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Rolling Coal vs. Biking. How Politics Has Changed Transportation.

Partisan rancor has seeped into the once quiet, technical field of transportation policy. Conservatives increasingly oppose policies that support transit, while liberals push back against highway construction.

Pedestrians and a bicyclist weave between cars blocking the crosswalks in downtown Chicago.
Pedestrians and a bicyclist weave between cars blocking the crosswalks in downtown Chicago.
(Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune/TNS)
Everything is culture war. As ever growing numbers of experts and journalists have documented, everything from media consumption to favored restaurants and dating life has become increasingly polarized in recent years.

Policy issues that once were largely depoliticized and relegated to quiet technical debates have grown rancorous too. For better and for worse, Democratic and Republican policymakers used to be able to agree on the finer points of housing, infrastructure and transportation policy. For constituents, partisan affiliation did little to predict how a citizen might feel about such subjects.

Not so much anymore. A new paper shows that ideological commitments increasingly determine attitudes towards transportation policy.

“Historically, it’s been apolitical,” says Kelcie Ralph, associate professor at Rutgers University’s Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy. “But over the past 15 to 20 years, and amplifying even more recently, you’ve seen partisan rhetoric particularly from the right.”

The paper Ralph published with her colleagues Nicholas Klein, Calvin Thigpen and Anne Brown delves into the results of a survey of 600 Americans. They were given a series of questions about transportation policy and asked to rate themselves on an ideological spectrum from very liberal to very conservative.

The results paint a complex picture of polarization in the transportation realm. The researchers found strong majorities in support of some ideas that break with the dominant policies of the mid-to-late 20th century. Sixty-nine percent of respondents supported mixed use neighborhoods, while 63 percent were in favor of shifting more car trips to transit, walking and biking.

There are contradictory results too. Only 32 percent said that the goal of transportation policy should be to reduce driving, as opposed to making it more convenient. In every case, liberal respondents were more likely to favor policies that encouraged alternatives to driving while conservatives were more supportive of the car-dominated norm.

“Even when we control for [a host of factors], we find a big effect for the very conservative respondents being very reluctant to give up our status quo of a society that favors driving,” says Nicholas Klein, assistant professor at Cornell University’s College of Architecture and Planning.

These findings fit within “The Big Sort” theory that Bill Bishop made famous in his 2008 book by the same name. He argued that Americans are increasingly living near people who believe the same things they do, and that partisans are more likely to settle around those with similar voting records.

More progressive and Democratic voters tend to cluster in cities, where their political power is diluted by some of the anti-democratic aspects of the American political system. More rural and exurban areas tend to be overwhelmingly conservative and Republican, a trend that seems to grow stronger with every election cycle. This partisan distribution has helped the GOP build political power even with consistently smaller numbers of voters (thanks in large part to how the electoral college and the U.S. Senate allow more rural, less populous states to retain significant political power).

A litany of studies and polls find that most conservative Americans express a desire to live in areas with big houses that are spaced farther apart, with commercial areas kept at a distance. More-liberal Americans are likely to want denser, more walkable, mixed-use communities.

Petro-Masculinity Versus Walkability

This summer, a Pew Research Center survey found that ideology was the biggest distinguishing factor between those who want to live in a walkable community and those who want to drive to do anything. That was a stronger predictor than factors like age or education.

As these identifiers have risen in salience, politicians and pundits have made grandstanding on transportation a part of their platform.

“There’s a sense on the right that walking, biking and transit are for people who do not vote for them,” says Ralph. “Petro-masculinity is a thing now, huge trucks rolling coal. That is a signal that you’re a conservative man. We’re turning up the dial on these differences.”

Evidence of this turn in American politics can be seen in the GOP platform in 2016 and 2020, where it was proposed that federal support for transit be eliminated entirely.

As a transit advocate in northeastern Ohio, Akshai Singh has been on the frontlines of transportation reform. He says that until recently, Republicans in the region have been relatively supportive of transit.
A pickup trick spewing carbon emissions.
An example of a pickup truck “rolling coal.”
(Salvatore Arnone/Wikipedia)

Former Cleveland mayor and Ohio senator George Voinovich helped secure funding for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. GOP Congressman Steve LaTourette co-sponsored a bill that would have given transit systems operational support from the federal government.

“That’s the politics that we historically have had, but in these last 10 years especially we’ve seen larger amounts of partisanship,” says Singh, national transit justice organizer with Alliance for a Just Society.

Singh argues that the way to fight against these trends is to focus on local self-interest, not partisan divides. He notes that the Center for Transportation Excellence has tracked the success rate for local transit funding campaigns over the last decade and found that the overwhelming majority win voter support every year.

“People are invested in their communities and are happy to invest in a system that they know is going to better connect them to their communities, which is the most direct translation of self-interest,” says Singh.

In their paper, Ralph, Klein and their colleagues argue that transit planners should attempt to win converts, in part, through pilot programs and tactical urbanism — showing residents the results of programs that offer alternatives to car usage and the benefits that stem from them. Positive messaging that focuses on advantages for local residents, not global challenges or partisan struggles, would help too.

They argue for a robust campaign to educate Americans on the realities of induced demand, the fact that expanding roadways only very briefly eases traffic congestion. They found that just 45 percent of liberals and 24 percent of conservatives knew that traffic relief after highway expansion would be temporary. They also saw that support for changing the auto-oriented status quo was 25 percentage points higher among those who understood the concept.

This speaks to another complicating factor of their survey: Unlike most countries, America is almost entirely car dependent. Automobile ownership is nearly ubiquitous, with over 90 percent of households owning one. Most Americans use a motor vehicle for most trips regardless of their ideological proclivities.

“It can be hard to study these kinds of questions in the United States, because car ownership is largely universal,” says Klein. “If you’re doing a national study, there’s not going to be many people in the sample who live in places like South Philadelphia or walkable parts of Chicago.”

The few respondents who didn’t own a car or primarily traveled without one were more likely to embrace transportation reform. Meanwhile, the most likely opponents of reform were those who defined themselves as very conservative — they were 41 percentage points less likely than moderates to support the notion of shifting trips to biking, walking or transit.

Ralph and Klein say that as GOP politicians increasingly pander to the most conservative elements of their base, the polarization of transportation policy may sharpen still further. That’s a recipe for a kind of doom loop, where rank-and-file voters’ passions become more heated about an issue as politicians and ideological media focus on it.

“I suspect that we’ll see continuing ramping up of that and that on the 2024 campaign trail, transportation will be a more central issue,” says Ralph.
Jake Blumgart is a senior writer for Governing and covers transportation and infrastructure. He lives in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter at @jblumgart.
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