Light Rail and Confirmation Bias

Phoenix Light Rail, a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem?|AZ Republic archives
Phoenix Light Rail, a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem?|AZ Republic archives

Like many topics of discussion, a person (voter) tends to support or reject light rail based on their own impressions rather than the facts and history. Psychologists call this “confirmation bias,” and if this sounds familiar it’s because I’ve used the term many times before on other topics.

Wikipedia defines confirmation bias as the “tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one’s beliefs or hypotheses.”

An extension of confirmation bias is the “backfire effect,” in which, “given evidence against their beliefs, people can reject the evidence and believe even more strongly.”

The backfire effect is frequently accompanied by a large dose of ad hominem (“a fallacy in which a claim or argument is dismissed on the basis of some irrelevant fact or supposition about the author or the person being criticized”) rejection of contravening facts.

I experienced this trinity of illogical, self-perpetuating delusion firsthand in 2012 when during an ultimately unsuccessful campaign I wrote a post criticizing light rail. Someone who’d never before paid a lick of attention to Scottsdale politics and city government disseminated a link to my post along with the message, “Don’t vote for this guy, he’s anti-public transit!”

In a second irony, this person couldn’t even name the other two candidates, let alone that she was ignorant of the fact that neither of them supported her position.

In a third irony, this person ultimately became a victim of exactly one of the historical facts of light rail: That it cannibalizes other forms of transit because of its greater requirement for subsidies…which is to say that it costs more to operate than other forms of transit and it does so at a rate exceeding those alternatives.

In the case of my ignorant critic, she was a user of the 510 Express bus route from the northeast Valley to downtown Phoenix, which was eliminated due to Valley Metro transit funding shortfalls caused by the first increment of the Valley Metro Rail system.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve experienced this sort of “logic,” and won’t be the last. In response to a recent, similar comment, a reader replied, “your assessment is based on light rail only, but this plan [the upcoming Phoenix Proposition 104 transit funding tax increase] greatly increased bus service as well.” This in spite of the fact that the very essence of my comment was about how light rail harms bus service.

As further evidence of the validity of my concern about cannibalization, you can look to the half-hearted endorsement by the Arizona Republic editorial board of the upcoming Phoenix Proposition 104 transit funding tax ballot item:

“It is clear this proposition was written with the intention of maximizing flexibility. That may be great for city planners, but it’s less so for the people asked to foot the bills.”

Meaning, those to whom Phoenix voters are being asked to hand a blank check are going to spend the money however they want. And in my experience, that means less to bus service and more to light rail.

It’s not just my opinion, though. In a Republic article a few weeks ago entitled, “Promises vs. Reality,” Brenna Goth describes how elected officials and bureaucrats fell short on assertions about allocation of previous tax increase called “Transit 2000.”

“The plan projected spending $2.5 billion on growing the local bus system over 20 years. The city now estimates it will spend $1.95 billion by 2020.”

Not only is local bus service funding not increasing, it is actually DECREASING.

My recent critic went on to list some more confirmation bias-related conflations, like equating Prop 104 tax increase to constraining “sprawl” (utterly unachievable without meaningful zoning restrictions which Phoenix doesn’t have and never will have), and that it will help downtown Phoenix “continue to flourish” (disregarding the fact that IF it is flourishing now, we shouldn’t need to continue to pour taxpayer transit subsidies into it).

To that latter point, another Brenna Goth article asks, “Phoenix-area light rail: Boon or bust for businesses along lines?” I could have given you the answer based on the experience of personal friends who have businesses along the light rail line in Mesa. Overall, it has been a bust. But now you’ve heard it from the Republic, too.

In closing, I’d like to remind you that Phoenix had a light rail (street car) system in the last part of the 19th century. It was discarded in the 40s because it was a nuisance and it was financially unsustainable. When a fire destroyed a number of the cars, it was the last nail in the coffin: The huge capital investment in the rail lines was abandoned. I would imagine it took a fair amount of taxpayer funding to remove the infrastructure.

We should be looking toward the future for real transit solutions, not to the past.

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