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Transportation

Why Do Candidates Ignore Mass Transit?

American politicians rarely make public transportation a core issue of their election campaigns. That’s a problem for cities.
It’s hard to find a contemporary example of a candidate for state office running as explicitly on public transportation.
It’s hard to find a contemporary example of a candidate for state office running as explicitly on public transportation.Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

In March, Cynthia Nixon debuted her gubernatorial campaign with a dramatic ad spot focusing on New York’s inequality, the worst in the country. As part of her message, she keyed in on three issues: improving health care, ending mass incarceration, and fixing the subway. By May, her campaign leaned heavily on the transit issue, holding rallies in subway stations and selling t-shirts with slogans such as “What the F? #CuomosMTA” (the “F,” of course, being the F train logo). On September 5, less than two weeks before the primary, her campaign released another spot, this one titled, “Tax the rich. Fix the subway.”

Focusing on mass transit didn’t work: Nixon lost the primary to Governor Andrew Cuomo, who is seeking his third term, by a roughly two-to-one margin. Though Cuomo oversaw the transit system during its decline, the message didn’t resonate with New Yorkers; Nixon didn’t win a single downstate county, nor did she carry any of the boroughs. Still, Nixon’s primary challenge was a significant example of something that one rarely sees in postwar American politics: She ran on transit.