One of the most irritating aspects of contemporary policy debates is the lack of respect for evidence, and the willingness–even eagerness– to cherry-pick information. (This intellectual dishonesty can be treacherous for academic researchers who are increasingly approached by ideologically-motivated funders wanting to buy specific results rather than honest analyses.)
In Indianapolis, we are seeing an example of this tactic in connection with the proposal to improve our public transportation system, beginning with a bus rapid-transit project called the Red Line.
Let me be clear: people who oppose the project may have perfectly good reasons for that opposition. I happen to support the Red Line, but I am certainly not suggesting that all opposition is dishonest or disingenuous.
Some, however, is.
The Indianapolis Star reports that opponents of the Red Line commissioned a “study” from Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. Cato, of course, is a libertarian think-tank opposed to much of what governments do. I find them congenial on issues of civil liberties, but disagree with their resistance to virtually all regulatory efforts and social welfare programs. (I might note that the largest financial supporters of Cato have been the Koch Brothers.)
Mr. O’Toole comes with a “point of view” and a reputation as an opponent of mass transit; he makes his living speaking and writing as an “anti-transit expert.” That wouldn’t disqualify his argument if he had tendered an accurate report, but apparently this was a “cut and paste” job. It certainly displays a lack of familiarity with Indianapolis.
A few observations:
- He says there are only 73,000 downtown jobs, and a population density of 2,100/per square mile. The Public Policy Institute at IUPUI, which tracks these numbers, finds that in just the 2.8 square miles around the Circle, there are more than 120,000 workers (an employment density of 42,000 per square mile). The total number of downtown workers is actually 137,000.
- He says that IndyGo has “not made any effort” to determine the feasibility of this effort or the possible alternatives. Had he done even a cursory investigation, he’d have found that this proposal is the end result of decades of study–including a 2013 analysis of alternatives.
- He asserts that “Transit is largely irrelevant to most Indianapolis residents.” That would come as a shock to the thousands of people who depend upon IndyGo now, and the additional thousands who are flocking to new housing options in the urban core (in contradiction to his assertion that there is “little demand” for urban living). Ten percent of those moving into the booming downtown housing market do not own cars, and have expressed a preference for public transportation.
- His blithe comment also ignores the growing number of seniors throughout the metropolitan area who can no longer drive, and the people with disabilities who rely on transit or would if it was more convenient. (As with most of his assertions, he cites no surveys or other authority supporting this facile dismissal.)
- He says the reason transit is “so little used” in Indianapolis is because “nearly everyone has access to a car.” (If you don’t happen to be one of those lucky folks, well, tough. File that one under “let them eat cake.”) Actual scholarship supports a rather different thesis: current routes and too-long headways discourage use by people who would opt for transit if it was more frequent and dependable.
- He calls electric buses an “environmental disaster” because electricity is generated by coal. He has only been in Indianapolis twice in 30 years, so perhaps he didn’t hear that IPL’s Harding Street plant recently switched from coal to natural gas. Or that IndyGo has access to solar arrays to power its electric fleet.) It’s just more of those pesky facts about Indianapolis that are inconvenient for his “analysis.”
I could go on. And on.
Suffice it to say that Mr. O’Toole is a propagandist, not a researcher. (Interestingly, O’Toole recently argued against light rail with a commentary titled “Rapid-Bus Systems a Smarter Investment Than Light Rail in U.S.” Blatant inconsistencies were easier to hide before Google.)
What O’Toole does provide is an example–as if we needed another one–of today’s “spin it to win it” approach to policy argumentation. It’s an approach that can be particularly effective when, as here, an honest debate requires accurate data and background information that most citizens are unlikely to have.
What was that famous line from Pat Moynahan? We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts. Someone should tell Mr. O’Toole.