(Video courtesy Willamette Week/Tech Fest Northwest)
Language Matters is an occasional column about the ways we talk about bikes and biking.
When bike believers get political, they often struggle with talking points. People who know the argument for biking in their bones can forget that those who don’t ride won’t be convinced without words.
David Plouffe has never struggled with talking points.
The Obama campaign manager and strategic advisor turned professional Uber evangelist was in town last week to speak at the annual Tech Fest Northwest conference, and his 13-minute stump speech on behalf of his current employer was a rhetorical sight to behold.
Leaving aside the debates about Uber itself, it’s worth taking a minute here to admire the work of a very talented communicator. His arguments (which preceded a somewhat less controlled sit-down interview with Willamette Week editor Mark Zusman and Mayor Charlie Hales) were meticulously sculpted, sometimes shameless, and definitely effective. Though it’s a little hard for a journalist to applaud them, they definitely made me wonder how much more effective bike advocates could be if they stole a few tricks from this bag.
4:45 – “A quarter of our trips so far start or end within a quarter-mile of public transportation. We see this all over the world where we’re operating. We are an augmentation of public transportation.”
Much like the words “hope,” “change,” and “Kennedy,” the phrase “public transportation” polls very well in American cities. And as Willamette Week reported Friday, Plouffe’s most prominent theme was to associate Uber with public transit every way he could.
Does he have a point? Well, maybe. Does the fact that a quarter of everything in urban areas probably happens within a quarter-mile of public transportation make his rhetoric any less effective? Nope. Plouffe’s tactic here is to find a statistic (any statistic) that tells a story about Uber complementing and improving public transit. In the world of bikes, where there’s a century of strong evidence that this is definitely true, this story is much easier to tell.
7:33 – “Thirty percent of our trips so far in the U.S. start or end at a small business. A small business. [Note: It might be worth listening to the video just to hear the way he delivers this sentence.] Many of them small businesses that are off of a public transportation line. So it was harder for them to get traffic. Now they’ve got people being dropped off at their doorstop, whether it’s a retailer or a restaurant, and in an easy, seamless way.”
What’s a “small” business? We don’t know. How “many” of them are away from public transit lines? Plouffe doesn’t have that data, but it doesn’t stop him from telling a story with it. Are Uber trips any more or less likely to land at small businesses than other trips? No matter. Again, the factoid is there to lend truthiness to the actual underlying truth, which is simply that people use Uber to get places and getting people places they need to go is generally good for the economy.
That’s not a controversial point. But the idea that a transportation system could ever include a meaningfully large number of trips by Uber — or by bicycles, or by skateboards, or by any other vehicle that doesn’t currently fit into most Americans’ daily lives — is something that many people struggle to accept. Plouffe’s factoid is mostly useless in its own right, but used here it adds a graspable bit of specificity to this abstract concept.
11:30 – “All it would take is 15 percent of Los Angeles residents to carpool, and you’d never have a traffic jam in Los Angeles again.”
When Plouffe said this, an audible gasp went around my section of the auditorium. That’s how effective it was.
This factoid is actually the mirror image of the other two: it’s true on its face, but the underlying idea is bogus. Would a 15 percent drop in traffic end congestion in L.A? Yes. But the moment that happened, Los Angeles would become way better to drive in, so more people would choose to drive more, and the roads would fill up again.
The difference by the end of that scenario, of course, wouldn’t be less congestion. It’d be something harder to explain: more capacity. L.A. streets would be as jammed as ever, but they’d be carrying 15 percent more trips with almost zero public cost.
Sounds like a best-case scenario for another type of transportation I could mention.
Rhetorical moves like these are definitely a dark art, and Plouffe got away with them in part because of the halo of goodwill that any member of “the Obama family” (as he referred to himself in his first few sentences) has in Portland. But if bike advocates are serious about winning battles for public investment, they could almost certainly learn from a pro like Plouffe. For better or worse, he knows how the game is played.
Michael Andersen was news editor of BikePortland.org from 2013 to 2016 and still pops up occasionally.