American politicians rarely make public transportation a core issue of their election campaigns. That’s a problem for cities.
In March, Cynthia Nixon debuted her gubernatorial campaign with a dramatic ad spot focusing on New York’s inequality, the worst in the country. As part of her message, she keyed in on three issues: improving health care, ending mass incarceration, and fixing the subway. By May, her campaign leaned heavily on the transit issue, holding rallies in subway stations and selling t-shirts with slogans such as “What the F? #CuomosMTA” (the “F,” of course, being the F train logo). On September 5, less than two weeks before the primary, her campaign released another spot, this one titled, “Tax the rich. Fix the subway.”
Focusing on mass transit didn’t work: Nixon lost the primary to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking his third term, by a roughly two-to-one margin. Though Cuomo oversaw the transit system during its decline, the message didn’t resonate with New Yorkers; Nixon didn’t win a single downstate county, nor did she carry any of the boroughs. Still, Nixon’s primary challenge was a significant example of something that one rarely sees in postwar American politics: She ran on transit.
It’s hard to find a contemporary example of a candidate for state office running as explicitly on public transportation as Nixon did. This strategy may not have paid dividends at the polls, but hammering on Cuomo’s responsibility over the MTA arguably did serve a valuable purpose, by making voters aware of who controls the convoluted public authority. It’s uncommon to see even big-city mayors base their campaigns on improving aging and often struggling urban rail systems. That matters: If no candidate is running on making mass transit better, voters have few opportunities to improve their systems, outside of special referenda.
What’s happening in the current Florida governor race is far more common, where candidates pay lip service to slow, frustrating commutes—along highways, of course—and offer vague platitudes about improving it. “Shortening commute times, however, rarely comes up in candidates’ stump speeches, even though transportation is the third-largest portion of the state budget,” the Orlando Sentinel recently observed. All the candidates agree traffic is bad and something must be done, but most of the discussion surrounds highway expansion. Few of the candidates in Florida—Andrew Gillum being the notable exception—meaningfully separate mass transit like trains and buses from highways and roads, or even airports and seaports. It’s all lumped into a conversation about “infrastructure,” a woefully inadequate and overly simplistic way to discuss 21st-century needs.
There are many reasons why candidates loathe to campaign on mass transit, including voter demographics. Those who rely on mass transit are less likely to vote. According to a 2016 Pew study, 34 percent of black and 27 percent of Hispanic urban residents report taking public transit daily or weekly, compared with only 14 percent of whites. Yet eligible white voters are more likely to go to the polls on election day than blacks or Hispanics. Further, 38 percent of foreign-born urban residents—who are more likely not able to vote—rely on mass transit, as opposed to only 18 percent of U.S.-born urban dwellers.
But there are also structural reasons why American politicians at all levels rarely make mass transportation a core issue. For one, it’s rarely clear who is actually responsible for mass transit in any given metro area. Often, it’s not the mayor or governor, at least not directly. Of the ten most-used transit systems in America, only Boston’s MBTA, which is under the state’s department of transportation, is directly controlled by either the state or city. The rest are under the auspices of independent authorities with convoluted governance structures and varying degrees of influence by local officials, mayors, and governors.
Typically, these authorities are regional, with the vast majority of influence from the counties the transit system serves. In theory, this brings all the stakeholders to the table. But that’s another way of saying it dilutes control across several different electoral entities. In cases like Chicago’s CTA or New York’s MTA, the mayor and governor essentially control the authorities, respectively, by appointing a majority of executive positions or board members. But others, like Philadelphia’s SEPTA, DC’s WMATA, San Francisco’s BART, and Los Angeles’s LACMTA, are overseen by amalgams of regional influencers.
When I recently asked some transit experts if they can recall public transit being such a big issue in city or state elections, they struggled to think of cases like Nixon’s, where candidates campaigned to make an existing service better. But they did bring up many races defined by a proposal for something new rather than fixing something old.
Big local transit proposals can be quite contentious. That’s why these projects are often put to the people via ballot measures, which cut through the dispersed authority structure. Candidates and officeholders often align with one side of the ballot. Mayor Eric Garcetti put his weight behind Measure M in Los Angeles, for example, which authorized a $140 billion investment over 40 years to improve mass transit. It passed in 2016, and Garcetti campaigned the following year on this success. He was easily reelected and, if the rumors about his presidential aspirations are true, we can expect to hear a lot more about Measure M in 2020.
But attaching oneself to major transit referenda isn’t always a winning bet, especially when the referenda do not pass. One of the most prominent historic examples of this dynamic was Forward Thrust, a 1968 ballot measure in Seattle that proposed, among other things, a 47-mile, 30-station rapid rail transit system, 90 miles of express bus service, and 500 miles of local bus service for $1.15 billion. (The federal government was willing to fund 70 percent of the bill.) The proposal polled well, and Mayor James Braman supported it. But a group called Citizens for Sensible Transit, led by real-estate promoter Vic Gould, campaigned hard against it. So did King County Democratic Party chair Jeanette Williams, citing cost and lack of necessity. In the end, the transit portion of Forward Thrust did not pass. (As it happens, a recent Seattle ballot measure called ST3, which is not dissimilar from Forward Thrust, has a price tag of $54 billion with only an estimated 13 percent federal funding, and it passed.) Braman resigned the following year to work for the Nixon administration, and when the measure was put to the voters again in 1970, it once again was defeated.
The federal funding earmarked for Forward Thrust went instead to Atlanta’s MARTA system, itself the locus for a vicious political fight that was a referendum on race rather than transportation. The MARTA system that prevailed at the ballot box was an attenuated version, because the all-white suburbs refused to participate. Mayor Sam Massell had to break out all the stops to get the necessary sales tax approved by the city and two counties that did want to participate, including promising low fares and chartering a helicopter to fly over the Downtown Connector while screaming through a bullhorn, “If you want out of this mess, vote yes!” Massell was defeated in the 1973 election by 35-year-old Maynard Jackson, the first black mayor of a major city in the South.
Even in modern times, running explicitly against transit on a platform with racial undertones can prove popular. For example, in the 2014 Maryland governor’s race, GOP candidate Larry Hogan campaigned heavily against the Red Line, an east-west rail line through Baltimore that would serve several predominantly black neighborhoods, a project backed by his predecessor, Martin O’Malley. Hogan won, killed the project, and has enjoyed nation-leading approval ratings since.
However, there are small indicators some candidates are taking transit more seriously. In Massachusetts, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Jay Gonzalez has made improved public transportation a part of his platform, possibly a reflection that Boston’s transit system is one of the few directly controlled by an elected official. Last year, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy ran to bring life back to NJ Transit, which former governor Chris Christie decimated. (Murphy has yet to make any progress on that.) Ben Jealous, a Democrat challenger to Hogan for the Maryland governorship, has promised to revive the Red Line project. Even the Florida governor example from above, while emblematic of transit being a small part of larger campaign discussions about infrastructure, is noteworthy in that the candidates for governor are even being asked about mass transit issues.
A bellwether for how seriously candidates for office are now taking public transit may be Chicago, where Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not seeking re-election. The mayor’s office is a position that holds considerable power over Chicago’s transit landscape, but it’s not clear if those vying to replace him take transit issues seriously.
They should. Functional and efficient mass transportation has to be part of any conversation about reducing inequality, because better transit opens up more opportunities to jobs and housing. No conversation about sustainability or the environment is complete without an ambitious platform to reduce private vehicle usage.
Indeed, one of the reasons Nixon’s campaign may not have resonated is not because she talked about fixing the subway, but because she only talked about fixing the subway: She didn’t articulate a vision or policy proposal broader than “Tax the rich. Fix the subway.” But the fact that she was able to garner more than 512,000 votes, despite being a newcomer to public service, suggests that simply expressing any interest about mass transit is enough to win over a significant number voters. Maybe she just needed to talk about the bus, too.