Monday, September 27, 2010

Under Sclar and Paaswell's noses

On Friday the Times ran an op-ed piece by Elliott Sclar and Robert Paaswell against the City's pilot private van project. or at least the headline and cartoon were against the vans; the actual article pulled its punches at the end.

There are so many things messed up with this article, it's hard to know where to start. The best place, I guess, is with the skimpy data. This is an opinion piece, not a peer-reviewed paper, but the level of scholarship is shockingly low compared with academic Times writers like Paul Krugman and even Eric Morris. I honestly don't get it, because Sclar and Paaswell seem to write fairly well-researched and thoughtful articles for academic journals. Apparently they feel that different standards apply for a politically-oriented opinion piece, so they popped out this turd.

Sclar and Paaswell talk about private transit "in the developing world," specifically referencing Calcutta, Rio de Janeiro and Johannesburg, but they don't seem to be aware that we've had private van services operating in the New York area for at least fifteen years. Are there "higher levels of pollution and more accidents and traffic fatalities" in Flatbush, in Jamaica, in West New York? If there are, it's not particularly the fault of the vans.

Space in op-ed columns is limited, but this is an important piece of information that deserves to be mentioned. I can think of two reasons why they could have left it out. Maybe they really are clueless and don't know about the three massive local private transportation operations taking place a short subway ride from their offices, or maybe they know but are leaving it out because it spoils the picture they want to paint of Bloomberg turning New York into Calcutta. Either way, it's something they and the Times should be ashamed of.

The op-ed is a little bizarre in another way: Sclar and Paaswell assert that "the Bloomberg administration considers private transit services a temporary solution, to end as soon as the money to restart the affected routes is found." I've heard allegations to that effect, but nothing official. If it's true, it would be big news, because running one of these lines requires a major investment of time and money. If the city is asking the van owners to make that investment while all the while planning to yank their licenses when the routes start to show a profit, well that would screw them over in a major way, and Sclar and Paaswell show a serious lack of empathy for van operators by framing it this way: "informal services like commuter vans, controlled by powerful operators, can become difficult to dislodge, thanks to the political influence they wield." Well yeah, if the city encourages someone to make an investment and then arbitrarily takes it away without adequate compensation, they should be prepared for the investor to get upset.

Still, the authors don't seem quite sure whether Bloomberg wants the vans to run permanently or not, so at the end they give suggestions for both possibilities - fairly reasonable suggestions that are pretty incongruous given the ominous tone of the rest of the article.

I've got a bunch more to say about this op-ed, but this is a good place to stop for the night. Feel free to join in!

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