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Car Country? Think Again. Americans Love Public Transit

J. Mijin Cha

One of the GOP’s recent favorite tactics is to take an issue that is fundamentally non-controversial and non-partisan and make it into a partisan issue. They did it with raising the debt ceiling, which has been raised under every president except for Truman. The latest target was public transportation, which enjoys strong bi-partisan and public support. As we highlighted earlier, the House GOP wanted to stop all dedicated funding to public transportation. And, like the debt ceiling fiasco, there was a huge backlash against it and GOP leaders have now stripped the provision ending public transit funding.

To be frank, this latest GOP battle was pretty dumb. Public transportation enjoys wide public support. A poll conducted in 2010 found that over 80 percent of respondents said the U.S. would benefit from expanded public transportation. Remarkably, the poll found that 79 percent of rural residents agreed with this sentiment, even though they have much less access to public transportation. Two-thirds of respondents would like more transit options to have the freedom to choose where to go and over 70 percent said they had no choice but to drive as much as they do. Nearly 60 percent would like to spend less time in the car.

More recent regional polls affirm wide support for public transportation. Over 90 percent of respondents in the Washington D.C. metro area want more public transit options. A survey commissioned by Minnesota’s three largest chambers of commerce found nearly 70 percent of respondents said they wanted to use public transportation more and over three-quarters said that Minnesota would benefit from improved transit options. A recent poll in Virginia found that by a margin of 44 percent to 33 percent, respondents preferred developing mass transit over building new roads and highways. Respondents also strongly agreed with the statement that investment in public transportation creates jobs, boosts jobs, and decreases our dependence on oil and gas. Similar support was found in New Jersey, Los Angeles, Denver-- you get my point.

And, why does public transportation have such high public support? Among the many benefits, households that are likely to use public transit on a given day save more than $10,000 a year. Public transportation is an essential tool in the fight against climate change as it decreases the nation’s carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons annually—the equivalent to if New York City, Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Denver and Los Angles combined stopped using electricity. It also saves over 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline annually. Public transportation also creates and supports over 1.9 million jobs.

Despite conservative efforts to paint public transit riders as “elites,” low-income communities, communities of color and people with disabilities are the most transit dependent. Transit riders are also budget-sensitive and transit ridership has increased over the past year, in part due to rising gas prices.

The GOP attack on workers and low-income communities is nothing new but trying to gut public transportation funding was a particularly tone-deaf move. They might want to take note of public--i.e. their constituents-- opinions and concerns into account before they launch their next attack.