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Dear Seattle Times Ed Board, Letters to the Editor are still supposed to be factual

A front page news story on neighborhood greenways in the Seattle Times earlier this week prompted what I thought was a pretty conversation on the blog about how people looking to promote neighborhood greenways should present them: Good for children, efficient and comfortable for people walking and biking and cost effective, to name a few great points.

The Times story was largely positive, but — compared to my idea story — it focused too much on adults biking and not enough on the benefits to people walking and people living along such routes. After all, they aren’t really for people who currently find biking and walking efficient and comfortable, but for people who do not yet feel that way.

Then came the Letter to the Editor. As soon as I read the headline “This only supports 1 percent of the population,” I knew things were about to drive right off a factual cliff. Sigh…

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In fact, Seattle has among the highest rates of walking and biking in the nation. 11.5 percent of people walk or bike as their primary way of getting to work. Add on top of that the unmeasured (but certainly very high) number of people who walk or bike for other tasks — like going to a grocery store, restaurant or park — or the number of people with mobility issues who need more safe crossings at busy streets, and you see that this letter’s “one percent” assertion is so laughable that I’m amazed they published it.

The letter then goes on to say that the planned Wallingford neighborhood greenway eliminates half the parking (it actually adds parking) by placing bike lanes on the street (there are no bike lanes in the plans). The letter writer then bemoans the addition of parking elsewhere because those spots had been blocked due to safety concerns (again, not true).

He then says the mayor is wasting $200,000 on it, yet the whole project only costs $100,000 from a citizen-initiated neighborhood project grant supported by the neighborhood council. Most of that money is being spent on a safe ADA-compliant crossing at Stone Way that will help people walking and biking cross that buys street (and access the transit stops).

So, basically, almost every piece of information in the letter is not true, and all the facts could have very easily been checked by a single phone call to SDOT, which holds regular business hours (here’s a post with lots of details and an SDOT presentation).

I don’t expect to agree with the Seattle Times Ed Board on very many things, and of course a Letter to the Editor does not necessarily represent their opinion. But it seems like they at least have a duty to get raw hard facts right before publishing something.

In the meantime, it’s probably best for the ever-growing number of neighborhood greenway supporters in the city to use this as a learning opportunity. If people think neighborhood greenways are just for the four percent (and growing!) of Seattleites who bike to work every day, then the projects will face serious opposition. But they are about making our neighborhoods more family-friendly, which is why so many people from all walks of life are getting involved in their neighborhoods today. The promise is powerful and the costs are low.

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12 responses to “Dear Seattle Times Ed Board, Letters to the Editor are still supposed to be factual”

  1. I started laughing at “Why are we doing this for 1 percent of the population who pay nothing for road maintenance?” Excuse me, I pay taxes too, jackass.

    I live in Wallingford. From the vantage point on my porch, I can safely say that the greenway kind of already exists. Bikes already use 44th a lot and having it be officially infrastructure’d is only going to be a vast improvement to safety.

  2. Jon Berkedal

    I have lived in Wallingford for more than 25 years. I have raised my family here. I pay taxes on both my property and my car. I also ride a bike almost every day. No one has a claim to self righteousness. I have seen moron bike riders and moronic vehicle riders. I have also seen bike riders and car drivers wave to each other in thanks. I do sometimes take a position in the street when riding my bike because it is the safest thing to do at the time. I have found that all works best when everyone obeys the laws, and extend a bit or courtesy to each other. Everyone’s safety always trumps the need to be somewhere in a hurry. A little wave of thank you goes a long way.

  3. Gary

    Journalism is going the way of the blacksmith. No more real editors, no fact checkers, no actual investigation. The few professionals left are scrambling to meet deadlines with no help. So having a fact checker verify a “letter to the editor?” Fat chance.

    The reader boards are full of bicycle haters. No news there. What would be interesting is if the Times went to verified accounts tied to something like Facebook etc, which put people front and center with their opinion. It should slow down the astro turfed opinions. And it might even tone down the hate, it’s one thing to think it, it’s another to let your city neighbors know that you hate something so bad that you’ll whine about it on the local opinion pages.

    Still change is coming to all those car drivers. You can see it on the horizon. Even the business column by Jon is starting to report the truth. The age of fossil fuel is ending. Time to prepare for the next wave of change.

    1. Tom Fucoloro

      That’s my point! People understand that comments are not individually vetted (though they hold the right to pull ones that are particularly untruthful). Letters to the Editor hold that weight of “You may not agree with these opinions, but we have vetted that the facts they include are true.” If a LTE only comes with the same vetting as an online comment, then they should make that clear (and I’ll be sad). I love letters to the editor because they are this chance for everyday people to get published, but have it also go through professional journalism standards. The only thing like that these days is the “guest collumn” I suppose. Maybe I’m just nostalgic…

    2. Gary

      Tom, The problem is that the papers are broke. Craig’slist ate their cash cow of people selling cars and stuff. Monster.com ate their employment listings. What’s left? Ads from dept stores and grocery stores, and subscriber fees. But why subscribe when you can read the “news” for free. Their business model is horked, and a lot of them are borrowed up to the hilt, so they can’t report the news on the financial crisis truthfully because they owe their soul to the banks & bond market. Meantime the basis of those loans was cut expenses, well first went editors, after all with spell check writers can edit, with wikipedia they can “fact” check. And if they read the reader comments a lot of the times, readers will point out where the facts are incorrect, and the writer will fix it.

      But if you print controversy, then people will read it. Look at the number of comments on those bike trail articles! It’s often in the 300’s or more. And it would be more if they left them open for more than 2 days. So who cares what the article says, the more nutty, the more comments, the more readers, the more they can charge for “on line ads” There is no incentive to get it right at all!

      Over here in a corner of the internet where we all agree (well mostly all) that bicycles are the future, we just echo the same ideas over and over. And no one cares. It’s like peeing on yourself in a movie theater, you feel warm and better but no one notices.

      Why am I here? God knows. Mostly because you help me see articles that I might not otherwise read. And I try to provide information so that when people do decide that change is necessary that there will be this source of what to do that actually works. And not just spend money on stuff that isn’t helpful for bicyclists or anybody else.

      But ranting about the general lack of facts in “letters to the editor” that’s a waste of time. So I’m going to stop responding here as well.

      1. Todd

        Dare I say we are just a minority? The fact that we get ANY press actually amazes me. I agree it’s totally about economics. We are growing in numbers but let’s not forget the targeted audience. It’s what we are trying to change but it is what it is — I guess.

  4. merlin

    When I read the Greenways article, I immediately wanted to respond, both to express my appreciation for a front-page article and to criticize the writer for focusing on a geared-up rider in traffic and for neglecting the strong neighborhood support for greenways. I made the mistake of reading the comments, and the overwhelmingly bike-hating tone there sent me into a useless sulk which lasted all day until I read Tom’s blog post. I wrote a comment here on the blog, rather than writing to the Times.
    Clearly, that was a mistake. I should have written a letter to the editor; all of us should have. In the past I’ve written letters addressed jointly to the author and to the editors; several of those have been published, and even those that don’t get published often get responses from the authors. The Times editors still might have chosen to print the same anti-bike letter – but at least they would have had the option of printing mine.
    Does it make a difference? I don’t know. But I do know that a letter to the editor that doesn’t get written certainly won’t make a difference.

  5. Dave L

    I’m part of the 1% who don’t pay for road maintenance? Why does my property tax bill say that I spend about $700 a year for roads (not including other taxes that go to roads, and the fact that I do indeed pay gas tax and tab fees for my cars, which I sometimes choose not to drive, and instead ride my bike.)

  6. ODB

    On the topic of Times coverage of bike issues, this interactive bicycle accident map has been running prominently on the Times website since Thursday:


    I like the map and find it interesting. Highlighting bike safety issues would seem to be helpful to bicyclists insofar as it can be seen as an indication that more needs to be done to improve safety. But as the map persisted on the website, I began to wonder if it that level of coverage wasn’t a little disproportionate and maybe something of a double-edged sword. For non-bicycling readers, does that kind of a map make bicycling seem more dangerous? Or reinforce their view that they would never try something that risky? I don’t necessarily mean this as a criticism of the Times–just something I’ve been pondering.

    1. Gary

      There is a similar map for auto accidents. Funny that the Times isn’t running that one on their front page. It’s got way more red dots. One might think that driving isn’t all that safe after all!

      Too bad there isn’t a map of people who died of heart disease, diabetes, respiratory failure, cancer… all those things you get from not exercising.

    2. Clark in Vancouver

      I’m starting to suspect that there is a movement to make cycling appear dangerous.
      The velorution isn’t going to be slick and easy.

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