a glimpse into the road lobby’s echo chamber, and how to respond

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.

17 Responses to a glimpse into the road lobby’s echo chamber, and how to respond

  1. Morgan Wick December 29, 2013 at 12:47 pm #

    Would it work if I said this: “Portland does very well in terms of average commute time [cite source]. How is that possible? Because TTI only measures car congestion, so the commute times of people who commute only by transit, walking, or the like aren’t directly factored in.” Or will that not compute with people who only see transit as a means to reduce car congestion, or will that just be dismissed as Marxist rabble? I do feel like any argument needs to include explaining that it is possible to live without a car and how it might be desirable.

  2. Jack December 29, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    Hi, Could I have the source that Portland has low commute times. I’m curious to compare US cities by commute time.

  3. GlobalTom December 29, 2013 at 5:29 pm #

    Houston: low travel time index + low density = 60 minute commute at 60mph.
    Portland: high travel time index + high density = 10 minute commute at 10mph.

  4. anonymouse December 29, 2013 at 7:22 pm #

    Be careful arguing about housing prices in Houston vs. Vancouver, because the standard reply to that is that Vancouver is so much more expensive because it restricts new construction more than Houston does. But Houston also has one of the most popular streetcar lines in the US, which recently expanded into more of a full-fledged light rail system, so it’ll be interesting to see what effect that’ll have on housing desirability and development.

  5. Jarrett December 29, 2013 at 8:03 pm #

    anonymouse! Houston doesn’t have a streetcar! It has light rail!

  6. TransToronto December 29, 2013 at 9:04 pm #

    According to Statistics Canada, the Census Metropolitan Area (CMA) of Toronto has a land area of 5,905.71 km2 with a population density of 945.4 persons per km2, while Vancouver’s CMA has a land area of 2,882.55 km2 with a population density of 802.5 persons per km2. These numbers show that Toronto’s CMA has more than double the area, and an 18% greater density compared to Vancouver’s CMA.
    However, also according to Statistics Canada, the average commuting times by car or public transit (PT) are fairly close:
    Toronto (by car): 29 min vs Vancouver (by car): 25 min
    Toronto (by PT): 49 min vs Vancouver (by PT): 48 min
    The above shows us that in a city double the size, and with higher density, its urban transportation system is more efficient, mainly because of a much better road network, and probably better transit network. No wonder Vancouver is commonly ranked as the most congested city in Canada.
    The continuous development of an extended and efficient rapid transit network is key in the livability of a major city. However, the continuous development of an extended and efficient road network has, at least, the same relevance. Cities are like living organisms; you can’t choke one of its organs to let another one grow bigger or faster, or else this organism will eventually collapse.

  7. Jarrett December 29, 2013 at 10:13 pm #

    TransToronto. If a city grows horizontally but at low density, it needs lots of roads but still has lots of traffic congestion, and the real problem is simply that things people need are so far apart that people become dependent on unsustainable levels of transportation.
    As a city grows denser, cars matter less and transit matters more.
    Your appeal for balanced investment beats Brian Lee Crowley’s attempt at ideological supremacy. But there is no abstract point of balance.
    There are also a number of objective reasons that the market seems to be preferring denser cities, and the need to drive less is one of them. Others include overall lower levels of transportation-related carnage, higher levels of happiness, and the knowledge that your lifestyle isn’t destroying the future options for human civilization.
    Read. If economics convince you, start with Ed Glaeser’s The Triumph of the City. He makes a compelling case that hostility to the essentials of life in dense cities — including transit — amounts to hostility toward the future basis for economic prosperity in the info age.

  8. TransToronto December 29, 2013 at 10:59 pm #

    Statistics show that low-density cities have far less congestion than high-density ones. In any case, the former is not my ideal urban form. I like to live in mid to high-density cities, and I’m lucky to work at an only 15-20 minutes-drive from home.
    However, this is not the reality of the majority in Toronto, or Vancouver. The forces of market drive both densification and sprawl, since it recognizes the demand and affordability of all economical realities. For many professionals it is desirable and affordable to live in denser urban areas, and closer to work, and/or amenities and necessities in life. But, the people who service these professionals, typically can’t afford to live in those desirable dense neighbourhoods, so they sacrifice commute times for more affordable housing in the suburbs. Many of them live in families that work and study in different parts of the city, and have difficulty in getting a good alternative closer to home.
    That’s why I promote a balanced approach towards transportation planning, since I recognize all these realities. Building cities consist of finding a fine balance between increased density and allowing some horizontal expansion, otherwise it becomes too unaffordable for the majority of its inhabitants. Therefore, this balance requires the acknowledgement for the need to continue growing our transit, cycling and road networks.
    Thanks for your Gleaser’s book recommendation. I’d suggest, though, that hostility to the essentials of life in dense cities has been including transit expansion as well as road expansion. And the info age has not changed the need for a balanced approach towards transportation planning.
    Jose Ramon Gutierrez

  9. spencerrecneps December 30, 2013 at 8:25 am #

    Not sure I understand your last paragraph. How exactly is transit expansion hostile to dense cities?
    Mobility is the lifeblood for all cities. That cars are an inefficient use of space makes them harmful to dense cities, whereas transit offers mobility at maximum efficiency. Jarrett has written many times about the geometric problem inherent in transportation planning.
    As for “affordability”, that term is subject to a lot of personal biases. Does a one-acre lot in Vancouver cost more than one in Houston? On paper, yes. But one could argue that the one-acre lot in Houston benefits from numerous invisible subsidies (expensive “free” roads and parking, environmental degradation, etc.) that Vancouver has managed to tame through different policies. That Houston has adopted urban policies that allow externalities to be heaped on the public sector doesn’t make housing more affordable in an economic sense – it just makes it more affordable to the individual who gets to enjoy their patch of land without realizing the full cost borne by society.
    There may be some intrinsic difference between the two cities (notably geography) that cause housing to be more costly in Vancouver, but I would argue that difference is far less stark than it appears.

  10. TransToronto December 30, 2013 at 10:41 am #

    I suggest you follow up on the conversation with Jarrett, particularly his last paragraph above. You’ll find the context there. I never suggested that transit, nor road, expansion is hostile to dense cities, but others do.
    As for affordability, it is not a matter of personal bias, but what you can purchase or not with your income. Within the same city, it is quite different what you can afford in Vancouver central vs Richmond or Burnaby.
    Nothing is for free, and we pay good chunks of our income into property taxes, gas taxes, sales taxes, etc to pay for all these government services.

  11. D December 30, 2013 at 12:32 pm #

    Thanks for calling our attention to the TTI and offering constructive ways to criticize it. You mention the 2010 CEOs for Cities report, and there’s a graphic for regional commute time on page seven of the PDF:
    If you can excuse the snark, The Urban Mobility Report should be called The Metropolitan Drive-Very-Fast Report. The Time Travel Index only tells us how much time drivers spend commuting in free flowing traffic compared to driving in congestion. A fifty mile commute could achieve a perfect TTI score if there were free-flowing traffic on the roads. TTI and the UMR are more concerned with how fast you drive than they are with how much time you spend driving. This is part and parcel of a systemic error in thinking too much about maximizing mobility instead of maximizing access, which you and Todd Littman have articulated elsewhere.
    Is the inability to drive-very-fast an urban problem? TTI– both the index and the institution–treat congestion as an “urban” problem that needs to be solved. Congestion in metropolitan areas is an acute problem for many suburbanites, but is much less problematic for urban dwellers. We should insist on the term “metropolitan” to describe regions combining urban and suburban places. We make it easier for regional leaders to impose suburban-style solutions on urban areas when we are careless about our categories. For example, expanding freeways and parking requirements in urban areas are supposedly solutions to “urban problems.”
    The UMR is more of an advocacy document than a transportation study. The UMR is designed to whip metro-dwellers into a frenzy about “urban congestion” so that we pressure regional leaders to spend billions (annually per large region) to “solve it.”

  12. Cyclelicious December 30, 2013 at 12:38 pm #

    @Jack: Commute times are available from the US Census Factfinder app. Clikc here and modify the Geography tab if you’d like to see different cities.
    I used Metro areas to compare Portland/Vancouver vs Houston, which shows 25 minutes vs 28 minutes commute times for workers who don’t work at home. I also included San Jose CA because that’s my town.
    If the link to the Census website doesn’t work, I captured a screenshot here.
    I’m sure someobody has broken this down by ZIP code and created a map to show this in graphical form.

  13. spencerrecneps December 30, 2013 at 12:50 pm #

    I think I’ve made out what your last paragraph is saying: hostility to both transit and road expansion is harmful to dense cities. It wasn’t clear on my first read. Mind you, I don’t necessarily disagree with this but I would add a big qualifier: hostility to both good transit and good road expansion is harmful to dense cities.
    There exist misguided transit projects and perfectly sensible road projects. However, in my experience, transit projects (at least in the US) face far more scrutiny and skepticism than road projects. This is especially true if you look back over the last century. Wanna tear down a lower-class but vibrant neighborhood to whisk wealthy suburbanites to their downtown offices? No problem!
    One can’t excuse the history of the wholesale destruction of functioning city neighborhoods across North America in the interest of building highways as simply economic development.
    In any case, I think you’ve missed my point regarding affordability. There are fundamental economic principles (location, location, location) that help to determine the cost of housing. This is why Vancouver is more expensive than Burnaby. I’m arguing that there are also policy constraints that can either force property owners to internalize the social cost of locational decisions or allow a property owner to foist those externalities onto society at large.
    Some examples of the former might be road tolling, maximum parking restrictions, certain types of growth restrictions (to prevent leapfrog development, for instance), etc.
    Some examples of the latter would be “free” roads, minimum parking requirements, loose (non-existent) environmental regulations, single-use and/or exclusionary zoning, etc.
    No jurisdiction will ever manage to perfectly regulate this phenomenon, but I generally translate “X is more affordable than Y” as “it’s easier to make society pay the cost of my personal tastes and preferences in Y than in X”.

  14. Simon Vallée December 31, 2013 at 7:15 pm #

    This article in the Globe and Mail is really a good example of a car-centric vision, assuming that the only reason why transit should exist is to alleviate congestion and so make it easier for car drivers to get around. Transit exists to offer an alternative mobility. But a big issue is that cars are just incompatible with dense cities, they require so much space on the road and so much parking space that cities where most people commute by car just cannot be dense.
    Investing in roads inevitably deprives the central city of wealth. All cities that depend most on car commuting have weak downtowns. Roads, especially high speed roads like urban highways, lead to sprawling, sprawling residential developments and also jobs and wealth. Central cities therefore have a strong incentive to invest in transit, to allow higher density and thus to grow economically. Cities who contribute to building highways in their own urban fabric shoot themselves in the foot and contribute to their impoverishment. See Detroit.
    Investing in high speed road infrastructure has the very bad consequence of making every alternative less viable, it leads to sprawling metropolitan areas where few things are within walking distance of each other, with large roads forming barriers to pedestrians and cyclists. And transit is often uncompetitive with cars on highways. Even rapid transit with a stop spacing of one kilometer is essentially limited to an average speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). It can’t compete with cars driven at a constant 100-110 km/h. Express services can, but they are useless except to go at one point, normally the downtown. But the truth is that these high speed roads don’t even increase capacity, an highway doesn’t offer more capacity than a typical urban city grid, it just offers more speed, a higher speed that results in sprawl. Which ironically don’t lower commute times much, because even if there is less congestion, travel distances are higher, so travel times aren’t affected much.
    If you want a balanced mode share, you need the speeds of the different modes of transport to be similar. That’s why German cities have no highways crossing their urban core, for the most part.

  15. Katie Taylor January 2, 2014 at 11:10 am #

    Excellent article! A good recipe for anyone looking to engage in constructive debate or discussion about a polarizing issue. Thanks!

  16. Ben Smith January 14, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    While most census figures show car commutes to be much faster than transit, these stats are for the entire metro, including both suburban and rural parts of the region. That said, there is plenty of opportunity to make transit faster to compete with the car.

  17. MB January 22, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    I’d like to point out to Trans Toronto above that Metro Vancouver’s census area may indeed be over 2,882 km2, but that includes over 2,000 km2 in three undeveloped forested mountain watersheds, large regional parks, and hundreds of km2 of protected agricultural land spread across 21 municipalities.
    A more precise measure of regional density would be to account for the 830 km2 that the Urban Containment Boundary that encompasses, and accommodating 2,300,000 people within it results in about 2,770 people per km2.
    Toronto may have a similar contrast between protected parks, greenbelts and farms and the developed areas.
    The absurdly high housing prices in predominantly the west portions of Metro Vancouver I see more as simple supply and demand. Vancouver is contained by its mountainous and marine geography and farmland, but it also is a highly desireable place to live, especially to ice-storm pummelled pre-retiree Torontonians looking for a gentler clime without having to do exchange currencies. Foreign real estate speculation is also a factor, but that seems to get all the blame while geography is forgotten in the heated blogosphere.