Tag Archives | auto dependency

The plight of the auto-dependent motorist

A discussion of the “auto dependent” and “choice” motorists.

In many public transit circles, a distinction is made between “choice” and “dependent” or (“captive”) riders–the latter being those users of transit who don’t have other options (particularly the automobile) at their disposal, and the former being those who do. This dichotomy is often criticized, for various reasons, including:

  • Its a false dichotomy which does not accurately characterize the complexities of choices available to people. Many people find transit more suitable for some trips and driving for others (and walking for others still), and act accordingly. In addition, there is the matter of the “transit dependent by choice”–those who have the ability (financial and legal) to drive but choose not to own a car, and thus are at the mercy of the local transit authority–are they “choice riders” or not?
  • It may encourage inequitable behavior by transit agencies, such as neglecting the needs of dependent riders rather than treating them like valued customers. At a minimum, there is tremendous pressure for transit agencies to focus on attracting new riders, which can lead them to take their existing ones for granted.
  • It promotes “auto-normative” thinking and the “desperate or dedicated theory”, framing public transit as a manifestly inferior solution–something which is only selected either as a mode of last resort, or one which represents an altruistic sacrifice of some sort on the part of the user. Of course, many public transit offerings are demonstrably inferior to driving (from the point of view of the user)–but in some areas the reverse is true.

And with the last bullet in mind, it is useful (as an intellectual exercise, if nothing else) to invert the usual assumptions—thus this article is about the “two types of motorists”: auto-dependent ones, and choice drivers.

The plight of auto-dependency

A dependent driver is one for whom there are no reliable travel options other than the automobile–i.e. one who does not reasonable access to public transit and is forced to drive (or ride in) an automobile to get anywhere, particularly for longer distances for which walking is impractical. A choice driver, on the other hand, is one who has good access to transit, but drives anyway. (There are also the auto-dependent-by-choice; those who could afford to live in transit-friendly places like the Pearl, but instead choose to live in transit-hostile neighborhoods, like, say, Cooper Mountain).

Many of the transit critics who read this blog probably are scoffing right about now, and consider this whole discussion preposterous. Even some transit supporters probably are having a good chuckle right now, and wondering to themselves if there might be medications I forgot to take. And–such auto-normative thinking can be forgiven; especially in the United States. The US has spent the better part of a century promoting the automobile–culturally, economically, and politically–that driving a car is ingrained into most Americans’ thinking. And for the linguistically inclined, the word “automobile” contains the Greek stem “auto”, meaning self–a prefix also found in other words like “autonomous”, “autodidact”, and “automatic”. To many, having a car means independence, not dependence–it means being able to travel at a time that suits you, rather than at a time that suits the transit agency.

Independent of what?

However, this notion of automotive independence is dependent on a whole lot of things. It’s dependent on a massive network of paved roads connecting the vast majority of developed places in the land, as well as quite a few undeveloped locations as well. Without this network of pavement, many types of automobiles would be impractical, as would high-speed travel. It depends, likewise, on a massive fuel distribution infrastructure that provides cheap gas at convenient locations–pipelines and shipping terminals, military force to defend these, refineries, fuel trucks, and gas stations. Were this not there, modern gasoline-powered equipment simply would not run. (Other power sources may still be tractable). And it depends on the existence of other automotive industries–auto parts, towing services, and repair shops, most notably. During the early history of the automobile, it was commonly expected that those who could drive cars should also know how to fix them; it wasn’t until a critical mass of automobiles were on the road that professional auto repair became a lucrative industry. (In some parts of the world, this is still the case).

Automobile independence also assumes that one can drive. There are many people who cannot–due to age, physical disability, or having the privilege revoked by society.

That said, the US has, in the vast majority of the country, the necessary infrastructure to make driving convenient. We’ve got the millions of miles of paved roads, the gas stations and pipelines and refineries and fleet of tanker trucks. We’ve got car dealerships and repair shops in every town, and the world’s biggest military. And we’ve got an aggressive lobby that makes sure none of this is threatened.

The economics of getting places

The economics of transit vs the economics of auto ownership also play a part. Driving a car has several barriers to entry: You have to be able to afford the up-front capital costs to buy one (or qualify for financing)–even clunkers aren’t cheap–and you have to be able to license and insure yourself (or else break the law). Many of the costs associated with automobile use are fixed–if you have a car, you pay for insurance, license fees, taxes, and a good part of the depreciation regardless of whether you drive it or not. Car-sharing services can mitigate the expense somewhat, but not completely. Transit, on the other hand, has a very low barrier to entry for users–you only pay for what you use; and most systems provide volume discounts to frequent riders of some sort or another. Thus, its a lot easier to be priced out of car ownership than it is to be priced off the bus. Unless, there is no bus.

That was now. This is later

With all that said, there are very good reasons to be concerned about maintaining the automobile infrastructure into the future; and very good reasons why auto dependence is a problem for the poor today.

The Portland area has, over the years, seen a shift in poverty from inner-city neighborhoods to neighborhoods further flung out. It wasn’t that long ago that inner neighborhoods like Albina had bad reputations (partially due to legitimate crime and poverty statistics, partially due to racist attitudes)–nowadays, the poor are more likely to be found in places like Rockwood, Aloha, King City, or south of Lents. Close-in real estate is generally expensive in Portland. And the denser parts of town are where the best transit service is. Rockwood and other parts of SE are reasonably well-served by transit (with MAX lines and parallel frequent service lines); but some of the poor neighborhoods in Washington and Clackamas Countys are not. And looking beyond the region–quite a bit of poverty to be found in the country is in rural areas, where transit (even of the bare-bones variety) simply does not exist. In many of these places, people are truly auto-dependent–there is no other option.

And if you’re poor, owning an automobile is an expensive proposition. A 2003 study by the Surfact Transportation Policy Project found that on average, Americans spend 20% of the household budget on transportation; a figure that for the poor, balloons to over 40%. And this was nearly a decade ago, well before the days of $4/gallon gas. The study also found that a major contributor to transportation expense was sprawl–denser cities had lower transportation costs that sprawled-out ones. A report in California found that poor families who drove spent 19% of their budget on transportation, whereas poor families which used transit only spent 2% of their budgets on transportation. And a recent report based on data released by the Oil Price Information Service shows that fuel costs are approaching 9% of the average household budget.

If you live in area without transit service, this is like an additional tax, and a regressive one at that.

Obviously, active transportation (walking, biking, etc.) is another alternative. Most of us can walk, and many who can’t afford automobiles can afford bicycles (which do not need fueling). But the areas in which one is most likely to find auto-dependency, are frequently areas which are inhospitable to pedestrians and cyclists: rural communities with narrow roads and no sidewalks; suburbs where the distance from the home to even the most basic services is measured in miles; and places with busy and dangerous highways. In some parts of the country, there remains political and cultural resistance to active transport–bikers (other than children), in particular, are perceived as weirdos who have no business being on the roads. In many auto-dependent neighborhoods, one finds a double-whammy: no transit, and biking/walking are simply not resonable alternatives. (The transit-dependent are more likely to have good human-powered options available).

And my fear is–things are going to get worse. A big reason I’m a transit supporter is not because I’m hostile to cars (I do drive; though my household is a low-mileage one); but because I’m terrified that sooner or later, the US is going to get the stool kicked out from underneath it. Not by domestic policies demanded by the local green crowd; but by continually rising oil prices (as production gets more difficult, and emerging powers such as China and Brazil start to drive more and increase their thirst for oil), and a decaying infrastructure that we seem to have more and more trouble maintaining. And that’s ignoring the environmental consequences of fossil fuels. The nation is dependent on cheap oil, and my suspicion is that this dependency will come back to bite us hard.

For those of us who live in areas with good quality transit, the transition will be painful (oil prices affect all sectors of the economy, not just personal transport), but the pain will be mitigated. But for the unfortunate auto-dependent motorists, it will be quite a shock.

And then this post won’t seem so ridiculous after all.