Californians Put Environment on Back Burner But Still Support Transit

AC_Transit_sign.jpgProtesters recently mourned the "death of transit," and poll results suggest they're not alone. Are politicians listening? Photo: Matthew Roth
According to a new survey, the economic benefits of walking, biking and taking transit may ultimately be their strongest selling point for Californians - at least during a recession.

The poll, conducted by the non-partisan Public Policy Institute of California, shows overwhelming support for transit: 77 percent of Californians think the state should "focus on expanding mass transit and using carpool lanes, pricing, and other strategies to more efficiently use the existing freeways and highways" instead of focusing on building more freeways and highways, which only 18 percent supported.

In the Bay Area, the numbers are even more staggering: 82 percent favored transit and more efficient use of existing freeways, versus 15 percent who supported freeway expansion.

Part of that support may be a result of fluctuating gas prices: 62 percent of those polled said they have cut back significantly on how much they drive as a result of higher gas prices, and 53 percent say they've used alternative means of travel, such as a bus, subway, bicycle, or walking. Economic considerations seem to be causing Californians to seriously reevaluate their travel patterns:

Today, 63 percent of employed adults drive alone to work, 16 percent carpool, and 9 percent take public transit. Since 2002, the percentage driving alone has declined 12 points. There are significant demographic differences in commuting habits: Whites (70%) are far more likely than Latinos (50%) to drive alone, while Latinos (29%) are far more likely than whites (11%) to carpool. Those who are older and have more education and higher incomes are more likely to drive alone.

Meanwhile, support for California's landmark climate change law has softened slightly, from 78 percent of Californians in favor of the law in 2007 to 66 percent today, which may also be a result of the economic downtown, as well as the heated debate over climate change legislation in Washington at the moment.

The results highlight the potency of economic arguments in promoting sustainable forms of transportation. Still, it may be no coincidence that the Bay Area has the strongest support in the state both for transit and for regulating greenhouse gas emissions, which 83 percent of Bay Area residents favor.

As the NRDC's Switchboard blog points out, the overwhelming public support for transit shown in the survey is at odds with many politicians' idea of how deal with transit funding. With the recession forcing more people out of their cars and onto transit, fare hikes and service reductions may not just be bad policy, but also bad politics.