NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

How Lower Income Citizens Commute

February 15, 2012

In advocating urbanization and smart growth opportunities, activists often point to the difficulties that low-income citizens encounter when attempting to commute.  By allowing for greater concentration of business and residences in defined areas, commutes are eased and mass-transit infrastructure becomes more feasible.  This, they argue, alleviates the pressure on the poor and better allows them to commute, says Wendell Cox, an adjunct scholar with the National Center for Policy Analysis.

However, a recent study finds that many of the assumptions behind this argument, namely that the poor cannot afford automobiles and that they view transit as a viable substitute, are unfounded.

  • According to the five-year American Community Survey for 2006 to 2010, 76.3 percent of low-income workers use cars to get to work.
  • This is only slightly less than the figure for the population as a whole, 83.3 percent, suggesting that those with low levels of income still have access to automobiles.

Furthermore, while many argue for the implementation of large infrastructure projects in major cities in order to create transit opportunities for the poor, it is evident that low-income workers make little use of public transit options.

  • Among low-income workers, only 9.6 percent get to work via public transit.
  • Again, this figure is similar to the proportion of the total population that also uses public transit, 7.9 percent.

A likely reason that more people do not use public transit despite its low cost is that it does not offer a timely commute to key destinations, such as a person's place of work.  According to research by the Brookings Institution, the majority of jobs for low-income workers are prohibitively difficult to reach via transit.  Indeed, only 4 percent of jobs are reachable within 30 minutes.

This is an inherent obstacle for transit infrastructure, and it is one that prevents the poor and wealthy alike from being able to take full advantage of the system.

Source: Wendell Cox, "How Lower Income Citizens Commute," New Geography, February 8, 2012.

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