Friday, January 3, 2014

The Congestion Hamster Wheel: Choose Your Own Adventure

I was asked today to weigh in on a new study put out by the Reason Foundation suggesting that 'roads, not transit, is the way to reduce congestion.'  We'll unpack all of that in a little bit, but first you should understand that it's linked from the Houston Chronicle's 'Highwayman' blog if you want to understand how deeply their transportation reporter actually cares to dig into the real issues.  But, as one of my favorite professors in school drilled into me, we must first understand who is doing the study and what their motivations might be.

Always look for their angle, those that might oppose their angle, and then decide which makes the most sense.  But you also need at least 10 peer reviewed studies, not just one or two, to begin forming an informed opinion.  Do not simply accept that which makes you feel better about an issue nor reflexively falling somewhere in the middle because that also feels good.  We face incredibly difficult issues in the 21st century, many of which haven't even begun to show their full face/force.  They're all too important to be taken lightly.


Understand that the Reason Foundation is a pseudo-libertarian thinktank that hinds behind the cloak of perceived objectivity that the word libertarian provides.  The assumption is that "libertarian" objectively seeks to put public dollars to the best and only best possible uses, rather than merely maintain the status quo.  Their MO is to counter studies with studies and muddy the waters so that we all presumably fall somewhere in between because it feels warm and fuzzy to be in the middle of often one if not two wrong polar opposites.

Always follow the money.  And then if there are "studies" check where their sources come from.  The oldest trick in the book is to fill the endnotes/footnotes with a million sources to conceal the fact that it is really the same circle of groups citing each other in pretend scientific endeavors.

Reason is primarily funded by the who's who of front groups and foundations all supporting various semi-libertarian causes in the pursuit of "free markets" but really are about coercing car dependence, producing captive markets for the oil and gas industry, and maintaining the inertia of public highway investment.

The two largest donors on the books are from the Koch and Scaife families (and even the other foundations that donate tend to also get money from the various network of Koch and Scaife foundations that are legally obligated to donate money to causes every year.  They often end up just donating to other foundations which then donate to the same causes.  Hence, the 20 or so foundations that all donate to groups like Reason.).   Seriously.  Click on any of the donors to Reason and chances are you'll find a network that leads back to Koch or Scaife inherited money.

You surely know quite a bit about the Koch's and their (daddy's) money made through the oil and gas industries.  If you don't know Richard Mellon Scaife, let me introduce you to a Pennsylvanian who also was born on third base, having inherited the majority of his fortune from Mellon Bank and Gulf Oil.  He has since become a mini-, but much more secretive, Rupert Murdoch, buying up media outlets like Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and NewsMax, making them both absolutely horrendous outlets for news, but terrific mouthpieces for his personal and political causes (that no sane person actually listens to).  Furthermore, Scaife's various web of foundations buy up hundreds of thousands of books from authors such as Ann Coulter to ensure they get up to the top of New York Times BestSeller lists and stay there.

In other words, the Koch's and the Scaife's are people who skew facts, promote pseudo-science for personal gain, and oppose real opportunity and choice, which you would think to be true libertarian causes.

So that's where the money comes from, what about this particular mouthpiece.  Reason has a history of skewing stats about the efficacy of transit and its ridership.  And for the last nail in the coffin, if it's actually needed, you may remember the Reason Foundation in the 1990's as one of the mouthpieces for the tobacco industry arguing that second hand smoke wasn't bad for you.  Reason is Clay Davis and "they'll take anybody's money if they givin' it away."  And they'll take whatever position you want them to.

So what about this particular study?

I'll admit.  Yes, roads lead to less congestion.  It's also the wrong question to be asking.  Because while more road investment (particularly in highways which is what is being promoted here) also leads to huge public debts and deficit spending, increasingly high rates of car-dependence, reduced safety for citizens, diminished environmental quality, and reduced money in every household's bank account.

The first and last points are the ones that matter here.  High public spending and debt (which the road lobby is trying to corner) and increased spending on transportation by every household via compulsory car ownership (money the road lobby is also seeking to separate you from).  Clearly this is not about wise public spending.

Why is congestion an irrelevant bogeyman?  Because it is the nature of the city as a human invention to allow and encourage interaction for social and economic exchange.

Furthemore, the entire study is flawed because it is all based on Texas Transportation Institute's (TTI) Travel Time Index.  This metric  has been thoroughly debunked for valuing speed over other considerations, like reduced cost (to public entities building the infrastructure or to private households that have to spend to get between their destinations) or reduced energy and thus more efficient trips.

What does valuing speed suggest?  Well, to TTI it means efficiency.  There is little slow down on your way via whatever theoretical congestion there might be.  The reality is, that it favors cities with high transportation infrastructure burden (lane miles per capita) since there will be less congestion on the roads.  It pushes cities and states toward building ever more highways so that we can get a little higher on their "congestion" rankings.

For a second, let's play their game about time as a priority.  First, know that almost every city in the country is going to hover around a 30-minute average commute.  This gets to a couple of concepts.  First, is the inherent push-pull tension of city's and how they organize themselves.  We want about 20 or so minutes between where we work and live.  Enough time to prepare or decompress before/after work.

Such is the basis for Peter Newman's hour-wide city theory.  Every city will be about a half-hour in radius using the primary forms of transportation.  The question is, what forms of transportation do we build for/allow, which then determines behavior and in turn real estate patterns.

Furthermore, what is time and convenience?  Walkable places aren't walkable because of sidewalks (no matter that Next City clumsily refers to me as 'supporting sidewalks').  They're walkable because of proximity.  Or a better word, propinquity, which is the proximity of lots of things in relation to each other.  All of our daily needs within 20 minutes.  If I can walk to everything I need, I'm going very slowly.  But it is healthful for me, healthy for the city, uses very little energy (for me), and takes very little cost for public infrastructure.

Barcelona is one of the easiest places to get around, because of propinquity AND an incredibly efficient, if aging, public transit system.  The headways are minimal meaning you have a very short wait between trains and there aren't too many stops between destinations (like in Madrid).  What is really efficient for the public and private sectors?

Congestion Crusaders point to numbers like "the country wastes $110 billion per year in congestion delays."  Which is bullshit.  Because we spend way more than that trying to address the problem that even if we do make a dent is minimal on a per capita basis.  Furthermore, that $110 billion per year is miniscule compared to the costs of car dependence, where this country wastes about $3 trillion a year just to get from here to there.

In other words, basing this entire report on a useless if not fraudulent metric undermines the conclusions they draw.  Even though they are technically correct.
The real question is whether you want to be Detroit?  Would you like your city to look like this (which hilariously and without irony was used in the Chronicles blog post)?

It's not a question of congestion or no congestion.  That's the three card monty game they're trying to pull, making congestion out to be this big bad bogeyman, because, who likes sitting in traffic?  No one.  So they've got their built-in straw man argument.

Detroit's congestion problem is solved.  That is one way to solve congestion.  Build so many big highway roads that the city becomes so unwieldy, overburdened, and undesirable that every leaves.

Another way to solve the problem is how Vancouver, New York, and Copenhagen are doing it.  Getting people out of cars.  Vancouver refused to build highways through their urban core and have been reducing vehicular congestion for the past fifteen years or so as they promote urban living (recapturing tax base from the 'burbs) and alternative, more efficient transportation like bikes.

Vancouver doesn't have much congestion because people on foot or bike don't take up much space.

Cities are congestion machines, economic reactors that fuse ideas and markets into new wealth and opportunities.  The question is whether you have or don't have the choice of how you want to live, how you want to get around, and how your city looks, feels, and operates.  Listen to Reason and you lose those things as car dependence increases as well as your city's ability to function as a wealth and prosperity generator for more than just the top of the oil and gas food chain.

I don't even need to get in to how inefficient the public spending is towards endless highway construction, long-term infrastructural debt burden, and reduced tax base.  Because that is precisely what Reason and their benefactors are afraid of.