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Bikes in Both Party Platforms!

This is a historical election year. It’s the first time (at least in this century) that both major party platforms include the word bicycle! But, do party platforms even matter?

Here’s a breakdown on the role of party policy platforms, trends in the platforms on transportation and a little on what it means for bicycling advocacy moving forward. I end with a few suggestions on how you can get involved.

Should we care what the party platforms say?

When I saw that bicycles were in the party platforms, the first thing I thought was, “Do party platforms even matter?” So I did a little research. Here’s what I learned. 

  1. Platforms have less to do with the current Presidential campaign and more to do with the party positions. Platforms are written by party leaders and generally reflect the base. Presidential candidates usually have their own issue statements and priorities. These often closely mirror the party — but they are not always the most talked about issues of the presidential campaigns. Media coverage of the campaigns keep repeating the line that platforms don’t matter. What they mean is platforms don’t matter to the campaign.

  2. Platforms show the direction the party is moving. Studies of platforms show that policy statements are often ahead of the party, but are a consistent measure of where the party is heading. For instance, the 1980 Republican party platform was significantly more conservative than the 1980 one but the shift in Congressional Republicans actually came a few years later. [i]

  3. Party Platforms are consistent with party votes. A study of party platforms from 1980–2004 show that members of Congress vote with their party platform 82% of that time. That consistency has increased over the years. An older study of platforms from 1944–1976 showed 66% consistency.[ii]

  4. Republicans vote more consistently with their platform than Democrats. Across the two studies, Republicans voted with their platform 89% of the time, Democrats 71%.

  5. Platforms do not necessarily define priorities, especially for Presidential Candidates. Platforms cover an enormous number of issues, and just because an issue is covered by the platform doesn’t mean it will come up during that Congressional or Presidential term. 

This research piqued my interest and convinced me to take some time to look through party platforms. I looked through the transportations passages of both the Democratic and Republican platforms from 2000–2016. I started by just searching for transportation, but ended up searching for “infrastructure,” “livable,” “bicycle” and “pedestrian.” You can read party platforms from 1840–2016 at The American Presidency Project. The specific passages from the 2016 platforms are below. You can email me at [email protected] for the key passages of both parties’ platforms from 2000–2016.


Trends on Transportation in party platforms

  1. Republicans and Democrats have thought about transportation differently. Since 2000, the Republican platforms have all had a separate section on transportation and/or infrastructure. Democrats include transportation as a means to an end, and often include transportation policy under environment, energy, urban and metro issues, economy and livability (all the way back in 2000). Both parties tout transportation investments as important for creating jobs.

  2. Past Republican platforms document a shift in Republican transportation policy. In 2000, the Republican platform clearly states “We also support a multi-modal approach to our transportation needs.” It speaks in favor of Amtrak, high speed rail and transit. Their 2016 platform limits what federal funding should be spent on – and lists almost all modes other than cars. The 2012 and 2016 platforms discuss the Democrats push for social engineering and in 2016, the effort to “coerce people out of cars.”

  3. The Democrats have always supported multi-modal transportation, but see it as an environmental/ clean energy issue or an urban issue. Even in the 2016 Democratic party platform, the statements on bicycling and walking are not in their section on infrastructure, rather in their section on a clean energy economy. (Transit is in both.) The 2016 platform also specifically talks about biking in a suburban and urban context.

  4. Bikes are becoming part of the transportation conversation. Bikes first show up in the 2012 Democratic party platform, and are now in both. For Republicans, they only mention bikeshare, (not bike lanes, or bike infrastructure) as in bikeshare systems, sidewalks and recreational paths shouldn’t be funded with federal dollars. The Democratic platform mentions bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure as valuable to environmental/ clean energy policy, and to livability/ urban and suburban issues.

  5. Both parties are taking biking more seriously. Just getting a mention in the platform means that both parties acknowledge that bicycling and walking are part of the transportation debate. Even when saying federal dollars should fund local non-auto infrastructure needs, the Republican platform infers that bikeshare systems , sidewalks and recreation trails are “worthwhile enterprises” just not appropriate for federal transportation dollars. There is no specific mention of bike lanes.


The most interesting thing to me is the reference to bike share systems and recreational trails, but not to bike infrastructure or bike lanes at all. Over the last four years, opponents to programs that have funded a high percentage of biking and walking infrastructure (such as Transportation Enhancements, Transportation Alternatives and Transit Enhancements) have tried to parse words by highlighting other eligible uses of the programs. This could be similar to that, or it could be because bike lanes are on roads, they are harder to oppose.


Why does all this matter?

It matters because we need to be ready on day one! (yes, I’m watching too much political coverage.)

The League is a bipartisan non-profit so we do not endorse candidates, but we do take positions on issues, and one of our long held positions is that bicycling is transportation, and should be planned for and invested in as such.

The party platforms matter because both Presidential candidates have stated they would invest in transportation and infrastructure, and that it would be a priority. Secretary Clinton has proposed a five-year, $275 billion investment plan to revitalize the nation’s infrastructure, a plan she pledges to push through in her first 100 days. Mr. Trump has not outlined his infrastructure plan, but has alluded to it being a priority. 

If transportation investments are debated early next year we need to be ready, and this gives us a glimpse into why members of Congress may support or oppose spending any of that funding on biking and walking. 

What can you do?

First of all, you can take our survey on what the League should prioritize in its transportation policy work in the new administration. We’ll use that data to help direct our own transportation policy platform.  You can find the poll here:

Second, you can consider meeting with incumbent members of Congress and candidates or inviting them to an event, to express how biking plays into their view of what is important whether that be the local economy, safety or energy/environment policy. Learn more about how to hold a successful show Congress event


2016 Republican platform 

America on the Move

Our country’s investments in transportation and other public construction have traditionally been non-partisan. Everyone agrees on the need for clean water and safe roads, rail, bridges, ports, and airports. President Eisenhower established a tradition of Republican leadership in this regard by championing the creation of the interstate highway system. In recent years, bipartisan cooperation led to major legislation improving the nation’s ports and waterways.

Our Republican majority ended the practice of earmarks, which often diverted transportation spending to politically favored projects. In the current Congress, Republicans have secured the longest reauthorization of the Highway Trust Fund in a decade and are advancing a comprehensive reform of the Federal Aviation Administration to make flying easier and more secure.

The current Administration has a different approach. It subordinates civil engineering to social engineering as it pursues an exclusively urban vision of dense housing and government transit. Its ill-named Livability Initiative is meant to “coerce people out of their cars.” This is the same mentality that once led Congress to impose by fiat a single maximum speed limit for the entire nation, from Manhattan to Montana. Our 1980 Republican Platform pledged to repeal that edict. After the election of Ronald Reagan, we did.

Now we make the same pledge regarding the current problems in transportation policy. We propose to remove from the Highway Trust Fund programs that should not be the business of the federal government.

More than a quarter of the Fund’s spending is diverted from its original purpose. One fifth of its funds are spent on mass transit, an inherently local affair that serves only a small portion of the population, concentrated in six big cities. Additional funds are used for bike-share programs, sidewalks, recreational trails, landscaping, and historical renovations. Other beneficiaries of highway money are ferry boats, the federal lands access program, scenic byways, and education initiatives. These worthwhile enterprises should be funded through other sources.


2016 Democratic Party platform

Building a Clean Energy Economy 

We are committed to getting 50 percent of our electricity from clean energy sources within a decade, with half a billion solar panels installed within four years and enough renewable energy to power every home in the country. We will cut energy waste in American homes, schools, hospitals, and offices through energy efficient improvements; modernize our electric grid; and make American manufacturing the cleanest and most efficient in the world. These efforts will create millions of new jobs and save families and businesses money on their monthly energy bills. We will transform American transportation by reducing oil consumption through cleaner fuels, vehicle electrification increasing the fuel efficiency of cars, boilers, ships, and trucks. We will make new investments in public transportation and build bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure across our urban and suburban areas. Democrats believe the tax code must reflect our commitment to a clean energy future by eliminating special tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel companies as well as defending and extending tax incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy.


[i] Azari, Julia, The Platforms are a window to the future of the Party. Five Thirty Eight

Disolvo,Daniel and James Ceaser Do Party Platforms Still Matter? The Atlantic, July 13, 2016. 

[ii] Stein, Jeff . We asked 8 political scientists if part platforms matter. Here’s What we Learned. Vox Media. Accessed July 29, 2016

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