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Choosing Ignorance is Stupid

People love statistics. They let us understanding the world beyond our own senses. USA Today publishes a daily Snapshot which presents a graph of random statistics. Sports talk and business analysis are dominated by statistics. We measure our progress, or lack thereof, and compare ourselves with others, based on statistics about our size, activities and accomplishments.

Todd Litman | May 11, 2012, 9am PDT
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People love statistics. They let us understanding the world beyond our own senses. USA Today publishes a daily Snapshot which presents a graph of random statistics. Sports talk and business analysis are dominated by statistics. We measure our progress, or lack thereof, and compare ourselves with others, based on statistics about our size, activities and accomplishments.

Comprehensive and accurate statistics are essential for planning. For example, predictions of the number of students local schools must accommodate, and the amount of parking supply required at a particular location, and research concerning how demographic and geographic factors affect travel demands, all require detailed demographic, geographic and economic statistics. Much of this information can only be collected feasibly by governments.

Unfortunately, many people take such statistics for granted – they want the information but fail to support the collection process. In a shocking act of ignorance, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 232 - 190 yesterday to eliminate all funding for the Census Bureau's American Community Survey (ACS), which replaced the U.S. Census long form, and approved an amendment to prohibit enforcement of the U.S. Census law. Similarly, the Canadian federal government is making the next long census form voluntary, and therefore useless.

These actions are apparently motivated by the belief that government is ineffective, but this argument is backward, and pardon my bluntness, stupid. As any business manager will attest, good decision-making requires good data. Investing in data collection improves government efficiency and service quality. Eliminating data collection promotes ignorance and waste.

For example, regional governments use travel models to predict how particular transport system changes will affect transport system performance. These models require data collected through travel surveys. Many regions now collect this information efficiently through American Community Survey add-ons, which is cheaper and facilitates comparisons with outer regions. Eliminating the ACS will force regional governments to spend more or use less accurate data. Similarly, detailed information on household size, age, employment, income, house size, vehicle ownership and physical ability allows local communities to adjust zoning code minimum parking requirements to reflect actual demands, which tends to reduce development costs. Much of this information comes from long-form Census data. Without this information, planning decisions become less responsive to residents' needs.

The U.S. was once a world leader in collecting planning statistics. The USDOT's Highway Statistics Series, and the Bureau of Transportation Statistic's Transportation Statistics Annual Report, provide decades of data on roadway supply and finance, vehicle ownership and use, traffic accidents, fuel consumption, and other useful data, for each state and many cities, in a consistent and easy to access format. Such data sets are invaluable for research and planning analysis - they are beautiful!

Now, other countries and international organizations are taking the lead. For example, the Australian Transportation Data Action Network coordinates a national effort to improve the accessibility and quality of Australian transportation data. The UK has a National Travel Survey and EuroStat provides standardized statistics for numerous countries. The Global Transport Intelligence Initiative is an international program to improve the collection, analysis and dissemination of transport-related data. Neither the U.S. nor Canada have comparable programs or are formally involved in these international efforts.

This trend toward ignorance is a fundamental threat to good planning. It is up to us, practitioners who use statistics in our daily work, to communicate to decision-makers and the general public the critical importance of quality data. Our professional organizations, the Institute of Transportation Engineers, the Transportation Research Board, the American Planning Association, AASHTO, and academic organizations must provide leadership on this essential issue. Please act now!

 

For More Information

Where Has All the Data Gone?, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Australian Transportation Data Action Network coordinates a national effort to improve the accessibility and quality of Australian transportation data.

National Transportation Statistics, Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

City Data is an easily accessible database of information about U.S. cities, including maps and photos, real estate prices and sales, resident statistics, and much more, at the neighborhood and zipcode scale.

City Forward is a free website that provides comprehensive demographic, economic and geographic information on more than 100 international cities in a format that facilitates comparisons and analysis.

Todd Litman (2007), "Developing Indicators For Comprehensive And Sustainable Transport Planning," Transportation Research Record 2017, pp. 10-15.

Todd Litman (2011), Well Measured: Developing Indicators for Comprehensive and Sustainable Transport Planning, Victoria Transport Policy Institute.

Anthony May, Susan Grant-Muller, Greg Marsden and Sotirios Thanos (2008), Improving The Collection And Monitoring Of Urban Travel Data: An International Review, TRB Annual Meeting (www.trb.org).

National Household Travel Survey, Federal Highway Administration and the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Provides information on U.S. travel activity from a series of travel surveys performed in 1969, 1977, 1983, 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2009.

Ongoing Travel Survey, New Zealand Ministry of Transport.

OECD Factbook, Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Hans Rosling (2010), 200 countries, 200 years, 4 minutes, BBC (www.bbc.co.uk).

A. Santos, et al. (2011), Summary of Travel Trends: 2009 National Household Travel Survey, U.S. Federal Highway Administration.

Nancy McGuckin (2011), Summary of Travel Trends 1969 to 2009, Travel Behavior Associates (www.travelbehavior.us).

STI (2008), Sustainable Transportation Indicators: A Recommended Program To Define A Standard Set of Indicators For Sustainable Transportation Planning, Sustainable Transportation Indicators Subcommittee (ADD40 [1]), Transportation Research Board.

TRB (2011), How We Travel: A Sustainable National Program for Travel Data, Special Report 304, Transportation Research Board.

UNECU (2008), Annual Bulletin Of Transport Statistics For Europe And North America, Economic Commission For Europe (www.unece.org).

Matthew Yglesias (2012), Conservatives for Ignorance: The House GOP's principled-and destructive-war on the long-form census, Slate; at www.slate.com/articles/business/moneybox/2012/05/american_community_survey_why_republican_hate_it_.html

 

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