False Equivalence, Scale and Scope Edition

Getting wrong on purpose

When you look at a kiddie pool and then look at the ocean and say, “The kiddie pool and the ocean are both full of water, therefore they are the same,” you are guilty of committing the logical fallacy known as false equivalence, specifically as to the matter of scale. Yes both objects contain water, but they are otherwise not much alike, with one containing about 326,000,000 cubic miles of water and the other holding about 0.000000000002 cubic miles of water.

Then, when you look at a blue car and then look at the blue sky and say, “The car and the sky are both blue, therefore they are the same,” you have done it again, but this time erred toward scope. Both are indeed blue, yet there are no other realistic comparisons between the endless sky and a hunk of metal trapped by gravity.

This piece by Dug Begley of the Houston Chronicle is a good example of scale-and-scope false equivalence in action, and the very presence of such a piece, not to say the underlying issues presented in the piece, is a measurable part of why road use in the US is never a grown-up conversation and why driver culture so persistently rejects cyclists and other non-motor vehicle road users.

Let’s break it down:

The title
Cycling deaths continue despite safety efforts

If it were shooting victims, rather than people on bicycles, that were dying (at an alarming rate, as the piece later informs us), the headline would read,

Gun deaths continue despite safety efforts.

Sure, it is fair to say that a ‘cyclist death’ or a ‘driver death’ is accurate because it describes what the decedent was doing when he was killed died, and the fact that ‘gun deaths’ are not described as ‘people standing around deaths’ may be beside the point and is definitely not within the scope of this discussion.

In any event, making a headline that reads ‘cycling deaths’ is a subtle form of victim-blaming, as it casts cycling as a dangerous activity. Statistically speaking, cyclists die when they collide with motor vehicles traveling at transit speeds, yet we don’t say Motorists continue killing cyclists.

The lede
Here are the first two grafs of the piece:

“Houston motorists and bicyclists share at least one attribute: blame.

“We get a lot of complaints from motorists and cyclists about the other group,” said Lt. Michelle Chavez, who heads up special operations for the Houston Police Department, including efforts to educate drivers and riders on safer streets.”

It is an accepted tenet of journalism that you make your point right up front, this is called the lede. Casual readers can move on, getting the gist of the story, while interested readers can dig in. In fact, an easy way to get readers pissed off is to start a story with one angle or seeming to make one point, then changing direction mid-story.

So here, the writer creates the false equivalence, that drivers complain about cyclists, and cyclists complain about drivers and it’s alllllll a big he-said-she-said, so golly WHO KNOWS WHO’S RIGHT?

The next graf even makes sure you get the scale wrong:

“With hundreds of thousands of drivers and thousands of cyclists, it can be an uphill battle to make sure everyone knows the rules of the road.”

In the first place, look at the second clause: …”it can be an uphill battle to make sure everyone knows the rules of the road.” This is a simple matter, as all road users are legally required to know the law. Ignorance is no excuse and framing a situation of conflict as a matter of ‘education’ forgives ignorance and establishes an expectation that compliance is a fuzzy area.

Then move to the start of the sentence: Hundreds of thousands of drivers. Population numbers can be tough to suss, but let us try and do some maths:

Houston’s 2010 ‘Greater Houston’ population was 6,500,000, while its ‘urban’ population was 4,900,000. Its ‘city proper’ population was 2,100,000. Even though we all know that many (many, many) people that live outside the city proper will commute by car into it, the principal of conservatism suggests I go with the smallest number, so as not to be seen as exaggerating.

Now that we have the ‘population border’ we want to use, let us use the the most recent numbers available. For both commuting by bike and general population, the most recent numbers are 2012 and 2013, in which the population of Houston proper hovered right at 2,200,000 people. That is our starter number for estimating the numbers of drivers and of cyclists.

Next, we need to determine the number of people old enough to drive. According to the US Census latest estimates, there are 316,000,000 total people in the US (a little higher, but let’s round down for conservatism), with 75,000,000+ people under 18 years of age, so let’s round up for conservatism to 76,000,000. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum, there are 44,000,000+ million people 65 and over, in the age band when people stop driving. I could have used the 6,000,000+ million people in the 85 and over age band, because it feels like no one stops driving at 65, but I am not an economist, so let us be liberal in the application of the principle of conservatism and round the 65+ number up to 45,000,000 people.

The too-young to drive and too-old to drive (in our conservative estimates) total 121,000,000 people. That is 38.3% of the US population that is in the ‘mostly not drivers’ category, let us round down (conservatism) to 38%, one minus that number is 62%, or 195,900,000 people, let’s round down to 195,000,000 (conservatism), this is now our estimate of the percentage and number of US Americans that are old enough to drive.

If we apply the national rate to Houston, using the numbers we have specified, 62% of 2,200,000 is 1,364,000 people old enough to drive in Houston proper.

If we know that, as of 2013, 76% of US American workers drove to work alone (other reports have that number as high as 90%, but you guessed it, conservatism), then applying that number to the Houston ‘eligible to drive’ number, 76% of 1,364,000 people is 1,036,640 people driving around Houston, we will round down to 1,036,000.

Here we have made some assumptions, this is a back of the envelope analysis and not an academic one, basically that the 76% driver number applies all to those with full-time work, as well as part-timers and unemployed-outside-the-homers, because while the latter two may not drive to work every day, they do drive to take care of other business. Note also, this is a conservative estimate, and does not take into considerations factors that would be revealed in a deeper look at the area, for example I have been to Houston, and if ever there was a metro area designed for driving, it is Houston, therefore we may expect that there are actually more drivers in Houston than the national average, however conservatism says we do not assume this.

And that takes us back to the ‘hundreds of thousands of drivers’ comment in the linked piece. My conservative math says it is actually over a million, rhetorically speaking, the author could have written ‘with a million drivers,’ and not be overstating. A more liberal, more in-depth analysis would likely reveal the number is likely much higher than a million drivers, accounting for metro population, urban design and transit options. Maybe close to four million total metro area.

The other side of the equation is ‘thousands of cyclists.’ This is another maths number. The League of American Bicyclists estimated 0.4% of Houston workers commuted by bike in 2012, that would be about 8,800, in LAB’s 2013 report, that number had grown somehow to 0.8% (or double 2012’s number), while the growth in population and bike commuters was otherwise stable from 2012 (this means LAB’s 2013 maths say 0.4%, the same as 2012, but the report indicates 0.8%, so perhaps there is an unseen variable).

Extending the principle of conservatism, if we assume the number of bike commuters is 0.8% of the total 2012-2013 population, then round up to 1.0% to account for non-commuting recreational, touring and leisure cyclists, that yields the number 22,000 cyclists actively engaging in the activity in the Houston area.

As a percentage of our total estimate of 1,036,000 drivers in Houston proper, 22,000 is 2.1%, meaning that for every cyclist on the street in Houston, there are 46 motor vehicle drivers. The math is probably a lot worse actually, our conservative accounting principles are in place so the Committed Driver reading this does not accuse me of lies or damn lies.

And that brings us back to Houston Chronicle piece, which led with ‘both drivers and cyclists accuse each other of bad behavior.’

And that is the issue of scale. Look again at the numbers. The drivers outnumber the cyclists about 50 to 1. What possibly could such a small minority of road users be doing to generate enough complaints to make it into the lede of a Houston Chronicle story, a newspaper serving a metro area of 6.5 million people?

Because it cannot possibly be the mythical scofflaw cyclist. For every cyclist that rolls a stop sign or rides the wrong way on a one-way street or ‘impedes traffic’ (not actually a thing, but an accusation borne of ignorance), there are 50 drivers speeding or rolling a stop sign or gunning on yellow or changing lanes without signaling. Law-breaking among drivers is highly normalized, meaning that everyone does it, no one notices it and no one considers it a measure of bad character, while majority driver perceptions of minority cyclists result in unfair and false conclusions about the behavior of the cyclists population at large because of the performance (or apparent performance) of a small minority of a small minority of non-motor vehicle driving road users.

Imagine yourself in a room with 50 other people, waiting in a buffet line. The 50 other people are all dressed alike and relentlessly cut the line ahead of you for food. You lodge a complaint with management, and then in order to get fed, you attempt to cut the line yourself, clearly established as socially acceptable in this situation, which results in 50 complaints about you to management. No reasonable person would consider this situation and conclude that both parties are at fault.


And that brings us to the second half of the story, the matter of scope. Drivers have long thought of cyclists as the two-wheeled menace, disregarding the law with a sneer, reveling in ‘impeding’ traffic, failing to move at maximum speed. The real issue is rooted in physics.

See, a motor vehicle is 2000+ pounds of streaking metal, as the speed of the motor vehicle increases, the outcome of a collision with a pedestrian, cyclist or other unprotected road user becomes very lethal very quickly. A driver is capable of creating orders of magnitude more chaos in the form of personal injury and property damage than a 200-lb cyclist traveling at human-powered speeds on a 20-lb bike.

Meanwhile, cyclists injure or kill so few other road users annually that there is no reliable national statistic for it, and when it happens, it makes news. You will not be able to find more than a half dozen incidents of cyclists killing pedestrians in the entire past ten years. Yet, drivers in the US kill, not injure, kill 4400 pedestrians every year. And it is a durable number, not changing much from year to year.

And if a single driver is that much more at risk of killing and destroying than a single cyclist, what does it mean for the risk faced by society that drivers outnumber cyclists 50 to one?

That is the scope issue. There are so few cyclists on the road, in comparison to cars, in Houston and in the US, and they are so harmless to society that even dignifying driver complaints about cyclist behavior with a British snort is absurd. Death and destruction wrought by drivers in the US is so deeply ingrained in society that a newspaper can print this sort of story, and the writers and editors, like drivers, who make up the big majority of road users, cannot even see the truth.

If I were editor for the day, the lede would have read, “Sixteen people people in the Houston area have been killed while riding bicycles in the last 30 months. In January and February 2016 alone, twelve people were killed by hit-and-run drivers.” The same piece reads differently with the new lede.

For what it is worth, everything I know about Houston tells me it is a hell on earth for urban cyclists and bike commuters. Until powerful people with nothing to gain and everything to lose make road safety for all a national issue, nothing can change.


Image credit: Photo by Ian Valerio on Unsplash

About Ben Folsom

Ben Folsom is a founding member of the Bike Commuter Cabal, a worldwide group of transport cyclists dedicated to protecting the rights of all road users and to encouraging people everywhere to ride more. Ben and his bikes live with his family in Alexandria, Virginia.