Dense Housing to Boost Transit Does Little for Lower-Income Workers

Published April 12, 2012

One of the most frequently recurring justifications for housing densification policies (smart growth, growth management, livability, etc.) lies with the assumption that automobile-based mobility disadvantages lower-income citizens. Much of the solution, according to densification advocates, is to discourage driving and orient both urbanization and the urban transportation system toward transit as well as walking and cycling.

There is no question that lower-income citizens are disadvantaged with respect to just about everything economic. However, there are few ways in which lower-income citizens are more disadvantaged than in their practical access to work and to amenities by means of transit, walking, and cycling. The impression that lower-income citizens rely on transit to a significantly greater degree than everyone else is just that—an impression.

Reliant on Cars

This is illustrated by a compilation of work-trip data from the five-year American Community Survey for 2006 to 2010. In the nation’s 51 major metropolitan areas (more than 1,000,000 population), 76.3 percent of lower-income employees use cars to get to work, three times that of all other modes combined.

Admittedly, this is less than the 83.3 percent of all employees who use cars for the work trip, but a lot more than would be expected, especially among those who assume transit is the principal means of mobility for low-income citizens. Overall, eight times as many lower-income citizens commute by car as by transit.

In this analysis, lower-income citizens are defined as employees who earn less than $15,000 per year, approximately one-half of the median earnings per employee of $29,701.

90-Minute Trips

Perhaps most surprising is that only 9.6 percent of lower-income citizens used transit to get to work. This is not very much higher than the 7.9 percent of all workers who use transit.

Transit’s small market share has to do with its inherent impracticality as a means of getting to most employment. According to groundbreaking research by the Brookings Institution, low-income citizens could reach only 35 percent of jobs in the major metropolitan areas by transit in 90 minutes. In other words, you cannot get from here to there, at least for most trips.

It is no more reasonable for lower-income citizens to spend three hours per day commuting than it is for anyone else. A theoretical 90-minute one-way standard is no indicator of usable mobility. It is likely that only about 8 percent of jobs are accessible by lower-income citizens in 45 minutes and 4 percent in 30 minutes.


Among the major metropolitan areas, lower-income citizens use automobiles to get to work most in Birmingham (90.6 percent). Fourteen other metropolitan areas have lower-income automobile market shares of 85 percent or more, including Charlotte, Detroit, Dallas-Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Kansas City, Louisville, Memphis, Nashville, Oklahoma City, Raleigh, San Antonio, St. Louis, and Tampa-St. Petersburg.

As in all things having to do with urban transportation, there are two Americas: New York and outside New York. By far the lowest automobile market share for low-income citizens is in New York, at 49.3 percent. The second-lowest lower income automobile market share is in San Francisco-Oakland, at 63.1 percent. Washington and Boston are also below 70 percent.


It’s not surprising that New York has by far the highest transit market share. However, New York’s lower-income transit market share is only marginally higher than its market share among all commuters, at 31.5 percent, compared to 30.0 percent for the entire workforce.

San Francisco-Oakland had the second-highest lower-income transit market share at 16.8 percent. Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington were also above 10 percent. The lowest transit market share among lower-income citizens was 1.1 percent in Oklahoma City.

Automobile and Transit Metrics

The difference in automobile commuting between all employees and lower-income employees turns out to be surprisingly small. The least variation is in Birmingham, where the automobile market share among lower-income commuters is 4.3 percent below that of all commuters. Charlotte, Kansas City, and Nashville also have lower-income market share variations of less than 5 percent.

The greatest variation is in Los Angeles, where the automobile market share among lower-income commuters is 14.7 percent less than for all commuters. The lower-income automobile market share is also at least 12.5 percent below that of all commuters in Baltimore, New York and Portland.

Oklahoma City has the most lower-income automobile commuters in relation to transit commuters, with 81.3 times as many lower-income commuters using automobiles as opposed to transit. In Birmingham, Nashville, and Raleigh, there are more than 40 lower-income automobile commuters per transit commuter.

In contrast, the number of low-income automobile commuters in New York City is 1.6 times that of lower-income transit commuters. Outside New York, there are 11.0 times as many lower-income automobile commuters as transit commuters.

Access to Cars

Concerns about the automobile-based urban transportation system excluding lower-income citizens are misplaced. Despite all the hand-wringing, America’s lower-income population has considerable access to cars and far greater mobility as a result.

It is no more than a figment of planners’ imaginations that lower-income citizens would be best served by constraining car use and trying to force them into transit service that more often than not is circuitous, slower, and often impossible for access to work.

Wendell Cox ([email protected]) is a Heartland Institute Senior Fellow and author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life (2006). Used with permission from, where a fuller version appears.