How to Bullshit with Statistics: Car Edition Published: Wed 01 August 2018

Mularke VA License Plate

(Photo Credits: Eli Christman)

In How Cars Divide America, Richard Florida attempts to convince the reader that cars are responsible for degrading our lifestyles and getting Trump elected. However, his argument is built upon a misunderstanding of basic statistics and a truckload of dubious assumptions.

Drownings Create Swimming Pools

First, he spearheads his attack by citing a study by his colleague where

In a correlation analysis, she found a sharp difference between metro areas where greater shares of people drive their cars alone to work and where people take transit, walk, bike, etc.

However, as Florida himself admits, correlation isn't causation. After all, no one would attempt to claim that drownings cause more swimmings pools to pop up and floods to occur, even though they are both highly correlated. So much for the eye-catching article summary which states "[the car is] a crucial factor in America’s economic and political divisions." Unfortunately, Florida does not offer any more hard evidence that "cars divide America" past this analysis, so I can rest my case here. However, it is a lot more fun to keep poking holes in Florida's article, so we will continue.

Alternative Explanations

One very simple explanation for the correlations shown above is the fact that the United States is a physically huge country with varying population densities. Obviously, it makes more economic sense to build public transporation in denser areas, which means these statistics are merely a reflection of the urban-rural divide. Furthermore, Florida's colleague ironically uses "innovation" (measured in terms of patents per capita) when one of the primary reasons why cities exist is to conglomerate different related entities and services together so that they can interact efficiently. The observation that cities are hubs of innovation (if we trust Florida's statistics) and that this is somehow caused by the relative lack of cars is absurd.

Cars Got Trump Elected

Furthermore, Florida cites

The car and car-dominated infrastructure propelled suburbanization and white flight. They split our society into white, affluent suburbs and poor black and minority cities. The car shaped the rise of what Richard Nixon identified as a “silent majority” of suburban whites back in the late 1960s, and is a precursor to the suburban and rural backlash that lifted Donald Trump to victory in 2016.

Of course, this is same divide which got McCain/Palin elected in 2008, and re-elected in 2012.

Nall has written that “Democrats and Republicans have adopted increasingly different positions on spatial policy issues such as transit and highways. Transportation infrastructure has been a necessary condition of large-scale suburban growth and partisan change, facilitating migration into rural areas that were previously unoccupied and inaccessible to metropolitan commuters and workers.” In other words, the car and the infrastructure that enables it had a huge influence on the disparities that vex us today.

Of course, cars are an integral part of suburban and rural life, but Florida goes above and beyond by arguing that merely living in the suburbs and country turns people into Republicans. Thus, by extension, cars are responsible for turning people into Republicans. However, there is a simple counterargument which goes like this: people are attracted to suburban and rural living for various reasons. As a result, they vote for politicians who support their lifestyle choices.

The car’s politically divisive role extends beyond America. It has helped shape the politics of my adopted hometown of Toronto. Indeed, dependence on the car was a key factor in whether or not someone voted for the city’s late, dysfunctional mayor Rob Ford.  Ford singled out so-called “urban elites” for waging a “war on the car,” and promised supporters he would remove bike lanes to give more room on roads to drivers. According to detailed research by political scientist Zack Taylor, commuting to work by car and living in the suburbs (inside the city limits) were among the strongest factors in electoral support for Rob Ford.

Again, color me surprised that people who drive... voted for a politician who made life easier for drivers.

Lastly, say hypothetically that Democrats and Republicans drove at similar rates. Would that not severely undermine the hypothesis that cars drive political differences? Luckily for me, Florida cites

Car dependence encompasses both liberals and conservatives: 73 percent of independents, 86 percent of Republicans, and more than three-quarters of Democrats say that they depend on their cars to get to work.

The Meta-Argument

This editorial is one of thousands in the anthology of American politics which attempts to assign agency to inanimate objects, rather than recognizing that humans have free will and make choices based on their wants and needs. Florida flatly asserts that cars are "the scourge of great places" and degrade the lives of Americans, but does not provide many compelling reasons.

Why People Drive

Contrary to what Florida says, most people have good reasons for loving their cars. Here is a short list of reasons why:

  • Opportunity Cost of Time: Most people value their time, and cars save time.
  • Comfort: I don't have to worry about being pricked by hypodermic needles in my own car, and while carjackings are a thing, being in a four-ton steel box that can speed away quickly offers a lot of advantages for personal safety. Furthermore, you can also play your music as loud as you want without others complaining, and you do not have to stand for other passengers.
  • Flexibility: Have you tried transporting a sheet of plywood on a bus? Would you take your brand new flatscreen onboard the train enroute to your apartment?
  • Lifestyle: Would you much rather live in less populated areas? A lot of people do, and the car allows for that to be an option.
  • On-Demand: Generally, my car runs on my schedule. On the other hand, if the bus route between you and your destination runs on 30-minute intervals, that can be very inconvienient. Besides, has anybody ever tried asking a bus driver if they can wait for them to pick up their order at McDonalds?

Alternative

Alternatively, imagine not being able to go to the gym anymore because the bus officials decided to axe the route that goes by your apartment, and now the new route adds an extra hour to your daily commute. Or having no choice but to live in highly-populated cities because That's What's Best For Everyone ™.

Through our choices and actions, I think most Americans agree that for the forseeable future cars are here to stay.

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