By Michael Brenneis
Many areas of the country are not well served by public transportation, resulting in households without access to a personal vehicle being significantly disadvantaged. In such areas, travelers may rely on a combination of ride-hailing services, informal car-sharing and ride-sharing, and even medical transport, or they forgo trips altogether. A lack of transportation options can keep people from getting to work, accessing essential services, and make gathering necessities difficult.
According to a new study done in California, about 9% of U.S. households do not have access to a car. Car ownership rates are lower among certain groups, including racial minorities and those who are low income, disabled, or living in rural areas. According to the Federal Highway Administration, roughly 30% of the population is not licensed to drive.
In California, travelers from carless households still take about one-fourth of their trips by car, with 90% of those trips being made by carpooling—often borrowing cars or getting rides from friends and family, or coworkers. Ride-hailing and car sharing services are also important to the mobility of carless households. Not owning a car does not necessarily reduce the financial burden on these households because the alternatives can also be expensive. And while those without cars may save money by turning to transit, biking, and walking, they often have to navigate hazardous locations lacking proper sidewalks, crossings, and bike facilities.
In Alabama, one-third of respondents to a recent survey indicated a lack of transportation as the top cause of their unemployment. For a state with 120,000 open jobs and 60,000 people receiving unemployment benefits, according to the article, improving transportation access has the potential to bring roughly 20,000 people to full employment.
Considering the burdensome reality of private car ownership and environmental benefits of lowering car use, increasing mobility without increasing the number of private vehicles stands as an equitable, climate conscious goal. Options such as informal carpooling and mini-bus fleets could be operated from within communities to serve their particular transportation needs, while public transit, car-sharing programs, and other transport services could be better coordinated to fill mobility gaps.
Long travel distances and decades of outward growth exacerbate the mobility issues faced by those without cars. It’s a perverse economic cycle: households are pushed farther from concentrated development, away from jobs, services, and necessities in order to find affordable housing–resulting in fewer transit options, spread-out destinations, and higher transportation costs.
Programs that focus on equity and engage directly with communities are essential to bridge the transportation gap encountered by those without car access. Many respondents to the California study expressed a preference for solutions that don’t require car ownership. They also wished leaders could have some direct experience with being car-free and make decisions that centered the needs of those without cars.