Do Sidewalks Make You Vote Democratic?

People voting in Minneapolis’ Kingfield neighborhood. Img Strib.

A few months ago, I read the following tweet by über-famous polling guru, Nate Silver:

@fivethirtyeight Heuristic: if a place has sidewalks, it votes Democratic. Otherwise, it votes Republican.

It’s something I’ve heard before. Bill Bishop’s fascinating book about political and neighborhood also points to the deep connection between urban form and political affiliation. Central cities are overwhelmingly demcoratic. In exurbia, it’s the exact opposite.

One of the key reasons why our political experience is marked by incredulity is because of this spatial division. And sidewalks may just be the most obvious sign of this gap. More than anything else, sidewalks can predict your vote,  what kind of political values you have.

What is is about sidewalks that make them a political lithmus test? Do they symbolize something fundamental? Do they attract liberals like flypaper? Do sidewalks foster empathy and understanding? Which came first, the sidewalk or the egghead?


Option 1: Liberals Prefer Sidewalks

There are two answers to this question. On the one hand, you can argue that politically left-leaning people prefer sidewalks, and choose to move into neighborhoods that have them. (Meanwhile, libertarian conservatives prefer large houses on the edge of the city.) People move into neighborhoods which match their ideologies and aesthetics, and over time, both groups “self-select” and segregate across the metro area. In his book, The Big Sort, Bill Bishop describes exactly this phenomenon, how US cities have become more segregated over the past 30 years. (Back in 1976, only 27% of voters lived in so-called “landslide counties,” uncompetitive neighborhoods where the vast majority of people voted for one candidate. Today that number is over half.)

More and more, people live in places where the vast majority of people agree with each other. And for left-leaning folks, that means places with sidewalks. Sidewalks serve as a classic symbol of urban togetherness. Sidewalks represent an image of society involving dog-walking and diversity. Sidewalks attract Obama supporters. On the other hand, for a tea party libertarian, a sidewalk is like garlic to a vampire. No self-respecting free-market kool-aid vendor would be caught dead on one. They stay away, safe and secure out on the edge of town in a three-car garage utopia.


Option 2: Sidewalks Create Liberals

Probably the bulk of the matter involves this kind of self-selection, like-minded people moving into neighborhoods that suit them. But what about the other way around? Might sidewalks foster tolerance? Do they actually have an effect on people, changing how they think about their neighbors?

Here the case is a bit trickier. You can’t cite simple demographic statistics to prove that sidewalks affect people’s values. Rather, you have to do some guess work.

New Urbanists, among others, have long been interested in figuring how how sidewalks affect behavior. Does walking around one’s neighborhod increase tolerance? Does walking your dog make you more likely to talk to, and try to empathize with, your neighbors? Does having a corner coffee shop foster social capital?

Just because it’s impossible to have definitive answers to these questions, doesn’t mean that our urban enviornments have no effect. Jane Jacobs famous book argues that, without sidewalks, the kinds of interactions that make up the “urban ballet” cannot occur. In the end, we are inseperable from our environments. You can’t study people’s beliefs and values in a space-less vacuum. Our streets, sidewalks, homes, and architectures have profound effects on our political beliefs. Maybe sidewalks do foster different kinds of understanding. At the very least, it’s something to think about as you walk or drive to the polls.

7 thoughts on “Do Sidewalks Make You Vote Democratic?

  1. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    Interesting post Bill. It seems that if you could overlay an electoral map by precint you'd have a high correllation with urban areas that have sidewalks. That said, the last couple elections have shown the Democrat seeping into former suburban republican territory in the inner/older suburbs that mostly lack sidewalks.

    Broadly speaking I think the idea there is a huge worldview difference between people who choose to live in compact neighborhoods with sidewalks more reliance on one another and those who prefer a more isolated, independent, self-reliant experience.

  2. Omri

    So here's an interesting irony.

    In order to be an independent, self-reliant, tea partier on the edge of the city, you must do the following:

    1. Take a government class (optional in some jurisdictions).

    2. Take a government written test.

    3. Take a government practical test.

    4. Get a government issued card with your picture on it.

    5. Get a car from a government approved make&model.

    6. Retitle it with the government.

    7. Register it with the government.

    8. Insure it with a government approved policy.

    9. Get it inspected to please the government.

    10 Fuel it with a government regulated fuel blend.

    To lead the life of an urbanite, each effete collectivist minded liberal must do the following:

    Put on some shoes.

    Interesting irony, no?

  3. Greg

    I am libertarian: socially liberal and fiscally conservative. I live in Minneapolis and I much prefer sidewalks and urban living to the suburbs.

  4. Ray

    My number one requirement for where I live is that the place must have sidewalks. I have lived on farms, in the woods, in the distant suburbs, in the inner suburbs, in small towns and in the city, but I will never live anywhere without sidewalks again.

  5. stlplanr

    Sidewalks may also provide an advantage to campaigning, as the means of completing a human-scaled, door-to-door, one-on-one ground game.

  6. Pingback: Today on Do Sidewalks Turn People Into Democrats? - Dogs | Dogs

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