Federal Policy Ideas and Urban Transit

Written by Daniel Henstra

Urban transit projects and operations are primarily the responsibility of provincial and municipal governments in Canada, but the federal government gets involved periodically, mainly through research and funding programs. In a recent article published in Canadian Public Administration, Will Towns and I explored the factors that have influenced federal involvement in urban transit over the fifteen-year period of 2002-2017. Our specific objective was to identify the policy ideas behind this involvement, meaning the cognitive and normative concepts that provide direction for, and shape the perceived legitimacy of, policy choices. 

Policy ideas are typically divided into four types, which we used to organize a thematic content analysis of policy-related documents. These include:

    1. Paradigms: high-level background assumptions about cause and effect relationships that shape the range of alternatives policy elites perceive as feasible and desirable;
    2. Programmatic ideas: technical and professional ideas that guide action by prescribing how to solve specific policy problems
    3. Frames: normative political symbols and concepts used by policy-makers to generate support for policy proposals and legitimize policy interventions;
    4. Public sentiments: normative background assumptions about public attitudes that constrain the range of alternatives that policy-makers are likely to perceive as acceptable to the public.

We found a number of paradigmatic policy ideas that motivated federal involvement with urban transit. For example, “climate change and sustainability” was a common theme, in that federal investment in urban transit was seen as a contribution to more sustainable urban living. Another was the “infrastructure deficit”—the gap between municipal resources and the cost of refurbishing or replacing aging infrastructure—which justified federal investment in urban transit as a supplement to declining provincial spending.

Several programmatic ideas were found to underpin federal involvement in urban transit. One related to the argument that urban transit is a long-term national investment, with “returns” in the form of economic prosperity and better quality of life. Another focused on conditions related to funding, specifically that federal capital investments should be matched by provincial and municipal commitments to fund operations.

To generate support and legitimize federal policy proposals concerning urban transit, policy-related documents contained numerous frames. The constitutionality of federal intervention was one common frame, whereby political elites would argue that any investments should respect the provincial jurisdiction over transit planning priorities. Another common frame was the risks associated with the status quo, namely that failure to engage in urban transit would result in more traffic congestion and social isolation in cities. 

Finally, policy-related documents contained a number of normative background assumptions about public attitudes which influenced the decision to engage with urban transit. For instance, one assumption was that an aging population meant a growing demand for transit-oriented living. Another was a perceived public dissatisfaction with traffic congestion and commute times, which was seen as an implicit demand for federal leadership in urban transit.

Like other studies, our research concluded that “policy ideas are a political currency that shapes policy debates and influences courses of action taken by governments” (p. 86). Through their vivid imagery or emotional quality, policy ideas are frequently used to build political support for policy intervention and to justify the allocation of scarce resources.

Daniel Henstra is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Waterloo.


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