Ideology versus Scholarship

One of the most irritating aspects of contemporary policy debates is the lack of respect for evidence, and the willingness–even eagerness– to cherry-pick information. (This intellectual dishonesty can be treacherous for academic researchers who are increasingly approached by ideologically-motivated funders wanting to buy specific results rather than honest analyses.)

In Indianapolis, we are seeing an example of this tactic in connection with the proposal to improve our public transportation system, beginning with a bus rapid-transit project called the Red Line.

Let me be clear: people who oppose the project may have perfectly good reasons for that opposition. I happen to support the Red Line, but I am certainly not suggesting that all opposition is dishonest or disingenuous.

Some, however, is.

The Indianapolis Star reports that opponents of the Red Line commissioned a “study” from Randal O’Toole of the Cato Institute. Cato, of course, is a libertarian think-tank opposed to much of what governments do. I find them congenial on issues of civil liberties, but disagree with their resistance to virtually all regulatory efforts and social welfare programs. (I might note that the largest financial supporters of Cato have been the Koch Brothers.)

Mr. O’Toole comes with a “point of view” and a reputation as an opponent of mass transit; he makes his living speaking and writing as an “anti-transit expert.” That wouldn’t disqualify his argument if he had tendered an accurate report, but apparently this was a “cut and paste” job. It certainly displays a lack of familiarity with Indianapolis.

A few observations:

  • He says there are only 73,000 downtown jobs, and a population density of 2,100/per square mile. The Public Policy Institute at IUPUI, which tracks these numbers, finds that in just the 2.8 square miles around the Circle, there are more than 120,000 workers  (an employment density of 42,000 per square mile). The total number of downtown workers is actually 137,000.
  • He says that IndyGo has “not made any effort” to determine the feasibility of this effort or the possible alternatives. Had he done even a cursory investigation, he’d have found that this proposal is the end result of decades of study–including a 2013 analysis of alternatives.
  • He asserts that “Transit is largely irrelevant to most Indianapolis residents.” That would come as a shock to the thousands of people who depend upon IndyGo now, and the additional thousands who are flocking to new housing options in the urban core (in contradiction to his assertion that there is “little demand” for urban living). Ten percent of those moving into the booming downtown housing market do not own cars, and have expressed a preference for public transportation.
  • His blithe comment also ignores the growing number of seniors throughout the metropolitan area who can no longer drive, and the people with disabilities who rely on transit or would if it was more convenient. (As with most of his assertions, he cites no surveys or other authority  supporting this facile dismissal.)
  • He says the reason transit is “so little used” in Indianapolis is because “nearly everyone has access to a car.” (If you don’t happen to be one of those lucky folks, well, tough. File that one under “let them eat cake.”) Actual scholarship supports a rather different thesis: current routes and too-long headways discourage use by people who would opt for transit if it was more frequent and dependable.
  • He calls electric buses an “environmental disaster” because electricity is generated by coal. He has only been in Indianapolis twice in 30 years, so perhaps he didn’t hear that IPL’s Harding Street plant recently switched from coal to natural gas. Or that IndyGo has access to solar arrays to power its electric fleet.) It’s just more of those pesky facts about Indianapolis that are inconvenient for his “analysis.”

I could go on. And on.

Suffice it to say that Mr. O’Toole is a propagandist, not a researcher. (Interestingly, O’Toole recently argued against light rail with a commentary titled “Rapid-Bus Systems a Smarter Investment Than Light Rail in U.S.” Blatant inconsistencies were easier to hide before Google.)

What O’Toole does provide is an example–as if we needed another one–of today’s “spin it to win it” approach to policy argumentation. It’s an approach that can be particularly effective when, as here, an honest debate requires accurate data and background information that most citizens are unlikely to have.

What was that famous line from Pat Moynahan? We’re all entitled to our own opinions, but we aren’t entitled to our own facts. Someone should tell Mr. O’Toole.


  1. 1. City buses are just about the perfect place to use Hydrogen power. It can be created 24/7 by wind, solar and other (less friendly) methods

    2. Hydrogen works with Fuel Cell buses and can also work well in internal combustion engines. It only puts out water vapor (in fuel cell use) – Perfect for urban use.

    3. Rather that reinvent the wheel, WHY do we not put some nice red buses on the street NOW and see how it goes. We do NOT have to rebuild the streets to put buses into service. If tons of folks flock to the service GREAT. But that seems more realistic than guessing. We must have bus stock that could be put to that use. TRY IT please. Then we have facts, not speculation.
    (40 years ago My brother and I put a couple of WWII Era buses on the road in WI. We ran service like what is being proposed for Red Line. We had CLEAN, nice OLD buses and people rode them. NO HELP from the government but it worked – People LIKED it — and USED it)
    Just sayin….

  2. He’s not the only one guilty of cherry-picking. If you happened to read the last Chicks on the Right column in the Star, they cited a study entitled The Prosperity Index and misquoted one of the findings to support their position that one reason the US has fallen from the top 10 in prosperity is that people don’t want to work hard. The report actually said something much different.

    The Prosperity Index also said that the most prosperous economies in the world are prosperous because they invest in educating their populations and their governments/economies are not biased in favor of the wealthiest. There was a link between successful government and successful entrepreneurship. The studies they cited also stated that the most prosperous economies promoted diversity. The Chicks didn’t happen to mention any of this.

    I wrote a response to the Star which was never published. One would imagine that our buddies in the state house would want to be aware of these facts.

  3. While I cannot comment on Indy mass transportation, I do recognize your statement about funders wanting to buy specific results.

    For many years Monsanto has been buying so-called research from public universities. They require studies on their chemicals to show no harm to the environment, human beings, wildlife, etc., etc.. If a professor/researcher at any of those universities refuses to create reports based upon the lies they are ordered to tell the public, either they lose their job or the university loses many millions of dollars that are “donated” annually. Most universities have come to rely on these “donations” and feel too much financial pressure to not comply with Monsanto’s demands. A few years ago a Professor Emeritus at Purdue finally went public about this several years after he had retired and felt safe enough to tell his story.

    Monsanto is just one example of one corporate giant. We all know there are many more that do this and pharmaceutical companies do the same thing. The EPA and FDA are essentially owned by powerful corporations.

    What a sad state of affairs this is.

    Greed is destroying our environment and our lives and every other living being on this planet.

  4. A very wise old friend told me years ago that anyone can find statistics to prove their point if they know where to look. Today; we have access to Internet sources leading to further sources, et al. Are the people espousing those “too lazy to work” regarding the poverty level those too lazy to look further for facts? I have benefited greatly from this source of information; not only providing facts and figures but getting an education not otherwise available.

    I used city bus service when feasible years ago; when service was more readily available and provided service in areas now avoided for whatever reasons. From what I have read; the areas without public transportation are the areas where it is most needed. What is the cost today? That reference to people’s access to cars didn’t take into account downtown parking which has been a problem on many levels, monthly or one-time-only need, for many years. The Red Line route I saw would only service a specific area of need (is that the source of disagreement?) but it could be a beginning of improvement in an area of need that continues to decline in this city.

    I was a driver as part of “car pooling” years ago when bus service was not convenient. One lot near the City-County Building offered special low rates for this service. The 50 year lease of parking meters; raising not only the initial fees but expanded hours requiring payment, is another argument for expanding public transportation. This is nothing that will happen overnight; nor will it be accomplished all at once before the end of a start-up year – if there is a start-up to resolve local needs.

    How long will these debates continue before any action is taken to either “poo poo or get off the pot”?

  5. Thank you Sheila, for this column. I hope you will send it to our State House “leaders.” My husband is 80 years old and rides the bus to work downtown. Without the bus, he would not be able to get to work. I taught at Univ. of Indianapolis and had to drive from the north side to U Indy daily – a long and tedious trek. Would that the Red Line had been running then!

  6. JoAnn:

    I usually find free parking on Park Ave. then walk to Mass Ave area. My last trip I noticed that all of the free parking spaces are getting meters. Maybe I should just avoid downtown?

  7. When I moved back to Indianapolis three years ago one of the requirements I stipulated to my realtor was that the house had to be near a bus line. A good investment to my way of thinking. So happy to report that I do use the bus, and often. Fast, efficient, and cheap. What’s not to like?

  8. Part of the challenge is we’ve seemingly moved in two directions at once. Collaboration amount like minded folks is increasing but if you aren’t of the same ideology we tend to talk to rather than discuss with. Seems to me our system was built around thoughtful discussion and compromise. Hope social media and modern interaction evolve to the point we get back to that and away form my facts says v. your facts say. I, perhaps naively believe, that the best answer is derived out of the tension between opposing facts.

  9. Sadly, facts no longer matter. Perception has become reality, so if we want to change minds and change the future, we have to change perceptions.

  10. daleb; you have a personal problem. I cannot make the decision for you; if they are installing parking meters where you normally park to get to Mass Ave you will either have to pay the parking meters or find parking spaces further from your destination. Or, as you said, avoid downtown.

    My comments were aimed at those who work downtown or must go there on business occasionally. If you live in the Park Avenue/Mass Ave area; I read recently that residents are having difficult finding parking spaces near their homes due to those there for the entertainment on Mass Ave. You might seek them out to join them with your complaint/problem finding free parking spaces. You might want to know if residents are now being forced to pay to park near their homes.

  11. We are a major city with a thriving inner core. You’re not going to find much free parking in front of many restaurants, theatres, and other venues unless they have their own lot. When downtown was sleepy and there was little to do, you could park for free. Now that this is no longer the case, it will be the exception not the rule.

  12. The root cause of many of the problems brought up here is that wrenching change is upon us. In much less than the lifespan of most who comment here the combination of continuing population growth (including voluntary relocation to the best places) and limited resources (raw material, energy sources, waste disposal) will require massive change. Not request, require.

    Everybody reacts to that by limited vision, knowledge and imagination and from the prospective of self centeredness and greed (a la Kochs).

    If we just examine urban transportation as an example: the keys are energy and automation. Driverless will be the norm. The question is what size. 2 passenger? 6 to 8 passenger? 50 passenger? I personally think 2 but can’t say that I have actually researched it.

    Hydrogen is a possible choice for “battery” technology – how to get the energy from when and where it’s produced from the sun or its effects on the atmosphere (wind) or the hydrologic cycle (water) to the end user (but I doubt that it will bump out electricity as it’s so easy to distribute).

    The best route is under everything else. Cities with subways are way ahead of the game. Those without will have to choose between very costly infrastructure or inconvenient congestion.

    Making these massive changes will require an effective marriage of capitalism and socialism just as we won WWII and pioneered the space race with.

    Of course the magnitude of the change will be determined by complete rethinking of collaboration. The reduction of moving people to together because of its enormous cost in moving bodies rather than moving their thoughts.

    The future will belong to the technologically bold and those who accept that whether we all own a means of production or a few of us own it is largely immaterial and very specific to the nature of the product.

  13. As an example, retail stores were once the grand dammes of downtown. Then they moved to the suburbs. Next they’ll move to the Internet. Who looses? Retailers who depend on the marketing value of face to face and presence. Who wins? Consumers and package delivery services.

  14. Another example. Food markets, before “super”, were farmers selling to cooks. Then packaging was developed to enable supermarkets. Since then cooks largely have disappeared enabling supermarkets to move to prepared food picked up in the neighborhood.

    Next (I predict)? The expansion of the pizza industry into all foods home delivered and ready to eat.

    What follows that (I hope)? The revival of the front porch so that people spend time face to face with their neighbors.

  15. Remember, we are the Neandrathals of the future. People some day will look back on us and say:

    “How could they have lived like that.”

    “I’m glad that I was born when I was.”

  16. Thanks Sheila for doing such a good job of researching the study which received much publicity. I hope you send this blog to the local media outlets.

  17. Very interesting topic. When we lived in Germany for 3 yrs, we didn’t own a vehicle and had to use the buses and trains/trams to get everywhere. We left our apartment one day and got to the airport and flew all of the way to the states without using a vehicle. I only know of a few cities in the US where that is even possible!

    We have our vehicle here and we rarely use it. It’s mostly used for weekly grocery trips and long or short distance vacations by vehicle. Otherwise, we can catch a tram, get to the airport and fly anywhere in the world. I know the answer to the problem in the states, for decades it’s been “oil subsides” and that’s why everyone that lives outside of major cities, HAS to have a vehicle. It’s time to end the oil company’s welfare but the people must make the effort to end it. You know, a political revolution to undo the damage that these welfare queens have done to the states.

    And I believe that the mindset needs to change as well. That one which is unspoken. That only poor people use the bus which is laughable here in Western Europe. At least in the country I live in, the trains, trams and buses are modern, clean and used by primary school aged kids. The only children that get a ride to school by Mom are the Americans.

  18. I don’t have much of a dog in this fight, because I live in northwest Indiana and only visit Indianapolis when I have to. On the other hand, we frequent Chicago a lot. A few days ago, we had to be in Indianapolis and were struck by the large number of broad highways with frequent stoplights. I remarked to my wife that I-65 and the Indianapolis roads were a much worse experience than the Dan Ryan and driving through Chicago, where you can at least get from one place to the other with some sanity. Sure, Chicago has traffic, but Indy is a really bad experience. Moreover, Chicago woke up to the fact a long time ago that intracity trains and developed public transportation is in everyone’s best interest. The only question was how quickly they could do it and for how much. Without that, Indianapolis’s streets will only get wider which is a poor response to congestion, and will not get the public where it needs to go. Better wake up. The twentieth century has come and gone. But Indy’s lack of vision is only consistent with Indiana’s tendency to look backward and remain that way, so getting around Indianapolis is only a metaphor for Indiana.

  19. The one thing that can be said about opposition to the Red Line is that our city visionaries seem to have a penchant for flashy projects that somehow seem to end up in Hamilton County. The Red Line sounds fabulous, but using it to go downtown would entail a 4-mile walk for me. Same thing for the now-scrapped light rail lines.

    In their stead, it would be nice if the unglamorous No. 28 bus line close to my house could run more often than once an hour.

  20. A deal much bigger in Europe than here are community bicycles. They work well for everyone from many different perspectives.

    When cars are driverless and we collectively are smarter perhaps community cars will also be a profound solution here.

  21. I do not live on a bus route. If I would need to go to, say, Central Library from my home near 79th and Georgetown, using only foot and bus transportation, it would take me 1 hour 7 minutes. The closest bus stop is 0.6 miles away and I would have to travel on 79th Street, which is pretty busy and has no sidewalks, but it would be doable. If I want to go to Castleton Square and only use my feet and the bus, I would have to walk 1.6 miles to Georgetown and W. 86th Street to the bus stop there; the whole trip would take me 1 hour, 12 minutes. The biggestwalking portion would be on Georgetown Road which is extremely busy and carries a lot of truck and semi traffic. Georgetown has no sidewalks and narrow shoulders. I shouldn’t care to attempt this, although I realize people without cars have to do this daily. When I see something like the Red Line proposed, all I can see is that it won’t help most Marion County residents in the slightest, and it will end up being another freebie for people in Hamilton and Johnson counties, borne by us chumps, the Indianapolis taxpayers, who never are without our pockets being picked. I have heard there would be a federal grant for the Red Line, but eventually we will end up paying for bus service for people who fled Marion County and took their money with them. How moral is it to subsidize folks who, after all, knew what they were getting into once they moved farther away?

  22. I live 1/2 mile from College which I presume puts me in the target market for people who will magically change from driving to riding the bus with the Red Line. I have a son with special needs and thought bus transportation might work for him so I tried walking to College with him to ride the bus. No sidewalks, foot-wide bike lanes, texting and speeding drivers. Forget it. There were four other people on the bus. If we could safely get to the bus stop, the line serves all our needs. However, if I lived downtown or in a truly blighted area (not Meridian Kessler), then I would prefer to go up and down Keystone where there are businesses like Meijer and Lowes and the Glendale Mall accessible to me. The road is wider too. Why Broad Ripple bars and Fresh Market instead? Show us a true progressive plan based on common sense that actually helps people and maybe more people would support it. And the numbers do not support it, by the way.

  23. I think the monon trail should have been kept a rail way for passenger service. You could put up park and ride stations up north for rail transportation to downtown. Although the walking path is great too. What Indy hasn’t figured out is how to manage to get both. And, safe bike lanes.

    Sidewalks are everywhere here and they are cleaned by the city workers that also do trash and recycle removals for living wages. These are basic services that your tax dollars should be paying for. You know, socialist clean sidewalks and park and ride areas. We have a grocery store on every other corner in these villages that’s why they thrive.

    Indy needs to create a new reality but those theocratic old white guys running the state are more worried about taking away your personal liberties and shoving religious freedom down your throat, as long as its Christian. ugh.

  24. Good post. A side note: Residents that live on College will be impacted greatly. As such, said residents that oppose the Red Line fall in the honest and genuine group? Hopefully.

  25. Sheila, I hope you will write something about the impact of social media on civic literacy. Following such conversations on the Red Line (and the proposed redevelopment of the AT&T site on College Avenue south of Kessler Boulevard) highlights evidence that regular repetition of misinformation through social media can have a dramatically disruptive effect on community progress. I agree with Drew that the best results come from public discourse involving facts versus facts, but how can that be achieved when only one side of a disagreement employs facts, while the opposition uses opinions, or even falsehoods? Appeals to civic knowledge are not sufficient in the face of inflammatory rhetoric picked up via social media and repeated endlessly, even by neighborhood nonprofits and other civic organizations. Examination of the facts does not seem to be in vogue right now.

  26. It has long been my contention that when we try to compare “think tanks” we should read their mission statements.
    Those on the Right have a mission to prove their point of view or solve problems within the world view of their ideology.
    In contrast, those on the Left are just looking for answers (it is the “liberal” issues that they address and the inherent “liberal-tilt” of reality that makes them “liberal” think tanks).

  27. The Red Line is the first step in a large expansion of mass transit in Indianapolis. Change always take adjustment, but we have needed a comprehensive approach for decades. This route has the greatest density and connects four higher ed institutions, access to downtown in a reliable, fast mode, and provides access to 100,000 downtown jobs. A huge economic shot in the arm, and transportation officials in DC begged IndyGo to apply.

    More facts,

    U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx lauded the “bold, forward-looking proposals” put forth by the President. Asked specifically how the Red Line qualified for the grants award, he replied, “In Indianapolis, jobs are concentrated in a ring around the city, and there is a population in the center of the city that needs access to those jobs. The Red Line proposal aims to provide greater access to job opportunities and to achieve the local community vision of how that can be accomplished.”

    IndyGo President and CEO Mike Terry was thrilled by the grant announcement and concurred with Secretary Foxx’s assessment. “This particular first phase will access 100,000 jobs that already exist along the corridor plus four higher education institutions and the state’s largest medical complex,” he said. “It’s going to add another dimension to transportation options and help us further demonstrate how multimodal this community can be.”

    The funding will enable IndyGo to begin Phase 1 construction of the Red Line in spring 2017. Construction will occur in phases, each lasting approximately three months. Completion is estimated at 18 months after breaking ground. Service could begin as early as fall 2018.

    The Small Starts Grant covers approximately 78% of the project cost and required a local match. IndyGo secured its $18 million share by combining monies from the Downtown Tax Increment Finance (TIF) District and general funds from the City of Indianapolis Department of Public Works (DPW). According to IndyGo’s grant application to USDOT, it has budgeted sufficient funds to operate and maintain the system in its first full year of operation.

  28. I do not usually respond. But, I live in Indy and I own a car. I also live and work downtown. But, the reason that I would ride public transportation is that it is truly the best way to get around. It is liberating. I am living in downtown Rome, Italy for the next 3 months. I have been riding the bus to work every day and it is so easy (and less expensive than Indy) to catch a bus and get to anywhere in the city. I have friends in Boston that do not own cars by choice. They take public transportation everywhere. If they NEED a car, they rent one for the weekend or even for a week. But for ordinary every-day life, they never need one. If good public transportation comes to Indy, you can count me in. I will leave the car in the garage.

  29. “He says there are only 73,000 downtown jobs, and a population density of 2,100/per square mile.” In making that statement, I was using a standard definition of “Central Business District” and comparing Indianapolis to cities like Washington, Chicago, and Boston where transit carries a high percentage of people to work. You can use a larger definition of downtown, but applying that definition would also increase the number of jobs in those other cities. Whatever your definition, only about 1.5 percent of Indianapolis commuters take transit to work and one of the reasons it is so small is so few jobs are located downtown,

    “He asserts that “Transit is largely irrelevant to most Indianapolis residents.” That would come as a shock to the thousands of people who depend upon IndyGo now”
    Yes, some people ride transit, but not very many. IndyGo carried an average of 36,000 trips per weekday in 2014. Transit in Orlando, slightly larger than Indianapolis, carried 100,000. Transit in Milwaukee, slightly smaller, carried 142,000 and Columbus 133,000.

    “His blithe comment also ignores the growing number of seniors throughout the metropolitan area who can no longer drive, and the people with disabilities who rely on transit or would if it was more convenient.”
    Contrary to your implication, my report said nothing at all about seniors or disabled people, many of whom use paratransit. Bus-rapid transit is no substitute for paratransit.

    “(As with most of his assertions, he cites no surveys or other authority supporting this facile dismissal.)”
    Actually, my short paper came with nearly 40 citations to data published by the Department of Transportation, Census Bureau, and other reputable sources.

    “He says the reason transit is “so little used” in Indianapolis is because “nearly everyone has access to a car.”
    That’s one example. My report clearly points to census data showing that 97.5 percent of Indianapolis workers have access to a car, and of the 2.5 percent who don’t, more drive to work than take transit.

    “He calls electric buses an “environmental disaster” because electricity is generated by coal.”
    No, I said it was generated by fossil fuels. Using IPL’s projected sources of energy in the future, not its past sources, I was able to calculate that the battery-powered buses IndyGo wants to use on the Red Line will produce about four times the greenhouse gases of standard Diesel-powered buses. If you have actual data refuting this, I’d like to see it.

    My analyses are based on facts, data from impeccable sources, and IndyGo’s own projections of costs and ridership (which are less impeccable). You can read my report at

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