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September 2, 2016

How Moving to Work could teach us about the benefits and costs of car access

September 1, 2016

Throughout September, Urban Institute scholars will offer evidence-based ideas for programs and policies public housing agencies can test through the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Moving to Work Demonstration.

Increasing car access has the potential to help low-income families receiving rental assistance move to better neighborhoods and increase their ability to find and keep a job—two key goals of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) Moving to Work Demonstration (MTW). With these goals in mind, MTW, which will be expanded in 2016, has allowed public housing authorities (PHAs) to request waivers exempting them from HUD regulations to test and pilot new approaches to providing rental assistance. Could car access make a difference?

Transportation and housing are inextricably linked. As a policy goal, housing and transportation should account for no more than about 45 percent of a household’s expenses, with housing making up around 30 percent and transportation 15 percent of the total. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that the most cost-burdened households spend less on transportation than people with affordable housing. What may be surprising, though, is just how few low-income Americans make do without a car: only about one-fifth of households in poverty say they don’t have a car, and only about 1 in 20 poor households goes three years without access to a car. That’s because in almost every US city, families still can’t make their complicated lives work without their own car.

Over time, people with housing assistance appear to set aside enough resources to get a car. Between the late 1990s and 2010, for example, the households who participated in the Moving to Opportunity demonstration went from about 15 percent to 45 percent car ownership. (In Los Angeles, over 60 percent of households eventually had a car.)

These families acquired cars even when they lived in highly transit accessible neighborhoods. They did so, however, without much support and somewhat against the odds because some public benefit programs include owned vehicles when they add up a family’s assets. Having secured a vehicle, though, heads of household were more likely to get and keep a job, and their wages were higher than those who didn’t have access to a car.

Compared with households without cars, households with car access lived in neighborhoods that felt safer to them and had lower poverty and crime rates, better schools, and more open space. In fact, car access was a better predictor of finding and staying in a low-poverty neighborhood than the random assignment to the Moving to Opportunity and Welfare to Work Voucher “treatment” groups.

But car ownership isn’t just a blessing. It also burdens people and society. Cars are expensive to buy; registration, insurance, repairs, maintenance, and gas can strain even a middle-income family’s budget. Low-income families sometimes drive with lapsed licenses, registration, or insurance, but doing so can put them in jail. A breakdown or accident can lead to employment loss, which can lead to other bad consequences. And when his or her car works, a low-income resident also can face persistent requests for rides and errands from carless neighbors. Cars also create air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, and car accidents are a leading cause of injury and premature mortality.

Considering the positive and negative consequences of car access, we should use MTW expansion as an opportunity to learn how to improve the affordability and reliability of low-income households’ car access while minimizing its social and environmental impacts. Systematic qualitative research would deepen our understanding. How do people who use vouchers, public housing residents, and people on the waiting list get around? What are the pros and cons of owning a car, and how do these compare with alternatives?

Answers to these questions could lay the groundwork for random assignment approaches to rigorous cost-benefit evaluation. PHAs could use MTW authority to design different programs that provide car access and then track impact.  For example, conventional routes to car access like car donations and taxi vouchers could be studied alongside new approaches like ride hailing and car sharing. And given the rapid evolution of mobility apps, new partnerships might emerge among housing authorities, transit agencies, and technology companies that allow people to select trips that balance costs with expected travel times.   

Because the trade-offs will differ among and within metropolitan areas and by time of day, MTW offers an excellent platform for learning systematically about low-income people’s travel choices: how they affect families, communities, and the environment, and ultimately how to maximize the benefits of car access while minimizing the burdens. With more information about the benefits and costs of car access to residents, transportation providers, and housing authorities, MTW housing authorities can learn from each other and work with other local partners to implement policies that expand transportation choices in their community.

Mariah Gaines, 20, takes her son Ezekiel to a doctor's appointment in Duncanville, Texas. Before purchasing her car, Mariah had to rely on friends and family to get to the grocery store or take her son to appointments. Photo by Lydia Thompson/Urban Institute

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