Car commuting trend shows that urbanism is only “good” when it serves all classes

There have been several reports and articles over the past few years that have shown positive trends for good urbanism in America. For just a few examples, see Christopher Leinberger’s “The Death of the Fringe Suburb,” Forbes Magazine’s “Downtowns: What’s Behind America’s Most Surprising Real Estate Boom,” and a Scientific American report on “peak sprawl.” All of these paint an encouraging picture of the way we develop our urban areas and suggest a more sustainable future.

But in the midst of all of this, our national car dependency seems to be not only unwavering, but worsening. According to, the latest ‘Commuting in America’ report shows that commuting solo, by car, is more popular than ever (graph above): “The percentage of Americans who commute by driving alone has actually risen since 2000 (largely at the expense of carpooling).” Read the full article here: The utter dominance of the car in American commuting

Why the rise in car commuting? Affordable cars for low-income households

The probable reason for this trend in solo car commuting, according to the article, is the affordability of cars:

“Auto ownership is more accessible to lower-income households. While they still own fewer cars — and walk, bike, or take transit to work in much higher numbers — their commuting habits are becoming more and more similar to wealthier workers’.”

It’s a difficult thing to argue against; in a nation where car-dependent suburbs are seeing a continual rise in poverty, the availability of the transportation mode that those suburbs were built around seems like a win. I can’t say “stop all that driving” to the low-income people of America who need cars to safely navigate the car-centric places that they are increasingly occupying – places that are often deadly for pedestrians.

But isn’t public transportation cheaper than owning a car? Sometimes

Public transportation is usually faster and cheaper for someone like me who lives in Downtown Atlanta, as long as I’m headed to a destination that’s near a bus or train stop. But for people who live in the middle of car-centric sprawl, which is difficult to serve well with bus routes, cars are comparatively a safe, affordable and speedy solution (and often the only choice). 

And that’s the problem: I can afford to make a choice to live in a dense, walkable urban neighborhood that’s near a train station, a streetcar and several bus routes. And there is certainly a great deal of affordable housing in Atlanta that is near MARTA. But there are many low-income people who understandably move into the sprawling fringes of our region where the availability of cheap housing is higher than it is in the city center.

Planning a more inclusive urbanism

We need to make sure that there are affordable housing choices in a form that is easily served by existing or planned public transit. The boom of car-centric sprawl happened during a time when it was expected that poor people would live in apartments or small homes in the city where transit is available, while the subdivisions of the suburbs would be for a higher economic class that would depend on cars.

The failure of that type of class-based, exclusionary zoning and planning has bitten us on the butt, as we are now left with sprawling regions that have to serve the working poor, who can’t just catch a bus to work in that setting. 

Trends in good urbanism are only going to be “good” if the resulting environments can serve all economic classes. We can’t only build walkable, compact places for the wealthy and expect sustainability to follow. There’s nothing sustainable about a rise in solo car commuting in a growing population.