11/28/10

TV tautology

I'm not terribly surprised about any shows on this list that are likely to be canceled, but I was a little surprised that I don't really watch any of them. But I suppose that if I did watch them (along with a lot of other people), that they'd be less likely to be canceled. Anyway, Life Unexpected is not a very good show, even for the CW and Running Wilde was only funny to the extent that you sorta laughed when you saw that the main stars were Keri Russell and Will Arnett. I watched The Good Guys for a few episodes this summer, but if I was able to shake it (and I almost never drop shows after seeing more than one episode), than it certainly wasn't that interesting. Beyond those, I don't have any experience with any of the other shows, so I'm not in a position to render a verdict. I feel much stronger about the bubble shows, namely about Community, which is a wonderfully funny, creative and clever show and should be embraced by all both all readers of this blog.
PS- I learned over Thanksgiving that it's possible to confuse Modern Family with No Ordinary Family, though at one's own peril. It's also possible to somehow get the kid from The Middle mixed up in there somehow.

11/26/10

Executive Authority Run Amok

Don't tell Glen Greenwald- the White House has a secret facility that doesn't appear on maps and can't be accessed by the tax-paying public because it's locked away behind gates. Of course, it's only a CaBi station, but nonetheless call Julian Assange- I demand to know how this went down and who was involved and how far up this goes!

11/25/10

Reforming the EITC

When I answered phones for the IRS (about four years ago!), I dealt with a lot of questions about the Earned Income Tax Credit. This was mostly due to state social service agencies posting flyers and sending various mailings stating that "you might be eligible for $4000 from the government if you work and have children" and then posting our 800 number. The EITC, along with the Additional Child Tax credit, was one of those refundable credits that's supposed to act as need-based assistance for families with children, but to my experience at least, always seemed to function as short-term windfalls. I spoke to a lot of people who were going to use the money to get new TVs. In any case, the Bipartisan Policy Center's plan for tax reform wants to change how the credit works:
BPC’s worker credit answers both of these criticisms. For starters, the credit doesn’t hang on the number of children under the worker’s roof. All workers receive a 21.3 percent credit on the first $20,300 of earnings up to a maximum of $4,324. And in two-worker households, both partners get the credit. Thus, a married couple with no children and $40,600 of earnings split equally between them gets a $8,648 subsidy under the BPC plan. Right now, that same couple gets no EITC but qualifies for a $800 Making Work Pay credit, though that temporary subsidy (part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) expires in January.
This change would mainly shift benefits to childless workers- like high school kids with summer jobs. I'm generally opposed to social welfare being distributed through the tax code, mostly because it creates a lot of confusion about who pays what in taxes and what it all means, but also because of the companies willing to prey on taxpayers' ignorance. 
I heard from too many people rushing off to tax preparers on January 1 to file their returns just to get this huge windfall and to make sure that "someone else doesn't claim my babies" who were willing to take a short-term loan (at a percentage of their total credit, of course). It's gross and stupid and I wish that the IRS wasn't complicit in it.

Fourth Amendment Kitsch

I'm a constitutional originalist, so I'm not really in favor of any of the amendments, but if you like the fourth amendment, you can now get a tee shirt or some underwear with the text printed on it. It allegedly shows up on TSA scanners. Clever, in a way.
Though I'm not really on board with amendments, I am on board with overly simplistic views on things and I do agree that it's much easier to screen this on a shirt than the entire text of all of the case law surrounding search and seizure. Unless you wear a really large shirt, I guess.

h/t Gizmodo

Gas Tax

Because this blog is committed to talking about all kinds of taxes, not just income taxes, and because I'm about to drive from Denver to DC, let's talk a little about how messed up the gas tax is:
The gas tax isn't indexed to inflation. It was 18.4 cents per gallon years ago when gasoline was less than a dollar per gallon overall, and it remains 18.4 cents per gallon today. Since revenue generated from the gas tax stays the same while the rest of the economy grows, that means the gas tax revenue doesn't have the buying power that it used to.
In fact, when you take inflation into account American drivers are only paying half as much in federal gas taxes as they were in 1975.
Basically, the gas tax doesn't even cover the cost of maintaining roads, much less building new ones or paying for public transportation. But since we have one major political party unwilling to seriously address America's revenue problem and because the car is some kind of totem of real American culture, I don't expect this problem to be solved any time soon. Fiscal responsibility means never having to pay more for anything because you pay enough already, even if it's not enough to cover the true cost anyway. USA! USA!

Walmart in DC

Like most real Americans, I eschew football and parades on Thanksgiving to spend some quality time catching up on my local urban policy and planning blogs. I've particularly enjoyed Dan Malouff's analysis of Walmart's plans to build four new stores in the District. So far, he's looked at three of the four proposed locations, so it's not too late to catch up!
I can't say that I have strong feelings one way or the other about Walmart coming to DC, but I'm gad that it seems like the company is building stores in a way that's fitting for the urban environment. Like everything else in DC, I wonder how the race/class politics will play out, but I assume that so long as there's no dog parks or bike lanes near the Walmart, it shouldn't be too much of a powder keg.

What the top 1% are thankful for

It's the mortgage-interest deduction!

Does anyone really believe that super-rich people aren't going to continue to buy houses if they don't get this ridiculously regressive tax benefit? Here's more
From the numbers above, it’s clear that the benefit derived from the deduction is almost perfectly increasing with income. Low- and middle-earners are less likely to itemize their returns, which makes them unlikely to benefit from the mortgage-interest deduction. And because they make less money, they pay taxes in a lower bracket—meaning that every dollar in deductions reduces their tax bill by less than it would for someone in a higher bracket. Calling the mortgage-interest deduction a middle-class tax break essentially requires us to define someone in the 80th or 90th percentile of earnings as middle class. But they’re not; when you make more than 80 percent of the country, you’re rich, even if you don’t want to admit it.
So, Happy Thanksgiving everyone, especially if you deduct mortgage interest! Please use some of you excess tax savings from this ludicrous subsidy to buy a turkey (or dozens of them) for those less fortunate.

11/24/10

Realism on Segregated Bike Facilities

I generally agree with this viewpoint, but understand why it would take a lot of flak:
Don’t talk segregation; talk short-cuts. Campaigning for closing off a road entrance here and there would do far more good than demanding Dutch-style protection, and demanding it now, now, now.

In central London, there are an amazing amount of new cyclists appearing. On the roads. And they are not all ‘cyclists’; most of the newbies are ‘people on bikes’. Sure, protected cycle lanes on every road would encourage even more newbies to hop on bikes but such a radical redesign of the country flies in the face of British history. For 100 years, our roads have been modified to suit the motorcar. 1930s trunk roads which were built with adjoining protected cycle lanes were long ago changed into race-tracks for cars. This was wrong and uncivilised but motormyopia is so virulent in the UK it’s going to take a miracle to reverse a century of short-sightedness.

Waiting for a miracle can lead to inaction in the here and now. One of the problems with aiming for the sky is it’s an awfully long way away and it’s easy to get discouraged when you’re hardly off the ground, never mind making it into the troposphere. Yet there are many, many things that can improve the lot of cyclists at local and national levels: the aggregation of marginal gains is a concept from sport cycling but can be just as easily applied to cycle campaigning.
I think a lot of arguments like this come down to a question of constituency-building. Some advocates think that we need to increase the overall number of people on bikes before politicians and local leaders will really become responsive. Others think that the size of the constituency will be forever truncated unless politicians take the lead by building the necessary infrastructure. I'm inclined to agree with the former viewpoint- it's easier to convince individuals to spend money on themselves than it is to convince communities and politicians to dole it out to a minority group. Convince people the utility and benefits of bicycling and the politicians will want to please them by spending on bike lanes, segregated facilities and the like. Though there's nothing wrong with a two-pronged approach, ultimately, it all rests on getting more people on bikes- something that a lot of streets as currently built can already accommodate.

Will this quote get Gabe Klein fired?

From Lydia DePillis:
When his turn at the mic came, Klein delivered a stirring encomium to bold action for a bike-centric city. “We can’t say we want to be more sustainable, but we also want to widen our roads and make it easier to drive, it just doesn’t work that way," he said. “I’ve wanted to be more aggressive over the last few years than we have been."
When push comes to shove, people's emotional attachment to their cars is far, far to great to hear the truth. In a place like Washington, where basically everyone is a Democrat and at least nominally committed to "sustainability," there's an even greater attempt to square the circle than in places with a much less liberal population. We want to care about the environment and we want more livable, walkable cities, but we also don't want to be told that we can't own cars and that we have to pay more for parking. And it always comes back to parking! But, like Matt Yglesias points out, no one wants to engage in this kind of self-interested honesty:
Of course the real issue here concerns parking. Currently street parking is priced cheaper than what a free market would bring. That’s a regressive transfer of resources from poor people to rich ones. It also leads to parking space shortages. Rich people in Georgetown (and elsewhere!) would like to hold on to their regressive gains, but they also want to avoid a situation in which shortages become worse. Archer suggests that parking shortages “should be addressed by better management of on-street parking.”
And I entirely agree. Better management of on-street parking, i.e. market prices, would be a great idea. But while that does solve the scarcity it doesn’t really address the “I’m currently getting an unfair subsidy and I don’t intend to give it up” issue. I think the best path forward would be for reformers to simply acknowledge that people who have these subsidies feel that a right to benefit from bad public policy was one of the things they bought when they bought their home, and for the recipients of the subsidies to acknowledge that they just want what’s theirs and don’t actually care about the rest of it. That would clear the way to a solution, namely a big increase in residential parking permit fees that grandfathers all the incumbents in. That’s not optimal policy by any means, but it would let incumbents obtain their core demands at minimum cost to outsiders.
Anyway, I think that Klein is toast and that's sad, but maybe Gray will pick someone equally committed to the same goals and willing to push them just as hard.

What would a GM bike look like?

Car companies, at least in the UK, are getting into the bicycle business:

According to BMW, the idea behind the bikes is “creating outstanding-looking bikes that are associated with BMW cars by their dynamic lines and exceptional performance”. In other words, they want you to feel as if you've bought a BMW motor.
Meanwhile, other car companies are signing up to the bike market, hoping you're going to feel a bit like you've bought one of their vehicles, instead.
Last year, Cooper started developing bicycles for the first time. Best known for its racing cars of the Fifties and Sixties, and, of course, for the Mini Cooper, it released its first range of two-wheelers into shops in April.
Now Cooper has expanded the range from four to seven models (including the first women's specific model) each named after one of Cooper's grand prix wins. The new bikes will be available in time for Christmas (from £595-£895).
If I were a traditional bicycle company, I wouldn't be too worried. I wonder what kind of person is compelled to buy a BMW bike- maybe the same kind of person who's compelled to drive past me a little too closely while I try to bike uphill to work.
Oh, and to answer the question of what a GM bike would look like, here's the Denali.

The Truth about Bike Messengers

I don't work downtown, so I don't know how many bike messengers are actually in DC. I think it probably pales in comparison to other cities, but it's nice to see that the stereotypes surrounding bike couriers are universal- fixie, stubby bars, tats, etc. But are they true?
So, is it true that bike messengers exclusively ride fixed-gear bikes and carry messenger bags with big chain-link locks?  No, not really.  The one essential piece of equipment for a bike messenger is obviously a bicycle.  Although fixed gear bikes are often the bike of choice for messengers, due in large part to their simplicity and lack of components that could be broken or stolen, other bikes are popular among messengers, as well.  This FAQ from the New York Bicycle Messenger Association answers the question of what bike a messenger should used based on the rider’s personal style and preference.  Naturally, this makes sense, as the rider will be spending a significant amount of time on the bike, so getting one that suits the terrain and rider seems natural.  In general, it seems that flat handlebars and slick tires are relatively commonplace, and from there, many of the choices on gearing and brake systems vary by rider.
Sorry to disappoint, but on the other hand, nice to know I don't need to get any ironic tattoos and super-skinny jeans if I decide I want to change careers.

h/t Utility Cycling

An apology of sorts

Blogging for the past week and a half has been slow for a number of reasons and I apologize to all of you who depend on this blog to pass the time at work/home. This apology is as heartfelt as it is sincere. In the mean time, read some of this stuff here- it's apparently the best of the best of 2010.

Safe travels and Happy Thanksgiving.

11/18/10

This is my Hess truck

Budget calculators are so yesterday. All the cool kids have moved on to the next thing. The Tax Policy Center's Tax Calculator 2.0 has even more awesome features just in time for angry postprandial debates with conservative relatives around the turkey carcass! Here's what's new:
• Simulate either 2010 or 2011 taxes—compare tax changes against tax law for either year.

• Turn the AMT patch on or off—continue the temporarily higher exemptions for the alternative minimum tax or use their lower permanent values.

• Estimate the impact of tax law changes on five built-in income levels. In addition to incomes approximating the 20th percentile, median, and 80th percentile for each of our six representative households, we’ve added two higher incomes representing the top 1 percent and the top 1/10 percent of each type of household with sources of income and itemized deductions consistent with those incomes.

As before, the calculator lets you choose one of our ready-made examples or create your own taxpayer from scratch and then compare tax bills under three tax policies—full extension of the 2001-03 tax cuts, complete expiration of those cuts, or President Obama’s tax plan.
So now you can do what Congress refuses to: soak the rich! 

11/16/10

Clean Slates, Baseball and the Tax Code

Sometimes a baseball team is assembled full of overpaid stars with the expectation that they'll all pull together and within a few years, advance far in the playoffs and maybe even win a World Series. In order to do such, the general manager probably overpays a bunch of guys with far-too-big contracts, that seem particularly onerous once he and the entire fan base realize that the team as constituted isn't going to make the playoffs, much less the World Series. Then the GM, assuming he isn't fired, breaks up the team by unloading the players and starts the rebuilding process. This process should be familiar to Mets fans, as well as fans of many other clubs, who have long suffered from the perennial cycle of bringing a team together, getting really excited, watching them briefly succeed, watching them decline and then shipping them all off because they were bums anyway. The clean slate is always exciting because there's always a new group of players out there that will maybe do better than the last bunch.
This kind of rebuilding doesn't happen with the tax code, especially with underperforming credits and tax expenditures. Instead of shipping the underperfoming guy off to Kansas City, Congress never looks at the tax code and says that it's time for a rebuilding year. But Bowles-Simpson wants to do just that. Here's Ezra Klein:
If we cleaned out the code entirely, we could raise the same amount of money by using much lower rates. The same holds true even if we preserve the refundable tax credits like the Earned Income Tax Credit and the child tax credit, as we should. Most of these loopholes and deductions are regressive and distortive -- the mortgage-interest deduction pushes people into bigger homes, for instance, and the exclusion for employer-based health care drives up the cost of health insurance.
The process they advocate -- zeroing out the code and then putting things back in one by one after we've considered them -- makes a lot of sense, and would make even more sense if we did it every 10 years or so. Unlike discretionary spending, the tax code doesn't get reviewed every time we pass a budget, and so it's a much safer home for inefficiencies and interest-group politics.
So, when it comes to the back of form, let's do what any good baseball GM would do and break them up.

11/12/10

Bike Commuter Safety

Bike Portland describes the newly released report from Oregon Health Sciences University (You can download it here) on the bicycle commuting injuries:

The study is titled, Bicycle Commuter Injury Prevention: It Is Time to Focus on the Environment. It was published in the November 2010 issue of The Journal of TRAUMA® Injury, Infection, and Critical Care. Here is the background:
Few data exist on the risk of injury while commuting to work or school by bicycle. The proportion of commuters choosing to travel by bike is increasing in the United States, and information on injury incidence and the influences of rider characteristics and environmental factors may suggest opportunities for prevention actions.
When they say "environmental factors" they mean the built environment or the quality of the bikeways and streets and facilities used by bike commuters.
And here are the conclusions:
Approximately 20% of bicycle commuters experienced a traumatic event and 5% required medical attention during 1 year of commuting. Traumatic events were not related to rider demographics, safety practices, or experience levels. These results imply that injury prevention should focus on improving the safety of the bicycle commuting environment.
Here's some interesting findings from the study itself:

Commuter characteristics and their association with traumatic events are summarized in Table 2. On univariate analysis, there were no statistical differences in gender, age, BMI, skill level, commuting history, prior traumatic event, or use of helmet, lights in the dark, reflective clothing, and mirrors between those commuters who experienced a traumatic event and those who did not.
When it comes to cycling injuries, there's no difference between an experienced rider and a newbie. I think that's a good, sobering reminder to those of us on the road every day and accustomed to our daily rides in. If it's not differences between the cyclists, it must be the road conditions:
Given that commuter characteristics were not found to be associated with the incidence of either traumatic or serious traumatic events, we next reviewed the roadway surface conditions and infrastructure involved in each event. As mentioned above, poor surface conditions were cited as a factor in 20% of both traumatic events and serious traumatic events. Portland has several programs and policies that allow cyclists to contact the city when cleaning or repairs or needed; this can be helpful with loose gravel. Steel plates are common during road repair; they cover dangerous potholes but are not a good substitution for thoughtful bicycle detours. Tracks on the road, although evidence of Portland’s commitment to expanding its public transportation network, continue to challenge cyclists, especially during right and left turns.
Several studies have addressed the role of infrastructure in traumatic and serious traumatic events.16–18 In both Toronto and Ottawa, major injuries, those requiring medical attention, were most likely to occur on a sidewalk, followed closely by multiuse paths.10 The North American survey also reported a much higher incidence of events on sidewalks.5 In contrast, in Portland, very few events, 10 traumatic events and no serious traumatic events, occurred on a sidewalk, despite the fact that 40% of commuters reported riding on a sidewalk during part of their commute. It is interesting to note that in Portland, the greatest numbers of both traumatic and serious traumatic events occurred on infrastructure, bike lanes/wide shoulders, and residential streets, with motorized vehicles. This pattern may be, in part, due to exposure, as a 2009 study of 166 regular cyclists in Portland found that a disproportionate amount of cycling occurs on streets with bike lanes.16 In an effort to improve cyclist safety, Portland has been using colored bicycle lanes for the past 10 years. A 2000 study found that the colored lanes increased the percentage of motorists slowing or stopping before reaching the area, increased the number of motorists who yielded to bicycles in the given area, and decreased the number of conflicts between motorists and cyclists.19
Obviously, since this is a report put together by those from the medical community (it's in the November issue of The Journal of TRAUMA), it's pretty light on the planning suggestions. Bike Portland thinks that this study can have a positive impact:

This study should be of great use to advocates pushing for a higher quality, more refined and comfortable bike network. It also struck me as something that has a lot to do with the idea of tolerance we shared a few months back. If you are trying to appeal to the much-ballyhooed "interested but concerned," a stressful riding environment might be just enough to keep them from giving bicycling a try.
I hope planners, engineers and electeds take note of this study and allocate more resources to improving the quality — not just the quantity — of our bikeways.

I'm not entirely convinced that studies like this will make too big of an impact- either on planners or on commuters or would-be commuters. I think that planners are more likely to react from actual political pressure, either from community leaders or regular bicyclists directly than from a study that shows the incidence of injury. And I think that this study won't do much to appeal to the "interested but concerned." Knowing that you're as likely to be injured as the guy in lycra who sped past you isn't exactly comfort when you learn from the same study that over the course of the year 20% of riders experience of traumatic event.

Not Posting about Bowles-Simpson, part II.

The post in which I take back that I'm not going to to link anything about it. Here's Chait building off of Collender (which I linked to before):
Here is the deeper problem. Conservatives are convinced the federal budget is filled with waste and useless bureaucrats. Yet they have a very difficult time articulating functions that the government is fulfilling that it shouldn't be. There certainly are some -- farm subsidies is one of the biggest examples. The government should get out of that business altogether.
But for the most part, the domestic discretionary budget has been squeezed for savings for several decades on end. Virtually all of the programs remaining represent important public functions. That's why the commission is reduced to proposing charging visitors to the national zoo and implementing phony schemes to cut government staff and pay without changing any of government's mission. If you want to treat this portion of the budget reasonably, you need to either actually agree on some functions the federal government will stop performing, or else just recognize that you need to start paying for the functions it is performing. Catering to airy conservative prejudices against government without translating that into a specific re-conception of the federal role is useless.
To be clear, I think the revenue increases, defense spending cuts, cuts to assorted programs like farm subsidies, and entitlement cuts are a coherent and useful contribution to the deficit problem. The treatment of the discretionary budget is not.

Newsy Merger of Some Interest

The Daily Beast and Newsweek are merging:
What does this exciting new media marriage mean? It means that The Daily Beast’s animal high spirits will now be teamed with a legendary, weekly print magazine in a joint venture, named The Newsweek Daily Beast Company, owned equally by Barry Diller’s IAC and Sidney Harman, owner (and savior) of Newsweek. As for me, I shall now be in the editor-in-chief’s chair at both The Daily Beast and Newsweek, bringing with us as CEO my Daily Beast business partner Stephen Colvin, who launched The Week Magazine in the U.S., as well as Maxim, as president of Dennis Publishing. His dynamism has created 66 new ad campaigns for us since I persuaded him to join The Daily Beast a year ago.
It’s a wonderful new opportunity for all the brilliant editors and writers at The Daily Beast who have worked so hard to create the site’s success. Working at the warp-speed of a 24/7 news operation, we now add the versatility of being able to develop ideas and investigations that require a different narrative pace suited to the medium of print. And for Newsweek, The Daily Beast is a thriving frontline of breaking news and commentary that will raise the profile of the magazine’s bylines and quicken the pace of a great magazine’s revival. I'm impressed with how Newsweek's outstanding staff has continued to put out a lively, well-informed magazine after the departure of their tireless editor, Jon Meacham.
I don't really get it. Does The Daily Beast  really need " the versatility of being able to develop ideas and investigations that require a different narrative pace suited to the medium of print"? What about being a website stops you from doing that? Will newsweek.com just route to The Daily Beast now, or is will it be something different? I don't see the synergy here, just a faint hope that Tina Brown can do something that Jon Meacham couldn't- make a weekly newsmagazine seem vital and important in an era that moves way too fast for a weekly. Um, good luck. The biggest question though: should we call it News Beast or Daily Week?

Upscale TV Viewers and the Shows They Love

Some demographics are important to advertisers, especially the "18-49/$100,000/year household" demographic. From Media Post:
Even if ratings aren't as strong, NBC can continue to stake a claim from its heyday: it's an upscale network. In at least one demo this season, it has the two most upscale shows and is tied with ABC as the most affluent network.
NBC's "The Office" and "The Apprentice" have higher upscale indexes than all other prime-time network shows. That's according to a demo of 18- to-49-year-olds, living in homes with incomes of $100,000-plus.
"The Office" leads with a 148 index, while the Donald Trump-fronted reality series has a 146.
Three other NBC series are in the top 10: "30 Rock" (141), "Outsourced" (139) and "Parenthood" (131) -- leading any other network. Figures cover "live plus seven day" performance for the first three weeks of the season.
For the networks as a whole, NBC's index of 114 ties ABC at the top, followed by CBS at a 103 and Fox at a 99. NBC is the only one with a better index than last fall, when it was at 112. ABC is flat, and the others have dropped.
A 100 index represents the average concentration of 18- to-49-year-olds, living in homes with a $100,000-plus income.
First off, people who live in households that make over $100,000 watch a pretty mixed bag of shows. Some I think are good (30 Rock), some ok, but on the decline (The Office), some I've only seen the first episode of (Parenthood) and some that are abjectly horrendous and/or racist (The Apprentice, Outsourced). Long story short, don't let these people make your tv decisions for you! The funny thing is that all of these shows- except Parenthood, which is a drama about a family- are focused primarily on the workplace. People who make a lot of money like to watch shows about businesses and money making! Take a break, weirdos.

Deficit Reduction Non-Starter

I'm not going to do the blog equivalent of spilling any ink over the Bowles-Simpson plan to reduce the deficit. It has some interesting suggestions, but it's a political non-starter. And basically because it's just the chairman's report and it's completely non-binding in Congress, the whole thing has been one long effort in futility. It's not a question of whether liberals should dismiss it out of hand or whether the plan even makes sense, but simply an acknowledgment that neither political party has the stomach to do anything about deficits, long-, medium-, or short-term. And that's exactly a reflection of what the American people want- same or more government services for less and less taxes. Serious proposals, however flawed, are useless in a world of incoherent magical thinking.

11/11/10

Big Deal Changes on Parking Minimums Coming to DC?

I just read Donald Shoup's The High Cost of Free Parking, which goes to great length the detail the problems with parking minimum requirements. Aside from being arbitraraily decided, parking minimums distort the pricing incentives for driving, physically uglify urban spaces and drive up the cost of housing. That's why it would be a really big deal if DC scrapped minimum parking requirements:
Parking minimums would disappear in most cases. In neighborhood commercial corridors or low-density residential areas without good transit, commercial, institutional, or multi-family residential buildings would still need to provide some parking. But any area with good transit service, or high-density areas, would have no requirements.
For bicycle parking, new buildings over a certain size would have to include some outdoor visitor bicycle parking (like bike racks), and for non-residential buildings, also a certain amount of indoor, secure bicycle parking along with shower facilities. Access to parking and showers is one of the most significant obstacles to people being able to choose to bike to work.
The parking location proposal would disallow parking between buildings and a street, such as in strip malls like the H Street Connection. This would have ensured that Walgreens designed the somewhat more pedestrian-oriented store they ultimately built at Van Ness instead of the very suburban style one they originally pushed for.
Market Urbanism is pleased, but could be happier:
Beyond that, however, the plan falls short of the market urbanist ideal. To misquote the internet meme, “planners gonna plan” – not content to simply dismantle the previous density-forbidden regimes, the planners are trying to stay relevant by instituting a few density-forcing rules. Parking maximums would come into effect (total lot size, for example, would be capped at 500 or 1000 spaces), and new parking lots wouldn’t be allowed adjacent to sidewalks, a reversal of the traditional setback requirements which encourage the parking-in-front designs so common in America. And while I’m sure in many of these cases the maximums will be set higher than people want to build anyway, GGW points out at least a few proposed projects that would have too much parking under the guidelines.
With all the discussion of the Height Act lately (here, here, here, here, and an extended back and forth here and here) and its implications for density, it's nice to see that planning officials are looking at other ways to increase urbanism in DC that don't involve Congress having to repeal a 100 year old law. All we need now is a congestion tax (never gonna happen) and performance parking (needs to be expanded) and DC will become the most progressive urban place in America. Still no vote in Congress though.

11/10/10

AMT Patch

Don't worry everyone, Congress is totally on top of the AMT patch this year:
WASHINGTON—Democratic and Republican leaders of congressional tax committees said Tuesday they will work to ensure that "not one additional taxpayer" will pay the alternative minimum tax in 2010.
A temporary fix for the AMT is one of several tax issues on the agenda for Congress's lame-duck session, which begins Monday.
Lawmakers of both parties wrote Internal Revenue Service Commissioner Doug Shulman, indicating they plan to enact legislation protecting as many as 24 million taxpayers from a tax increase due to the AMT.
Taxpayers who pay the AMT face higher tax bills than under the regular income tax, because the tax was designed to limit the benefit of some credits and deductions.
Moreover, because the AMT was not indexed for inflation, it has the potential to hit a growing number of taxpayers each year. But Congress historically has enacted temporary "patches" that allow most to escape the tax.
It hasn't enacted such a patch for 2010 yet. That creates paperwork problems at the IRS, which is preparing forms and software for the 2011 tax-filing season.
Patching the AMT has become one of my favorite yearly congressional traditions. USA! USA!

11/8/10

More Two-Way Cycle Tracks, Please

The 15th Street cycle track has been converted from a one-way to a two-way route. DDOT plans to extended the bikeway from Euclid St, NW to E Street, NW, where it'll sorta connect with the Pennsylvanian Avenue bikelanes. Obviously, this is great for DC bicycle infrastructure and we should all be pretty happy about it.
I especially like that it's a two-way cycle track.For some reason, it seems to me like it's more consequential that way- less like a lane (which is a subservient part of the road) for bicyclists and more like a dedicated way (which is coequal with the road). I think making the cycle track seem more like a special "road for bicycles" (please don't yell at me- I know all roads can and should be roads for bicycles, I'm just struggling for terminology that would encapsulate how non-cyclists might see the cycle track), non-cyclists can start appreciating that some of us use bikes for commuting and utility cycling rather than solely recreationally on trails, which tend to be wooded and winding and far-separated from cars (and everything else).
I guess this is how I split the difference between vehicularism and infrastructuralism- I want bikes to be on public streets, where there are stores and restaurants, and not trails, where there are squirrels and rotting leaves. But I also want bikes to have some dedicated space, where new or inexperienced riders can feel more secure. If you hide cyclists and bike commuters from motorists by making them go out of their way through the woods down by the river to get around town, then they remain invisible and uncounted. It's not enough to put people on bikes- you have to put the people on bikes where the people not on bikes can see them. Bikeshare goes a long way towards doing this, but so does separated infrastructure.

Ballston BID and Bikeshare

I live in the environs of Ballston and I was pleased to read this morning that Ballston businesses are looking to put together a Business Improvement District:
The Ballston BID would be responsible for marketing Ballston to potential businesses, residents and visitors. It is necessary, property owners say, to keep Ballston competitive with other fast-growing commercial office markets in the District and in Northern Virginia. (Such as Tyson’s Corner, which is a few years away from becoming Metro-accessible.)
“The common view is that Ballston is a ‘good’ place but, it is not yet a ‘great’ community — a goal all urban mixed-use communities need to achieve in order to remain competitive, attractive and sustainable,” the BID’s boosters wrote in a proposed business plan.
I think that this is a great idea and made even more timely by the expected expansion of Capital Bikeshare in the spring and summer. The Crystal City BID can serve as an example- its partnership with CaBi resulted in 14 stations in the Crystal City-Pentagon City vicinity, currently the only stations in Arlington. Based on the map of planned  future stations, Ballston is going to be one of the densest areas for the expanded system. If a BID were to be formed, embracing and supporting bikeshare would be a great way to demonstrate to the surrounding community that they are really looking to improve the quality of life and transportation around Ballston.

11/7/10

Commuter Subsidies and the "Stimulus"

Aside from forever ruining democracy and hastening our nation's walk (or should I say commute) from freedom to serfdom,  one of the things the stimulus (The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) did was increase the subsidization of public transportation by employers from $120 to $230/month. Here's a good synospis:

The commuter benefit allows employees to deduct up to $230 per month from their gross income to pay for their mass transit commutes.  Employees whose monthly mass transit fees are less than the $230 cap are allowed to deduct the full amount from their paychecks. The measure helps employers save money by lowering their payroll taxes.  Additionally, employees are allowed to deduct up to $230 per month for eligible commuter parking expenses.
Tax-free commuter benefits can be structured as an employee-funded tax-free payroll deduction; as an employer-funded benefit; or the costs can be shared by employer and employee. The benefit can be delivered in the form of transit provider-specific passes, universally accepted vouchers and terminal-restricted debit cards, or through a reimbursement model under specific conditions defined by the IRS.
Previously, employers were allowed under Section 132(f) of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) Code to let their employees use up to $120 per month of their pre-tax income to pay for their transit or vanpool commuting expenses and up to $230 per month for commuter parking. The new legislation amends the IRS Code to set the monthly tax-free contribution limit for transit/vanpool to a maximum of $230 per month.
It's set to expire on 12/31/10 and there's little likelihood it will be extended:
The likely reduction - back to $120 from the $230 benefit in effect since Jan. 1, 2009 - is taking many federal workers by surprise and disappointing transit advocates, who say reducing the benefit will put more cars on the road in Washington, New York, Chicago and other congested urban areas. In the Washington area, riders had been insulated from Metro's historic fare increase this year with the higher subsidy
...
The larger subsidy was long sought by transit groups as a way to create equal tax treatment of transit commuters and drivers, who for years had been able to use $230 a month in pre-tax dollars toward parking expenses. Now those groups are lobbying lawmakers on Capitol Hill to extend it. People with relatively expensive commutes - on rail and express bus, for example - have benefited the most from the increase.
But at a cost of about $192 million for two years, it was not permanent. And continuing it will be a hard sell on Capitol Hill, congressional aides say.
"The federal government was incentivizing more driving, and they finally leveled the playing field," said Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth, a Washington-area group that advocates for development near public transit. "It would be terrible to lose this."

I'm quite sure (because my wife told me) that many people who take advantage of this benefit are quite upset, since they've gotten acclimatized to it quickly and are having a hard time with the reduction of benefits basically in half. Of course, the same people have no problem demonizing the "stimulus" for its waste and fraud, but people are dumb so that's no surprise. For people who live farther out from their place of employment, this will make a big impact on their transportation choices, in most cases, turning them away from public transportation. In my office alone, I already know of one person who is going to eschew Metro for driving because of the reduction and I suspect others will soon follow suit.
I think that this provision was good economic stimulus and benefited all commuters, not just public transportation users. It's good stimulus because it puts more money in commuters' pockets (the less you spend getting into work, the more you can spend on other stuff). The increased benefit helped all commuters because it put more people in public transportation- and kept them out of cars. This, presumably, lessened the volume of car traffic. Now that this is expiring and transportation riders are re-evaluating the means by which they get to work, we're going to be looking at an increased number of cars on the road, slower commutes and overall worse externalities.
This is ultimately why some kind of congestion tax that funds public transportation works for everyone. Not all people will want to pay a tax to drive into work, so they'll seek other means of commuting. Since they'll be out of their cars, this will reduce the overall amount of traffic on the road. Thus, those who are willing to pay the tax are essentially buying a better driving experience. Wouldn't you be willing to pay a few bucks if it meant little to no traffic? And wouldn't you be willing to take public transportation if it had a farther reach, was reliable and cheaper than it is now? Or, of course, you could just get a bicycle. I recommend this one for a commute over 10 miles.

Redundant Hobby Horse Blogging

I'm not the only one who's right about how to phase out/eliminate the mortgage interest deduction. Here's Daniel Indiviglio with some ideas to reform the deduction:
Lower the Maximum Balance
Right now, the mortgage interest deduction can be claimed by anyone whose mortgage balance is less than $ 1 million. Does someone who can afford a mortgage of $900,000 really need help from the government? Probably not. And there's an awful lot of interest that can be deducted with a mortgage of that size. So one way cut the cost of the mortgage interest deduction would be to limit the size of the balance on which it can be claimed.
One reasonable limit might be a $500,000 threshold. Most middle class Americans aren't buying homes that will result in a mortgage balance of much more than that. The precise balance that should qualify can be debated, but it's pretty obvious that $1 million is far too high.
Create a Maximum Income Threshold
While lowering the maximum balance that qualifies for the credit would help, it wouldn't be a perfect solution. What if Bill Gates had a home worth many millions of dollars, but his mortgage balance had declined to $500,000? He could then deduct his mortgage interest, even under the revised limit above.
Clearly, someone who is making millions of dollars per year doesn't need the government's help to pay for a mortgage. Consequently, an income limit to claim the deduction would be a good idea. Defining that limit is also something that could be debated, but the $250,000 per year threshold might be a popular option. High earners can afford to pay for their mortgage interest in full, so why is their homeownership being subsidized?

There's nothing objectionable about either of these ideas. Unless of course, you're an anti-itemized deduction zealot (like me, sorta) and you want to get rid of all itemized deductions anyway.

And since this is a redundant hobby horse post, what about the Bush tax cut extension? David Leonhardt has some suggestions about how Democrats can plausibly compromise, including the most obvious idea ever:
A MILLIONAIRES TAX Right now, the 400,000th dollar earned by a surgeon is taxed at the same 35 percent marginal rate as the four millionth dollar earned by a hedge-fund manager. This makes little sense, and it runs counter to how the tax code worked for much of the 20th century.
The top brackets once distinguished between the merely affluent and the truly rich. In 1960, for example, the top marginal rate (of 91 percent) started at $400,000, which is the equivalent of almost $3 million today.
Congress could take a small step back in this direction by extending all the Bush tax cuts for households making less than $1 million a year. At the same time, though, a new tax bracket would start at $1 million. The marginal tax rate could be 39 percent, which was the top rate under Bill Clinton. The Financial Times recently endorsed such a plan. It would probably cost something like $30 billion a year, rather than the $60 billion for extending all the upper-income cuts.
Lest you worry about millionaires, they’d still be doing just fine. They would indeed get to keep part of the Bush tax cut — that part that applied to their first million dollars of income. Their total federal tax rate would still have fallen far more in the last three decades than the rate for any other group. And millionaires have received much larger pretax raises over that time than the middle class or the poor.
Duh. I'll never understand why the Democrats didn't take at least this idea up before the election. Anyway, hopefully in the lame duck we can get some traction on the LeBron James-Goldman Sachs Millionaires' Tax. 

Where are they now: Inventor of the Super Soaker Edition

Did you ever wonder if the guy who invented the popular water gun of our youth is now working on an clean energy source that's more efficient that a traditional photovoltaic cell and has the potential to be scaled up to rival the cost of coal? If so, here you go.

Conan Vs. Jay Redux, Part II

Now that I've actually read the piece, I wanted to highlight my favorite passage:
Back in his office, Conan felt suddenly enlivened. It was done, and now he had no more fear—or doubt. He could not be with these people anymore. He thought again of his obsession with landing The Tonight Show, the same one that had so tormented David Letterman (and apparently still did, almost 20 years later). Conan had put Liza and his two children through a lot, in the cause of NBC and the pursuit of Tonight. Now, in just a few days, NBC had forced him to go cold turkey, and as of that moment, he felt free of it. If NBC didn’t value the show, how could he? It seemed to Conan that Jay had been perfectly happy to see the show he had hosted for 17 years relegated to second-class status. Conan was not.
Wednesday night, a clearly liberated Conan bounced out and hit his monologue spot—free and on fire, again inspired by a huge outpouring of support from his studio audience:
“I’m trying very hard to stay positive here, and I want to tell you something. This is honest. Hosting The Tonight Show has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream for me. And I just want to say to the kids out there watching: you can do anything you want in life. Yeah, yeah—unless Jay Leno wants to do it, too.”
At NBC, the joke represented the point of no return. All throughout the legal wrangling, even after the manifesto, Jeff Gaspin maintained a quiet wish that Conan would examine his options one more time and decide that staying at NBC still made the most sense.
After the joke, that dream vaporized.
Gaspin got a call from Jay about the joke. This one did not strike Jay as funny. He asked Gaspin, Why the fuck am I giving up a half-hour for this guy?
And Gaspin asked himself: How could these guys work back-to-back if Conan hates Jay? There was no longer any question about resolving this in a fashion that might keep Conan at NBC, as far as Gaspin was concerned. It had come down to how the matter would be settled, and Conan would go on his way.

I remember watching that episode and I thought that the joke was pretty pointed- but also totally fair. I'm surprised that NBC didn't pull the plug on Conan sooner,  but from reading the piece, it sounds like the network really thought they could make it work. In any case, you should tune into Conan on Monday.

11/6/10

At least they weren't showing the LeBron Commercial

Proving again that God hates Cleveland, here's some info about campaign ads in the 2010 cycle:

HIGHEST SATURATION OF POLITICAL ADVERTISING, BY MARKET 10/1 to 10/31/10
RANK MARKET # OF POLITICAL ADS* TOTAL # OF ADS** POLITICAL AD %
1 Cleveland, OH 29,689 126,656 23.44%

Almost a full quarter of tv ads were political. Come on America! We owe it to Cleveland to make sure they have nice happy commercials during Browns games, because honestly, they need a break from the horribleness. Also, Edgar Renteria had that game winning hit during the world series, so that really sucked for them too. Geez.

I'll visit when they install the CaBi station

The National Portrait Gallery has opened a new exhibition:

The Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery is decoding such history from abstract paintings and portraits in the first major museum exhibit to show how sexual orientation and gender identity have shaped American art. The installation, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," opened Saturday and is on view through Feb. 13.
"There's been an entire history hiding in plain sight," said Portrait Gallery historian and curator David C. Ward. "Telling the history of art without the history of gay people is like telling the history of slavery without mentioning black people."
Many have avoided the subject, he said, out of politeness or homophobia.
Ward said he was surprised to discover more gays were fired from federal jobs during the Red Scare of the Cold War era than suspected communists. In that political climate, he said, many modern artists turned to abstraction and coded language to portray themselves and those they loved.
Insert Roy Cohn joke here.  Anyway, it runs through February, so hopefully by then the Capital Bikeshare station at the National Portrait Gallery will be open and I'll be able to bike there. Assuming of course that the District's new Republican overlords don't find out and cancel all funding for the Smithsonian and for DDOT.

Airport Connectors: Not Market Urbanism

I like to use public transportation to get to the airport, whenever reasonable. In Budapest, to get from downtown to Ferihegy 2 (the airport served by the larger international carriers), you have to get on the Blue Metro, take it to the end of the line at Kobanya-Kispest and then take a bus 200E. In Washington, to get from downtown to Dulles airport, you can take the Orange/Blue Metro line to Rosslyn (or start from L'Enfant plaza) and take the 5A bus. In both cases, you're transferring from a train to a bus. Some cities have airport connectors, which are not buses at all. Market Urbanism thinks that this is a boondoggle:
There may be a limited place for short airport connectors in large, transit-rich cities like New York City, but many of the projects turn out to be far too expensive for the limited service that they provide. They are often a sort of cargo cult urbanism that seeks to emulate the frills of good transit systems isn’t willing to make the hard decisions necessary to actually build a robust network and allow the density to fill it. In the case of the the Providence airport, lawmakers said they hoped the station would attract international service to the currently domestic-only airport – as if Providence can acquire the amenities of a big city without allowing itself to become one. Airport connectors instead are often little more than highly inefficient subsidies to the airline industry, wealthy frequent fliers, and construction unions – which, now that I think about it, might explain why legislators love them so much.
I think that if I was going to take a even more cynical view of these projects, I'd say that these connectors are built because people don't like to take buses. People like taking a train (light or heavy) in a way that they don't like taking a bus. I think that's why the East Corridor light-rail extension/airport connector in Denver (the third place I've lived) will actually be popular. It's not so much a TOD project, but the reverse: building a transit line where there's already (some sprawly) development. In this case, much like the Silver Line in DC, politicians have wisely used people's aversion to taking the bus to the airport as a means of building a public transportation spur that, as a byproduct, helps connect areas in between the airport and the city center that are now currently under-served.

Cool Chart about a Regressive Tax Deduction!

If you read that title and clicked through, then you probably think (1) charts in general are pretty cool and you're some kind of chart-loving maniac who fetishizes pictorial representation of data and, like an avid bird watcher, need to see this cool chart to check it off in your big book of charts you've seen in the wild (of the internet) or (2) that regressive tax deductions are stupid and any graphical representation of that fact will make you even more sure of your completely substantiated view. In any case, via Mike Konczal from the Urban-Brookings TPC's  How to Better Encourage Homeownership:

Some context:
Your gut reaction is probably that the home mortgage interest deduction and other housing subsidies go primarily to lower income people purchasing cheaper homes, people on the margin between owning a home and not owning a home. That’s the exact opposite of what really happens. Research has found that the tax deduction does little to increase home ownership. Other research has found that the tax savings for households earning more than $250,000 is 10 times the tax savings for households earning between $40,000 and $75,000 a year.
...
The businesses who benefit the most from this system are those in the business of building high-end custom single-family detached homes. And the homeowners who benefit the most from this system are, well, probably not you. Keep this in mind as the Deficit Commission might end up doing a good thing and recommend removing highly regressive giveaway of the home mortgage interest deduction.
The real American dream isn't home ownership- it's becoming super-wealthy so the costs of your home ownership are completely distorted by a ridiculous tax code. USA! USA!

Urban Planning Twitterers

If you're on twitter and you like reading tweets about urban planning, Planetizen put together a list of twitterers that frequently tweet about those topics. I follow a few of them- @MarketUrbanism, @Infrastructurst, @StreetsblogNet, but mostly my I follow feeds concerning bicycling, local DC issues and local DC bicycling issues. You can follow me @brianmcentee, but if you're reading this, you might already. In fact, if you're reading this and you're not following me on Twitter and you're on Twitter, then who are you? Seriously? Why waste your time here when you get can all this crap distilled to 140 characters?

Conan Vs. Jay Redux

People wrongly think I'm against cancer or something. My cause is much more important
As the launch of Conan (Conaw?) approaches and I get closer to cutting off (or just removing) the bright orange "I'm with Coco" wristband I've been donning since around my birthday, it's a good time to recap how we came to be where we are. Thankfully, Vanity Fair has excerpted some of Bill Carter's new book on the imbroglio. I suggest that you read it. I also suggest that I finish reading it, since it's kinda long and I haven't made it entirely through yet. But I care so much about foisting it on you that I'm linking to it mostly blind. I apologize for any offensive content which the article might contain.

The Do Nothing Lame Duck Congress

At least with the Bus tax cuts, surmises Gleckman:
It is hard to imagine Congress simply leaving town without addressing the tax cuts in some way. Both parties risk a huge backlash if they don’t act. That’s why I’m betting Congress extends the tax cuts for just a few months so they can resume their bickering again next spring. This is execrable tax policy, but it just might serve everyone’s political needs.
The gist is that Republicans don't want to extend the tax cuts or earners under $250,000 without extending the tax cuts for those making more than $250,000. Since the cuts are set to expire on 12/31/10 for everyone, Gleckman thinks that Congress will at least get its act together long enough to compromise for a brief extension, mostly because Democrats are feckless and afraid. But, here's the thing- the Republicans just won the an election John Boehner becomes Speaker of the House in January. The House is his problem then and any action taken or not taken would fall squarely on the shoulders of the Republican leadership. I see no reason for the Democrats to do anything different from what the Republicans did during the health care debate- refuse to compromise in the Senate about extending all of the cuts. If Democrats keep pointing out that they have a plan (Obama's plan not to extend cuts for the rich) over and over and over inexorably, but the Republicans don't want to pass it, then the problem is John Boehner's. By slowing down the process and bogging down the national debate such that Republicans have to defend the LeBron James-Goldman Sachs tax cut extension (it's the new "death panels!"), the Democrats can highlight the notion that Republicans are being unreasonable in their defense of the rich at the expense of ordinary Americans.

11/3/10

Tips for Urban Cyclists

I've read a lot of articles that give advice about urban bike commuting. Things like stop and stop signs, wear reflective gear, etc. I think these tips, however, are some of the best I've read, including:  
Obeying traffic rules is not your first priority. There are traffic rules aplenty to deal with in urban riding – street lights, stop signs, one way streets, construction zones, bus lanes, etc.  Obeying these rules is all well and good, but priority number one is staying safe.  I will unapologetically admit to breaking at least a half-dozen traffic rules each way, every day.  Roll through stop signs? You bet.  Run red lights?  Check.  Disobey the “Construction – street closed” signs that have been blocking my route home for the last month?  Absolutely.  You see, while traffic rules have a certain logic, they are built around cars, not bikes.  A moving bike is a safer bike, as momentum allows you to skirt obstacles and avoid danger from any direction.  Sitting motionless in the road at a stop sign or light, a cyclist is at his or her most vulnerable.  Better, then, to slow down, look carefully and keep moving if the way is clear.  The idea is to be critical, to not slavishly accept and obey the traffic rules just because they are there.  Recognize that your safety comes first.
Don’t pay attention to bike lanes. Hell, nobody else in the city does.  I routinely encounter buses, double-parked cars, delivery vans, wrong-way skateboarders and inebriated pedestrians blocking bike lanes.  Always be prepared to take the lane.  Plus, many bike lanes put you solidly in the “door zone” when you’re anywhere on the inner two-thirds of the lane.  That’s not much of a problem when traveling uphill, but a major issue on downhill bike lanes.  Always take the lane – not the bike lane, the whole damn thing – when traveling downhill.
Don’t stand on your rights. Yeah, you’ve got a bike lane, or the right-of-way, or whatever.  It doesn’t matter.  The laws of physics trump all traffic rules.  A bus is entering the bike lane to meet a stop right ahead of you?  Don’t try to pass in the bike lane.  Ditto for drivers making right turns, clueless pedestrians and lost dogs.  Ride like your life is on the line.  Do what’s safest and most predictable to others in the road, even if that means giving up “your” lane or, God forbid, stopping.
Wear a helmet, stupid. I seem to see more helmets in Seattle than in Manhattan, where wearing one must be against the law.  But still – too many fixie hipsters and other too-cool types are cruising around with helmets.  I like that as much as the next guy when cruising on the beach or a resort bike trail somewhere, but the city is HARD.  There’s lots of stuff that will jump up and bite you, and a crack in the pavement or an errant car door can smack your head before you know it.  It’s too high a price to pay for fashion, and besides – there are lots of cool bike helmets starting to hit the market.
I like these rules because they are realistic and actually reflect the kind of posture you need to have to ride with traffic. Drivers don't think twice about rolling through stop signs and they don't get overly concerned about whether or not they're over lane markings. They just drive and do so in a way that makes sense for them in their situation. I advocate that cyclists do the same, keeping in mind that your margin of error is less since you don't have thousands of pounds of metal surrounding you.

11/2/10

Not much in the mood for blogging

I've got a few things I want to post, but I think they might command more of my attention than I'm willing to give today. It's not election ennui- at least not yet- that's holding me back, just general distractedness. Anyway, I'll try to get some stuff up tomorrow.