Management & Operations

Urban legends and anti-transit mythology

Posted on July 1, 2001 by Steve Hirano, editor

My favorite urban legend is the one about the guy who wakes up in a hotel bathtub filled with ice only to discover that one of his kidneys has been surgically removed, apparently after he had been drugged the previous evening. The perpetrator has the good grace to leave a note behind urging that the victim see a doctor as soon as possible. The reason I like this one best is because I had a co-worker who swore up and down that it had happened to his father’s uncle. Or a close friend of his father’s uncle. Or a close friend of his father’s uncle’s cousin. Anyway, it was someone just distant enough that he could never get in contact with the guy to corroborate the story. At the time I didn’t know this was an urban legend. I assumed it was a remarkable story that sounded too good to be true. Fiction can be stranger than fact. Tinker, tailor, soldier, Costner Almost perversely, we embrace myths. They’re like a good horror or suspense film with a twist at the end. Remember No Way Out, the political thriller starring Kevin Costner? In the final scene we learn that the Costner character is actually Uri, the vaunted Russian spy. (Hope I haven’t spoiled the movie for anyone; it’s only been on video for 14 years.) The Gary Condit story evokes the same extreme fascination. Deep down, we know that he probably had nothing to do with Chandra Levy’s disappearance, but wouldn’t it be extraordinary if he did? That’s why I was fascinated by a recent publication by the Free Congress Research and Education Foundation called Twelve Anti-Transit Myths: A Conservative Critique. The book was underwritten by APTA’s business members (including this magazine). As a relative newcomer to the transit industry, I was both entertained and enlightened by the 70-page book, written by Paul M. Weyrich and William S. Lind. In conflict with the book’s title, the authors actually skewer quite a few more than a dozen anti-transit myths, but who’s counting? The more the merrier. And it is merry reading. Weyrich and Lind seem to relish the challenge of letting the air out of the tires of anti-transit proponents (in this case, mainly those who oppose light rail) such as the Reason Foundation, the Goldwater Institute and the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Some of the more entertaining myths debunked by the authors:

  • Light rail has been a failure everywhere.
  • Transit brings crime into a community.
  • It would be cheaper to lease or buy a new car for every rider than to build a new light rail system.
  • Light rail is not safe.
  • On average, most of the seats on a bus or train are empty. The authors explain, however, that these myths are powerful. They have the patina of truth and are convincingly related. “[The anti-transit troubadours] have frequently confused the general public, sown doubt about meritorious transit projects and delayed if not defeated efforts to provide high quality transit,” the authors write in the introduction. Whose myth is it anyway? What’s interesting about mythology is the importance of context. After reading Twelve Anti-Transit Myths, I received a press release from the American Highway Users Alliance that presented its own busting of anti-highway myths. One of the myths: “Transit use is growing faster than highway use.” And they make a convincing argument to the contrary! So, who’s right? Each side can make compelling arguments with carefully chosen statistics and anecdotes. From my vantage point, the pro-transit forces make the more intelligent arguments. But, then, in front of this audience, what would you expect me to say?
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