The Poverty of the Carless: Toward Universal Auto Access

We document the falling socioeconomic status of American households without private vehicles and the continuing financial burden that cars present for low-income households that own them. We tie both these trends to the auto-orientation of America’s built environment, which forces people to either spend heavily on cars or risk being locked out of the economy. We first show that vehicle access remains difficult for low-income households and vehicle operating costs remain high and volatile. Using data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, Survey of Consumer Finances, and Census Public Use Microdata, we then show that in the last fifty years households without vehicles have lost income, both in absolute terms and relative to households with vehicles. We link these trends to the built environment by examining the fortunes of carless households in New York City, and particularly in Manhattan. Most of New York’s built environment did not change to accommodate cars, and in New York the fortunes of the carless did not fall. Our results suggest that planners should see vehicles, in most of the United States, as essential infrastructure, and work to close gaps in vehicle access.

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