» 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
|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 %
|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
|0-14 ppl/sq mi||2.5 million||667||38 %||60 %
|10,002-57,173 ppl/sq mi||3.7 million||8||81 %
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