A photo of a bunch of Kia automobiles.
A new study calls for "universal auto access" as a way to help address economic disparities. David Zalubowski/AP

A new study argues that “universal car access” could lift more Americans out of poverty.

On Thursday, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey released a framework for the “Green New Deal.” The much-anticipated policy package aims to eliminate U.S. carbon emissions within 10 years and create millions of jobs in the process.

One major goal outlined by the resolution: overhauling the country’s transportation systems, so that electric vehicles, public transit, and high-speed rail can replace every combustion-engine vehicle. In many ways, that’s a summation of every eco-conscious urbanist’s dreams. Transportation produces the largest share of U.S. greenhouse gases, so everything should be done to reduce the globe-cooking emissions that driving creates.

But for Americans in poverty—those for whom a car-free lifestyle is a matter of economic necessity—the costs of adopting or abandoning different modes of transportation may be a more complicated judgment. A new study in the Journal of Planning Education and Research offers a glimpse into why. It shows that, over the past 50 years, owning a car has been among the most powerful economic advantages a U.S. family can have.

“This is a crisis that’s been decades in the making,” said David King, a professor of urban planning at Arizona State University, and one of the paper’s authors. “There are a lot of people who keep struggling because they can’t afford to get around reliably.”

To close the persistent and growing gaps between America’s haves and have-nots, King and his co-authors suggest, policymakers might simply help more needy people get behind the wheel, even as they promote less driving among affluent parts of society.

“If we are going to get them out of poverty, then we have to do something,” King said.

“Carlessness has become increasingly concentrated at the bottom of the income distribution,” the paper states. (Journal of Planning Education and Research)

The methodology of the paper is fairly intricate—first, drawing on decades of survey and administrative data, King and fellow transportation scholars Michael Smart and Michael Manville show how the high costs of owning and maintaining a car have long posed a barrier to low-income households. Then, they craft a historical narrative about how infrastructure changed to accommodate driving as the default mode of transportation, with governments constructing highways, paving and widening roads, inventing anti-jaywalking laws, and building parking galore.

“Parcel-by-parcel, the built environment transformed, and the new landscape that accommodated people who drove disadvantaged people who did not,” the authors write. “The same changes that made vehicle travel more convenient made walking, cycling, and mass transit less so.”

These changes seem to have penalized non-car-owners in economic terms. The authors traced data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics—since 1968, the longest running longitudinal household survey in the world—as well as census numbers and the decades-long Consumer Finance Survey. They found that U.S. households without access to a vehicle have steadily lost income, both in absolute terms and compared to those with cars, as the landscapes around them were increasingly shaped to favor the automobile.

To wit: In 1955, those with cars had about twice the income as those without, the data showed; in 2013 they made more than three times as much. The difference in fortunes grew even more than the gap between homeowners and renters, and more than the one among those with and without college degrees.

This chart showing the real median household income by vehicle ownership, housing tenure and educational attainment, in 1955 and 2013, shows how the gap in fortunes between those with a car and those without has grown. (Unpublished chart courtesy of King, Smart, & Manville)

Two metropolitan areas hint at how the built environment likely played a role. In Los Angeles, the quintessential auto-oriented city, the historic relationship between car ownership and income tracks alongside the nation’s, the paper shows. Meanwhile, in New York City—the big exception to virtually every other U.S. city in that life without a vehicle is not only possible but logical—the fortunes of the carless are far less grim. New Yorkers with vehicles may be very, very rich, but not owning a car doesn’t necessarily mean you’re poor.

The authors write:

In Los Angeles, the average income of households with vehicles is 10 percent higher than the citywide average, while the average income of households without vehicles is 67 percent below the citywide average. The correlation between vehicles and income is thus driven by the very low income of the carless.

In New York, in contrast, the average income of households without vehicles is 20 percent below the citywide average, while the average income of households with vehicles is 25 percent above it. The income-vehicle correlation is thus driven by the inordinately high incomes of households with cars.

To be clear, the study isn’t trying to establish a causal relationship—it isn’t asserting that not having a car makes you poor. The costs of car ownership have risen over the decades; as of 2015, the average American household spent just under 20 percent of its income on transportation, mostly by buying, maintaining, and gassing up cars.

Logically, it would seem that forgoing these expenses would save families money. But this paper is suggesting that, while owning a car is expensive, not having one has proven costlier. As society poured implicit value into car ownership, poverty and the lack of a vehicle has become increasingly associated with each other.

That leads to the major caveat to this study: It doesn’t try to capture whether a car is a catalyst for economic success, or if it’s one expression among many ways that families that own vehicles might be motivated to achieve economic success. More research is needed to understand that.  

But on its own, the data tells a story that leads the authors to a pointed policy prescription: Treat vehicles like essential infrastructure. Like water and heat, they argue, access to cars should be guaranteed and perhaps subsidized for low-income households. That might not mean private ownership: Electric vehicle-sharing pilots like those seen in Los Angeles are one model. Longstanding efforts by nonprofits to distribute vehicle donations is another, they said.

“The economic fortunes of New York’s carless households differ dramatically from those of carless households in the United States or Los Angeles,” the authors write. (Journal of Planning Education and Research)

In some progressive policy circles, that may sound like a fundamentally troubling—even dangerous—conclusion, given the environmental stakes and waning investment in U.S. public transportation. But it dovetails with the findings of a major 2014 study by the Urban Institute, which tracked families given federal housing vouchers and found that those with vehicles were more likely to access and remain in neighborhoods with less poverty, better schools, and healthier residents. Opportunity, it seemed, was out of reach in many communities for those who didn’t own a car. “I do think that low-income neighborhoods need more and better transit, for sure. But I think we have to be able to talk about cars, too,” the author, Rolf Pendall, told the Washington Post at the time.

That perspective got criticism on the basis that it reinforced the auto-centric design that drove American society into this unequal mess to begin with. The implication that fighting for better walking, bikes, and transit infrastructure is somehow bad for impoverished families “surely comes as news to all the transit advocates who fight to preserve service in American cities when local governments draw up their budgets,” Angie Schmitt of Streetsblog wrote.

A further critique might be that reducing carbon emissions at all costs is the only conscionable policy for a society facing catastrophic global warming.

But the new study’s authors aren’t saying that everybody should drive more. Reducing driving overall and scaling back the significant environmental and social costs associated with private cars are still necessary policy goals. Speaking to CityLab, Smart and King said that this could still be accomplished through a range of pro-transit, anti-driving tools.

In many ways, this reflects the dilemma of decarbonization in general, and the mighty challenge that Green New Deal has set for itself. More affluent segments of American society undertake carbon-intensive activities with little more thought than they give breathing, from meat-eating to air travel to car commuting. And they are likely to continue to do so until they face a powerful economic disincentive. Meanwhile, people who can’t afford to participate in that full spectrum of carbon combustion aren’t getting a lot of help, with the exception of a few U.S. cities where public transit is truly viable as a primary form of mobility. They’re eco-friendly, by force.

Equity tensions have challenged lawmakers attempting to advance ostensibly progressive climate policies in the past, and they will likely continue to. Yet this might be one area where the Green New Deal is different. Not only is it an environment and employment program, it’s redistributive in spirit. The original New Deal raised taxes on the wealthy in order to create well-paying jobs and build out public infrastructure. Although the Green New Deal hasn’t specified how it would raise the money to pay for its massive suite of programs, Ocasio-Cortez’ proposed 70 percent top-marginal tax rate might be one idea.

Meanwhile, people are poor, right now. And until all cities are rebuilt so that it’s easy for everyone to move around without a vehicle, the immediate needs of the economically vulnerable need to be recognized.

At least that’s what this study’s authors argue. Policymakers are going to have to be able to pursue two objectives at the same time, said Smart, a professor of planning and public policy at Rutgers. “We don’t want to try to balance our carbon emissions and budgets on the backs of the poor,” he said. “All of these goals can be achieved if overall we drive less, even if we help some people drive more.”

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