Study Shows Access to Cars Important for the Poor

A new study co-authored by professor and chair of Urban Planning Evelyn Blumenberg is getting some play in the media for its unique, and possibly controversial, findings concerning automobile access for low-income households.

The Washington Post’s Emily Badger writes: “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.”

The study, titled “Driving to Opportunity: Understanding the Links among Transportation Access, Residential Outcomes, and Economic Opportunity for Housing Voucher Recipients” examined low-income families in 10 cities who participated in two federal housing voucher programs. According to the study, housing voucher recipients with cars lived and remained in higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Data from participants in the Moving to Opportunity housing voucher program showed that those with cars were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to stay employed. The study notes that this is not necessarily because cars are better than mass transit, but because public transit systems are usually slower or insufficient in metropolitan areas.

In a blog post reprinted in Atlantic Cities, the study’s co-author Rolf Pendall of the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center explains that more research is needed to determine if the relationship between cars and improved neighborhood and employment outcomes is causal or associative. However, he notes that the current findings are “enough to raise important questions.”

Badger says: “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.”


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