Friday, May 3, 2013

Spatial mismatch or modal mismatch?

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 Literature19(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


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Jamin,

    Thanks for writing about this article, I found it to be very provocative and was sad we did not get a chance to discuss it in class. I think that you and the article make a convincing case that improving access to a car is a valuable and possibly cost-effective way to improve job access. This makes sense as another aspect of the auto-focused transportation system currently in place which largely equates accessibility with auto-mobility. It also highlights that the auto-born geography of modern metropolitan areas defies conventional notions of a poor mono-centric city with rich suburbs. I'm especially fond of the idea of promoting/assisting car-sharing programs that are inclusive of low-income families, since car ownership comes with high costs and externalities.

    It seems to me like there are two themes that come to light when thinking about why improving vehicle access receives little attention. The first is the sometimes hostile attitude toward low-income families receiving federal assistance. Blumenberg and Melville identify these undercurrents in the welfare reform debate, and similar attitudes against "giving unearned gifts" to low-income families may lead policy-makers away from direct vehicle subsidies. I like your comparison to home ownership, which is seen as a desirable financial asset that reasonable families should aspire to and may need some help obtaining. In contrast, a vehicle seems to be perceived as a necessary (and yet possibly extravagant) cost of living, but one that should be within reach of moderately successful families without assistance. Also, from a financial perspective, houses are viewed as investments that will increase in value, while vehicle are assets that will inevitably depreciate.

    The other theme, as you pointed out, is a sort of discipline-silo effect. Despite the attention that land use or transportation planners pay to economic development or job access, that is not really their realm of action. Increasing vehicle access is a non-planning policy measure, while providing transit is traditionally within (or at least near) the realm of planners. As with many other problems, the funding to address these problems comes in silos as well.

    Setting aside the functional difficulties, I think there's a fundamental question of whether planners should promote a more equitable structure for the transportation system, or seek to provide more equitable access to the structure that's in place. I'd say both are worthy pursuits, but transportation planning may be a tool better suited the the former.

  3. Subsidized car sharing is one area that might be worth looking at especially if it is done in conjunction with transit options were available.

    One of the problems of dealing with the concept of helping the poor buy cars is that a car is inherently more expensive than just the purchase amount. One of the things that frustrates me the most is when some anti-transit person says that instead of financing transit they should just buy the poor a car.

    Well you can purchase them a car or in what Jamin mentioned help them finance a car, but that is not the only expenses in buying a car. You also have to maintain the vehicle, insure the vehicle, pay for gas on a regular basis, and other cost associated with owning a vehicle.

    Also financing a vehicle is one of the worst financial decisions you can make (depending on who you are getting your financial advice from). Cars depreciate (there is a joke that this where Chevy got their 'like a rock' slogan from...because they gone down in value like a rock). After a few years that 18,000 dollar car is now worth $4000 yet you have paid 22,000 for it (or more depending on the interest rates).

    Car sharing options might work, but I fear that the unintended consequences may be high trying to subsidize ownership of vehicles.

  4. Thanks for the great discussion, John and Ben. You raise some important points.

    The political feasibility of a car ownership assistance program would certainly be challenging, but that shouldn't limit discussion of the idea. I was surprised and disappointed to find how little the policy is discussed; I've never even heard it before this article, even from authorities on progressive transportation policy. Political support for the idea would need to come from a long campaign to generate public awareness, and the idea would need to be packaged to highlight the economic benefits to society, not only low-income families. Regardless, political feasibility shouldn't color an objective dialogue of the economic logic behind the idea.

    On the role of transportation planners to advocate for this solution: I tend to think that planners should not limit themselves to the built environment and infrastructure. Advocacy for this idea from planners would lend it credibility in the eye of policymakers and the public. Ideas like this represent an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to planning; we should view access to the system as just important as building the system itself. If a system isn't accessible, what's the use of it? I also don’t think that advocating for a more equitable transit system and for more access to private automobiles are mutually exclusive. Low-income families, like all families, need choices and alternatives to fit different situations.

    On the high operating costs of vehicles, I tend to agree that cars are not a valuable economic asset to own. But if owning a car makes the difference in whether you can find employment, the benefits of increased income would far outweigh any costs. In addition, operating costs could be included in the model used to determine how much financing a low-income individual could qualify for to ensure they are not saddled with unsustainable debt. Next, cars certainly depreciate in ways that homes do not, but depreciation is worst for new cars. Assistance programs would likely target low-cost, used cars that do not depreciate as rapidly. Last, innovative sources of cars are possible. Decommissioned government fleets could be sold at a discount (they are currently auctioned). You can lease a Smart Car for $100 a month, so even including operating costs, a small amount of government assistance would make this affordable to many families.

    So, the policy would need to be very-well thought out, and public support would be challenging, but the first step is talking about these types of solutions, even if they seem provocative and out-of-the-box.

  5. Glad to see a good discussion around this issue. As you point out, the idea is highly controversial, particularly among transportation planners. I'm reminded of one of the class presentations from Monday about employer-based incentives/disincentives for employee commutes. If an employer opens a call center in a part of the region poorly served by transit should the employer have a responsibility to help employees get to work affordably? Maybe it's through a shuttle bus to the nearest transit station, van pools, or helping employees afford the cost of a car. Right now employers can pass the cost of poor location decisions directly to their employees in the form of expensive commutes. Turning some of that burden back around on employers could result in more efficient employment locations.


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