The suburbs are changing: They’re more diverse in terms of class, race, age, and politics than they ever have been. But there’s one fundamental thing that still unites them: the way they’re designed, with lots of open space and a near-complete reliance on cars, whether residents like it or not. That makes them uniquely vulnerable to right-wing politicians who weaponize “bike lanes,” “public transit,” and “walkability” to paint a picture of the “common folks in the suburbs” under threat by “elites” and urban planners, says Pierre Filion, a professor at University of Waterloo’s School of Planning.
“If a politician is able to target that, they’re able to create a measure of consensus in a suburban area against what is perceived as an external danger or intrusion–and use that to win an election,” Filion says.
It’s fertile ground for some right-wing politicians who paint suburban voters as an oppressed majority under attack by an urban, elite minority that wants to make traffic worse. Even if suburbanites are politically progressive, some politicians have proven they can take advantage of their reliance on car culture, which stems from the land-use patterns of decades past. Urban planning, in more ways than one, underpins our current political reality.
Take the 2010 campaign of late Toronto mayor Rob Ford and the 2018 campaign of his brother, current Ontario Premier Doug Ford, which Filion investigates in a new paper in the latest issue of Urban Planning. The Ford brothers both mobilized suburban Ontario voters by warning that external enemies–“downtown” urban planners–were waging a “war on the car” with public transit projects and bike lanes that would increase traffic for suburban drivers.
Stateside, the Koch Brothers-funded American for Prosperity are fighting public transit referendums in cities ranging from Nashville to Tampa. The group demonized urban planners and defended “ordinary” people in a spring press release about Nashville’s proposed transit tax hike (emphasis mine):
The free market can fix the traffic problem itself. We don’t need the government stepping in to ‘fix’ a problem we’re already taking care of by ourselves. Ride sharing services, food delivery services and the ability to order just about anything you need to your door are all ways we’re moving towards efficiency. And those are all ideas from ordinary people, not bureaucrats and city planners at high costs to the taxpayers.
Voters struck down the referendum in the Midterms this month.
Filion thinks the success of these anti-transit campaigns has to do with their simplicity. Put a politician and an urban planner at a table together to talk about something, he says, and the pol’s argument will sound far less complex. “It’s much easier to understand and sell than the [urban planner’s],” he says. “And I think this is another dimension of this populism: That the arguments are simple. So in the political arena, they sell.”
At the same time, groups trying to make cities and suburbs more accessible and walkable have seen some success. For instance, Tampa voters approved a transit infrastructure tax thanks in part to work by advocacy groups before the Midterms. Filion also points out that eventually, some voters wise up. For instance, Doug Ford recently walked back his proposal to redevelop Ontario’s protected Greenbelt to theoretically reduce traffic and increase housing, after opponents demonstrated that it would do no such thing. In the long term, Filion thinks this kind of anti-transit suburban populism isn’t politically sustainable.