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Whatcom Regional Transportation Study (Deeply Flawed)

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It has been said before, for good reason, that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics. I am happy to say that my collegiate journeys took me down many interesting paths including that of advanced mathematics. The advanced math course I enjoyed the most was Statistics because of its real world applications. Poorly-designed studies are often used to back up the dangerously outdated ideals of corrupt governments. For example, in previous articles I mentioned the deeply flawed Comcast study done by the City of Bellingham almost six years ago. That study was designed to make it sound like most people were pleased with Comcast and only really upset by a lack of a la carte channel selections. I could go on with flaws in the study, but you get the drift. This “study” was done as a shield for big telecom and their supporters in our government to prevent competition by pretending that there was nothing that really needed to be done.

Our government often uses doctored statistics to take advantage of its citizens. The Whatcom Regional Transportation Study is no different. How? Well I’m glad you asked. For starters, you have to be “selected” to participate and are then offered a gift for doing so. This is always a bad way to do a study since the participants are self-selecting, meaning that we’re starting with a pool of participants that’s too small in the first place and, then, only people who are interested in the gift and/or transportation respond in the first place. For example, the employees of a car-dealership are more likely to participate and respond with selections that preference cars. A bicycle shop will apply their biases; telecoms will have biases towards telecommuting, and so on and so forth. For more on this deeply-flawed method for gathering stats see here.

My family was one of the “selected” families. We participated with the hopes of being allowed to give real feedback, but learned that our government is, not surprisingly, uninterested in real feedback. Like most Americans we drive most places. We don’t do this because we want to, but because the other options aren’t good. This is an intentional problem dating back many decades caused largely by auto manufacturers who wanted to eliminate competition by destroying competing transportation options. Sure, it isn’t the only reason. The highway system had a lot to do with it too, but the point is that the national preference for cars didn’t happen organically. Also, we telecommute as much as possible, but because our broadband options are terrible, as I’ve written about many times before, that isn’t a real option most of the time either.

“... the study forced participants into a hole that validated the beliefs of the writers ...”

So how does this relate to the study? Well, the study didn’t allow for any real expansion to its questions. It didn’t really ask, for example, if you drove a car most of the time, whether you would use the bus or light rail more if it existed. It didn’t ask if you would telecommute more if we had good broadband infrastructure. It didn’t ask if you thought reducing our expenses by 90 percent by establishing a Dig Once Policy to go along with transportation upgrades made sense. This would increase telecommuting which would be good for the environment and reduce injuries and fatalities as well. The study simply said, this is what you’re doing right now, thanks for the responses.

This study, which was supposedly sent to a select few, didn’t ask for suggestions on how to make good long-term decisions down the road. For example, using guarded bike lanes to encourage more bicycling. It’s common sense that more people would bicycle if they thought their risk of being run over and killed by a giant SUV was less (some of this is addressed in the bicycle master plan). In short, the study forced participants into a hole that validated the beliefs of the writers and produced statistics based on this set. It was so two-dimensional that either it was written in a hurry and poorly researched, or it wasn’t intended to be comprehensive but needed to appear to be that way.

The rMove app paired with the study is simply awful and receives a 2.5 out of 5 stars for a rating. We have tested it on two common Android phones, made sure everything was set up correctly, the phones were well maintained, updated, etc. and here’s what we got. One phone 1, an LG, the app records no data automatically and all data has to be entered manually. The map program can’t find common places in town like Cruisin Coffee on Iowa and hangs often. On phone 2, a Samsung Galaxy S5, the app does track data automatically but never loads the daily surveys. We know a lot more about tech than the average person, so if we can’t get it to work then I can only imagine how much more inaccurate this app is making the study. In the end, it’s not worth our time to spend too much more time troubleshooting it. So there you go, the app will cost the study yet another mass transit supporting, progressive person’s data.

The daily surveys provided by the app are awful anyway. The only four questions I answered had to do with who brought packages to my home/business, how much I telecommuted, and if I hired anyone to travel to my home/business to provide services like plumbing, etc. This expensive study cost $250,000.

So why did I write about this? It’s simple. Just like how the Comcast study is used by our IT Director, Public Works Director, Mayor, and Council to protect big telecoms, I’m sure the results of this study will be used to override common sense improvements to our transportation and other infrastructure. I just thought you should know. For example, if my family’s responses were used as the overriding data for improvements in the future, they would indicate that I love cars, love expensive gas, want cheaper parking, and don’t care at all about mass transit and telecom infrastructure for telecommuting. Nothing could be further from the truth. Like most Americans, I want real alternatives; I simply can’t use them as often because they don’t exist or were gutted to the point of being virtually worthless.

I urge the County and City to do another, more comprehensive study, using more in-depth questions, with the goal of involving the entire population of Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham. Giving the people who participated in this study a buggy smart-phone app to track their movements for a few days will NOT substitute for all of the bad data they will get from a study that is deeply flawed in the first place. The intended number of participants is 47,500, the population of Whatcom County is estimated at 221,404 and is growing by 5.57% a year. The study aims to use about 21% of the population, which would normally be ok if the data was good in the first place. The study is currently here.

About Jon Humphrey

Columnist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Jon Humphrey is currently a music educator in Bellingham and very active in the community. He also has decades of professional IT experience including everything from support to development. He [...]

Comments by Readers

David Camp

Oct 04, 2018

Jon - thanks for this. We got an invitation to participate in the transportation study and quit filling it out when they asked for very detailed information about what year make and model of car you had. Every car.  WHat purpose was served by this? WHy would I want yet another database of unknown security track my family’s data?

Maybe they will get useful results but I doubt it - most busy people when faced with such intrusive questions will just say the heck with it. The free gift ($5 and $10 if you use your phone for some reason) was just too paltry to make it worthwhile.  

I really wonder sometimes about all the time spent on this stuff on my nickel.  Especially after two straight years of over 10% property tax increases.  

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