VCU CNS / Flickr

Democrats are much more optimistic than Republicans that every infrastructure investment can help ease congestion—even roads.

Transportation projects, once a bipartisan beacon on the stormy political seas, have become torn by ideology in recent years. It's now common to presume that Republicans favor roads and Democrats favor rails. The source of this divide can be debated—maybe it's that liberals control rail-rich cities and conservatives hold road-dependent rural areas, or maybe it's the lack of a unified federal program like the Interstate Highway System—but the party lines have emerged clearly in the public conscience.

Then again, stereotypes often crumble under scrutiny. Some results from the Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll push back on the new conventional wisdom of transportation politics in some surprising and mysterious ways. In our poll, Democrats were significantly more likely than Republicans to think new roads would have a "major impact" on traffic congestion; in fact, liberals favored every infrastructure investment more than conservatives did.

We'll get to those figures in a moment. First, it's necessary to establish that both parties find traffic congestion to be similarly frustrating.

Across our entire sample—for respondents living in a city, suburb, or rural area alike—a combined 55 percent of Republicans (or GOP leaners) found traffic to be a big or small problem where they lived, right on par with the 51 percent of Democrats (or liberal leaners) who said the same. Among respondents living in cities, the figures were higher (as to be expected without rural respondents in the mix) but still comparable: 65 percent of Republicans (or leans) felt congestion was a big or small problem, to 60 percent of Democrats (or leans).

Neither of these modest gaps are statistically significant. In other words, a majority of respondents from both parties (and, in cities, a three-fifths majority) believe traffic congestion is a problem. Where they differ dramatically is how to address it.

When asked whether building more roads or adding more lanes would improve traffic conditions, it was Democrats who agreed most strongly—not Republicans, as the transport policy stereotypes suggest. In the whole poll sample, about 70 percent of Democrats (or leans) felt roads would have either a major or minor impact on congestion, a significantly higher share than the 63 percent of Republicans (or leans) who felt the same. Within cities the difference was also significant: 79 percent of liberals (or leans) believed roads would have a major or minor impact, to 68 percent of conservatives (or leans).

And consider just the respondents who felt roads would have a "major" impact on traffic. Here, too, Democrats emerged as the stronger advocate. Focusing on respondents who lived in cities, the poll found that 52 percent of Democrats (or leans) agreed with that assessment, compared with just 37 percent of Republicans (or leans)—another statistically significant difference.

So that happened. But the world isn't completely upside-down: Democrats also felt more strongly that improving transit (either bus or rail service) would relieve congestion. Across the entire sample, 72 percent of Democrats or leans said upgrading public transportation would have a major or minor impact on traffic, significantly more than the 58 percent of Republicans (or leans) who said the same. Within cities it was a similar story: 78 percent of liberals thought transit would have a major or minor traffic impact, to 62 percent of conservatives.

While these responses are more in line with expectations, they still refuse a rigid alignment with popular beliefs. After all, a majority of Republican respondents, both in the city-only and overall samples, felt that public transit could have some impact on congestion. And focusing on respondents who felt transit would have a "major" impact, we also get a small shock: only 47 percent of urban Democrats (or leans) agreed that was the case—not even a majority (though significantly more than the 26 percent of Republicans who felt likewise).

The party trends established for road and transit improvements largely held true for other potential traffic solutions. Among urban respondents, 71 percent of Democrats (or leans) felt more bike lanes would have a major or minor impact on traffic, compared with 59 percent of Republicans (or leans). About 78 percent of urban Democrats felt more sidewalks would do the trick, to 66 percent of urban Republicans. Urban liberals also felt telecommuting would have a bigger impact than urban conservatives did—76 percent said it would be major or minor, to 69 percent (though this gap, unlike that of bikes and sidewalks, was not significant).

So the poll disrupted a number of political preconceptions when it comes to transportation investments. If there's any unifying pattern across the board, it's that Democrats were more inclined than Republicans to believe any type of improvement would relieve traffic congestion.

Let's look more closely at the share of urban respondents who felt a particular investment would have a "major" impact on traffic. About 52 percent of Democrats (or leans) agreed this was the case for roads, with 47 percent for transit, 37 percent for sidewalks, 31 percent for bike lanes, and 46 percent for telecommuting. Republicans, meanwhile, felt this was true in lesser numbers: 37 percent for roads, 26 percent for transit, 29 percent for sidewalks, 22 percent for bike lanes, and 35 percent for telecommuting.

These Democratic shares were all higher than the averages for the entire poll sample. The Republican shares (except for sidewalks) were all lower.

So there you have it. Though both parties agreed traffic is a problem, Democrats were more likely than Republicans to believe that all transportation investments would help resolve it—road-versus-rail party lines be damned. Perhaps the results reflect a general distrust among conservatives toward government programs (while the poll question doesn't explicitly state that public entities will handle the upgrade, that might have been assumed). Or maybe Republicans are just more resigned to the idea that traffic is here to stay.

The Atlantic Media/Siemens State of the City poll, conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, surveyed 1,656 U.S. adults by telephone between July 23 and August 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points. For more details on the poll's methodology, go here.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. a photo of an electric vehicle

    The Problem With Switching to Electric Cars

    Switching to EVs en masse could help bring down planet-killing carbon emissions. But Americans also need to drive less, right now.

  2. Life

    Why the U.K. Travel Giant Thomas Cook Collapsed

    With cheap flights and Airbnb at their fingertips, British travelers have branched out from the package beach vacations that were Thomas Cook’s specialty.

  3. a photo of a full parking lot with a double rainbow over it

    Parking Reform Will Save the City

    Cities that require builders to provide off-street parking trigger more traffic, sprawl, and housing unaffordability. But we can break the vicious cycle.   

  4. a map comparing the sizes of several cities

    The Commuting Principle That Shaped Urban History

    From ancient Rome to modern Atlanta, the shape of cities has been defined by the technologies that allow commuters to get to work in about 30 minutes.

  5. A man entering a public bus in Helsinki

    Helsinki’s MaaS App, Whim: Is It Really Mobility’s Great Hope?

    The transport app Whim is oft-cited as a model for the future of urban mobility. Two years post-launch, has it changed the way people move around Helsinki?