The Shape of the Future

E M Risse


Media Myopia


Articles and editorials in Virginia's newspapers consistently obscure the origins of traffic congestion and legitimize the special interests that benefit from raising taxes/building more roads.


The public responsibility to provide mobility and access is on the road to chaos. The question is: Who is leading the charge to inform citizens so a new, more intelligent strategy can be adopted? We have seen that it is not governance practitioners, either elected or appointed.  It turns out that it is not the media either.


This is the transportation story so far:

  • Mobility and access are essential if citizens are to be prosperous, safe and happy. The current strategies to provide mobility and access are tragically flaws. These strategies are perpetuated by myth and fraud. ("Self Delusion and Fraud," June 7, 2004.)

  • Current mobility strategies kill 10,000s every year and are the major cause of dependency on foreign oil and balance-of-payments deficits, as well as air and water pollution. ("Death and Taxes," June 21, 2004).

  • All citizens hear from the public officials responsible for mobility and access is that they need money. When voters say, "no," to tax increases, governance practitioners turn to private "partners". ("The Perfect Storm," July 12, 2004.)

  • Many different tactics will ease gridlock temporarily, but only Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns and a balance between transport system capacity and travel demand will put Virginians on the path to sustainable mobility and access. ("Out of Chaos," July 26, 2004).

All this makes for an easy to tell, straight-forward story. Why have the media been so dead set against telling it?


The Post is Bad, but the Problem is Not Just the Post


For two years, this column has been documenting the continuing shortcomings of The Washington Post  coverage of mobility and access issues. (See "Smoke and Shadows,” Jan 13, 2004 , concerning the 2002 coverage and "Clueless," Jan 19, 2004 , and "No Context," Feb 2, 2004, for a review of the 2003 transportation and land-use coverage in The Washington Post.


Just to show that The Post is still at it, I cannot refrain from pointing out that the newspaper ran a story on June 16, 2004, entitled, “Connector Depicted as Cutting Commute.” As documented by “Self Delusion and Fraud,” (June 7, 2004), the only thing that will cut a commute is to move the job or the home. Building a wider road, a new road or a new rail line will not do it. The Post followed up with another build-more-roads editorial titled “Road Rage Brigade” on June 21,2004 .


But The Washington Post is not the only newspaper supporting the delusions engendered by the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth. During the second week of June, a team of Media General staff provided a series of three stories that ran in the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other Media General papers across the Commonwealth. (“Drive Time in Virginia,” June 7, 2004, “How We Got Here,” June 8, 2004 , and “Promises, Problems Drive Transport Issues,” June 9, 2004.)    


The stories represent what many might deem good journalism. They articles contain a wealth of up-to-date information, good graphics and warm human interest stories that bring the transportation issue into personal focus.  


The Times-Dispatch series probably will win journalism awards because it is better than most similar efforts even though it follows the “Citizen #1 is in dire straights because ..., agency spokesman #1 says ..., agency spokesman #2 says ..., citizen #2 says ..., expert #1 says ..., citizen #3 says ... but expert # 2 says...” format. The shortcoming of this sort of coverage is that it never gets beyond statements such as the quotes included in “The Perfect Storm (July 12, 2004 ). The link between mobility and land use is mentioned but then dropped.


On 6 July, The Virginian-Pilot carried an editorial based on a speech by state Sen. John Chichester, R-Fredericksburg, who is chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. The editorial entitled “Virginia Nears a Dead End” reviewed remarks on the transportation crisis that Chichester had delivered at the University of Virginia. The speech and editorial included the obligatory “We can’t build our way out of the problem” statement.  However, the editorial led into a list of “other options” with these words: “But political inaction only accelerated the widening gap between the demand for new highways and the shrinking pool of dollars to build them.” The editorial followed the list of “other options” with a prediction that “the transportation crisis is sure to be at the center of next year’s fight” to succeed Gov. Warner. 


Then the editorial writer jumped to the familiar and counterproductive conclusion that the issue was raising money with these words: “Already, there are hints that a critical debate will turn on whether to build roads with sales and income taxes, rather than just transportation- related fees.”  


Where was human settlement pattern in this discussion? It was alluded to as “high-density land-use planning” under ways to “cut demand.” No one wants “high density.” What is needed is functional human settlement patterns and Balanced Communities, not “high density.” What is so hard about understanding that building more roads without Fundamental Change in human settlement patterns makes congestion worse, not better? 


If you do not balance the trip demand generated by the human settlement pattern with the transportation capacity, there is no “solution” to the transportation crisis.  Period!  Why try to fool citizens by making it into just a money issue when it is not just a money issue? Money cannot buy mobility if there are dysfunctional human settlement patterns.


So there you have it: Three major daily papers in the three biggest New Urban Regions in Virginia, where 85 percent of the citizens live, punting the transportation issue. It is impossible to have a “marketplace of ideas” when there is only one brand on the shelf and the buyers have myth- and advertisement-induced blinders on.


Let's Go "Local"


If the major dailies do not get it, how about the community press? For starters, The Virginian-Pilot editorial was so well thought of in community press circles that it was picked up and run along with a supporting cartoon as the entire editorial page in one community weekly. 


As bad as the regional coverage is, the community news is worse. In story after story:  

  • Uninformed citizens lament the loss of the “rural” past and blame traffic congestion on everything but their own location decisions.

  • Politicians spout platitudes and promise to “do something,” usually in a sphere over which they have no control.

  • Self-serving transportation professionals tut-tut the inevitable congestion and tell how much worse it will become if they are not given a lot of new money very soon.

“Commuters Moving on Rural Roads” by Matt Hourihan in The Potomac News on July 18, 2004, is a classic example of this coverage that hits all these buttons.  See the backgrounder “Anatomy of a Bottleneck” for a review of why these “commuters” in Prince William County are not moving on roads that were once in “rural” areas.


The Bottom Line


The media problem is due to more than just bad reporting or uninformed editors.


The traditional practice of journalism as currently structured is not up to the task of educating citizens about solutions to transport dysfunction or settlement pattern issues in general.  This is because writers as well as citizens are besotted with, and now beholden to, the Private Vehicle Mobility Myth.  (See "The Myths That Blind Us," Oct 20, 2003 .


But it goes deeper. Newspaper owners and many senior editors are among those who believe they benefit from Business as Usual. They fear the short-term economic impact of Fundamental Change, especially on their watch. 


That is not the only roadblock. There may be something in the training of journalists or perhaps in the genetic hardwiring of those who choose journalism as a career.  They tend to:


o        Report stories concerning mobility and access as if those who hold a transportation positions understand the context of immobility and congestion and will tell a reporter on the record what they know even if it jeopardizes their job or that of their superiors. (See “Self Delusion and Fraud,” June 7, 2004 .)


o        Act as if they do not have a clue that there is a inextricable link between transportation and land use, or that, to make sense of this relationship, the media need to use a vocabulary that matches the complexity of the subject they are addressing.


o        Appear oblivious to the fact that, as an organic system, there is an overarching conceptual framework that can be used to describe and understanding human settlement patterns.


o        Assume after a few interviews that they are experts and are not about to be persuaded that they are wrong about relationships they have seen reinforced by auto, builder, and banker advertisements for years. 


Like citizens in general, journalists tend to believe what science says about things too small to see (microbiology) or too large to visualize (astronomy), but at the scale of human settlement pattern, they are experts because, after all, they live in it.


Journalists feed citizens a diet of “news” and commentary using simplistic, misleading vocabulary.  Then they say the media cannot explore the complex issues because the audience will not understand them and will just stop reading/listening. The rule seems to be that it is better to tell lots of folks a simple, misleading story than to tell those who will listen the complex and counterintuitive reality. After all, the volume of readership/viewership is what pays the bills, not how much the readers/viewers understand. 


When these issues are called to the attention of reporters or editors, they often bristle and offer platitudes about journalistic integrity and freedom of the press. At other times, they nod knowingly and with a shrug say they “understand” but do not have time or column space for the extended coverage needed to get across complex issues.


We focus on the print and web-based media in these columns. In fact, reality has “outfoxed” all branches of the fourth estate. We provide examples from print and the web in our columns, but only because the electronic media do not leave a paper trail. If you want to track them down, you need to spend hours monitoring and recording and playing back. Who has time to do that?  The electronic media hope no one has the time, and that is probably why they pay so much attention to make-up and youthful faces on camera. (For a review of the impact of electronic media, especially television, see The Shape of the Future, S/PI, 2000. Also see Endnote One.)


Your Cards and Letters


Newspapers perpetuate public misunderstanding in yet another way: their treatment of letters to the editor. A good example is how they handle HOV lanes.


By way of preface, it is nearly universally acknowledged that HOV lanes could work better. There needs to be more uniform enforcement. And it is critical that human settlement patterns at both ends of HOV lanes cluster jobs/services and services/housing to make car and van pooling or a bus the best mobility solution for large numbers of citizens. We will return to the issue of enforcement in a moment.


Even though HOV lanes could be made more effective, the data show clearly that even now HOV and HOT lanes “work.” They work in the sense that HOV and other restricted lanes move more people per hour than in unrestricted lanes in the corridors where HOV/HOT lanes are in use. At one point, the Shirley Highway reversible HOV lanes were “the most efficient stretches of asphalt for moving people in the Free World.”    


Over the last 20 years, the public has initiated a subsidized commuter rail line (VRE) from Union Station to Fredericksburg. VRE offers an alternative to HOV lanes that more is attractive to many in the I-95 Corridor.  At the same time, federal, state and municipal programs, policies, controls and incentives have supported and subsidized human settlement patterns in the I-95 corridor that discourage the formation of car and van pools. Finally, bus routes have been rerouted to feed VRE and METRO. The Shirley HOV lanes still work. How long they will work without a continuing path through the new Springfield Interchange is a different question.


That is the present condition. Onto this scene comes an articulate observer and his wife, who are driving along I-395/I-95. They are creeping along, the HOV lane looks empty. He is steamed and writes a letter to the editor.  Virgil H. Soule was in just this condition, and his letter ran under the headline “HOV: Never Worked, Won’t Work. Can’t We Get Rid of It?” (August 1, 2004, B-8 .) If the HOV lanes worked as badly as they appear to Mr. Soule, and others who write similar anti-HOV letters, the lanes would have been torn up long ago. Transportation engineers may be clueless on some issues, but they are not foolish enough to support HOV lanes if the numbers did not justify them. 


Mr. Soule’s letter suggests raising the price of imported oil as an alternative to HOV lanes. Higher burdens on energy should be one element of any comprehensive mobility program. (See “Death and Taxes,” June 21, 2004). But that does not mean HOV lanes have no role in providing mobility. 


The core problem with Mr. Soule’s letter is not that he is misinformed, it is that it is the way the editors present it. The letters-to-the-editors staff wrote the full-page-wide headline. Because they published the letter without any balance or commentary, most readers would assume it was a valid perspective. If Soule’s letter had claimed that his grandfather’s pocket watch was more accurate than the Naval Observatory Atomic Clock or that the earth was flat, it would not have been printed. If it championed a medically discredited procedure, it would not have been printed -- or it would have been accompanied by a editorial note or paired with a letter stating the scientific evidence. But this does not happen with letters regarding HOV lanes, building-more-roads-solves-the mobility-problems and other myth-driven silliness. Those letters sail through with big headlines.


Six days later, two short letters were printed under a small headline “HOV Works for Me.” (August 7, 2004, A-20.) Too late. The damage has been done again.


Go back to the problem of HOV enforcement. If you are the division commander, the shift supervisor or a patrol officer at the State Police Barracks, do you want to send out or go out and face the Virgil Soules of the world, who happen to be friends of Joe Gibbs, Sen. Chichester or other important persons, when you could be stopping a “real” crime?  


This is just one specific example of how media punt the ball on transport questions. What, then, is to be done?


A Modest Proposal


With little effort, any media outlet could retool to start providing information of real value to citizens and governance practitioners concerning transportation and land-use issues. Most regional media organizations now have a sports editor, a lifestyle editor and a business editor. Some have added editors in areas like health, gardening/landscape, as well as editorial page editors.  The information on transportation, mobility, access, land use and other topics related to human settlement patterns are left to “metro” or “news” editors who deal with politics, crime and disasters. 


A solution to a media outlets myopia on transportation and mobility is to appoint a senior editor responsible for mobility and access. That means a person who understands the impact that human settlement patterns have on transportation systems. Mobility and access will be an important growth area for all media outlets as congestion continues to morph into gridlock. The issues of mobility and access and the transportation and land-use relationships that control mobility and access will become more critical to readers and viewers. It deserves senior-level attention. Just establishing a job description would be a major learning experience in most publisher/editor-in-chief offices.  


The new editor may be titled the Mobility and Access Editor but we will call him the Human Settlement Patterns (H/S/P) Editor so that it is clear that a road building lobbyist would not qualify. The H/S/P Editor would be responsible for hiring and training reporters who cover transportation, land use and related topics.  A key problem of the turnover due to cycling young staff through “transportation” would be solved. The H/S/P Editor also would supervise the traffic tips columnist, the Dear Abby of mobility and access relationships. This position is called “Dr. Gridlock” in The Post. The H/S/P editor would insure the responses go beyond platitudes and instead make citizens aware of the root causes of driver concerns. This editor also would be responsible for reviewing all articles, editorials and letters that deal with transportation and land use.  It would be their responsibility to contact well-meaning letter writers like Virgil H. Soule and arrange for a balanced presentation of facts.


One of the H/S/P Editor’s primary responsibilities would be to articulate a vocabulary to use in articles and editorials about mobility, access and settlement patterns. Come to think of it, the Metro editor might report to the H/S/P Editor since human settlement patterns are a primary determinant of prosperity, stability and sustainability in New Urban Regions.


Whether the media take up the H/S/P Editor idea or not, the question remains: Will the media continue to be tools of political polarization and misinformation, or will they step up to provide citizens with the information they need to make democracy and transportation function?


-- August 9, 2004



1. Amazon.Com now has a “Search Inside the Book” program. Customers of Amazon.Com can go to The Shape of the Future page and use the search feature to look up any topic, much like using Google or other search engines. Searching the book for “television” gives some indication of the impact on electric media on human settlement patterns. Although the search function does not always yield correct results, it is a start.
















































Ed Risse, and his wife Linda live inside the "Clear Edge" of the "urban enclave" known as Warrenton, a municipality in the Countryside near the edge of the Washington-Baltimore "New Urban Region."


Mr. Risse, the principal of

SYNERGY/Planning, Inc., can be contacted at [email protected].


See profile.