The national poll that Transportation for America released this week makes it clear that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of increasing our access to transportation options, no matter where they live in America — big cities, suburbs, small towns, or rural areas. The majority believes that their community — and the country as a whole — would benefit from an expanded and improved public transportation system including rail and buses.

Americans not only underestimate how much of their tax dollars actually go to roads and bridges, 58 percent think we should be spending more of those dollars on public transportation and expanding other options. This is certainly encouraging news, and it shows just how disconnected a lot of D.C. policymakers are from what Americans really want.

graphicBut why do Americans think we need to increase spending on public transportation and ensure that more Americans have access to different ways to get around? 

Well, one thing we learned is that it’s not to prevent global warming. Among a lot of very good reasons to provide more options, global warming ranked last, with a bare majority of 52 percent seeing it as a likely outcome. That’s not too surprising: even many environmentally minded folks don’t automatically make the connection between having options to drive less and reduced emissions. The evidence to make that case is accumulating rapidly, but it gets much less discussion than fancy hybrid vehicles or dreams of cleaner fuels. And global warming skeptics don’t buy any of it, of course.

Our past polling has shown that nearly everyone cares about oil dependency, however.

Somewhat surprisingly, then, reducing oil dependency only did slightly better than global warming as a rationale for more, and cleaner, transportation options. One obvious reason is that most people don’t realize that the lion’s share of our oil consumption is for transportation. Once they’re told that 70 percent of oil consumption goes to motoring around, support for reduced oil use as a rationale leaps to nearly two-thirds — and this crosses party and geographic lines. And when they’re subsequently asked which of many potential outcomes would be the best reason to support expanded options, reducing our dependence on foreign oil tops the list.

So what’s the lesson? We all need to start talking about the 70 percent solution to oil dependency: reducing the amount we burn for transportation. There are three ways to do it: More efficient vehicles, renewable and/or diversified fuel sources, and spending less time driving around. The technology for the first two is in development, while the technology for the last has existed in one form or another for many, many years. Walkable neighborhoods, streetcars, light rail, buses, and safe streets for walking can work in tandem with newer technologies such as broadband internet and wireless networks, to make it possible for people to avoid some trips, take others by transit, foot or bike — and still drive their hybrids when it makes sense to do so.

Do American voters need to understand all this to strongly support a federal transportation program that invests substantially in providing these less oil-consumptive options? Well, it wouldn’t hurt, but as the poll shows, people have plenty of other good reasons as it is.

“If Americans themselves were crafting the transportation bill,” T4 America co-chair Geoff Anderson said yesterday, “we would see a doubling of the share for public transportation; an ironclad system of accountability for restoring existing roads and bridges before simply building more of them; and a strong commitment to making all our streets safe enough for kids to bicycle to school or so seniors can walk to nearby restaurants or the drug store.”

Talking about transportation on terms that Americans relate to strongly will help us move the debate forward, and more importantly, start building the kind of transportation system that Americans overwhelmingly want and need.

Stephen Davis is the Online Coordinator for Transportation for America Campaign (T4).

David Goldberg is the communications director for Transportation for America Campaign (T4) and Smart Growth America.