Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
The Menino Survey of Mayors identifies priorities like infrastructure, traffic safety, and climate change. But many mayors aren’t eager to challenge the status quo.
In 2014, Boston University’s Initiative on Cities asked a group of 70 mayors across the U.S. to name the most pressing issues in their cities. That year, the bipartisan group from places big and small largely agreed the answer was infrastructure.
Last year, as part of their now-annual Menino Survey of Mayors, the university asked a bigger group of mayors a similar question: What issue related to cities did they hope would get talked about during the 2020 election cycle? Six years and one very different president later, their most urgent priority hasn’t changed.
Released this morning, the survey, named for former Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, paints a picture of mixed urban progress. Mayors from 119 cities with more than 75,000 people participated in the survey. Representatives from the West and the South dominated the sample, with 69 percent of all respondents; their average population was about 230,000. Less representative of the country were the mayors themselves: More than half were Democrats, three quarters were male, and 81 percent were white. This doesn’t reflect a sampling error as much as persistent differences between the demographics of urban areas and their leaders; in the 15 largest cities, about a third are people of color, and three are women.
Because Amazon HQ2 and local economic development tactics dominated the headlines last year, 2018’s survey asked mayors to weigh the value of offering tax incentives to companies; they also debated how best to increase social mobility, and how much—and what kind of—housing to build. This year, instead of asking a few questions about more than a dozen policy issues, as they’ve done in the past, the researchers chose to zero in on “issues where mayors have a lot of direct influence,” said David Glick, an associate professor of political science at Boston University who’s been involved with the survey since its genesis. Infrastructure, transportation, pedestrian safety, climate, economic development, and the future of work made the final list, he says, because they’re “bread-and-butter local issues” that often involve weighing higher-stakes trade-offs. “They showed a general consensus on bigger-picture things, and then variations in terms of priorities,” Glick said.
The big takeaway: There are some trade-offs city leaders just aren’t very willing to make.
Though polarization is less stark among city leaders than it is in Congress—and mayors as a cohort typically lean more blue—nowhere was the partisan divide felt more clearly than on questions of climate responsibility. An overwhelming majority of Democratic mayors—92 percent—agreed that cities have some part to play in reducing climate change, “even if it means sacrificing revenues and/or expending financial resources.” But only a quarter of the Republican executives agreed. (This divide looked very similar in 2014 and 2016, the report notes.) Vehicles were identified as the biggest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in their cities by 66 percent of mayors (transportation emissions tend to have the largest carbon impact nationwide), and the majority of mayors agreed or strongly agreed that people in their cities were too “car-focused.”
This is where mayors’ commitment to changing those dynamics seems to stall. For example, while many transportation advocates cite the general overabundance of cheap parking in U.S. cities as a critical flaw that has incentivized car dependence, sprawl, and traffic congestion, few mayors seem to agree: Most survey respondents say their parking is just the right price, in just the right amount of places. (Democrats seemed more willing to cede parking space to electric vehicle infrastructure, however.)
Generally, pedestrian and cyclist safety was prioritized by many mayors—a reflection, perhaps, of the limited progress most U.S. cities are making on their efforts to reduce traffic-related injuries. New research shows that even as being a car passenger is getting safer, being a pedestrian is becoming more dangerous. Still, “majorities of mayors rate travel in their city as safe for all of the groups we asked about,” and only 22 percent of mayors ranked “pedestrian friendliness” as a top infrastructure priority, while 66 percent listed “roads.” Democratic mayors did full-throatedly commit to sacrificing car lanes and parking spaces to bike lanes, with 92 percent on board compared to Republicans’ 34 percent—a partisan divide that’s ballooned 30 points since the survey’s 2015 edition.
Vision Zero, the global movement to dramatically reduce pedestrian fatalities, may be a hot topic in transportation circles but it’s not exactly a national priority in America’s city halls: It’s tied for seventh place (with “lighting”) on a list of what’s been most important for pedestrian safety improvements. Based on CityLab research showing that Vision Zero efforts aren’t paying off fast enough in some of the U.S.’s largest participants, perhaps that shouldn’t be surprising. As for other traffic safety measures, most mayors think their cities are doing enough. Despite global efforts to drop vehicle speeds inside cities, nearly three-quarters of mayors surveyed thought their speed limits were set at the “right level,” while only 15 percent thought they were set too high.
“Mass transit” ranked third on mayor’s top infrastructure priorities, behind roads and water. Notably, the survey’s pared down format didn’t inquire further into the specifics of what mayors wanted to do to upgrade public transportation. But even the most environmentally bullish mayors can do little to reduce car dependency unless they create other affordable, comprehensive ways to get around.
When urban leaders talk about the persistent need for infrastructure improvements, they often blame the federal government for failing to invest or care enough in local needs. But, as mayors are just as quick to tell you, there’s a lot of progress that can start in City Hall. If they don’t adjust their priorities to match the urgency of the crises they’ve identified, mayors might have no one to blame for stalled progress but themselves.