Study: Carlessness drives incomes down

By Chet Edelman

New York City has its share of income disparity problems. However, in terms of transportation, at least parts of New York stand out as places that live up to the idea of providing equity through multimodal choice. A new paper by David King of Arizona State University and two co-authors finds that residents of Manhattan suffer no economic penalty if they lack a car. In the rest of the country—and even in the more suburban borough of Staten Island—that’s not the case.

To assess the value of household vehicle ownership, the paper compares change in real incomes between households with and without vehicle access. Over the last half-century, the share of vehicle-less households in the United States has dropped considerably, from 20 percent of households in 1960 to 10 percent in 2015. At the same time the economic penalty for not owning a car has increased. Between 2000 and 2015, for example, vehicle-owning families experienced a 1 percent increase in earnings while those without a vehicle experienced a 7 percent drop.

In Manhattan, with great multimodal accessibility to destinations, a lack of vehicle access was not associated with a decrease in household earnings over time. However, in Staten Island, the most suburban of New York’s five boroughs, households without vehicles have seen their incomes fall in a similar fashion to the rest of the United States.

With America’s autocentric development patterns, cars may be regarded as “essential infrastructure,” the authors conclude.

In this view, to live up to equity goals adopted by many cities, regions, and states, transportation agencies would need to add billions of dollars to already unmet infrastructure needs in order to provide vehicles to those who cannot obtain them. Of course, more compact, mixed land uses and varied transportation modal options could reduce this cost.

Chet Edelman is a Project Assistant at SSTI.