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We Need to Start Thinking About Transportation Like We Do Food or Housing

As poverty rises in American suburbs, all those people still need to get to work in the city.
Seattle. (Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr)

Seattle. (Photo: Tiffany Von Arnim/Flickr)

If you’re struggling in the United States, some programs can help. You can sign up for cards to help you pay for groceries, vouchers to help you with rent, and tax credits or Medicare for health insurance. Mostly, however, you can’t get help paying for your car, gas, bus fare, or train fare.

“One thing that’s pretty incredible, if we start to think about it, is that transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service,” says Alexandra Murphy, a sociologist who studies poverty at the University of Michigan. “Even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

This week, however, saw the launch of one of the U.S.’s largest-ever subsidized bus-fare programs. King County, a Washington State county that includes Seattle, will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3. Other U.S. cities will watching closely to see if the program works, the New York Times reported.

"One thing that’s pretty incredible, if we start to think about it, is that transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service."

There are a number of barriers that cities face in building programs like King County’s. Transportation budgets are shrinking, and setting up a system that’s resistant to fraud is hard. But the problem extends beyond money or logistics. It’s entrenched in how transportation departments see themselves, experts say. Fixing it may require a whole change in vision—but could be a big help in a time when more impoverished Americans than ever live in the suburbs, away from city centers where jobs are concentrated.

“Transportation agencies don’t often have a poverty mission at their core like health and human services agencies do,” says Scott Allard, a public affairs researcher at the University of Washington. Providing lower-than-average fares “has typically not been in their mandate,” says Howard Chernick, an economist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute of Research on Poverty.

Human services departments may be reluctant to take on transportation because of liability issues that don’t exist with food and housing, Murphy, the University of Michigan sociologist, thinks. What if someone driving a subsidized car gets into an accident? “It’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into,” she says.

Yet Americans need transportation help more than ever. There are now more Americans living in poverty in the suburbs than in urban areas, a reversal that happened sometime in the 2000s. Although the proportion of American suburbanites who are impoverished is still lower than among American urbanites, the rate of growth of the poor in suburbs is higher than in cities or rural areas.

“It’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into.”

The shift is happening for a number of reasons. Some people get priced out of gentrifying cities, such as Seattle and San Francisco. In other areas, formerly middle-class families that owned houses in the suburbs have become poorer because of the recent recession. In addition, as housing-help programs have shifted away from building projects toward giving out vouchers, some families that qualify for vouchers have chosen to live in the suburbs for the safer neighborhoods and better schools.

What this all means is that many of those who earn the least now live far away from jobs, services, and other things they need.

Will programs like Seattle’s help? It’s too soon to say, although Murphy notes how you will be able to tell. Any little bit helps, of course, but the proof is in “whether it will make people more mobile or make them take trips they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

Meanwhile, there’s another change that would make a difference: Extending public transportation routes, which are normally concentrated in city centers, would be a big boon for suburbanites who can’t afford to maintain a car. But for a cash-strapped transportation authority, it can be a hard sell to extend routes to areas where, by definition, potential riders are fewer and farther between.