Like many cities, Cincinnati once had a thriving streetcar system

Cincinnati was one of numerous big American cities that once heavily relied on the streetcar:

They were everywhere. For nearly a century — from the 1850s through the 1940s — streetcars were the most common way for Cincinnatians to get where they were going.

According to a report to common council in 1887, Cincinnati City Clerk Edwin Henderson said council had filed more than 70 ordinances relating to “street railroads” to date, and Henderson’s report detailed 25 routes in service at the time.

At their peak, Cincinnati’s railway companies offered commuters dozens of streetcar routes with nearly 250 miles of track.

Compared to other transportation options of the time, streetcars had numerous advantages: more consistent and producing less visible waste than horses, they were less noisy and followed street patterns compared to trains, and were faster and offered a larger range than walking. Streetcars opened up all sorts of new areas to development as residents could travel further on their daily commutes or regular trips.

Outside of the occasional attempt to revive a streetcar line, often for tourism purposes, most cities today do not contain visible evidence of the popularity of streetcars. Cincinnati is a city that is trying: a plan is in the works for a 3.6 mile loop that connects employment and residential areas. Still, across the broader city and region, cars reign supreme with their ability to go anywhere and offer drivers individual choices.

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“Charles McMansion” is a band name

A new musical duo, Charles McMansion, has arrived with their first single. And it lives up to the typical critiques of McMansions: garish, poor construction, meant to impress but lacking in substance. If I had to guess, the group name is playing with “Charles Manson” but with a wealthy, big house flair. I couldn’t find any info on why they chose McMansion as part of their name but I did find info on how this relates to the reality TV show of one of the members

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Chicago keeps a low residential property tax rate to keep residents?

As the Chicago Tribune highlights the low residential property tax in Chicago compared to nearby communities, could this be a tactic to stem the population decline of the city?

Chicago homeowners pay less in property taxes than the vast majority of their suburban neighbors, even with Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s record property tax increase applied. But business properties are taxed differently in Cook County, resulting in higher tax rates on those parcels in Chicago than nearly all collar county suburbs. Those conclusions emerge from a Tribune analysis of tax rates applied on 2015 bills in 388 city and suburban locations in Cook and the five collar counties.

While housing owners pay less, the business owners of Chicago pay more than their counterparts in the suburbs:

The story is different, however, for those who own city manufacturing plants, offices and shopping centers. They already pay more in property taxes than their counterparts in most suburbs outside Cook County. That gap will only become wider after Emanuel’s tax hike, with Chicago business property owners being taxed at higher rates than those in all but seven collar county towns…

There are plenty of collar county suburbs with room for all types of business development that start to look even more attractive than Chicago, at least in terms of property taxes. In places like Joliet, Downers Grove and Naperville, tax bills on business properties would be half that of equally priced parcels in the city…Deputy Mayor Steve Koch dismissed the business tax differences found in the KPMG study, saying they were not enough to sway business location decisions. He noted recent decisions by Motorola Solutions to move to the city from Schaumburg and ConAgra Foods to move to Chicago from Omaha, Neb., when everyone knew the big property tax hike was coming.

The Tribune suggests one reason for the low residential property tax rates is to not anger voters:

“Because we didn’t have in our leadership the political will to actually tell taxpayers and voters that (more money was needed), frankly folks were sold some snake oil, and they got to believe they could have very low taxes and still have adequate service, and after a while that doesn’t really work,” Martire said. “They should have been (raising property taxes) for a long time, and the pain would have been significantly lower.”

Politicians do need votes. But, to return to the suggestion I made in the opening sentence, I wonder if this is also about keeping residents in Chicago. City leaders argue that businesses are not going to avoid Chicago just because of higher taxes. Chicago has other benefits including other notable businesses, lots of office space, lots of human capital, and numerous attractive cultural and entertainment options. In other words, enough businesses will pay these higher property tax rates in Chicago because there is still money to be made in the city.

Yet, homeowners also consider property tax rates as they look for housing. While Chicago doesn’t suffer from the kind of affordable housing issues as San Francisco or Manhattan, it is still quite expensive in some neighborhoods while suburbs throughout the region provide all sorts of additional housing options as well as jobs and other amenities. Why should many residents stay? Lower property tax rates may just help. And for its international prestige – the seventh-rated global city – Chicago has lost plenty of people in recent decades with a peak of just over 3.6 million in 1950 to just over 2.7 million people today.

Votes and people staying could go together: residents who think the politicians are on their side and then show it by not raising their residential property taxes may be more likely to stay in Chicago.

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Debate over data on the mental fragility of college students

A recent study suggests there is a need for more data to claim that today’s college students are more fragile:

The point, overall, is that given the dizzying array of possible factors at work here, it’s much too pat a story to say that kids are getting more “fragile” as a result of some cultural bugaboo. “I think it’s not only an oversimplification, I think it’s unfair to the kids, many of whom are very hardworking and tremendously diligent, and working in systems that are often very competitive,” said Schwartz. “Many of the kids are doing extraordinarily well, and I think it’s unfair to portray this whole group of people as being somehow weakhearted or weak-minded in some sense, when there’s no evidence to really support it.”

It hasn’t gone unnoticed among those who study college mental health that there’s an interesting divide at work here: College counselors are so convinced kids’ mental health is getting worse that it’s become dogma in some quarters, and yet it’s been tricky to find any solid, rigorous evidence of this. Some researchers have tried to dig into counseling-center data in an attempt to explain this discrepancy. One recent effort, published in the October issue of the Journal of College Student Psychopathology, comes from Allan J. Schwartz, a psychiatry professor at the University of Rochester who has devoted a chunk of his career to studying college suicide. Schwartz examined data from “4,755 clients spanning a 15-year period from 1992-2007” at one university, poring over the records to determine whether students who came in contact with that school’s counseling services had, over that period, exhibited increasing levels of distress in the form of suicidality, anxiety and phobic disorders, overall signs of serious mental illness, and other measures. (The same caveat I mentioned above applies here — such a study can only tell us about rates of pathology among kids who go to counseling centers. But it can at least help determine whether counselors are right that among the kids they see every day, things are getting worse.)

Schwartz found no evidence to support the pessimistic view. With the exception of suicidality, where he noted a “significant decline” over the years, every other measure he looked at held stable over the study’s 15-year span. In his paper, Schwartz rightly notes that there are limitations to what we can extrapolate from a study of a single campus. But he goes on to explain that four other, similar studies, published between 1996 and 2007, also sought to track changes in pathology over time in single-university settings, and they too found no empirical evidence that things have been getting worse. This doesn’t definitively prove that kids who seek counseling aren’t getting sicker, of course. But statistically, Schwartz argues, it’s unlikely that five studies looking at different schools would all come up with null findings if, in fact, there was a widespread increase in student pathology overall.

I don’t know this area of research but it sounds like there is room for disagreement and/or need for more definitive data about what is going on among college students.

A broader observation: claims about cultural zeitgeists are not always backed with data. On one hand, perhaps the change is coming so quickly or underneath the radar (it takes time for scientists and others to measure things) that data simply can’t be found. On the other hand, claims about trends are often based on anecdotes and particular points of view that break down pretty quickly when compared to data that is available.

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The continually green lawns of some California leaders and celebrities

The drought shaming continues in California. First, CBS highlights some of the biggest water wasters in the Bay Area:

The district released the names and consumption in response to a public records request by the San Jose Mercury News and other media outlets covering the drought.

Beane released a statement through the Oakland A’s.

“Three irrigation leaks were recently discovered and corrected. We were more than displeased and embarrassed by the usage,” Beane said.

Retired Chevron Oil executive George Kirkland tops the list by using more than 12,000 gallons of water a day – 48 times the district average. He also pointed to previously undetected seepage.

Here is an older gallery where CBS highlights the greenery outside the homes of numerous celebrities. This link includes a picture and this text:

Despite the sweeping water regulations imposed by California state officials this spring, Jenny’s “block” remains green.

And though the state has only issued eight $100 fines and two $200 fines to water wasters up until this point, Lopez may soon face a much heftier fine if she wants to keep her lawn this way.

Gov. Jerry Brown is calling for legislators to enforce fines of up to $10,000 for residents and businesses that waste the most water, as California cities struggle to meet mandatory conservation targets.

I imagine reporting to the public about leaders and celebrities can be quite effective in reducing the water usage. Few famous people want to be seen as wasters of natural resources when others are sacrificing. (I suspect this would be quite different if there wasn’t much of a drought or if the owners could claim commercial revenues or jobs on these properties – this is what the Las Vegas casinos do.) Even the higher proposed fines, $10,000, wouldn’t matter much to some people. While the shaming might be more effective (reducing water usage and helping politicians look like they are standing up for the interests of everyone), couldn’t the state also use the money? If celebrities wanted to pay big fines, wouldn’t this help balance some budgets?

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One mile driven in a car = one pound of horse ploppies

A geologist translates how much carbon dioxide is emitted by today’s cars into an older measure:

“At one point we had a transportation system that had horses,” said Penn State University geologist Richard Alley. “And the horses made horse ploppies. If our CO2 came out of the car as horse ploppies, it would sort of be a pound per mile. And if you put that on the roads of America, in a year it would average an inch deep. And as I like to say, we would have no more joggers in America. We’ll all be cross-country skiers.”

I have read several accounts by urban historians who have described just how much horse manure was in the streets of major cities in earlier centuries. The smell. The sight. The need for people to clean it up. In comparison to roads in past eras, our streets are clean: free of garbage and waste, typically only for fast-moving vehicles.

But, having a car makes that carbon dioxide emission less visible. The average driver doesn’t really see anything and the waste produced by individual vehicles are dwarfed by large facilities like factories or power plants. Of course, add up all the cars and vehicles in the United States and it is a sizable output. See some of the pictures of Los Angeles on days of major smog.

Thus, the analogy might be useful to remember. Although we wouldn’t stand for horse ploppies on our streets today, our vehicles emit carbon dioxide whether we regularly see it.

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Compared to unprotected sex, Americans underestimate risks of driving

A recent study looks at how Americans compare the risks of driving and unprotected sex:

Imagine that a thousand people—randomly selected from the U.S. population—had unprotected sex yesterday. How many of them will eventually die from contracting HIV from that single sexual encounter?

Now, imagine a different thousand people. These people will drive from Detroit to Chicago tomorrow—about 300 miles. How many will die on the trip as a result of a car crash?…

If you’re anything like the participants in a new study led by Terri D. Conley of the University of Michigan, the HIV estimate should be bigger—a lot bigger. In fact, the average guess for the HIV case was a little over 71 people per thousand, while the average guess for the car-crash scenario was about 4 people per thousand.

In other words, participants thought that you are roughly 17 times more likely to die from HIV contracted from a single unprotected sexual encounter than you are to die from a car crash on a 300-mile trip.

But here’s the deal: Those estimates aren’t just wrong, they’re completely backward.

According to statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, you are actually 20 times more likely to die from the car trip than from HIV contracted during an act of unprotected sex.

While the rest of this article goes on to talk about perceptions of sex in the United States, these findings are consistent with others that suggest Americans don’t see driving as a threat to their safety. Driving is one of the riskier behaviors Americans regularly engage in: more than 30,000 Americans are killed each year in vehicle accidents. (It should be noted that this figure has dropped from the low 50,000s from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Driving today is safer than in the past.) Yet, Americans tend to like driving (or at least what it enables) and find it necessary in their daily lives (by social and political choices we have made) so those deaths and car accidents are acceptable losses.

Of course, it may not be long before even having to acknowledge our difficulties in weighing risks is no longer a problem due to driverless cars that eliminate all vehicle deaths.

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Thorium contaminated soil out of West Chicago; still groundwater

Earlier this week, the last thorium contaminated soil was shipped out of West Chicago:

After more than 30 years and $1.2 billion worth of cleanup work, the final rail cars filled with contaminated materials from the former Kerr-McGee factory site in West Chicago have been shipped out of town.

Mayor Ruben Pineda said the occasion is cause for celebration. On Tuesday, he gathered with officials from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, Weston Solutions, DuPage County and other organizations that have helped with removing thousands of pounds of thorium waste produced by the factory. They watched the rail cars head to Utah, where the materials will be buried in the desert.

However, this is not the end of the thorium saga:

Although the soil is gone, city officials said they are waiting for the federal government to provide about $32 million to resolve issues with the contaminated groundwater at the site.

“We still have a lot of work to do out there,” Pineda said. “If we were to get (the $32 million), we could finish the project relatively quickly and (the factory site) would turn into a beautiful park.”

Both parts of this process – removing the soil and finding the funds to completely finish the job (see earlier posts on the long search for funds) – have been lengthy.

With an end in sight, I wonder how long it will take for the idea that thorium is part of West Chicago’s character to dissipate. This has been an ongoing issue for over four decades and this industrial, working-class suburb has often attracted certain attention because of the radioactive material. But, once the thorium is gone for good, those who lived in the community will move away or pass on and newer generations have little or no understanding or experience with this part of the community’s past. Will the community want to remember how it came together to get the thorium out or would it be better to just forget the whole episode and its negative connotations?

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Subjective decisions can affect home appraisals

The final appraisal price for a home can be influenced by numerous subjective factors:

A massive, first-of-its-kind study of 1.3 million individual appraisal reports from 2012 through this year conducted by real estate analytics firm CoreLogic offers a suggestion: You should look at what are called adjustments to appraisals that involve relatively subjective estimations — the appraiser’s opinions on the overall quality level of your house, its condition, location and view — rather than more objectively determinable items such as living space square footage, lot size, number of baths and bedrooms, etc…

Adjustments are made in 99.8 percent of all appraisals, according to the CoreLogic study. The most frequent adjustments involve objective features of houses: Living area, rooms, car storage, porch and deck were all adjusted in more than 50 percent of the study’s 1.3 million appraisals, according to CoreLogic. (As a rule, the adjustments on objective features were not large in dollar terms. For example, room adjustments were made in nearly three-quarters of all appraisals but averaged only $2,246 and did not affect the final appraised value dramatically.)

Adjustments involving more-subjective matters — the overall quality or condition of the house — were less common, but they typically triggered much bigger dollar changes. The average adjustment based on quality was nearly $15,000, which is more than enough to complicate a home sale. Some subjective adjustments on the view or location of high-cost homes ran into the hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars…

Research released last week by Platinum Data Solutions, which reviewed 300,000 appraisals made between July and September, found that fully 39 percent of “quality” or “condition” ratings conflicted with previous ratings on the same property. That inevitably invites controversy.

In other words, appraisals are an inexact science. What makes it particularly frustrating is that the stakes can be big as sellers and buyers are dealing with one of the biggest financial investments of their lives.

Two more thoughts about these findings:

  1. In order to cut down on the variation in findings, would it be better to regularly have multiple appraisers for the same property or some sort of blinded review?
  2. Here is how an example of big data can help reveal patterns across numerous properties and appraisers. But it would be particularly interesting – and perhaps some money could be made – if research identified individual appraisers who consistently had high or low findings.
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Dreaming of pres. candidates competing in other TV formats

As the presidential candidate debates continue, I thought of some other TV formats that might be both entertaining and tell us more than the repeated talking points. Americans like the drama of multiple candidates and they like TV so why not try some other options?

  1. A game show format. Want to see who is smarter? Jeopardy. How well they know Americans based on survey results? Family Feud. Want to see them all live together and who can form alliances? Big Brother or Survivor. Want to see some physical competitions? American Ninja Warrior. In any game show, we would see their competitive side and a particular ability.
  2. A reality TV format. How would they each get along with the Dance Moms? Or on The Biggest Catch? Or tracking down online personas in Catfish? Or looking for homes on a HGTV show? Though the show has particular setup, the candidates could act “natural.”
  3. A hidden camera show. The show could try to catch candidates in situations that push them to respond – like What Would You Do? – or it could be more of a comedy like Candid Camera. This could give viewers some idea of how candidates would react in particular situations.
  4. Some sort of presidential simulation. Lock them in a sound stage that mimics the White House or some other government facility. What would they do after two or three nights with little sleep in reaction to a military threat against the United States? How would they act toward a set of Congressional leaders who are tough negotiators? How would they treat their staff after weeks of tension?

I get why most candidates would be very hesitant about many of these. At the same time, debates where the candidates stand around talk/interrupt/respond to questions aren’t necessarily favorable to everyone. Additionally, we know what debates can tell us but these other TV options could offer very interesting (and entertaining) insights into the candidates. These don’t have to be a joke if they are well-designed and the candidates take them seriously.

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