Car Dependence Is a Poverty Trap That States Exploit to Raise Money

Photo: Einar Jørgen Haraldseid/Flickr

Never doubt that the American system of transportation is oppressive.

In the average American city, access to a car is practically a prerequisite to securing employment. Knowing this, state and local governments in much of the country use the threat of driver’s license suspension to impose fines and sanctions that can entrap people in a vicious cycle of indebtedness. The burden falls most heavily, of course, on people who can least afford it, an issue explored most recently by Henry Grabar at Slate.

Grabar details how license suspension has become a catch-all penalty in much of the country, applied in many cases that have nothing to do with dangerous driving:

Over the past 15 years, dozens of U.S. states have moved to suspend more licenses for court debt, fines, and fees, and unrelated offenses. In 2006, nearly 40 percent of license suspensions in the U.S. originated with offenses like unpaid traffic tickets, drug possession, or unpaid child support — violations the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, or AAMVA, categorizes as “social non-conformance.” That was a 34 percent increase from 2002, according to research by Robert J. Eger. The surge has left millions of Americans the choice between driving illegally and reorganizing their lives around alternative transportation. The first option leads to debt and trouble with law enforcement, the second to poverty and unemployment. Three in four Americans with suspended licenses choose to keep driving, according to the AAMVA.

Grabar focuses on Michigan, where something as mundane as a parking ticket can compound into a cascading series of fines, license suspensions, and punishing debt thanks to something called the “driver responsibility fee,” a surcharge the state created during a budget crunch in 2003.

Because driving has become more of a necessity than a privilege in the American transportation system, reorganizing your life “around alternative transportation” can be exceedingly difficult in many places. And the same governments that rely on license suspensions and associated fines do little to provide people with decent transit options. In Detroit, for instance, where these fines are raking in millions, the state is spending big on highways while the transit system is left to languish in a state of perpetual disarray.

Detroit is hardly unique. According to the Brookings Institution [PDF], the typical resident of a U.S. metro area can only reach 30 percent of jobs available in her region within a 90 minute transit ride.

Brookings chart
In almost all of America, most jobs are not accessible by transit to the average resident. Chart: Brookings Institution

There is a pronounced racial disparity in the application of license-based legal penalties. In Wisconsin, the Atlantic‘s Alana Semuels has reported, black men are 10 times as likely as white men to have their license suspended for failure to pay court fees or fines — which often stem from superficial transgressions unrelated to driving, like violating Milwaukee’s curfew law for minors, or “disorderly conduct.” Fully 60 percent of license suspensions in the state are for failing to pay government-issued fees, not unsafe driving, Semuels reports.

There are efforts underway in Michigan and other states to lessen the burden of these suspensions and fines, Grabar reports, but reforms often run up against conservative legislatures that have become accustomed to the revenues generated.

People shouldn’t need a car to hold a job — but in much of the country they do. It will take decades to create transportation systems where driving privileges aren’t the key to employment. In the meantime, states shouldn’t consign people to a life of joblessness and debt because they can’t pay fines.

28 thoughts on Car Dependence Is a Poverty Trap That States Exploit to Raise Money

  1. Note: we have a higher percentage of our population in prison than Stalin’s Soviet Union during the height of the Gulag.

    Progressives should be aware; every time they advocate for a law, it results in greater tyranny

  2. The problem, of course, is that the privilege of driving is treated as a basic right, while non-driving transportation is a frivolous waste.

  3. You make a couple of good points.

    A recent study out of USC, especially of lower socioeconomic areas of San Diego suggests that first mile – last mile accessibility may be more important than transit frequency.

    The researchers found that car commuters in low-income neighborhoods in San Diego have about 30 times greater job accessibility than those who take public transit.

  4. This progressive wants to make a law that legalizes pot. Which would not be a law that increases the prison population.

  5. I got a threatening letter saying my driver license could be suspended if I don’t pay a fine for a hunting/fishing violation.

  6. Teenagers are informed ad nauseam that driving is a privilege. Not sure how many middle class adults get told this.

  7. “In the average American city, access to a car is practically a prerequisite to securing employment.”

    What most people don’t realize is that in the average American city, if you didn’t risk being run over you have a great deal of non-auto accessibility on a bicycle.

    It’s the flip side of New York’s low bicycle share. The city is so large, and so many of its jobs are concentrated on an island across a mile-long bridge from where people live, that the percent of the jobs and labor force that could be matched within a nine-mile bike ride of each other is relatively low.

    In most cities, on the other hand, the share is relatively high. The western edge of Chicago is just six miles from City Hall, and one would have access to a lot of suburbs within nine miles of there. Go down to smaller, more typical cities and the share of jobs within a bike ride goes up and up.

  8. Words like “progressive” change over time.

    Today a progressive is someone who believes that people who work for the government and its contractors should become better off relative to everyone else, including the worst off. And that existing large corporations should be subsidized and protected from competition to ensure “good jobs” for the few.

    But 100 years ago, in the “progressive” era, a progressive was someone who believed the exact opposite.

  9. Dare I go on my hometown’s (a Wisconsin town of about 13K people surrounded by farms and wilderness) FB page and comment negatively about the efficiency of a Super Wal-Mart and Aldi store recently developed on the outskirts of town that is impossible to reach by foot or bike…or roller blade (lol)? We could put bets on how fast it would be labeled as “liberal propaganda” from a somewhat recognizable last name growing up there, which would be a total BS counter-argument. Yes, this article makes valid points. Plan for a more middle ground that provides access for more. No, resources don’t have to be totally inaccessible to autos. Our rural-living friends that are supplying us with food, and those that are not farming that were given the opportunity to live away from crowds thanks to fuel and automobile industry subsidizing planning practices, need to get supplies too. Also, I’ll say that even as a supporter of increasing walk-able communities for many reasons, I cringe when I see city politicians in places like Chicago plan budgets and praise results of the revenue “generated” by red light and speed camera violations and happy when revenue falls way below their projections!

  10. That’s one definition I probably wouldn’t buy, but there you have it. It’s the same problem you see when people talk about BRT here. Nobody can agree what the term means, so everyone talks over each other.

    Looking at the tw@ttersphere: there are self-styled progressives (SSP) who hate liberals, SSP who self-identify as liberals, SSP who self-identify as socialists, SSP who self-identify as Obama/Hillary/whatever acolytes, SSP who identify as Bernie supporters, SSP who identify with antifa(!), etc..

    That’s why my general rule (I’m not perfect at following it) is to refer to the people I’m talking about by name or affiliation, rather than by vague labels.

  11. Of course, it’s a privilege. You can’t get a license without first filling out forms and taking a test. If it were a “right” none of that would be necessary. You could just walk into a DMV office and say, “May I have my license?”

  12. Laws like what, protecting local residents from too much fracking or industrial pollution? How many corporations have gone to prison for violating laws that protect the average resident from wanton pollution?

    Progressives made a law recently that legalized pot, which not only reduced the number of people jailed or fined for pot possession, but also reduced most other felony crime in Colorado too.

    Let me guess, you conservatives would much rather have pot illegal so that you can get back to fining and jailing Colorado residents for possessing the evil weed, as well as jailing and fining even more residents busted for other crime too?

    Why is it that conservatives just can’t seem to make ends meet without somebody to throw in jail and discriminate against?

  13. Where did you get such an idea? Progressives believe that the bottom 99% should be treated like equal Americans rather than the center-right belief that says that rich people should be able to buy unequal representation.

  14. Decrimilizing drug use is undoing a law

    which is a good thing

    BTW – the left – right paradigm is obsolete and has been for 40 years

  15. Car dependence is a poverty trap? Just 3 years ago in a 6000-level graduate transportation planning class at CU Denver we proved that living near downtown Denver is a poverty trap, as the median rent within 3 miles of downtown was double the median cost of housing in the suburbs, which leaves plenty of money left over to afford to buy and operate a car.

    Right now today you can buy a brand-new built-green house out off E-470 for half the price of a smaller loft apartment near downtown, which saves you $350K right off the bat. So what you have to drive if you live halfway to Limon? You do realize that other costs in the suburbs are much less than they are near downtown too, right? Grocery prices near downtown are much higher than they are in the suburbs as are many other retail prices too.

    If you live way north like my wife and I do you can get United Power rather than Exel, which costs about 60% as much as Exel does. So what we don’t have anything to show for paying into FasTracks for 13 years other than broken promises when our power bill is a lot less? How much did our power bill average this past summer running central air to cool our 4700 square foot suburban palace? About $140/month. My last Exel power bill in August, 2013 for a smaller house was $425.

    I would much rather drive than walk a mile to get to a bus or train too, and since the closest bus to our house right off the Northwest Parkway and Sheridan is 5 miles from the closest bus stop, even though we live in a subdivision of 6000 homes on average 10,000 square foot lots, despite our planned Hwy 7 BRT that RTD dropped along with our North Line extension, it looks like driving will have to suffice for now.

    How much would a 4700 square foot condo with 4 BRs plus a den, 5 baths, LR, DR, family Room, plus a large game room with a wet bar, a 3-car garage, a hot tub, a large deck plus a large patio, plus the offstreet ability to park 6 more cars (or an 18-wheeler in the driveway along with 3 cars) cost within 3 miles of downtown? I’ll bet a whole lot more than the $500K it cost us to live here, especially as we have a nice unobstructed mountain view on two sides of our suburban palace, as well as a resident gym larger than most health clubs and two Olympic-size pools and waterslides too.

    How much did my Jeep Grand Cherokee cost? $34K. How about my wife’s Tahoe? $41K. Of course we need something big enough to tow our 27-foot travel trailer, and we both enjoy taking my Grand Cherokee 4-wheeling in the mountains too. Let’s subtract those from at-least the $1.5 million it would have cost for the same house within 3 miles of downtown, which leaves $925K to buy car insurance and maintenance with.

    My Grand Cherokee is more than 5 years old, paid for, and only has 45K miles on it, which means I’ll probably drive it for another few years too. I am looking for an EV or hybrid 4WD pickup or SUV large-enough to tow our travel trailer just as I am also looking into the cost of a home battery to store the excess power we generate with our 4 Kw worth of rooftop solar panels rather than selling our overage back to United Power at wholesale prices too.

    Hard to believe, an upper middle-class suburban liberal with a Master’s degree in urban & regional planning, less than 680 days from being old-enough to draw Social Security, eh? Someone with more than 30 years of experience in US national-scale wholesale fresh food supply chain, warehousing, and distribution logistics. One thing I enjoy is busting wild claims with hard cold facts, such as “car dependence is a poverty trap”.

    Here is a really nice brand-new built-green house in Aurora for you. So what you need a car? The house has 2121 finished square feet and a full unfinished basement, with 3 BRs, 2.5 BAs, and if you pay a little extra you can have a covered patio too. Just $439K plus options on lot sizes starting at 8000 square feet, the exact same size lot as those houses on 9th Street on the Auraria campus. Let’s see you markedly beat this place with any loft near downtown. In-fact I am thinking of selling our suburban palace on the hill and buying one of these, which will leave $250K left over for other things.,-104.442559,39.522051,-104.93145_rect/10_zm/0_mmm/

  16. Here’s the problem with your reasoning—a car needs to be driven. Some fraction of the adult population is unable to drive for whatever reason. Frankly, in my opinion about 80% of the population is unable to drive safely, so we’ve dumbed down driving tests as a result. The cost of universal driving is about 40K annual deaths and several million injuries. This exacts a huge economic cost.

    Some percent of the population doesn’t want to drive, even if they are able to. Most driving is unpleasant stop-and-go or otherwise stressful dealing with idiots on the road. It’s also wasted time, in that you can’t do anything else while driving. A lot of people don’t want to spend a hour or two a day of unproductive time doing a tedious chore. I’d personally rather sit back on train, sleep, read, do whatever I want.

    Urban housing is only expensive because there’s a shortage of it relative to the demand. To some extent zoning laws which prevent infill development and mixed use near transit stops are to blame. Regardless, the real solution is to build enough urban housing to fulfill the demand. Back when we had truly free markets for housing it actually cost more to live in the country. If we built enough urban housing that’s how it would be again.

    Your also looking at this from the perspective of an upper middle class person. For a poor person making $20K a year being forced to own a car really is a poverty trap. Any money they might have saved to better their situation is spent on the car instead. There are a whole host of reasons to change the way we live so that it’s not assumed everyone has a car or a driver’s license.

  17. Not to mention that US cities massively subsidize auto driving through space-inefficient wide streets, cheap/free onstreet parking, massive tollfree highway infra, subsidies on greenfield singlefamily subdivisions, etc. The true costs (to individuals and to the metro at large) of operating a car are hidden and presunk. It’s small wonder people drive more. But that doesn’t mean it is equitable or sustainable.

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