Sunday, April 6, 2014

Contrarianism gone wild: the over-hyping of a study about car access and poverty

It's good to consider different ideas and opinions that go against the usual thinking. But it really helps when those different ideas have at least an ounce of common sense or consideration for why they are not widely accepted. This recent study and article by Rolf Pendall, et al, is one such example. The authors found that housing voucher recipients who owned cars were more likely to retain employment and have better outcomes than recipients without cars. Not a terribly surprising or interesting result when considered in context as a correlation. But the authors seemed to have decided to get more juice out of it by slapping a controversial title on an article, "How Access to Cars Could Help the Poor", and then somehow implying that their study produced that result (while mincing words in the actual text). They also sucked in a journalist who really ought to know better, Emily Badger.

What's so bad about creating more car subsidies for the poor? Well, if you don't think any further, then it might be hard to find an objection. But anyone with a moment's thoughtfulness should ask this question: What about the young, the elderly, and the disabled?

Pushing and subsidizing cars just leads to worse conditions for the people who cannot drive; the people who are most often harmed by automobile-oriented policies. This so-called "solution" coming from Pendall and Badger is simply inequitable. Furthermore, it completely ignores the fact that we already give A LOT of subsidies for car ownership in this country, as it is. Cheap gas, cheap parking, free highways, etc. How is it possible that more subsidies are going to help? And what is the plan to help those who cannot drive at all?

Just look at what happens in other countries that accept subsidies and promote car ownership. It's more stark in countries that are not as rich as the United States, and where corruption rules. Mass motorization in the developing world is leading to nightmarish congestion, a hideous death toll, choking amounts of smog, and growing population that is being excluded from opportunity because they do not have a car or are unable to drive. Trying to force more cars onto people just exacerbates all these problems.

Deep in Pendall's article is buried this paragraph that walks back the headline assertion:
More research is needed to determine if the relationship is causal or associative, that is, whether the car is the catalyst or if there is something deeper at work, of which the car is simply one manifestation. Cars are expensive to purchase and to maintain, even more so for families with severely limited resources. A low-income household that is somehow able, inclined, or afforded the opportunity to buy a car might also do many other things to get ahead. Motivation, opportunity, or both could be key.
Well, guess what. It doesn't take a genius to realize that a family stranded in an automobile-oriented environment is going to benefit from an automobile. But the cause of that problem is the automobile-dependency of their neighborhood. And nothing you do to promote car ownership, or even car access, is going to help the third of our population here in America that simply cannot or should not drive.

Advocates trying to help people lift themselves out of poverty will no doubt consider all sorts of means. In some cases, that might include helping people gain access to vehicles. But it would be the incredibly irresponsible to lean on a general policy that depends upon getting everyone into a private vehicle. First, and foremost, it excludes a large segment of the population. Second, it is very expensive, a burden on both parties. And finally, it does not solve the actual problem: it is just a band-aid for the distressingly inhuman public space and transportation policies of the past.

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