The good news is that more low-income Americans report they have access to vehicles than they did a decade ago, before the Great Recession.

Only 20 percent of adults living in poverty in 2016 reported that they had no access to a vehicle. That’s down from 22 percent in 2006, according to a Governing analysis of U.S. Census data. Meanwhile, the access rates among all Americans was virtually the same (6.6 percent) between those two years.

The bad – or at least, unsettling – news is that even a subtle shift in car usage could have big impacts on transit ridership and other transportation policies, and public officials are still trying to determine how to respond.

“What it does is it reduces our productivity,” says Joe Calabrese, the CEO and general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority. “If we have 40 people waiting at a bus stop and one of them gets a car, we still have to send a bus. But [the reduction] impacts public perception. Everyone likes to see full buses.”

Calabrese says transit agencies around the country have started seeing noticeable ridership drops in both rail and bus services. In Cleveland, they’ve considered a number of factors that could be causing those decreases, including lower gas prices, the rising number of people living downtown (instead of commuting), and the growing number of people telecommuting instead of driving to work. But the shift in auto ownership could also be a factor, he says.

In February, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) said increasing car ownership, particularly among lower-income residents, was likely the biggest factor in declining transit ridership in southern California.

“We focused on the larger L.A. region,” says Evelyn Blumenberg, one of the authors of that study and a UCLA urban planning professor, “but it’s clearly true for the U.S. as well. Even for households with incomes less than 50 percent of the federal poverty level, the number of no-vehicle households is down.”

 

 

Income  2006-2016 Difference 2016 Without Vehicles 2006 Without Vehicles
Living in Poverty -2.05 19.96% 22.02%
101-200% above poverty line -0.83 10.57% 11.41%
201-500% above 0.17 4.06% 3.89%
More than 500% above 0.42 2.54% 2.12%
All Adults -0.07 6.63% 6.70%

Figures represent percentages of persons age 18+ without access to any vehicles.
SOURCE:
Governing calculations of 2016, 2006 U.S. Census American Community Survey microdata from IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota. There are a number of factors that are likely contributing to the upswing in vehicle ownership and access. And each of those could present different challenges for policymakers to address.

First, a brief increase in the number of zero-vehicle households after the Great Recession disappeared by 2016, as the economy improved.

“There was a big debate when [the rise of zero-car households] first started happening: Is this the economy or is this a fundamental shift?” says Sarah Jo Peterson, an urban planner and transportation consultant in Washington, D.C. “With what’s happened in the last two years, it’s pretty clear it was the economy. The collapse in car-free living is literally across the board throughout the country.”

The only three states where the gain in zero-car households did not disappear (or the data isn’t conclusive) are Illinois, Nevada and Washington.

And Americans are finally driving more. It took U.S. drivers six years to drive the same amount of miles per year as they had at the beginning of the recession in December 2007. But the number of vehicles miles traveled has been steadily increasing for five years now.

That means the U.S. is “reverting to the norm,” when it comes to car use, says Peterson.

“The country is becoming more car-oriented, because the country is moving south. If you’re moving from transit-oriented cities in the Northeast and moving to Texas, you’re going to become more car-oriented,” she says.

Urban planners who want to push for walkable neighborhoods and transit-oriented development can still make a compelling case for certain areas, particularly urban centers, she says. “What they don’t have is wind at their backs.”

The rise in car ownership also demonstrates how important it is for planners to consider the needs of suburban residents and others who live or work in areas that aren’t well-served by transit, Peterson adds.

Another big factor in the increased access to cars for lower-income residents appears to be easy access to car loans.

The amount of auto loans has increased for six and a half years, “thanks to record-high levels of newly originated loans,” according to the Federal Reserve Board of New York.

Auto sales hit record highs in 2016 and remained high last year despite a small drop-off. Those sales also put more used cars on the market, which made them more affordable.

Car dealers have been trying to move those off their lots, often by lowering prices or offering loans with longer pay-off periods. That’s led to an increasing number of sub-prime loans, particularly from auto financing companies (rather than banks).

New loans from auto lenders made up a quarter of new auto loans as recently as 2015, the highest they’d been since the recession. That’s leveled off since then, but delinquency rates (9.7 percent) for those subprime loans are at their highest levels since the recession.

The flurry of activity around subprime auto loans has grown so much that representatives from the major credit bureaus had to reassure lenders at an industry conference last year that there was no “bubble” in the market, and that auto loans don’t pose the same threat to the economy as subprime mortgages did.

But cars are also easier to get than a house, loans or not. “Most low-income households are not taking out loans to buy a car. They’ll pick up a car from a friend or get one from Craigslist when they get an influx of money, like a tax refund,” says Blumenberg from UCLA.

Getting a car can be an economic boon for poor residents, she adds, which is why advocates have tried for years to develop programs that would give poor families access to vehicles.

“Research shows there’s a very strong relationship of having a car and likelihood of getting a job. For lower-income households, it’s really beneficial to have access to a car,” Blumenberg says. “The question is: Do the benefits of having a vehicle outweigh the costs? It’s expensive to own and operate a vehicle. Transit for riders is relatively cheap.”

Peterson, the urban planner from Washington, D.C., also cautions that policy makers often look at how expensive it is to own and operate a vehicle, when, in many cases, it can be quite cheap.

Family members pass around cars to other family members, even in well-off households, she says. So a person’s income may not be the most important factor in whether they can get a car; their household income may matter more. A middle-age parent might buy a new car early, so that they can give their old car to a child who just got a new job. And that kid may only put enough money into repairs to “keep it from blowing up,” Peterson says.

Another factor that is likely leading to higher car ownership rates by low-income residents is the migration of poor families to the suburbs, where housing is cheaper but transit service is spotty or nonexistent.

“It’s definitely much more challenging to rely on transit in suburban environments. Whether you’re low-income or not, you’re more likely to have cars, because it’s the only way to survive,” says Blumenberg.

She says that’s one reason urban planners, who tend to promote transit, need to think differently about how to approach suburbs than dense urban centers. In the suburbs and in car-friendly cities, it may make sense to encourage families to only have one car, rather than two or three, to reduce air pollution and traffic. But encouraging them to become a zero-car household would be unreasonable. 

At the same time, the fluctuating ridership numbers of transit agencies shows how they are subject to outside forces, some of which have to be addressed by other agencies. Cities, for example, can encourage transit ridership to job centers downtown by cutting down on cheap or free parking.

“Transit ought to be focused on areas where transit works best,” she says. “We have to do something about our policies related to driving. The burden can’t only be on transit agencies.”

Governing Data Editor Mike Maciag contributed to this story.

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