Poverty and Car Ownership in Ohio's Cities

In 2016, one in six households in Ohio’s six largest cities did not have a car. This number varied between cities in the state, though: in Columbus the number of households without a car was less than one in ten while in Cleveland the number approached one in four.

Part of this is a story about poverty. Higher-poverty cities tend to also have lower levels of car ownership nationally, and this is a trend that we see among Ohio cities as well.

Data from the US Census Bureau as reported by    Governing Magazine    and the    Ohio Development Services Agency   .

Data from the US Census Bureau as reported by Governing Magazine and the Ohio Development Services Agency.

This data should not be especially surprising: it is well established that higher incomes lead to greater levels of car ownership. Something to take away from this data is that car ownership is still rather prevalent among poor households. Even if all houses without cars were poor, anywhere from a quarter to over half of all poor households in each city own a car.

On implication of this data is for financing of mass transit. One of the justifications given for public financing of mass transit is redistributionary: that mass transit is disproportionately used by the poor and thus financing for mass transit serves as a mechanism for promoting equity. This data, though, shows how imprecise this method is for achieving equity. Add the fact that taxes used to pay for mass transit tend to be regressive sales taxes, and we can see that much of our mass transit system is financed by poor families with cars.

Another implication is that gas taxes may not be as regressive as they are often pitched. While a lot of poor households own cars, many also do not, which means that a gas tax to capture infrastructure, congestion, fatality, and emission costs with a low-income rebate could be more progressive than we often assume.