Building Cities, It Turns Out, Is a Partisan Issue

» While livable cities advocates might suggest that their cause is a nonpartisan one, reality suggests otherwise.

American politics are quite unique compared to those in other countries because of the practical obsession on the part of members of both parties of achieving “bipartisan” or “nonpartisan” policy objectives. In most countries, when a party wins a landslide election, the winning group pursues its objectives, with little or no consideration of losing parties not taking part in a governing coalition. In the next election, policy differences are clarified and voters can make a choice. In the United States, on the other hand, the winning party immediately turns to the other side of the aisle in order to “work together” to find solutions that can be amenable to all. That, at least, is how Democrats responded when President Bush asked for bipartisan cooperation; President Obama and Senator Max Baucus’ repeated efforts to involve Republicans in the health debate worked on a similar vein. Yet these attempts at bipartisanship do not actually mean that legislators of opposing parties agree; rather, the failure of House Democrats to convince any Republican to vote for the stimulus earlier this year is suggestive of the problem.

It is in this context that advocates of livable communities claim that their side is right and therefore that their ideas should be acceptable to all. As Jeff Wood wrote on The Overhead Wire, “Ultimately building cities shouldn’t be a partisan issue. The road towards transit and walkability is a sustainable one from a fiscal and environmental standpoint.” In other words, Republicans and Democrats should come together and design places that encourage transit and density.

There is no question in my mind that transit and livability should be top priorities for politicians and that policy at the local, state, and federal levels should be transformed to support it. Yet reality suggests that building cities is, in fact, a partisan issue. There are significant gains to be made on both sides by defending differences in policy, and then reaching for the center; that fact goes for both issues like abortion and issues like funding for alternative transportation. Voters have to be able to make a choice.

Indeed, the American public has already been segmented quite clearly in a way that relates directly to questions about transportation and housing stock. The denser the community, the more likely to vote Democratic, as demonstrated below.

2008 Presidential Election Results by Density Quartile
Density Total Votes # of Counties Obama Share
McCain Share
0-141 ppl/sq mi 31 million 2,503 43 % 56 %
142-497 ppl/sq mi 31 million 401 48 % 51 %
498-1,467 ppl/sq mi 31 million 151 55 %
44 %
1,468-57,173 ppl/sq mi 31 million 86 66 %


The contrast is even more remarkable in the counties on the limits of typical density; those that are most urban went overwhelmingly for Mr. Obama, while those that are the most rural went to Mr. McCain with a large majority.

2008 Presidential Election Results in Extreme Low and High Density Counties
Density Total Votes # of Counties Obama Share
McCain Share
0-14 ppl/sq mi 2.5 million 667 38 % 60 %
10,002-57,173 ppl/sq mi 3.7 million 8 81 %
18 %


Both the Democratic and Republican Parties understand this segmentation and have attempt to angle their policies towards solidifying their bases. In its 2008 political platform, the Democratic Party included the following statements:

“Right now, we are spending less than at any time in recent history and far less than our international competitors on this critical component of our nation’s strength. We will start a National Infrastructure Reinvestment Bank that can leverage private investment in infrastructure improvements, and create nearly two million new good jobs… We need a national transportation policy, including high-speed rail and light rail.  We can invest in our bridges, roads, and public transportation so that people have choices in how they get to work…”

“We believe that strong cities are the building blocks of strong regions, and strong regions are essential for a strong America.  To build vibrant and diverse cities and regions, we support equitable development strategies that create opportunities for those traditionally left behind by economic development efforts. For the past eight years, the current Administration has ignored urban areas. We look forward to greater partnership with urban America… Since businesses can only function when workers can get to their place of employment, we will invest in public transportation including rail, expand transportation options for low-income communities, and strengthen core infrastructure like our roads and bridges… Finally, we will work to make cities greener and more livable by training employees to work in skilled clean technologies industries, improving the environmental efficiency of city buildings, and taking smart growth principles into account when designing transportation.”

These ideas, to be expected, hue rather closely to those expressed by livable neighborhood advocates — people who live in the urban communities that are the Democrats’ base. The Republicans, on the other hand, suggest a far more minimal involvement in relevant issues in their own platform:

“We pledge a business-like, cost-effective approach for infrastructure spending, always mindful of the special needs of both rural and urban communities… We support a level of investment in the nation’s transportation system that will promote a healthy economy, sustain jobs, and keep America globally competitive. We need to improve the system’s performance and capacity to deal with congestion, move a massive amount of freight, reduce traffic fatalities, and ensure mobility across both rural and urban areas. We urgently need to preserve the highway, transit, and air facilities built over the last century so they can serve generations to come. At the same time, we are committed to minimizing transportation’s impact on climate change, our local environments, and the nation’s energy use. Careful reforms of environmental reviews and the permitting process should speed projects to completion.”

Unlike the Democrats, Republicans do not suggest investing in high-speed rail, they don’t argue for investment in new transit capacity, and they don’t argue for designing with smart growth in mind. On the other hand, unlike the GOP, the Democrats are unafraid of pushing increased government spending on transportation projects that can only realistically be funded by the government. There are clear differences, and the reason is that the two groups are attempting to stake out different political ground with the goal of attracting votes. There is nothing less likely to win a candidate a vote than stating a policy that his or her opponent agrees with.

As Jarrett Walker argues at Human Transit, the Republicans have lost the cities, and they know they won’t get them back anytime soon, so they have an incentive to promote anti-urban sentiment. This is especially true because the pro-local, pro-rural arguments the GOP often makes to defend under-investment in alternative transportation and dense neighborhoods are exactly what appeals to tens of millions of people living in the often ubiquitous landscape of suburban single-family homes. Though those people would likely benefit from policy that promotes livable communities — there’s no argument on that here — they are attracted to rhetoric that suggests doing just the opposite. From a political standpoint, it then becomes desirable to advocate that point of view.

As transportation and other related issues rise to the forefront, in other words, partisan division seems likely to be exposed, rather than quashed by bipartisan agreement. In many ways, this isn’t a bad thing: it allows voters to understand quite clearly what they’re voting for. That’s the best part of democracy: it allows people to pick which society they want to live in. If Democrats want to represent their inner-city and close suburban constituencies well, and if Republicans want to attract the votes of the exurban and rural electorate, this contrast in policy proposals on urbanism seems inevitable.

Postscript: There is plenty of evidence that Republicans are often supportive of good policy and that Democrats are often willing to promote what livable streets advocates see as the bad, just as some Democrats are pro-life and some Republicans pro-choice. In the recent election for Mayor of New York City, Republican-endorsed Mike Bloomberg was considerably more pro-transit and pro-bicyclists than rival Democrat Bill Thompson. But the overall goals of the two parties will continue to diverge as long as matters like density play a role in determining voting patterns.

Statistics quoted above from the New York Times

19 replies on “Building Cities, It Turns Out, Is a Partisan Issue”

I think trend is exacerbated by a tendency of both parties to accentuate their bases’ fears and misconceptions about other ways of living. Particularly wingnutty GOP congressperson Michelle Bachmann once, in an apparent reference to smart growth policies, told an audience in her exurban district that “Democrats want to force you to live in a high-rise slum by the railroad tracks.” I’m sure that you could find a similarly hyperbolic quote from a Democrat as well…

Just to clarify about New York: the Democratic leadership tends to identify strongly with drivers and see transit riders as people to be pandered to – but as little as they can get away with. Most of the Republicans in the City Council or the State Legislature represent the least walkable and least transit-friendly districts in Eastern Queens or Staten Island, and so are even further to the right than the Democrats.

Bloomberg is an exception as a “Republican” candidate, because he would have run on the Democratic line if it didn’t require kowtowing to the party machine.

The debate is usually between the Democrats who pander a little to drivers and those who pander a lot, with a few brave souls like Krueger, Garodnick and Mark-Viverito who are actually standing up for transit riders.

Yonah, what you say about US politics being unique in bipartisanship is wrong. It’s only correct if your base of comparison is Britain, which is unusual in that the Prime Minister is almost an elected dictator. You can plot democracies on a spectrum from majoritarian, like Britain, where the party that wins the election can do whatever it wants, to consensual, like Switzerland, where the major parties form a coalition together, often with more parties than are necessary for a simple majority. The US is actually more majoritarian than most democracies, by virtue of its two-party system, single-party control of legislative committees, and interest group competition (in Continental Europe they instead have tripartite union/business/government meetings).

The former GOP House rep for Fairfax did all he could to kill a project designed to bring density to the Vienna Metro station because it would just increase the number of Democratic votes in his district.

For the most part I agree with you, but the one area where I disagree is the provision of bike infrastructure. In the Sacramento region the suburbs have been at the forefront of biking in this region.Lincoln, Rocklin, Davis, Folsom and Roseville each have much more extensive and better bike infrastructure than the City of Sacramento itself.

Extensive off street bikepaths networks are one of the selling points of these new edge cities.

I suspect that tactically if more money was allocated to bike infrastructure improvements, that may be a way of picking up more Republican votes.

To the Republican politician voting for more transit means bringing in stronger transit unions who are going to vote against you and which your consituents might not use much. But voting for more bike bridges is bringing in more pork that isn’t going to vote against you and which your constituents think they will use. Its also really cheap. (Portland doubled it bike share for about the price of several miles of its light rail system)

Republicans like parks and don’t care for transit, but off street bike paths are sort of in between. They function as parks but provide accessibility and permeability improvements to local communities.

Northeastern Republicans aren’t always pro-highway and anti-transit. Glaeser isn’t – he’s enthusiastically pro-density, and pro-any investment in rail that goes to the coasts and not to the Heartland. Mankiw approvingly quotes Glaeser on density. McArdle really likes the NEC – she just opposes giving the same level of service to other people. The Manhattan Institute proposes gutting transit unions, not transit.

Alon –

In reference to bipartisanship, etc: Rarely in other major countries does the best-performing party, running a broader majority coalition regularly involve itself in negotiations with less parties in a minority coalition; this only happens when there is a forced grand coalition between left and right, such as in Germany until this election cycle.

Yes, it is true, most countries don’t have “winner-take-all” (even with less than 50%) systems like Britain (or Canada), but either the left or right are generally able to form majority coalitions in their respective assemblies in most countries. Once the left or right has installed its majority coalition, the idea of bipartisanship with the other side is virtually unimaginable.

What we see in the US is indeed unique: a majority coalition (made up of 58 Democrats + 2 independents in the Senate, and a majority in the House) regularly negotiating with the minority coalition (in this case made up entirely of Republicans). The fact that our parties have majorities without having to form coalitions with other parties is simply a result of the two-party system, another matter altogether.


While President Obama has reached out to Republicans in various ways–a lot of this has to do with the fact that while Democrats command majorities in both houses of Congress, progressives do not. Many Democrats in Congress are big-business types who simply don’t care much for the reactionary social agenda of the modern GOP, but who aren’t eager to spend lots of money on new infrastructure, especially where said infrastructure might be seen as a transfer of wealth to the poor.

Much of the substantial negotiations, on issues such as healthcare, AREN’T between Democrats and Republicans–the GOP has decided to be obstructionist as possible–but between the progressive and “blue dog” wings of the Democratic Party.

And US political parties are notoriously undisciplined compared to political parties in many parliamentary democracies (where members are frequently compelled to vote the party line), and the Democrats are notoriously undisciplined by even US standards. (Lieberman would have been thrown out of the GOP caucus long ago were he to try the grandstanding that he does on healthcare, for instance.)

No, the idea of bipartisanship is fairly common in those countries, actually. A feature of majoritarianism is that coalitions should be composed of one party if possible, and of as few parties as necessary to have a majority. In consensualism, they do it differently. Either one party will have a minority government, in which case it will form ad hoc alliances with other parties to pass key legislation, or there will be a coalition involving more partners than is necessary for a majority. Minority governments are common in Denmark and, I believe, Belgium; broad coalitions are common in Israel and Switzerland.

In fact, both Israel and Switzerland have grand coalitions often. In Switzerland, the government consisted of all major parties for decades almost continuously; each party would get a share of the ministers about equal to its share of the seats. In Israel, there was a grand coalition from 1984 to 1990, and again from 2005 to today, and even when there wasn’t, often the ruling coalition would include more parties than necessary in order to ensure no single party could bring down the government alone.

Even when there is a well-defined coalition and a well-defined opposition, sometimes governments want to ensure broad support – for example, peace agreements in Israel.

The one feature of consensualism that is unusually strong in the US is the weak executive. The US has one of the most equal executive-legislature power balances; in most other countries, the executive is much stronger.

As long as the debate is framed as one of transport modes (walking/transit/bike/car) and living styles (rural/exurb/suburb/urban) allegiances to left or right are always going to appear. Why not try to get the debate around the total costs to infrastructure layout? Is building suburban developments a cost effective way to build infrastructure? Is highway development the most efficient way to move people and good around? Is the surely large medical cost of America’s obesity relevant to our current lifestyle choices? The bottom line is probably the best way to talk about this stuff, because really, that’s all that’s ever going to make things happen anyhow.

There are strong minorities in both parties, Reagan Democrats and Rockefeller Republicans, who tend to pull Party policy support in the opposite direction of the prevailing tendency of the party. George Voinevich Republican Senator from Ohio supports higher fuel taxes and Marie Landrieu Democratic Senator from Louisiana never me a yard of concrete she didn’t like.

I wish your equation of the Democratic Party with an urbanist agenda were correct, perhaps if the party elders looked these charts over it would become so. My favorite red/blue electoral map is the county map. Lots of very red states have very blue counties therein.

The Constitution was constructed to settle the frontier and protect the slaveholders. We continue to settle the frontier, though in this case it is really settling the farms that used to grow the food for the cities.

in Illinois, Rep Kirk (R) is very pro-transit and has sponsored legislation to support employer-based programs to encourage alternatives to driving. He has been awarded by the Association for Commuter Transportation for his efforts. While it may be a trend that Republicans tend to favor lower-density, auto-based development, it is not universal.

How about Francis Sargent, the governor of Massachussetts who killed the proposed inner belt that would’ve gutted Cambridge and Boston and lobbied for the funds to be made available for public transit? He even deployed a bright young Alan Altshuler to help craft the federal legislation that allowed funds to be transferred from highway trust fund to transit projects, the legacy of which is clearly felt today.

Having a (in my view, ridiculous) two party system means that you get a wide range of people calling themselves republican or democrat. Although the media likes to build up the fact we live in a hyper-partisan era, the truth is many transportation and liveable cities projects exist in a grey area where politicians can act a little more freely. This is not the case on issues that we’re forced to hear about everyday, like gun control or abortion, where interest groups on both sides produce score cards that can be used in election cycles.

The reason that American political parties (particularly the Democrats) behave as if they needed to form coalitions is that our parties themselves are more like coalitions than European political parties, which tend to be more sharply defined by ideology. The Republicans sustained two successive electoral defeats precisely because they attempted to define themselves narrowly as an ideological right-wing party, and attempted to govern in a majoritarian fashion on the basis of small majorities. The Democrats expanded their coalition to take power. As a consequence, they need to satisfy constituents who might switch back to the Republicans. If the Democrats act like the Republicans acted for the last ten years, they will quickly find themselves to be a minority party again.

Also, as we have a system with split executives and legislatures, unlike a parliamentary system, a party can have a Presdient/Governor/Mayor and a Congressmember/Assemblymember/Councillor with similar ideologies, but different constituencies and different electoral timetables, with different interests.

Unlike the Democrats, Republicans do not suggest investing in high-speed rail, they don’t argue for investment in new transit capacity, and they don’t argue for designing with smart growth in mind.

Are you really this ignorant or just a hyper-partisan Democrat hack?

In CA the GOP gov just attempted to consolidate the state’s pursuit of Fed HSR funds to support their ultra-HSR proposal. Some may question that move, but it can’t honestly be portrayed as not support rail. It is just a difference of opinion on how best to do so.

The GOP-controlled FL legislature and gov are about to call a special session to approve funding for an Orlando rail transit startup and to increase their chances of obtaining HSR funding. For an HSR plan created and refined over a decade while the GOP was in power. Temporarily shelved by a GOP gov, but that was by the public’s vote and cannot be extrapolated into “The GOP doesn’t support rail.”

Texas also has a GOP gov and legislature, and in the last 2 sessions they’ve created and gotten voter approval to establish a rail relocation fund that would facilitate commuter rail startups, created a new rail division for TXDOT, created a statewide rail plan, and the gov ordered TXDOT to develop a HSR master plan. The last bill to establish a new tax for transit failed, but it was sponsored by GOP members and the argument was over how to pay for it, not whether to expand or establish rail transit systems.

I guess you are unaware that GOP-dominated Utah is creating a light-rail and commuter rail system equivalent to Portland’s in half the time it took Oregon? And yes, the voting area that created and funded TRAX is much larger than any Salt Lake liberal enclave, so spare us that myth.

Just 4 states, though there are countless other examples across the country. Maybe bipartisan isn’t as common now because so many loud-mouth liberals with blogs always raise their fists to the sky and damn the GOP whenever it rains or they stub their toe.

Witch hunt much? –

You should note that those comments were made in reference to the platforms of the respective parties; as I suggested in the postscript, there are plenty of Republicans who are pro-transit and livable communities and plenty of Democrats who are against those things.

The idea here was to demonstrate the rather remarkable differences in voting patterns between people living in areas of different densities and to show that the parties have an incentive, usually at the national level, to respond to that fact.

Witch hunt much?: Schwarzenegger is a moderate Republican, who the party base calls a RINO and who would never have won in a straight primary. The Texas plan for the Trans-Texas Corridor isn’t HSR – it’s jumbo infrastructure circling each city, consisting of mega-highways, power lines, and some rail. Anyone who thinks you can run rail in circles like highways instead of into cities needs to have his planning license revoked.

It’s always humorous to hear conservatives complaining about “witch hunts”–it ain’t progressives (and Democrats in general) who regularly like to accuse the other political party and its members of treason.

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