Major Think Tank Implies You Don’t Exist

Ums-2015-featureEvery year, the Texas Transportation Institute’s Urban Mobility Scorecard describes the nation’s most transit-intensive and walkable metro areas as having terrible “urban mobility”.  And every year, academic experts and smart journalists attack its indefensible methods and assumptions.  And yet, every year, careless journalists describe the report as though it were news about the state of "mobility" or “commuting” in America. 

But you don’t need to study the analysis to understand what’s wrong with TTI's claims.  All you need to do is look at their press release or summary, and notice that they want you to think of car congestion as equivalent to poor urban mobility

When you use words with different meanings as though they were interchangeable, you are denying the existence or relevance of people who are included in one meaning but not the other.  

Political rhetoric plays this trick all the time.  When scientific or academic rhetoric uses it, you should be suspicious.  It's one of several types of rhetorical annihilation.

In this case, the people being erased are anyone who moves about in cities (urban mobility) but does not experience congestion.  These include anyone who organized their lives so that they can walk to work, and of course anyone who cycles or uses public transit– at least those transit services that are protected from congestion such as most heavy rail, light rail, and busway services.   (And in fact, the report itself is interested only in the travel time of “auto commuters,” so all transit riders are excluded.) 

If you are one of these people, you do not count as part of your city when the TTI tallies your city’s “urban mobility."  Any subsequent commentary about the economic impact of “urban mobility” problems refers to an economy in which you do not exist.

This has been pointed out to TTI many times, including four years ago at a CNU conference workshop I attended.  Many of us said then that if TTI wanted to write reports about car congestion, an  appropriate name would be Urban Car Congestion Scorecard, not Urban Mobility Scorecard.  They have had ample opportunity to rename their report to describe what it really is, the, so we can only assume that the confusion they are sowing is intentional. 

Meanwhile, when you hear two different terms being used interchangeably, stop and ask: “Who is in one of these categories but not the other?”  Because those are the people the writer doesn’t want you to notice, even if you’re one of them. 

(Yet another reason to hire literature students!)

11 Responses to Major Think Tank Implies You Don’t Exist

  1. Dexter Wong September 1, 2015 at 2:55 am #

    Really? I’ve read their summaries for years and came away with the idea that Texas Transportation Institute feels that a good public transit system is essential for free-flowing traffic. Without public transit there would be much more auto congestion. I started reading their work because my “favorite” anti-transit advocate always held up their work as his proof until they started advocating for transit (not that they would take it, just that it took extra drivers off the road).

  2. P September 1, 2015 at 10:45 am #

    Jarrett, I think if you wrote a book on ‘How to Think and Read Clearly!’, I and a lot of other people would buy it.
    Always impressed how lexical gymnastics can throw so much light on aspects not apparent at first glance.

  3. RossB September 1, 2015 at 12:59 pm #

    So this begs the question — is there are a good report that focuses on urban mobility? It seems to me that one of the essential parts of a report like that is to focus not on distance, but human interaction. That is essentially the definition of “urban” — how much human interaction there is. So, if it doesn’t take long to get together with another person, then the place is fairly mobile.
    A good example is Manhattan. Even if there was gridlock in the streets and a transit strike, it would be fairly mobile. Tens of thousands of people can get together within minutes just by walking a few blocks. This is much better than, say, Moses Lake. Moses Lake may have a nice transportation system, but if thousands of people tried to get together in one spot, it would take them a very long time. When you consider that Manhattan does have a subway system and buses, and is connected to millions of other people (who can ride the subway or buses) New York City would probably be at the top of the list.
    But as you move down the list, some surprises might occur. Washington DC has horrible traffic, but a very good transit system. But how would it compare to a city that has weaker transportation, but more density? I think the results would be very interesting (although very difficult to gather).

  4. MaxUtil September 1, 2015 at 2:21 pm #

    @Dexter Wong – There’s a couple issues here. First is that regardless of whether they “advocate” for transit, they way they define urban mobility just looks at auto congestion. This is not even a good way to measure mobility for drivers because it values long distance driving at high speeds over situations where you can travel short distances easily.
    Secondly, if you define transit in terms of ‘reducing auto congestion’ it will always fail. This is not what transit is supposed to do nor is it terribly successful at it.
    In general, the problem with the report is that they are defining “mobility” in terms of a very particular type of movement (basically people driving in the suburbs to the city center.) That leaves out huge numbers of people and completely misses how other aspects of city design and policies can affect everyone including drivers.

  5. Kenny Easwaran September 1, 2015 at 5:48 pm #

    I’ve now been at Texas A&M for a year, and I got to slightly know someone who is involved in preparing this report. He said that they were working on some sort of way of including conditions for people other than car travelers. This year’s report doesn’t seem to give any indication of that, but I do hope that eventually some of the lower level employees do get more of a say in the direction of this annual report, since there do seem to be some important distinctions in perspective. (The person I talked to has been involved in College Station’s bike/ped plan, which has been relatively good for a town that is still focused on suburban development.)

  6. Jarrett September 1, 2015 at 9:54 pm #

    RossB. Look at David Levinson’s work, Access across America.

  7. Gary Nelson September 2, 2015 at 5:30 am #

    There is a whole industry fixed on the state of roads to the exclusion of the rest of geography and ecology. The rest makes it too complex and multi-dimensional. This is not so much about the need of our simple minds to fragment a big world as it is the delusion that something could be done about parts of the world as if they objects of plans.

  8. RossB September 3, 2015 at 8:05 am #

    Thanks Jarrett — that’s exactly what I wanted.

  9. Justin September 3, 2015 at 8:18 am #

    Another issue is that is only measures congestion rather than total travel time and makes no account for sprawl. So, a 30 mile trip to work that takes 30 minutes is better than a 10 mile trip to work that takes 20 minutes. It’s not a measure of how long it takes the average driver to get to work, is a measure of how fast the average driver can go.

  10. Jacob Simmons September 7, 2015 at 11:06 am #

    For what it’s worth, it seems criticism of the TTI Mobility Scorecards is catching on: in a graduate-level transportation planning class a few years ago, the instructor raised essentially the same objections to the report. It is fair to say that the class consensus was that the report’s methodology and approach certainly encourages sprawl.

  11. Marc September 8, 2015 at 6:24 am #

    To add to Gary’s comment, this TTI example reminds me of the analogous example of the media reducing the issue of improving infrastructure (ports, water and sewer systems, electrical grids, passenger and freight lines, sidewalks, etc.) into an issue of simply “fixing roads and bridges.” Given all the flak the media gets for being NYC or DC-bubbled, you’d think they wouldn’t be as susceptible to windshield-vision like the TTI, and yet they are.