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Predicting Public Support for Active Transportation Policies

This article is part of a series highlighting public health funding as a resource for active transportation initiatives. To learn more, sign up for our Lobby 201 training on Friday, April 16, 2021, where we will dive into our health work along with recommendations for more targeted and effective federal advocacy.

We know from our 2018 Benchmarking Report that only half of Americans are meeting the physical activity recommendations set by the CDC. And we know that biking and walking–on their own or as bookends to a transit trip–can make the difference between meeting and falling short of those levels. To that end, the League has been exploring the application of public health resources toward active transportation projects, which unite the goals of both health and transportation fields.

But what do we know about public support for policies that support active transportation? Are there patterns that predict how readily a community will accept initiatives like a tax increase to fund public transit?

A few years ago, a group of researchers with the CDC’s Physical Activity Policy Research Network (PAPRN)* sought to answer that question. The ensuing paper, entitled “Driven to Support: Individual- and County-Level Factors Associated With Public Support for Active Transportation Policies,” was published in the March 2018 issue of American Journal of Health Promotion.

Led by Angie L. Cradock of the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health, the research team randomly surveyed residents in selected counties about their support for various active transportation policies, as well as their personal transportation habits and perceptions about their neighborhood environment. Counties were chosen based on their rates of obesity and insufficient physical activity, and the study combined individual survey responses with county-level data to analyze a range of potential indicators and patterns.

The survey, which was conducted by phone, asked about support for five specific policies:

  1. Should cities be required to accommodate pedestrians and bicyclists when improvements to streets are made?
  2. Do you support funding for programs that encourage walking and bicycling to school?
  3. Do you think employers should provide incentives for actively commuting to work?
  4. Do you think your city should allocate funds for building or maintaining public transit?
  5. Would you support a tax increase in your city for building or maintaining public transit in your community?

Ultimately, the study found higher public support for these policies among respondents who spend more than two hours a day in cars, live near public transit, and live in a county that has already meaningfully invested in bicycling and walking infrastructure (defined in this case as over $1.6 million of federal funds).

So while public support may vary based on individual experiences and regional environmental factors, one key takeaway is that investment begets support: greater access to active transportation amenities may increase demand for better facilities. Communities interested in promoting policy and investment may want to focus on targeted local initiatives to foster more support through personal experience with bike- and ped-friendly amenities. That is, if communities invest in and build infrastructure for people to bike and walk — even where support and infrastructure may be lacking — the public’s experience with new infrastructure may lead to support for even greater investments. 

*Since publishing the paper, PAPRN has become PAPREN, the Physical Activity Policy Research and Evaluation Network. To view more of their work, including fact sheets, research briefs, tools and reports, you can browse their resource catalog online.
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