I mostly liked living in Provo, but one thing I always felt less enthusiastic about was election season. Though I enjoy politics generally, elections for Provo city council always seemed to be bruising and brutal. Why did that always happen?
I’m sure there are a lot of contributing factors, but here’s one we might not normally think of: commute times.
Earlier this month, Emily Badger at The Atlantic Cities reported on research indicating that longer commutes reduce civic participation:
The longer the commute, the less likely people are to participate in politics through behaviors like voting, frequently talking about politics, or giving to political campaigns. And the authors believe this is a causal relationship, not merely a correlation between people who travel long distances to work and those who live in cloistered bedroom communities.
Provo also happens to have below average commute times. So perhaps there is a connection between the tenor of the city’s elections — which is strident but certainly very engaged — and the fact that many in Provo are not driving hours and hours to and from work.
In other words, it stands to reason that with lower commute times there would be more civic engagement in Provo. That comes out in a lot of ways, but hard-fought elections would certainly be one.
That’s in contrast to the L.A. suburb where I grew up; the city was a bedroom community, where many people had long commutes, and as a teenager I didn’t know any adults who were particularly engaged in the local community. I’m sure there were engaged people in that city, but I lived relatively close to the “downtown” and never saw anything like what goes on in Provo.
This may seem reductive, as there are a lot of other things that have happened since I lived in California — a more mature internet, greater political polarization, etc. — but I’m really just trying to suggest that commutes are one factor at play in Utah elections.
So perhaps those grueling Provo elections weren’t such a bad thing after all if they indicate greater civic engagement and greater desire to be involved. In any case, the relationship between elections, commutes, and civic engagement seems to be borne out by this particular case in Utah.