Politics and Governance

Austin City Council Needs a Lesson in Statistics


Austin needs public officials who can understand and base their decisions upon statistics. Austin also needs money, lots of money.

Austin City Council planned to generate $3 million by extending parking meters downtown until midnight Monday through Saturday. Currently, parking is free after 5:30 pm on weekdays and all day Saturday and Sunday.

The Urban Transportation Committee, a committee appointed by the city council, conducted a survey regarding extending the paid parking hours, posting the survey on the city Web site. Eight thousand Austinites took the survey. 76 percent said they choose free parking over convenient parking and 81 percent of this group of respondents said they would be less likely to visit downtown if parking meters were extended. Of the 24 percent responding that they choose convenient parking over free parking, 42 percent responded that they would be less likely to come downtown with extended parking hours.

Musicians and bar owners have been outspoken against the extension, arguing that extending the meters would deter people from coming downtown and enjoying the live music that makes Austin famous. It would also endanger service employees returning to dimly-lit parking garages carrying wads of cash.

When told that over 70 percent of the total respondents opposed the parking meter extension and would be less likely to go downtown, Mayor Leffingwell seemed confused about the significance of these findings. He told Fox News on July 19, “I want to find out if it's valid statistically, and who the groups were, who these 8,000 people were.” Leffingwell said. It seems that Austin’s mayor is having some trouble understanding that 70 percent of 8,000 respondents is highly significant.

And unfortunately for the mayor, the survey respondents did not leave their Social Security numbers when they took the anonymous survey, so there is no way to know if the 8,000 respondents are just 8,000 radicals who are passionate about free parking, or if they are representative of the city as a whole.

Laura Morrison was the only council member to oppose the parking meter extension, while Councilman Kathie Tovo joined her in opposition in the legislation’s second appearance.

Austinites were fed up with their elected officials ignoring the clear will of the people. Austin activist Travis Snavely decided to do something about it and formed Austinites Against Metered Parking Extensions Downtown (AAMPED). His Facebook group has more than 1,400 members.

AAMPED held a press conference downtown on Tuesday, July 19, and informed the media that the survey clearly showed that a vast majority of citizens oppose the parking meter extension.

If Mayor Leffingwell is having trouble understanding that 70 percent of 8,000 respondents opposing the resolution is statistically significant, how can the citizens expect him to understand the dozens of scientific papers presented to the council on the negative health effects of water fluoridation?

This is not the first time the mayor could not process the data presented to him. The mayor exercised a lack of logic when opposing the council’s resolution to prevent body-scanners from coming to the Austin airport, a resolution that won unanimous approval by the airport advisory board. Council Member Spelman cited the Allied Pilots Association, a large union of pilots who officially oppose the body-scanners. As a former pilot, the mayor wanted the last word regarding how pilots felt about body scanners.

“Before we vote I just want to comment on the reference and make sure that nobody leaves here thinking that the Allied Pilots Association captain represents the industry as a whole. The Allied Pilots Association is relatively small, mainly comprised of American Airlines pilots. The largest one is the Air Line Pilots Association, the ALPA. I was a member…” Mayor Leffingwell said.

Spelman’s Allied Pilots Association is the second-largest pilots union with 12,000 pilot members. ALPA, the largest union, had no official position on body scanners at that time. But the mayor has a point: Why pay attention to a statement by union with 12,000 members if they aren’t the largest?

I propose that all of Austin’s city council members who do not have graduate course work in statistics spend an afternoon with a professor of statistics at the LBJ school. If our elected officials are going to continue to make decisions about how much radiation travelers are exposed to and how much fluorosilicic acid should be added to our drinking water, they need to know what a p-value is, what statistical reliability means, and that 70 percent is “significantly” bigger than 30 percent.

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