12/29/10

There are no more tales from the sharrows from this point back- Hidden On Demand Gem *

***From here on back, I wasn't telling tales for the sharrows at all. While some of the posts are about biking and transportation, there's a lot of other nonsense on here about public policy and tv. You've been warned. These posts will be mundane for entirely different reasons***


After what seemed like an hour of searching through Comcast's On Demand catalogue, I stumbled upon a show on the Smithsonian Channel (I don't think I actually have it on my cable system, but whatever) called The Genius of Design. It's as interesting as a show on industrial design can be and I think it's completely fantastic. Did you know that Bauhaus chairs were made of steel tubing that were modified from bicycle tubes?! Anyway, if you think things like that are interesting and can find it on your cable system, go for it.

12/28/10

New York City Subway Map

I wouldn't exactly say that I'm very interested in graphic design, but I almost asked for this for Christmas, so an article about the ideological battles concerning the design and redesign of the New York City subway map is something I consider pretty damn exciting. Here's a snippet:

The narrative in the late 70s was—or now, in retrospect, seems to have been—that of the heroic proletariat overwhelming Italian design's repressive modernism, all cleanliness and grid. New York would embrace a map as “mongrelish” (Vignelli's derisive term) as itself. Three decades later, it's not so easy to define the battle lines, and the current subway map looks so different from both the 1972 and 1979 ones that that it's not easy to ascribe victory to one side. Chances are, though, that if you're giving it that much thought, you're the kind of person who generally assumes that the good guys lost. But who are the good guys?

I don't know to what extent one should consider subway maps public art and to what degree the aesthetics of the design should be allowed to overwhelm basic functionality, but any time a synopsis of the discussion of these things includes a paragraph like the one above, it's worth a read.

H/T- Chris McEntee

State-run banks

I investigated a little more the idea of state-run banks and apparently, I'm not the only one interested in the idea. In fact, North Dakota beat me to it by about 90 years. From The Cap Times:
The nation’s only state-owned bank avoided subprime lending and the derivatives markets during the recent real estate bubble and now has $4 billion under management. In the words of bank President Eric Hardmeyer, it continues to “plow those deposits back into the state of North Dakota in the form of loans. We invest back into the state in economic development type of activities.” What that means, according to Ellen Brown, author of the book “Web of Debt,” is that North Dakota has avoided the credit freeze “by creating its own credit (and) leading the nation in establishing state economic sovereignty.”
That sounds good to Massachusetts Senate President Therese Murray, who wants her state to look into creating its own bank. Washington House Finance Committee Vice Chair Bob Hasegawa, D-Seattle, has formally proposed a State Bank of Washington.
The movement to create state-run banks is part of a broader push to put public money to work for the people. In Los Angeles, the City Council voted unanimously on March 5 to ensure that taxpayer money is invested only in banks that have established track records of helping families stay in their homes, lending to small businesses that create jobs, and eschewing toxic interest-rate “swaps” that saddle communities with excessive fees and interest rates.
Urging these initiatives on is the Service Employees International Union, which is waging a national campaign to stop investing in unaccountable banks. “It’s time for Wall Street banks to stop focusing on their profits and start doing their part to help our cities and families recover,” says SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Anna Burger.
The prospect of what might be done with all the money that has flowed from the federal Treasury to private banks has some players talking of taking the North Dakota model national. A year ago, Stiglitz suggested, “If we had used the $700 billion to create a new financial institution, allowed it to lever 10-to-1, which is very modest compared to the 30-to-1 that we were doing — 10-to-1 would have generated $7 trillion of new lending capacity, far in excess of what our country needs. So the issue here is not about lending. It’s really about saving the bankers. And what we confused was saving the banks versus saving the bankers and their shareholders.”
Yet as Washington struggles with the task of imposing basic regulation on big banks, the action will be in the states. How likely is it? Hardmeyer used to doubt that the North Dakota model would ever be adopted elsewhere. Now, he says, “When I look around the country, it’s not quite as far a leap as I once thought it was.”
The whole piece is worth a read.

Biking in Tysons Corners

A reasonably well-balanced piece in the Washington Post. Not much to add, though I worry sometimes about the idea that places are either dense and walkable and can/should be biked in or diffuse and car-centric and should never be biked in. Not every location in the metro DC region is going to undergo massive reorganization with a 30-40 plan to become a denser, transit oriented community with a nice street grid and lots of ground-level retail. There will still be plenty of more suburbanized locations that will still be highly bikeable (in that they're not too diffuse) that will still need advocates pushing for better bike access and facilities.

Down Goes RALs at H&R Block

Preying on the poor and ignorant just keeps getting harder! H&R Block won't be offering "rapid refunds" this year: 
NEW YORK (AP) — Millions of H&R Block Inc. customers who relied on short-term loans backed by their expected tax refunds will not have that option this year, since Block's banking partner was forced by federal regulators to stop offering the loans.
It's a blow to Block, the nation's largest tax preparation company, which could lose tax customers to competitors still offering the loans and has virtually no time to find a new funding partner before tax season starts in January.
That means Block could lose millions of dollars in revenue, since nearly 45 percent of its customers use a refund anticipation loan or refund anticipation checks. The company made about $146 million on the two products in 2010.
RALs, often referred to as "rapid refunds," are short-term loans backed by an expected federal income tax refund. A refund anticipation "check" is actually an account where a refund is deposited. This enables taxpayers to have their tax return preparation fees deducted from their refund, rather than paying up front. Both products are typically used by low-income customers who file their taxes early in the season.
I'm glad that someone has finally stepped in to stop this completely ludicrous practice and I hope that other firms are stopped from offering these ripoffs. Even though stopping RALs is an unambiguously good thing, H&R Block will still be offering RACs backed by their own bank. Here's the company's description of how that works:
You could get money quickly and conveniently with an H&R Block Bank Refund Anticipation Check.
You could get up to $9999 FAST† with a Federal RAC and pay nothing out of pocket at the time of your tax preparation. A Federal RAC offers you a convenient way to receive money faster than a mailed federal refund check from the IRS when H&R Block prepares and electronically files your taxes. Receive the balance of your refund, minus fees, on an H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard®2, Direct Deposit or check in approximately 8 to 15 days from IRS acceptance of your efiled tax return
Benefits of a Federal RAC:
  • Receive up to $9999 FAST†! (Equivalent to your federal tax refund, minus fees)
  • Pay nothing out of pocket, have tax preparation fees deducted from your RAC funds
  • Typical release of RAC funds to you in 8-15 days
  • Multiple methods of disbursement are available (Direct deposit, H&R Block Emerald Prepaid MasterCard®2 or check ($20 additional fee for check))
  • Application process is easy
For a lot of poorer taxpayers, filing a return is a bonanza due to the Earned Income Tax Credit and Additional Child Tax credit, which are basically social welfare disbursements. The only way to get the sometimes multi-thousand dollar payments is by filing a return and this is where preparers get to skim a little off the top. But the skimming doesn't just stop with return preparation. Let's say you don't have direct deposit (or a bank account). Then you can get your RAC on the Emerald Card. Sounds swanky, right? Swanky and way beneficial to banks! Here's a neat feature:
Cash Access
Use your card to get cash 24 hours a day at more than 1 million ATMs worldwide displaying a MasterCard Brand Mark. The fee is just $2.50 per transaction when using ATMs in the U.S. or when traveling abroad. **
   **ATM owner may charge an additional fee.
Stories like this convince me of a few things. 1) The government, if it's going to keep an income tax, needs not only a simpler tax system, but needs to stop distributing social welfare payments through the IRS. It's just allows too much predation. Maybe it can just collect the information on the return and sporadically mail out payments- I don't know. 2) Poor people need better access to banks and credit. Same-day check cashing outfits, prepaid debit cards and all of that kind of nonsense is a massive transfer of wealth from those who need it most. It's disgusting and the government ought to do something about it. I think maybe a smaller, more progressive state should try to get into the banking business (at least from transactional credit and small-time checking/savings operations) and we'll see if a pilot program could lead to larger adoption. I don't know enough about law or finance to know if this is legal or feasible, but I think it's a worthwhile aim to reduce transaction costs as a way of promoting overall social welfare.

Hungary's Media Law

In case you missed it (or read the blog though an RSS reader), I've dropped the "Thoughts on Taxes, Transportation and Television" as a subtitle/description of the blog. Aside from assuaging my guilt about not posting nearly enough on taxes or television, I now feel that I have the editorial freedom, no- editorial mandate, to blog about the remainder of my many other diverse interests. Or something. Here's Anne Applebaum on Hungary:
But victory wasn't enough for Orban, who used his years out of power to plot his revenge against the journalists who didn't support him, against the chattering classes who didn't vote for him, and, above all, against his corrupt and incompetent opponents. Since taking office less than a year ago, he has appointed a council to rewrite the constitution, deprived the national audit office of funding, and stripped powers from the supreme court.
More recently, his parliament passed a set of laws governing the media. It's hard to say how they will work, given how vaguely they are written, but that is precisely the point: A new, state-run media council, composed entirely of Fidesz appointees, now has the right to impose fines of up to $1 million for journalism it considers "unbalanced," whatever that means. The council is also tasked with protecting "human dignity," whatever that means. The law seems to aim to control not just Hungarian media but media available to Hungarians on the Internet or anywhere—a task that is impossible, as one watchdog points out, but that will require the creation of a massive system of surveillance and control anyway. There is even a government-mandated cap on "crime-related news," which cannot take up more than 20 percent of airtime—though the law does not define "crime" or state whether it includes government corruption.
Orban seems impervious to foreign criticism of this stunningly bad law, possibly because he has heard too much of it in the past. I was in Budapest earlier this month—I won a prize from Hungary's excellent museum of totalitarian historyand heard many complaints about unflattering coverage of Hungary in the international media. What Fidesz supporters really hate are stories that make liberal use of the word fascism, as well as those (usually in the German press, which loves this kind of thing) featuring photographs of mustachioed men in elaborate uniforms, waving the national flag—as if all Hungarians looked like that.
First of all, it's entirely true that all Hungarians have uniforms and mustaches and waive nationalist flags pretty much all of the time. That is, when they're not ladling gulyasleves on top of the szalami sandwiches they store in their paprika-stained secret boxes and dancing to a csardas at a thermal bath named after a 19th century martyred national poet/hero, all while simultaneously drinking palinka and bikaver to lament the loss of Transylvania, sewing an elaborate design on a table cloth and explaining why the greatest football team of all time  was the aranycsapat (6-3!) and that all of the most important Nobel Prize winners were the truest of Magyars.
But more to the point, this law is abominable and entirely out of sync with a modern democracy. But then again, after the coronation of King Viktor, we won't need to worry about holding Hungary to the standards of a modern democracy.

Best (Folding E-Bike) Idea Ever

Sure, this is just one long commercial, but it doesn't make me think it's anything less than the best idea ever:


Is this a viable option to replace a car? Probably not. But it's a pretty great option for 10+ mile urban commutes (or 5+ miles for those less willing to pedal). If I had a spare, let's guess, $2500 (confirmed- $1200 for the bike, $1300 for the motor), I'd definitely spend it on the ultimate long-distance, multi-modal-able (not a real word) machine. Until, of course, GoCycle comes to the US. 

12/27/10

Race and Bike Commuting

GOOD has a good (obviously) series of articles (here and here) on the white bias of urban biking. The second article tells the story of Michelle Garcia and her group Bicyclists of Color in Portland. I found this interesting:
Garcia endured derisive commentary, especially online, when she started Bicyclists of Color. Many anonymous commenters suggested that the idea of a color barrier in the bike lanes was absurd but U.S. Census data supports Garcia’s anecdotal observations. On average, men outbike women by 3-to-1, and in terms of ethnic makeup, bike commuters are more than 60% white. Hispanics come in second at 22%, followed by African-Americans at 11%, and Asians accounting for just 4%. While these numbers don’t veer too far from the ethnic distribution within the general population they certainly result in the kind of bike lanes Garcia experiences daily.
A student and moonlighting bicycle mechanic, Garcia says that one reason for the disparity is that bike shops, not just in Portland but in other cities like her previous hometown of Oakland, often fail to cater to the needs of new and inexperienced cyclists, especially women. There’s compelling evidence that these shops should rethink their approach: women might be in the minority but they do ride. In fact, a recent study of women and cycling by the national Association of Pedestrian & Bicycling Professionals (APBP) anticipated a few hundred females would take its online survey this spring, and was astounded when over 13,000 women from around the U.S. responded. More than 90 percent of them, however, were white and middle class, a finding that supports the perception “that biking is primarily a Caucasian activity, that it’s a leisure sport, and that it’s a white thing to do,” says Anna Sibley, a sociology student at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who helped APBP crunch survey data into a report.

12/15/10

Max Weber and Bike Commuting

Danes! They're always yelling at us because we don't bike everywhere. Here's the latest from Copenhagenize, comparing bike commuting and bike culture:
I've determined that the majority of bicycle advocacy in the Anglo-Saxon New World (and to some extent the UK) is focused on this thing called Bicycle Commuting. 

As though the main purpose of owning a bicycle is to get to and from work. This commuting angle really dominates the advocacy. 

There are many volumes written about the influence of protestant immigrants on the work ethic prevalent in North America and Australasia, every bit of written by people who know more about it than I. I think what finally made me try to get this into words is a used book I bought last week. One I've read before, many years ago. The Protestant Ethic and The Spirit of Capitalism, based on a series of articles by Max Weber in 1904-05 and published in book form in 1920.

I sure as hell won't be getting into this subject, but it certainly seems to have left it's mark on modern bicycle advocacy in these Anglo-Saxon New World countries. The bicycle is for getting to and from work. Period. (or maybe Comma, since you can also use it for 'fun' on the weekends when you're not working)

If we look at this from an 'overcomplication of a simple thing' point-of-view, this Bicycle Commuting angle is hardly cycling simplified. It is primarily advocated by 'avid cyclists' who happily commute long distances to get to work. Which is great for them. Unfortunately, it sends signals to the population at large that Bicycle Commuting is a hard slog, a work-out, a sacrifice - however rewarding. It paints a picture of long commutes, even though 50% of Americans, for example, live within 8 km of their workplace. 
Max Weber! Protestants! Inferior bicycling culture! This post has it all. Let's compare our ways to refined, European bike culture:
By saying "Bicycle Culture" I mean creating a culture of the bicycle where it becomes an inseparable part of daily life for regular citizens. Instead of something unique that stands out on the urban landscape.
I wrote about Behavourial Challenges regarding promoting urban cycling a while back and highlighted the massive growth in a city, for example, like Paris compared to cities where strong bicycle sub-cultures rule the debate.
Paris is only one positive example of emerging bicycle cities. I often point to Barcelona as another prime example. They've gone from basically 0% modal split for bicycles to 5% in about three years. Bordeaux has recently reached 10% modal split for bicycles in the city centre. Up from 1 or 2% three years ago. All over France, cities are increasing their bicycle traffic. Over 25 cities have bike share systems. Then there is Spain. Barcelona, San Sebastian, Seville, Zaragoza. Dublin springs to mind, too. Booming. Booming more than any city in North America or Australasia. 
Bicycle Culture is planting seeds in a garden. Cultivating a bicycle orchard. Bicycle Commuting is a spear-headed "do it like we do, exactly like this" approach and the plethora of how-to guides splattered across the internet is a testament to that. 
Orchards! Paris! City centres!Articles like this are fatiguing and a number of commenters from the (inferior) Anglo-Saxon world made the point. I'm likewise sorry that Washington DC isn't Copenhagen and that we all don't take bicycles everywhere. I'm also sorry that I don't ride to work in a outfit that's considered cycle chic and that I wear a reflective jacket and that my bike doesn't have a chainguard. But give us a freaking break! We're on bikes, we're advocating for more people to get on bikes and we're pushing local leaders to get better bike infrastructure. Geez.

12/14/10

Imperialist Universities or Paranoid Neighbors?

Town-gown relations in DC aren't very good and could get worse if Vince Gray decides to lift enrollment caps for local universities. From Freeman Klopott:
On Monday, school officials argued during a summit on job creation led by Gray that the District should remove those caps to help grow the city's economy.
After the meeting, Gray told
The Washington Examiner
 that he was open to the idea, although cautious about moving forward.
"I need to understand more about what these [university] jobs would be and reasons for those caps," Gray said. "Historically, there have been tensions between the universities and the neighborhoods in which they reside."
One of the universities mentioned is American, where, I should note for the purposes of full disclosure, I work*, which is currently working on the next iteration of its ten year campus plan. But maybe it's not only working on the campus plan, but also a deep, dark and nefarious scheme, at least according to this guy:
There's also concern in Tenleytown that the university has been buying up property beyond what the campus plan calls for, said Jon Bender, an advisory neighborhood commission representative for the area.
"American University does seem to have a limitless appetite for acquiring property," Bender said. "It breeds suspicion among some folks that A.U. has imperialistic designs on the community."
So, there you have it. Imperialist university or paranoid neighbors? I report, you decide.

* I was also a student at Georgetown. My town-gown credibility is pretty low from the town perspective.

12/7/10

News Vacation

I'm taking a break from following the news. I dropped all policy blogs from my reader, removed a bunch of bookmarks from my phone, and have changed the channel every time the tv news seems to be discussing any politics. The first time I did this was after Coakley lost in Massachusetts. I was, let's say, a little too involved in following the HCR debate to the point where I wasn't sleeping well, so I decided to go completely cold turkey during the dark days before Nancy Pelosi willed it to passage. Recently, I found myself getting a little too involved in the Bush tax cut extension debate, though you wouldn't know if from the paucity of posts of this purported tax blog. So, two days ago I declared a news vacation (read total blackout) until January 1 and as a consequence, I HAVE ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHAT HAPPENED. So, yeah, that's that. All I request is no spoilers please. I'd like to find out for myself in 2011.