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.

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

  1. “…it seems deeply irresponsible to suggest that making it easier to get around without a car is anathema to poor people.”

    Nailed it. It is deeply irresponsible. Badger turns this guy’s stated recommendation for expanded car-sharing services for the poor into a condemnation of urbanists arguing for more walkable built environments and less car use. It’s very disappointing.

    Surely it’s no surprise that getting around in car-centric environments is more difficult without a car. That much is obvious. Providing a mobility solution that allows poor people to get around while also allowing for — and not hindering — the bettering of those cities for all is a good aim.

  2. in Cleveland, one of the local foundations helped 10 or so newly hired low income folks get access to car loans, seemingly acknowledging the link between the region’s car-centricity/job sprawl and rampant poverty but failing to realize the high cost of car ownership. But the only thing that that foundation has apparently ever done for transit is funding a few studies amounting to less than $100k. And, oh yeah, it also bought everyone in the city a free ride on transit on one day in January as part of its 100-year anniversary.

  3. The defining attribute of the automotive lobby and its supporters is their inability to understand that transportation networks are dynamic and that the aggregated effects of individual behavior must be considered. Individual rationality often creates collective irrationality.

  4. I’m a huge transit and pedestrian advocate, but when it comes to cars, it’s important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Cars are great mobility tools, and when they become self-driving several of the current problems with them will diminish.

    The chief problem with cars is the way we’ve deployed them: individual ownership, “free” parking, auto-only street design and land use. If a car-sharing model can emerge in places not easily served by transit, this could be to the good. The question is whether it can be done at low cost.

  5. Not to mention that as a policy matter it’s just plain inefficient. Access to mobility for poor people is of course a worthy goal. But why try to fix the problem with the most expensive mobility option out there?

  6. Want to help the poor by offering better urban environments? Great. First get rid of euclidian zoning. Especially the thing about segregating single family and multifamily housing, which actually has roots in racial segregation. People call actual zoning practices local democracy, I call it local tyranny. Current residents can block projects that would help many times more people than are “harmed” by them, all because the people who would benefit commit the sin of not currently residing there.

  7. Another thing on my mind is that at least in the US, we expect punctuality from individuals (with severe consequences, especially for low-income workers), but not from transit. Even as an enthusiastic user of transit, I don’t feel like I can rely on it when I absolutely must be somewhere at a certain time. I’m not sure if the more likely solution is improving the reliability of transit or changing our culture of punctuality. The latter does seem to be happening in some fields, and I would expect transportation behavior to change accordingly.

    We’ll probably need a little of both…

  8. For decades, we in the US have gone to the ends of the earth to make walking and transit-centric environments (aka: cities) work better for cars by blasting through freeways, ripping out trolleys, and narrowing sidewalks. It’s high time we reversed that trend. The pendulum does seem to be swinging back, finally.

  9. I would never argue for “car free” cities or abolishing cars — they’re part of a multi-modal transportation system. But I will argue against sustaining environments that demand car use; and against places having an amount of car-focused infrastructure that makes other transportation modes overly difficult to use and implement — or that simply make walking unsafe and unfeasible.

    That said, it’s a case of simple (and sad) math that the car-centric environments that we DO have, when coupled with a lack of affordable housing near job centers, create a a situation wherein the residents who are least able to afford cars end up needing them the most for simple mobility.

    It would be wrong to accept this lack of affordable housing in walkable distance to jobs and transit, and then also deny poor people — pushed out into sprawlburbs — access to cars. That’s exclusionary.

    I think this concept of publicly-funded car sharing for poor people is a good one. It’s certainly better than the idea of saddling poor people with the many costs associated with car ownership simply because affordable housing is so far from destinations.

    But any plan to fund car sharing that serves poor people should be taken up in tandem with plans to create affordable housing in walkable environments that are near jobs and transit. Because the car-centric built environment is the enemy here, not cars themselves, and certainly not urbanists who want to better those environments.

  10. “That said, it’s a case of simple (and sad) math that the car-centric environments that we DO have, when coupled with a lack of affordable housing near job centers, create a a situation wherein the residents who are least able to afford cars end up needing them the most for simple mobility.”

    Dynamic carpooling, work and shop at home, bicycles, retrofit with mixed use. They are the only way out for the suburbs. Younger generations can’t afford their one car per adult. And the aging seniors stranded in the suburbs will not be able to drive them.

  11. That group of aging seniors, staying in place in car-centric environments, is one I’m particularly concerned about. My parents fit that description and it’s troubling. I think that until such time as the sprawlbubrs can be retrofitted, it might be a good idea to have some kind of taxi-type service funded to accommodate them. How to get suburban counties with dwindling revenues to pay for such a service is beyond me.

  12. I agree with you. The transit agency that is in my area will not listen to ideas of how to deal with late buses. Case in point, there is a route that takes about 25 minutes from one end to the other(that is including picking up passengers)and it runs at 15 minute intervals. Some times it might get delayed due to traffic but more often it is due to a local high school on the route that floods the buses for over an hour after school lets out. These students have to pay one at a time and the bus can be at one or all of the three stops over 10 minutes each waiting for the students to pay their fare. This really delays the buses and they start to bunch up. After about an hour and a half the student crunch is over and the ridership levels to normal(still crowded) levels, but the buses are now in 2 pairs(there is 4 buses on this route) leap frogging over each other as they pick up passengers for the next 2+ hours. This makes the wait 30 minutes instead of 15 minutes. Many others and myself have suggested on their page(fb and website) and at meetings that when the buses bunch up like this, just have the later bus after it drops all its passengers at the end of its route, just flip the out of service sign on and head straight to the other end of the route and restart at the next scheduled time. They either completely ignore it or give a weak excuse dismissal.

  13. I completely agree. Giving someone a car might cover that initial expense, but then you’ve got insurance, repairs and gas to pay for. Moving in the direction of better access to transit (and encouraging the wealthy to use it also) is the only long-term solution to our crumbling infrastructure, vast income inequality, depleted natural resources, and environmental degradation.

  14. If this article were written say 100 or 120 years ago, could you say tha every community was designed with the horse in mind? If your horse died, you were screwed,
    For centuries, we have built communities based on trade, transportation, and socialability. We have always adapted our communities and systems to supply those living in the community. Back then, there were major problems when horses carried people and goods. Manure born illness was a big problem and caused health issues! If we removed cars and only used busses, sure we would have a different community set up, but the growth of cities would still have moved into suburbs. Why? Because some people would have a few more bucks and wanted more room to raise a family. stratification has occurred for centuries. From Pompeii to Chicago, it happens.

  15. Punctuality might not be an issue if you are on a job where you have an own set of relatively complex tasks you have relative control over (say: developing software or writing long analytic reports). If you write code for a living, you can come 1h late and you will be just fine as you make it up going home later or working over your usual lunch break.

    If you work in a job that involves dealing directly with the public on a retail environment (like a store clerk, a cashier etc), punctuality is essential for the store to operate properly (and increasingly so as smart scheduling keeps staff at appropriate levels, but without any slack). A store that opens “around 9, but maybe later if the buses are late and our employees get late” would be a lousy one.

    Since we have a glut of unemployed or underemployed people on less qualified jobs, it is just very easy to punish in a extremely harsh way (= firing) those who are late and want to blame unreliable buses – there will be many more people eager to drive to work and arrive on time.

  16. It is not that simple. Even in countries where racial controversies among local populations were minimal or negligible, there is still the issue of people wanting to preserve their neighborhoods in a given way.

  17. People are always afraid of change, but that’s what is so insidious about the absurdly strict euclidian zoning. Since it has been in place for so long, people are used to homogeneous neighborhoods with just one type of housing unit. So even introducing similar yet slightly different units creates fear. Even building a duplex or on a smaller lot will bring out the NIMBYs. That’s because these new units are new on their streets and they have irrational fear of it.

    But if the street already had duplexes or smaller houses, the NIMBYs wouldn’t care about it much if at all if a new duplex was being built, or another small house. Familiarity breeds acceptance.

    Furthermore, just because some people want to preserve their neighborhoods in formaldehyde doesn’t mean that their desire is legitimate or that it justifies using the force of law to uphold that desire against the will of the property owner to develop what they want to build.

  18. I totally get that, which is why I think we need both. I’m fortunate enough to be in a situation with some flexibility and goodness knows I’d probably have been fired by now otherwise. Transit is also big enough in my office that if it’s running late, I’m not the only one stumbling in a bit later than usual.

    I do think there are ways to introduce some flexibility into other jobs, though. When I worked in a chain restaurant as my first job in high school, my “morning” shift would start about an hour before the store actually opened. I’d spend time prepping vegetables, etc. – things that were good to do early but that wouldn’t appreciably affect customer service if I were late (though I still would have been in needlessly deep sh–). I guess my point with this is that it’s conceivable that a store wouldn’t operate properly with an employee arriving 15 minutes late once in a while, but probably not as common as unnecessarily harsh consequences for tardiness.

    I imagine that most managers can find a way to keep their employees busy, start their shifts a bit earlier so that there’s a bit of slack in the system that would facilitate using other forms of transportation. Hell, I’d be more inclined to give a store my business if they had effective transportation demand management in place! Some (certainly not all) countries seem to manage this a bit better.

  19. There are a few vestiges of industry– meatpackers, food processors, etc. left in my neighborhood here. They employ a lot of people. I was thinking about them recently when at a community meeting where a woman complained an incoming brewery might cause a “beer smell” in the neighborhood. The power zoning gives to people like her is why the newest businesses are all things like hairdressers and boutiques. Industry will be forced to die out as people like her block the entry of any new industry projects.

  20. I must concede, in an environment where the “norm” is to get around by car, where the infrastructure has already designed to accommodate cars (or has degraded to the point that it’s less dense than it used to be) and transit options are few, giving people access to cars or taxi vouchers is a quick fix. No, it won’t make for a better city, but better cities and transit systems take more commitment and more time to build.

    This wouldn’t work in a community that does not have the capacity to deal with the influx of additional cars: You’d have to expand roads and parking. Do this in Brooklyn and it won’t be Brooklyn any more. Giving out cars also won’t help with mobility and independence for people who can not or should not drive. Taxis or car sharing will be of limited value if people overwhelm them at peak periods, like commuting to work every day.

    There are a few ways to turn this back on people who advocate it:

    1. You know how anti-transit people try and stall projects using current technology because something newer and better is just around the corner? Like, why build that streetcar when PRT, or monorail, or Hyperloop will be here before the system opens? Then why give out cars if Google’s self-driving cars are on their way?

    2. A significant number of anti-transit people (based on conversations I’ve had) choose to live in transit-poor communities and vote to limit transit options because they believe that the lack of mobility keeps their neighborhoods safe from folks they don’t like. Imagine their reaction to “those people” not only getting a voucher to live next door, but a car to boot.

  21. ? Suburbanization has soaked the poor coming and going. In the middle of the last century they were built with tax breaks, subsidized by urban wealth. As their infrastructure aged and the bills came due, suburbanites with means either sprawled further out or returned to the cities as gentry. The poor are increasingly displaced into those declining suburbs.

    When the 2000 Census hit the news, headlines babbled about sectors of America finally achieving the American Dream. The reality is that those who can least afford the burden of car ownership are disproportionately stuck in places where no alternative transportation mode was envisioned, much less provided for.

  22. @Mcass777 – Horse manure was a problem, but it was poor sanitation and especially vermin that spread illness. It was a problem that could be managed, though, e.g. by street-sweepers who would collect it (and keep it away from rat droppings) and make use of it. This is, for example, why we have Golden Gate Park.

    The same can’t quite be said for the problem of automobile exhaust, nor for the various outputs involved with generating additional capacity for EVs. The solution lies in infrastructure.

  23. @Charles – The self-driving technology may “diminish” a few of their problems, but how many can afford them? This article is about the poor.

    While the car-sharing model can bring driving into the reach of more people, the market has mostly limited it to dense cities and not focused on poor neighborhoods, nor the suburbs that the poor are increasingly displaced to.

  24. What about those dirty industries relocating to an industrial park, away from the near vicinity of any residence, where their smells and noises will not bother people? Who wants to live next to an aluminium smelter?

  25. The problem is that, in absent of zoning, you’d end up with outright unhealthy places like the ones you can see in African or certain Latin American metro’s outskirts. People would build on every available space, leaving no open space, which, when done by thousands, create very cramped areas with blocked sunlight, narrow alleys and the like.

    It was the fight against the slum-esque appearance of poor neighborhoods that zoning came around, together with the principle of not letting industrial activities taint the air with their byproducts so close to places where people live.

  26. I think there is a more abstract underlying discussion here.

    We have a urban environment where not having access car mobility is both one of the consequences (low income) and one of the causes (inability to reach out job/service opportunities) of severe poverty. This is not an ideal situation, as being car-less shouldn’t mean, automatically, that in most US cities and metro areas a car-less person is automatically shut down from most of the labor market and many other opportunities.

    This being said, a honest discussion needs to be done: should we wait, maybe, 2 decades of heavy investment on high-performance transit (subways, commuter rail etc) so that people who have severe access problems (for not having cars) can expand their job hunt, and be able to move around more, reaping all benefits that are derived from mobility in general?

    All very poor people are not in that condition for the same reasons. Some have highly dysfunctional family environment. Some struggle with illness (mental or otherwise). Some just got trapped into the intergenerational cycle of poverty. Some were victims of plain bad luck.

    Maybe, for some of these very poor households, being given now (not 20 years from now) the opportunity to get a car that will allow them to dramatically expand their reach and job, career and/or educational possibilities TODAY is worth the costs of doing nothing and expecting infrastructure to catch up. Then, we have a situation where only a few metro areas in US (Los Angeles, Denver, Salt Lake City, Bay Area) are making significant investments in new transit infrastructure. Most US metros are not making substantial investments so we cannot even expected them to be “transit-plenty” areas in 2030-2035.

  27. I think that’s incorrect.

    1- Local authorities could still control the width of streets and create plazas, avoiding really cramped areas.

    2- People live in cramped living areas in Africa and Latin America because they can’t afford anything else. In developed countries, people with a choice would not live in those types of neighborhoods, so promoters would not build them as they couldn’t sell them.

    There are some reasons to have some form of zoning, but the reality is that 90+% of current zoning has nothing to do with these objective, practical reasons. You could solve the issues you mentioned with simple rules that can be written in a sentence or shown in a graph.

    For instance, “Buildings’ height must be inferior to the distance they are from the farther side of the street that flanks them, see graph for example”.

    That way, if you want to build a 30 feet building, it must be at least 30 feet away from the other side of the street. There, I’ve solved the issue of too cramped alleys in a single sentence.

  28. I know. You know there are whole groups of people that blame global warming on animals! Ever see those crazy 1800’s traffic jam pictures where it was all horses and buggies? No matter wher you look, there is blame to be had!


  29. If you look at how cities were built up to 100 years ago, you’d notice that they were built for people getting around locally on foot, using horses for longer distances or heavier loads, or if you could afford the upkeep.

  30. I’m not saying zoning is perfect as it is now, especially the hideous practice of outlawing pretty much everything except what ad-hoc committees approve on a case-by-case basis.

    However, there are some detrimental impacts when your house is now surrounded by two high-rises and the privacy of your backyard is now gone as 200 flats have windows that give direct sight to your small deck and swimming pool.

  31. Areas where a substantial share of workers use transit to go work usually have far more reliable public transportation than what is available in most American metros. If you have networks with many frequent services running around, having one tram break down or one bus miss its connection will not mean, as it often does in many US systems, that you are now 2h late.

  32. I guess it’s beside the point raised here, but I see that nowhere is there discussion regarding how you would decide who qualified for a “free” car.

    Sure, every form of government assistance has to have qualifying standards, and this at first glance seems no different. But unlike monetary assistance, which can come in an essentially infinite different quantities depending on need, free cars will not be so. A family would (I presume) receive a single car, which raises issues very different than with other aid. First off, this immediately risks the resentment of that portion of the working population who themselves only have one car yet do not have an income sufficiently low to qualify for a car.

    Now suppose that working family has their only car break down. Car payments, or more likely, the down payment for a car, seem out of reach. But they make, let’s say, $27,000 a year, and the cutoff is $24,000 to qualify for a car. The difference between having a car and not is only $3000. So what if this person goes to their employer and says, Lower my pay $250 a month? And if I do that, I qualify for a car?

    It just looks ugly to me. Far better to simply make mass transit free to all, which is something I’ve advocated for years. Doesn’t help in towns without it, I know, so I’m not claiming to have all the answers. I’m just saying that this article doesn’t even have all of the questions.

  33. But Reagan didn’t enact the law and W didn’t tweak it. So how can the Obama name get labeled on it? If you wonder where I get that from, Ronald Reagan back in the 80’s passed a law that subsidized phones for the poor and elderly, George W Bush tweaked the law to include cell phones, which didn’t come on line until January 2009, When Obama took office.

  34. Many that work for minimum wage do that now, “I can’t work over 25 yours otherwise the state will cut my help.”

  35. The “beauty” of tying a car voucher to a housing voucher is that in a troubled economy or community, it helps tide over what are often the “key” players; the car dealers, the developers/realtors and the mortgage lenders.

  36. He is also taking a very narrow view of “the poor” – looking only at the poor in America and ignoring the rest of the world.

    Think about how much Americans’ cars contribute to global warming, and how much damage global warming is doing to the poorest people in the world – such as the people in Bangladesh who are being displaced from their homes by rising sea levels.

    Promoting more automobile use in America clearly harms the world’s poor.

  37. Cars are not the only factor contributing to climate change. For instance, two big dogs can have a carbon footprint similar to a fuel efficient car. Cows, goats and sheep are problematic. Rather than expecting the poor to sacrifice, how about we look at the big picture and start asking everyone to make reasonable sacrifices. Meat may be more expensive, and Great Danes unfeasible. Farming techniques may need to change. What if beer brewing turns out to be a poor use of scare water supplies (brewing uses lots of water). Will we give up our craft beers, or ask someone else to sacrifice?

    It’s time we ended the hyper focus on cars and look at what we really need to do. I suspect that some urbanists will scream about big dogs & a tax on beef- but look at the British research. If you ask the poor to give up cars, the rich better give up beef, big dogs, rice and other things in our lives that may have high carbon footprints.

  38. Income cutoffs are a terrible for any program. Instead a subsidy based on income would be better, so the more you make the less you receive. But the amount must be set up so that you always end up with more if you make more. the subsidy would help the poor but not be so much as to be better than earning more money.

  39. policies should always balance current and future needs. In transit poor metros with job sprawl a car is required to obtain most service jobs.
    But coupled with any short term fix, should be strong policies to solve the underlying problem of autocentric land use.

  40. the argument the study seem to make is, changing the built environment while good is slow, and difficult. But helping the poor get a car is easier and much more likely to be accepted by the public. Its sad, but the perception is that if you take the bus you’re a failure. People who drive are more likely to believe that driving is inherently far superior to another mode. Not just that driving is better than current transit but that transit shouldn’t be improved because its not as good as driving.

    I believe that income diversity is great for everyone, but a necessity for the poor. to accomplish this the middle class and rich need to move to the city. But you can give a housing voucher to a low income person and tell them where they can use it. this makes moving the poor into suburbs much easier than moving the middle class into cities. is this an ideal solution, no. But this is a temporary fix that immediately benefits the worst off individuals. the question I still have is: can short term gains be coupled with long term investment in urban environments?

  41. Correlation doesn’t equal causation. Perhaps people who have a car, have the qualities of a better worker and therefore able to secure better jobs, housing etc.

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