Aaron Wiener has a post in which he writes about the newly coined term "Ubertarian" and reading through his five points, actually describes me pretty well. But that's not the point of this post. What I really want to dig into is the idea of regulation versus "free market" which seems to be the cornerstone of this ideology.

He describes:
They support government regulation—except when it inconveniences them. Clamping down on the big banks? Yes, please. Tighter safety standards? Love 'em. Restrictions on app-based taxi competitors, or on the number of bars or restaurants in their neighborhood? An outrageous imposition on the free market!
The DC Taxi Commission is a perfect example of regulatory capture, a failure of government where the agency that's supposed to be the regulator becomes a lobbyist for the very group it's supposed to be regulating. The DCTC often seems more concerned with the livelihood of cab drives than they do about protecting the consumers who use taxi services.

(from Wayan Vota on Flickr) 

Let's take a simpler example. Say I hire two rides. The first is a cab I hail on the street and the second is a car I hire through Uber. Let's say I have equally terrible experiences in both cases. The drivers are rude, the cars are filthy, and the drivers try to exploit me by taking a out-of-the-way route to boost up the fare.

In the first instance, I have to manually write down the driver's ID info. I have to fill out a long form and either mail it, fax it, or drop it off in person at DCTC office in Anacostia (online submissions are not available). It's unlikely I'll ever hear back or that the driver will face any consequences for his actions.

In the second instance, I already have the driver's name and licence plate number and a GPS record of the ride; all I have to do is submit a complaint through the app. The process takes about 60 seconds and it's likely that within a day or two I hear back with an apology and possibly a partial or full refund for the bad route and other problems.

As a consumer, it's obvious which of these two scenarios better protects me. It's not that regulation is "inconvenient", it's that it's failed. DCTC is in the business of protecting the interests of drivers, and killing all competition is part of that. It shouldn't be like this, and the solution from the policy perspective is a complete reform of the regulator and how it functions.
Until recently, if someone asked what I thought about professional football, I'd have said that I wasn't interested in watching or participating in it. This season my opinion has changed, subtlety at least. I've gone from not caring much about professional football to really starting to dislike it.

(from Clinton Crumpler on Flickr)

I read about the concussion scandal several years ago when the article first appeared in GQ. Even after Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it about the same time, I filed the story away in my brain and forgot about it for a while. It wasn't until Frontline produced a two-hour documentary on the topic that it really started to become clear just how shady the NFL has been acting throughout all of this.

But let's say I could get past the concussion scandal, or the fact that the "nonprofit" NFL swindles taxpayers out of millions, or the childishness of far too many adult men (players). What I can't get past is the fact that my hometown team is owned by one of the most unlikable businessman in all of sports.

I haven't cared for Dan Snyder since he sued the City Paper a few years ago over hurt feelings. But the way he's handled the name change fiasco has almost been too painful to watch. You know he's fighting a battle that inevitably he's going to lose (how quickly it happens is the real debate), but his resolve in the meantime makes him about the last person I'd ever want to give my hard-earned money to. And so I will never attend an NFL game for his team, or buy merchandise, or give them the TV ratings.

That's not to say I don't like professional sports. Or that other sports don't have issues. I'm a baseball fan, but it was notably less fun being a baseball fan during the steroid scandal than it was before, or after. Professional football seems to be going through a similar point in their history. The question is whether or not they'll try to fix what's gone wrong or just continue to deny that any problem exists.

At the end of the day, I don't feel bad about disliking football. It's not like a local business that's going to fail because they don't have enough sales. There are plenty of fans and the sport makes plenty of money. Perhaps the most incredible statistic is one that was mentioned during the Frontline documentary:  the amount of money spent on a single Sunday Night Football game is roughly equivalent to the entire budget of a Harry Potter movie. When you think about it like that, the amount of money out there in football is mind-blowing. And that's to say nothing about the Super Bowl.

Being a fan of football easy, so I get why it's so popular. Easy in the sense that there are only 16 games in the regular season, that's 146 fewer games than in the MLB regular season; and most of those games will conveniently be played on Sunday afternoons. You'd have to spend the equivalent of over 20 days if you wanted to watch every game of a baseball team in a season. That's 10x more than an NFL team. But it's also brutally expensive if you want to be anything other than an armchair quarterback. NFL tickets can run into the hundreds of dollars for "cheap" seats, and then you have to be willing  to put up with the atmosphere at the games.

So yes, I'm done with professional football. Maybe I'll even take advantage of Super Bowl Sunday to get a reservation at a hot new restaurant.
If there's one street in Washington that's caused much consternation among commuters, it's Pennsylvania Avenue, between the Capitol and the White House. Back in 2010 the city experimented with a new transportation approach: putting the bike lanes in the middle of the street, rather than on the far right, as had been typical. The design is actually quite well-done. The problem is that the quality of the design relies on users following the rules; and far too often that doesn't happen.

This sign at 13th and Pennsylvania sums it all up. On the top, instructions for bicyclists to obey the traffic light; on the bottom, a sign explicitly banning U-turns.


I ride this stretch nearly every day, and almost always see drivers (especially taxi drivers) making U-turns. I also see bicyclists going through red lights. I've never witnessed enforcement for either violation.

The problem with illegal U-turns is that they're dangerous. Drivers have to cut through two bicycle lanes and find an opening in traffic on the other side. The situation got so dire last year that the mayor announced emergency rulemaking explicitly banning U-turns. But he didn't mandate any enforcement, so U-turns regularly occur to this day.

Red-light running is its own problem. I never do it, but plenty of people do. I understand the argument for allowing Idaho stops, but when the signage explicitly says "obey this signal" it would seem that Idaho stops are not justified. The real problem is that red-light running is fuel for the anti-bike crowd's fire. Like it or not, drivers use it to justify their own law-breaking and you can witness this attitude in any debate where a legitimate complaint is lodged against a dangerous driver.

David Alpert has a good overview of three taxi hailing apps that you can now use in DC. I've only used one (Uber) but did recently create an account for MyTaxi. Since I almost never hire rides, I haven't used the latter yet. For the purpose of this post, everything I say about Uber refers only to its taxi service, not its Towncar/SUV service.

In my opinion, the DC taxi industry isn't just bad, it's downright terrible. The economist in me sees the obvious problems: cabbies don't have any incentive to provide good service because people don't really get a choice in which cab they hail, nor can they usually hire the same drivers more than once.

Adding to that, the taxi regulator (DCTC) is extremely weak and cab drivers know they can get away with a lot of abusive behavior (refusing destinations, inefficient routes, discrimination, etc.). And traffic enforcement is weak, so cab drivers also know they can drive like dangerous maniacs and pick up more fares as a result.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr)

David's post is about how these apps change the user experience. I think there's even more to it than that.

Uber, for example, is a new de facto regulator of the taxi drivers that use the service. If I have a bad taxi experience, I can file a complaint with DCTC (and it probably won't go anywhere) and I can file a complaint with Uber (and it's much more likely I'll have the situation resolved or at least get an apology).

If a taxi driver working for Uber provides poor service to enough customers, he could get kicked out. If Uber is generating a decent amount of business for him, this could be incentive enough to provide good service to the passengers who hire him through the app.

The other issue that the technology addresses is anonymity. For a driver that finds passengers via street hails, providing bad service to one customer isn't going to stop another customer from hailing him a few blocks down the street. With Uber, customers get to rate their drivers after each ride, so the driver has the same incentive to earn a good rating on Uber as any business has to earn a good rating on Yelp.

In order for Uber to have enough muscle, they need to generate enough business for cabbies so that the drivers have no choice but to use the service if they want to make any money. If Uber isn't pushing enough business to them, drivers might not care if they get kicked out, because they can always go back to using street hails for business, or sign up with a competing app.

It's too early to tell if any of these apps will make a dent in the DC taxi industry, let alone fix any of the problems. That said, I'm at least optimistic for the time being.

Parking Illegality

Ashley Halsey III has an article about the millions of dollars that were generated in DC last year via parking tickets. Here's the money quote:
Not counting Sundays and holidays, AAA calculated that the District issues an average of about 7.3 parking tickets each minute.
This is incredible, not because of how many tickets are being issued, but because it shows just how rampant illegal parking is. In fact, I'd be willing to bet that for every one person who gets a ticket for illegal parking, dozens more get away with it. 


(from thisisbossi on Flickr) 

A lot of the violations are from people who simply don't pay their meter (which is what it is), but another chunk come from people who park illegally because there isn't a legal space on the street at their destination. So instead of finding a legal space, they double park, park in bike lanes, loading zones, handicap spaces, tow-away zones, or wherever else they can squeeze their car, regardless of whether it's legal. Sometimes they throw on their hazard flashers, as if that makes it OK (though I've never seen that stop a parking enforcement officer from issuing a ticket). 

To some, the problem is too few parking spaces. This is a stretch. DC has plenty of parking spaces, but many of them are in garages. And garages often charge market prices, and people don't want to pay market prices when a much less expensive option is out there. Sometimes garages are a few blocks or more from people's destinations. Often the available legal spaces, even on the street, aren't right next to where people are going.


In this sense, what they really mean is that there aren't enough free or under-priced spaces directly in front of their destinations. What's the solution then? More government subsidized municipal parking lots? Lax enforcement that lets people double and triple park wherever they want without consequence?


Government could build more parking spaces, but the simple fact that those spaces won't all be right in front of where everyone wants to go all the time, illegal parking will continue.

The reason this is such an incredibly difficult issue is because illegal parking is enough of a "victimless crime" that any punishment greater than a monetary fine seems inappropriately harsh. But at the same time, the fines and current enforcement system clearly aren't enough to actually deter people from doing it. The result is that the city rakes in a ton of money, and it's extremely easy for people to cry "extortion" or "scam" when the numbers come out and show that parking enforcement generated $92 million in revenue. 

As Martin Austermuhle writes, nothing that the city will do can ever make everybody happy:
Townsend complains that D.C. charges too much for parking and enforces too aggressively, but at the same time motorists aimlessly circle the block looking for parking. In AAA's ideal world, parking would be (all but) free and enforcement (all but) nonexistent, which would obviously resolve the city's on-street parking woes by...allowing drivers to park all day and without paying a dime?
Of course, there is a world where exactly this exists:  the suburbs. DC has plenty of suburbs in all directions where parking is like heaven (though driving to that parking can be like hell). The great thing about DC is that it's a city and not the suburbs. The other great thing is that people have a choice between whether they want to live in the city and patronize businesses in the city or not. From what I can tell, despite many of the threats and much of the outspokenness, DC's central neighborhoods are doing just fine.
The other day I posted a silly thought experiment about using a van for personal storage and keeping it parked on the street. The analogy was flimsy and people pointed out problems with it (I ignored the costs of registration and insurance, I ignored the fact that the van might get targeted by thieves, and generally speaking, it's kind of a pain for just storing a bunch of junk).

For all those reasons, I was never actually considering doing it; but from the comments it sounds like some people already are (in DC and elsewhere). In any case, now that the conversation is going, I can get a little more serious about the issue.

(from thisisbossi on Flickr) 

We know what the market price for parking is in DC, and it's not the same in every neighborhood. In some areas, like around Dupont Circle, a monthly pass for a garage might cost as much as $250 per month. At $35 per year, street parking is offered at roughly a 99% discount to the market price for that area. It seems obvious why so many people would opt for a Residential Parking Permit and try to park on the street, even knowing that space is tight.

Let's forget about the hypothetical person who wants to use a parking space as a storage locker, but instead think of two people whose profiles actually seem common in DC...

Occasionally I joke on Twitter about my  plan to buy an old, beat-up Chevy Astro Van, park it on the street near my house, and use it exclusively as storage space. It sounds ridiculous, but it's actually an interesting thought experiment.

(from analog photo fun on Flickr)

People typically react by saying that doing this would be an abuse of the public parking system. Street parking is supposed to be for parking cars, not storing stuff they say. But in essence, street parking (public space) is used to store automobiles (privately owned things) for little to no cost (it would cost me $35 per year for a residential permit in my neighborhood). Using a van for storage would cost significantly less money than renting a space at one of those self storage warehouses, and it would be a lot more convenient.

Using an Astro Van as a storage locker would cause some pain for drivers in my neighborhood. Since I'd never move the van (except when legally necessary for street sweeping or an emergency no-parking permit holder) the space would never turn over. I'd single-handedly eliminate a valuable parking space from the neighborhood. And yet - doing so is perfectly legal and within my rights, under the current law.

Why is it that if I want to store a bunch of junk, I should have to go pay market price to do so? But if I want to store a car, the city will give me space, near my home, for practically free? That's really the central issue that's going to be at the heart of the many parking debates to come this summer. There will be finger pointing, there will be claims about what street parking should be for, and who street parking should be for and why it should be provided for next to no cost.

At the end of the day there will be a lot of unhappy people. But as I see it, this is an issue that will always have a lot of unhappy people. We're talking about a lucrative government subsidy, after all; and the people who like getting it aren't going to give it up without a fight.