3.10.11

MODEL BEHAVIOR

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Model Behavior

High-frequency trading has the potential to make markets more volatile than ever. Federico Bandi uses complex mathematical models to find reason—and to predict behavior—amid the chaos. By Mat Edelson

Call it a moment of monetary mayhem that, like a partial nuclear meltdown, could have wrought unimaginable devastation had it run fully amok. On May 6 of last year, at 2:41 p.m., Wall Street’s financial control rods failed, sending the market into free fall. Due to frenzied computer trading, in 300 seconds the Dow Jones average dropped 600 points.
It was a full-out binary panic, the “flash crash” of 2010. Shocked traders watched helplessly as the machines they depended upon unexpectedly took Wall Street to the brink of chaos. Later reports in the New York Times determined that a single trade made in Kansas began this electronic financial fission. It was powered at the trading equivalent of light speed by so-called high-frequency transactions—computerized deals that occurred in microseconds, faster than any humans can reckon.
Such voluminous dealing always creates “noise” in the markets, but in this case the electronic forces—the SEC later found that 140,000 individual contracts had cascaded back and forth in three minutes, culminating in a frenzy of 27,000 trades in 14 seconds—had turned into runaway sell orders that threatened the whole system. The suddenly seismic volatility initiated an automated but uncoordinated set of checks and balances that sent stock prices crashing; according to the Times, a share of Procter and Gamble could be momentarily had for 1 cent. Only another computerized signal coming out of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange created the financial equivalent of throwing boron on the pile: For five precious seconds the cascade was somehow interrupted, long enough in supercomputer time for the cosmic reboot button to kick in and halt the skid.
Within 20 minutes, the Dow had fully recovered the losses sustained in the flash crash, but those who ran the markets were badly shaken. More than 20,000 trades involving 300 securities had to be retroactively cancelled after the close of trading because of their obviously erroneous pricing caused by the crash. The market makers had been jolted into the reality that high-frequency trading was a more powerful—and potentially dangerous—tool than even they had imagined, rapidly implemented but often poorly understood. By their nature, these very trades energize (and perhaps overheat) the markets, creating volumes—and volatilities—unheard of just a generation ago. Even after the market recovered from the flash crash, it went on to lose more than 3 percent on that day, and still no one is quite sure what role the mini-meltdown played in the day’s final tally.
That’s the kind of black hole that market players up and down the line could no longer tolerate, where for unknown reasons the very foundation of every decision they make—the validity of the price of a commodity—could suddenly be called into question. What they needed were whiz-bang types who could get inside the high-frequency trading mechanism, look at the data it created, make sense of the seemingly indecipherable, and help create models in which volatility and market stability could peacefully coexist.
What they needed was Federico Bandi.

***
The soft-spoken Bandi arrived at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School with research that built on the work of New York University’s Robert Engle. Engle's work on market volatilities in the 1980s became the underpinning for many forecasting models, leading to Engle’s Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 2003. What Engle began, Bandi and perhaps a dozen colleagues around the world have built upon. Think of it as Financial Econometrics 2.0: the use of sophisticated mathematical models to predict how individual financial products and overall markets will behave over time. The field has numerous practical applications. For example, financial econometricians seek a financial instrument’s “true” value, such as the proper interest rate on a bond or price of a stock. In regard to a stock price, that could mean creating mathematical models that separate a company’s real assets—the core of stock valuation—from the distortion of temporary pressures, such as a large sale by a major investor in need of cash, that can spook the market but may have little to do with the company’s actual performance. Everyone from hedge fund managers to CEOs to national fiscal policymakers now keep an eye on the discipline, looking to glean from financial econometricians better ways to conduct their business.
When Engle was doing his seminal work—defining the relationship between what occurs over a period of time (aka time-series measurements) and the up-and-down movements of a given market (aka volatility)—financial econometrics was in its infancy, Intel 80286 computers were state-of-the-art, and the focus was on low-frequency trading and financial forecasts measured in days or months. The work was a little bit like figuring out the languid movement of a planet across the heavens versus the frenetic motion of an electron around an atom. The jump to understanding high-frequency trading became necessary as computing power exploded. Newer, faster trading models made their way to the markets, in no small part because each trade meant additional monies to brokers. To put it in perspective, the New York Stock Exchange’s trading volume surged from a high of 100 million shares on a single day in 1982 to 10 times that in 1997, to roughly 2.6 billion shares traded on the day of the flash crash. Some estimates say that perhaps 60 percent of all stock shares currently traded on the NYSE and NASDAQ involve high-frequency computer algorithms. One market watchdog, Tabb Group, estimates that firms involved in such trading earned nearly $13 billion dollars during the last two years of their high-frequency transactions.
Any way you look at it, that’s a lot of market noise. Fortunately, the same computers that make the mind-boggling trading volume possible also allow researchers such as Bandi to make some sense of the cacophony. By bringing to bear his economic intuition and mathematical acumen, Bandi works and reworks what to him is an irresistible exercise: Look at all trades across a given time-span, distinguish meaningful trends from flukes, represent those trends mathematically, account for the right amount of volatility, and see if his models hold true when applied to future trading. What he does is the equivalent of a tourist getting on a packed, noisy subway car at rush hour and amidst a thousand conversations hearing the only one that matters—where the train is headed. By better understanding asset volatility, the markets—and by implication, their computerized trading programs—might be made more impervious to trading shocks that threaten to destabilize them.

***
Sitting in his 13th-floor office at Carey, one sheet of glass comfortably separating him from an oppressive summer morning in the Baltimore neighborhood of Harbor East, Bandi is asked what he tells strangers who lead with that ever-invasive opening salvo: “So, what do you do for a living?”
“I tell them I write mathematical models,” he says, breaking into a big smile, “and that usually ends the conversation.”
       One can understand, with papers titled “Microstructure Noise, Realized Variance, and Optimal Sampling,” “Time-Varying Leverage Effects,” and “Fully Nonparametric Estimation of Scalar Diffusion Models” that Bandi’s work seems inaccessible to an outsider. Yet he insists that higher math aside, it’s not.
“The idea is relatively simple,” he says in thoughtful, measured tones. “There are quantities of items that people are interested in and talk about all the time, like inflation rates, interest rates, and stock returns. You can actually write down mathematical expressions that tell you rather clearly how these objects move around and evolve as time goes by.” Each increment in accuracy can mean the difference between a 401(k) in crisis or a flush retirement fund, or trading algorithms that are more finely tuned to prevent overreaction and massive selloffs.
What makes Bandi unique in his field is that he’s a bit of an intellectual estuary; where many of his contemporaries stick to either the theoretical or the applied side of econometrics, Bandi flows seamlessly between the two. As such he finds himself in a unique position, not unlike Oppenheimer at Los Alamos: a respected leader who converses, based on his own bona fides, with both fundamental and applied researchers, uniting them to move the field forward. (Bandi notes that Oppenheimer’s ilk—physicists—are among the dizzying array of talents drawn from many disciplines who are bringing their mathematical skills to bear on financial econometrics.)
In the classroom, Bandi's verbal and mental dexterity appeals to students, who consistently gave him outstanding marks for his “clear and interesting delivery” of executive, MBA, and PhD course materials while teaching at University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business from 1999 to 2009. 
But it’s the challenge of making hard predictions more predictable that drives Bandi. To hear his passion for his field is to witness someone at the intersection of art and science. As a youngster in Milan, he went to what he calls “a very scientific high school” that first exposed him to advanced math, which became his Rosetta stone as he dug into economics at Yale, where he received his master’s and doctorate. He uses interest rates as an example of applying math to a conundrum. 
Economists believe that interest rates always rise and fall over time. Mathematicians often use the idea of stationarity—a mean number around which a set of data hovers—to predict trading trends. So, for example, if your interest rate on a given day is way above the stationarity point, at some point it should begin to decline toward the mean. But what do you do with that concept when interest rates plunge, and then keep on plunging with no expected cyclical rise, as they have steadily since the 1980s? Now how do you predict where they’re headed? 
“We weren’t seeing much reversion to the mean, and if things aren’t stationary and you’re making long-term predictions, [those predictions] become much weaker,” says Bandi. “That made me think about alternative ways to model interest rates. And I realized there was a friction between what I was observing and my intuition as an economist. At the end of the day, it was hard to believe there wasn’t some stationarity in any interest rate series, that they wouldn’t get back to some level—they’re not going to go down to zero and be stuck at zero forever. Yet the data didn’t account for stationarity, so how do you model that?” 
His answer, in a 2002 Journal of Financial Economics paper titled “Short-Term Interest Rate Dynamics: A Spatial Approach,” employed new methods to work around the stationarity issue and provide a new tool for predicting interest rates. Bandi says these short-term rates are the kind of “underlying object” that for financial product managers play a huge role in “models that are used to price bonds and fixed-income securities.”
This ebb and flow between observed problem and mathematical solutions—or at least propositions—is for Bandi like running the rapids: constantly churning and more than a bit of a rush. When asked where he likes to work, he waves a dismissive hand at his computer screen. “That’s where I answer my emails. The tedious stuff. I like to work in unusual circumstances. Some people find it easier to write down everything on a piece of paper. I don’t do that.” He prefers to hop into his car, flip on anything from classical music to salsa, and think while he drives. Or take a long walk around his D.C. neighborhood and think some more. Or go to sleep... and think still more. And somewhere in all that cogitating—maybe it’s the stimulation of Mozart and Frankie Ruiz—bingo! 
“Being in those everyday situations helps the process because it stays with you, you’re sort of metabolizing it a lot better,” says Bandi. “I’ve had multiple occasions when I’ve gone to bed, thought about something I’m working on, and woken up in the morning with a reasonable solution. There’s nothing magical about it; it’s just an indication that your brain keeps on working.”
While he acknowledges that many respectable authors fall in love with a theory and then find a problem to wrap it around, “that doesn’t suit me. I don’t just work on a model for the sake of it. Usually I go in the opposite direction. I look at the data. I think about the data. I think about a problem that has an applied nature, and the model is the way to address the problem I observe in the data. It may be a strongly theoretical solution, but always to an applied problem. I think that’s the intellectually correct way to go about a problem.”
Some of Bandi’s latest work deals with a new movement in financial data sifting: nonparametric versus parametric models. The latter builds basic assumptions or parameters into the model. For example, instead of looking at every stock trade on a given day, the parametric approach limits the forecasting model to companies that trade between $30 and $50 per share. That’s been the traditional approach. By contrast, nonparametric models essentially reverse-engineer the problem, saying, “Let’s look at all of those trades without constraint to see if we can find patterns in all that data and build predictive models off of that.” The advantage of the nonparametric approach is that it could overcome faulty assumptions built into parametric models. 
To use a baseball analogy, a general manager using a parametric approach might assume that, in a given year, the best hitters in the league are first basemen; he would then ask his computer to pull the batting averages of the top three first basemen so he can decide which one to trade for. But a GM using a nonparametric approach with no assumptions, by looking at every hit by every player in the league, might discover that it’s actually center fielders who are doing the best hitting, and then build a model that figures out which center fielder to target. When applied to high-frequency trading and volatility, nonparametric modeling might take preconceived notions out of the picture, allowing the data to better express its own true tendencies.
With Bandi’s growing recognition within his own field—his papers have been cited in economics journals more than 1,000 times—there’s a sense that his influence is being felt beyond the walls of academia. Former Carey professor Celso Brunetti, who now works at the Federal Reserve, calls Bandi an “elegant” mathematician whose work is well-known by people at the Fed. “One of his main contributions is he basically developed the theory and the application of how to measure the volatility of financial assets,” says Brunetti. “This is a major breakthrough, extremely important for policymakers when they have to regulate markets; for CEOs running a company who want to know the volatility of crude oil, for example; and for portfolio managers because they need to compute how risky is their portfolio.”
And while the Wall Street Journal and other mainstream consumer publications have yet to write about Bandi’s work, Brunetti and others suggest that players in the biggest financial houses are among the cognoscenti. That includes Michelle Yang, a financial engineer in Moody’s Credit Policy Department who says she used Bandi’s papers to help develop trading strategies involving equities derivatives while she was at Merrill Lynch. “[His work] definitely was one of the things we looked at,” she says. “My boss at Merrill knew Federico, and, at Moody’s, my boss’s boss, he knows [Federico’s] work.” 
Bandi’s knowledge is also being sought out directly by market makers as he’s lectured to business leaders in New York, Europe, and Asia. Fellow financial econometrician Torben Andersen of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management isn’t surprised, putting Bandi’s versatility in baseball terms (must be a summertime Chicago thing): “He certainly hits with power to all fields, making his theories relevant to financiers and economists with applications that can easily reach into Wall Street for sure, such as characterizing liquidity.” 
Andersen, who just wrote about the flash crash for the Social Science Research Network, says Bandi’s concepts could help the markets bolster themselves against future incidents, which, given Wall Street’s recent debt ceiling–induced roller coaster, can only be seen as a good thing. Bandi himself notes that when markets start going nuclear, “big spikes in volatility occur precisely when you have big spikes in asset prices,” and it’s an inverse relationship, meaning when markets overheat, prices plunge like, well, nuclear winter. “It’s what I’m working on right now, figuring out the relationship between the changes in stock prices and changes in volatility. It’s not easy.”
No, but it may be the only thing standing between the markets and more meltdowns.

Mat Edelson is a Baltimore-based freelance writer whose feature work has previously appeared in ONE.


1.6.11

SHIFTING GEARS



Can Baltimore Become a Truly Friendly Bike City? Can it Afford not to?  By Mat Edelson 



Bogotá, Colombia, circa 1993, and Baltimore, today: 2,408 miles and a generation apart, yet with reputations more alike than any of our civic leaders would care to admit. The former's very name conjures up ominous visions of Miami Vice-like drug cartels, daily drive-bys, blood in the streets, and a populace terrified into silence. The latter city has had its TV image simultaneously updated and downgraded (thank you, HBO), but all the other props are essentially the same in a city where roving gangs and random violence have created the perception that last call downtown is a call to arms.

Which makes the turnaround that's actually happened in Bogotá so stunning. Consider the numbers. In 1993, in the midst of its murderous miasma, 81 out of every 100,000 Bogatáns were homicide victims. By 2006, that number had plummeted to just fewer than 19 per 100,000. (By contrast, in roughly that same time period, Baltimore's homicide rate went from 48.2 to 37.3 per 100,000—a drop, to be sure, but nowhere near what's happened in Bogotá or, for that matter, the rest of the U.S., where Charm City is number 3 on America's hit list.)

So what did Bogotáns do to take back their city? One imagines Diesel-esque vigilantes hunkering down with clandestinely acquired weapons, a cell-phone-managed resistance with father and son (and mother, and daughter) fighting shoulder to shoulder, their weariness braced by the realization that, finally, they were taking the fight to their oppressors.

Bogotáns did take to the streets by the thousands, although their weapon of choice was one that surely would have made Gandhi or King smile. They did not take up arms. Instead, they rode bikes.

Don't laugh: It's beginning to happen here. And if history is any indicator, turning ourselves into a biking city could be a major force for social change.
***


The signs—or to be more accurate, the sharrows—are everywhere. Ask any cyclist about these international road lane markings—usually two forward-pointing stripes sitting atop an outlined bicyclist—and they'll tell you that they amount to a two-word battle cry: "We belong."

While Congress wrestles with the idea of "Complete Streets"—a 2009 bill by that name, aimed at making all streets accessible to cyclists and other non-motorized users, ultimately died in committee—policymakers are still targeting bicyclists as key players in transforming neighborhoods. Last March, Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, perhaps caught up in the moment, eschewed the speaker's podium and jumped on a table at the packed National Bike Summit in Washington, D.C.; he was there selling the Livable Communities Initiative of 2010 by announcing that President Obama planned to set aside federal money for bike paths. (The bill never got to the floor, but Obama hasn't slashed those funds in his proposed federal budget.)

LaHood told the assembled D.C. biking advocates that he and his wife spent every nice weekend cycling on the 200-plus-mile-long C&O canal. "We ride [the canal] as far we can," he said.

"Pittsburgh?" called out some of the seasoned riders in the crowd.

But in truth, it's not going to be the hardcore, spandex-clad, 3-percent-body-fat cycle hounds that lead this extreme urban makeover. While these lean, mean, veering machines prove, by sheer persistence, that people-powered vehicles can breathtakingly navigate even the most car-coveted thoroughfares, if there's to be a biking revolution in Baltimore—or anywhere else in this country—it's more likely to take place at space-normal speed, among waistlines as accustomed to donuts as Diet Pepsis.

Think of it as the bell curve of potential ridership. On the far left side of the bell, representing perhaps 10 percent of cyclists, are the hale and hearty sorts. "We call them the 'Kamikaze Cyclists,' the bike messengers, and, frankly, people like myself who'll ride no matter what the conditions are," says Greg Cantori, executive director of the Knott Foundation and former president of Bike Maryland. On the other end of the curve is a group, Cantori says, "who won't ride no matter what." But between those two groups, there's a large group—perhaps 60 percent of the population—who will ride if the right incentives and safety protections are in place.

Experience has shown across the world that if cities create a solid infrastructure, biking can catch on extremely quickly in a populace seeking alternative forms of transportation. Call it the sardine effect: The little critters, before they end up in those tin cans, like to swim in one direction, but studies show that just 15 percent moving against traffic can cause the entire school to shift en masse.

In Baltimore, Bike Czar Nate Evans (his official title at the city's Department of Transportation is Bicycle & Pedestrian Planner) has done a quarterly ad hoc riding census, standing on relatively busy bikeways such as Falls Road and Maryland Avenue. The citywide numbers speak of a small but growing ridership, up 35 percent in 2010 over the previous year, according to Evans, who puts the total number of daily commuters at "maybe a thousand." That's progress, but as a percentage of total commuters that's pretty paltry: The much-maligned Light Rail draws, at last count, 36,300 daily riders; Metro pulls 56,800; and buses 232,857, according to the Maryland Transit Administration.

As an aggregate, one wonders what bicyclists' numbers have to be to achieve some kind of critical mass.

***

Which brings us back to Bogotá. It would be hyperbole to say that biking alone rid the city of its drug wars. Better police deployment and training in high-crime areas, numerous at-risk youth programs, and a push to use mediation to resolve citizen disputes certainly played a pivotal role. But getting people to feel comfortable that the streets were truly theirs to use, almost as a right of citizenship, can't be discounted.

And that's where Ciclovia comes in. Roughly translated as "Bike Path" or "Bike Road," the Ciclovia concept—a temporary closing of streets to all cars—had been around Bogotá since the '70s, more as the exception than the rule. In the mid 1990s, Gil Peñalosa saw the Ciclovia as just the unifying force the population needed. As commisioner of Bogatá's Parks and Recreation, Peñalosa closed more than 70 miles of city streets to cars every Sunday morning for seven hours. By 2000 the Ciclovia was so popular—more than a million Bogotáns took to the streets each week—that it lead to a permanent, extensive bike network around town.

Antanas Mockus, an associate professor at the Universidad Nacional de Colombia who served two terms as Bogotá mayor, wrote in a lengthy 2004 paper that citizen "ownership" of the city was a key to deciding what kind of behaviors would no longer be tolerated. He noted that, among other improvements, "important investments in ... special roads for bikes and pedestrians have helped to celebrate citizens' identity and to fix some [cultural] norms."

Gil Peñalosa's brother Enrique was mayor of Bogatá from 1998 to 2000. He saw bikes as the great equalizers of the haves and have-nots. "We created ... a protected bicycle path network," he said in a 2007 interview. "[That] is a symbol that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important as one in a $30,000 car." Between the Ciclovias and the permanent bike paths, within six years, Enrique Peñalosa says ridership in Bogotá went from negligible to some 400,000 bikers daily.

Gil Peñalosa now works to create Ciclovia events around the world, including a growing number of American cities. Across the country the names may differ: "Sunday Streets" (San Francisco), "Sunday Parkways" (Portland, Oregon), "CicLAvia" (brand-crazed Los Angeles), "Bull City Open Streets" (Durham), "Walk + Roll" (Cleveland). Nomenclature notwithstanding, the events consistently draw crowds in the thousands, opening the eyes of citizens and civic leaders. Worldwide, there's evidence that the commitment that can begin with Ciclovia-style events can change a town's commuting behaviors, even in cities with relatively tight streets, like Baltimore.

"In San Francisco, the businesses were against the Sunday Bikeways," says Gil Peñalosa of the once-a-month closures first tried around the ritzy Embarcadero area in 2008. "All of a sudden the same businesses realized they were doing better on that Sunday when they were open to people walking and bikes and closed to cars. Now, the business community is asking the mayor [to close the streets to cars] every Sunday."

Similarly, business owners in Seville, Spain, supported the establishment of bike lanes physically separated from car traffic when a Chamber of Commerce study revealed that 21 percent of the shopping downtown was being done by those 6.6 percent of Sevillans who chose to regularly ride their bikes.

One need go no farther than D.C.'s 15th Street, NW, to see the viability of such segregated lanes. There, running from U Street down to the White House are two dedicated 3½-foot bike lanes that run adjacent to the curb. The cars formerly parked there have been moved farther into the street, serving as a barrier between biker and traffic. A little creative street striping and thigh-high flexible plastic inserts keep all players in their place; timing on pedestrian signals has been changed so bikers—if they obey the signals—can't be hit by crossing traffic. Total cost? Relative to the normal multi-million-dollar street projects, it wasn't that expensive. "A few hundred thousand dollars," says former Baltimore bike messenger Chris Holben, who is a bicycle program specialist in D.C.'s Department of Transportation.

D.C. has also created the Capital Bikeshare program, a permanent on-the-street consortium of 114 rental pick-up and drop-off bike stations that attracted some 11,000 annual members (at $75 each) and 30,000 one-day users in just its first seven months of operation.

Of course all these efforts take money (some $5 million for the Bikeshare initial outlay, which is expected to break even over time) and lots of planning (Holben uses everything from traffic congestion charts to D.C.'s public commitment to reducing its carbon footprint to make his case for biking). And ultimately, Holben says it takes someone with serious juice in a city to make it so. "You need a council member or mayor to be the champion. And you really need a champion if there's opposition, someone who is not going to worry about getting voted out of office."

Biking does have those champions—former San Francisco Mayor and current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York—who seemingly by dint of will turn desire into reality. (How else do you explain a man who decided that, in the country's arguably most congested city, he would take away lanes of car traffic and parking on 9th Avenue, giving bikers a safer, separated thoroughfare through the Big Apple? Even against vociferous opposition, the lanes have stayed put.)

It's been a long time since anyone in Baltimore had that kind of unifying force. Former Mayor Sheila Dixon, renowned for her biking forays around town, didn't have the time—or perhaps the desire—to make cycling a central focus of her administration. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is considered middle-of-the-road on the issue. The results? There's no doubt that biking in this town has suffered, relative to the rest of the country, because it lacks a single, high-visibility advocate. In a very real sense, Baltimore's just beginning to kick off its training wheels.

***

Given Mobtown's notoriously fractious nature, it seems only de rigueur that the push for biking here is coming from many small but determined voices, as opposed to a shout from on high. Like free-floating ions, these biking proponents aren't always the most cohesive lot, but it's not for lack of trying. And there's a chance—just a chance, mind you—that they could coalesce into a mighty powerful front.

The pieces are nearly all in place: From the growth of cycling competitions to the recognition (and city funding) of infrastructure improvements, the consciousness for the potential of biking in this town has probably never been greater. More than 1,300 riders participated in last year's thirteenth annual regional Bike to Work Day, a 30 percent jump over 2009. Other regular events such as Tour Dem Parks and the availability of some 39 miles of off-road trails and 77 miles of city bike routes are drawing greater numbers to local cycling clubs and regional organizations such as Bike Maryland.

Kris Auer has seen the city's cycling verve grow geometrically in the last decade. The owner of Hampden's Twenty 20 Cycling Company, Auer, who has raced all over the world, introduced cyclocross (a pace-changing circuit course that includes on- and off-pavement riding) to Patterson Park in 2001 and has run the Charm City Cross races annually in Druid Hill Park since 2005. An event that at first drew 250 riders on one day now pulls nearly 1,500 over two. "We're one of the largest events in the country," he says.

This taps into a trend long known among Baltimore-area bike shop owners: Competitive cyclists, particularly American Tour De France winners such as Greg LeMond and Lance Armstrong, have spurred interest in all levels of local riding. Throw in other pressures and cultural shifts—rising gas and downtown parking prices, the various green movements, ever-growing traffic congestion—and the business and political communities are beginning to recognize consumer demand. According to surveys by the League of American Bicyclists, the percentage of cycling commuters jumped 43 percent between 2000 and 2008, with Portland, Oregon; Minneapolis; Sacramento; Washington, D.C.; San Jose; Milwaukee; Chicago; and Anchorage all at least doubling their ridership.

Baltimore is doing its share, up 75 percent in the same time period. Bike shops here have long promoted commuting to work (Alex Obriecht, owner of three-decades-old Race Pace Bicycles, gives his employees a dollar for each way they bike to work, which they usually put toward more biking gear), but larger commercial entities are now catching on. In front of Constellation Energy's Market Place offices, the bike racks are jammed every day. Constellation economist Peter Rosenthal says there were hardly any bikes there just four or five years ago. "In times of high gas prices, the bike is a great equalizer," he says. "You can find a bike for a hundred dollars and not have to pay anything else to get where you're going."

It falls upon the city's Nate Evans to help ensure riders can get there safely. Buried deep inside the City's Department of Transportation data cloud is Baltimore's Bike Master Plan. Evans has the unenviable task of trying to connect the dots, and he's been forced to take an entrepreneurial approach. Three years ago, Evans became the first (and to date, only) full-time city employee (he has a part-time assistant) whose primary responsibility is getting bikers on city streets and getting them home in one piece. His budget on day one was $1.5 million; since then it's been slashed (hello, recession) nearly in half.

To stretch his bucks, Evans has learned to play piggyback. Whenever a road-resurfacing project is on the transportation department's book, Evans tries to get, at a minimum, some bike lane striping and sharrows laid down. (So if you're wondering why bike lanes suddenly appear and then disappear, well, there you go.) In theory, given enough time and enough lane resurfacing, the city's bike lanes will eventually knit together to provide riders with some sense of continuity.

But unlike D.C., the plans for now call for riders to share the road with cars. High-profile on-road cycling deaths, such as that of 67-year-old John R. "Jack" Yates in Charles North, and serious injuries, such as those of Johns Hopkins student Nathan Krasnopoler, have highlighted the potentially dangerous nature of such road arrangements. To make that situation somewhat safer, Evans has created signed biking networks along less traveled routes in areas including Southeast Baltimore and Park Heights. Construction is also set to begin on a new north-south route running on relatively lightly traveled Guilford Avenue from University Parkway to Mt. Royal Avenue.

While one can't blame Evans for working with the hand he's been dealt, the lack of political will to create completely segregated lanes at least along some major north-south and east-west routes is distressing to many riders. City Hall's response could best be characterized as good intentions but, to date, incomplete (to be kind) follow-through. Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke, a biking enthusiast, introduced seven biking bills in 2009 either enacted or adopted by the city. These included a Cyclists' Bill of Rights, a "Complete Streets" approach to road planning, requirements to install bike-friendly storm grates on city streets, and "BMore Streets For People"—Baltimore's official adoption, according to the bill, of Bogotá's Ciclovia program, which had been tried on a small scale in Roland Park earlier in 2009 (and again in 2010), attracting some 1,000 participants.

The initiatives have been battling inertia or downright resistance from the start. Despite the police department's pledge to work with the city on BMore Streets, it reportedly wants to slap a $35,000 fee on coordinators who wanted to expand the event to include a 12-mile loop from Lake Montebello to Druid Hill Reservoir. "That's just not sustainable; you're not going to be able to have that kind of event every few weeks," says Bike Maryland Executive Director Carol Silldorff. "Other cities have allowed crossing guards or trained volunteers [to control intersections] so it almost costs nothing. We want to work with the police, and I think they want to work with us, but until their fear of liability is diminished, the price will be too outrageous for us."

Switching storm grates would seem to be a simple enough fix: Turn the grates 90 degrees, perpendicular to the lane, so a rider's tires won't get stuck in them, destroying the wheel (and sometimes the cyclist) in the process. And yet, when Public Works was initially approached about changing or adapting the storm grates, they threw up their own roadblock, requiring the Mayor's Bicycle Advisory Committee to produce documentation showing that the new grates would conduct water. "We said to them, 'Every other city in the country is putting in this newer design'; and our Public Works was saying, 'Oh, no, that doesn't have sufficient water flow,'" recalls Greg Hinchliffe, who chairs the committee.

***

Biking in Baltimore is clearly at a crossroads. The opportunities are there (as are the bike racks—some three hundred of them since Nate Evans showed up), but so are the impediments. The deciding factor may ultimately be found in the distinction between livability and survivability. Eventually those terms, when relating to the city's viability, might become synonymous. If the future of any city is, arguably, its youth, then catering to those aspects of city life they desire—and being bike-friendly certainly ranks up there—could economically sustain a city such as Baltimore, which currently is seeing its best and brightest prospects leave, post-college, in rates higher than comparable cities.

"Companies, if they decide to move to or stay in Baltimore, are looking at who is here that's educated, young, talented, and available," says Mary Pat Clarke. "A lot of young people commute and get around on bicycles. If that's the case, let's become a bike-friendly city, encourage this as a city for young people."

Maybe what biking comes down to is a two-wheeled prescription for health, for both Baltimore and its citizens. It may well be a ride worth taking.

—Urbanite contributing writer Mat Edelson's first bike was a banana seat Schwinn on which he learned to ride wheelies and skid to a perfect, rubber-burning stop.

12.4.11

RACE VS. PLACE

From Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine (Spring 2010)

 

Race vs. Place

Can an integrated neighborhood in Southwest Baltimore help overturn decades of race-based assumptions about the origins of health disparities?


From both terra firma and Google Earth's satellite view of the world, census tracts 1902 and 1903 are entirely bleak, drained of color and vitality. Street after street of this impoverished Southwest Baltimore neighborhood reeks of unrelenting hardscrabble existence, of teenage mothers, cigarettes and sodas in hand, walking the same cracked pavement as prostitutes and drug dealers, all within eyeshot of millionaires' homes and Baltimore's major league baseball and football stadiums.

"Half the people out here have guns," admits a 15-year-old of this area bordering on Washington Village, known to the locals as Pigtown for the 19th-century swine that used to be herded through its streets...

(Read the rest of the story here: http://magazine.jhsph.edu/2010/spring/features/race_vs_place/page_1/)

MISSION MAN

From Johns Hopkins Public Health Magazine (Special Malaria Edition: 2011)

 

Mission Man



Philip Thuma’s lifetime in rural Zambia makes him uniquely qualified to combat malaria. But can his wildly successful model work without the man himself?

 

The numbers are stark: what they represent, potentially incredible.

In a tiny corner of southern Zambia, more than a day’s walk from the nearest hint of a modern town, malaria has gone from a scourge to almost—but not quite—a memory. In fact, the figures coming out of this bush area known as Macha would be unbelievable if they hadn’t occurred elsewhere before. In the 1950s in Sri Lanka, and the 1990s in Zimbabwe, malaria was brought to its knees through massive government control programs. But the moment those efforts ceased, the disease rallied to pre-control heights and far beyond.

By contrast, Philip Thuma and his colleagues have taken malaria from the leading cause of infant mortality in Macha to a place where they've reduced its prevalence by 98 percent— and those numbers have held for nearly seven years.

Which begs the question: What's so special about Macha ... and can its success ever be defined, let alone duplicated?

(Read the Full Story at http://magazine.jhsph.edu/2011/malaria/features/mission_man/page_1

Archives

FROM HOPKINS MEDICINE MAGAZINE  (SPRING/SUMMER '08)

THE PROTECTORS...by Mat Edelson

Child abuse cases arrive in the pediatric emergency department with heartbreaking frequency. Meet the medical team that’s first on the scene.



The pre-schooler bouncing around Exam Room 3 of the pediatric emergency room is that iridescent combination of precociousness and politeness uniquely the domain of garrulous 4-year-old girls. “I need to wash my hands,” announces the child, gently peeling a pink butterfly sticker off her tiny right hand. Moments later, washed and dried with two towels (“Two at a time!” she squeals), her beaded, neat cornrows disappear under a window shade. “Look!” exclaims the slightly muffled voice, whose owner is now staring up into the dusk. “The Moon! It looks just like a cookie!”

The observers in the room laugh, but the girl’s mom is not among the smiling. In fact, mom’s not even in the room. She’s 50 feet away, on the other side of electronically secured double doors that she could not breach if she wanted to—and she most certainly does. For while she is known to the little girl as “Momma,” to the two security guards, one police officer, two social workers, crime lab photographer, nurse practitioner and pediatrician who stand between her and her baby, the woman now wears a far more ominous moniker: Alleged abuser...

(Read the full story at: http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/hmn/s08/feature2.cfm)

TAKE TWO CARROTS AND CALL ME IN THE MORNING

FROM HOPKINS MEDICINE MAGAZINE, WINTER 2010

TAKE TWO CARROTS AND CALL ME IN THE MORNING

Eating the right foods and spices—and avoiding the wrong ones—could go a long way toward staving off everything from gut ailments to cancer, say Hopkins experts. They share their tips for stocking a health-promoting pantry.

By Mat Edelson

 "Let medicine be thy food and let food be thy medicine." — Hippocrates

Ever since man first climbed down from the trees (or, depending upon your view, plucked that apple off that tree), eating has never been far from his mind (survival has a way of prioritizing everything). Given that sustenance equals life, food and health have culturally ridden shotgun throughout the ages. "Good men eat and drink so they can live," noted Socrates. "Eat, drink, and be merry!" commanded Solomon. "You’re famished. I’ll make a plate!!" pleaded my mother.

And, most likely, yours.

In the days before medicine, food was medicine…or at least it was seen as such. A browned apple for an upset stomach, chicken soup for congestion, champagne for septicemia (Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Eudora Welty said her Mississippi father swore his use of the bubbly saved her ill mother’s life). It was sometimes hard to establish cause and effect (Garlic as an anti-vampiric? Hard to find test subjects), and yet generations of pantries held foods sworn to bind, purge, ameliorate, instigate, invigorate…in short, improve one’s well-being...

See the complete story at:
http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/hmn/w10/feature2.cfm

4.3.11

firt post / template

As a famous TV shrink once noted, the key to a full life is "A little song, a little dance, a little seltzer down your pants." I take my work, my writing, seriously. Me? Not so much. After 30 years in the journalism game, I'm using this blog to step out from behind the third-person curtain. Opinion, essay, informed reportage...I can't guarantee what you'll see from day-to-day, but I promise I'll give it an honest turn and a unique take. Let me know whatcha think.

Thanks, as always, for your time and consideration,

Mat