The blog of the Urban Institute
March 31, 2014

For many low-income families, cars may be key to greater opportunity

April 1, 2014

America may be rethinking its love affair with cars.

We’re driving less. Adjusted for population growth, the number of vehicle miles driven per year has dropped 8.9 percent since peaking in 2005. We’re also buying fewer cars. While driving will accelerate as the economy improves, many Americans would rather not have to drive so much.

But a new study co-led by myself; Evelyn Blumenberg from the University of California, Los Angeles; and Casey Dawkins from the University of Maryland suggests there is at least one group that may need help to drive more, not less: low-income residents of high-poverty neighborhoods.

Our evidence comes from two Department of Housing and Urban Development demonstration programs: Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing and Welfare to Work Vouchers. Both were designed to test whether housing choice vouchers—that is, subsidies that allowed participants to choose where they live—propelled low-income households into greater economic security.

Taken together, data sets from these studies allowed us to examine neighborhood quality, neighborhood satisfaction, and employment outcomes for almost 12,000 families from 10 cities: Atlanta, Augusta, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Fresno, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, and Spokane.

The results? Housing voucher recipients with cars tended to live and remain in higher-opportunity neighborhoods—places with lower poverty rates, higher social status, stronger housing markets, and lower health risks. Cars are also associated with improved neighborhood satisfaction and better employment outcomes. Among Moving to Opportunity families, those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to remain employed.

The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.

More research is needed to determine if the relationship is causal or associative, that is, whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation. Cars are expensive to purchase and to maintain, even more so for families with severely limited resources. A low-income household that is somehow able, inclined, or afforded the opportunity to buy a car might also do many other things to get ahead. Motivation, opportunity, or both could be key.

Yet our current findings are enough to raise important questions.

For example, should government welfare programs facilitate automobile access or ownership? In some states, a car would push families over the asset limit for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, making those families ineligible for help.

There are also environmental considerations. How might we balance the apparent benefits of car access for disadvantaged families with serious concerns about climate change and the need to reduce automobile emissions? Car-sharing in locations and at price points that are accessible for the working poor could be part of the solution.

For more than a century, cars have signified status. They became emblems of freedom. And by the 1950s, shortsighted transportation planning made them a necessity in many communities. 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.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


amazing findings.It exposes the combo of sociology and transportation. Indian cities are also on the same status is added to car owning.stepping out from a chauffeur driven car is more satisfying and adds ego satisfaction than anything else.especially to the poor
I'd be most interested in how this played out in NY, Boston, and Chicago, which I believe have the most robust transit systems of the cities in your study. Were the same trends documented in these places?
I can't agree more. Having grown up in a high-poverty section of Denver and lived there for a while after marriage, I know first-hand that the jobs that uplift people are NOT in that kind of neighborhood. Additionally, as poverty shifts to more suburban landscapes as inner cities gentrify, the need for reliable personal transportation increases because of the sprawling layout of the new poor neighborhoods and the less-available public transportation therein. GREAT article.
Excellent commentary. We should be looking to assisting people rather than modes. Some of our research at The Urban Institute in the late 1980s noted that transit programs helped low income people get jobs and then they were able to get a car. Although they did not use the transit to work any longer, they were much better off. Another way to do that is by assisting low income people with affording an initial vehicle. Transit can save money for many income groups by helping them avoid the substantial ownership costs of a first auto or an additional auto. But auto ownership many times confers substantial mobility benefits and other benefits and these may be critical for low income groups. You can find my chapter on "Personal Mobility in the United States" in the 1988 TRB Special Report The Year 2020: A Look Ahead (written when I was Transportation Director at The Urban Institute.)
I disagree with the authors. I am also on a low income and use the bike as my preferred mode of transportation, not only because I enjoy it, but because it's cheap. I first started riding to work to save money. I live in the NY area and would rather save at least $5 a day and use my own power to get where I have to go. There are some days where it saves me $10 or more. We should not be encouraging car ownwership amongst poor people or subsidizing it in any form. Poor people can still take public transportation to their jobs or take bicycles. Cars are a very expensive form of transportation. They cost a lot more to purchase, run and maintain. We should be encouraging poor people to learn to live on a budget and this includes considering the cost of transportation, and learning to use the most COST EFFECTIVE method. The article states that many people in the lower income bracket want cars even though they are not necessary; they just WANT them. We can't always get something just because we want it, nor should the government sbsidize these wants. I knoe of many people who are on various forms of social assistance programs who LEASE new cars. In my opinion, if you have enough money to lease a car, then you don't need any public assistance of any sort.