As the Planet Warms, Who Should Get to Drive?

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.”

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