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The Ethics of Planning

October 4, 2011

Reprinted from The Antiplanner: Imagine you are the director of a federal agency that gives grants to state and local governments. Suppose a research in your agency’s department finds that the local governments to which you give grants routinely lied on their grant applications in order to get the money.

Do you:
a. Root out and punish the states and cities that lied?
b. Tighten up your grantmaking procedures to make sure that future lies are exposed? or
c. Use your political power to have the researcher transferred to a dead-end job and ordered never to do research on your agency’s programs again?
If you picked anything but c, obviously you haven’t spent much time working in government.

The agency is the Federal Transit Adminstration and the researcher is Don Pickrell, who in 1989 published a report showing that cities that obtained federal grants to build rail transit lines systematically overestimated ridership and underestimated costs. “The systematic tendency to overestimate ridership and to underestimate capital and operating costs,” said Pickrell, “introduces a distinct bias toward the selection of capital-intensive transit improvements such as rail lines.”

Rail advocates responded by viciously attacking Pickrell. The kindest among them say that the problems he reported no longer exist, that rail transit lines today routinely are built within their budgets and carry more than the projected number of riders. Today, any mention of Pickrell’s name or report causes the word “discredited” to immediately spring to the lips of rail supporters.

Yet a 2006 study by researchers at Northeastern University found that rail projects completed since 1989 had cost overruns averaging 40 percent. Moreover, there is no indication that the accuracy of cost projections is improving over time: the most recent project in the study, the Minneapolis Hiawatha light rail, went 49 percent over budget.

“I have interviewed public officials, consultants and planners who have been involved in these transit planning cases,” wrote University of California planning Professor Martin Wachs shortly after the Pickrell report was published, “and I am absolutely convinced that the cost overruns and patronage overestimates were not the result of technical errors, honest mistakes or inadequate methods. In case after case planners, engineers and economists have told me that they had to ‘revise’ their forecasts many times because they failed to satisfy their superiors. The forecasts had to be ‘cooked’ in order to produce numbers that were dramatic enough to gain federal support for the projects.”

Rutgers University political scientist James Dunn goes beyond blaming planners’ “superiors.” He argues that planners have joined an “anti-auto advocacy coalition” and use their position in government to promote the aims of that coalition. Specifically, he says, planners

Oversell their policy preferences as a panacea for problems that it cannot solve;
Overlook problems with their policy preferences;
Oppose reasonable proposals from the “other” side; and
Overdramatize the political power of the other side.

Dunn gives concrete examples of each of these. He concludes by arguing that Americans should be suspicious of anyone who supports their policy proposals by focusing on their good intentions rather than their actual outcomes.

Accusing planners of imposing their personal preferences on a planning process implies that planners can potentially be objective if they are careful enough. In fact, comprehensive, long-range planning is necessarily subjective; it includes too many factors that are either unknown or cannot be quantified. Given that subjectivity, planners (and their superiors) inevitably end up imposing their preferences on their plans.

Reprinted from The Antiplanner, Feb 2 2007. See:

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