Automobile Dependency and the Working Poor
David Shipler briefly mentions in The Working Poor that lack of access to a car is one of the factors
that make finding and holding a job difficult. A person in need of a job may be unable to afford a car,
since car ownership is so expensive, but they may need a car because of urban sprawl and inadequate
public transit networks. But just how serious is the burden of car ownership, and how exactly does
under funded public transit and urban sprawl contribute to the need to take on this burden?
The costs of car ownership concern motorists greatly, so it isn't difficult to find information.
AAA releases an annual brochure and report called "Your Driving Costs." Their 2004 brochure
reports a composite national average cost of 56.1 cents per mile over 15,000 miles of driving
annually. This amounts to an annual cost of $8,415. Americans spend more of their income on their
cars than they do on anything else except for shelter. A reliable car that has been paid for in full may
cost $4,000 annually, but the upfront cost of a car is still great, and few Americans can afford to buy
a car outright. This picture is complicated by the fact that few low-income families are able to afford
a new car, which reduces the cost of financing, but these families are also likely to have poor credit
which has the opposite effect. The used cars that they buy are also likely to be less reliable than the
average, which increases repair costs. Clearly, owning a car is a huge financial burden. Why take it
The problem is an urban and suburban infrastructure designed to accommodate cars at the
expense of non-automotive mc and a lack of well-designed, well-funded public transit services. In
the years after World War II, middle-class and wealthy Americans fled the inner cities to live in
suburbs. After 1970, more Americans in a metropolitan area lived outside the inner city than lived
within it. Retail establishments and big-box retailers sprang up to support new residential growth,
but their employee base of unskilled workers was still largely based within the inner cities, making
commutes longer and more expensive. As jobs and people left the cities, many urban transit
networks found themselves going out of business. Many that survived were publicly acquired and
heavily subsidized. As a result, owning a car has become critical to the ability to seek, acquire and
hold a job.
For example, a recent report by Washington think tank the Brookings Institution states that 32
percent of Baltimore residents do not have cars. An Abell Foundation report says this endangers the
ability of these residents to get and keep a job. According to Brookings fellow Margy Waller,
"people with a car are more likely to work, work more hours, and have a higher level of income."
The Brookings Institution proposes lowering the barriers to car ownership in order to help more
Baltimoreans become productive citizens. These...