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The Transportation Barrier is Keeping Many Americans in Poverty

Last updated: February 19, 2018
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Driving – and driving well – takes a great amount of skill and muscle memory which must be learned through practice. Luckily, there is an American institution designed to help people learn how to drive once they come of driving age: driver’s education classes. Unfortunately, as state funding for driver’s ed has dried up, many lower-income teens and minorities are being priced out of learning how to drive, greatly restricting their social mobility and putting them at greater danger on the road.

For decades, driver’s ed was offered through public school systems, meaning it was made available to all thanks to federal and state funding. In recent years, however, a variety of economic hurdles and government cutbacks have made it so driver’s ed is no longer available for free to all as it once was. In many areas, driver’s ed classes can cost as much as $800 — the national average is $500 — meaning driver’s education is now out of reach for many low-income families. With about half of all Americans living paycheck to paycheck and 12.7% living in poverty, many families just aren’t able to set aside the money to pay for driving classes for their teens.

Who exactly isn’t able to take driver’s ed and get their license? As you might expect, race and economic factors play a significant role. According to a 2013 AAA study, while two-thirds of white teenagers get their license by the time they turn 18, only 37% of black teens and 29% of Hispanic teens get theirs. Furthermore, teens from households with an annual income of $60,000 or more have a 72% likelihood of getting their licenses before turning 18, while those from households with an annual income of $20,000 or less only have a 25% chance of doing so.

Of course, a lack of driver’s ed can lead to serious safety issues. And not surprisingly, those who are most economically disadvantaged (and likeliest to be priced out of getting proper driver’s education), are more likely to die in car crashes than those who are better off financially.

“The fact is that in areas where driver education has died, more teens have died,” James Aubrey Solomon of the National Safety Council told

No wheels? That makes it a lot harder to get a job, attend college, and climb the proverbial “ladder”. The average American commute is now up to 26.6 minutes as of the latest 2016 data, and not knowing how to drive makes it difficult to land a quality job.

Just take a scan of job listings on Craigslist and see how many of them list having a driver’s license as a requirement. The fact is that even if a job doesn’t involve driving, many employers simply won’t hire someone who doesn’t have a license.

“These days, positions use a driver’s license as a proxy for whether you’re employable,” Julie Kerksick, a senior policy advocate at Public Policy Institute of Community Advocates in Milwaukee, said in an interview with The Atlantic. “It means that there’s fewer and fewer people in the pool of unemployed who can actually qualify.”

To make things worse, transportation options in low-income areas have been decreasing in recent years, and for some perhaps surprising reasons. Access to transportation is linked with economic ability, meaning many low-income communities now face a significant transportation barrier which holds many Americans back from rising out of poverty. 

A 2013 study authored by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety found that only around 54% of American teens get their driver’s licenses before age 18, while just 44% of teens obtain their licenses within 12 months of becoming eligible for a license. With costs of driver’s ed rising, obtaining a license is no longer an option for many low-income families. While it might seem like this might lead more low-income families to use public transportation or ride-sharing services, data show that the poor are increasingly underserved by transportation infrastructures.

Decades of research have shown there is a clear link between transportation and poverty. Low-income areas often have fewer access for public transportation, making it much more difficult to rise out of poverty. Lengthy commutes and inconvenient public transportation can mean more missed job interviews or access to fewer job opportunities, and data show that the longer the average commute is in a particular county, the lower the chances are of a low-income family in that county climbing the economic ladder to escape poverty. This “transportation barrier” means that low-income families often miss more appointments and have a far more difficult time accessing healthcare.

Even new ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft are failing the poor. The median income of Lyft and Uber riders is $91,000, and given that only around one third of U.S. adults have access to a smartphone, Lyft and Uber can’t exactly be called easily accessible services for low-income commuters. A study by the Eno Center for Transportation found that Uber and Lyft might even reduce transportation options in low-income areas through creating monopolies:

While some of the services might provide a dramatic improvement in underserved areas, these benefits may not equally apply to all income ranges. Lower income travelers that do not have access to a smartphone or cannot afford the new services might be left worse off as the traditional transit services they rely upon lose market share.

What’s more, a 2016 study conducted by researchers from MIT and Stanford University, shows that people of color face much longer wait times and experience more frequent cancellations when using ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft. The companies might try as they may to eliminate discrimination and make their services available for all, but the fact is that individual drivers’ minds are not easily changed.

Ridesharing expert Harry Campbell, who runs, said he believes “there’s a lot more that Uber and Lyft could do to serve the poor.”

“A lot of the incentive programs that Uber and Lyft offer to drivers typically require drivers to stay in certain areas of town so accepting rides out of the outlined areas actually hurt a driver’s income since they then have to drive back into a bonus zone. Those bonus zones are typically areas of higher socio-economic status,” Campbell told us. “It’s a delicate balance for Uber and Lyft since obviously they need to ensure enough drivers are in the places of highest demand but in a way, they’re incentivizing drivers right now in big cities like Los Angeles to stay away from the poorer areas.”

Between decreased access to driver’s ed, insufficient public transportation, and the fact that ride-sharing apps can have negative consequences on transportation access, low-income communities can face a seemingly insurmountable transportation barrier which can exacerbate poverty.  This transportation barrier is one of the more overlooked issues facing low income communities and families, and calls for decreased government spending will only make it worse. It can be far too easy for the more fortunate of us to forget that access to transportation options is not universal.

Could expanding transportation options be the catalyst to making the U.S. economy work for all Americans?