Sunlit Water

July 9, 2009

Bichidi Adin

Filed under: Transportation — by teofilo @ 9:24 pm

In the course of discussing congestion tolling and responding to the frequent complaint that measures like this to make driving more expensive will, in places that are extremely auto-oriented like most of the US, have a disproportionate effect on poor people who have few options other than driving, Ryan Avent notes one fact that gets surprisingly little attention in arguments like this: cars are expensive.  So expensive, in fact, that the really desperately poor can’t afford them at all, and the somewhat less poor end up spending huge amounts of their meager income on financing car purchases, often on extortionary terms.

Moreover, this is not something that depends much on the nature of the transportation infrastructure or the availability of alternatives.  A car doesn’t necessarily cost exactly the same amount of money in DC as it does in Raleigh, but from the perspective of a poor person it’s going to be extremely expensive in either place.  So expensive that a lot of poor people simply are not able to buy one, and they end up taking public transportation, which is a hell of a lot easier in DC than it is in Raleigh.

If Raleigh were to significantly improve its public transportation system, however, by using the revenue from congestion tolling or otherwise, it would become much easier for a poor person to live without a car there.  Which, again, isn’t really a choice; the poor person is going to be living without a car in either case, so whether there are tolls on the roads doesn’t have much direct effect on their everyday life.  Whether there is reliable bus or rail service, however, has a huge effect.

I think one of the main reasons this doesn’t get much attention is that people like this, who are very numerous, are nevertheless mostly invisible to the middle-class people (of whom, I hasten to add, I am one) who tend to do most of the talking.  The downside of tolling is obvious to a middle-class person with a car who lives in a place like Raleigh (or, say, Albuquerque) and drives everywhere, and it’s easy to assume that it’s impossible to live somewhere like that without a car, and that tolling will therefore impact everyone.  Since poor people have the least money, it seems obvious that they will be hit hardest.  And, indeed, many poor people do have cars and will be hit hard by measures like this.  But not all.

It is actually possible to live in Albuquerque without a car; I’ve done it, and I’ve known plenty of other people who have.  In certain parts of town, like where I lived, it’s not even that difficult.  In most of the city, however, including most of the areas where poor people live, it’s very difficult, and requires being hugely dependent on a notoriously unreliable bus system to get anywhere.  People still do it, though, because they can’t afford cars.

To take this argument to something of an extreme, I’d like to mention how this works in an area of the country that isn’t going to be getting any tolls roads or public transportation options anytime soon: the Navajo Reservation, which encompasses a huge area of rural New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  This area, basically the parts of the three states that meet at the Four Corners, has both a very low population density (that data is a little old, but these newer maps tell basically the same story) and a very high poverty rate.  In essence, this is a huge, sparsely populated, and very poor part of the country.

In a place like this, there’s literally no practical way to get around except by driving.  Under the circumstances, it would make sense for people to have cars.  And, indeed, most people do.  They aren’t good cars, in general, or new cars, but people do whatever they can to buy cars.  This generally involves going massively into debt to buy a used car that isn’t in very good condition and is likely to break down a lot but is all that they can afford.  Sometimes they can’t afford even that, and the car ends up being repossessed.  Unscrupulous car dealers in Reservation border towns like Farmington and Gallup take advantage of Navajos’ poverty and lack of education to massively rip them off on the financing terms in ways that can be either legal or illegal.  People fall into these traps all the time, because there’s not much else they can do.  They need a car.  It’s the only way they can get around.

One other thing about Navajos, however, in addition to being poor and living in isolated locations, is that they tend to have big families.  Frequently, therefore, more than one person in a family will need to regularly drive somewhere, for work or other purposes.  If the family can afford to, they will generally buy as many cars as they need, but many (perhaps most) families can’t, and they end up with fewer cars than they need.

How do they deal with this problem?  In a variety of ways.  If they can time their schedules right, different family members can share the same vehicle and use it at different times.  If this doesn’t work out, they can carpool, which generally results in huge increases in travel time.  If this won’t work and one family member’s need for the car is considered much more important than another, that person may get to use the car and the other person is out of luck.  If they feel like they really need to get somewhere, they may hitchhike.  If you drive around the Reservation for any significant length of time, you will see many, many hitchhikers.  If they can’t get anyone to pick them up, sometimes these hitchhikers will walk the whole way, even if it’s many miles in the blazing sun.  The experience of doing one of these walks is likely to make someone appreciate the importance of having a car.

The moral of this, to the extent that there is one, is really just that it sucks to be poor.  It especially sucks to be poor in an isolated rural area where buying a very expensive vehicle is the only option for getting around, even though it ultimately makes you even poorer.

It sucks to be poor in cities too, of course, but at least there you don’t necessarily need a vehicle the way you might out in the sticks.  If the city in question has a decent public transportation system, it makes it a lot easier to live there without much money.  If not, it sucks more.  Either way, though, the world looks different if you’re too poor to buy a car, and the advantages and disadvantages of different transportation policies are not necessarily the same as those for middle-class people who can easily afford cars.



  1. I’m curious about the feasibility of biking around the area you’re talking about. Off the top of my head, I’d guess it’s way too hot and way too far for most. But maybe?

    I tend to be skeptical of the “biking will save us all!” types, but there’s certainly opportunity for encouraging biking. Maybe not there, though.

    Comment by Stanley — July 10, 2009 @ 10:03 pm |Reply

  2. It’s way to far and way too dangerous for a bike. Plus, often no pavement.

    Say you live in the capitol of the Navajo Nation and you want to go to Gallup to get something at Walmart or Home Depot. It’s at least 27 miles each way, on a road where the cars and pickups are doing 65 and there’s really no shoulder. The accident rate on that road is fearsome for cars. Bicycles would be suicide. And, of course, more often the disances are more like 50 or 100 miles each way. And who can carry two weeks’ groceries or a few sheets of drywall on a bike?

    The nation does run some busses that I’ve seen in Gallup, but I don’t know anything about them. Hitchikers, yes, I see them all the time.

    Comment by Michael H Schneider — July 10, 2009 @ 10:33 pm |Reply

  3. In addition to Michael’s points (which are all totally correct), it’s too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter to make biking a reasonable option for the distances involved. Note that Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, is by local standards quite close to Gallup. In other parts of the Reservation there’s a lot less traffic, but the distances are much further. Easily 50 or 100 miles to town. Here at Chaco, for example (which is not technically on the Reservation but similar in most ways), the closest real towns are 60 miles away. That’s a lot of biking under the best of conditions, and conditions are by no means always ideal.

    Comment by teofilo — July 10, 2009 @ 10:43 pm |Reply

  4. Thanks for clarifying. I figured as much. Damn, that’s far.

    Comment by Stanley — July 10, 2009 @ 10:55 pm |Reply

  5. I always think of the scenes from Smoke Signals with the Navajo girls driving backwards everywhere cuz their ancient beater only runs in reverse…

    Comment by Adam Henne — July 12, 2009 @ 1:16 pm |Reply

  6. That’s a great scene, and it gives a good sense of the sort of thing I’m talking about in the post. The girls aren’t Navajo, though; the movie takes place somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, I think on the Spokane Reservation.

    Comment by teofilo — July 12, 2009 @ 5:34 pm |Reply

  7. Louise Lamphere had some good data on car use on the rez in To Run After Them and most of what she describes still holds in terms of the car being subject to kinship network obligations, hitchiking “posts” in Gallup and so on.

    Comment by Western Dave — August 21, 2009 @ 2:15 pm |Reply

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

%d bloggers like this: