Greater Greater Washington

Can pop culture push sustainable mobility?

Popular culture shapes our lives in countless ways, both directly and subconsciously. Since Leave It to Beaver, American popular culture has been deeply rooted in car-centered suburbia. That paradigm may be shifting.


Photo by Septuagesima on Flickr.

There was a time when being carless was tantamount to wearing head gear: totally uncool. Truth be told, that time is still now in many places, but there's a true shift beginning to take hold.

As young families, professionals and students eschew the surburban lifestyles many of them grew up in for transit-oriented city dwelling, popular culture seems to be catching on. And where pop culture goes, we can hope, so will the masses.

Back in July, Slate published an intriguing article, "How not having a car became Hollywood shorthand for loser," detailing the history of movie dweebs who walk, ride bikes or take transit, from Pee Wee Herman to as recent as Steve Carrell's character in The 40 Year-Old Virgin.

Vanderbilt points out a mindset shift may be starting in Hollywood, though. 2009's (500) Days of Summer features two affable young professionals who get around Southern California using a whole host of travel modes, even using the train to travel to San Diego.

The fashion world may be catching on as well. Clothing mega-producer Gap recently introduced a new line of women's shoe called the City Flat. This "Walkable" shoe is designed for "the girl on-the-go." It doesn't take a market analyst to figure out these shoes aren't aimed at the 1980s-style career woman who drives from her Upper West Side condo to the parking garage in her Downtown Manhattan office building.

Yesterday, GOOD posted about shoemaker Rockport's new shoe line and ad campaign called WALKABILITY, centering on a commercial that features attractive city dwellers sitting in bus stops, passing up taxi cabs, and, well, walking everywhere. The very first image on the campaign's website, after all, prominently features streetcar tracks:


Photo from Rockport

In another video explaining the technology in this new line of shoes, the company targets "today's metropolitan professional," and again fills shots with young, diverse people walking about a city, day and night.

Even Las Vegas, the capital of unsustainable practices (Dubai, at least, has a metro), is catching on to the urban lifestyle, with its newest mega-development, CityCenter. A self-proclaimed "urban community," CityCenter features a departure from the kitschy architectural pastiche otherwise found on the Las Vegas Strip, and boasts LEED Gold certification.

While the hotel and casino complex is otherwise little more than the standard Vegas wolf in an urbanist sheep's clothing, the fact that taste-makers in this sprawling city have recognized the commercial appeal of urbanism can only bode well in the long run.

The latest chink in the mainstream, car-centered, American lifestyle came just last week. The New York Times published a profile of Mad Men actor Vincent Kartheiser, who lives without a car in auto-dominated Los Angeles. The article chronicles Kartheiser's commutes to the Mad Men set, describing vibrant scenes on LA's buses and subway.

"Instead of driving and being stressed out about traffic," Kartheiser says, "you can work your scene, you can do your exercises or whatever on the bus." While many transit advocates have been making this point for years, it helps when an actor on America's best TV drama says it in one of the world's most prestigious and widely circulated newspapers.


Photo from the New York Times

In a today's corporate-identity driven market, the American lifestyle is all-to-often shaped by TV and movies, pop culture and megabrands. A shift in the way the movies, media and pop culture depict car-light, transit-oriented and walkable lifestyles may help enshrine the need for mass transit and non-motorized infrastructure in the people and policymakers.

That said, in DC, politics is often inseparable from popular culture. If we want to see a true shift, not only in mindset, but in spending and outcomes, the political taste-makers need to do their part as well. It's one thing to hear Congress members or Ray LaHood or President Obama talk about more transit options, complete streets and road diets, but, as they say, a picture is worth 1000 words. How many lawmakers (besides Earl Blumenauer) do we have who actually walk or bike anywhere? Who take Metro?

Maybe that's the next paradigm shift.

Crossposted at TheCityFix.

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Erik Weber has been living car-free in the District since 2009. Hailing from the home of the nation's first Urban Growth Boundary, Erik has been interested in transit since spending summers in Germany as a kid where he rode as many buses, trains and streetcars as he could find. Views expressed here are Erik's alone. 

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When people ask my why I chose to go car free, I always start by saying, "Cars are for suckers." A friend of mine who is also car free put a new spin on this so condescendingly extol the hipsterness of car free lifestyle by telling people, "Cars are for rednecks."

I've noticed this trend in music also. You never hear songs about how awesome the suburbs are, vice many songs about cities across genres. Sure, a lot of songs rip on cities too, but you never hear any good music about the suburbs.

by Dave Murphy on Oct 7, 2010 10:09 am • linkreport

of course, Jessica Fletcher nailed this for 12 years on prime time TV ending in 1996 where she always rode her bike or carpooled with others. so while it isn't "new" it is a welcome return.

by Jehiah on Oct 7, 2010 10:15 am • linkreport

Erik, thanks! This is fabulous. It's interesting to think about whether pop culture is pushing the envelope here or if pop culture is just starting to realize an underlying trend that many people's habits and lifestyles are changing. An interesting and fresh perspective!

by Allison Bishins on Oct 7, 2010 10:16 am • linkreport

Dave,

I guess you are not a country music fan.

by RJ on Oct 7, 2010 10:21 am • linkreport

It's interesting, the more backwards areas of the country always seem to catch on a decade or so too late. You hear Depeche Mode playing in a McDonalds in rural West Virginia. You see half the men in rural SW Georgia with an earring. Hell, in twenty years, we'll get treated to screeds on Fox News about how Southern Confederate-themed gay weddings are the only *real* gay weddings.

Nowhere is this more poignant or obvious than the process of gentrification in DC. Tons of newly middle-class African Americans selling their close-in houses so they can pursue the American Dream of living in the exurbs, just as that model is collapsing. Lots of wealthy and upper- middle-class folks who know the score pouring into the cities.

Gonna be a lot of pissed of people in a decade or so.

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 10:31 am • linkreport

Tons of newly middle-class African Americans selling their close-in houses so they can pursue the American Dream of living in the exurbs, just as that model is collapsing. Lots of wealthy and upper- middle-class folks who know the score pouring into the cities.

Well, yeah. Cashing out so one can take their kids to better schools and safer neighborhoods. Paying through the nose for raised property tax in a neighborhood full of white people willing to pay obscenely high rent or housing prices (as to prove their 'urban' superority) so they can walk to a coffee shop may be worth it to some, not to others.

by BD on Oct 7, 2010 11:15 am • linkreport

"Tons of newly middle-class African Americans selling their close-in houses so they can pursue the American Dream of living in the exurbs, just as that model is collapsing"

To be fair, if you lived south of the river in the 1990s, you'd be pretty much dead-set on getting out of the city too. The decline of the suburbs and outward movement of non-white minorities from the cities seem to be driven by separate factors that unfortunately happened to crop up simultaneously.

I love my "actually-diverse" neighborhood, and hope that it stays that way in the future.

by andrew on Oct 7, 2010 11:21 am • linkreport

@Erik - Maybe you're both too young and too male to remember and/or have lived through it, but the 1980s-style career woman wore running shoes and carried her pumps to put on once she was at the office. Trust me. This was the conspicuous custom.

I was in Chicago which of course has been transit oriented for a long time so maybe that helped fuel this practical fashion choice. I know that it was done in NYC too and the trend was featured in typical womens fashoin 'zines. There were a slew of cute bags marketed to purchase for carrying your pumps just as there are today for groceries.

She also wore an "IBM" style suit (usually a navy blue mens cut jacket w/big shoulders & shoulder pads, mens style lapels, no waist or fitted seams, white blouse and floppy tie, skirt and stockings).

Otherwise thanks for an interesting analysis.

by Tina on Oct 7, 2010 11:25 am • linkreport

I am a 37 y/o female who lives in Wesley Heights, DC and I LOVE my car. For those who eschew owning a car, more power to you but stop pushing your ideas on the rust of us who prefer to drive.

@oboe - Considering the "doom and gloom" expressed at the defeat of Fenty by these "wealthy and upper-middle class whites", I expect that they will be the ones who will be pissed off (in 10 years).

by snowpeas on Oct 7, 2010 11:27 am • linkreport

Well, yeah. Cashing out so one can take their kids to better schools and safer neighborhoods. Paying through the nose for raised property tax in a neighborhood full of white people willing to pay obscenely high rent or housing prices (as to prove their 'urban' superority) so they can walk to a coffee shop may be worth it to some, not to others.

Yep. I don't disagree, and it's obvious why people make the choices they do. Just saying, those folks who've driven 45 min to get from home to Capitol Hill--and who've got another 45 min before they get to work--don't look so happy. And it's only going to get worse.

Nothing to do with "proving 'urban' superiority". Not much to do with being able to "walk to a coffee shop either". Lot to do with eliminating a soul-crushing commute and not having a chair to sit in when the music stops.

BTW, I love my "actually-diverse" neighborhood, too, and hope it stays that way.

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 11:32 am • linkreport

Dave: you're a great guy and all, and we usually agree on most things. But I think your "cars are for suckers" comment is a bit too far, to say nothing of your friend's comment.

by Froggie on Oct 7, 2010 11:33 am • linkreport

Being outside of the car bubble helps one to connect to the area they live in. Only at walking speed can one really take in and contemplate the countours of the land, the details of the buildings, etc. That being said, no one is pushing anyone into any life style. Last I checked, there isn't a shortage of roads, shopping and living options for who ever preferes their car over walking or mass transit. I'm just glad the options for the non-car dependant are increasing. Plus, it'll actually put more money in the economy when you factor the 5K or so a year having a car takes out of one's yearly budget.

by Thayer-D on Oct 7, 2010 11:35 am • linkreport

@snowpeas - "female" what? If you're a woman please say so. "Female" could be anything (seahorse, holly tree, electrical device). Its also the term slavers used for human beings they didn't consider human-precisly b/c its dehumanizing. Ones humanity, gender and status of maturity is easily communicated by the terms "man", "boy", "woman" and "girl".

by Tina on Oct 7, 2010 11:42 am • linkreport

" Plus, it'll actually put more money in the economy when you factor the 5K or so a year having a car takes out of one's yearly budget"

Tell that to the residents of Detroit.

Very true though. When you look at consumer spending, what you see is at least half of it (off the top of my head, 250 billion) is basically cars. That is far bigger driver (no pun intended) of the "car free" or "car lite" lifestyle than anything Hollywood could do.

Since the car industry is so concentrated in the middle of the county (and yes, even transplants) you have a massive transfer of wealth going on. Is that good or bad?

Ancedotally, Americans don't know how to take car of their cars. I see far too many cars now with dings, rust, etc that aren't being repaired. Those cars won't last. So what is a sustainable level -- the 10-11 million a year we are at now, the 18 we were at a few years ago -- who knows. But I suspect we will see a bubble in few years as these badly maintained cars die.

by charlie on Oct 7, 2010 11:45 am • linkreport

I just have to say, as pro urbanist as I am, if I lived in LA and had the means, I would own a car. So I have to give a great amount of credit to Vincent Kartheiser for taking mass transit everywhere in LA (as an aside, in reading the article it sounds like he also lives in a comically small apartment. What is he spending those Mad Men checks on?).

by Steven Yates on Oct 7, 2010 11:49 am • linkreport

While I applaud the move to provide more transportation choices, it will be a failed system if there isn't more focus on neighborhood development. Sure it is great to jump on the bus to get to work but why do I need to jump on the bus to get to the grocery store? Or the park? Or the hardware store? Or a decent restaurant?

That is why I drive a car and think $5k is well worth the price for not having to live my life around an unreliable metro bus schedule.

by snowpeas on Oct 7, 2010 11:58 am • linkreport

Tina, in '80s DC also neatly attired women wearing running shoes and carrying dress shoes were a very common sight on streets, trains and buses. Indeed, I thought it was a Washington thing, like walking on Metro escalators, because I didn't see it anywhere else (not even in Manhattan, where I briefly lived in the late '80s; perhaps the vogue had already passed there).

I'd guess that at some point shoes for women that looked okay in an office and were also comfortable and sturdy enough to wear to and from that office became widely available, but I'm "too male" to actually know anything about such matters.

[Captcha: unbale queries]

by davidj on Oct 7, 2010 12:04 pm • linkreport

@snowpeas

I think most on this site would agree that you should have those things (grocery store, park, restaurant) within walking distance of your house. That's why we support mixed use development.

by Steven Yates on Oct 7, 2010 12:10 pm • linkreport

...focus on neighborhood development. You mean the type that can help bring a grocery, hardware, park and restaurant to within walking distance?

Great for you that you can afford a car. Many people can't or prefer to save for retirement instead. Isn't it both personally and socially responisbile to save for retirment? Why should the transportation, zoning and land use policies make that harder when they could make it easier by helping to create a "Life Witihin Walking Distance" (see Hyattsville Rte 1 development as an example)?

by Tina on Oct 7, 2010 12:13 pm • linkreport

@Tina, Thanks for telling me how to identify myself. You sound like a slaver.

by snowpea on Oct 7, 2010 12:30 pm • linkreport

@snowpeas - Oh snap! didn't tell you. Made a suggestion. Given how you interpreted this OP as "pushing ideas" on you I'm not surprised at your prickly response to me either. Your initial comment seemed to me disporortionately angry in its response to the article about pop-culture.

by Tina on Oct 7, 2010 12:41 pm • linkreport

^"disproportionately"

by Tina on Oct 7, 2010 12:44 pm • linkreport

"Rumors of my demise are greatly exaggerated"

Signed,

The two wealthiest counties in America (Fairfax and Loudon)

by MPC on Oct 7, 2010 12:58 pm • linkreport

@oboe - Considering the "doom and gloom" expressed at the defeat of Fenty by these "wealthy and upper-middle class whites", I expect that they will be the ones who will be pissed off (in 10 years).

Actually, I know a lot of wealthy and upper-middle class whites who voted for Gray. I expect that those who voted for Gray in an attempt to reverse the course of time, hoping that he'd rein in the developments of the 21st century are going to be the disappointed ones.

Seriously, and I don't mean this in any kind of snarky way, but betting that the poor and disenfranchised are going to come out on top over the wealthy and well-connected is something of a sucker's bet.

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 1:03 pm • linkreport

I love this radical new concept of shoes you can "walk" in. What's next? Food you can "eat?" Coats that "keep you warm?"Houses you can "live" in?!

What will they think of next... Never thought I'd live to see such amazing futuristic stuff...

by Cereal on Oct 7, 2010 1:17 pm • linkreport

I love this radical new concept of shoes you can "walk" in.

You must not be--or for that matter, know--a woman. ;)

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 1:22 pm • linkreport

Those aren't just any streetcar tracks, they're either Washington DC tracks with the conduit groove in the middle, or San Francisco cable car tracks with the cable groove in the middle.

by Michael Perkins on Oct 7, 2010 1:54 pm • linkreport

"Signed,

The two wealthiest counties in America (Fairfax and Loudon)"

This comment exposes a deep confusion betweenthe meaning of "debt" and "wealth."
derp.

by Bobby Magee on Oct 7, 2010 2:13 pm • linkreport

MPC:
>The two wealthiest counties in America (Fairfax and Loudon)

Say, aren't those very jurisdictions the site of perhaps the largest rail transit construction project in the country? And doesn't the wealthier hope to use that project to help convert its de facto CBD into a real -- i.e. walkable and transit-accessible, in a word, urban -- downtown? My, what a coincidence!

by davidj on Oct 7, 2010 2:15 pm • linkreport

I went carless for some time while living in the suburbs. I commuted by Metro to downtown DC. Finally broke down and bought a Honda when my non-work life got interesting enough that I often needed to get to places nowhere near a Metro stop.

But there are other reasons to own a car if you're female. Safety being one. I would not walk from the Metro stop to my house after dark even though it's only ten minutes. Yes there are buses but they run only at rush hour and even then are infrequent.

Also safety is an issue with footwear. I once had to run away from attackers in a nice Georgetown neighborhood after dark. Was glad to be wearing my running shoes; the work shoes were tucked into my backpack.

by Lisa on Oct 7, 2010 2:18 pm • linkreport

@oboe No one's betting against the wealthy. I was simply making the point that some of them may become disappointed by Grey's election, suffer a few panic attacks about Rhee and adopt the age old "white flight" back to the burbs.

BTW, I am not buying the idea that most of those moving back to DC fall into the "wealthy or upper middle class" bracket.

by snowpeas on Oct 7, 2010 2:30 pm • linkreport

Michael Perkins - Darn! You beat me to the punch about how the trolley is powered. :-)

Also, the rise of awesome websites like Cycle Chic (http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com/) is a sure sign of a sea change in cultural perceptions of bikes, cars and cities.

by EZ on Oct 7, 2010 2:36 pm • linkreport

Michael Perkins - Darn! You beat me to the punch about how the trolley is powered. :-)

Also, the rise of awesome websites like Cycle Chic (http://www.copenhagencyclechic.com/) is a sure sign of a sea change in cultural perceptions of bikes, cars and cities.

Offtopic: my captcha had an umlaut in it! How am I supposed to type that?!?

by EZ on Oct 7, 2010 2:38 pm • linkreport

This comment exposes a deep confusion betweenthe meaning of "debt" and "wealth."
derp.

Yea, I forgot that you're smarter than the economists at the Census Bureau.

If you know anything about anything (which I doubt you do) you would know that I am referring to median household income.

Derp.

@davidj

You do know that there is more to Fairfax County than Tysons and Reston, and more to Loudoun County than Dulles Airport, right? I don't see what your comment has to do with anything.

by MPC on Oct 7, 2010 2:42 pm • linkreport

BTW, I am not buying the idea that most of those moving back to DC fall into the "wealthy or upper middle class" bracket.

I'd take that bet. The latest census numbers for 2009 just came out on 9/28. The *median* income in DC proper is now $60k. Look at the where the percentage growth in household income came from: http://bit.ly/cyun4X From 2006, it's all households making $100k or more. Every other grouping has either fallen or held steady.

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 2:52 pm • linkreport

Holy crap. Looking at the historical data, the median household income in DC in 2003 was $42k. In 2009, it's a hair shy of $60k. That's an increase of, what, about 50% in six years?

Forget 'The Plan', and DC's trending away from being majority African American, those income numbers really are more shocking than I imagined. Maybe I'm reading this stuff wrong. Disclaimer: I am not a professional demographer.

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 3:03 pm • linkreport

EZ: I think ReCaptcha actually is ok if one letter is incorrect. Also, sometimes it gives you one word that it doesn't know about yet, and in that case it doesn't care what you type. It decides what the word is based on what people type in when it gives it to them, so if you type it without the umlaut and so do others, then it will start accepting that for other people.

by David Alpert on Oct 7, 2010 3:09 pm • linkreport

Incidentally, you can type umlauts very easily:
On a PC:
ö = hold ALT then 0 2 4 6 using the NumPad.
ä = hold ALT then 0 2 2 8 using the NumPad.
ü = hold ALT then 0 2 5 2 using the NumPad.

On a Mac:
Option + U then whichever letter you want umlauted.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 7, 2010 3:15 pm • linkreport

Ah, I see that didn't work as well with GGW's font.

Anyway, the first one (ALT 0246) = "o"; the second (ALT 0228) = "a"; and the last one (ALT 0225) = "u".

by Matt Johnson on Oct 7, 2010 3:19 pm • linkreport

Yeah, Oboe, those notoriously high DC taxes are really driving away wealthier residents. Wait, what?

by davidj on Oct 7, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

Clearly Mr. Johnson and I have vastly differing definitions about the term "very easy."

opt+u is, byzantine number sequences not so much.

by PJ on Oct 7, 2010 3:40 pm • linkreport

@PJ:
It's all in the muscle memory (but I prefer the Mac version, too).

When I first started learning to type (in 4th grade) it was impossible. How was I supposed to know where the Q was without looking?

Now, I don't even really have to think about what I'm typing. It comes out all on its own. Since I minored in German, it didn't take too long for my fingers to remember the ALT codes.

On the other hand, since the Y and the Z are transposed on a German keyboard, that's a bit difficult to relearn. Good old QWERTZ keyboard.

by Matt Johnson on Oct 7, 2010 3:48 pm • linkreport

Glad to see the pendulum shift to supporting both sets of lifestyles. However, I take my argument to an even more out there premise, what if we built our suburbs with a true town center in the middle. We go ahead and build with trees, sidewalks and maybe even some bike lanes. In our cities, we build family-sized garden apartments, some with garages underground and some sort of necessary enterprise (supermarket, dry cleaner, heck, maybe even an elementary school) on the ground floors. Since this is DC, (and the same would go for any other city in America save NY/CHI, nothing would be higher than 15-30 stories. Also, we remember our parks. We keep our buses clean and our trains well oiled and working. We work on paying people fairly and sustainably. Schools and parents would teach kids that are successful no matter their pursuit.

I know much of this is pipe dream, but still, if we worked for this, and also had safety for women, children and elderly, and true diversity in the neighborhood, we would satisfy far more of the population. I'd rather push for something better and more equitable than all rather than throwing in the towel.

by Kristen on Oct 7, 2010 4:54 pm • linkreport

@Kristen,

But you're describing a set of outcomes, not a set of strategies to get there. The first thing you would need to do is create a Scandinavian-style social safety-net. Of course, because of our fucked up federal system, and the ridiculous influence of a large number of sparsely populated rural welfare states (SD, ND, ID, etc, etc...) such things are unlikely to ever come to pass.

by oboe on Oct 7, 2010 5:09 pm • linkreport

Pop culture is the US' propaganda vehicle. One it's deeply enrooted in pop culture the paradigm shift is underway.

By 2025, TOD will be an accepted, "average" (in terms of norms and acceptable popular ideas) way of life.

Congratulations. The paradigm shift has taken hold.

by C. R. on Oct 7, 2010 6:04 pm • linkreport

I apparently read the Mad Men article completely differently from just about everyone else.

The successful and good-looking actor said he had trouble dating w/o a car b/c women 'expect certain things'. Preach it, brother.

As a (former) car-less person, you _can_ date/etc. just about anywhere, but it's _always_ more work -- a lot more work -- up front, and after -- in short, not having a car hinders development of relationships bigtime.

If you live in near-in DC, not such a big deal. I've visited friends in Arlington/Ballston/Clarendon, missed the last train home, and decided to run back to downtown - no problem. But do that in the burbs, and you'll run into stretches of massive, dark roads with no shoulders, no sidewalks, nothing interesting to see, etc. -- and it will be a really long distance, relatively speaking.

Now that I drive, I have the luxury of saying, "Yeah, I rode my bike down here/downtown" -- which translates to "Yeah, my car is at home" and/or "Yeah, I'm not a loser" because now she won't have to confess to her friends that her new interest "doesn't have a car" but "he's a computer guy" so "I think he's just an eco-crunchie or something."

How you like that psychoanalysis? :)

The visible and audible "Ohhh!"s from women, after they find out I do have a car, seems like this massive sigh of relief on their part -- not all of them, just most of them. And wow -- if I could have captured the many moments when women found out I did _not_ have a car -- as awkward/uncomfortable as they were priceless. And yes, I've had girls basically just bail when they found out I didn't drive.

So, the lesson? Become like Facebook -- the number one job of any cultural phenomenon with force is the ability to help people have sex. You solve that problem and you've got a winner on your hands. :)

So, more and better bike facilities that not only provide protection/safety but a feeling of protection/safety -- including and especially cycletracks on the most major corridors, especially the most major corridors.

For the record, I'd say the general quality of my life, since returning to being a driver, has skyrocketed. It's hard to put a number on, but I'll say this -- just about every aspect of my life is easier, better, more enjoyable and fulfilling, etc. That's not hagiography of driving, that's a severe condemnation of a brutal landscape, physical and otherwise, that has effectively forced otherwise-decent people to drive.

by Peter Smith on Oct 7, 2010 7:21 pm • linkreport

For those mentioning women only like to date men with cars, I won't disagree with you if you live out in Fairfax, or Germantown or another place without many public transportation options, but if both parties live in the city or one of the densely packed suburbs (Arlington, Bethesda, Silver Spring) then both parties are probably used to a car-light, or car-free life. I don't own a car, and my boyfriend does not for large portions of the year (he will lend it to his brother for internships, etc). I love not having a car and if we were to break up I would have no issue dating someone else without a car. The only issue is if they lived far out from DC (Fairfax, Gaithersburg, etc), but that would be an issue even with a car because who wants to spend great amounts of time traveling just to see their significant other for maybe a couple hours before having to turn around and drive (or take public transportation) back a distance. Most people date locally for this reason.

As far as why I initially moved closer to public transportation, and an issue I don't normally see expressed is that I enjoy drinking. I go out one or two nights a week (and when I was younger substantially more than that). Having public transportation as an option allows me to drink without worrying about how I am going to get home, or driving home drunk. And as we all remember from either childhood (MADD) or even just a couple weeks ago in Adams Morgan, driving while intoxicated is a very bad idea. Instead of the police always focusing on not driving drunk, why don't they try to focus on ways to go and have a good time without worrying about having to drive after wards?

by Ashley on Oct 7, 2010 11:06 pm • linkreport

@oboe 3:03p.m.

After adjusting for inflation (using CPI-U data), the 2003 DC median household income (in 2009 dollars) was $49,108, so there has been a 21% increase in real median income over those 6 years.

At the same time, the median household income for the U.S. as a whole (in 2009 dollars) has gone from $50,794 to $50,221, a 1% decrease.

Another way of putting it is that, in 2003, DC median income was 3% below US median income, but in 2009, it was 18% above US median income.

Fairfax County is of course still a lot richer than DC, with median household income in 2009 of $102,499, but that grew only 8% in real terms from 2003, so DC is gaining on Fairfax County. Same with Prince George's County, which had median household income in 2009 of $69,974 (about 18% more than DC), but had no growth in real terms since 2003.

by rock_n_rent on Oct 8, 2010 7:45 am • linkreport

I am no economist, but if low-income folks are moving out of DC to the burbs to make room for those with higher income, then of course the median income will rise.

BTW, $100k/yr income in DC prop makes you neither wealthy nor upper-middle class.

by snowpeas on Oct 8, 2010 10:02 am • linkreport

Call me old-fashioned, but I still think of households with income >= $100k as upper-middle class, given that the US median HHI is $50k, and as best as I can tell from a quick Google search only 5.2% of Americans made between $75k-$100k, and only 11.5% made over $75k.

Sure it's more expensive to live here than the hinterlands, but if you live in a household where you're drawing $100k+, you're objectively on the upper-end of the middle-class.

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 10:23 am • linkreport

but if you live in a household where you're drawing $100k+, you're objectively on the upper-end of the middle-class.

Can you "objectively" tell me there the 'upper-end of the middle-class' begins and ends? Don't waste your time, because you can't.

Maybe you don't know the difference between subjective and objective. Perhaps you should read up on that.

Now, if you're interested in performing real economic analysis rather than just make lazy armchair assessments, you would know that the most logical thing to do would be to see where 100K sits in relation to both the total distribution of income, and cost of living. They even have websites where you can get the data! Census Bureau and BLS!

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 10:43 am • linkreport

in any case if one can reasonably get around without being "pushed" into buying a car (because other transport options are available) one has more money to spend on dinners out in decent restaurants and gadgets at the hardware store. This spending helps the economic development of the neighborhood and the greater community.

by Tina on Oct 8, 2010 10:51 am • linkreport

@MPC:

Now, if you're interested in performing real economic analysis rather than just make lazy armchair assessments, you would know that the most logical thing to do would be to see where 100K sits in relation to both the total distribution of income, and cost of living...

Not sure if it's an eyesight thing, or a reading comprehension thing, but in the comment you responded to, I wrote:

"...as best as I can tell from a quick Google search only 5.2% of Americans made between $75k-$100k, and only 11.5% made over $75k."

Granted the 5.2% figure is a bit irrelevant, but what part of 11.5$ made over $75k are you missing? We can argue semantics all day long, but if "top ten-percent total" doesn't mean "upper-middle" to you, I'm not sure I'm the one with the difficulty understanding multi-syllable words.

Or perhaps you're one of those conservatives for whom "upper middle-class" is synonymous with lifestyle accouterments, and tracks with the size of your flat-screen plasma TV and the grade of granite counter-top in your kitchen.

'Cause that's not subjective at all. Anyway, from your previous posts I gather you're some sort of movement conservative, and I know how central it is to you guys' political strategy to define middle-class upwards, until Bill Gates is "wealthy" and everyone else is "solid middle class", so I want you to know, I at least understand where you're coming from.

[Bit cranky. Stupid beautiful day outside.]

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 11:15 am • linkreport

"...as best as I can tell from a quick Google search only 5.2% of Americans made between $75k-$100k, and only 11.5% made over $75k."

You are aware of the fact that income distribution varies from region to region, right?

You are aware that you were talking about relative income levels in DC, right?

Who cares about national income levels at that point? Are you planning to buy property in Nebraska? A car in Idaho? Vegetables in Arizona? I would imagine that you do most of your shopping in the DC area...

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 11:22 am • linkreport

@ MPC $100K household income places you in the upper quintile of US households. It's upper middle class for any reasonable definition of the term.

by jcm on Oct 8, 2010 11:26 am • linkreport

@ MPC $100K household income places you in the upper quintile of US households. It's upper middle class for any reasonable definition of the term.

How many of your purchases do you make outside of the DC area? Do income/price levels of vegetables in Utah matter to you at all?

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 11:34 am • linkreport

You are aware of the fact that income distribution varies from region to region, right?

Yep, of course, the difference in things like groceries are trivial (http://cgi.money.cnn.com/tools/costofliving/costofliving.html).

The only significant disparity is in housing costs, but housing ain't groceries--people pay differing amounts, and get different things for that money. Buying a 2 bedroom house in DC area is not the same as buying a 2 bedroom house in suburban Omaha, is not the same as buying a Ford Focus in Tuscaloosa versus Laurel.

I suppose if you live in a suburban housing tract, there's no difference, but if you live in DC (or Chicago, or New York), you get something for that housing premium over and above access to the job market.

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 11:41 am • linkreport

How many of your purchases do you make outside of the DC area? Do income/price levels of vegetables in Utah matter to you at all?

You keep saying that, but do we really know that a red pepper in Utah costs *significantly* more than a red pepper in my local Trader Joes? And when I say "significantly" I mean enough to result in bumping my monthly grocery bill up by $100-200 bucks? Heck, I'm willing to admit I'm wrong in the face of evidence, but I bet it wouldn't be more than $40-50 per month.

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 11:46 am • linkreport

Incidentally, CNN's Cost of Living calculator shows that the cost of groceries would be 3% less if I lived in SLC, Utah rather than Bethesda-Gaithersburg. Penury!

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 11:48 am • linkreport

Good for Utah. The region in particular doesn't really matter. All I'm saying is that taking pan-national data on price levels and income are not that effective b/c people usually make money & shop in only one region.

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

@ MPC The median household income in the DC area is about $60K. If you are making $100K, you're well above average, even here.

by jcm on Oct 8, 2010 11:57 am • linkreport

If you are making $100K, you're well above average, even here.

Thank you for your subjective opinion.

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 12:01 pm • linkreport

If $100,000 is upper middle class in DC then it's at the very bottom of the upper middle class.

I don't have a car payment and taxes, 6% into 401K, a small 1BR downtown condo, utilities, food, transportation, gym membership only leaves me about $800/mo for everything else. I'd hardly call having $10K/yr beyond the basics to spend/save the epitome of upper middle class. Like I said, if it is, then it's the lowest rung of upper middle class.

On the otherhand if I lived in another metro area the money would go much further. The guy who makes 100K in Wichita is much better off.

by Jason on Oct 8, 2010 12:01 pm • linkreport

@jcm (psst before mpc ridicules your right to be alive for making a small error: median is not mean(average)). Depending on distribution they (median and mean) can be signifincantly different. For me, I'd be more informed to see the income distribution by quartiles and mean/ quartile.

by Tina on Oct 8, 2010 12:07 pm • linkreport

Thank you Jason for helping me show that inter-regional comparisons are tricky.

But according to JCM, you're "well above average"...

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 12:08 pm • linkreport

@mpc-I don't know the mean. If it is around 60k (it likely is) then 100k IS "well above average" not matter how you feel about it.

by Tina on Oct 8, 2010 12:15 pm • linkreport

@ MPC It's funny that an hour ago you told someone to look up objective vs subjective, and then you describe my claim that 100 is greater than 60 as subjective. Here's a little drawing I made for you.

0-----60---100

@ Jason If you compare yourself to other well educated professionals, then you may not feel like you're doing so well, but that's hardly indicative of your place in society overall. I just recently read a blog post from a U Chicago law professor. He and his doctor wife apparently make $450K a year, and they don't fell particularly well off either.

by jcm on Oct 8, 2010 12:22 pm • linkreport

@ Tina Good point. I can't find any data on the mean, so i'll adjust my contention and say that $100K is well above the middle. And I, too, would love to see the MSA quintile data, but I can't find it anywhere. Either Google is letting me down, or the census doesn't publish it.

by jcm on Oct 8, 2010 12:29 pm • linkreport

I'm beginning to think that, for MPC, "objective" is defined as "what I want to hear" and "subjective" is "that with which I disagree. I understand now where the disconnect was.

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 12:31 pm • linkreport

@oboe-

There is no absolute definition of middle class, let alone upper-middle class. However you look at the issue is thus subjective.

I personally don't care how you define it, but just remember that it's your opinion.

I'm beginning to think that, for oboe, economics is tough and that you're just not really all that keen at quantitative thinking/logic.

It's ok. not everyone can be smart.

by MPC on Oct 8, 2010 12:35 pm • linkreport

2009 data on Washington SMSA:

http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/MYPTable?_bm=y&-context=myp&-qr_name=ACS_2009_1YR_G00_CP3_1&-ds_name=ACS_2009_1YR_G00_&-tree_id=309&-redoLog=true&-_caller=geoselect&-geo_id=31000US47900&-format=&-_lang=en

(I apologize, I do not know how to paste this as a hyperlink)

Median household income $85,160
Mean household income $109,552

Those making more than $200K are 11.4% of all households
Those making more than $150K are 22.2% of all households
Those making more than $100K are 42.0% of all households

To get back to the original point of the discussion, this was Oboe's observation that the ranks of those with household incomes above $100K have swollen disproportionately in the District. Does it really make a difference to say "the wealthy are moving to the District" or "those with relatively higher incomes are moving to the District"? The underlying reality is still that median household incomes are rising much faster in the District than elsewhere in the metropolitan area.

by rock_n_rent on Oct 8, 2010 12:48 pm • linkreport

I don't know how making above average income puts one in the "upper-middle class" and to define a class based solely on income makes not sense.

by Snowpeas on Oct 8, 2010 12:48 pm • linkreport

@jcm

It took 10 years in the workforce to climb up to the $100K strata. I couldn't even afford to live on my own without crazy craigslist roommates until I earned over $75K. There was a lot of hard work and sacrifice to get where I am. I'm not flush with cash. I just finally have sufficient financial means to live on my own in a very small place downtown. So forgive me if I don't buy this definition that I'm comfortably in the upper middle class. I actually don't even make that much more than policeman I know and no one ever labels policeman as upper middle class. After you factor in their pensions their compensation is probably more advantageous than mine...

by Jason on Oct 8, 2010 12:51 pm • linkreport

There is no absolute definition of middle class, let alone upper-middle class.

Ok, I can agree to leave it there. Seems there are two camps: those who believe lower-, middle-, and upper-class correspond to some objective brackets along the income scale, and those who believe (as I alluded to earlier) that there is some arbitrary set of "goods" that folks need to be able to get that make them middle-class.

The first group is describing groups based on income distribution, the second is describing self-identification based on the internal state of individuals. Fine. You just threw me by grabbing the "objective" mantle when it's pretty clear you mean the exact opposite.

by oboe on Oct 8, 2010 12:59 pm • linkreport

@rock-n-rent those numbers for households (including >1 earner)? or individual incomes?

by Tina on Oct 8, 2010 1:06 pm • linkreport

@Tina:

This is for households. Total of 1,986,757 households in the metropolitan area, and total of 3,096,427 in the civilian labor force (includes the unemployed but looking for work, excludes armed forces members, which would add about 40-50,000 more). Comes out to an average of 1.56 workers per household.

The American Community Survey apparently does not have numbers for individual incomes.

by rock_n_rent on Oct 8, 2010 1:18 pm • linkreport

@Tina - (you said) Maybe you're both too young and too male to remember and/or have lived through it, but the 1980s-style career woman wore running shoes and carried her pumps to put on once she was at the office.

Yup, we did that in NYC, unless I miss-remember it, the fashion originated there when there was a major Transit strike in the late 70s!

Sadly, I recently saw an ad in a fashion magazine for foot-and-soul-destroying stiletto heels that mocked the 80s look.

by Teeny Gozer on Oct 17, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

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