The Problem With Lazy Local Coverage of Highways and Transit

When there's a highway project, local papers reprint the press release. When there's a transit project, they get quotes from cranks.

Georgia DOT thinks this $800 million highway spaghetti is the answer to congestion, and the local newspaper is unskeptical. Image: Georgia DOT
Georgia DOT thinks this $800 million highway spaghetti is the answer to congestion, and the local newspaper is unskeptical. Image: Georgia DOT

Why is coverage of highway infrastructure so lazy?

There are exceptions of course. But for the most part, local newspapers write about highway projects as foregone conclusions, dutifully and uncritically repeating the marketing pitch from the state DOT.

That’s what’s happening now with a highway mega-project in Atlanta, the $800 million overhaul of the Georgia 400 and I-285 interchange. A recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution basically reprinted the Georgia DOT press release, asserting that the project would be a “fix for one of metro Atlanta’s worst traffic bottlenecks,” “make commuting easier for hundreds of thousands of people,” and “carry more vehicles.”

Mountains of research have shown that all these claims should be met with serious skepticism. But reporters only go looking for opposing points of view when the subject is transit, writes Darin Givens at ThreadATL, and they usually don’t turn to the most credible sources:

If this article was about rail-transit expansion, the AJC would’ve likely gotten a quote from some anti-rail quack like Randal O’Toole as “balance” for the issue, as if we can’t just accept new high-speed public transportation as a good thing. Or maybe they’d have gotten one from  David Hancock, chairman of the United Tea Party of Georgia, about the expense of transit. Or one from noted rail-transit critic Wendell Cox.

But since it’s about highway expansion for cars, this article basically a press release for the Georgia Department of Transportation, without a single mention of the induced demand effect.

In 2015, California’s DOT admitted a fact that had become more and more supported by data: congestion relief on major roads is a dubious pursuit, in which added capacity for cars induces more car trips.

The fact that the AJC didn’t mention it is a demonstration of another one of the little ways we express favoritism toward driving. (Notable: a Google search on AJC.com shows that the only time “induced demand” has ever showed up in the text of a post is in the comments section.)

If the AJC wanted to do some real reporting on this project, there are local experts right under their nose who’d be happy to weigh in. Ryan Gravel, an originator of the BeltLine concept, spelled out the downside of the interchange expansion:

More recommended reading today: Transportation for America reports that Congress is cutting infrastructure funding as part of its unpopular tax reform plan. And Reno Rambler shares the findings of a new study showing that people who bike are better drivers.

Happy Thanksgiving! Streetsblog USA will be offline for the holiday and back to publishing on Monday.

  • Joe Linton

    L.A. Times reporting falls into a similar double standard. They report consistently on project cost overruns for L.A. rail – but not so much for L.A. highway projects.

  • TakeFive

    “Induced demand” is a bit of a funky talking point. Obviously they don’t add lanes to a freeway to just sit there looking pretty; it’s all about capacity. Could some traffic move from arterial roads to the freeway’s added capacity? Sure, that’s what the new lanes are for – to create more capacity. As for congestion that can be handled by adding express lanes if desired.

  • “Express lanes if desired”…that doesn’t solve anything.

    The only thing which solves congestion in a capitalist society is pricing. The soviets had bread lines, we have highway congestion. This is what happens when you price a valuable and limited commodity at 0 dollars.

    But the point is, these projects are always heralded as “a solution to congestion”…the never are. That talking point should be attacked. The question is, what will increased capacity get us, it won’t get us a solution to congestion, if we wanted that, there are better options.

  • TakeFive

    Oh sorry; I guess I should have used the term managed toll lanes which is what Express Lanes are. Express lanes can be pure toll or combined with an HOV lane.

    Congestion mitigation is relative. If it’s a slow-growing place like Kansas City , then it works great. In places that are growing rapidly unfortunately by the time they get through the miles of red tape and obtain funding, traffic demand has likely already grown so much or soon will that the planned expansion is quickly overwhelmed. Doesn’t mean that the capacity expansion isn’t well utilized however.

  • Ian Turner

    Is utilization a good thing? Time spent commuting by car makes people unhappy, especially driving in congestion. To say nothing of the environment, public health, etc. Seems to me that if the only outcome is more driving, that’s not a win.

  • Guy Ross

    The average commute time hasn’t changed much since urbanization and industrialization began.The faster a person can drive across a metro the longer distance they will drive in that time. This is a fact borne by multiple studies.

    http://news.mit.edu/2014/study-commuting-times-stay-constant-even-distances-change

    So, if you find a way to squirt people faster through cities in extra lanes, those lanes will fill with all of us driving those extra distances. ‘Induced Demand’ is indeed a little funky and surely wonky as it doesn’t fit into the Smithsonian dogma we worship, but it is real.

  • Guy Ross

    ‘The soviets had bread lines, we have highway congestion’. Not a perfect analogy but really good nonetheless.

  • bettybarcode

    Good observation about when “balance” is considered necessary and when it isn’t. Next time you see this in road & transit reporting, dear readers, please flag it with #WindshieldBias in the comments or social media.

  • davistrain

    It may be just a coincidence, but the various news media get a lot of their ad revenue from motor vehicle makers and sellers. Weekend editions of newspapers have whole sections devoted to car ads. Televised sports events (especially NFL football) are loaded with commercials for cars and pickup trucks, often showing cars on scenic mountain roads far from the congested city streets and freeways where most of the miles for US cars is racked up. Local car dealers pour money into advertising “spots” on news radio.stations.

  • Jason

    When this sort of divergence in coverage appears, I’d recommend taking a look at whether transit agency officials are going to bat for the services they run–in the US, they too often just aren’t. And because of how the American mythology of purely objective journalism works, that means they’re going to just run the press release about the highway (“why do we need to find more information when we’re getting it straight from the source?”) but go find cranks to participate in the usual “he said…but SHE said…” format.

    If newspapers like The Economist (which would be cordoned off as “OMG NEWS ANALYSIS” if it were run by Americans) were more the norm in the US, it’d be acceptable for news publications to just tell you what they think about the matter. I’m sure the fact that it’s cheaper to just run the press release comes into consideration too, but that decision is most definitely being enabled by attitudes about “official” sources trumping everything else.

  • GregKamin

    “Time spent commuting by car makes people unhappy”

    Depends. I recall one job where the best part of the day was my 30 minute drive to and from work. The job itself sucked. But in my car with the sound system on, the AC on, cruising along, I felt whole.

    Is more driving better? Depends who you ask. But I suspect that a majority of voters would not be willing to give up their vehicles because of the comfort and convenience they provide. Hating on them probably won’t convince them to support your ideas.

  • Michel S

    It’s certainly not a coincidence, and this has bothered me for a long time. Also, even when car commercials on television DO feature their products in cities or urban enviornments, the roads are usually empty! It’s pure fantasy and absurd on its face, but most people don’t question it; they just want to be entertained.

  • Michael

    It’s no coincidence. About 15 years ago, I remember hearing a writer for the Boston Globe say that she did a very benign Saturday personal finance article about how buying used cars is more economical than new. The next Monday, she got an angry voice mail from Ernie Boch, the billionaire owner of the largest car dealership conglomerate in the Boston area as well as the largest advertiser for the Globe threatening to pull all his business.

    However, I don’t think it’s so much conspiracy as it is natural selection. If an outlet repeatedly stumps for an anti-automobile centric future, it just won’t be that economically successful. Thus the mainstream, “successful” media outlets today end up being just the biggest shills for the car-based, bargain shopping American economic model that defines our current era.

  • Michael

    Kind of. A visit to Detroit shows that a city can build considerably more capacity than it will ever need, so there is a logical limit to the “induced demand” theory should cities be crazy enough to build themselves to that point (I think many are…).

    The more important lesson is that while a society can definitely build a paradise for cars, it becomes increasingly expensive to maintain and does not generating any of the hoped-for wealth. Eventually when liabilities & cost rise high enough, residents throw up their hands & leave.

  • J. Geoff Rove

    Some newspapers do have dedicated transportation reports. I know of 2 in Chicago, one in Las Vegas and one in Orange County CA. I guess clicks per article are counted, otherwise those columns would be dropped.

    The issue with forcefully responding to tea party types in comments is that they will moan to the paper and get the commenting feature removed.

  • swtmix

    @disqus_8viQcbbnat:disqus

    “A visit to Detroit shows that a city can build considerably more capacity than it will ever need”

    You have to remember that when all of that capacity was planned and built the City of Detroit had nearly 2 million people living there along with a massive amount of industry. It’s more an example for other cities that all of the road capacity they’re currently building may some day be considered overkill.

  • Michael

    Again, kind of. It’s important to remember that Detroit is the canary in the coalmine – they are 30-50 years ahead of the rest of the country in building an auto-centric society. The battles of metro Detroit 1960s are the exact same ones being played out across the sun belt today. In fact, we can look at other earlier adopters (although no one was as forward thinking on this car-utopia idea as Detroit) – Northern NJ, Camden, parts of Chicagoland, parts of inland empire of California, parts of Connecticut & Pennsylvania and it’s a predictable pattern of eviscerated communities drowning in aging infrastructure liabilities. People with the means to leave, do.

    To me, the induced demand argument to me is less compelling than the “future financial collapse of your city” argument. Induced demand “works” until it doesn’t and that’s the problem.

  • Tooscrapps

    My newest favorite is the Jeep ad where they are stuck in city traffic and magically turn onto a dirt road:

  • davistrain

    Good point. Some years ago I did an essay on why the automobile took over so much of our local and regional transport functions. It’s the one place where we can have a “Fortress of Solitude”–no supervisors looking over your shoulder, no kids asking for stuff, and no spouse wondering why you didn’t do something. The car stereo can be playing Beethoven, Beatles or Beyonce’–your choice. Comparing driving with transit: No concerns about making a connection, and no hooligans, raving nut cases or smelly derelicts turning the bus or train into a slum on wheels.

  • davistrain

    The LA News Group, which includes the Pasadena Star-News, has Steve Scauzillo, a reporter who specializes in transit and environmental issues. He and some of their other staff writers give good coverage to the LA Metro Gold Line light rail operation, and their Op-Ed page comes out with comments boosting transit improvements.

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