New Pilot Study on Low-Income Car Ownership Released

New Pilot Study Initiative Aims to Increase the Mobility of Low-Income Workers in Portland through Auto Ownership

Cascade Policy Institute has released a report unveiling a pilot project to examine the feasibility of promoting low-income auto ownership as a transit strategy.

The report, Pilot Study Initiative to Explore the Transportation Needs of the Low-Income Population in the Portland Tri-County Area, was written by Sreya Sarkar, Director of the Wheels to Wealth Program at Cascade Policy Institute.

The pilot project promotes the formation of a committee to discuss the feasibility of creating an auto loan program for the low-income population in the Portland tri-county area to assist in meeting the complex transportation needs of this demographic group.

This program will be funded using the savings that would come from the cancellation of the lowest performing TriMet bus routes.

The goal of the Wheels to Wealth Project is to disseminate information to policy makers and the public regarding the positive role private car ownership plays in creating and strengthening economic opportunity for low-income and welfare dependent people. In Oregon, limited bus routes and schedules contribute to the transportation and employment challenges facing the low-income, transit-dependent population.

If this auto loan program is implemented (through a 3rd-party social service agency), it will improve the mobility of low-income households and workers whose transportation needs are not exclusively met by fixed bus routes. The program would increase its participants’ employment opportunities, thereby helping to raise their incomes. It also likely would increase TriMet’s total ridership and raise the fare box recovery rate.

TriMet recovers approximately 21% of its operating costs from passenger fares. Subsidized car ownership can help improve TriMet’s bottom line by allowing the agency to eliminate its lowest-performing (highest-subsidized) bus routes, thereby freeing up capital to be redeployed in areas where consumer demand is greater.

TriMet is dependent on private car ownership for the so-called “last mile” of service from the transit stop to the customer’s front door. If TriMet helps some of its lowest-income bus riders become car owners, many of them may continue to be transit riders by driving to TriMet parking lots and using the train to commute to jobs that were previously unavailable to them.

Energy consumption for the average automobile trip in America is now less than for the average transit bus trip (3,549 BTU per passenger-mile by car, versus 4,160 for a bus transit trip). Canceling low-performing routes that consume a lot of energy will improve the overall transportation fuel economy for the region, lowering emissions and saving money.

Many low-income transit passengers work at jobs that either have odd shifts (e.g., starting at midnight) or involve “reverse commutes” where road capacity is not a problem. Converting a few hundred of these trips from bus to auto will have no effect on congestion in the region.

The Wheels to Wealth proposal recommends initiation of a three-year pilot study to explore the possibility of including auto ownership as a means of incorporating the “working poor” into the regional transit system.

The total population composition of the Portland area has changed substantially in the last five years. According to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2000, 8.5% of families and 13.1% of individuals in Portland were below the federal poverty level. In 2005, 11.8% of families and 17.8% of individuals in Portland were below the poverty level. The demographic group known as the “working poor” is also growing in Portland.

While it may be counterintuitive to think of a subsidized car ownership initiative in the form of a car loan program as a “transit strategy,” it is clear that there would be benefits to TriMet, its transit-dependent riders and the general public from testing this concept.

Owning a car can make a huge difference to the neediest families in Oregon. Cascade hopes that encouraging assistance for low-income car ownership will lead to changes in various transportation and welfare policies that would benefit more people at a comparably lower cost.

Cascade urges TriMet to partner with Metro, the DEQ and other stakeholders to explore the feasibility of testing the idea on several of its lowest-performing bus routes over a three-year period.

For more information on this pilot project and the Wheels to Wealth Program, please contact Sreya Sarkar.