On Tuesday, October 21st, Vice President Joe Biden, six metropolitan mayors, past and present US secretaries of transportation, and a wide variety of transit innovators, experts, and business and nonprofit leaders met in Washington, D.C. for the first in a series of live events, America Answers, hosted by the Washington Post. The first topic was commuting.
In advance of that meeting, ABC News and the Washington Post undertook a survey (1001 national respondents) asking whether government efforts to address traffic congestion should focus on expanding and building roads, or on providing more public transportation options. The majority, 54%, want public transit solutions. Even with a margin of error of 3.5 points, the 41% who answered “roads” make up a minority (5% answered “no opinion”).
Answers differed, not surprisingly, with geographic and demographic differences. For instance, 61% of urban residents favor transit, vs. 49% of people in rural areas. Personally, I think a 49% support rate in rural areas is a bit of a coup.
More interestingly, those favoring public transit solutions included the under-40 crowd, non-whites, and the very wealthy ($100k+ yearly income).
This poll has been getting a lot of attention in the last couple of days.
But… hold on. This all sounds familiar.
A poll of 800 people back in 2012 by the National Resources Defense Council showed a two-to-one preference for transit over road expansion. So are there fewer transit supporters now than in 2012? Well, first, we’re comparing apples and oranges. The NRDC poll had three options, not two: building communities where people don’t have to drive as much (as well as a fourth “NA/don’t know/all/none” answer which received 17%, compared to 5% “no opinion” in the ABC/Post poll).
The same NRDC poll shows that the same poll conducted in 2007 and 2009 showed even higher support for public transit. More interestingly, while 42% wanted increased public transit, only a third of respondents had used public transit in the previous month, while another third had NEVER used public transit.
So transit is, and has been, getting a lot of lip service. But what do the actual usage numbers show? Well, actually, they show a pretty flat line. According to the 2014 American Public Transportation Association’s 2014 Fact Book (Appendix pages 326-327), the number of commuters driving alone is hovering a mere 0.69% under its three-decade high of 76.98%.
While carpooling, transit ridership, and walking to work have seen tiny increases from 2010 to 2012, not one of them is at the peaks seen in 1980.
BUREAU OF CENSUS JOURNEY-TO-WORK BY MEANS OF TRANSPORTATION TO WORK, ALL COMMUTERSData drawn from the decennial census and the American Community Survey
|Transit||Walk||Other Means |
Admittedly, this is only work-related transit, while complete streets, livable communities, and urban vibrancy embraces a much broader concept of public transportation than how one gets to work. I imagine there are many people who would take transit to an event, say, a hockey game, or walk to a neighborhood business or restaurant, who would never consider a public transit commute.
So what does this actually mean for sustainable transportation?
Polls are often just a manifestation of the old saw that there are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.
The statistics are inherently flawed. There is only a small sample set. People don’t always accurately report their use behavior. Polls are often about opinions, not actions, and it’s easy to be idealistic when there’s nothing but words at stake. Definitions and distinctions, such as that between utilitarian and recreational trips, muddy the waters. And on top of that, the questions are unrealistic, taken out of the context of real life. It’s easy to choose between A and B in a vacuum. It’s not so easy in the presence of C, D, E, and everything else vying for our dollars, our attention, and our desires. If the poll question from the beginning of this post had been “Should we spend more infrastructure dollars on public transit or public schools”, the answers would probably have differed wildly.
On the other hand, perception is enormously important. Perceived trends in transit ridership influence policy decisions and funding at all levels of government. Perceived public support and media coverage bring attention to issues and help or hinder policy and advocacy efforts.
One way to get around the inherent flaws in surveys, polls, and samples is to engage in use-based benchmarking. This ranges from bus fare-box tracking instead of visual sampling to bike counters like those implemented locally by ZAP Twin Cities. The best example of such counts locally comes from the Metro Green Line, whose ridership has already exceeded projections, nearly reaching 2030 expectations.
You Too Can Be a Data Point!
Participating in the democratic process is also important. Policy decisions don’t, or shouldn’t, take place in a vacuum. Various agencies do their best to reach out to the public for input.
Metro Transit wants public input on improvement of bus services.
Saint Paul wants public input on the revised Bike Plan. (Comments have reopened until December 5th: please go comment!)
Hennepin County wants to hear opinions on their Bicycle Transportation Plan. (Also open until December 5th.)
The Met Council welcomes input from community members.
And you can always email your local city council-member or mayor’s office directly.
So, celebrate the new poll results, but don’t forget: you can’t just talk the talk; you’ve got to walk the walk. And ride the bus. And the bike. And the train. Use the infrastructure that we’ve built so far, and keep asking for more.