Driving Forces…Cars As Life Rafts For The Urban Poor

Transit is not the best way to help the poor

The car remains king, according to the newest numbers from the Census: cars, trucks and vans carried 111.7 million commuters to work-87.5 percent of all work trips in 2000. Driving alone became even more popular, increasing from 73.2 percent of all work trips in 1990 to 76.3 percent in 2000.

Meanwhile, public transit continued to lag far behind, transporting just 6.5 million commuters and not even maintaining its market share since 1990. The implications for America’s poor are dramatic, but not for the reasons you may think.

The crux of the emergent conventional wisdom is this: Without public transit, millions would be castaways in an urban sea, left without access to jobs, health care or school.

Meanwhile, transit supporters are demonizing the car, calling them a “potentially sociopathic device,” dubbing roads “traffic sewers” and embracing polemics such as “Asphalt Nation: How the Automobile Took Over America.”

Almost every urban policy reform, not surprisingly, includes a healthy dose of transit-friendly projects such as expansions of existing bus service, billion dollar light-rail systems, mandatory transit “supportive” development districts, anti-road activism or policies to discourage car ownership.

Researchers at the City University of New York tried to figure out what factors were most important in promoting self-sufficiency among the poor.

They focused their efforts on the 1,500 residents of the Edgemere and Arverne Houses, adjoining public-housing projects in Queens. The projects were poorer than most of New York City’s projects.

The researchers surveyed 400 households to find out how important various things were to determining economic self-sufficiency. The study, published in the Journal of Urban Affairs, found that the two most important factors determining economic self-sufficiency were whether adults in the household had some work experience and whether they had a car.

Just 28 percent of the childless households without a car and work experience were economically self-sufficient. Having some work experience (but no car) more than doubled their likelihood of self-sufficiency.

Having a car (but no work experience) boosted the chances of self- sufficiency to 74 percent. Having both work experience and a car boosted their chances of self-sufficiency to 94 percent!

Some work experience combined with access to a car boosted the chances of households with children even more dramatically, raising the rate of self-sufficiency from 3 percent to 52 percent. In short, the car is more than a life raft: It’s a full-size boat capable of dramatically enhancing the quality of life of the poor.

While the study authors were reluctant to overly interpret their findings, they concluded that the geographic isolation of these housing projects (30 miles from Manhattan) “lends support to the interpretation that car ownership may well provide a critical bridge to work opportunities in this particular setting.”

What is true in New York City is even more likely to be true elsewhere. Automobile-oriented cities grew faster and more robustly than cities that were more transit dependent, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution.

Most experts agree the automobile is the most efficient, adaptable and flexible form of transportation available. Researchers for the Transit Cooperative Research Program concluded “automobiles are the most efficient mode of transportation” in low-density, dispersed patterns of development typical of most new urban development.

Moreover, federal policy is reinforcing these trends in public housing. A key component of both housing vouchers and the federal HOPE VI public-housing program is to broaden the range of housing choice available to the poor by giving them more mixed use, lower-density housing-even suburban in style-rather than old-style warehousing of the poor in high- rise apartment buildings.

We can do better for America’s poor by recognizing the realities of living and working in the modern age and the modern city. If mobility is the goal for America’s families, poor and non-poor, they will need real tools to give them economic independence.

Public policies that actively discourage or punish the use of cars will likely produce the undesirable consequence of reducing mobility among the people that need it the most.

In the modern city, transit is often a life raft, but the ticket to independence is the automobile. Transportation policy on the federal, state and local levels should recognize this.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”

Leonard Gilroy is a senior fellow in urban and land use policy at the Reason Foundation

Samuel R. Staley, Ph.D. is a senior research fellow at Reason Foundation and managing director of the DeVoe L. Moore Center at Florida State University in Tallahassee where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in urban planning, regulation, and urban economics. Prior to joining Florida State, Staley was director of urban growth and land-use policy for Reason Foundation where he helped establish its urban policy program in 1997.

Staley is the author of several books, most recently co-authoring Mobility First: A New Vision for Transportation in a Globally Competitive 21st Century (Rowman & Littlefield, 2008). Texas Gov. Rick Perry aid Staley and Moore "get it right" and world bank urban planner Alain Bartaud called it "a must read for urban managers of large cities in the United States and around the world."

He is also co-author, with Ted Balaker, of The Road More Traveled: Why The Congestion Crisis Matters More Than You Think, and What We Can Do About It (Rowman and Littlefield, September, 2006). Author Joel Kotkin said, "The Road More Traveled should be required reading not only for planners and their students, but anyone who loves cities and wants them to thrive as real places, not merely as museums, in the 21st Century." Former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Mary Peters said, "Balaker and Staley clearly debunk the myth that there is nothing we can do about congestion."

Staley's previous book, Smarter Growth: Market-based Strategies for Land-use Planning in the 21st Century (Greenwood Press, 2001), was called the "most thorough challenge yet to regional land-use plans" by Planning magazine.

In addition to these books, he is the author of Drug Policy and the Decline of American Cities (Transaction Publishers, 1992) and Planning Rules and Urban Economic Performance: The Case of Hong Kong (Chinese University Press, 1994).

His more than 100 professional articles, studies, and reports have appeared in publications such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Investor's Business Daily, Journal of the American Planning Association, Planning magazine, Reason magazine, National Review and many others.

Staley's approach to urban development, transportation and public policy blends more than 20 years of experience as an economic development consultant, academic researcher, urban policy analyst, and community leader.

Staley is a former chair for his local planning board in his hometown of Bellbrook, Ohio. He is also a former member of its Board of Zoning Appeals and Property Review Commission, vice chair of his local park district's open space master plan committee, and chair of its Charter Review Commission.

Staley received his B.A. in Economics and Public Policy from Colby College, M.S. in Social and Applied Economics from Wright State University, and Ph.D. in Public Administration, with concentrations in urban planning and public finance from Ohio State University.

Leonard Gilroy is Senior Managing Director of the Pension Integrity Project at Reason Foundation, a nonprofit think tank advancing free minds and free markets. The Pension Integrity Project assists policymakers and other stakeholders in designing, analyzing and implementing public sector pension reforms.

The project aims to promote solvent, sustainable retirement systems that provide retirement security for government workers while reducing taxpayer and pension system exposure to financial risk and reducing long-term costs for employers/taxpayers and employees. The project team provides education, reform policy options, and actuarial analysis for policymakers and stakeholders to help them design reform proposals that are practical and viable.

In 2016 and 2017, Reason's Pension Integrity Project helped design, negotiate and draft pension reforms for the state of Arizona's Public Safety Personnel Retirement System and Corrections Officer Retirement Plan, which both passed with overwhelming bipartisan support in the state legislature and were signed into law by Gov. Doug Ducey.

Gilroy is also the Director of Government Reform at Reason Foundation, researching privatization, public-private partnerships, infrastructure and urban policy issues.

Gilroy has a diversified background in policy research and implementation, with particular emphases on competition, government efficiency, transparency, accountability, and government performance. Gilroy has worked closely with legislators and elected officials in Texas, Arizona, Louisiana, New Jersey, Utah, Virginia, California and several other states and local governments in efforts to design and implement market-based policy approaches, improve government performance, enhance accountability in government programs, and reduce government spending.

In 2010 and 2011, Gilroy served as a gubernatorial appointee to the Arizona Commission on Privatization and Efficiency, and in 2010 he served as an advisor to the New Jersey Privatization Task Force, created by Gov. Chris Christie.

Gilroy is the editor of the widely-read Annual Privatization Report, which examines trends and chronicles the experiences of local, state, and federal governments in bringing competition to public services. Gilroy also edits Reason's Innovators in Action interview series, which profiles public sector innovators in their own words, including former U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani and more.

Gilroy's articles have been featured in such leading publications as The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, New York Post, The Weekly Standard, Washington Times, Houston Chronicle, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Arizona Republic, San Francisco Examiner, San Diego Union-Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Sacramento Bee and The Salt Lake Tribune. He has also appeared on CNN, Fox News Channel, Fox Business, CNBC, National Public Radio and other media outlets.

Prior to joining Reason, Gilroy was a senior planner at a Louisiana-based urban planning consulting firm. He also worked as a research assistant at the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech. Gilroy earned a B.A. and M.A. in Urban and Regional Planning from Virginia Tech.