It’s no surprise Americans don’t enjoy sitting in traffic, driving along crumbling roads or stumbling over cracks in sidewalks.
Research firm ETC Institute provided Governing results of a national survey of how citizens feel about local government that highlights just how low citizens rank performance with regard to transportation infrastructure -- including public transportation, streets, sidewalks and traffic congestion -- compared to other areas of local government.
Only 47 percent of respondents were “satisfied” or “very satisfied” with public transportation, and only 48 percent felt that way about roads and transportation infrastructure. Traffic congestion and general communication infrastructure also received low marks, while “emergency preparedness” fell somewhere in the middle at just over 60 percent. Citizens were most satisfied with their localities’ performance in public safety, including police, fire and ambulance services.
Several factors could explain transportation’s low satisfaction ratings.
For one, a lack of funding has prevented state and local governments from making infrastructure upgrades, which typically cost far more than other city services
Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center for Transportation, says transportation improvements haven’t kept pace with population growth. Adequate public transportation, in particular, is unavailable in many suburban areas, so it’s not shocking that it scored lowest in the survey. Adding rail or other transportation options is no easy task for areas not designed for public transit. At the same time, repairs to roads and bridges are often put off for years.
“We’re not at the point where we’re making smart long-term investments in infrastructure,” Schank said. “We’re kind of patching things together.”
Part of the problem also relates to public attitudes about transportation spending. Americans don’t pay nearly enough to get around, Schank says, while more of their tax dollars fund other areas of local government. Gas and transportation expenses are far more costly in Europe, for instance.
But this doesn’t mean localities can’t find other ways to boost transportation services.
Schank suggests governments and agencies focus their efforts more on improving operations of existing services, such as making changes to bus service so that more residents will want to ride. “More effective operation can be a way to improve satisfaction without spending a lot of money,” he says.
The city of High Point, N.C., saw an uptick in its satisfaction ratings after making a number of changes over several years. Satisfaction with street, sidewalks or infrastructure maintenance increased from 47 percent in 2007 to 54 percent this year. Traffic congestion satisfaction similarly climbed from 54 to 66 percent over the same time period.
Pat Pate, the city’s assistant city manager, says High Point implemented a pavement rating system in which roads are inspected and assigned a score. City crews seal or repair those with lower scores before they need to be completely rebuilt, saving the city money. The city also makes an effort to fix reported potholes within 24 hours and fill cracks in roadways before water seeps in and makes the problem worse, Pate says.
Years ago, the city increased the amount it spent on road resurfacing and transportation projects, but like other local governments, it had to cut back during the recession.
“We’re trying to target the money we have to spend in the best way possible,” Pate said.
Citizens singled out pedestrian walkways and sidewalks as one area most in need of improvement in the city’s most recent survey. In response, Pate says the High Point City Council is exploring ways to find additional funding for sidewalks.
Karen Falk, ETC’s vice president, told Governing the firm saw satisfaction scores dip during the recession as cities scaled back services. Recently, though, ratings started to trend upward for the first time since 2008, she says.
ETC Institute conducts surveys measuring citizen satisfaction for hundreds of local governments, along with a national random survey of 4,000 residents across the country. Results for the national survey are provided below. Mouse over a bar for percentages for each major service category.