two ways. First, I buy based on the best sales. If chicken is on sale in a given week, I tend to eat chicken that week. If bread and deli items are on sale, it's sandwiches during the week. Second, waste is greatly reduced. When you don't have a plan to use up your perishable food, you inevitably wind up throwing out stuff that turns bad. Freezing kind of works, but only if you remember to do it before the food turns.

I love Cook's Illustrated and America's Test Kitchen, but my problem with these is that they assume you have an unlimited grocery budget and can afford to make the test kitchen's "perfect" recipe. For example, they might have a recipe that calls for ground turkey rather than ground turkey breast, and they might have a very legitimate reason for it. But if ground breast is on sale for significantly less money, what am I to do? Similarly, what if they suggest using one cut of beer over another, but the less preferable cut is half the price?

To me, the ability to be truly spontaneous when it comes to meals is a luxury. Regardless of whether it's eating out or cooking, I know it would cost me a lot more money. This is also the reason I don't pay much attention to the debates over whether processed food is more or less expensive than fresh produce. This is only a concern if you don't plan your meals or shop the sales.
Last weekend I read a very interesting article by Hannah Wallace in Spirit Magazine during my flight to Cleveland. The story is about Joe Cimperman, a Cleveland city councilman who is taking urban farming to the next level.

(from eustatic on Flickr) 

Urban farming is a hot topic in the Rust Belt, where cities have an unfortunate amount of vacant property. If vacancy is inevitable and proper development is hopeless, planting some produce on the land seems like a better use of the land than anything else.

The benefits of having locally grown food seem obvious and have been documented; and when it comes to vacant lots, it's usually local laws that are stopping farming from happening. Zoning, for example, might permit a land parcel to be used only for residential purposes. An urban farm would be considered an agricultural or industrial use, and thus would be illegal. Politicians like Joe Cimperman are slowly changing this.

In cities where land is expensive and vacant lots are more the exception than the rule, urban farming isn't such a hot topic. To me, the problem is that we think about this in an all-or-nothing context. Either a plot of land is used for living, or it's used for farming, but it can't be something in between. Even urbanists who talk about "mixed use" development typically refer specifically to residential/commercial mixing of uses.

Yes, there are a lot of vacant parcels in the city of Cleveland where produce could be planted. There are also thousands upon thousands of acres in suburban Cleveland where people grow grass and pay a ton of money maintaining it. Some suburban homes have yards that are the size of multiple land parcels in the city itself.

Some people do maintain personal gardens - that's true. My grandparents maintained a very extensive garden in suburban Cleveland when I was growing up. But zoning laws typically specify that gardens can't be used for commercial farming. In other words, you can grow a bunch of tomatoes and peppers for you and your family, but it would be illegal to sell them at a neighborhood farmers market. Beyond that, homeowners associations and other de facto rules often make it not worth the hassle to even try.

Urban farming is fine for turning otherwise hopeless land into something useful again, but truly "local" agriculture will have to incorporate suburban farming in order to be truly comprehensive.

Criminality and Motoring

Daniel Ikenson has an interesting post over at Cato-at-Liberty about the ordeal he went through after his car was towed in DC. It's written as a story about big bad government and municipal incompetence. But it's also full of ideological holes that are worth noting.

(from tvol on Flickr)

The author opens by describing the parking situation near Nationals Park:
About three blocks from the stadium, there were plenty of legal parking spots along the street and signs indicating how to pay for parking by telephone. It would cost $1.50 per hour or about $10 total – a steal compared to the $30-$40 being charged in the nearby lots. The Pay-by-Phone system was simple enough to use: I registered my tag and my credit card number by phone, and was messaged a “Parkmobile” app to use for loading and reloading the meter from my phone. Sweet and simple!
This is curious because a true libertarian would likely believe that the price for parking should be whatever the market can bear. If the legal government spaces are priced significantly lower than the privately owned spaces, it would suggest that the government is subsidizing those spaces. Any why is the government in the business of providing parking spaces for baseball games anyway? But hey, why pay $30 when you can pay $10, regardless of your ideology?

In the story, the author later comes back to his car to find that it has been towed. And the reason? Because he had outstanding speeding tickets, because he was delinquent on the payments, and because he parked on city property, so they towed his car. He chalks this all up to big government using data in a very efficient manner.
What had happened was that upon registering my tags to initiate the Pay-by-Phone meter service, a database linked to the computer system of the otherwise incompetent DPW generated a red flag indicating the location of a vehicle associated with unpaid fines. DPW acted with dispatch and efficiency to steal my car to hold as collateral, and then with incompetence about locating it and indifference about the enormous inconvenience and expense of the process.
There's some bold rhetoric, but there's a few key things to remember here. 1) if he hadn't speeded and gotten the tickets in the first place, his car wouldn't have been towed; 2) if he'd paid the fines for said speeding tickets, his car wouldn't have been towed; 3) if he'd parked in one of the private (albeit expensive) lots near the ballpark, his car wouldn't have been towed.

Was the situation frustrating? Surely. But it's a straw man that doesn't really get to the heart of the issue. I read this post essentially as a complaint about two things.

First, that the government is too efficient and knows too much about us. The city managed to use parking meter technology, run a license plate through a database, flag the vehicle for having delinquent speedingtickets, and dispatch a tow truck to take it away, all within a matter of hours. They busted a delinquent speeder who otherwise showed no intention of paying his fines.

Second, that the government is not efficient enough and knows to little. Once the author called the dispatcher, they were unable to locate his car. They were awfully bad at logging the towed car into the system and the rep on the phone screwed up pretty royally by giving him the wrong address for the impound lot.

The author closes with this:
And be careful about the allure of technological convenience; it might just be Big Brother waiting to pounce.
Ultimately, is this situation any different than if a parking enforcement officer or a police officer came by, saw the car had been red flagged and called for a tow?

Herein lies one of the biggest internal struggles among libertarians. Is it better to spend more money to have real people do a job (in this case, enforce the law)? Spend less money to have a technological solution? Or should we not care when people break the law and don't pay the price?

House Hunting

After years of living without cable TV, it's now an amenity that my landlord includes in my rent. I usually put on Food Network in the background while doing something else, like writing this blog; but I have caught a few episodes of House Hunters. Turns out, the show is completely phony. That's good to know, but if it weren't, the show would make absolutely no sense.

(from sean dreilinger on Flickr)

Think about it. You never see someone lose a house because of a botched inspection, or because they get outbid by another prospective buyer, or because they can't get the right financing. In fact, you never see any other house hunters - it's almost like the three houses they see are temporarily removed from the market and the contestants on their show get their unconditional pick of property.

Anyone who has house hunted in DC or a similarly big city, especially in the rental market, knows just how absurd the show's concept is. The idea of being able to view three places and get your pick of any one of the them would be an unbelievable deal. More typically, house hunters are competing with dozens of others, filling out applications, writing checks before open houses, and hearing the all to often phrase "sorry, we decided to go with another applicant."

The most entertaining thing about the show is watching with frustration at just how opinionated and unrealistic many of the house hunters are. Then again, they might just be acting. If that's the case, the $500 stipend seems like a really small payment for making yourself look like a fool on national television.

Last weekend Angie Schmitt pointed me to an article by Douglas Trattner in Fresh Water Cleveland. The author suggests Rust Belt cities, left for dead, are suddenly booming again. Angie was suspicious of some of the claims and I offered to check it out. Let's start with the article...
Daily, it seems, another cultural sociologist is writing about the current trend of reverse migration -- young creatives fleeing the Coasts in droves in favor of "decaying" industrial cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Detroit. These cities, you see, are appealing because of the decay. That and ironic pleasures like bowling, pierogies, and polka.

Of course, there is enough truth and fiction in that charming narrative to choke a thesis on contemporary demographics. The truth is, young people are moving back to cities like Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh -- and at rates that outpace those of posh suburban zip codes. Offering the promise of a better (cheaper) quality of life -- and yes, the ironic pleasures of bowling, pierogies, and polka -- Rust Belt cities truly have become "chic."

The pivotal point in the narrative may have occurred on May 12, 2012. That's when Salon published the article "Rust Belt Chic: Declining Midwest cities make a comeback." The sub-hed was "Gritty Rust Belt cities, once left for dead, are on the rise -- thanks to young people priced out of cooler locales."
The quote above conflates two distinct ideas. First, that young people have found new love for Rust Belt cities because the "cooler locales" in coastal metros have gotten so expensive that young people can't afford them anymore. Second, that when these people live in rust belt cities, they opt for the urban core rather than the "posh" suburbs.

I think the second point has some merit, and it's been documented that even in central Cleveland neighborhoods that are losing population, the number of young people in those neighborhoods is growing (the key to remember is that these neighborhoods are still shrinking, they're just shifting appeal to a younger crowd). Nevertheless, the first point is open to interpretation, and whether you think it's true or not depends how you define "droves" of people.

To figure out the answer to this question requires more than just anecdotes about people who moved from Brooklyn to Cleveland or San Francisco to Detroit. I dug into ACS data from 2008-2010 to answer a few key questions for the three cities mentioned in the article above:
  1. How many moved from the Rust Belt metro to a coastal metro?
  2. How many moved from a coastal metro to the Rust Belt metro? 
  3. How do the two numbers compare?
I looked at three groups who moved: everyone, people aged 20-35 (since much of the literature on this topic refers specifically to "young people") and people with college degrees (to address the "brain drain" question). Coastal metros for this analysis are those top 50 metro areas that are located in a state that touches either the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean. A full list of them can be viewed here.

Let's start with Cleveland. Between 2008 and 2010, more people left for the coasts each year on average than came, and the results are statistically significant (the thin bars on these charts represent the calculated 95% confidence interval). However, there's no statistically significant difference between the number of young people and the number of degree holders who are in-movers and out-movers. Cleveland had the fewest number of migrants in either direction of the three Rust Belt metros in question.

(click to enlarge)

Detroit is a different story. In all three categories there are more out-movers than in-movers. Consistent with most accounts of depopulation, more people are decamping from Detroit for the coasts than vice-versa.

(click to enlarge)

Pittsburgh is an interesting case because more people arrived from the coasts than left for them. However, when you filter it down by young people and degree holders, there's no significant difference. What's interesting about Pittsburgh is that what appears to be driving the first set of columns is that there are more kids (and presumably thus families) moving to the metro area than in Cleveland or Detroit.

(click to enlarge)

In the end, these graphics show something interesting; but I don't think they're consistent with the bold claims made in the Freshwater article. You could argue that the data is old, and that the shift didn't start until 2011. Maybe that's true, but we'll have to wait to find out.

You could argue that Cleveland and Pittsburgh are actually in great shape if the number of young people and degree holders that are leaving are being replaced at essentially a 1-to-1 ratio. I really have no dog in  this fight, I just want to numbers to back up the rhetoric. Anecdotal evidence only goes so far.

When thinking about in and out migration, I think it's important to be cautious of the availability heuristic. When someone leaves a metro area, they usually do it quietly. They pack up, leave, and then people in that area rarely hear from them again. But when someone moves from another metro area, you hear about it all the time, because there are plenty of opportunities to hear about it. I suspect that people remember many more cases of people moving to their city than they remember cases of people leaving.

I'll end by saying that I understand why people want to live in Rust Belt cities. For some, the low cost of living makes the quality of life unbeatable. That might not be true for me, or for others, but I wouldn't question why someone would want to move there.
Last week after I posted about Capital Bikeshare's Reverse Rider Rewards experiment, Mr. T in DC tweeted this in response:

@bikeshare needs to better incentivie uphill trips to Ward 1!
There's some anecdotal evidence that suggests that people are riding CaBi bikes downhill to get to wherever they're going, and then taking the bus or Metro back uphill, rather than trying to huff it and puff it on one of the heavy red bikes. It's something that was discussed last year on Kojo. In theory, it makes perfect sense.

I dug into the data and found that it's happening to an extent - more people are riding CaBi bikes down hills than back up them; but it's not happening at quite the exaggerated rate that some people seem to suggest.

The truth is that the majority of Capital Bikeshare trips start and end at about the same elevation. I looked at 327,680 trips taken from January through March of 2012 in the District (unfortunately I had to exclude Arlington due to issues with the elevation data), and the median elevation change was only 2.9 feet downhill. That's it!

In fact, more than three-quarters of all Bikeshare trips had elevation changes of less than 60 feet. Still, there were more trips that went 60 or more feet downhill than there were that went uphill. Why 60 feet? Because that's roughly one standard deviation from the mean; and it seemed more reasonable than picking an arbitrary number. The results are basically the same whether you're talking about registered or casual users.

(click to enlarge)

Regardless of where you draw the cutoff, even at a generous 30 feet up or down, the fact remains that a majority of CaBi trips start and end at roughly the same elevation.

(click to enlarge)

A histogram of all CaBi trips from the first quarter of this year shows what seems approximately to be a normal distribution with a slight skew to the left (downhill trips). The median, nonetheless, is squarely in the middle.

(click to enlarge)

There is one additional thing worth noting. Of course while we can calculate the elevation where the trip starts and ends, it ignores any elevation changes along the route. For example, someone traveling from Woodley Park to Capitol Hill via the National Mall will experience greater changes in elevation than this analysis suggests. Unfortunately, it's very difficult to calculate exact elevation changes without knowing actual routes. For now, we have to leave this as-is. 

What's the implication of this? I think it suggests that some people are riding CaBi in only the downhill direction, and that could be one reason the system becomes unbalanced. but the problem isn't as widespread as some may have feared. The reason why stations become unbalanced is certainly more complex than the topology of the city.
I recently heard homeownership described by an academic professor as "the ultimate rent control". It's an interesting perspective, and one that's generally true, especially in high-cost cities where rents are rising with seemingly no end in sight. When it comes to affordable housing, buying a home, at the very least, means locking in a monthly payment that will be roughly the same for the next 30 years, regardless of how the price of anything else in the economy changes.

(from allaboutgeorge on Flickr)

The reason I say this perspective is unique is because people often talk about homeownership in less practical, more idealized ways. Take this blurb from an NPR story on the subject, for example.
The economic hammer has fallen especially hard on 20somethings — part of the so-called Millennial Generation or Gen Y born roughly between 1975 and 1995. Plagued by high unemployment, many have had to delay careers, marriage and having children. And the idea of owning a home is more often being put off or written off entirely. In a nation where homeownership is part of the American dream, a generation of renters could alter communities where they live and redefine the idea of middle-class success.
Let me say that as one of these "20somethings", the desire to own a home has little to do with settling down, or growing up, "achieving the dream", or any other abstract measure of success. It's a simple financial cost/benefit consideration: What's my rent today? What's my rent likely to be in 10 years? And if I continue renting, do I have the ability to acquire assets with my income after paying for rent?

The problem in the years leading up to the bubble was that in a lot of cities home prices were appreciating at a rate far exceeding the rate at which rent was increasing. That should have been a huge red flag that there was trouble brewing in the market, and in hindsight, it seems obvious.

But now the tides have turned. In a lot of cities, rents are spiraling out of control. If I live in a city where rents are growing more rapidly than home prices, it might seem like a bad deal to buy, because there's not going to be much appreciation. And this is exactly the wrong way to think about it. In this case, buying isn't about using debt to leverage an asset, it's about hedging against rent inflation. It's locking in a monthly price and essentially paying "rent" into a pseudo-account that I'll be able to withdraw at some point in the future, rather than paying it to a landlord.

By far, in my opinion, the biggest problem is this... again from the NPR story, emphasis mine.
"The capacity to own a home will be powerfully affected by the slowdown in [their] earnings," she says, "especially for entry-level workers and the crushing consequences of student loan debt."
The one thing that the current generation has that the Baby Boom generation did not is insane amounts of student debt, which we were told was a good idea when we were 18 years old and now that we're 20somethings, starting to question.

When you rent a place, you usually have to put up a security deposit equal to one month's rent or less. When you buy a place, you need to put up a downpayment, which in a high-cost area, can be a very non-negligible sum. Plus, a smart homebuyer wouldn't even think of taking the plunge unless they had another several thousand tucked away for emergencies. When you're already handling 5-figure student debt, it's challenging to handle saving for a downpayment at the same time.

Still, there's something to be said for the flexibility argument. Because of what's happened in a lot of markets, there's a real fear that owning a home means being stuck with an asset that you can't sell when you want or need to sell.  If you need to move, whether for a job or for some other reason, renting gives you that almost immediate flexibility. Most people sign leases one-year at a time. Few renters, or landlords, would be comfortable entering into a 30 year lease, which essentially, is what buying a home with a mortgage is.

But again, it's all about the cost calculation. Owning a home means a generally fixed monthly housing payment and forced saving for the future. The benefit to a new job in a new city would have to be pretty significant for it to be worth it. Unfortunately, for someone unemployed, the option of any job in another city is probably worthwhile, and these are unfortunate situations where they can truly be "stuck".

Unless of course you like moving because you bore easily and like moving. In that case, then of course renting is the superior option when it comes to flexibility.
Capital Bikeshare is great, and I really love having it. This recent post over at DCist, however, reminds me that unbalanced stations are still one of the system's major flaws. I've experienced both full and empty stations, as I'm sure anyone who uses the system enough has or will.

(from Mr. T in DC on Flickr)

When I first heard about CaBi, my initial reaction was "won't everyone just ride them downtown in the morning and back out in the afternoon?" The person who was telling me about Capital Bikeshare completely brushed off the concern, saying "oh don't worry, there are guys with trucks to move them around".

Of course, guys with trucks can only do so much and can only move so quickly, and there are currently no other mechanisms in place to rebalance stations. Last summer there was an experiment called "Reverse Rider Rewards" that was designed to encourage CaBi members to rebalance stations during the morning rush hour. It ran during June, July and August; but I never really heard much about it after that.

Reverse Rider Rewards was set up so that a trip from a "typically full station" to a "typically empty station" earned the Bikeshare member a point and entry into a raffle. At the end of the month, prizes were given to folks with the most points and to the winners of the raffle.

It's not especially easy to declare the experiment a success or a failure. The chart below shows the daily number of trips from "typically full stations" to "typically empty stations" between 8am - 10am, for all non-holiday weekdays March through November (the three months before and three months after the contest period) and for only registered members (to be consistent with the rules of the contest).

(click to enlarge)

There is a bump in the number of "reverse" trips starting on June 1st. This is exactly what we would hope would happen. The biggest question is whether it's a big enough bump to make any difference in station balance. Unfortunately, the total number of trips from typically empty to typically full stations ("forward" trips I'll call them) clearly still overwhelms the number of "reverse" trips by a ratio of nearly 10-to-1.

(click to enlarge)

Was the experiment a success? It depends on how you define the outcome. There was a noticable jump in "reverse" trips during the contest period, but without a multivariate analysis, it's impossible to know whether Reverse Riders was actually the cause or if it was merely correlated by chance. On the other hand, Reverse Riders clearly didn't generate enough interest to offset the number of "forward" trips with "reverse" trips.

What else can be done? What about better incentives? Cash rewards instead of points and prizes? What about a negative incentive (ie. a "congestion fee" for all trips from typically empty to typically full stations)? Or do we just need to invest in more guys and more trucks? Maybe living with full and empty stations the price we have to pay to keep the system "free" in its current state?

The only evidence we have so far is that Reverse Rider Rewards maybe kind of worked a little, and that's ignoring the fact that there was surely some cost to administer the contest. If we're fine with the occasionally empty or full station, then that's the end of the conversation. If we're not, then more study and experimentation needs to be done.
Sabrina Tavernise has an article in the New York Times about the growing educational divide in American cities. I'm glad that she chose to highlight Dayton, Ohio because I know a ton of people in DC that went to school in Dayton. For that matter, I know more people in DC who went to college in Dayton than any other metro area of a similar size. There is a huge University of Dayton alumni network in DC; and their alumni take a lot of pride in it. But the flip side of it is that all of those grads are no longer living in Dayton.

(from Jordan Weaver on Flickr)

I think Tavernise's opening paragraph is easily misinterpreted.
As cities like this one try to reinvent themselves after losing large swaths of their manufacturing sectors, they are discovering that one of the most critical ingredients for a successful transformation — college graduates — is in perilously short supply. 
But wait, who exactly is in short supply? Is it people graduating from college in that city? Or is it people with college degrees living in that city? The answer is the latter, but the way it's written, it sounds like the former.

One statistic that I wish Tavernise had included in her article, in addition to the percentage of degree holders, is the number of college students currently living and studying in Dayton. The Dayton metro area has a big state university, a large and affordable community college, and a handful of respectable private colleges and universities.

From the 2007-2010 American Community Survey, there are about 78,155 undergraduate, graduate, and community college students in the Dayton metro area. Yet there are only 140,797 degree holders age 25 and older.

To me that's an incredible statistic. If Dayton wants to significantly boost the number of degree holders, it need not spend resources trying to lure people in from other cities - they just need to keep the people who are earning degrees in Dayton to stay in Dayton!  Of course, this isn't happening, as both the numbers and the anecdotes show. The ratio of degree holders to students in Dayton is 1.8-to-1. In DC, by comparison, that ratio is 3.7-to-1.

Or to think of it another way, college students make up 9.2% of the total population in the Dayton metro area. That's more than in the Columbus metro (8.1%) even though Columbus has OSU - the university with the third largest enrollment in America. Columbus is known as being something of a college town; Dayton isn't. The Dayton metro area has more college students than the Ann Arbor metro area (68,014) - another well known "college town".

The bottom line is that Dayton has a very non-negligible number of college students living and graduating there. This is really something that shouldn't be overlooked.

Cities love to tout universities as one of their best assets; and universities can be incredible assets if they can bring people into a city from someplace else and keep them there. If people are going to Dayton to attend college there, or even staying in Dayton rather than attending college elsewhere, that's a highly valuable group of people, who will eventually earn degrees potentially contribute to the local economy. The key is that this only works if they stick around, and in the case of Dayton, they aren't.
Over the weekend someone made an interesting case to me. This person argued that when you think about the total cost of driving, gasoline isn't actually that expensive, relatively speaking. It was an interesting point-of-view, because when I hear people complaining about how it's so expensive to drive, usually they complain about the price of gasoline.

(from TheTruthAbout on Flickr)

There are really only two costs that every driver must always pay every month... there's the cost of insurance, and the cost of fuel.

Let's say I have a pretty run-of-the-mill insurance policy in DC. It's better than state minimum liability coverage but not quite comprehensive coverage either. $80 per month sounds reasonable for this sort of policy. Now let's assume I drive a pretty average car that gets 30 miles per gallon on average and is completely paid off.  Let's also assume that gasoline costs $4 per gallon. That means that for the same $80 I could drive my car 600 miles. That's a lot of miles!

So unless I live more than 15 miles from my job and drive every day; or unless I make a lot of non-work related trips; or unless the price of gasoline goes well above $4 per gallon, I'm probably not going to spend more on gasoline every month than I'm going to spend on insurance.

Of course, this isn't meant to suggest that driving isn't expensive - it's really expensive. But this obviously isn't simply because the price of gasoline is what it is. All of the other costs matter, and they probably matter even more than some people think.