Why do voters support public transportation? Public choices and private behavior


We examine American support for transit spending, and particularly support for financing transit with local transportation sales taxes. We first show that support for transportation sales tax elections may be a poor proxy for transit support; many voters who support such taxes do not support increased transit spending, and many people who support transit spending do not support increased sales taxes to finance it. We then show that support for transit spending is correlated more with belief in its collective rather than private benefits—transit supporters are more likely to report broad concerns about traffic congestion and air pollution than to report wanting to use transit themselves. These findings suggest a collective action problem, since without riders transit cannot deliver collective benefits. But most transit spending supporters do not use transit, and demographics suggest they are unlikely to begin doing so; transit voters are wealthier and have more options than transit riders.

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  1. 1.

    We use NRDC and Reason surveys; also see National Geographic (2012).

  2. 2.

    World Bank (http://wdi.worldbank.org/table/3.1).

  3. 3.

    APTA, (1990) and (2013b).

  4. 4.

    It is certainly possible that transit use might be even lower in the absence of new investments.

  5. 5.

    Anderson (2013) shows that LA's 2003 transit strike badly exacerbated short-term congestion. But this finding is largely irrelevant to our question. Voters never decide on suddenly and completely ending transit service, but rather on making long-term and incremental increases to transit networks.

  6. 6.


  7. 7.

    The results don't change if we analyze each question separately or create a scale from them.

  8. 8.

    Including a variable from 2004 and 2005 suggesting that finding good jobs is a "big problem" does not change the results..

  9. 9.

    This tabulation is not shown.


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The John Randolph Haynes Foundation supported this research. We thank the NRDC and the Reason Foundation for sharing data with us. We thank Jay Siegel for research assistance, and Brian Taylor, Mike Smart and Daniel Kuhlman for helpful comments.

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Correspondence to Michael Manville.

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Manville, M., Cummins, B. Why do voters support public transportation? Public choices and private behavior. Transportation 42, 303–332 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11116-014-9545-2

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  • Public transportation
  • Voting
  • Travel behavior