How Traffic Jams Are Made in City Hall

Sam Staley and Ted Balaker's "How Traffic Jams Are Made in City Hall" (April) relies on data that are not comparable. Mass transit commute times are compared unfavorably to vehicle commutes, but are these for commutes of equal distance? Time per mile traveled or average commute speed would be the proper measure to compare modes of travel. Time of day may also matter, lest averages obscure the typical. A subway at rush hour should be a lot faster than a mess of vehicles that has congealed into a traffic jam, but at slack times cars may trump mass transit because trains run infrequently, increasing platform wait times. And it would be useful to break out rail travel from buses that use the same traffic lanes as autos.

Likewise, we are told the average commute time in the New York City metropolitan area without controlling for distance. Surely in-city subway commuters get to work faster than suburbanites coming by car, train, bus, or water taxi.

The points on parking meters are intriguing but are cited without regard for the historic economic purpose of metering: customer turnover to increase merchant revenues.

David Cay Johnston
Rochester, NY

Staley and Balaker discuss a number of measures for controlling traffic. One they don't mention is to get rid of zoning laws that prevent people from running home businesses in their homes. That would not only save a lot of commuting; it would advance the economy by making it easier to start a business on a shoestring.
Charles Cohn
Austell, GA

Sam Staley and Ted Balaker reply: Data on commute distance are not as widely available as data on commute time. But various metropolitan planning organizations have examined this issue, and they find that transit commutes generally span shorter distances than auto commutes. Moreover, average urban roadway speeds tend to be considerably faster than average transit speeds. Other factors, like the time it takes to transfer from one transit vehicle to another, make transit trips slower still.

Our data also referred to commuting times on a regional level, which we believe is a better indicator of the relative efficiency and effectiveness of mass transit vs. cars. Yet even people who live close to mass transit stops mostly opt for cars, according to studies in Chicago, San Francisco, and other places. Mass transit simply doesn't go where people need to go quickly and efficiently enough to be a dominant mode for commuting outside of Manhattan.

We are keen on (and practitioners of) telecommuting, and so we agree with Cohn that zoning policies should be liberalized to accommodate more of it. We address this issue in our book The Road More Traveled.

Be Afraid of President McCain

Having known John McCain since he was a plebe at the Naval Academy, I was surprised to read about his "binge drinking" there in "Be Afraid of President McCain" (April), since it was against the rules then to drink within seven and a half miles of the Chapel Dome. Given the emotional stress of his time as a POW, I believe it was not family ties that prompted orders to the Navy War College for a year but a compassionate detailer, who was giving him an opportunity to decompress.

Matt Ryan
Bremerton, WA

Matt Welch replies: If Matt Ryan is surprised by my article, then he'll be doubly surprised by McCain's own books. From page 128 of Faith of My Fathers: "Nothing serious ever occurred in our nightly revels outside the Yard. Mainly we drank a lot of beer, occasionally we got in fights, and once in a while we found girls willing to give us the time of day. However, most of our activities were proscribed by the Academy, and the fact that we were never caught in the act only intensified the anger of our superiors." On page 11 of Worth the Fighting For, McCain says he was disqualified by rank to enter the War College, so he "appealed [the] decision all the way to the secretary of the navy, my father's friend and now my Senate colleague, John Warner."

'It's Our Job to Stop That Dream'

Comparing the large number of deaths along the U.S.-Mexican border with those along the Berlin Wall ("?'It's Our Job to Stop That Dream'," April) is wrongheaded for two reasons. The first is that, unlike the technically unified Germany that the Russians and Stasi had walled off, the United States and Mexico are two separate, distinct nations and cultures.

The second is the type of "wall" that was put up. The reason so few East Berliners died attempting to cross the Berlin Wall is that so few tried, since a large concrete structure, razor wire, minefields, and machine gun nests ensured that success was all but impossible. Look what happened when the Berlin Wall did come down: Countless numbers of Germans poured over the now-open border. The sparsely guarded, single-strand barbed wire border between large parts of Mexico and the U.S. almost invites poor immigrants to make the attempt. Imagine if it actually was a large, well-guarded structure, with a high probability of dying if a breach was attempted. Crossings would all but stop in quick order.

John Janora
Calcium, NY

The Impact of Academic Bias

I greatly appreciated Cathy Young's decision to use data to examine the presence and impact of liberal bias on university campuses ("The Impact of Academic Bias," April). I would like to clarify and expand on a few of Young's points using data from the same Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) cited in her column.

Young states "no one has tried tracking changes in student political beliefs over the college years." Each year, hundreds of colleges and universities use the results of the HERI's College Student Survey (CSS) to track changes in students' political beliefs during their college years. The CSS is administered to seniors by universities and asks many of the same political questions that were asked of the same students three or four years earlier when they took the Cooperative Institutional Research Program's Freshman Survey. As mentioned by Young, these questions ask students to state their stances on numerous political issues and also ask students to describe their political ideology. Not surprisingly, during their college careers, students at public universities become, as a whole, more liberal in their ideology and stances on political issues. The increases in the number of seniors who describe themselves as liberals come almost entirely from those students who described their political ideology as "middle of the road" as freshmen. The number of seniors who describe themselves as conservative or far right is almost identical to the number of freshmen who do the same.

Is this shift in political ideology during the college years a result of overtly liberal cultures on university campuses? The results of the 2006 CSS suggest this is not the case. When asked to describe the political climate on their campus, nearly half of all seniors chose the midpoint of an ideology scale ranging from liberal to conservative. The number of seniors who would describe their campus climate as leaning liberal was only slightly higher than the number who indicated conservative. Bear in mind that these were the results from public four-year campuses. The inclusion of two-year and private four-year campuses would very likely have moved these numbers in the conservative direction.

Blake Fry
River Falls, WI

Who Owns Your Body Parts?

Kerry Howley's article about the use of body parts from corpses seems to decry the fact that donors are not rewarded financially while labs, doctors, and hospitals are ("Who Owns Your Body Parts?" March). I have a question: What can I own after I die? I have agreed to have my body parts used to help others should I die in an auto accident, without compensation of any kind. If a person does that for all events leading to his demise, has he not agreed to forgo payment?

I do not find it objectionable that the medical community is finding prosperity in dealing with body parts. After all, discoveries of ways to use them created the demand in the first place.

George Amberg
Bend, OR