As I've written before, in politics it makes a big difference whether a proposed government tax or expenditure is perceived as being for "us" or "them." Voters tend to resist a tax on "us" that isn't going to be spent on "us." They support initiating or continuing subsidies for "us," and oppose subsidies for "them." One reason I'm interested in privately run transit is precisely because it's not as dependent on this kind of identification.
One of the reasons I live in New York is that as the least car-dependent city in the US, it gives me the best chance of living among people who share and support my chosen lifestyle. But even though we're majority car-free, and an overwhelming majority commute without cars, we still get politicians taking positions that favor driving and ignore transit. Part of this is because of the disconnect between the political class and the rest of the city, which can be blamed on the corruption and patronage that undermine democracy here.
Corruption is only part of the problem, though. All over the city you get people without drivers' licenses nodding their heads when John Liu says that bridge tolls were a way of "inhibiting people from Queens and Brooklyn from transportation into Manhattan." People who don't own cars cheerfully voted for people like Bill Thompson, who seemed to always find a way to be on the pro-car side of any transportation issue. People who never take their cars out of the garage complain about the perceived shortage of parking. You also get the craven "elitist" label thrown at anyone who favors bicycles, despite the fact that they cost a lot less than cars.
All these people - the non-drivers, the non-car-owners, the infrequent drivers - benefit from pro-transit and pro-walking policies. Why would they support politicians who attack these policies? Why would they vote for people who support pro-car policies that wind up coming back to hurt them?
I think the answer is that all these people think of themselves as drivers, or as potential drivers. Even if they never take the car out of the garage, they still might do it some day. Even if they don't own a car, they might be able to afford one some day. Even if they don't have a license, they might get one some day. That possibility is important to them.
I don't need to tell you that to most people around the world, cars represent mobility and freedom. More than that, they represent affluence and status. They are even associated with hard work and maturity, despite all evidence to the contrary.
In terms of status, symbols are not only confused with reality, they are often more important than reality. A car that makes it look like you earn a hundred thousand dollars a year is better for making connections (and getting laid) than actually earning a hundred grand, because most people don't actually go around flashing their W-2 forms. Those connections, in turn, can do more to get you to the point of earning 150 grand than you would get from earning a hundred grand.
I think this is why so many people get touchy whenever they hear about policies that could make it harder to drive in the city. Even if I don't own a Lexus, I might still be upset that I wouldn't be able to drive a Lexus down Broadway if I ever got one. They don't care that most people who can afford an Escalade can afford to pay $8 a day to drive it over the bridge, because they can imagine borrowing enough to get an Escalade but not enough to pay the tolls.
This is, of course, deeply irrational, and you can't argue with it. What we can do is to recognize that desire for status, and for the expression and acknowledgment of that status, and understand how anything that puts that expression in jeopardy is a threat. All we can do is offer alternatives.
We can't really make the bus or the subway glamorous (although you're welcome to try). What we can do is point to alternative status markers and reassure people that those markers will be just as valid as any car.
Isn't it enough to have the latest Armani suit, or gold watch, or luxury condo? To have dinner at the haute restaurant of the moment? Why do people feel that their package of status markers isn't complete without the SUV?