The Real Reason Red America Loves Cars (Streetsblog USA), by Kea Wilson, Sept 3, 2021
Republican-leaning voters are more likely than Democrats to trade a walkable community for a large home, a new poll finds — but that result may say more about car culture’s stranglehold on the American imagination than how either group really wants to live.
In a viral article for Vice News, journalist Aaron Gordon explored a recent Pew Research Center poll that found 73 percent of Republican-leaning voters would prefer to “live in a community where houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores and restaurants are several miles away.” Only 49 percent of blue-leaning Americans shared that lifestyle desire.
Gordon took the poll as evidence that walkable communities are “yet another dividing line in the American culture wars,” and marveled at the fact that political affiliation was more predictive of respondents’ preference for small homes in walkable neighborhoods than their race, age, or whether they live in an urban or rural area now.
But Pew’s poll wasn’t asking about how much various political groups prefer driving to walking, or even how much they value living within easy reach of the services they rely on most. Instead, it asked whether respondents would be willing to live in a small home within walking distance of schools, restaurants and shops — without specifying whether that walk would be safe, comfortable, or dignified.
In too many American communities, it’s not — and it’s been that way for so long that it’s hard to imagine it any other way.
In the five short years since Pew first began asking respondents this frustratingly vague question as part of its 2014 polarization report, U.S. pedestrian deaths have skyrocketed a shocking 26 percent, in large part thanks the proliferation of unregulated mega-cars on roads that transportation leaders have often made no effort to calm.
Meanwhile, the average additional amount a U.S. homebuyer is willing pay for a house in a walkable neighborhood has remained flat since 2016 — but at a whopping $77,668, that premium still puts even basic walkability out of reach for most. (There’s less data on renters’ access to walkable neighborhoods, but considering the reams of research about the growth of poverty in both unwalkable suburban and rural areas, the outlook isn’t good.) Some U.S. communities are pursuing zoning changes that would allow more Americans to enjoy a range of housing sizes within mixed-use neighborhoods — and neighborhoods built before the advent of the automobile tend to have a lot of those already — but the pace of change is still glacial relative to the demand.
Respondents to polls like Pew’s literally can’t afford to ignore those harsh realities when they make choices about where they live and how they get around — which could help explain why 60 percent of all Americans chose the “big house, lots of driving” option in Pew’s survey, and why that number has increased from 49 percent in 2014.
In a country that has been deliberately manipulated by powerful interests into believing that the sacrifice of more than 36,000 people a year to traffic violence is the unavoidable price we must pay for American society, an autocentric lifestyle isn’t a preference. It’s a survival strategy. And a big house on the side is just a bonus.
Seen through that lens, Pew’s finding the 39 percent of Americans would still choose a small home in a walkable neighborhood is pretty remarkable — especially considering that America has nowhere near enough homes in safe neighborhoods to give the people what they want.
Beth Osborne@BethOsborneT4AInteresting survey by @pewresearch. 1) The market isn’t close to serving 39% demand for walkability. 2) Why is the choice house size v walking? I lived in a 4bd home in a rural walkable town as well as a 1bd apt in an unwalkable urban place. #falsechoiceWalking Places Is Part of the Culture Wars NowFor two million years, we have walked this Earth to get what we need. Now, 60 percent of Americans want to drive everywhere.vice.com
If it’s fairly easy to understand why all Americans are devaluing dense neighborhoods as the roads and cars that run through them get deadlier, it’s a little more challenging to understand why Republicans and other right-leaning voters are so much more likely to do so.
But anyone who’s lived in a red community knows this: for many Republicans, owning a car carries a unique cultural weight that it simply doesn’t in many blue circles.
To break the fourth wall for just a moment, I know something about red communities. I split much of my childhood between two counties in Michigan and Ohio that both went for Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton by more than 20 points in 2016.
Because red America isn’t a monolith, these two communities have little in common besides their voting patterns. One is an exurban bedroom community carved into Amish farmland with next to no sidewalks, and the other is a tiny, walkable town of 5,000 where 32 percent of the population lives below the federal poverty line. In Ohio, some of my dad’s neighbors use their SUVs to haul horse trailers, while others drove Hummers to Starbucks on their way to downtown jobs (and a surprising number did both); in Michigan, my mom lives within spitting distance of a walkable Main Street that is home to the town hall, the grocery store, and many of the services she relies on, give or take the occasional Costco run across the state line to Indiana. My dad’s town is 97 percent White; my mom’s is just 66 percent.
In both cities, regardless of how residents actually live and what they can actually afford, cars endure as a powerful and enduring status symbol in a way that’s difficult to explain to my neighbors in the blue city where I live now. Everyone wants one, most households have at least two, and almost without exception, those cars are huge.https://platform.twitter.com/embed/Tweet.html?dnt=true&embedId=twitter-widget-1&features=eyJ0ZndfZXhwZXJpbWVudHNfY29va2llX2V4cGlyYXRpb24iOnsiYnVja2V0IjoxMjA5NjAwLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X2hvcml6b25fdHdlZXRfZW1iZWRfOTU1NSI6eyJidWNrZXQiOiJodGUiLCJ2ZXJzaW9uIjpudWxsfSwidGZ3X3NwYWNlX2NhcmQiOnsiYnVja2V0Ijoib2ZmIiwidmVyc2lvbiI6bnVsbH19&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1423353159385235457&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fusa.streetsblog.org%2F2021%2F09%2F03%2Fthe-real-reason-red-america-loves-cars%2F&sessionId=43220a7ff36693bfc8d4b181a3b24c97a46a4d0a&theme=light&widgetsVersion=1890d59c%3A1627936082797&width=500px
The data bears this out nationally. Market research shows that when Republicans are asked what they want in a vehicle, they tend to throw out adjectives like “powerful,” “rugged,” and “prestigious” — three status-conscious modifiers that could just as easily be applied to the driver’s desired image of himself. Self-identified Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely to pick more utilitarian modifiers like “economical” and “environmentally friendly,” which may suggest that they think of their cars as tools, rather than extensions of their core identity.
Those attitudes can lead to staggeringly different choices at the dealership. Members of the GOP buy eight pick-up trucks for every one purchased by a Democrat, and they also buy roughly double the number of SUVs — and they replace those cars three to four times more often than their blue counterparts to make sure they’re always in a fresh ride. For better or worse — well, mostly for worse — car ownership is seen by countless Americans as a marker of status and power and wealth, which is itself tied to the moralized concept of accumulated wealth as evidence of hard work, which 47 percent of Republicans and 29 percent of Democrats say they believe.
That’s not to say that Democrats don’t buy into the allure of car culture — they absolutely do — or that Republicans’ willingness to give up walkability in favor of big houses and big cars is purely emotional. (And for the record: there’s no clear correlation between states with the largest average home sizes and the largest percentage of GOP voters. Sprawl is, without a doubt, a bipartisan phenomenon.) Republicans are slightly overrepresented in industrial professions that encourage the purchase of big vehicles, and they’re also more likely to support domestic automakers which are rapidly phasing out their smallest models in the name of higher profit margins.
But until we reckon with everything cars have come to signify in our culture — including the massive subcultures that glorify the automobile far beyond its mere transportation utility — more and more Americans will idealize car-centric lifestyles, and many will choose that life the moment they can afford it. Dismantling car culture starts with policy that makes other modes safe, attractive, dignified, and affordable — and yes, maybe even “prestigious” and “powerful,” too.
Filed Under: Land Use, Mobility Justice, Pedestrian Death, pedestrian deaths, pedestrians, Road Design, Rural Areas, Promoted
The Vice/Motherboard article:
Approximately two million years after our ancestors first learned to move about the planet with an upright gait, whether or not walking places is good or bad has become yet another dividing line in the American culture wars.
According to a recent Pew Research Center poll that studied the issue of whether people prefer to live in places where “schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance” versus where they are “several miles away,” the biggest divide in opinion is not young versus old, urban versus rural, or education level. It is political preference.
Just 22 percent of Conservatives want to live in walkable neighborhoods, while 77 percent prefer driving everywhere. A slightly higher percentage of Republicans or people who lean Republican as a whole, 26 percent, want walkable neighborhoods. Meanwhile, 44 percent of moderate Democrats and 57 percent of liberals want walkable neighborhoods, resulting in a 50/50 split among Democrats as a whole.
That gap of 35 percent between Liberals who want to live in walkable neighborhoods and Conservatives who do is larger than the gap between those with postgraduate degrees and high school diplomas or less who want walkable neighborhoods (14 percent) or 18-29 year olds versus 50-64 year olds (12 percent). The poll also shows a 26-point gap between Asians who want walkable neighborhoods (58 percent) versus whites (36 percent), although the poll was only conducted in English.
But one of the most striking findings is that the gap in walkable neighborhood preference according to extreme political views is even wider than the gap between urban and rural respondents, where 50 percent of urban residents polled want walkable neighborhoods and 25 percent of rural ones do. In other words, whether or not you actually live in an urban or rural area is less of a predictor of whether you want walkable neighborhoods than the political beliefs one holds regardless of where they live.
But, there is still a lot of disagreement on the issue, even among people who consider themselves part of the same ideological cohort.
If we put the above a slightly different way, 42 percent of liberals prefer to live in places where they have to drive everywhere. That is a very high number for the group in the survey one would think is most concerned about climate change, of which driving is a huge contributor. And while electric cars may help reduce emissions from cars significantly in the long run, they need to be accompanied by an equally significant reduction in how often and how far we drive. The most obvious and attainable solution is to live in places where we can sometimes walk to the places we need to go.
It is wrong to equate the above with the idea that everyone has to live in cities. Rural towns have and continue to thrive with houses and businesses clustered around a main street or town center built around a transportation hub to a major city. This is how much of the country looked, especially but not only in the northeast and midwest, prior to World War II. And it is how much of, say, Europe and East Asia still look. In fact, the U.S. is one of the few places where massive, suburban sprawl with mandatory single-family zoning that legally bans businesses from opening near people is the rule, norm, and general expectation. It is, also, ironically, one of the most dramatic examples in modern U.S. history of government mandates interfering with the rights of private property holders, which the Conservative movement was once ideologically opposed to.
There are all kinds of other implications from these poll results. Cars are expensive to buy and maintain, and living patterns that continue to rely on them are yet another financial burden on people who may not be able to afford them. And because building homes is expensive, there is a general housing shortage in this country, and real estate is often more of an investment than a place to live, real estate companies tend to build the largest homes they can to sell at the highest price, which means houses keep getting bigger and bigger. Meanwhile, large, detached homes use more energy than smaller or attached ones.
If the climate crisis concerns you, this is all bad news. In the two million years since our ancestors learned to walk, we have evolved to understand and manipulate our planet in ways our predecessors quite literally could not even conceive of. And yet, in some very important ways, we are going backwards.