The Problem with “Improving Transportation”

When you call it that, it’s not very popular.

Looking at this Pew survey, Matt Yglesias points out that Democrats and Republicans seem to agree on the unimportance of improving transportation.


Alas, faced with that, our politicians talk about jobs and infrastructure rather than transportation.  This in turn creates the suspicion that we’re employing people to do nothing or building things we may not need.

But of course, many of the things people seem to care most about (and the two parties agree most about) depend on transportation, notably: “Improving job situation.” “strengthening economy.”  (It’s also important to several things that are sadly more polarizing, such as “dealing with global climate change,” dealing with the problems of poor people,” and “addressing issues around race.”)

I wish we were in the habit of asking people if they care about “access to opportunities“, which captures why we care about jobs but also resonates with other important goals, like economic growth and access to opportunity.

But in any case, transportation  doesn’t poll well.  Maybe that’s fine.  Even I am not that interested in transportation. I’m interested in people being able to do things, as a result fo being able to go places.  Let’s talk about that.

12 Responses to The Problem with “Improving Transportation”

  1. patfromigh June 12, 2021 at 5:43 pm #

    The term “transportation” is not a very clear term to the average citizen. Transportation seems to be moving automobiles and trucks, and hopefully, there will be passengers or freight inside of such vehicles. Improving transportation means moving traffic faster in many citzen’s minds. “Transit” on the other hand, many mistakenly believe, is an extension of the welfare system which enables the underclass to be shuffled around our communities, because some don’t have access to an automobile. Let’s be honest here, a transportation planner is a very different occupation from a transit planner. This also muddles such a survey question.

    Because the United States is automobile dependent, we are dependent primarily on personal motor vehicles for our transportation system. There is a severe car shortage at this time. It’s being blamed mostly on the chip shortage, but there are also other material shortages as well. Also due to the pandemic, imported automobile parts have a difficult time arriving to our shores and then being shipped to assembly plants or repair shops.

    I learned about the shortage of repair parts when I was without a car for most of this past week. My car broke down and while the repairs needed were routine, it took days to get the parts needed. This is a domestic brand car with a domestic built engine. There is nothing unusual or unique about my car.

    Needless to say, I used the bus a lot this past week. The repair shop I use is on the same frequent (every 20 minutes) route which I live on. That frequency falls to every half hour in the evenings. I work at a major airport shuffling rental cars. It is a second shift situation, I punch out at 10pm. The bus loop at our airport is inside the garage, out of the weather, and the waiting area is completely inside,well lit, with very nice furniture and climate control. The office where I punch in and out is adjacent to the waiting area. The bus route serving the airport has 10 to 15 minute frequency on weekdays. The problem is I have to transfer downtown on a very dark corner at night to get home. I have had waits of forty minutes because one bus was early and missed while the next bus was late. Our transit system lifted its capacity restrictions due to the pandemic on June 1st. I haven’t been using the bus for a year, so I was quite shocked to find the shelter at the corner where I transfer, shattered from recent gunfire.

    I only missed one day at work being out my car. Unfortunately, that particular day we ran out of rental cars. The agency needed as many employees as possible moving cars from the return area to the service area, and then to the place where customers pick up their rental. This ensures getting vehicles to customers as quickly as possible.

    Many of my fellow airport employees use public transit. It is shocking how many people in the various uniforms of the airlines, service industries, and rental agencies I see on the bus. We also have light rail which serves the airport, but that is a story for another time.

    I guess air travel is part of the transportation question as well. Without that lowly transit bus or rail service serving my particular airport, things might grind to a halt. I wonder how many people who travel by air are aware how transit dependent they are.

  2. Dave June 13, 2021 at 6:37 am #

    @patfromigh thanks for sharing your story. I found it interesting to see how we all depend on transit indirectly. I’d like to see Pew do a similar survey where the urban/suburban/rural were substituted for Democrat/Republican. But I suppose I could predict the results. Transit is more relevant at the local level since we have a mostly functioning national transportation infrastructure.

  3. Murray June 13, 2021 at 6:06 pm #

    An Australian here, but it seems to me at least half a dozen (and I’m being conservative here) of the other issues can be partly addressed by providing some quality public transport (and walking and cycle facilities).

    I think @patfromigh gets it right when pointing out how wide the term transportation is.

  4. Rob June 15, 2021 at 8:42 pm #

    The polling I’ve looked at is fickle. Transportation rises to the top of the list of public concerns when the economy is cruising along, and bottom of the list when it’s not. Congestion is highly correlated. Ironically, congestion seems to motivate interest in transportation funding, but there’s more interest locally in funding transit than roads.

  5. asdf2 June 16, 2021 at 9:24 am #

    My assumption here is that the average voter in the US reads “transportation” and assumes “roads and highways” without even thinking about public transit. Since virtually every American – urban and rural, Democrat or Republican – depends on roads in one way or another, the gap is relatively small.

    But, if the question were asking specifically about public transit, I would expect the gap to increase significantly. Take almost almost any ballot measure to increase local funding for transit – anywhere in the US – and compare the precinct-level results map with that of the most recent presidential election. The correlation is impossible to miss.

    At least in my part of town, mentally overlaying the two maps shows a typical transit measure winning over around 70-80% of Democrats and near 0% of Republicans. If the boundaries of the transit district form an area where at least 75% of the voters are Democrats, it has a decent shot of passing (80-85% to be sure of passage); if the transit district is larger and the vote share only 65-70% Democratic, the measure will likely fail.

    • el_slapper June 18, 2021 at 6:10 am #

      Simple question from a non-informed non-USian : don’t most republican voters live in less dense areas – therefore in areas where public transit make less sense?

    • Chris June 18, 2021 at 3:54 pm #

      I disagree. Voters in Republican-dominated areas such as Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Grand Rapids (MI) and other areas continue to voice their support for public transit, with voters most recently in Phoenix defeating an attempt by a small group of business owners needlessly worried about a reduction in travel lanes negative impacting their business to end rail construction anywhere in the city. 2/3 of ballot measures for public transit would not pass if most Republicans hated transit. Most than most, public transit is truly a bipartisan thing.

      • Scott Johnson July 6, 2021 at 4:57 pm #

        Phoenix is a blue-purple city, and Salt Lake City is quite blue. There are many examples of blue cities that are found in otherwise red states. Some states, more than others, are dependent on political patronage by the fossil fuel industry. Other states are, at least since 2008 (when the election of Obama produced an increased racial polarization in our politics; note that I am not blaming Obama for this), are hostile to urban-anything or Democratic-anything.

        Utah, although a red state, is not an oil-producing region, and is far less affected by some of the more toxic cultural politics. So it should not be surprising that Salt Lake has good public transportation.

  6. RossB June 16, 2021 at 10:40 am #

    I think more than anything it shows that most Americans don’t know much about public spending. For example, you will find lots of people who support reducing the deficit without increasing taxes or reducing military/security spending. Sorry, can’t be done. It is also funny to see that most Republicans support reducing the deficit, even though their party is responsible for most of it.

    Or how about “securing” Social Security. Social Security is just another government spending plan. There is nothing special about it. Once we get to the point where more money is going out instead of going in, we just run a deficit, like all the other spending. It is really a silly poll question, as it implies that we need to do something. But given general ignorance of public spending, it shouldn’t be surprising that pollsters ask silly questions.

    So I wouldn’t read too much in to the low numbers about transportation. As others have mentioned, it isn’t clear what that means, and if it was, a large segment of the American public is too ignorant to know how important it is. For years, few seemed to think the water/sewage supply was important, which explains why it is a mess. Or how about pandemic preparedness. Do you think it would have ranked high two years ago? Get real.

  7. Mark P. June 16, 2021 at 11:05 am #

    “Transportation” IMO is a pretty antiquated term at this point. In the circles I frequent, most people say “mobility”, which sounds like something that everybody wants or can aspire to, and doesn’t have a strong association to cars or public transit.

  8. cph June 25, 2021 at 12:17 pm #

    A lot of those categories (deliberately) broad anyway. What does “improving job situation” or “strengthening economy” mean to most people? More people have jobs. What kind? How well do they pay? Can they afford what they would consider a “decent” lifestyle with the wages? What about working conditions, work-life balance and other issues.

    I bet “improving transportation” to most folks means fixing potholes, adding more lanes to the freeway, perhaps a couple of new light rail lines here and there. The debates and discussions we have on transportation blogs such as this one are generally “invisible” to the general public (i.e. most people do not seek these discussions out).

    The spread on the first four categories (race, climate change, coronavirus–and by extension, other public health issues, and poverty) is telling. On one end there is a lot of denialism, and “Maybe if we don’t talk about these things so much, they will go away,” and “bootstraps/Horatio Alger” mythos. On the other end, advocates are demanding, not only actions, but entire new ways of thought to deal with these problems. Driving a Prius, promoting more minorities to middle management positions, and dumping more tax dollars into welfare programs simply isn’t enough anymore. Urban planning, school curriculum, health care, etc. all have to be viewed through the lens of social justice and climate change. Doing so may force changes in people’s lifestyles, one way or another, and that may lead to pushback.

    Next on the list-health care costs. At least most people are starting to think that having a serious health care issue ought not to bankrupt someone. The argument here is private vs. public provision/funding and who should bear the brunt of reducing costs (third party insurance and drug/device companies are the usual targets, but there are others).

    In general, people seem happy with the actual provision of health care, generally trusting doctors and nurses. Yeah, there are a few that balk at certain treatments, preferring to go the “alternative” route.

    Criminal justice – on one end, you have “Lock up the ‘bad guys'”, the other, a more complicated discussion about crime prevention, cops, courts, prisons, etc. Ties in with “race,” “poverty,” “jobs,” and other issues in the chart, so controversies related to those issues will be present here.

    Education. I’ll start with K-12 first. Unlike health care, which most people (unless they’re really ill) don’t deal with every day, most of us remember going to school daily, and sending our children there. For all the complaints we hear about schools, most of us look at the education system as a black box. In go the kindergarteners and preschoolers, out come young people whom (we hope) know how to read, write, do math, and have at least a nodding knowledge of science, culture, and history.

    In fact, under the surface, there are, and have been, many arguments and controversies over how, and what, students should be taught. Some of these arguments have come into the public eye: “new math,” vs. drill and practice vs. “common core”; “whole language” etc. Certain issues, such as “evolution vs. creationism” or the content of certain history classes, have become extremely politicized…

    Higher ed is another discussion. What is the purpose of “going to college?” Is it just another jobs program, or does it have a higher purpose? Why is it so expensive, and who should pay? And many other questions…

    Drug addiction -Another public health issue. The spread is narrow (6 points) , no one thinks having a drug problem is ok (I hope). There is some argument to how the drug problem should be treated, with movement toward decriminalization and treatment.

    “Improving the political system” – broad question, but surprisingly narrow spread (4 points), especially in light about the current controversies about voting procedures, access to voting, the electoral college, etc.

    Immigration – gee, no spread at all. Not surprising, considering that immigration is part of the “civic religion” of the US. (Nearly) everyone here is because they or their ancestors voluntarily immigrated from somewhere else, and all the bluster about “criminals coming over the border,” walls, etc. didn’t change that.

    Social Security – very small spread (3 points). It’s a popular program. How it will survive the onslaught of the Baby Boomers receiving their benefits is an open question.

    Global trade – we in the US like trading with the rest of the world, we just don’t want to feel taken advantage of. However, I don’t think most people really know, or think too closely about all the nuances of global trade, or how various agreements are crafted.

    “Terrorism” shows a spread of 10. 9/11, Isis, etc. haven’t entirely faded from our minds yet.

    Interestingly, arguments about “reducing crime” (16) are closer than “addressing the criminal justice system” (21, in the opposite direction). Apparently there’s less argument about catching criminals, than what to do with them once caught….

    “Strengthening the Military” has a spread of 23. To many folks, this means acquiring more materiel–planes, ships, weapons, and bases; money that ought to be spent on other things. But it (theoretically) could mean re-evaluating its purpose–less focus on air and ground wars, more focus on responding to cyberterrorism, biological attacks, or even space weapons.
    Also don’t forget that for some people, the military is a jobs program and a career path as well….

    “Budget Deficit” – most folks going on about the deficit are handwringers. Taxes would have to be raised substantially, and/or popular programs cut, so there is no political will.

    To bring everything back to the subject, transportation, we’re fortunate that the field is relatively understandable, somewhat non-controversial, right (on the chart) between education and jobs. We go to school expecting to know more when we come out, we go to work expecting not only pay, but a decent quality of worklife as well (free from needless stress, danger, or harassment), and we use our transportation systems,
    expecting a safe, reasonably fast and convenient trip regardless of mode. And for the most part, we know how to complain, and hopefully seek relief if our experiences do not meet with our expectations.

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