Car ownership may be one of the most effective tools for decreasing unemployment among families in poverty. Yet, as a policy solution, access to automobiles seems to be largely ignored. The crux of this issue is well-summarized in Blumenberg and Melville’s article: Beyond Spatial Mismatch. The authors challenge the notion that spatial factors are the primary obstacles to accessibility by re-framing the debate as modal mismatch. In many (but not all) American cities, poverty is not concentrated but dispersed across many regions of the city. Coupled with the dispersal of employment, it’s easy to imagine why public transit has a limited capacity to connect low-income individuals with jobs.
Urban planners and policymakers have devised a wide range of responses to the problem framed as spatial mismatch, including housing, land use, economic development and transportation strategies, but nearly all programs have shown marginal or no improvement to accessibility. (Fan 2012) The single policy shown to consistently produce positive effects on accessibility is increasing automobile access. A survey of relevant research shows a 7% to 39% increase in likelihood of employment for an individual that owns a car. (Fan 2012). A causal relationship between car ownership and positive labor market outcomes has been found by economic researchers, which weakens the argument that intervening factors or reverse causation explain the correlation between owning a car and being employed. (Raphael and Rice 2000)
A Brookings report argues that federal policies have subsidized the path to home ownership for many low-income families, so why should car ownership not also be supported? (Brookings 2003) The authors propose a federal demonstration program to expand credit options for low-income families to buy a car, similar to the work done by national non-profit Ways to Work. Given the additional costs of car ownership, another promising idea is subsidized car sharing programs targeted to low-income families.
Why do you think car ownership receives little attention as a policy solution to improve accessibility for low-income families? Does bias for transit among planners play a role? (a well-intended bias, in my opinion, given the high social and environment costs of driving) Is it equitable to prefer a transit solution in cases when car access is more effective?
Blumenberg, E. and Melville, M. (2004). Beyond the Spatial Mismatch: Welfare Recipients and Transportation Policy. Journal of Planning Literature, 19(2), 182–205. doi:10.1177/0885412204269103
Fan, Y. (2012). “The Planners’ War against Spatial Mismatch Lessons Learned and Ways Forward.” Journal of Planning Literature 27(2): 153-169.
Blumenberg, E., & Waller, M. (2003). The long journey to work: A federal transportation policy for working families. Brookings Institution Press, Retrieved from http://www.brookings.edu/research/reports/2003/07/transportation-waller