I have to admit, I’m a little late to the party on this one, as the academic research publication, “The Poverty of the Carless: Toward Universal Auto Access,” by professors David King of Arizona State University, Michael Smart of Rutgers and Michael Manville of UCLA came out about 18 or so months ago. But in reviewing it again recently, some facts still resonate.
An article in Automotive News (“Self-driving startup tackles food deserts,” Sept. 14) prompted me to think that the more light that is shown on studies such as “The Poverty of the Carless,” the better, and that this academic treatise did not get the attention it deserved in the auto industry at the time.
The article stated, “Overall, 9.2 percent of housing units in the U.S. do not have a vehicle, according to the Economic Research Service.”
While helping folks get food in poverty-stricken, “food desert” neighborhoods is a commendable goal and outcome, it is a very limited attempt to treat a symptom; it’s not a cure. Why not immediately identify and reach the root cause of the problem today? Treat the problem — that is, why there are such things as “food deserts” (and “employment deserts,” and, indeed, the poverty of the carless) in the U.S. in the first place — by focusing on getting affordable, privately owned transportation to those who need it.
Some salient quotes from “The Poverty of the Carless” report:
“Some of the greatest costs of living without a car … arise because in most places, most people do have cars, and everyday activities thus assume the presence of a vehicle. … For this reason, the long-range goal of helping most not-poor Americans drive less needs to be paired with a shorter-range goal of helping some poorer Americans drive more.”
“Between 1960 and 2014, the U.S. poverty rate fell from 24 percent to 14 percent. For households without vehicles, however, the poverty rate slightly rose, form 42 percent to 44 percent.”
“Households without vehicles are falling further behind households with vehicles and are poorer in absolute terms today than they were 60 years ago.”
“Auto access is the starkest transportation disparity in most of the United States. People without automobiles cannot access employment, complete errands or generally move around in the same manner as the vast majority of fellow residents.”

These facts predominate in literally every area of the U.S., except four of New York City’s five boroughs (Staten Island, which is more spread out, mimics the rest of the country).
So while it’s nice to think that public transportation solves poverty caused by the lack of a personally owned vehicle, the facts prove it has not and does not to any great degree. Nor do new ride-hailing and ride-sharing alternatives that have simply taken the place of taxis, with the costs being equally out of reach to poor people to use on a consistent basis.
While an autonomous-vehicle solution as presented in the article could help in the distant future, it is unrealistic to solving this massive problem for many, many years to come.
While this may not be what some folks want to hear, the conclusion of the academic study seems a logical solution: “We have a small group of people who need vehicles and lack them, and a large group who have vehicles and use them needlessly. A just and sustainable society would help the first group drive more while encouraging the latter group to drive less. Our status quo instead suppresses driving only by denying it to some of the people who need it most, even as it tacitly encourages low-value trips by the affluent.”
Indeed, I see tons of ink today on future-city mobility planning, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles, shared vehicles — all developments positive for the future progress of society. However, I think it’s time some attention was paid to doing something right now to help alleviate the poverty that the lack of a privately owned vehicle irrefutably creates.
Facilitating a program that provides a process for private ownership to lower-income households that do not have vehicles would speak to this immediately. As this research study suggests, this would do more to alleviate the “poverty of the carless” and the reality of things such as “food deserts” than any AV delivery service today or in the near future. That’s because it helps solve the underlying problem of poverty, not the symptom of the problem (lack of access to supermarkets).
Our company is working with dealers to help to facilitate private vehicle ownership to those who need it most through our “pay as you go” program, and I am working with investors to begin to solve this problem.