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Wednesday, June 06, 2007

What A Day For Stats!

I just had to rant somewhere.

This page called Truth About Traffic displays some of the most disgusting bending of statistics I've seen in a while.

They're going over the top to make themselves look non-partisan and community oriented. Their name, their dot-org URL, and their mission statement are all trying to scream "look how neutral we are!" Yet if you look at the organizations they link to (let alone their own content), they're blatantly conservative and supporting a very narrow, anti-community worldview.

Now, if you take their "traffic quiz", on their purportedly neutral site, you are given multiple choice right-or-wrong distorted, or just plain judgmental, answers.

First off, they take facts that happen to correlate and try to assign causal relationship between them, like blaming adding light rail for making the traffic congestion worse (not, say, more cars on the road!). One questions asks, "STs [sic] light rail plan calls for taking the center express lanes on the I-90 Bridge. How much will this reduce congestion on the bridge?" Now, this one is brilliant, because their "correct" answer is to a different question: "WSDOT estimates bridge efficiency will drop by 25 to 30 [percent]". Note that that doesn't say anything about the actual congestion, just the theoretical capacity. "If you remove lanes from a bridge, will it have more or less lanes?" Hmm, let's see. Never mind the whole idea is for fewer people to drive across the bridge.

Better yet, their next question: "With completion of the light rail in 2030, traffic congestion will be reduced by?", and the answers are 5%, 10%, 50%, or "Traffic congestion will double." Um, do you think this might be due to the population increase, and not the light rail? Are you seriously trying to say that the increased transit alone will be responsible for increased traffic more than twenty years from now?

Also, note that the first section is actually supposed to be done in 2009 (maybe that will still be later, but it's a far cry from 2030). I don't know what you call "done" in an ongoing process of trying to improve general transportation in the area, but this was probably the furthest out figure they could find.

Second, their future tax figures are blown up based on projected future inflation, making them seem absurdly high.

Third, the options they give for the question "Most riders of light rail will come from?" reflect just the kind of inflexible problem-solving that I was guilty of - it's only car or no car at all: one of their answers is "People making the decision to give up their cars and ride the light rail." As I just read before finding this site, 79% of Metro riders have a car. Also, I don't know where they get their purported "correct" answer that "More than two-thirds will come from those now riding the buses", but I cannot imagine that it's reliable. There are just too many easy ways to mess with this. The estimation method alone could probably produce almost any value, and I'm sure they didn't pick one that had any kind of dependence on a critical mass of public transit, or more people being willing to try transit as the traffic gets worse and the transit get nicer, cleaner, and faster? And even still, what about the new third, which we can safely say is a minimum? And what about the reduced crowding on buses, which might make some people take the bus more often? (If you don't think that's a real concern, talk to cyclists who won't cycle on Bike To Work day because there isn't space on the bus to put their bike.)

Oh, yeah, and test is timed, with a counter accurate to the 100th of a second. That doesn't give me warm fuzzies toward the site either.

Now, I'll admit I don't know about the numbers they give about the budget and time overages, but that is a separate problem: bad estimation. Just because a feature takes longer than you figured doesn't mean it's a bad feature; it just means you need a better estimate, and you should evaluate the feature based on the more accurate cost. The voters in 1996 may well have been sold on a false figure, both in money and time, but that alone doesn't mean we should abandon the project and wind up with another monorail (which we ought to fix if we're this close already, but never mind that for now). They cite a figure of $6.3 billion now, which I can't seem to find supported in some basic poking around online (I found $2.1 billion as the new total cost of the project, and that it's currently on schedule, but who knows about that either - I certainly don't believe the other side of the debate is above reproach either). Are they including a bunch of peripherally related costs, like the outrageous figures that were bandied about not long ago for bike improvements? (Those included, for instance, the entire cost of repairing and repaving a street with a bike lane, not just the portion of the cost that would cover the bike lane itself.) In fact, it appears they are guilty of this very sin: one question asks "Sound Transits [sic] newest light rail and roads package will cost?", and the answer given is "$38 billion or $57,000 per household,less [sic] than 1 percent of commuters will use it." Less than 1 percent of commuters will use any part of the proposed roads package? Oh, and how many years is that figure taken over, and in what year's money? If it's til 2030 (and they don't say, but let's use their number just for fun), that's just under $2500 per household per year. Remember that your share of the current national debt (not inflation adjusted, not making any projections) is over $20,000 (figures varied by site, and that was the lowest - straight division of debt/population gives a little over 29k each). Chances are, you're paying less than amount/people of any cost funded by taxes, so even if $2500 were an unreasonable transportation maintenance cost (which I don't believe it is), don't worry, you're not paying that much yourself.

The sites "Truth About Traffic" links too probably deserve even harsher bashing. One (with an even more grandiose name) blames the unaffordable housing in San Jose on the "failed city planning" including light rail. Um, huh??? Have you considered that maybe it's expensive because it's a good place to live? Heard of the tech boom? Another has a "Myths vs Facts" which lists as a myth "New roads only fill up with more traffic" and the corresponding fact as "New road miles fill up with traffic because there was either a previously unfilled demand or because that roadway offers a quicker route. The general failure of our road system to keep pace with increasing traffic is the biggest reason why the few new road miles that have opened were quickly used to capacity." If that were the case, land would not suddenly rise in value when a new freeway is proposed to its vicinity. People make more effort to live closer to work and other things they care about getting to if the roads won't take them as fast. We certainly do have unfilled need in this area, but people base their decisions on where to live and where to go based on the realities of the situation, including choosing to live farther away and drive if that's the easiest or apparently cheapest thing to do.

There are plenty more: "Greenhouse gas CO2 emitted during construction of light rail is not compensated by reduced motor vehicle emissions until more than 40 years of light rail operation have passed." Well, sooner would be better, but I figure I'll still be around and trying to live on the planet in 40 years.

I usually hate this sort of bashing since it contains far more judgment than actual evidence or information, but I couldn't resist... this kind of thing makes me really mad. Screaming and pretending not to is worse than just openly screaming.

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