Re-thinking Social Justice

Some time ago I blogged about the “Wheels to Wealth” conference, which postulated that auto ownership is a key rung on the ladder out of poverty.

I’ve been mulling that one ever since, and I’ve come to a tentative conclusion:

Car-free by choice is great thing, because it means that you’ve managed to organize your life in a way that keeps the essentials (including employment) in walking, bike or transit range.

Car-free by necessity is an injustice, and probably means you don’t have a lot of choices.

I’m not necessarily going as far as to say we should help folks buy cars (I’ll keep thinking about it). But I’m thinking we should spend more time worrying about making places where all the essentials are closer together, including better job-housing balance in different parts of the region.

So I’m a bit less skeptical about the thesis of the conference.

7 responses to “Re-thinking Social Justice”

  1. You hit the nail on the head, Chris, in so many ways. As someone who’s been involved with both homelessness and poverty as well as land use issues, I wholeheartedly agree that land use is potentially the key factor.

    “Car-free by necessity” probably also includes lots of other “-free by necessity” realities. Providing places where people can get the services they need, find the jobs that will sustain them, and have contact with their friends and community seem essential to enabling the reduction of poverty.

    A big reason that allowing these choices in a setting where a car is not the calalyst is because cars cost a lot of money to operate. So, does a family choose to buy gas or food? an oil change or school clothes? a safe set of tires or [insert non-auto necessity here].

    If the family isn’t in a position to even make these choices: Does the community prioritize funding services that buy gas or food? oil or school clothes? etc. When a car isn’t a basic need, we can focus our safety net on the fundamental services such as housing, clothing, and food that are the real predictors about a person’s ability to get and sustain a job.

    I firmly believe that providing affordable housing options in a community where work, play, and services are within a walk, bike, or bus ride, provides our most needy with the greatest opportunity to lift out of poverty.

  2. Ditto from me. I’ve worked it out so I don’t have to drive at all. I’m working to GET RID of my car as soon as possible. It’s harder than I thought without eating a loss of a few thousand bucks on the car. But Chris – that is very very true. If someone IS moving up in the world and hasn’t fit themselves into a good fit with transit and all, it is better to have a car. But once a pattern and good income is found it should be relinquished totally or to the point of just “weekend trips” of some type.

    I however do not think the Government should be involved in any way to “subsidize” auto transit, or any group should put forth the effort. I’ve noticed a lot of Libertarians (against Government spending) are pushing this car asistance for people and I just don’t get the opposing idealogy there. It almost sounds like a lot of these people are just pro-car and anti-transit than Fiscal Responsiblity. Somebody would have to pay for it and it would be more of a drain than NOT doing such. We’ll bankrupt whatever funds we have left for transportation in no time. Cars are by far the most expensive form of transportation – hands down. They’re already extensively subsidized by road manufacturing etc. American’s spend about 15% of their income on a car – not smart really – where as if we include ALL of the taxes we pay AND the ticket price of mass transit it’s cheaper out of pocket any day. I don’t see how this is going to help the lower income people. Sure they’ll be able to get to work faster, at an increased cost. So if they’re making minimum wage they’re sunk. They’ll never get ahead and are in essence stuck in an arbritrary form of slavery.

    Anyway… interesting point you bring up. Nice to know others have thought it thru besides just me. :|

  3. This is an interesting theory. I have to be honest, As a woman of color who has lived below the poverty level for most of my life at first glance I thought”This theory was created by someone who has the priviledge to sit around and think way too much.” I did not drive until I was in my 30’s mostly due to economics but there were also other reasons. My experiences with cars have been :1.I would buy a car that I could afford to get with a tax refund, so it would be in the $1,000 range( which generally meant it needed a lot more money to maintain) Because I was low income I didn’t qualify and/or couldn’t afford a better one. The insurance rates for someone new to driving were high and many times I found myself having to make tough decisions about making the insurance payment or feeding my kids. It’s not being poor that makes life suck,it’s knowing that when it comes to resources you are constantly attempting a balancing act.
    The real issue for me when I was a welfare mom was
    the way people looked at me when I spent food stamps in the grocery store. It was the waiting in a long line at Safeway with everyone else cashing their check and spending the little bit of cash I had on a taxi to take home a month’s worth of food with two toddlers in tow.It was knowing that my life experience was different than others because of my situation. I bundled my trips out of necessity. Looking back not having a car granted me a level of peace I never feel as a driver. What is needed is accessability! More buses , lightrail and local businesses so we can walk, ride our bikes and not more pollution. It’s not too late for us to plan more wisely.Adding more folks to the congregation that prays to the God of oil is not the answer.My only other thought is that I wonder how many low income folks came up with this idea. To this I would truly like to know.

  4. I think it is good to look at the whole picture.
    Anyone’s glorification of being car free is sort of like the parable of the blind men and the elephant: None of them ever see the whole picture. E.g. “Car-free by choice is great thing, because it means that you’ve managed to organize your life in a way that keeps the essentials (including employment) in walking, bike or transit range.” This would be a great ideal, to be car less (but could we make an exception for old, restored rods?) and one I have sometimes emjoyed. But, sans car, might one’s job somehow link to some other aspect of consumerism–which in turn promotes or depends upon private autos? In other words we ususally unwittingly are linked in a chain of activities.

    I tried to keep a distance from waste and consumerism by working in a vocation that provided a lasting product–carpentry. I think this was an honorable choice. But even in that decision I have found that, ironically, I need a vehicle because my jobs are far away and I have to take equipment with me. Many of the lifestyles that people think are environmentally friendly may have numerous negative consequences that are secondary. Simply the flood of more individuals into the service sector will contribute to the demand for fossil fuel use–as their offices and businesses demand to be heated and cooled. I am hoping that this pattern won’t spill over into the developing, “Third” World. Their transportation activities–and other activities–will need to be resource and energy conservant.

  5. Jeri, thanks for the response. There’s no question but that I think to much :-)

    And I will readily cop to the fact that I have not been in a situation where my choices were severely constrained by economics.

    Like you, my preference is for access, not mobility. But are there not situations where someone who cannot afford a car may not be able to get to a job location, or get a child to affordable day care on the way to work, because the access was missing locally? I’m very interested in your perspective on the reduction in choice that may come from not being able to afford some forms of transportation.

  6. Not to get off on a rant here, but this is but one more example of the negative impacts of our auto-dominated transportation system. And, it’s one of the least discussed, I think.

    From my discussions with people of all walks of life, I’ve come to the conclusion that people really don’t “love” their cars. What they love is access, even if they don’t state it in those terms.

    The bulk of our transportation needs could be handled nicely without the need to drive, had we made some different land use and transportation choices years ago. Instead, the freedom promised by the automobile has created a myriad of roadblocks for those who do not or cannot own a car.

    To add a wrinkle to the day care example, I have heard from colleagues who work in the Human Services world that there are many day-care providers that will not accept children unless their parent has a car. The reasoning behind this is that people using transit may not have the ability to pick their child up before closing time. So the parent is penalized for not owning a car whether they have the means to or not.

  7. One more thing…

    I ran across the following report from the Brookings Institute today that attempts to quantify transportation costs as an element of a given neighborhood’s affordability. Basically, what they found is that there is a significant increase in overall affordability when reliance on the auto can be reduced. I think most of us would say “duh” to this, but now we have a tool to put some facts behind the common sense.

    The report uses seven neighborhoods in the Minneapolis/St. Paul region as examples. But it also states that the necessary datasets are available in 42 other cities to plug into their formula. Portland is one of those cities. Is there a local effort happening regarding this? Perhaps Metro’s TOD group could take this on?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *