A Defense of Schlepping

Tess Wilson has a great article at Apartment Therapy that points out the benefits of schlepping stuff around the city. Her post focuses mostly on the fact that schlepping is good exercise, which it is; but I'd argue that it's even more than that. It's a seeming inconvenience that has plenty of unintended benefits.

Take grocery shopping for example. There are plenty of people who will argue until they're blue in the face that grocery shopping without a car is an unacceptable burden in life. I wouldn't take it that far, but I would agree that it's less convenient and more challenging to do than if you have access to a car.

(from william couch on Flickr)

I don't have a car, so when I do it, it means I have to make strategic shopping choices. I don't buy whole watermelons or 12-packs of Pepsi because those things are really heavy and bulky and difficult to transport without a car. To some people this is a great tragedy.

What would life be without sugary soda and 15 pound melons? To me, it's a blessing in disguise. Schlepping means I keep fresher food in the house, because I'm not tempted to "stock up" on junk that keeps indefinitely in the pantry. It means I have less waste because I don't overbuy.

No, this isn't for everybody, and I've heard dozens upon dozens of reasons why it's impossible for many people and many families. But that's not the point. The point is that sometimes when you look past what seems obvious, and you move beyond seeking out convenience at any cost, what you find might not be quite as bad as you might think. It could even be a blessing in disguise.

"Devil Wagons"

The transportation exhibit at the Smithsonian's American History museum is one of my favorites. It's as much about the evolution of transportation technology as it is about the history of suburban sprawl. It's a pretty balanced approach to the issue too.

(from gGraphy on Flickr)

Last weekend I stumbled across this little nugget in the exhibit:
Americans Adopt the Auto

Cars Everywhere?

For automobiles to become a permanent fixture on the American landscape - rather than simply a toy for the rich - people needed to be convinced that they were reliable, useful, appropriate, and even necessary. In the early years of motoring, not all Americans were convinced that the new "devil wagons" were here to stay. But as people came to value the convenience of the car, and as they adapted it to their own needs, cars became a significant part of everyday life.
This statement is enlightening because today we take for granted that cars rule the urban landscape, and in fact, the "necessity" of them was not immediately obvious when they first came onto the market. In fact, the necessity of them was questioned pretty aggressively.

Today, people believe that cars are absolutely a necessity - and they're not entirely wrong. But it's because we made policy decisions throughout history that made it that way. The reason why sprawl happened the way it did is complex. It's not simply because people wanted it to happen, as some believe; nor is it simply because government pushed it to happen, as others believe. The reason is somewhere in the middle, but it didn't happen by accident.

Legal Gray Areas

There's a rant over at the Washington Post about towing companies in the DC area. You can click through and read the article, but it sums up like this: Person can't find a legal parking space in a busy neighborhood. Person decides to park illegally instead. Person leaves the car unattended for ten minutes and car gets towed for being parked illegally. Person gets very upset. Person calls the situation "predatory". The end.

(from roujo on Flickr)

The article makes every indication that the author knew that parking in the space was illegal. There's also nothing to lead the reader to believe the towing company acted in violation of the government's regulations. If there were evidence that the towing company acted illegally, I think it would be more than fair to call this "predatory", but let's examine the situation for how it's described.

This point in particular caught my eye.
So we pulled into one of about four empty spaces outside a dry cleaner that was closed, right next to the building entrance. And, yes, there was a sign that said towing was enforced 24 hours.
I stayed with the car until I had to go up to help my husband lug the piece through the lobby. I put a sign on the car windshield written in Magic Marker: “Moving furniture, back in 10 mins, PLEASE don’t tow,” and put my flashers on. No mercy!
Emphasis mine. I see this every single day: an illegally parked car (usually doubled parked, but sometimes parked in a rush-hour zone) and the hazard flashers blinking, and I don't get it. Why do people think that putting the hazard flashers on makes an illegal parking job acceptable?

If anything, doing this does two things. First, it draws attention to the vehicle, so that the nearest parking enforcement officer can ticket the car, or call for a tow, or both. Second, it's an admission of guilt. The person parking illegally clearly knows it's wrong but does it anyway. You never see legally parked cars with hazard flashers on... The only thing I can think of is that this maneuver might prevent someone else from rear-ending the illegally parked car.

There has been a lot of discussion about ethics in transportation recently. First a debate over whether cameras should be allowed to catch speeders. Then a series of articles about whether it's OK for bicyclists to go through red lights. Now this about whether it's "predatory" for a company to tow an illegally parked car. All we need is someone to write an article about whether jaywalking is acceptable and we'll have hit the transportation ethics trifecta.

One common theme seems to come out in these pieces. A non-negligible number of people will say "it's totally illegitimate and unacceptable to bust speeders or illegal parkers if the speeding or illegal parking wasn't too bad".  There are people who will say "of course bicyclists need to go through red lights for X, Y and Z reasons".

Point is, it doesn't matter what the mode of transportation is in question, law breaking is rampant out there. The question is when and if law breaking should be tolerated. Should going 5 mph over the speed limit be ignored but 15 mph over not? Should illegally parking for 10 minutes be tolerated by illegally parking for 30 minutes not? How do we draw that line?

It's a very difficult conversation to have because the public opinion is not black and white. Instead, we're in a weird gray area where it's really difficult to decide on the appropriate shade of gray.
The Washington DC economy benefits heavily from tourism. Some businesses benefit directly while others take advantage of tourism spillovers. Is Capital Bikeshare in the same boat? I took a look at membership and trip data for one year from April 1, 2011 through March 31, 2012 to get to the answer.

Capital Bikeshare offers a variety of products, from one-day memberships up to annual memberships. Annual and monthly members (registered users) have plastic red keys that allow them to access the system. Everyone else (casual users) use their credit card to access the system for short-term periods. Though not perfect, this makes a nice proxy for locals (registered users) and tourists (casual users).

More short-term memberships were sold during the 12 month study period than for full-memberships. But since full-memberships cost more they ultimately generated more estimated revenue*.

Click to Enlarge

*This is a good time to mention that these are not actual revenue figures. These are estimates that I'm calculating based on membership, trip and price data. The actual numbers are probably slightly different. For example, the revenue statistic for registered users is likely inflated because I'm not taking into account the Living Social deal that Capital Bikeshare ran last year; but for the sake of this post I'll assume a "best case scenario". A more detailed methodology and caveats is posted here.

The real difference comes when you look at how registered and casual users are utilizing the system. Prior work has shown that casual users have a much higher propensity to take rides that incur fees. In fact 97% of registered user trips were less than 30 minutes and therefore generated no revenue. Only 59% of casual member trips were under 30 minutes.

Taxing Olympians

I stumbled across this article yesterday on the Americans for Tax Reform website. It's about how the IRS can (in theory) tax Olympics athletes who win medals, on the basis that those medals are taxable as income. The conclusion of the post is: isn't it outrageous?!

(from Shazz Mack on Flickr)

The problem with the simple analysis is that it assumes an absolute worst-case scenario. In other words, they present a chart that shows the tax costs for gold, silver and bronze medals, assuming that the winner falls into the 35% tax bracket ($388,000 per year and above).

Now, some athletes certainly fall into this bracket. The NBA players on the men's basketball team are filthy rich, so it's hard to feel bad that the tax falls on them. A few other high profile athletes, like Ryan Lochte and Michael Phelps get big bonuses from their sponsors and aren't hard-up for money. But I suspect that many American Olympians are of modest means and probably don't pay a 35% marginal tax rate anyway.

The funny thing is that the Americans for Tax Reform article links to a Reuters article that concludes with this:
Still, [Alex Knight, a tax partner at Atlanta’s Habif, Arogeti & Wynne] doesn’t expect to see the IRS chasing after athletes for a slice of their gold. “I have to imagine that would be a public relations nightmare,” says Knight.
Taxation is a funny topic. Nobody likes to pay them, so it's easy to point to any tax, no matter how far fetched and say, "hey look, the government wants to take your money, isn't that outrageous!?" Well, sometimes it's a lot less outrageous than it may sound.
Earlier in the month a series of floods wreaked havoc on the Bloomingdale neighborhood in DC. It was the result of a variety of factors, including weather, geography and out-of-date infrastructure. In short, when it rains really hard and really quickly, water flows downhill into Bloomingdale but there's not enough sewer capacity to carry it away.

(from bhrome on Flickr)

The solution? A multi-billion (with a B) dollar project by the water utility to install a sewer tunnel from Bloomingdale to the water-treatment plant on the other side of town (among a handful of other things).

This is not the kind of "sexy" infrastructure project that typically gets a lot of attention. The Silver Line to Dulles is an expensive project  that a lot of people have an opinion on. Capital Bikeshare is a much less expensive project that gets a lot of attention. But a storm sewer?.. it's hard to get people excited about that.

It's probably nonetheless one of the most important infrastructure projects in the city. It's a reminder that when cities get old, things need to be replaced and upgraded. Infrastructure is durable, but it doesn't last forever. When it works like it should, nobody really notices. But when it fails, and people have to suffer through multiple floods in a month - that's when people actually start to notice.