Driving Forces…Cars As Life Rafts For The Urban Poor

Transit is not the best way to help the poor

The car remains king, according to the newest numbers from the Census: cars, trucks and vans carried 111.7 million commuters to work-87.5 percent of all work trips in 2000. Driving alone became even more popular, increasing from 73.2 percent of all work trips in 1990 to 76.3 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, public transit continued to lag far behind, transporting just 6.5 million commuters and not even maintaining its market share since 1990. The implications for America’s poor are dramatic, but not for the reasons you may think.

The crux of the emergent conventional wisdom is this: Without public transit, millions would be castaways in an urban sea, left without access to jobs, health care or school.

Meanwhile, transit supporters are demonizing the car, calling them a “potentially sociopathic device,” dubbing roads “traffic sewers” and embracing polemics such as “Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America.”

Almost every urban policy reform, not surprisingly, includes a healthy dose of transit-friendly projects such as expansions of existing bus service, billion dollar light-rail systems, mandatory transit “supportive” development districts, anti-road activism or policies to discourage car ownership.

Researchers at the City University of New York tried to figure out what factors were most important in promoting self-sufficiency among the poor.

They focused their efforts on the 1,500 residents of the Edgemere and Arverne Houses, adjoining public-housing projects in Queens. The projects were poorer than most of New York City’s projects.

The researchers surveyed 400 households to find out how important various things were to determining economic self-sufficiency. The study, published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, found that the two most important factors determining economic self-sufficiency were whether adults in the household had some work experience and whether they had a car.

Just 28 percent of the childless households without a car and work experience were economically self-sufficient. Having some work experience (but no car) more than doubled their likelihood of self-sufficiency.

Having a car (but no work experience) boosted the chances of self- sufficiency to 74 percent. Having both work experience and a car boosted their chances of self-sufficiency to 94 percent!

Some work experience combined with access to a car boosted the chances of households with children even more dramatically, raising the rate of self-sufficiency from 3 percent to 52 percent. In short, the car is more than a life raft: It’s a full-size boat capable of dramatically enhancing the quality of life of the poor.

While the study authors were reluctant to overly interpret their findings, they concluded that the geographic isolation of these housing projects (30 miles from Manhattan) “lends support to the interpretation that car ownership may well provide a critical bridge to work opportunities in this particular setting.”

What is true in New York City is even more likely to be true elsewhere. Automobile-oriented cities grew faster and more robustly than cities that were more transit dependent, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution.

Most experts agree the automobile is the most efficient, adaptable and flexible form of transportation available. Researchers for the Transit Cooperative Research Program concluded “automobiles are the most efficient mode of transportation” in low-density, dispersed patterns of development typical of most new urban development.

Moreover, federal policy is reinforcing these trends in public housing. A key component of both housing vouchers and the federal HOPE VI public-housing program is to broaden the range of housing choice available to the poor by giving them more mixed use, lower-density housing-even suburban in style-rather than old-style warehousing of the poor in high- rise apartment buildings.

We can do better for America’s poor by recognizing the realities of living and working in the modern age and the modern city. If mobility is the goal for America’s families, poor and non-poor, they will need real tools to give them economic independence.

Public policies that actively discourage or punish the use of cars will likely produce the undesirable consequence of reducing mobility among the people that need it the most.

In the modern city, transit is often a life raft, but the ticket to independence is the automobile. Transportation policy on the federal, state and local levels should recognize this.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”

Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation