Uncovering JAPA

Political Partisanship and Transportation Reform

Is transportation policy drawn by party lines? In "Political Partisanship and Transportation Reform" (Journal of the American Planning Association, Vol. 88, No. 2) researchers Nicholas J. Klein, Kelcie Ralph, Calvin Thigpen, and Anne Brown investigate the role of partisanship in support of transportation policies and investments.

Survey Links Partisanship With Transportation Policy

A representative survey of 600 U.S. adults centered on four key factors potentially related to transportation policy preferences:

  1. Self-interest
  2. Transportation-related values
  3. Beliefs about the possibility of change
  4. Factual knowledge about transportation

To identify associations between partisanship and policy preferences, Klein et al. asked two questions: Does this factor vary by political orientation? Does this factor relate to transportation policy preferences?

Their findings uncover "considerable support for change but also deep partisan divides." Across all policy reforms support was linked to political ideology: conservatives favored, and liberals challenged, the car-oriented status quo.

Willingness to change transportation policy preferences.

Figure 1: Willingness to change transportation policy preferences.

Partisan Divide Influences Transportation Policy Views

The "Self-Interest" pathway revealed strong partisan associations with travel patterns despite high levels of car ownership irrespective of political party. For example, the figure above demonstrates a correlation between political ideology and the desire to shift more trips toward public transit, walking, and bicycling. For the "Values" pathway, conservatives are three times as likely to believe the practice of using gas taxes for alternative forms of transportation is an unfair policy and eight times more likely to assert that government regulation "goes too far."

The data confirmed a similar pattern of partisan divide for the desirability of transportation change. Conservatives were more likely to be skeptical that investment in alternative transportation could alter travel patterns. Optimistically, the researchers find that some views on the possibility of change are party-blind, exemplified by the 64 percent of both liberals and conservatives who do not necessarily see transportation changes as a zero-sum game.

The final pathway of knowledge of transportation facts did vary by partisanship. Interestingly, correct knowledge about transportation funding sources did not "meaningfully increase the likelihood that a respondent would support transportation policy reform."

The conclusions of this research generate implications for transportation policy. Geographic sorting along policy lines could lead to conflicts where support for policies aimed at decarbonizing transportation is shared at the local level but remains deadlocked at the more politically polarized scales of regional, state, and federal bodies.

While climate change is more effectively curtailed through federal and state initiatives, I agree that local planners ought to begin to lay the groundwork of inching local political opinion toward comprehensive structural changes within their respective communities. Klein et al. suggest examples of alternative futures, tactical urbanism, or pilot programs. In hopes of not further increasing the partisan divide, city planners can leverage this knowledge to delicately navigate the complex landscape between partisanship and policy preferences.

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About the author
Ellie Sheild is a master in urban planning candidate at Harvard University's Graduate School of Design.

March 17, 2022

By Elizabeth Sheild