Friday, May 13, 2011

Given Opportunity To Take His Best Shot at Rail, Opponent Recycles Arguments from Years Ago

Yesterday’s City Council Transportation Committee meeting was another opportunity for Cliff Slater, whom we’re calling anti-railer-in-chief, to give his most persuasive arguments against the Honolulu rail project. As it turned out, Mr. Slater simply recycled one of his old misleading arguments that he’s been using to combat rail for years.

Mr. Slater attacked the project’s ridership projections yesterday based on his oft-repeated observation that transit ridership as a percentage of all metropolitan trips in cities with rail systems across the country continues to decline. He also noted that traffic congestion increases after cities build their rail systems.

It’s the same Cliff Slater from yesteryear. He wrote numerous Second Opinion commentaries for the Honolulu Advertise over the years; this one was printed on June 3, 2002. “Rail systems have not reduced traffic congestion…. Every single U.S. city that built a modern rail system (or has an old one) has had consistently worsening traffic congestion no different from other cities – but at a far greater cost. If people who believe ‘Fixed rail is our only answer’ (Letter, 4/29) could only point to just one rail system in the U.S. that had reduced traffic congestion, it would be different. But they cannot.”

It’s a neat and appealing argument for some people who are moved to oppose rail because traffic congestion will grow on Oahu along with the population whether rail is built or not. Rail planners and just about everybody else recognize that fact, but only anti-railers appear shocked by it.

One of Slater’s followers is the talk show host who attacked the Honolulu project again this morning because of the it-won’t-reduce-congestion pitch while ignoring rail’s true purpose (two paragraphs down). Carrying that argument to one’s own family, you might conclude that if your child has straight A’s, a black belt in karate, leads the school’s basketball team and has the best part in the school play, she’d be a failure if she didn’t win Miss Hawaii or make the Olympics team.

But if you apply just a little thought to Mr. Slater’s argument, you can see it as another example of his tendency to over-simplify and therefore mislead his audiences, including the City Council – the one audience he shouldn’t attempt to manipulate.

The goal of a rail transit system is not to reduce the number of vehicles on our highways! Unless society halts population and vehicle growth, traffic also will grow. Rail opponents have yet to suggest how they would actually reduce traffic from current levels 10, 20, 50 years from now. Like all rail transit systems, Honolulu rail will be an alternative to riding in the mix of surface traffic congestion. Grade-separated and right-of-way-separated transit removes the rail commuter from surface traffic.

The most revealing and obvious example of Mr. Slater’s tendency to over-simplify was his interview with Civil Beat last summer in which he said he begins his speeches to audiences about rail by stating two facts: 1) the cost of the project and 2) that traffic will be worse after rail’s built than it is now. Having thus spoken, Mr. Slater asks, “Any questions?”

We called attention to the intellectual dishonesty of his presentation at the time and several occasions since, including yesterday’s Yes2Rail post. Of course traffic congestion will increase with the population even with rail, but as Mr. Slater himself admitted before the City Council last July, there will be less of it with rail than without it. His quote from July 14: “We don’t disagree at all that rail will have an effect on reducing traffic congestion from what it might be if we did nothing at all.”

Suburbia Exists

His argument that transit is grabbing a smaller market share in metro areas is similarly simplistic. The development of suburban bedroom communities long distances from our major cities since 1950 was dictated by the quest of the American dream of home ownership and the resulting overwhelming reliance on the private automobile for work and pleasure.

Suburbs pushed back the countryside around virtually every metro area to meet the demands of house-buying families that relied on their car(s) for transportation between home and work. Center city populations slowed their growth or actually experienced reductions in some cities.

Either Americans embraced what car manufacturers offered or Detroit responded to consumers’ demands. Whatever the driving force, America became a car-driving nation. Mr. Slater criticizes rail transit for not being able to attract riders from those spread-out suburban communities even as populations grew. That’s hardly rail’s fault.

But time has a way of correcting past excesses. Even Los Angeles – the epitome of the car-dependent city – is now building several rail lines to serve its population decades after the area’s original tracks were ripped out.

Back to the Future

Here’s an accurate reproduction of what Mr. Slater said yesterday at the City Council committee meeting – not an exact quote but close enough to capture the essence. It’s essentially his same anti-rail argument from 2002:

For the last 20-year period of census data, from 1980-2000, when the DOT analyzed ridership on all transit projects it found that transit’s market share, the percentage of trips taken by riders as a percentage of the population declined for all those metro areas that have rail over that 20-year period except for one. The only one was San Diego, which had a 3-percent increase in its market share…to 3.3 percent. All the others declined…. The city is projecting a 23-percent increase, not a decrease. Those are two facts -- looking at 6 percent to 7.4 percent (transit ridership), a 23-percent increase in market share. We won't get that increase unless we do something extraordinary that no other metro area has done. You should look skeptically at that. The only conclusion I can draw is that you're not going to get it. It's not going to happen.

Mr. Slater’s entire case before the committee yesterday rested on rail’s market share or percentage of all daily trips. It’s not difficult to see the flaw in his reasoning. To satisfy Mr. Slater’s criteria for transit success, ridership would have to attract more than half of all new travel trips in a metro area each year.

That’s simply not going to happen unless all future housing and population growth is directed to transit-oriented development. America's history of home development patterns shows how improbable that would be.

No matter how fast transit ridership increases, the growth in car commuting due to suburbia's growth is bound to be faster in a nation that’s so in love with the automobile. Here’s how a 2008 Station Access and Capacity study by the Washington Metro system views the suburban growth issue:

“Outside the system core, ridership will experience faster growth than the growth inside the core, indicating a continuing trend of job and population growth in suburbs and an increasing demand for transit service outside the system core.”

The demand for transit in the Washington metropolitan area will increase but surely not as fast as car travel will grow. Metro anticipates a 42-percent increase in ridership on the system between 2005 and 2030, yet Mr. Slater apparently would have you believe an annual growth rate of 1.7 percent to produce 970,000 daily trips by 2030 would be a failure because daily trips by cars will far exceed that number. That is twisted logic at best.

A Closer Look

Mr. Slater’s uniformly negative assessment of rail transit begs the question of what would have happened to his preferred travel mode – the private automobile – if all that rail transit had not been built across America. Street and highway congestion would have been worse during for all the years of his 20-year survey. His solution -- build more highways -- is unacceptable on an island like ours.

One wonders also how Mr. Slater characterizes the 2009 ridership increases among light rail systems in North America – Baltimore (11.5%), Oceanside, CA (10.7%), Seattle (9.2%), Philadelphia (9.1%) – and on heavy rail systems – Los Angeles (3.9%) and Chicago (2.2%). Are those systems failing because the market share of car trips was far greater than transit’s share, or are they successes because they drew drivers away from streets and highways and gave commuters an option to sitting in traffic gridlock?

You can use statistics cleverly and loosely to make any argument you want; somebody even wrote a book on how to lie with statistics. As always, let the buyer beware – especially when the anti-railer-in-chief has the microphone.

Mr. Slater and his friends will surely have many microphone opportunities, now that they have filed a lawsuit to block construction of Honolulu rail.

Extra Credit Reading: Mr. Slater has created his own obfuscation problem and has to live with it. You'll find more examples in this post from July 2010.

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