The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
April 10, 2014

Keep investing in transit. It’s good for low-income drivers too.

April 10, 2014

With access to cars, many low-income families would live in better neighborhoods, get more stable jobs, and earn more, as my recent study with Evelyn Blumenberg and Casey Dawkins has shown. This is why it’s important to increase the affordability and reliability of car access for low-income households.

But this doesn’t mean we ought to shift our attention and investment away from improving transit, enhancing walkability, and increasing the diversity and density of cities. In fact, all these efforts can help relieve pressure on low-income Americans’ transportation spending even when they own cars.

In 2011, about a third of urban households in the lowest fifth of earners got by without their own car*, according to the Consumer Expenditure Survey. The average household in the poorest fifth spends as much of its income on transportation—32 percent—as the typical American household pays for housing. But the single largest expenditure for the poorest households isn’t a car; it’s gasoline, adding up to 12 percent of the average the average poor household's income*.

Households in the poorest fifth who had cars also spent about as much on auto insurance—$800 a year—as those in the second-poorest fifth. On a per-car basis, they paid the same amount as everyone else to insure cars with blue-book values a fraction of that of better-off households. Even poor households without cars took about a third of their trips in 2001 either by borrowing a car or riding with a household who had one.

These numbers strengthen the argument that investing in transit and walkability is important for low-income families. Of course many low-income households are carless, and many others need options for family members who can’t drive or can’t get access to the one car they do have. But if we reinforce transit, we support higher-density housing, jobs, and retail.

With these “trip generators” closer and more mixed together, we all drive less—and shorter trips help low-income drivers in the same way they help everyone—but with a much bigger impact on their household finances. Drivers don’t need to buy as much gas or pay as much for insurance (which costs more when you drive more). They’re less likely to get into accidents because their trip speeds are lower, and driving less means spending less on routine maintenance and major repairs.

And then there’s time: almost all the households in our study were single mothers and their kids. Their lives are complicated enough even when they have cars and live close to their destinations. Every additional mile they have to drive is an additional mile where something can go wrong: a missed appointment with a job counselor or a few minutes late to work or day-care pickup.

Investments including transit that support density and land-use diversity not only give these households more options and improve their cities, but also can save time by bringing people closer to the things they need.

Despite all of that, many low-income families could be greatly supported with access to a car. More on that in my next blog post.

*Amended since posting.

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