Canada's leading newspaper has published an anti-transit rant, by Brian Lee Crowley of the "non-partisan" MacDonald-Laurier Institute. It's based on the work of the Texas Transportation Institute, a leading source of studies that view cities from behind the wheel of a single-occupant car. It's filtered via Wendell Cox, who's made a career of car-centered advocacy.
I analyzed TTI's work more patiently here, so I'll cut to the chase now. TTI believes that traffic congestion is a valid measure of people's ability to access the resources of their city. They do not measure actual travel times for all people, or the liberty and economic opportunity that a good urban transporation system offers. They apply these things as factors to a degree, but their bottom line is road congestion.
Specifically, their metric is the difference in travel times, by car, between travel time on congested roads and the same roads in a free-flow condition. In other words, their baseline utopian condition is abundant free-flowing roads at all times of day. (That condition is actually an economic impossibility in a city above a certain size with a healthy economy and no road pricing.)
Once you insist on measuring congestion, and against that fantasy baseline, you can get absolutely everything backwards.
Portland, Ore., has pursued road-skeptical policies similar to many major Canadian cities. The result is markedly worsened commuting times. According to the TTI, over the past 30 years Portland has gone from having the 47th worst congestion in the U.S. to the sixth worst.
"Markedly worse commuting times" is false. If you count everybody's commuting time, Portland is ahead of most US metros. As the next sentence reveals, it is only congestion that is worse. Yes, like all dense cities, Portland has exactly as much congestion as it makes room for, but it has low overall commute times, mostly because its carefully mixed density allows many people to commute very short distances. Remember, if you are measuring car congestion, Portland's transit riders and cyclists and the many people who can walk to work simply do not exist. Crowley disses "congested" Vancouver for the same reason, even though Vancouver is the only Canadian metro where the long-term trend is toward shorter commute times, due to continued consolidation of housing and business around transit.
So how should an activist respond to this kind of talk from the asphalt-and-petroleum echo chamber?
Everyone should know how to respond to articles like this, because we'll keep seeing them. The comments on the article ("Wendell Cox is an idiot") are not encouraging. Wendell Cox is not an idiot. He is part of a reactionary process that accompanies every revolution, one that we'll hear more from. He's a smart man who knows exactly what he's doing.
Take time to understand the point of view. Many people's brains are so fused with their cars that to them, congestion really is the same thing as urban mobility or urban liberty. To them, the TTI is right.
So first you have to object by shining light on that premise. TTI, and by extension Canada's leading newspaper, believes that certain people do not exist or do not matter — namely everyone who already travels by transit, bike, or foot, and everyone who can imagine choosing not to drive in the face of real and attractive choices.
But then, avoid the trap of casting these excluded people as an underclass. Too many activists fall into that Marxist reading, and issue a call to arms on behalf of "ordinary people." They get through to people who already agree with them, but to the dominant business culture they look like an easily-dismissed-or-manipulated rabble. Instead, read Edward Glaeser or Bruce Katz and understand that people who are investing in low-car "congested" cities are the leaders of the new information economy.
A good retort to road-lobby claims that life is really better in Houston than in Vancouver is to check the cost of comparable housing. If it were has hard to get around in Vancouver as TTI suggests, people wouldn't pay a fortune to live there. Transit-rich cities are expensive, in part, because many people there can get around without being stuck in congestion. High costs of living, in turn, are the market telling us to create more places just like that. This is the free-market argument. It is the only one that will break through to the business mind and start conveying that maybe there's something to all this transit-oriented investment.
The TTI will last at least as long as the Tobacco Institute, and it will sound just as scientific in praise of its product-centered world view — in this case, a world in which only motorists count. So you have to question the world view. If an argument is based on a false remise, don't engage the argument, because in doing so you're accepting the premise. Attack the premise.