Political partisanship in transport overshadows strong general support for reform

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Transportation has long been considered one of the most trusted areas of agreement in Congress, but has now become another front in partisan wars. Look no further for evidence than the current Senate infrastructure bill, which seems to be slowly appealing next to those emphasizing the bipartisan agreement. Many on the left had hoped for a drastic shift in priorities, but are now faced with what is essentially a traditional highway bill. Meanwhile, those on the right laugh at the bill for investing too much in public transport.

Why has transportation become so hotly contested? In published research this week in The Journal of the American Planning Association, we explore American perspectives on transportation policy.

Our research clearly shows that even though the nation is divided by partisanship, most Americans agree that the transportation system is not working and want change. When asked to compromise between the competing priorities of our federal transportation policy, 63% of Americans preferred to shift more trips to public transit, walking and biking rather than making driving easier for the city. most trips. The idea is not just a slam dunk with the Liberals. It rings at 68 percent among moderates and 47 percent among conservatives. It is only the self-proclaimed “very conservative” voters who oppose this idea in large numbers.

We also investigated whether American views on transportation policy are influenced by self-interest, factual knowledge of transportation policy, belief in the possibility of change, and core values.

First, we looked at self-interest. We assumed that Americans might naturally prefer different transportation policies because they travel differently from each other. Indeed, we find that respondents were much more likely to embrace a radical change from the transport status quo if they did not have a car, mainly on foot, by bike or by public transport to get around or about. live in neighborhoods where relatively few people drive to work. But that didn’t explain the political partisanship because Americans of all stripes travel the same way, mostly by driving cars.

Next, we hypothesized that differences in factual knowledge might explain the growing partisan divide in transportation. After all, the set of accepted facts about climate change or COVID-19 varies widely depending on whether you vote Democratic or Republican. Indeed, we found transportation awareness to be very partisan, with Conservative respondents generally more likely to misunderstand the basic facts. But knowing the facts did not necessarily translate into taking particular political positions.

The only exception here is “induced demand”, the idea that widening roads can temporarily – but not permanently – reduce congestion. This concept, which challenges decades of road widening, is widely accepted by transport planners, but is generally unknown to the public. But Americans who understand this important idea are much more likely to support alternative investments. Contrary to other facts, knowing the induced demand helps to partly explain the partisan gap in preferences as liberal Americans are almost twice as likely to understand this idea although we note that majorities of all political leanings misunderstand it.

Third, we suspected that partisan gaps may hinge on the nagging feeling that change just might not be possible. Many Americans doubt that we can significantly change our transportation infrastructure, and many others are skeptical that travel habits would change much if we did. Those who have doubts are naturally less likely to adopt transport reform. As might be expected, Conservatives are slightly more likely to hold these views, and therefore divergent beliefs about the possibility of change also contribute to partisan political preferences.

Of course, political disputes aren’t just about self-interest, facts, or beliefs about the possibility of change. They are also informed by deeply held core values. When it comes to transport, we find that values ​​help to explain much of our conflicting political positions. For example, we find that conservative Americans are more likely than their liberal peers to say that safety and environmental regulations “go too far” or that it is unfair to use tax money. gasoline to pay for public transport, cycle paths or sidewalks. These values, in turn, are closely associated with political preferences.

There is a lot at stake in properly financing infrastructure spending. Spending billions of dollars to widen highways will not reduce congestion in the long run. It perpetuates car addiction, offers no alternatives, accelerates climate change, pollutes the air we breathe and erodes the quality of life.

If that weren’t enough, that’s not what the Americans want. Most Americans want a change in our transportation system. A truly bipartisan bill should give them that.

Nicholas Klein is Assistant Professor of Urban and Regional Planning in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning at Cornell University.

Kelcie Ralph is Associate Professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.


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