Denver, Featured, Randal O'Toole, Transportation

Downwardly mobile: How anti-car "smart growth" hurts the low-income

“Automobiles tend to be ignored in [sustainability] planning efforts,” says a new study. Yet “automobiles are important to achieving many elements of the sustainability agenda because they are associated with improved access to high-opportunity and more livable neighborhoods,” especially for low-income families.

This isn’t really news. Back in 1997, researchers at UCLA wrote, “Car ownership is a significant factor in improving the employment status of welfare recipients.” In 1998, Yale economist Katherine O’Regan and UC Berkeley economist John Quigley wrote that helping the poor means “promoting the mass transit system that works so well for the nonpoor–the private auto” (see pp. 20-25). In 2003, a Harvard researcher found that, for low-income people, owning a car was more important to gaining a steady income than having a high school diploma.

icon_blog_noteWhat is significant about the new study is that several of its co-authors are from the National Center for Smart Growth. Both of these groups have traditionally supported smart-growth plans. When smart-growth researchers tell planners that ignoring (or worse, disincentivizing) automobiles in their plans is bad for low-income people, we can only hope the planners will listen. They certainly didn’t listen to the other researchers listed above.

As the studies lead (or at least first-named author) told the Washington Post, “the dominant ideas have been about improving and investing in transit. . . But I think we have to be able to talk about cars, too. It’s puzzling to me that we can’t.”

It’s not really puzzling to me. Planners are middle-class, and while they support the idea of helping low-income and working-class families in theory, in practice they don’t really like such people. Too many of them are tea partiers, and even the ones that aren’t don’t fit into middle-class neighborhoods: they drive big trucks, eat red meat, and wouldn’t be caught dead at a Whole Foods.

Urban planning today is about rebuilding cities to look the way the upper-middle class wants them to look, and that means pretending the lower classes don’t exist or will happily adopt high-density lifestyles that minimize auto use. The idea that reducing congestion and increasing auto ownership will help people out of poverty just does not fit in to that point of view.

I once calculated that giving every carless low-income family in the Denver area a new Toyota Prius would be both cheaper and more likely to reduce poverty than building one light-rail line. When I pointed this out at a light-rail debate, the head of Denver’s transit agency responded, “We can’t give poor people cars. It would cause too much congestion.”

In short, for too many planners, reducing auto driving is more important than reducing poverty. I would suggest that their priorities are mixed up, if only because reducing auto driving will increase poverty which in turn will reduce public support for urban planning.

Randal O’Toole directs the transportation policy center at the Independence Institute, a free market think tank in Denver.  This piece originally appeared in his blog, The Antiplanner.

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