Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Anecdotes in the Globe

When I write a letter to the Globe—which happens relatively often, it turns out—I try to throw something more than a personal anecdote in. I figure they don't want to hear my story in response to Joan Vennochi's (hers: "I was in traffic and a bike passed me, therefore I hate bikes"), but want me to add something their readership might be interested in. So I pick out one of her more ridiculous points ("We need more parking spaces for cars and fewer for bikes so people can go shopping.") and show why it's folly.

Which is why a couple of recent letters to the Globe regarding the DMU plan are dismaying. They get the gist of the argument right, but they anecdotes they use seem to say "look at this transit system we have, it's so bad that I can't use it because _____." Except the fill-in-the-blank of that blank is a single personal experience which is not really verifiable. (I, at least, cited a study.)

Here's letter #1. Nathan Banfield from Concord writes about taking the train from Concord. "I can drive to Porter Square from my home for, at most, $4 in gas, the same trip costs twice as much by commuter rail while taking considerably longer." Let's examine this. Yes, it's $4 in gas. Then what do you do when you get to Porter? You park—somewhere. Probably at a meter. That costs money. A garage? That costs more. And if you factor in only the cost of gas, yes, it's probably cheaper to drive. I think the 55¢ per mile (or whatever it is these days) figure quoted for cost per mile is high (it figures in fixed costs like insurance and assumes you have an expensive—and more quickly depreciating—vehicle) but it's certainly more than the cost of gas alone.

But, oh, Nathan. Taking the train takes considerably longer? You picked one of the commuter rail lines where that's not actually the case! The drive from Concord to Porter takes 22 minutes. If there's no traffic. The train? 27 for an express, 34 for a local. That's longer, but not by too much. But what if you happen to drive Route 2, say, between 6 and 10 a.m., or 2 and 7 p.m.? All of the sudden the 27 minute train ride seems like a breeze since you might spend that long waiting through the lights at Alewife. Yes, frequencies should be better. And, yes, on weekends it's probably faster to drive. But for commuters, the train is certainly faster than driving, especially along Route 2.

The award for taking a single experience and mistaking it for data, however, goes to letter #2. Sherry Alpert writes in from Canton. "I've been riding these trains for 30 years" (reminds me of this Seinfeld clip). Good for her—and she doesn't even try to claim that the train is so much slowed than driving. So, on January 8, the train was an hour late, and she missed a class. Therefore, the trains are unreliable. That may be the case, but just one late train on January 8 does not mean the train is always late. And would you rather drive at rush hour from Canton to Boston? Because that's always going to take an extra hour. Again, the sentiment that more reliable service is understandable, but stating that the system is unreliable because one train was an hour late is like saying "traffic is really bad because I got stuck in one traffic jam." If you get stuck in a traffic jam every day, then, yes, traffic is bad. If you get stuck in one specific traffic jam because, let's say a tractor trailer jackknifed, then traffic is not bad—there was an accident.

Now, if only there was somewhere to see the MBTA's arrival data. Some sort of, I don't know, monthly scorecard. Oh. Wait. The MBTA has a monthly scorecard. You know what doesn't have this kind of monthly data? The highways. But no one is writing letters saying "it took an hour to drive 12 miles on 128 today." Because, frankly, that's not really noteworthy, except maybe on Twitter. Which is where complaints about your train being delayed belong, anyway. But not in the newspaper.

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