Poll shows support for both EVs, public transit

It’s not an either/or choice for most voters

THE FUTURE of transportation in Massachusetts is at a crossroads. As the debate between Gov. Charlie Baker and state lawmakers over the climate bill continues, one key issue is whether the best way to lower emissions is to invest in public transit or convert more cars on the road to electric vehicles, or EVs.

The Baker administration recently released a decarbonization roadmap that seems to favor EVs. This was questioned by some lawmakers and advocates who argue instead that a substantial investment in public transit is crucial to reducing emissions and relieving congestion.

But while both sides battle it out on Beacon Hill, residents resist such a stark choice and favor both the expansion of public transit and conversion to EVs, according to a new poll from the MassINC Polling Group.

The statewide survey was sponsored by the Barr Foundation with input from the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (topline, crosstabs). The results suggest that residents don’t see public transit and EVs at odds with each other, but instead working in tandem to meet the daily realities of their lives.

Chief among the policy options polled, 83 percent of residents support improving existing public transit systems, including over half (52 percent) who “strongly” support such improvements. Another 77 percent of residents support expanding public transit to places that do not have it now.

Among those who most strongly support these public transit initiatives are high-mileage drivers. Using their pre-COVID average driving distances, those who drove 40-plus miles a day are more likely to support improving existing public transportation systems (93 percent vs. 83 percent of those who drove less than 40 miles/day). They are also more likely to support expanding public transportation to places that do not have it now (88 percent vs. 75 percent). The question is whether those drivers would switch to transit, or whether they hope that it would take other cars off the road and make their long commutes a little easier.

Current transit users would benefit from an efficient and expansive public transit system. In previous polling conducted by the MassINC Polling Group about potential uses of funds generated by the Transportation and Climate Initiative favored by the Baker administration, transit riders were particularly enthusiastic about improving the existing system and expanding transit to places that do not have it right now. But all Massachusetts residents – indeed all residents in every state in the region — ranked public transit uses of TCI funds over EV uses like rebates and charging stations.

Investing in transit may be the most popular policy, but residents also want investment and incentives to move toward electric vehicles. To quell EV range anxiety, 79 percent of residents support expanding the network of charging stations in the state. In focus groups conducted as part of this research, participants were even open to charging station fees, much in the same way that the gas tax currently subsidizes road and highway maintenance.

In terms of the actual purchase of electric vehicles, roughly three-quarters each support income-based cash incentives (75 percent) and extra incentives for high-mileage drivers (74 percent) to buy hybrid or electric vehicles. Such incentives would have to be clear and well-publicized. In focus groups, participants were unsure of what incentives already existed at both the state and federal level and confused government-backed rebates with deals from manufacturers.

Income-based incentives address an important equity issue when it comes to transit choices. While hybrid and electric vehicles may save drivers money over the long-run, they do tend to be more expensive up-front, creating a barrier to entry. Part of Baker’s roadmap would mandate that all new cars sold in Massachusetts be electric by 2035. Income-based incentives would be a “carrot” toward that end.

In focus groups, participants were also asked about a potential “stick” – that is, a fee attached to the sale of new gas-powered cars. The proposed fee found little support in the group. Participants called it “regressive,” positing that lower-income people who may only be able to afford a gas car would be unfairly penalized.

Further, driving may be the only option for some of these residents, many of whom live outside public transit service areas. Another MPG poll conducted late last year among residents of Gateway Cities found that most were not transit riders even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Majorities said driving was cheaper, more convenient, and more reliable. Those who did take public transit were younger, more diverse, and with lower levels of income and education, illustrating the equity issues at play.

On this point, at least, the public, the Baker administration, and the Legislature seem to be on the same page. Both Baker’s decarbonization roadmap and the climate bill address equity issues. The roadmap includes the considerations of environmental justice communities. The climate bill goes a step farther, codifying the definition of these communities and how they should be engaged in future projects. Our Gateway Cities poll found 81 percent support for low-income fare discounts, and 58 percent support for making all public transit free.

Whether the administration chooses to build new rail lines or more electric charging stations, the fundamental question remains: if we build it, will they use it? The pandemic has added another layer of uncertainty about how many trips will return to the Commonwealth’s roads and rails. Increased reliance on telework, telemedicine, and online deliveries will help cut traffic and emissions, but they introduce new issues. If the most well-off workers opt not to commute, what sort of transportation will be left for those who do not have the privilege to stay home?

Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
Planning transportation to solve the climate crisis in the midst of a health crisis is no easy task. But while the governor and Legislature iron out the final details of the climate bill, the public is clear on the big picture: residents want a “both, and” approach to transportation rather than an “either/or” choice. If that approach can also reduce emissions, that is a happy byproduct of making their daily lives easier.

Maeve Duggan is a research director at the MassINC Polling Group.