Wednesday, February 9, 2011

The limitations of the David and Goliath script

Last week I called Greg Mocker out about focusing on drivers' problems without addressing pedestrian issues. He had already filed one story about sidewalks, and he followed it up with another one tonight. He's also got a great story about express bus riders on 34th Street, which is something I'm interested in. He's clearly a very good sport and didn't take my criticism personally.

Mocker is very good at confronting bureaucrats who aren't doing their jobs, and that's a very valuable public service. But as we saw with the snowstorm, things get very sticky very quickly when you get beyond simple incompetence and corruption, and into the area of priorities.

In the snow cleanup, there were a number of priorities that had to be set by bureaucrats, ultimately accountable to the elected officials who appointed them. After emergency routes, what should be cleared next, side streets or sidewalks? Streets or park walkways? Roads or bike lanes?

Similarly, the 34th Street busway is part of a deliberate plan by Transportation Commissioner Sadik-Khan to raise the priority of bus riders and pedestrians relative to drivers, taxi passengers and local residents who are getting deliveries. The Prospect Park West bike lane is an effort by Sadik-Khan to raise the priority of cyclists and pedestrians relative to drivers. These priorities are all set with the approval of Sadik-Khan's boss, Mayor Bloomberg.

The congestion pricing and Ravitch bridge toll battles were also efforts by Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson to collect more money from motorists, but it was largely spun as the Out-of-touch Billionaire Mayor and the Out-of-touch Bumbling Governor versus the Hard-Working Outer Borough Drivers.

Sometimes the news people manage to get the right frame of two groups competing for street space or budget dollars or lower taxes, but they often seem to be incapable of getting out of the David and Goliath frame. The irony of this is apparent when you have two reporters from the same television channel (WPIX 11) covering both sides of the same story: Debra Alfarone interviews wealthy white Manhattanites fighting the DOT to stop them from providing better bus service, while Greg Mocker interviews a middle-class Black woman from Queens fighting the MTA for better bus service. In reality it's the wealthy white Manhattanites fighting the middle-class Black woman from Queens, but that's not the kind of David vs. Goliath story that sells television advertising.

That's the heart of the issue, really: that behind an apparent David and Goliath story of Outraged Residents confronting the Heartless Bureaucrats may be a much uglier story. The Outraged Residents may actually be a few wealthy or upper-middle-class people protecting their privilege and convenience at the expense of the convenience - or often the safety and well-being - of much larger numbers of less fortunate people, and the Heartless Bureaucrats may actually be engaged in an emotionally draining struggle to protect these less fortunate people.

The dilemma for Channel Eleven is that both groups may be viewers who will stop watching the Ten o'Clock News if they come out looking like selfish jerks. Some may even be advertisers who will pull ads if they come out looking like selfish jerks. So it's quite understandable that they would avoid showing the Outraged Residents as selfish jerks, even if they pretty clearly are.

I'm glad that Greg Mocker is actually standing up for the little guy, but it may get him into trouble if he takes it too far. If he does get into trouble, he may jump ship and go with another outlet that supports serious muckraking. If he stays, I would ask that he try to keep to issues of clear bureaucratic incompetence, rather than blaming the bureaucrats for setting priorities that help the little guys.

Addendum: Jarrett has a nice post giving me "Quote of the Week" - but also pointing out that he said much the same thing a month ago. I'm sure that Jarrett's post put the idea in my head, so I'm sorry I didn't remember it in time to give him credit! He's got a great take on the issue, and I will tweet it to Greg Mocker forthwith!


jazumah said...

Congestion pricing is all about cashing the MTA out of the city budget. It has nothing to do with traffic reduction or road pricing to charge motorists for their impacts because these funds are unlikely to make it into the infrastructure in place of general dollars. It is designed to take the MTA completely out of the general fund. This will result in a net decrease of MTA dollars because the RMT will have to be reduced in the suburbs for it to pass.

The only way Mocker gets into trouble is if he uncovers the fact that some of these problems are caused by incompetence. The only thing worse than evil governments are incompetent governments.

Cap'n Transit said...

Yes, I saw when you posted that first paragraph on Streetblog, Joel. You may be right; I don't know how you could know that for sure. But regardless, the reduction in congestion will allow buses to go faster, and many drivers will switch to transit, increasing ridership. This is why privately owned bus lines succeed in New Jersey.

jazumah said...

I expect a modal shift to transit, but this also has the potential to paralyze the Trans Manhattan Expressway and the George Washington Bridge. Those areas aren't exactly quiet now. The GWB bus lines are already fighting for their lives. They need bus priority up there or those routes will die.

The other issue stems from the "then what" aspect of congestion pricing. It is bad to shift more people to transit if there is no protection of the transit budget. The MTA's rainy day fund is gone because of the state budget. Are they going to have the resources to pump up service?

Tolling the East River bridges was supposed to generate $600M on its own. That added to the core pricing proposal is right around the yearly city MTA contribution. This is part of wht makes it obvious.

ACTC said...

The point beyond congestion pricing is that if you discourage people from driving in the city you deal with congestion issues and also encourage same people to ride transit which increases transit revenue from fares. So, hopefully, congestion is reduced and transit services improved…
Besides that, when living in Pittsburgh it seems that the MTA does a good job for their riders.