Study shows access to a car helps poor much more than public transit

A study released this week by professors from UCLA and the University of Massachusetts shows that low-income households who were given access to a car tended to choose to live in higher-opportunity neighborhoods, and as a result, those households realized greater economic security.

One news story on the study summarizes its findings:

Families with cars in the Moving to Opportunity program were twice as likely to find a job and four times as likely to stay employed, a finding that’s consistent with another common reality for the low-income: Unreliable transportation is one of the primary reasons why they lose their jobs. Both car and transit access had a positive effect on earnings, although the effect was much larger for car ownership.

One of the primary goals that The Rapid touts as a reason for its existence, and a primary emphasis of its supporters, is that of social justice. They believe that low-income individuals deserve a publicly funded transit system to help them find jobs and reach those important things we all need: a visit to the doctor, going to the grocery store, etc. Yet this study finds that public transit doesn’t help the situation nearly as much as access to a car.

One of the authors sums up the study’s conclusion:

The importance of automobiles arises not due to the inherent superiority of driving, but because public transit systems in most metropolitan areas are slow, inconvenient, and lack sufficient metropolitan-wide coverage to rival the automobile.

We’ve pointed out over and over than system like the one that The Rapid employs, where very large (mostly empty) buses follow fixed routes, the service is necessarily slow, inconvenient, and lacks sufficient coverage of the metropolitan area. We’ve consistently advocated smaller vehicles and more dynamic routes, such as those offered by jitneys, as an alternative to offer more responsive service.

But The Rapid has doubled-down on its fixed-route strategy by installing the $40 million Silver Line, with an even greater fixed footprint that has no option of changing its route without significant additional cost.

And if you think about it, this conclusion just makes sense. No one is going to spend 40 minutes on the bus to go a few miles to work when they have the option to drive or carpool and spend less than half that time. That is, unless you have no other choice. So while the existing public transit system provides that basic service for those who need it, the system isn’t the best way to accomplish this goal. It’s a pretty inefficient way to do it. And to bring the existing bus system up to the level of service where it could offer such a high level of service would cost billions of dollars.

Being able to go where we want is a basic need for those who wish to fully participate in the opportunities of society. Being limited to only going where the bus goes necessarily limits opportunity. We support innovative transit options that don’t limit people. The Rapid only supports limited transit options and then attempts to force people into those options. We think that’s bad public policy, and this recent study shows that The Rapid is wrong.