Transportation and poverty: what’s the link?

Mecklenburg County is the second worst large U.S. County for upward social mobility of children born into poverty. Yet, Charlotte has the second fastest population growth among large U.S. cities. This is very troubling. Even as our metro area attracts unprecedented growth, our own children are slipping further and further behind the rest of the nation. And it’s not just children born into poverty. Even children from average and upper income Mecklenburg households lag the national average in annual earnings when they become adults.

Transportation and poverty: what's the link?

Mecklenburg County is the 2nd worse large U.S. County for upward mobility of children born in poverty. (Source: NY Times)

Transportation certainly isn’t the only factor that determines economic mobility, but it is incredibly impactful. An article in today’s NY Times titled “Transportation Emerges as Crucial to Escaping Poverty” reports that the impact of transportation on social mobility is stronger than several other factors, like crime, elementary-school test scores or the percentage of two-parent families in a community.

The study emphasized the strong link between availability of public transit and income. The researchers compared neighborhoods by accessibility to mass transit and the number of jobs within an hour’s commute. Residents of the areas least well-served by mass transit relied on personal vehicles. Areas in the middle third — those with some, but insufficient, access to transportation — had the highest rates of unemployment and the lowest incomes, the study found.

The problem is, it’s not always an easy task to raise public awareness of the tightly interwoven links between transportation and quality of life.  In my outreach role for Sustain Charlotte, I’m often asked to identify the most critical sustainability challenge that Charlotte neighborhoods are facing. I often see puzzled looks when I answer, “Transportation.” The well-intentioned asker of the question often follows up with a variant of: “But aren’t they facing…you know, more urgent challenges like safety, or poor health, or poverty, or polluted streams?”

Yes and no. Yes, because those are all very real and immediate challenges. We don’t want to minimize the many daily struggles that our residents face. No, because transportation — and specifically, lack of transportation choices — is a major root cause of those (and many other) quality of life challenges. 

Recognizing that all of those challenges have complicated root causes,  the way we structure our built environment and travel within that environment affects every aspect of our quality of life.

  • Safety: Communities with adequate transit stops, crosswalks, sidewalks, and bicycling infrastructure are safer. The Charlotte metro area was ranked the 10th most dangerous large metro in the U.S. for pedestrians in 2014.
  • Health: Residents in walkable, bikeable communities experience lower rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease.
  • Economy: Meckenburg County households spend 26% of income on transportation costs, compared to a nation average of 19% (read more in Sustain Charlotte’s 2014 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Sustainability Report Card).
  • Air quality: Our air is cleaner and healthier when fewer vehicles are on the road emitting pollutants.
  • Water quality: More driving means more demand for parking spaces. As storm water runs off of paved surfaces, it carries oil, gasoline, and other contaminants that pollute our streams. 81% of streams in Mecklenburg County are impaired.

When the city’s budget is facing a shortfall as it is now, it’s tempting for residents and elected officials to lose focus on the long-term importance of investments in biking, walking, and transit infrastructure. There are few quick fixes. If we want our rapidly growing region to continue to grow sustainably so we can provide a high quality of life for future and current residents, we can’t keep kicking the can down the road. Investing in sustainable transportation is expensive, but not investing in it is ultimately far more expensive in real costs of lost economic opportunity, a degraded environment, poor health, and diminished quality of life.

We founded the Transportation Choices Alliance (TCA) in January 2014 following months of research and discussion with leaders from government, business, non-profits, academia, and neighborhoods. Together they expressed an overwhelming need for an alliance tasked with working to increase transportation choices and their use throughout the Charlotte region to improve traffic, air quality, public health, mobility, and the economy.

November 2021 Update: The TCA has evolved and is now called the Charlotte Regional Transportation Coalition.

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