You’d think it’d be a good thing to hear that more lower-income households have access to cars than before the Great Recession of the 2000s. However, those rising rates of car ownership come with a high cost – aside from the obvious ones like increased traffic or environmental impact. It turns out that as more people ditch public transportation for their own vehicles, it becomes more and more difficult for local and state governments to sustain their transit budgets. Is it time to re-think our transportation priorities, or long past time?
According to an analysis of U.S. Census data conducted by Governing.com, only 20% of U.S. adults living in poverty reported not having access to a vehicle in 2016. In 2006, that figure was 22%. Overall, vehicle ownership rates among all Americans regardless of income level have remained constant at around 6.6%.
Joe Calabrese, the CEO and general manager of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority, says the largest impact is on public perception of public transportation. “What it does is it reduces our productivity. If we have 40 people waiting at a bus stop and one of them gets a car, we still have to send a bus,” Calabrese told Governing. “But [the reduction] impacts public perception. Everyone likes to see full buses.” As politicians and members of the public see empty buses or other forms of public transportation, it leads to calls for budget cuts and less availability of public transportation in general.
Car ownership is built in to the American concepts of independence and individuality, but those ideals come at a great cost. Given how expensive owning a car can be, wouldn’t we all be better off with a greatly expanded public transportation system? Of course, and politicians know it too. The reasons why some leaders would want to stifle access to public transportation aren’t too difficult to see. What’s it going to take to shift public perception?