Getting From Here to There

In the suburbs, car ownership is practically a necessity.

Broken down car in the suburbs.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

In Suburban Slide, the Better Life Lab explores the changing face of poverty in the United States and how the symbol of American prosperity became the new place of poverty. In a six-part series, we explore what this means for Americans’ work-life conflicts and American identity in general.

The American suburbs were built with the almighty car in mind. And Safi Abdulkadir remembers keenly what happened when her lifeline to managing her work and life in the suburbs—her car—broke down in 2017: “I got an interview for the work-study job the same day my transmission died. I knew I’d miss the interview if I took the bus.” With the clock ticking, she figured the bus would take two hours one way. And she worried she didn’t have the money for a taxi. “I was worried about overdrafting my account and didn’t have anyone else to call—my husband and neighbor were at work.” Abdulkadir called Cornerstones, a local social services agency that provided her with money to cover her taxi ride to the interview.

In many ways this was a best-case scenario. She got the job, which she sees as a stepping stone to an eventual career in cybersecurity. But balancing work and care responsibilities without the car was tough: “I was without a car for two months while my husband drove to work. I had to commute between Loudoun and Fairfax two hours each way. Grocery shopping is hard when you have to carry food for seven [people] 15 minutes walking home.” And all things considered, the distance between Fairfax and Loudoun isn’t necessarily “far.” But while only the next suburb over, there’s little infrastructure in the way of public transit that crosses county lines. Her IT classes are only 5½ miles away—what is a 15-minute drive for most American suburbanites with cars is a 2½-hour walk or bus ride for someone without.

A Somali immigrant, Abdulkadir and her family moved to Herndon, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, in 2010. Abdulkadir worked in IT, soldering and repairing motherboards, before becoming a stay-at-home mom to kids now ages 8, 10, 12, 15, and 16. “I have five kids, and income was tight, so I decided to find a job but wasn’t able to, partially because I couldn’t work and balance child care for five—sharing caregiving with my husband, or paying someone else to do so.”

Policies such as the 1990s Moving to Opportunity, or MTO, for Fair Housing program gave public housing residents vouchers to move to “higher opportunity” areas. The concept, however, implies people can live and work in a place that provides them with a good income, access to schools, and other services. But the reality of our suburbs is that jobs (good or bad) and schooling are often concentrated in commercial zones where people who need them most may not live. Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro says that what he’s working to address in his home state of Texas, he also saw in communities across the country—be it outside Dallas or in rural Wisconsin: “People couldn’t get to their jobs, or even if they wanted to go find a job, it was very difficult for them to get there because they were so far away, and if they didn’t have a car, it’s not convenient.”

Elizabeth Kneebone, co-author of Confronting Suburban Poverty in America, suggests cars are especially important because of the mismatch the suburbs represent: “There are more poor people but also more jobs in the suburbs. In cases where low-income people are more proximate to jobs, that’s a good thing. But as people and jobs have suburbanized, they’ve gotten further apart. Suburbs that have seen growth in poverty often aren’t the same as those where jobs are growing. The spatial mismatch between where the jobs are and where workers can afford to live is greater and more complicated.”

Most Americans, including three-quarters of low-income people, have a car. Cars are especially important for people living in communities geographically spread out. What rural communities have long known about the necessity of a car to economic stability is also true for suburbs. In her research, sociologist Alexandra Murphy found families who had moved from central cities to the suburbs making trade-offs: They may have felt safer in the suburbs, but long distances made getting a job and accessing social services difficult. While some valued trading mobility for safety, others eventually moved back to the city or area with a central bus line.

Most of the information available that could be helpful in crafting policy and other supports for regional planning is limited to two points: average commute times and whether you have a car. Both are associated with economic opportunity; Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren suggest shorter commutes are correlated with greater economic mobility, and suburban sprawl with white flight and segregation (and it’s insidious effects). A 2014 Urban Institute study of families participating in the MTO program suggests that families with cars are better able to find housing in areas of better environmental and social quality. However, that doesn’t tell us about the precarity of the transportation situation.

What happens when your car breaks down? Can you afford repairs? According to urban planning expert Evelyn Blumenberg, cars play an important role in helping households get and hold on to jobs and to live in better quality neighborhoods. “The tricky part is that having a car can be expensive. If you’re a poor household in the suburbs with a car, it can be expensive and difficult to buy, hold on, register, insure, maintain—puts a burden on a household,” suggests Blumenberg.

The question is whether the benefits of a car offset the costs. This is especially true as a work-life issue, since caregivers—predominantly women like Abdulkadir—often need a car to “trip chain.” According to research by Nancy McGuckin and Elaine Murakami, women are more likely than men to trip chain, or group tasks like groceries, child care pick up, and other housework, on their way to and from work.

Sociologists Alexandra Murphy and Alix Gould-Werth hope to solve these problems with a transportation security index they’re developing to illuminate what families like Abdulkadir’s do when that used car they just bought breaks down.

Public transportation is a far-off dream, since it’s imperfect and declining in cities, let alone in the suburbs. So in addition to building out bus, rail, and bike options, transportation may be largely an income problem—making sure people earn enough to get to the jobs they have now and build a financial cushion for that dead transmission. A large share of Abdulkadir’s money goes to gas. She imagines moving to Woodbridge—a further suburb of Washington, where gas might be cheaper. “I’m now taking two classes, looking for a job, taking my kids to after-school program. It gets crazier to manage with age!”