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Why the poor need better access to cars

Photographer: Brent Lewin/Bloomberg
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In many circles – among advocates for cleaner air, safer streets, less congestion and public transit – it's a major policy goal to get people out of cars. Reduce car use, and you reduce pollution. Reduce car use, and we'll need fewer costly roads and parking garages. Reduce car use and shift more people onto bikes and trains, and maybe we'll all spend less of our lives idling in traffic.

This line of thinking, however, seldom considers a group of people for whom more car use might actually be a very good thing: the poor.

A group of researchers at the Urban Institute, the University of Maryland and UCLA broach this controversial idea in a large new study of low-income families in 10 cities who participated in two federal housing voucher programs. Those programs, the Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing program, and the Welfare to Work Voucher program, tried to give families access to greater opportunity in stable housing and high-quality neighborhoods (both experimental programs included control groups). But it turns out that much of the opportunity in places with better schools, lower poverty and less crime is hard to unlock without a car.

Looking back at extensive information gathered on the families who participated in these programs over time, several crucial differences emerged between those who had access to a car and those who did not. The families with cars moved to neighborhoods with less poverty and were more likely to stay there. They lived in neighborhoods with less unemployment, higher median rents, more access to green space and lower levels of cancer risk. Controlling for other factors influencing their residential mobility, these families also lived by the end of the survey in neighborhoods with better-performing schools.

All of this suggests that we might rethink both how we talk about car use (creating space in that conversation for the very different circumstances of low-income households) and how we talk about creating opportunity for the poor (a conversation that seldom includes cars).

"The prescriptions that we’ve been hearing for the last few years – this is philanthropy, the news, at the federal level, and in the academic research – the dominant ideas have been about improving and investing in transit," says the Urban Institute's Rolf Pendall, one of the lead investigators of the study, along with Casey Dawkins and Evelyn Blumenberg. "And I think that’s imbalanced. I do think that low-income neighborhoods need more and better transit, for sure. But I think we have to be able to talk about cars, too.

"It’s puzzling to me that we can’t. That we haven’t more."

Families with cars in the Moving to Opportunity program were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to stay employed, a finding that's consistent with another common reality for the low-income: Unreliable transportation is one of the primary reasons why they lose their jobs. Both car and transit access had a positive effect on earnings, although the effect was much larger for car ownership.

All of these findings are as much a reflection on the value of cars as the relatively poor state of public transit. The underlying issue also isn't so much that cars create opportunity. Rather, it's that we've created many places where you can't access opportunity without a car. Which also means that we've created places that punish people who don't have one (or can't afford to get one). That's a much larger critique.

"The question for policy I think is 'what are we going to do now?'" Pendall says. "It’s unethical and inappropriate to foreclose possibilities for more car access just because we made mistakes about where things got built in the past. Right now, we need to add car access to the list of things to do. But we also need to build cities differently."

How, though, would you increase car access among the poor in a way that doesn't simply saddle families with even more unsustainable expenses? Car ownership, for any kind of family, comes with all kinds of related costs: in insurance, in repairs, in gas. The burden of those costs, though, tends to weigh even more heavily on the low-income. They're more likely to access financing through a predatory loan. They may have less access in the neighborhood to a reliable mechanic. A family living in a low-income neighborhood with high crime by definition faces higher insurance rates.

Pendall and his fellow researchers, though, aren't simply suggesting that the answer is to give every family a vehicle. Perhaps there are other options to expand car-sharing services to the low-income (as we continue to invest in transit). At the very least, federal programs designed to help the poor could facilitate car ownership instead of disincentivizing it. The government considers a family's assets, including cars, in calculating who qualifies for food stamps and cash assistance. A poor family may lose out on those benefits simply by owning a car (or, perversely, may sell a car that's needed to get to work just to qualify for benefits).

A more effective poverty reduction policy might consider that families need both decent housing and a way to get from that home in the morning to school and work and back again. This idea recalls the concerns of several Baltimore families who I wrote about last week, weighing the possibility of a move to the suburbs: “I never lived in the county so I couldn’t even tell you how a county is," one mother said, "I just know you need a car to do anything.”

"If you have transportation," Pendall says, "you can keep your job, you can pick up your kids at school if they get sick, you can rely less on your neighbors, you can make more income, you can reduce your reliance on subsidies and move up the income scale, or at least become stable. You will also however, have more greenhouse gases because you’re earning more, and because people who earn more consume more.

"That’s actually a tradeoff that I’m personally willing to make."

Most of the groups advocating for less car use, he adds, are talking about turning three-car families into two-car families, or two-car families into one-car ones. The biggest reductions in auto use – and in associated emissions – aren't to be found among the poor. "What we’re really talking about here," Pendall says, "is making sure zero-car families have pathways to being one-car families that are not too burdensome on them."