Emily Badger is a former staff writer at CityLab. Her work has previously appeared in Pacific Standard, GOOD, The Christian Science Monitor, and The New York Times. She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.
Never underestimate the power of commuting issues.
New York City Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer just published this chart of the breakdown of constituent service requests and complaints his office fielded during 2013 ("no problem is too small for us to handle," Van Bramer writes in his annual report card):
The picture reminded me of something I recently heard another local politician say. When we asked a group of mayors last month about the most surprising element of their jobs, Nashville's Karl Dean went with a mundane aspect of transportation. "I’m surprised," he said, "at how much time I spend thinking and worrying about parking."
How we get around has an enormous influence on our quality of life, and so it's central to what we expect from our elected officials. This is why unplowed roads can undermine an entire administration. It's why arcane changes to residential parking permit policy stir such public ire. It's why problems with transportation make up the largest single set of concerns that a local city councilman must address – beyond even jobs, public safety, and housing.
This is also why New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is in such trouble. Were he neck-deep in a petty political spat involving a public park or a job-training program or a real-estate project, the scandal wouldn't resonate quite so widely. We often talk about transportation – and its sub-genres of parking policy, street design, traffic management and mass transit planning – as a niche interest of nerds at the national level. Locally, though, no issue is more politically potent.