The Problem With Prescribing “Access to Cars” in the Fight Against Poverty

It goes without saying that the mass suburbanization of the past 60 years has been very bad news for people who can’t afford cars, and it’s getting worse as poverty levels rise in the suburbs.

Every additional car on the road means a slower trip for bus passengers. Photo: Mark Harrison/Seattle Times

In nearly every place America has built since the 1950s, owning a car is a prerequisite for participating in the economy. In The Geography of Nowhere, James Kunstler wrote that we had created a built environment which divides society into two classes of people: “those who can fully use their everyday environment, and those who cannot.”

Given all that, the findings from a recent Urban Institute study are utterly unsurprising. Researchers studied 12,000 low-income families in 10 cities around the United States. And they found that car ownership is linked to several indicators of well-being.

Housing voucher recipients with cars were able to secure places to live in stronger housing markets, with “higher social status” and lower health risks. They were also twice as likely to find employment and four times as likely to remain employed, the study found. (By the way, this isn’t a new finding — studies have shown this kind of effect dating back to at least the 1990s.)

These results demonstrate just what a deep disadvantage low-income, carless families face in the United States, and make a seemingly straightforward case for a better transportation safety net: more compact land use, abundant transit, and safer biking and walking connections.

But that’s not what author Rolf Pendall wanted to get across in a post on Atlantic Cities. Pendall made the case that “access to cars” should be a higher priority for policy makers in the fight against poverty. One of his suggestions is that specially tailored car sharing might be part of the solution for poor families. He also says it’s worth considering how welfare programs can facilitate car ownership. In a follow-up piece by Emily Badger in the Washington Post, Pendall acknowledges that cities need to be built differently, but he also says that “we need to add car access to the list of things to do.”

He’s not arguing that cars are a better long-term solution than better transit, just that, given how deeply car-dependent we have become, giving poor people cars produces a bigger immediate improvement in their life prospects than the hard, piecemeal work of building a more equitable transportation network. Basically, Pendall is saying that helping individuals is faster than fixing the broken system.

It sounds reasonable, but what about the families left behind? Part of the problem with subsidies for cars is that they reinforce the pattern of exclusion that results from building places around cars in the first place. Every additional car on the road adds to traffic congestion and slows down buses. Every additional parking space spreads destinations farther apart, making places tougher to traverse on foot. Giving a poor family a car might help that specific household, but it would harm others at the same time.

What’s most frustrating about Pendall’s column and Badger’s article is the implication that transit advocates are somehow working at cross-purposes with the needs of low-income people.

Pendall feels it’s necessary to state that “even as highly educated millennials and baby boomers fantasize about car-free cities, car access is still indispensable for many families seeking safety and economic security.”

The “line of thinking” that promotes a less car-dependent built environment, Badger says, “seldom considers a group of people for whom more car use might actually be a very good thing: the poor.” This surely comes as news to all the transit advocates who fight to preserve service in American cities when local governments draw up their budgets.

Maybe you just need that kind of hook to make a story about access to cars appear sexy and contrarian, but it seems deeply irresponsible to suggest that making it easier to get around without a car is anathema to poor people.

The fact is that our transportation network is a unified system, and it’s impossible to facilitate more driving without undermining transit, walking, and biking — which are the modes that the most economically disadvantaged Americans rely on. So while an individual family’s circumstances might be improved by having access to a car, overall, increasing car ownership will make life worse for people who still can’t afford an automobile. Policies designed specifically to facilitate car ownership among poor families won’t be a temporary salve, they’ll just cause the wounds of car-dependence to fester.