Give It Up, Rahm

As any urban planner, lawyer, or intelligent elected official knows, public safety is a powerful argument in support of measures undertaken by any level of government. This is particularly true of local government, which in the U.S. is responsible for most law enforcement, traffic management, and response to emergencies and disasters.

The city of Chicago in recent years has wielded this argument as the primary justification for a program using red light cameras to monitor traffic at various intersections in the absence of direct management by police officers, who cannot be everywhere. The tradeoff is simple: Violators who drive through red lights or make right turns where not allowed are cited and fined, but those violations do not appear on their driving record. That can only happen if they are cited by a police officer. Violators receive the photographic evidence of their actions in the mail with a notice to pay the fine. The assumption is that the deterrent effect of having to pay the hefty fines will reduce such behavior and make the streets safer, especially in areas near school zones. Most citizens logically assume that the premise is sound, even if the possibility of being ensnared by the law in this fashion can be annoying and deflate one’s wallet.

In the bargain, the city also increases its revenue by the amount of the fines collected, minus the cost of the contract to the vendor operating the system. In a city pinched for cash, as most are, the lure of that revenue can be pretty powerful. The city of Chicago has reportedly collected more than $500 million since the program began ten years ago. It can be hard to part with that money.

All that would probably be acceptable to most people if the premise held water. But the Chicago Tribune paid for a study by the Texas A&M University Transportation Institute to examine the safety benefits of the program and found that it essentially laid a goose egg. Mind you, this program was started under Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s predecessor, Richard M. Daley, more than a decade ago. Emanuel fired the initial contractor, Redflex Traffic Systems Inc., when it became clear that the company had bribed city officials. Now it appears that federal prosecutors have a “bagman” witness who can testify that the company offered city transportation officials incentives of $1,500 per camera to install additional cameras to enlarge the program, which now includes 350 intersections. In short, a program intended to benefit public safety and generate some municipal revenue through fines became mired in corruption. Knowledgeable voters in Chicago would like to be surprised by all this, but, well, you know. We’ve seen this kind of thing before.

What Texas A&M found out undermines the rationale for the program. The city could easily afford to pay for a similar study if it had wanted an honest evaluation of the efficacy of the program, but it has not done so. Basically, in a series that began on Sunday, December 21, the Tribune revealed that the Texas A&M study determined that, while the cameras produced an overall 15 percent reduction in right-angle “T-bone” crashes due to red light violations, it had also produced a 22 percent increase in rear-end crashes. There is a reason for this, one that many drivers in Chicago have instinctively sensed even without statistical data to verify their hunches. The city is using yellow lights that change to red in three seconds, sometimes even just a fraction less. Many of us in the city have had the unnerving experience of slamming on the brakes in the face of quickly changing yellow lights, so it is not hard intuitively to understand how the rear-end crashes would result. The city claims that this complies with a formula developed by the Institute of Traffic Engineers, but the Tribune reports that other cities, like Washington, D.C., and St. Louis, use an ITE deceleration rate that results in a yellow light time of 3.2 seconds in 30-mph zones. Maryland and Michigan use 3.5 seconds, and California and Florida 3.7 seconds where there are red light cameras. Of course, there is discretionary judgment involved, but the more conservative timing is intended to reduce the likelihood of accidents. Chicago uses timing based on posted speed limits and insists that using actual driving speeds, or providing a cushion, the basis for the longer yellow lights, effectively serves to encourage speeding.

But, of course, longer yellows might also result in fewer violations, resulting in fewer fines being imposed. That said, to the extent that shorter yellow lights are inducing, rather than reducing, accidents, the city’s rationale that the program improves public safety becomes a more questionable argument. The city finds itself in the position of possibly causing accidents in order to increase revenue.

The alternative, of course, is to argue to the contrary. The Tribune notes that Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Rebekah Scheinfeld defended the program before the city council with a simple before-and-after comparison, showing that accidents had been reduced by 47 percent between 2005 and 2013. But there were flaws in this argument. Even those with a moderately sophisticated knowledge of statistics are aware that picking two years for such a comparison can be very simplistic and subject to manipulation by failing to control for a number of confounding variables. Among those variables, the state of Illinois, during the interim, changed its minimum damage level for required accident reports from $500 to $1,500. That single change accounts for a substantial share of the difference, but is not the only factor complicating the analysis. Nonetheless, the city continues to maintain that the program benefits public safety.

One can excuse Mayor Emanuel with regard to the initial corruption scandal that tarnished the program. That happened on Daley’s watch. But after four years in office, as Emanuel prepares to run for reelection, his support of the Chicago Department of Transportation’s public safety logic makes the program his, even with a new contractor operating it.

The decision to either abandon or fix the program–to produce logical explanations for the locations of cameras, to remedy the positioning of numerous cameras at low-traffic intersections where they may well be causing more accidents than they are preventing–can also be his. Public safety is a powerful argument for municipal traffic management until it falls apart under close examination.

Fix it or give it up, Rahm. Public safety is an awesome responsibility and ought to be taken seriously, no matter how much the city cherishes all that revenue.


Jim Schwab

Holiday Promises

The holiday season is upon us, and despite having a modicum of free time that I have not enjoyed for a while, I confess—I am still struggling to compose as much material for this blog as I would prefer. But I am working on it, on some serious material on a variety of issues, and you will see it all in coming weeks. But before I get to that, I want to express some gratitude.

Although any blogger clearly blogs with the hope of finding an audience, I have been stunned in recent weeks as the number of visitors and registered users has soared, the latter number topping 2,200 as of yesterday. At the current rate of growth, I would not be surprised if there are 10,000 of you a year from now. Finding an audience of that size and on that trajectory is extremely heartwarming, and I wish you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year, as you see fit to celebrate.

Now I shall ask a favor. It has been my assumption that a reason for this growth is that there is a hunger out there for content that goes beyond the obvious, essays that explore beneath the surface, that help make sense out of complicated topics. I cannot write about everything, nor should I try, but there are topics on which I feel I can offer some real depth of analysis and understanding that will be beneficial to others. I think many people are tired of more superficial commentaries that ignore the complexity, the subtleties, and the illuminating details of many issues. But you, as readers, have to be willing to bear with the writer for more than 500 words to get to that depth.

Some time ago, a web editor told me the ideal length for blog articles is 500 to 750 words. I don’t know who has noticed, but I routinely violate that assumption because, if I feel a subject requires greater length for proper explication, I will indulge in that greater length in order to do it justice. I don’t believe in simplistic, jingoistic responses to serious issues, and I deplore the trivialization of public dialogue that I see dominating political discussion these days. Issues like climate change and improving our communities are just not susceptible to such treatment without gross distortion of the truth.

So invite your comments on why you choose to read this blog and what you might like to see, knowing that I choose not to write on a topic unless I have the time and the knowledge to offer something that I can be proud of as an author. This is your holiday gift to me—letting me learn what I am doing or should be doing here that is valuable. I look forward to the comments.

Jim Schwab

Interview with Boulder, Colorado, Mayor

This is one of those short posts that takes you to a different blog, but one for which I have direct responsibilities–the Recovery News blog at the American Planning Association website. We posted last Friday a video interview with Matthew Appelbaum, the mayor of Boulder, Colorado, exploring the lessons the city learned from the floods that afflicted the city in September 2013. Appelbaum discusses the road to recovery, the unique circumstances of the flood, and the fact that “resilience is the watchword.” I hope you enjoy listening. Click here.

Jim Schwab

America’s Problem

There has been considerable angst in recent weeks about relations between police officers and young black men, and more than a little finger-pointing. While I certainly think this nation needs ongoing discussions about how race relations affect police activity and vice versa, that is not the immediate subject of this blog. Instead, I want to turn to a different aspect of race relations in the United States that I think is undeniable, and yet will be denied by certain segments of the population. It is the ongoing inability of some people to accept the legitimacy of African American leadership even when a majority of Americans have supported it.

I spent the first week of December in Washington, D.C., at a series of meetings big and small, mostly with two federal agencies but also with others. It was only as the week was coming to a close, and I was killing time eating a dinner of shrimp, clam chowder, and beer in the Legal Sea Foods restaurant at Reagan National Airport that I got an interesting revelation by initiating a conversation with the man seated next to me at the bar, where people often get their dinner when they want faster seating than waiting for a table might provide. Besides, being a naturally gregarious sort, I find it relatively easy to strike up such conversations, which might be more difficult if I chose to sit by myself.

In this case, my conversation partner turned out to be a retired U.S. Navy officer who, among other things, talked about the challenges posed to some naval facilities by global warming and sea level rise. He manifested a trend in defense thinking that runs directly counter to Tea Party ideologues who see talk of climate change as some sort of left-wing conspiracy. This man noted the rise in sea levels in places like Diego Garcia, a remote island naval base in the Indian Ocean, and what it might mean over time. But the conversation started when he ordered a New Zealand wine, and I casually remarked on my experience with the subject after receiving some bottles of New Zealand red as gifts for speaking during my visiting fellowship there in 2008. That led to discussion of disaster work, and his comparing military response to disasters to my work on long-term community recovery through urban planning.

Somehow that led to a discussion of visits to Hawaii. I noted that, on our visit there in 2011, my wife and I had taken a rainforest tour in Oahu. It turned out that the tour guide had been a classmate of Barack Obama at the Punahoe School in Honolulu, and he joked, “I must be one of the underachievers.” But I added that he also noted that, on a previous tour, a Marine “birther” had challenged him on the idea that Obama was born in Hawaii and was thus a U.S. citizen. The tour guide laughed and said he told the Marine, “Well, I don’t know what to tell you, but I went to school with him and I knew his mother and grandparents.”

The now retired naval officer noted his disgust with those who questioned Obama’s citizenship, stating that the advocates of such nonsense had turned “a lifelong Republican into a Democrat in the last ten years.” He then expressed a desire to see the right-wing Republicans who raise such questions focus on more substantive issues and quit pursuing issues that, in his view, were a waste of everyone’s time.  He was a very practical man who preferred to solve real problems rather than chase phantoms.

It struck me that a good deal of the far-right criticism of President Obama has been of this nature, but that there is a reason. After all, even before he was elected, Obama was the target of accusations and insinuations that he was a Muslim, that he secretly hated white people, and so forth. American politics has always been to some degree a fountain of character assassination, but over the years most of it has stayed in bounds. With the Obama presidency, however, there seem to be no limits. Most of the issues I have mentioned—the birth controversy, his alleged devotion to Islam, and so forth—are issues absolutely without factual foundation, yet they have circulated and maintain a hard core of believers that polls have often shown to be in the low double digits. To me, anything above the very low single digits in support for such blatant lies is somewhat frightening. I find it troubling that so many fellow Americans readily accept and even advocate such outrageous nonsense. And, frankly, I strongly suspect that a great deal of it emanates from the inability of a certain segment of the population to accept the legitimacy of a black man, even a biracial man, in the White House. Some people seemingly cannot reconcile themselves to the reality of black political leadership at the highest level of government. Never mind the obvious fact that a sizeable minority of whites had to vote for the man, or he would never have become president in the first place.

That brings to mind a small item in Business Week’s recent special issue celebrating its 85th anniversary. The magazine lists, in reverse order, the 85 most significant disruptive innovations during its years in business. Far down the list is the Republican Party’s southern strategy, first enunciated under President Richard Nixon. The aim was to use coded racial appeals to woo the Deep South away from the Democratic Party, taking advantage of resentment among white voters over civil rights. It has worked like a charm, cementing what is now a Republican “Solid South,” but, the magazine notes, the presidency has become a “poisoned chalice” for the GOP because the party’s tactics and ideology have alienated many former adherents of the Party of Lincoln in places like California and the Northeast, which now form a solid block of Democratic support. As a long-time Chicagoan, I would add to that Illinois, which after all generated Obama in the first place. What is interesting in Illinois is that Republicans can win here—but only if they are socially moderate while fiscally conservative. State Comptroller Judy Baar Topinka, who died recently only a month after winning re-election to statewide office, was a testament to that proposition, and someone who routinely criticized the more extreme factions of the Republican Party. Bruce Rauner, the governor-elect who defeated Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn, made obvious appeals to and inroads into the African American community. The state fiscal mess created by Illinois’s Democratic legislative leaders added to Quinn’s vulnerability because of his perceived inability to gain control of the situation.

But try to elect a Tea Party or far-right Republican statewide, and you are headed for electoral disaster. Obama handily defeated such a candidate, Alan Keyes (also African American), in 2004 to become U.S. Senator. Illinois voters tolerate many things, but extremism is not one of them.

Now, mind you, I do not mean to imply that any disagreement with President Obama is suspect on these grounds. There is plenty of room to disagree with any U.S. president, and I cannot think of any in my lifetime with whom I would not have some differences on some issues. That includes Obama; there are decisions he has made with which I can at least quibble, and some to which I have serious objections. In most cases, however, there is a good deal of room for compromise. Instead, in Obama’s case, from the very beginning there have been indications that some people had no intention of reaching accommodation with him on any issues whatsoever. The degree of vituperation and name calling has been at times absurd, shameful, and ridiculous.

I don’t think it is unreasonable to see this vituperation as a backdrop to the whole discussion that is now taking place on the streets about police relations with minorities. It is a testament to the fact that there are more than a few among us who lack any capacity to put themselves in someone else’s shoes, especially the shoes of anyone of a different ethnic or racial group. It goes without saying that those lacking capacity for empathy are usually the last to recognize that fact.


Jim Schwab