Winning Arguments with Your Family: Don’t Fall for the Traffic Trap

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Last week, the Los Angeles Times published a disastrously titled piece entitled “L.A. Expo Line hasn’t reduced congestion as promised, a study finds.” The article is based on a study by the University of Southern California that used traffic monitors to gauge how many cars are driving on the freeway and arterial streets parallel to the Expo Line between Culver City and Downtown Los Angeles.

The central premise of both the article and the report it is based on is that government agencies should not base their arguments in favor of transit investment on the impact such investment will have on car traffic. I couldn’t agree more; Streetsblog has published articles and opinion pieces on the same theme.

However, the Times article has framed the debate on Expo’s effectiveness on the impact the line has on car traffic and that’s how the other media have covered the coverage. From mainstream outlets such as KPCC to conservative media columnists such as the Santa Monica Daily Press’ Bill Bauer; the coverage of the study has been reduced to: Expo Line hasn’t reduced car congestion.

Perhaps realizing its error, or perhaps just to create conflict, the Times tried to correct its error the next day with an opinion piece entitled, “The Expo Line hasn’t reduced traffic, so what?” In this piece, writer Kerry Cavanagh pretty much writes about the many benefits of investing in transit and the many dividends that Expo is paying.

Here at Streetsblog, we’ve run an irregular series helping our readers prepare for arguments soon to be had with relatives over the dinner table during holiday feasting. Without further ado, here are some of my thoughts on how to prepare for “transit doesn’t reduce congestion.”

  1. Concede the unwinnable points: Building a rail line won’t make traffic disappear. Nobody is arguing it will.
  2. Concede the unwinnable points: Yes, the Measure R campaign really did try to say the measure would relieve congestion. “The ‘R’ is for relief,” Move L.A.’s Denny Zane used to argue back in 2008 when pushing the tax was Zane’s main goal. Also, the campaign’s tagline was actually, “Yes on Measure R, the Roadmap for Traffic Relief.”
  3. Don’t own other people’s messaging: Yes, the pro-Measure R campaign focused on traffic relief, but that doesn’t mean that was what you were telling people. In fact, feel free to use this line verbatim: “Just because the Measure R campaign talked about traffic relief doesn’t mean that transit isn’t a good investmen–or that is what I believe. In fact, that awesome alternative media website I just donated $100 dollars to actually called the Measure R campaign ‘less than inspiring‘ back in 2008 just before the election.” (Donate today!)
  4. Tell your story: Cavanagh’s piece above is great, but arguments based on statistics are not going to win the day. Instead of just arguing the facts (although keep them in the back of your mind just in case) focus on how transit investments have improved your life and the lives of tens of thousands of Angelenos. After all, if all those people sitting in congestion wanted a faster commute to and from Downtown Los Angeles, they could always join us on the train.
  5. If all else fails, fall back on math: Just ask how worse would traffic be if those 30,000 commuters getting on the train all got into single-passenger vehicles instead.
  • Chewie

    If people really wanted to reduce traffic on the 10 we’d make it a toll road with congestion pricing that gets more expensive during peak hours. The reality is, people would rather complain about traffic than do the tough things that would actually reduce traffic. The point of transit isn’t to make the driving experience better. The point is to give people a good alternative to a driving experience which is terrible (for our sanity, for the environment, for public safety, etc.), after we spent decades just building infrastructure and planning cities for cars. It speaks to the lingering car-centrisim in our thinking to see the value of transit in terms of driving, instead of seeing transit as a good in and of itself.

    I think it’s too soon to judge Measure R’s impact on traffic anyway. The Measure R program has hardly been built out. We’ll be able to judge it circa 2038.

  • If the point is to move the argument away from traffic congestion reduction, then points 4 and 5 shouldn’t be used. Instead, one way to interpret the data is that those riding metro are people who probably wouldn’t be making the trip at all were the metro option not available. So transportation is not a zero sum game where rail and auto compete for rideshare. Rather, rail enables trips that otherwise would not be taken due to the odiousness (in many respects) of the private auto. And this is a good thing for all because it increases everything from intangibles such as cultural / social interaction (the life of the city) to measurable such as economic multipliers through local exchange.

  • Jason

    Look at NYC. The traffic there is plenty bad during rush hour. The point is twofold. One, as you noted, is that people have a way to get around NYC without sitting in traffic. Second, I see it as essentially the same thing as induced demand: getting people off the road has the same effect as building more road capacity in terms of making space on the road available for people who were opting to not deal with the traffic on the roads.

    The Onion hit this one on the head: “Report: 98 Percent Of U.S. Commuters Favor Public Transportation For Others” http://www.theonion.com/article/report-98-percent-of-us-commuters-favor-public-tra-1434

    “‘Improving public transportation will do a great deal of good, creating
    jobs, revitalizing downtown areas, and reducing pollution,’ Sager said. ‘It also means a lot to me personally, as it should cut 20 to 25 minutes
    off my morning drive.'”

  • neroden

    The correct argument is:

    “Sure, it didn’t reduce traffic congestion on the roads. But just yesterday I went at high speed right past the traffic congestion, ignoring it completely, while reading a book, riding the Expo Line. Bypassing traffic congestion seems worthwhile to me.”

  • SFnative74

    And could you say that now 30,000 more people a day move along the corridor? That the capacity of the corridor was increased?

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