Why U.S. Immigrants Drive Less Than Natives

New insights from focus groups with recent arrivals who settled in New Jersey.

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U.S. immigrants drive a lot less than native-born Americans. They're twice as likely to commute by transit and one-and-a-half times as likely to carpool when they arrive in the country — and they remain more likely to use those modes 15 years later. This big driving gap declines once an immigrant has lived in the United States for a couple decades. But even then some difference lingers.

The source of this so-called "immigrant effect" is important for cities to understand. In addition to being the first home for so many new immigrants, urban areas also encourage alternative transport modes however possible. But theories about low immigrant driving rates are based mostly on driving data, with little personal input from immigrants themselves.

Planning scholars Daniel Chatman of UC-Berkeley and Nicholas Klein of Rutgers recently tried to address that shortcoming. They arranged a series of focus groups with recent immigrants from India, the Philippines, and Latin America who'd settled in New Jersey. Their findings, published in Transport Policy, suggest several reasons why the driving gap not only exists for recent immigrants but persists in established ones.

We've split their results into three parts.

Why recent immigrants drive less at first.

Chatman and Klein found support for a few old and rather obvious barriers to immigrant driving. For starters, most have limited employment and travel options when they first arrive. Limited money, licensing restrictions, and fear of police (in the case of undocumented immigrants) also play a role. Lastly, many immigrants settle in cities where transit services are (relatively) plentiful.

They also settle into neighborhoods with other immigrants — a situation that makes it much easier to find a ride with someone else. Indeed, recent immigrants have much higher rates of carpooling than native-born Americans do. As other new research points out, life in an ethnic enclave might facilitate carpool formation by reducing linguistic and cultural hurdles.

During their focus groups, Chatman and Klein heard two recurring reasons for low rates of immigrant driving that have been under-appreciated in the past. One is that many immigrants were intimidated by the driving conditions in metropolitan New York. The other is that sending payments back home made saving for a car even tougher financially than it would have been.

Why immigrants use cars more over time.

Car use does rise among immigrants the longer they've been in the United States. Increased income no doubt plays a role. Other common explanations point to the process of cultural assimilation — adopting the American ideal of a suburban residence and car ownership, for instance — but Chatman and Klein hesitate to endorse that reasoning.

Their focus groups did reveal that immigrants drive more as a result of a residential move, but reasons for the move were less cultural and more practical. Immigrants said that job changes, access to child care or schools, and the arrival of other immigrant family members were all big factors in a residential move that led to more driving. Among the focus groups, only Indian immigrants living in Jersey City reported having changed travel mode for "cultural" reasons.

Why immigrant driving stays lower in the long run.

Though the gap diminishes over time, immigrants still drive less than native-born Americans do, even controlling for household income. Chatman and Klein offer several reasons why.

One is the simple fact that immigrant transit ridership is growing. A new arrival trying to find a bus, for instance, is more likely these days to bump into an ethnic kin who can explain (in native tongue) which line to take. That situation makes riding transit more comfortable for the entire immigrant community. Private transit options — especially dollar mini-buses — have increased, too.

Immigrants also seem to have different residential priorities than native-born Americans. Many develop alternative transport habits in the cities where they initially settle. Those early transit habits, write Chatman and Klein, "may persist among many immigrants, and may condition where they seek to live in subsequent moves." Another reason for cities to promote such habits in the first place.

Top image: James Steidl/Shutterstock.com

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