Transit supporters need to start thinking like Republicans


Bad news for urbanists out of Nashville:

A controversial referendum on raising taxes to fund transit lost — and lost big — Tuesday despite backing from much of the city’s political establishment,  including Mayor David Briley, an army of business heavyweights and the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce.

Joey Garrison of the Tennessean sums up what he thinks went wrong with the campaign for a $5.3 billion plan to put in place high-capacity transit in a city that has clearly outgrown its car-reliant infrastructure. It probably didn’t help that the former mayor, who was the campaign’s lead backer, was forced out of office by an ethics scandal two months before the election. Garrison also suggests that the opposition campaign, despite being funded largely by the Kochs et al, smartly recruited Democratic consultants (including one from Austin) and major figures in the local black community to serve as surrogates. Meanwhile, the pro-transit campaign apparently came off as corporate and astroturfy and probably erred in pushing for a May election, when voter turnout is low (particularly among young voters).

One thing that Garrison didn’t mention is that the funding mechanism was an increased sales tax, which no doubt depressed support among Democrats and lower-income folks, who disproportionately shoulder the burden of the sales tax. In Austin, a major transit initiative would likely come from a voter-approved general obligation bond, which would be paid off by property taxes, which are slightly less regressive.

Finally, Garrison makes a point that could apply to transit advocacy in general:

The Nashville for Transit coalition, steered by the public relations firm McNeely Pigott and Fox and other local consultants, started with a message of fighting traffic gridlock. Fair enough.

But as the campaign continued, supporters seemed to start throwing anything at the wall to see what would stick. They touted job creation, affordable housing that could grow from transit-oriented development, health and wellness of using transit and environmental benefits. Each might be true, but the hodgepodge of messages failed to create a compelling, coherent narrative that stuck on why to support transit.

When it comes to transportation, it’s the economics, stupid. No, I’m not talking about the economy in general. I’m talking about your economic situation: your time and money. You would like to spend less of both on transportation.

If you can convince somebody that a transportation option will reduce the amount of time and money they spend to get to and from work, then it makes sense for them to vote for it.

Yes, doing so is easier said than done, but once transit advocates begin thinking in terms of time and money, they’re on the right track (or the right bike lane). Even in liberal cities like Austin, I don’t think the environmental or health message is a winner; the substantial minority of people who are receptive to those arguments are already firmly in the pro-transit camp.

Transit supporters need to emphasize that the opposition is NOT against taking your hard-earned money, they just want to pour all of it into the same failed system of congested roads that are making you miserable.

Think about how Republicans talk about moving money away from the “failed” public schools into charters and vouchers? Are they proposing new spending? No! Are they proposing that everybody move into the new schools? No! Their case is that they’re simply offering “choice” and making sure that taxpayer dollars are spent more effectively. Similarly, they portray their opponents as devoted to a powerful special interest group whose goals run counter to the interest of parents/students/taxpayers.

Transit supporters should adopt the same mentality. The benefits of transit and bike infrastructure to the environment, to local health and to the regional economy are usually undeniable, but they’re also abstract and difficult to quantify. What is quantifiable, however, is the amount of time and money that every person in the city spends commuting to work and paying for their car. A solid transit campaign will focus on how the introduction of additional transportation options will save everybody time and money, no matter how they commute. Here are some examples to use:

  • It will FREE families of the obligation of buying and maintaining multiple vehicles. Transit opponents love to mock the idea that people will ditch cars completely. I’m certainly not giving mine up anytime soon. But Jen and I are very #blessed to be able to get by with one car, thereby saving us hundreds of dollars a month. A great transit system would offer even more families this opportunity. Remember, AAA estimates that it costs $8,500 a year to own and maintain a car.
  • It will offer the CHOICE of a more pleasant, productive commute. For those who will be living near the transit service, emphasize the fact that their commute no longer has to involve staring ahead at a Coexist bumper sticker. You can instead be getting work done or browsing through Instagram on your phone. Hopefully the transit commute will be faster and cheaper than a car commute, but even if it’s not, the time will not as easily be “lost.” It can be used and enjoyed.
  • It will provide better service for those who CHOOSE to commute by car. Austin and similar cities will always have traffic, but it won’t be as bad if we get as many people in the urban core off of the roads and into transit. Suburbanites can’t expect that a 20-mile commute during rush-hour will only take 20 minutes, but getting the city slickers out of the way could help the situation significantly.
  • It will FREE us from the burden of road spending. Republicans talk about all social programs as a giant burden. Apply that reasoning to their favorite social program: roads. Counter the hand-wringing about the price tag with the fact that increased transit spending will be offset by reduced spending on roads. Fewer people driving means less wear on the roads, meaning fewer maintenance costs and fewer road closures.

Again, it’s all about time and money. Those are the deliverables. If the campaign features any lofty ideas, I would suggest “freedom” or “choice,” rather than a healthier planet or healthier people.


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