Transportation has long been viewed as one of the more reliable areas of agreement in Congress but has now become another front in the partisan wars. Look no further for evidence than the current Senate infrastructure bill, which seems to please few beside those who emphasize bipartisan agreement. Many on the left had hoped for a dramatic shift in priorities but are now faced with what is essentially a traditional highway bill. Meanwhile, those on the right deride the bill for investing too much in mass transit.
Why has transportation become so hotly contested? In research published this week in The Journal of the American Planning Association, we explore Americans’ views on transport policy.
Our research makes clear that while the nation is divided by partisanship, most Americans agree the transportation system isn’t working and want change. When asked to trade-off competing priorities for our federal transportation policy, 63 perent of Americans preferred shifting more trips toward transit, walking and biking over making it easier to drive for most trips. The idea is not just a slam dunk with liberals. It polls at 68 percent among moderates and 47 percent among conservatives. It is only the self-described “very conservative” voters who oppose this idea in large numbers.
We also explored whether American views about transport policy are influenced by self-interest, factual knowledge of transportation policy, belief in the possibility of change and core values.
First, we considered self-interest. We speculated that Americans might understandably prefer different transportation policies because they travel differently from one another. Indeed, we find that respondents were far more likely to embrace a wholesale change to the transportation status quo if they lack a car, primarily walk, bike or ride transit to get around or reside in neighborhoods where relatively few people drive to work. But this didn’t explain political partisanship because Americans of all stripes travel in similar ways — mostly by driving cars.
Next, we speculated that differences in factual knowledge may explain the growing partisan divide in transportation. After all, the set of accepted facts about climate change or COVID-19 varies markedly by whether one votes Democrat or Republican. Indeed, we found that transportation knowledge was highly partisan, with conservative respondents typically more likely to misunderstand foundational facts. But knowledge of the facts didn’t necessarily translate into holding particular policy positions.
The sole exception here is “induced demand,” the idea that widening roadways may temporarily — but not permanently — reduce traffic congestion. This concept, which calls into question decades of road widening, is widely accepted among transportation planners, but the public is mostly unfamiliar with it. But Americans who understand this important idea are far more likely to support alternative investments. Unlike other facts, knowledge of induced demand does help partially explain the partisan gap in preferences because liberal Americans are almost twice as likely to understand this idea although, we emphasize that majorities from all political leanings misunderstand it.
Thirdly, we suspected that partisan gaps might hinge on the nagging feeling that change simply might not be possible. Many Americans doubt that we can meaningfully change our transportation infrastructure and many more are skeptical that travel patterns would change all that much if we did. Those that harbor doubts are understandably less likely to embrace transportation reform. As one might expect, conservatives are slightly more likely to hold these views and thus diverging beliefs about the possibility of change also contribute to partisan policy preferences.
Of course, political disputes are not only about self-interest, facts or beliefs about the possibility of change. They are also informed by deeply held core values. When it comes to transportation, we find that values help explain much of our discordant policy positions. For instance, 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 money from the gas tax to pay for transit, bike lanes or sidewalks. These values, in turn, are closely associated with policy preferences.
There is a lot at stake in getting infrastructure spending right. Spending billions of dollars to widen highways will not alleviate congestion in the long term. It perpetuates car dependence, fails to offer alternatives, accelerates climate change, pollutes the air we breathe and erodes quality of life.
If that weren’t enough, it’s not what Americans want. Most Americans want a change to our transportation system. A truly bipartisan bill ought to give it to them.
Nicholas Klein is an assistant professor in the City and Regional Planning at Cornell University’s College of Architecture, Art and Planning
Kelcie Ralph is an associate professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University.