Transit Investments and the Failure of Randal O’Toole’s Short-Term Thinking

The Los Angeles Times' recent story about transit ridership ...
The Los Angeles Times has been making a recent dip in transit ridership out to be a devastating failure. Graph: LA Times

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a big story to the effect that the region’s major investments in transit are not paying off, since ridership has recently declined.

But there are a lot of problems with the paper’s analysis, which Streetsblog LA looked at last week. Jarrett Walker at Human Transit has also taken issue with how the LA Times published sweeping conclusions about long-term investments based on just a year or two of data.

When professional transit critic Randall O’Toole seized on the LA Times piece to characterize transit investment as wasteful, Walker put together an epic rebuttal.

The claim that transit ridership has peaked, Walker points out, relies on a dubious reading of the numbers:

When he tells us that ridership “peaked,” he’s confessing that he’s playing the “arbitrary starting year” game. To get the biggest possible failure story, he compares current ridership to a past year that he selected because ridership was especially high then. This is a standard way of exploiting the natural volatility of ridership to create exaggerated trends. Again, the Los Angeles Times article that got O’Toole going made a big deal out of how ridership is down since 1985 and 2006, without mentioning that ridership is up since 1989 and up since 2004 and 2011. Whether ridership is up or down depends on which past year you choose, which is to say, it’s about what story the writer wants to tell.

The biggest flaw in O’Toole’s argument is the failure to think beyond the short term, Walker writes:

Imagine if we had built the Interstate Highway System with this attitude. Oops, we just spent billions on a freeway to newly developing suburbs, but not many people are driving on it yet because the suburbs are still under construction. Surely the O’Toole of the day would have said that those highway planners are fools!

We’ve arrived at what’s really at stake here in this obsession with short-term outcomes. O’Toole begins from a deep hostility to the very notion of long-range planning, at least when done at the level of the city or community, and I hear this more and more from “conservative” voices in local conversations.  (I put “conservative” in scare quotes because the more I hear the word, the less it seems to mean.)  Sometimes I want to get some of these folks (especially older ones) into a room and just ask this:  “Close your eyes and visualize your grandchildren, or whatever children are in your family.  Are there any sacrifices you’d be willing to make so that they would have better lives, more opportunities, and generally a better world, even after you’re gone, even after you are no longer there to enjoy their gratitude?”

Most writers who self-describe as “conservative” these days, including O’Toole, seem to be starting from a clear no on this question, and presuming the same in their readers.  If it doesn’t pay off now, it doesn’t matter.  If you think about it, is the world view of the average thrill-seeking teenager, something most of us hope to grow out of as adults.

Transit investments will make no sense to anyone who thinks this way, so the best answer, I think, is to ask my question about grandchildren.  If the answer is no, there’s no point arguing.

Elsewhere on the Network today: The Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia offers an action plan for what to do if you run into snow in the bike lane. Cyclelicious reports that the Missouri Statehouse — which has been on a roll lately — is considering a bill that would allow motorists making right turns to cruise through red lights without stopping. And Prince George’s Urbanist says D.C. Metro is clearly failing in its obligation to keep sidewalks clear of snow.

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