Garbage In, Garbage Out at the TJPDC

FORUM WATCH EDITORIAL

By Neil Williamson, President

The Thomas Jefferson Planning District Commission’s (TJPDC) 1-community  Livability Project is at it again.

In last month’s Charlottesville-Albemarle Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) meeting.  Livability Project Manager Planner Summer Frederick  presented a new tool that allows certain areas, states and large metropolitan areas to asses the cost of living for their geographic areas using both housing and transportation costs.  The mapping device focuses in on areas that utilize more than 45% of their income on housing and transportation. 

First and foremost, the Free Enterprise Forum questions the need for the MPO [ federally mandated to advise on transportation funding]  to be engaged in this discussion as it represents much of the mission creep we have written about recentlyIf we get past that philosophical issue, we not only question the validity of the data and but also the objectivity of the source.

The mapping device was created by the official sounding Center for Neighborhood Technologies (CNT).  A quick review of the CNT website reveals the true nature of their work is advocacy:

Building coalitions to advocate for public policies that can help address urban sustainability issues.

But clearly the biggest problem with this new tool is that IT’S WRONG!

As 30 year transportation veteran Alan Pisarski documented in his op-ed piece in Sunday’s (3/25) Washington Examiner:

The figures presented by CNT seem distant from reality. More importantly, they are inconsistent with data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey of the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), one of the main sources of the Consumer Price Index. The government’s numbers suggest that the basic housing and transportation costs of suburban and rural life remain slightly more affordable than cities, and far more affordable if homeownership rates are factored in.

The BLS survey shows that CNT is just wrong about the sums of transportation and housing costs. The CNT numbers suggest that transportation spending runs about 26 percent of average household expenditures instead of the 16 percent in the BLS reporting for 2010. Their average for the Washington area is only reached by the highest income quintile of Americans, according to BLS. [Emphasis added-nw]

In the February MPO meeting, but not reflected in the draft minutes, Frederick said the purpose of our participation is simply participation and “she would not question the data”. 

The February draft minutes do reflect questions one MPO member raised about the data:

Mr. Lafferty stated that he was surprised that Scottsville was showing up under the 45% threshold. Ms.Fredrick stated that the area could be close to the 45%, or residents of Scottsville proper are not commuting as much as people who live on the route 20 corridor.

The Free Enterprise Forum is very concerned that questionable data is being accepted as fact and the maps developed from such data will then form the rationale for the development of the “livability” project that will inform both the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle Countys Comprehensive Plans.

The draft February minutes reflect this direction when they report:

[MPO Chair Kristin] Szakos stated that she thought the tool was highly informative, because it showed that living further from the urban core might not be as cost-effective as people think.

The logic of Szakos’ comment is troubling (and could be misquoted in the minutes) but would the tool be less informative if the results were different?

The Free Enterprise Forum calls on the MPO not only to  dig deeper into the data and data sources being used for creating our community’s livability project but to question the idea of using this erroneous tool at all.

Perhaps for the livability project the old saying of garbage in, garbage out should be changed to compost in, compost out.

Respectfully submitted,

Neil Williamson

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20070731williamson Neil Williamson is the President of The Free Enterprise Forum, a privately funded public policy organization covering the City of Charlottesville as well as Albemarle, Greene, Fluvanna, Louisa and  Nelson County.  For more information visit the website www.freeenterpriseforum.org

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2 responses

  1. Pisarski is not comparing apples to apples. There are important differences between the dataset he is using, the Consumer Expenditure Survey, and the models CNT use to generate their transportation affordability rates. Most importantly, CNT standardizes income over the whole metropolitan area, in order to focus on the effects in expenditure caused by place alone. On the other hand, the CES differentiates both income and expenses by Center City, Other Urban, and Rural. As a result, the CES reveals that people who live in Center City pay about the same proportion of their income on housing + transportation as people who live in Other Urban. Pisarski is correct about this fact. But this is because the incomes are higher in Other Urban than in Center City.

    It is misleading to declare “suburban life is cheaper” in the byline when the same dataset Pisarski uses shows that both housing and transportation expenses are higher in the suburbs. They just happen to make more money. It is difficult to tease apart the causation here, but this exactly what CNT is trying to do. There are legitimate ways to critique their methodology, as the National Association of Home Builders has done in a commissioned study, and hopefully the model can be continually improved in response to fair criticisms.

    1. It may be of interest to note that Ms. Szakos, along with her husband, is a long-time advocate for Agenda 21. Any tool, report or methodology that supports compacting the population into a smaller, centralized – and therefore more controllable – footprint is her friend.

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