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Universal Basic Automobility
Give poor people cars, not bus passes
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In one of his many media appearances to sell the Biden agenda, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg repeated a question someone had asked him, a question he really liked, on the subject of “what real development looks like. Is it where every low-income person has a car? Or is it wherever the high-income person would prefer to take the subway or the bus?” Buttigieg considers the answer self-evident. The person who asked the quote-worthy question certainly thought so too. As for the single mother of three who has been riding buses all her minimum-wage working life, she, too, knows the obvious answer: give me a car.

Fatima has no car; she rides the bus to work. She immigrated from a violence-torn country in the Global South five years ago. She settled in an East Coast city with pretty good transit and a reputation for welcoming refugees. (Identifying details have been omitted or changed because this asylum seeker fears for her safety.) Her journey to work involves a long walk to the bus stop on either end. It’s never easy. A minute late and she’s standing for half an hour till the next bus comes. Facing the prospect of another cold, damp New England winter out in the elements, she finds her mind and body “disturbed.” A free bus pass would be nice, but it wouldn’t make the journey any more pleasant. More frequent buses would help. The city has in fact been improving mass transit for several years; regional ridership hit record highs in 2019. Despite a pandemic-induced decline in ridership, the city expects to build on that progress. An initial study has been launched. It will take eighteen months to complete, followed by years of paperwork and construction (the plan has a thirty-year time frame). Meanwhile, Fatima can anticipate waiting for the bus winter after winter, each bringing with it a new round of mental and physical “disturbance.”

Fortunately, though, a friend is gifting her a car. Fatima’s enrolled in driver’s ed and says she’s gotten the hang of driving, although she’s yet to master parallel parking and is afraid to take the test until she does. (It’s never on the test, her immigration lawyer told her, but she remains unconvinced.) The friend bought a new car and plans to give Fatima their old one, though it’s not running right. Fatima will need money for repairs. And then insurance. And gas. And then for the next repair. She may get lucky, but people of limited means and poor credit who buy the only car they can afford often spiral downward. What Fatima needs is not a free bus pass or an automotive albatross. She needs—and wants—a reliable car.

Government should help her get one. That’s the apostasy reached by the academics and transportation planners I spoke with. These are people who have spent their careers studying and advocating for social justice in transportation. David King, for example, didn’t set out to call for subsidizing private automobiles, he told me. But King, assistant professor of geographical science and urban planning at Arizona State University, now argues that government should “work to close gaps in vehicle access,” clarifying that “planners should see vehicles in most of the United States as essential infrastructure.”

It’s not a new idea. Fifty years ago, Ronald A. Buel presented the notion of subsidizing automobility in Dead End: The Automobile in Mass Transportation. Buel had been a Wall Street Journal reporter before he entered politics in Portland, Oregon. As an aide to Mayor Neil Goldschmidt, and a leader of the grassroots movement Sensible Transportation Options for Portland (STOP), Buel played a critical role in defeating the Mount Hood Freeway. (In 1972, the thirty-two-year-old Goldschmidt became the youngest mayor of a major American city. At the age of thirty-nine, he became the youngest U.S. Secretary of Transportation ever; Buttigieg has since bested him by eighty-five days.) Dead End was a comprehensive polemic against every facet of automobility, but his chapter on “Social Justice and the Auto” recognized the value of subsidizing auto ownership. The transportation disadvantaged were “stuck in ghettos,” unable to reach their jobs. Buel considered a proposal he had found in an obscure corner of academia: the government would buy Volkswagen Beetles in bulk and provide them to the poor, teaching people to perform their own maintenance as well. According to Sumner Myers, then-director of Techno-Urban Studies in the Institute of Public Administration, the cost would be lower than providing mass transit. The poor could even use the cars as jitneys (think Uber without the exploitation). Used American cars “still in good shape” could fit the bill as well.

In 2020, Nicholas Klein of Cornell University conducted a review of the academic literature on what poor people gain from car ownership. A car gets people off welfare, increases school choice, and gives children more opportunities to participate in after-school programs, which boosts academic achievement. Food bills drop because price shopping groceries is easier; medical appointments are not missed. Families with cars find it easier to move out of high-poverty neighborhoods. Ironically, and contrary to conventional wisdom, raising the quality of public transportation often leads to gentrification, sending longtime residents to outer ring suburbs where the penalty for being carless is even more severe.

Why don’t we hear more often about this idea, which has been around for at least half a century and that the research data shows to be highly effective? The answer is that there’s a cynical game afoot in which center-left policymakers and their friends in the press use the poor as pawns. The poor are transportation insecure, they say. Cars are horribly expensive to buy and keep, they say. Poor people can’t afford them. We therefore need to spend public money on transit as a matter of social and racial justice. Buttigieg learned his analytical skills at the famed consulting house of McKinsey & Company, work he called his most “intellectually informing” experience. The entire premise of management consulting is to look closely at an organization and see it with fresh eyes. According to his husband Chasten Buttigieg, Pete works his DOT job nonstop. No doubt he could cut through the groupthink and orthodoxy around transportation; no doubt he could be the right man to transform mobility for the poor. If only he were to apply the consultant’s tools and modes of thought to the problem of transportation inequality, he, too, would conclude that giving out cars to poor folks is the logical and moral thing to do. But advancing such a simple, tech-free solution doesn’t quite mesh with Buttigieg.

The President in Waiting

One half of Mayor Pete’s brand is whip-smart overachiever: the son of Notre Dame professors, high school valedictorian, winner of the JFK Profile in Courage award for a high school essay celebrating Bernie Sanders, Harvard and Oxbridge Rhodes Scholar pedigree, pianist, and Arabic speaker. The press tells us he’s the youngest mayor of a major city the world has ever known! The second brand component is the millennial: comfortable in his own skin as an out gay man and always ready to give props to climate change activism. Alongside his technical chops, “there’s the moral and the historical thread,” as Jaime Fuller wrote in her 2014 Washington Post profile of “the most interesting mayor you’ve never heard of.” He’s a church-going Episcopalian war veteran who will do the right thing by the planet and for people in need.

What Fatima needs is not a free bus pass or an automotive albatross. She needs—and wants—a reliable car.

He clearly knows how to succeed. Media outlets began profiling him as the “front-runner” in the 2020 Democratic primary following a razor-thin victory in the shambolic Iowa caucuses. Did you know he was the first openly gay major party candidate for president? (Fred Karger, a 2012 Republican Party candidate, might claim that title, but he spent shy of $600,000 on his campaign, including a mere $72,000 in donations. Buttigieg raised, and spent, $100 million.) When they tired of this media circus, Bernie and Elizabeth Warren quickly dispensed with the McKinsey & Company alum. Consultants work for capital, not labor, they explained. But, as David Gellman, a political historian and professor at Indiana’s DePauw University, pointed out to me, Buttigieg knew he had no chance of going from mayor of a nothing city to president of the United States. “All he ever wanted was the national exposure of a cabinet appointment,” Gellman said when I reached him at his home three hours south of South Bend. “He got it. He won.” A cabinet post is another rung on the ladder to the White House.

Sarah Jo Peterson, a transportation planning consultant, agrees. The Department of Transportation is a sprawling bureaucracy with a massive remit. Gas pipelines and Amtrak, shipping ports and vehicle safety regulations, airlines and the Saint Lawrence Seaway, are all on Mayor Pete’s plate. It is an alphabet soup of agencies, most of which operate out of the public eye. The department’s most high-profile policy choices are around cars and mass transit.

Yet Buttigieg will expend none of his political capital to advance the paradigm shift in transportation policy that we need. Instead, he advocates policies that will lock in the unjust and climate-destroying transportation system we have today. Peterson points to the emerging consensus around Road User Charges, also known as mileage fees. Federal and state gas taxes have long funded road infrastructure. At the federal level, 20 percent of those gas tax revenues are diverted to mass transit funding. As motor vehicles have become more fuel efficient and politicians have generally refused to raise gas taxes, that funding stream is drying up. Hence the shift to Road User Charges. “I’m hearing a lot of appetite to make sure that there are sustainable funding streams,” Buttigieg told CNBC. “The gas tax used to be the obvious way to do it, [but] it’s not anymore.” A mileage charge, he said, “shows a lot of promise.” The White House immediately issued a correction: higher corporate taxes, not “user fees,” would cover the bill.

Peterson finds fascinating the consensus among the center left and center right around mileage fees. The appetite among highwaymen for dedicated funds is insatiable. The mass transit folks want their 20 percent cut, too. Both sides insist that the revenue generated from user fees should be spent on transportation and that restriction is enshrined in several state constitutions. “The change we need is not a fee on drivers but a conversation about how we fund transportation infrastructure,” she says, and “right now is our opportunity to have this conversation.” For his part, Buttigieg says we have a “generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure.”

Okay, Boomer

For Buttigieg, “generational opportunity” is less a call to action than an “Okay, Boomer” signal to the young people whose votes he will need in the future. The previous generation has built transportation infrastructure that accounts for roughly 30 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, with the overwhelming majority coming from highway transportation. Plus, “there is racism physically built into some of our highways,” Buttigieg has said. Highways have long been tools of urban renewal used to clear out so-called slums and reformat cities. Together with racist housing policy, the urban Interstate Highways remapped the landscape according to an ideology of white supremacy. This analysis is well-supported by the evidence and well-accepted by historians. Anthony Foxx addressed this history both during his tenure as President Obama’s transportation secretary and after. And he has done so in a thoughtful manner, as if he had studied this history and given it the consideration it is due. “If you think about it, much of this infrastructure was paid for and designed before the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Foxx told TheGrio, a website primarily targeting an African American audience. “That was a time before Black people were at the table.”

It is profoundly misguided to believe that the poor deserve better mass transit rather than private automobiles.

In contrast to Foxx, Buttigieg relates these stories in a disjointed, Trumpian “people are saying” plausible deniability fashion, as he did during an exclusive interview with TheGrio. “Well, if you’re in Washington, I’m told that the history of that highway is one that was built at the expense of communities of color in the D.C. area.” It’s not clear which “that highway” he means, although freeway plans in and around Washington, D.C., affected both white and black communities. Interstate 95 was originally intended to be run under America’s front lawn, the National Mall. Some were built and several were defeated by local opposition, just like the Mount Hood Freeway in Portland. In the interview, Buttigieg continued vaguely, “There are stories and I think Philadelphia and Pittsburgh . . .” He drifted off. Then he closed with, “In New York, Robert Moses famously saw through the construction of a lot of highways.” Well, yes. Yes, he did, a whole lot of highways, in fact, and not only in New York but across the country as well. As became clear in comments he made several months later (and as Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post confirmed with a DOT spokesperson), Buttigieg’s understanding of Robert Moses was drawn from Robert Caro’s Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the man, The Power Broker. According to Caro, Moses was a bigot whose infrastructure projects reflected his racism. Caro fans (and Moses detractors) love one illustration of that assessment in particular: Moses intentionally built the route to Jones Beach with overpasses too low for the public transit buses to go under. Moses did this specifically because African Americans relied on the bus to reach the seashore. It’s the perfect illustration of racism built into highways, its only flaw being that it is untrue.

As historians have since determined, Caro got it wrong in his 1974 book. For TheGrio, all Buttigieg had to do was signify “Robert Moses,” knowing that his center-left audience would get the message. By perpetuating myths and offering vague references to racist highways, Buttigieg short-circuits a true understanding of history and the people who made it. Moreover, his pandering makes it harder to properly address transportation inequality.

“Black and brown neighborhoods have been disproportionately divided by highway projects or left isolated by the lack of adequate transit and transportation resources,” @SecretaryPete tweeted in December 2020. And he warned senators during his confirmation hearing, “Misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality.” It is good to have the Secretary of Transportation say such things out loud. But it is profoundly misguided to believe that the poor deserve better mass transit rather than private automobiles. It reinforces a caste system that benefits the car-owner at the expense of the carless.

Facts Too Good to Check

Rather than holding Buttigieg to account, the media has been more interested in promoting brand Pete. We see it now in the latest chapter of his trajectory; call it “Secretary Mayor Pete.” Coverage has switched to human interest stories. The Washington Post let us in on the Buttigieg couple’s marital dynamics: “The secretary’s husband [Chasten] isn’t particularly interested in talking pipelines and packages all night. He wants to dish about the HBO comedy Hacks. Alas, he seldom sees an opening.” This kind of story goes beyond fluff. It is a backhanded insult that conveys the unsupported contention that Pete is hard at work plumbing the esoteric depths of DOT policy with his big brain well into the night.

Pete and Chasten pose adorably for the cameras with their newly-adopted twins Penelope Rose and Joseph August Buttigieg. They dressed the twins up as traffic cones for Halloween. Chasten tweeted out photos under the hashtag #twinfrastructure. Neither Penelope nor Joseph commented on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigation of Tesla Autopilot crashes, which so far have resulted in at least twelve deaths. Or Elon Musk’s attacks on the agency after it appointed a Tesla critic to help with the investigation. Their dad hasn’t commented much either, other than to offer to chat with Elon when the billionaire attacked his agency as anti-Tesla. He was on a two-month paternity leave when President Biden declared a supply chain emergency and ordered the Los Angeles port to stay open around the clock. Meanwhile, Buttigieg claimed his paternity leave as a political act. “It’s one thing to believe something as a matter of policy,” he said. “It’s another to live it and see how much of a difference it could make.”

Still, Mayor Pete is no Harvey Milk. I worried that my point—that the time the media spends on his private life is more time not spent paying attention to what he is not doing and not saying about transportation—would be lost. Then Amazon announced it would air Mayor Pete in November with Chasten and Pete holding hands on the movie poster, and I stopped worrying.

The South Bend Fairy Tale

The Mayor Pete brand was born in South Bend. The city’s Studebaker car plant closed in 1963, sending South Bend into a death spiral, or so the story goes. Then the bright-eyed McKinsey alum took over in 2012 and set things right. He began with what corporate raiders call “rightsizing”: one thousand homes demolished or renovated in just as many days. “In some ways, it was a classic example of data-driven management paying off,” he wrote in his 2019 memoir Shortest Way Home. (Chasten’s memoir, I Have Something to Tell You, came out the following year.) He hit his numbers. “But the most important impact of the effort was unquantifiable,” he continued. “The city was giving itself permission to believe.” In the end, about seven hundred homes were demolished and four hundred twenty-five repaired. The next step was to convert the abandoned Studebaker plant into a tech mecca. Renamed Ignition Park, the two-building campus houses a Notre Dame University testing facility for gas turbines and an office building geared toward tech workers. The largest tenant, Aunalytics, is the quintessential “Silicon Prairie” company: Google without the high rents and wildfires. It hosts and manages digital information. It employs software engineers, data scientists, and user-interface developers, college graduates and PhDs. Its core values are acronymed GRIT (the T stands for “True Grit”). On its website, new hires are promised competitive salaries, a work-life balance, and “free snacks and an unlimited supply of coffee.” Whether the custodians or the people who restock the snack bar have cars, I don’t know. By their very nature, cloud companies like Aunalytics employ few workers. While it has been a good corporate citizen, the growing company currently has only 250 employees spread across its South Bend headquarters and operations in Bellefontaine, Ohio, and both Kalamazoo and Traverse City, Michigan, according to their spokeswoman.

Together with racist housing policy, the urban Interstate Highways remapped the landscape according to an ideology of white supremacy.

In reality, South Bend’s economy remains dominated by the same sectors that dominate most other down-and-out industrial towns, what DePauw’s Professor Gellman calls “eds and meds.” Notre Dame University is by far the largest employer, followed by Beacon Health Systems and the local school district. In fact, vehicle maker AM General (a descendent of Studebaker’s defense contracting division) still provides thousands of jobs in the area. The Humvee remains the company’s marquee product. Regional development plans call for expanding freight assets to draw manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution centers. It remains a racially divided northern Indiana town, 61.7 percent white, roughly 27 percent black, and 15.7 percent Latino. Whites are three times more likely than people of color to hold a college degree. Median household income is 30 percent below the statewide average. Roughly 25 percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line, according to the Census Bureau, including about 40 percent of the city’s black residents. (By my very rough calculation, $63 million would buy every South Bend household living below the poverty line a reliable 2014 Chevy Spark hatchback with sixty thousand miles on it.)

Buttigieg has touted his mayoral success in providing public transit. South Bend’s mass transit system had been operating (fairly) steadily until ridership dropped nearly 20 percent during the 2008 recession. It continued to decline steadily on Mayor Pete’s watch. Even in pre-pandemic 2019, ridership was less than half its peak; there hadn’t been Sunday service since 1985, and fares covered only 7 percent of operating expenses.

In 2017 Buttigieg graduated from the Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership Initiative program. A year later, former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s philanthropic organization gave South Bend a $1 million Mayor’s Challenge Award for the city’s “innovative approach in addressing transportation as a primary barrier to stable employment for part-time and shift workers.” It’s branded as the Ride Guarantee. That innovative approach includes two $1 Lyft rides and eight $5 rides a month. Those rides, on average, required a $4.89 subsidy in 2020, down from $7.59 in 2019. Commuters can also get free bus rides if they download and use the Token Transit app, although the regular fare is only a buck, and buses still run only once or twice an hour with little service on Saturdays and none at all on Sundays. Workers were also given incentives to carpool, with drivers being reimbursed fifty cents a mile and riders just twenty-five cents. This program uses a fourth app, Hytch. According to the South Bend Tribune, “It pays less than Uber or Lyft but drivers and vehicles don’t have to meet those platforms’ standards, and fifty cents per mile falls below the level that the IRS requires to be reported as income.” It’s worth noting that the average commuting time in South Bend is twenty minutes, well below the national average of 27.6 minutes and half what it is in the New York area. It’s not as if South Bend has a traffic problem.

Nothing Beats Owning a Car

As the South Bend experience indicates, traditional transit doesn’t work. Even the Blue Planet Prize Distinguished Professor of Civil Engineering and Environmental Science and Policy, Daniel Sperling, says so. “It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which public transit as it exists today would significantly expand ridership,” write Sperling and coauthor Steven Polzin in Three Revolutions: Steering Automated, Shared, and Electric Vehicles to a Better Future. The problem with the bus is not so much underinvestment but a mismatch between the technology and land use. Metropolitan New Yorkers took 4.3 billion public transit trips in 2016—far more than the next ten metro areas combined. All of these metro areas together account for eight in ten transit trips in the country[*], says Polzin, who spent thirty-one years as director of the Mobility Policy Research at the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida. Outside of these cities, low ridership leads to high costs, poor service, and a large carbon footprint. Because driver wages account for 40 to 60 percent of overhead, transit agencies are incentivized to run fewer, larger buses. Since 1990, according to research by the Oak Ridge National Laboratories, private cars have been more carbon friendly than transit buses on a per passenger mile basis. On a nationwide scale, cars now beat buses by 20 percent, and, it bears repeating, that is on a per passenger mile basis. It takes an enormous amount of energy just to keep the temperature of the vast interior of a city bus comfortable in many climates.

We do, indeed, to quote Mayor Pete, “have a generational opportunity to transform” transportation.

Like South Bend, other cities and transit agencies have turned to the ride-hailing giants to provide automobility as a service. As Sperling points out in Three Revolutions, Uber and Lyft increase congestion and emissions. The innovation industry abounds with new ideas, none of which include subsidizing vehicle ownership. Sacramento has an EV car share program that offers fare subsidies. It’s just like owning a car, although “vehicles MUST be returned to the designated parking space AND PLUGGED INTO THE CHARGER by your reserved end time.” Boston is piloting Good2Go, “providing the freedom of vehicle use without the costs and hassle of owning a personal vehicle.” Nissan Leafs and Chevy Bolts made up the small fleet, until the Bolts were recalled by General Motors because they were catching fire. Rates range from $5 to $10 an hour, scaled to income. All you have to do is reserve your car on the app, go to the charging station, check out your car, and then return it to the same spot. Remember driverless cars? They were coming any day now back in 2018. Elon Musk promised a million Tesla robotaxis by 2020. Google’s Waymo tried to make a go of a driverless ride hailing business. The hype around driverless cars has instead faded as experts don’t see them arriving any time soon. Like ride hailing, any one of these innovations might provide the freedom of private vehicle use, but they don’t come close to the freedom of owning a personal vehicle. In any case, they are Rube Goldberg solutions to a simple problem that free cars for the poor could solve.

Although the center-left public policy elites can’t bring themselves to advocate automobile subsidies, private charities are proving that giving away cars works wonders. The National Consumer Law Center maintains a database of some 120 nonprofits that provide cars for low-wage workers. These charities take donated cars, make sure they’re in good working order, and then provide them directly to those in need. (Such charities should not be confused with the ones that advertise on public radio: those programs provide tax deductions for donors and profits for the companies that tow the cars away and part them out.) Operated by Ascentria Community Services, Inc. and founded in Burlington, Vermont, the Good News Garage provides “affordable and reliable transportation options,” namely donated cars, to low-income families. There’s the Good Neighbor Garage in Colorado, Cars 4 Christmas in Kansas, and Wheels to Work in Sioux Falls. Catholic, Presbyterian, and evangelical churches have joined together to create the (non-denominational) Car Ministry.

Nicholas Klein of Cornell took the time to talk with the people who received cars through Vehicles for Change (VFC), one of the largest car charities, to find out what kind of difference it made. He and his research assistants interviewed thirty recipients and found their lives profoundly improved, even transformed. Pre-car, interviewees reported mostly using public transit but also borrowing cars or bumming rides. They sometimes simply had to forgo a trip. “Before I got the car, it was really complicated,” said one. “If I didn’t have a car, I didn’t go. That was just my life without a car. It was much harder.” Women especially talked about the misery of taking transit with their children in bad weather. Donna said she could “thug it out” alone. But “looking at your babies freezing” while waiting for the bus was too much. She took driving lessons and sought out VFC. Parents said they felt better about themselves as parents, perhaps Klein’s most interesting finding. One mother reported to Klein’s team that she had been getting the kids up at five and sticking a granola bar in their hands for breakfast on the run. With the car, they could sleep until seven, and she could be home to cook a proper dinner and bathe the baby.

But private charities can only do so much. VFC has the capacity to provide about three hundred vehicles a year. The Good News Garage has given away only fifty-five hundred cars over the past quarter century. Only government can scale these programs to meet the enormous need.

We do, indeed, to quote Mayor Pete, “have a generational opportunity to transform” transportation. That doesn’t mean hiring a man from the millennial generation. It means finding a leader willing to shift the paradigm and invest political capital to actually help the transportation insecure rather than using them to signal adherence to a particular tribe. Buttigieg won a Profile in Courage award for his paean to Bernie Sanders, but Bernie was an old guy even then, and he is still pushing for transformative, generational change.

“It’s understandable why subsiding cars might be controversial,” Joe Grengs, professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Michigan, explained to me via email. “Putting more cars on the road flies in the face of top public policy objectives of reducing several problems like traffic congestion, air pollution, and energy consumption.” Grengs, who serves on the Federal Advisory Committee on Transportation Equity at the USDOT, continued:

My view is that the disadvantage that poor people face in a country where metropolitan space has been constructed over decades to deliberately favor auto drivers is so severe that we don’t have time to build other alternatives.

For better or worse, reducing inequality means ensuring that “every low-income person has a car.” How does Universal Basic Automobility sound?

[*]Correction: This article has been revised to clarify that the New York City metropolitan area along with the other metro areas in the top ten ridership comprise more than 80 percent of total train ridership in the United States.