The Right to Mobility

As we consider how to decarbonize transportation, preserving mobility, especially for lower- and middle-income people, must be a priority.

6 minute read

January 26, 2023, 8:00 AM PST

By Angie Schmitt


Chicago Commute

f11photo / Shutterstock

A short story published in the New Yorker in 2007 really drives home the power of mobility to change and improve people’s lives.

The story is called “Nawabdin Electrician,” and it’s about an electrician who lives in rural Pakistan. (The author, Daniyal Mueenuddin, is Pakistani-American.) The story’s protagonist, Nawab, has 12 daughters and is entrepreneurial, determined to raise enough money for their dowry.

His life is changed when he convinces his boss to buy him a motorcycle (he previously conducted business by bicycle). The motorcycle changes his life by increasing the range of customers he can serve. And it allows him to come home to dinner with his wife and 13 children (he has one son) each night.

Nawab is so attached to the motorcycle that when a stranger with a gun tries to steal it, he fights back and is shot four times in the legs. As he’s being treated in the clinic for his injuries at the end, he feels no regret, just pride, at having defended it.

Mobility is a bit of squishy topic, maybe that’s why it sometimes gets lost a little bit in online discussions among sustainable transportation advocates. Compared to Pakistan and a lot of developing countries, we have a relative wealth of mobility infrastructure and resources in the United States. But, of course, it’s unevenly distributed and the stakes, especially for lower-income people, can be very high.

Research by Harvard Economist Raj Chetty found commute times—a measure of access—were the key factor predicting a person’s ability to rise out of poverty.

The biggest mobility disparity we have in the United States is between people who have cars and people who don’t. A lot of research has investigated the impact of carlessness on a household’s economic fortunes; they consistently find it to be enormous.

Research by Arizona State Urban Planning Professor David King noted that as of 2013, households with cars had on average three times the income of those who did not. That outcome is due primarily to the car orientation of the built environment, King finds, because the disparity is not found in the New York City metro area (where land use and the transport system are much less car oriented than the nation at large).

“In New York City, you are not punished for not having a car, whereas in just about any other city, you will be economically harmed by not having a car,” he told a university publication in 2019.

Furthermore, King’s research found that as the U.S. built environment became more car centric in recent years, the income disparity between households with cars and households without had been worsening.

Mobility disparities will only become more important as we see a widespread suburbanization of poverty in the United States and continued migration to the extremely car-dependent Sun Belt region.

Some research has already found that those living in the “middle-third” type of suburb with moderate transit access but long car commutes—those who may have been priced out of closer-in areas with better transit access—had the lowest incomes and highest unemployment.

For a long time in the United States, traditional transportation engineering used congestion as sort of a proxy to measure mobility (to the extent we tried to measure it all). We became very good at measuring congestion and spent loads of money trying to eliminate it, with mixed success. But congestion isn’t a very good proxy for the kind of mobility challenges faced by lower-income people. That sort of performance metric arguably increased disparities by focusing narrowly on reducing delays for highway commuters. Highway commuters—those who can afford expensive reliable cars—have the greatest mobility in the United States.

Mobility for people who don’t fit the norms of who we typically design for in the U.S. (i.e., able bodied, middle-aged workers without children) is more complex. The University of Minnesota, however, has contributed a valuable innovation to the process of quantifying and measuring accessibility.

The comparisons of job access clarify the disparities between transit and cars in the United States. In the Cleveland metropolitan region (which ranks in the top 20 for transit access), for example, only about one in three jobs is accessible to the average resident within a 90 minute transit trip.

Still, we have an imperative to reduce car use to avert climate disaster. In part because of the reasons mentioned above, transportation has proven the most difficult sector to decarbonize.

Online discussions about decarbonizing transportation usually include heated debate about what share of emissions reductions will result from vehicle electrification and efficiency improvements and what share will come from behavior change. IPCC estimatd that 20 percent (page 142) of reductions would come from strategies aimed at “avoid[ing] and shift[ing]” trips (from driving to transit, for example) to avoid the worst outcomes of climate change.

That being said, some of us who are most active in transportation reform discussions—myself included—are relatively blessed with transportation options, making it easy to get carried away with dogmatic rhetoric.

The benefits of increased mobility are diverse, making them difficult to measure. Something like being able to eat dinner daily with your wife and 13 kids is hard to quantify. That’s partly why the importance of mobility is sometimes under stressed in a lot of online activist spaces. But the benefits of diverse mobility options are something the general public and politicians are acutely aware of. If we are too dismissive about those benefits as we struggle to resolve some of the root problem—car-centric planning—advocates risk alienating people and struggling to build a coalition.

We cannot lose sight of how car centric our environment is in the United States and how dependent on cars vulnerable people often are. Research from UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs finds, for example, that only about 5 percent of neighborhood in the nations can be classified as “old urban”—the kinds of environments that best support multi-modal transportation.

And it’s important to keep in mind that not all declines in car use are objectively good—they can be very painful and come at a high toll for personal well being.

For example, a measurable decline in driving among young people around 2009 was interpreted by activists (myself included) as a sign of a wider shift away from car culture. But UCLA research investigated the reason and found the biggest cause was an increase in unemployment among lower-income youth. Unemployment is not how we want to achieve better environmental outcomes, which is why we need to be very thoughtful about how we structure policies aimed at achieving reductions in vehicle trips.

We really don't have any climate policies that seek to limit vehicle use at all. But we shouldn’t be too dismissive about the possibility in the future. Preserving mobility for low-income people in a very, very car-oriented system is not an easy task, and it will require us to negotiate serious tradeoffs compassionately.

Angie Schmitt is a writer and planner based in Cleveland. She is the author of Right of Way: Race, Class and the Silent Epidemic of Pedestrian Deaths in America (Island Press, 2020). She is founding principal at 3MPH Planning, a small Cleveland based firm focused on pedestrian safety.

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