Cars, Costs, and the Working Poor

Before I started this blog, but during my time in Riverside, I spent a time working as a cable TV installer for our local cable company. My wife was going to school at RCC during the time, as well as working at a local fast food joint. We had a roommate who lived primarily on disability. We were living at about 130% of the federal poverty line. We lived paycheck-to-paycheck, and sometimes fell behind on that.

Why do I bring this up? It’s about transportation, of course. Back then, what really killed us was unpredictable expenses. We could keep a roof over our head, food on the table, and the lights on, but a large and unexpected bill would really hurt. And, at the time, we were relatively car-dependent. So probably the most frequent large, unexpected bill we received was the bill from the mechanic. We mitigated this to an extent by trading favors with car-handy relatives, but car parts are still expensive. As anyone who has suffered through driving an old, failing car, every strange noise under your hood sounds eerily similar to the sound of money draining from your bank account.

It is this experience that informs why I think that transit and active transportation are much better tools for enhancing the mobility of the poor and working-class. Yes, both transit and cycling have costs, but they aren’t the same as the costs of driving. Transit has extremely predictable costs, even if it can sometimes get pricey for long-distance commutes. (A monthly Metrolink pass from Riverside-LA will run you a cool $352. New York’s 30-day Unlimited MetroCard is $104.) Cycling has extremely low costs, although they can sometimes be unpredictable. Neither one is likely to approach the cost of even some relatively simply car repairs. And I guarantee that, given the choice between a $600 car and a $600 bike, the latter will be a much more reliable vehicle.