To me, one of the most frustrating recurring notions that comes up when talking about transportation policy is the idea that bad policies that subsidize auto commuting over all alternatives is a handy way of helping out the poor. What people don’t understand is that, in reality, car ownership rates are much lower among the poor than they are among the non-poor. It’s common sense when you think about it — cars are expensive and poor people don’t have a lot of money. Consider this chart of car ownership rates by ward in DC:
Part of what’s going on here is that Ward One and Ward Two are well-served by transit and are close to downtown so it’s convenient for a lot of people to walk to work. But if you compare Ward 3 to Ward 8 the difference isn’t that Ward 8 is better-served by transit or better-located. On the contrary. The difference is that Ward 3 has the fewest proportion of poor people of any ward whereas Ward 8 has the most. And not coincidentally, Ward 7 has the second-most. Poor people, being poor, often can only afford to live in inconvenient neighborhoods that are ill-served by transit. But being poor they often also can’t afford to buy cars. Consequently, they’re just out of luck. The progressive move isn’t to keep subsidizing cars, but the reverse — to use congestion charges and performance parking fees to raise funds that improve the quality of service on the bus lines that poor people rely on.
Beyond the inconvenience bad transportation policy poses to those too poor to own cars, it takes a substantial economic toll on poor people who do have cars. Car ownership among the poor, for one thing, tends to be an on-and-off kind of situation because you’re talking about buying crappy, unreliable cars and you may not have the funds necessary to repair or replace a vehicle when it breaks down. Meanwhile, you have people taking on debt to afford their car and/or investing what little capital they have in a depreciating asset, both of which make it difficult for the working poor to translate their income into wealth. Ultimately, this should all be pretty obvious. Everyone understands that cars are expensive — the most expensive consumer item normal people buy. Subsidizing an activity that requires you to own one and making everyday life extremely difficult for most people who don’t have one is especially hard on poor people.