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Liberals are more likely to use public transit than conservatives

Flickr user Todd Page

The Pew Research Center's big report on "political typologies" out last week — the latest in a series of findings from a large survey of Americans' political attitudes — includes a couple of interesting questions on lifestyles and leisure activities. One of them asked the 10,013 adults surveyed how often they use public transit.

Below are the results, broken down by the typologies Pew created.

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By Pew's definition, "steadfast conservatives" are socially conservative advocates of smaller government. "Business conservatives" agree with them on small government but not necessarily social issues. "Young outsiders" lean Republican but actually like neither party. "Hard-press skeptics" lean liberal but are critics of government and business. The "next generation left" are young, generally well-off and liberal, but cautious about the cost of social programs. The "faith and family left" believes in government's ability to solve problems, but is also religious and wary of issues like gay rights. "Solid liberals" are predictably so, on just about every policy issue.

Two points to make about the above distribution when it comes to their views on transit: First, regular public transit ridership is meager even among the groups most likely to use it. It's not as if a majority of "solid liberals" get to work every day by subway, while steadfast conservatives wholly disdain it. The difference between the two poles in using transit "at least once a week" is just 17 percentage points. Among the many subjects Pew polled in this massive survey — Hillary Clinton, the causes of poverty, patriotismnot using transit is actually one of the larger points of agreement.

There is, however, a detectable pattern here: Along this spectrum, liberals are more likely to use transit than conservatives. But this may tell us as much about where all these people live as how they really feel about transit. Liberals are more likely to be clustered in cities, where transit is most common. National election results suggest that a county's likelihood of voting democratic increases with its population density. The viability of public transit does the same. There's no sense in building a subway in rural or even much of suburban America. And the farther apart people live, the harder it is to design reliable, regular bus service.

We also know from an earlier report in this Pew series that conservatives are more likely to say they'd prefer to live somewhere where "the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away." That's pretty much the definition of a place where public transit doesn't work as well.

What the above data doesn't tell us is whether liberals and conservatives have different preferences for public transit when they live in the same place. But given that conservative elected officials tend to represent voters from more rural and suburban parts of the country where few rely on transit, it's little surprise that funding for transit in Congress has become a polarized topic in the last few years, too.

Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.



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Roberto A. Ferdman · June 30, 2014

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