Honesty Agenda 2015 – Part Two
This is going to seem a bit disjointed because I ended up writing the main draft in the middle, very cramped, seat of a very delayed flight to Atlanta for a business trip; and
Made With Notepad because paying for wifi for an hour of personal use seemed unwise. So here we go.
Refer back to Part 1 of the Honesty Agenda on Austin transportation for the introduction.
What do I mean when I say honesty?
Honesty is more than simply “technically telling the truth”. A good place to start, but just to start, is the oath people take when testifying in court. So let’s at least look at those three parts:
Don’t say something which is obviously false. This is the easiest thing in the world to do, yet Capital Metro has gotten this wrong in the past (ref Todd Hemingson’s claim about the projection he made and then tried to claim he didn’t make, about first year Red Line ridership). The simplest attention by the media ought to catch our transit agency and city in this one, yet they rarely do (KUT being one very rare exception here).
The whole truth
Don’t say something which, while true, leads people to think they now know what’s going on, when you’ve actually kept a portion of the ‘whole truth’ behind so that they come to the conclusion you want them to. For instance, Capital Metro claims we’re going to have a new, exciting, frequent transit network (buses arriving at least every 15 minutes). If Capital Metro knows we used to have that, at least on the #1 route, and they don’t say so, they haven’t told the whole truth. Or, let’s say, if Capital Metro says ridership on MetroRapid is growing! (comparing 801 ridership six months ago to 801 ridership today), but overall ridership on the corridor is significantly below what it was before MetroRapid launched and staying stagnant since the initial drop, have they told the whole truth? Put another way:
Would “the 801 is doing better” be enough information without “but the overall 1/801 ridership is going nowhere and significantly below the old 1/101 ridership” for our elected leaders to make smart decisions?
Those aren’t even the most important examples though. During transit planning, this is far more critical. When the 801 was proposed, Capital Metro talked about how much faster it was going to be than the 1, while hiding the fact that it wasn’t going to be much, if any, faster than the existing limited-stop 101. It’s technically true that the 801 is faster than the 1. But it’s not the whole truth. It’s not useful in making decisions; the far more useful fact is the difference compared to the 101’s speed when it ran (and it turns out, there’s no difference except for that attributable to the downtown transit lane, which made the 1 faster and would have made the 101 faster too).
Nothing but the truth
Don’t add things that might (misleadingly) shade people away from the truth. Don’t talk about highway subsidies to try to mislead people away from a serious discussion on transit operating subsidies (the subsidy on a given highway might be higher than the Red Line, but it is irrelevant to a discussion of whether we can afford the Red Line subsidy as it currently exists).
But that’s not enough for me. Public agencies, funded by tax dollars, should meet a higher standard even than the above (which, after all, is just the oath people take when in an often adversarial relationship in court, to which the punishment for noncompliance is charges of perjury). Public agencies should educate taxpayers – in a way which does not lead taxpayers to a given conclusion, but allows them to make their own educated judgements. By this I do NOT mean the opinion pieces often approving cited, referenced, or retweeted by Capital Metro employees which are actually in direct conflict with their own actions without ever noting the problem. That’s fundamentally DIShonest.
I also don’t mean Project Connect’s “data theater” exercises. “Showing your work” via PDF files, with ‘zones’ chosen and then changed, arbitrarily, by the people running the project in ways transparently obviously designed to make some projects rise to the top and others, uh, not; is not honest. Project Connect should have functioned as an open data source by which decision-makers (and the public) could make educated choices, but none of us who participated in that effort would describe it as anything except the exact opposite. In most other cities, Project Connect would have been a straight-up comparison between a few corridors (not this ‘subcorridors which are really zones which were purposefully drawn to make the route they knew they had to compete against look bad’ nonsense). Then, once a corridor was chosen, phase 2 would have been a straight-up comparison of ROUTES.
Don’t Be Disingenuous
This is a big one. It happens all the time. Most of the time you know your audience and you know what they know, so don’t pretend they’re talking about something they really aren’t (don’t oversimplify or misrepresent their argument).
For instance: “There are winners and losers with any change” is not an honest answer to a detailed explanation that points out that the frequency of the combined 1/801 is no higher than the frequency of the 1/101 was – which if honestly addressed, leads to the conclusion that every single local bus rider on the MetroRapid corridor is much worse off now that the new service came along, and the old express riders are for all intents and purposes paying a little more for a little more frequency, the same speed, and the same reliability (i.e. best case = no better off). The person making that statement about ‘winners and losers’ knows it’s not honest; but they know it’s technically true also – it’s just that the ‘winners’ were Capital Metro themselves, and the losers were, uh, all the riders. The public who pays your salary deserves better than being purposefully misled. Likewise, when Project Connect published ‘data’ from a ridiculous model that was essentially predicting almost three million daily transit riders in East Riverside alone and then tried to pretend it didn’t matter because it was just sort of a starting point, that’s disingenuous. If it didn’t really matter, throw that model out of the equation completely and use something that everybody agrees on (common basis). Because when it was left in, it provided significant confirmation for the theory among participants in the process that the data were being cherry-picked and/or made up to support a predetermined plan.
Offer All Sorts Of Data Without Prejudicial Conclusions
Why doesn’t Capital Metro publish their ridership numbers – and on the rare occasions when they do, why never in a form that can be processed by the public? The MTA in New York does.
Why don’t they publish their operating subsidies by mode (or even by line)? They haven’t done this at all since September of 2013, and if you think it’s because the Red Line subsidy figures would have damaged the public case for Proposition 1, you’re probably right! Yes, there’s arguments over methodology that would come into play in either case – but those arguments could be had in the open light of day. Instead, we assume that Capital Metro hides behind the firewall of freedom-of-information requests because they have something to hide (in many cases they do – for instance, recent word on the fare recovery ratio of MetroRapid is pretty awful). While I appreciate Ben Wear’s efforts in seeking this information (most media outlets don’t even try), it should be published every month on Capital Metro’s website so guys like me can analyze it. No excuses. If the data tells a bad story, then have a conversation about it with people who understand how transit works instead of hiding behind meaningless platitudes that prevent any transit project from ever being declared ‘bad’.
In future chapters I will explain in more detail, with many more specific examples, where we have fallen short on these metrics; and then what an honest Project Connect would have looked like. What an honest Capital Metro would look like. And what an honest City of Austin would look like. Because if we’re ever going to see real progress, that’s what we all need.