Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Why Low-Income Women in the US Still Need Automobiles

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Why Low-Income Women in the US Still Need Automobiles

Article excerpt


There has been a steady increase in the percentage of US households - even low-income households - with automobiles. This should come as no surprise, since, as many scholars in the US and elsewhere have noted, automobiles make it easier for workers to access employment opportunities and better manage work- and householdsupporting responsibilities (Dowling, 2000; Greed, 2008; Murray, 2008; Rosenbloom, 1992; Vance et al., 2004). This paper provides a critical analysis of data and current scholarship on the relationship between low-income women and automobiles. I argue that given the continued dispersion of US metropolitan areas and the growing number of jobs, as well as low-income families living in the suburbs (Kneebone, 2013; Kneebone and Berube, 2013), the evidence suggests that low-income women who do not have access to automobiles are increasingly disadvantaged.

I begin by discussing the history of women and automobiles in the US. I then draw on a diverse body of literature and data to show the increasing importance of automobiles to the lives of low-income women. Their demand for cars emerges from the continued shiftin the geography of employment and low-income households, the characteristics of women's work and the labour market, and women's household responsibilities. I next review the growing body of scholarship on the role of automobiles in shaping outcomes for low-income women in the US. Those who are able to access automobiles experience a host of benefits as a result, including better employment opportunities, access to healthier food and greater health-care use.

In the US, there have been relatively few efforts to increase automobile use among low-income households, largely due to the negative environmental externalities associated with driving and, secondarily, due to the high costs of automobile ownership. In the concluding section, I discuss these programmes and policies and their effectiveness. If automobiles are essential to women's livelihoods, policies ought to balance the need for automobiles with broader efforts to reduce their negative environmental impacts.

Women and cars in the US

Figure 1 shows the meteoric rise of automobiles in the US over the past century. While the footprint of cities at the turn of the previous century was substantially smaller than it is today, cars served many of the same purposes. They enabled improved access to destinations - work, friends and family, shopping and recreation - and, therefore, were increasingly popular, despite the initially limited infrastructure to support driving (Walsh, 2008). The number of registered automobiles tripled from 1920 to 1930 and, while the rate of increase declined over time, the total number of registered automobiles continued to grow (Federal Highway Administration, various years). Much of the increase in automobiles was due to consistent growth in the US population; however, the number of cars per household and per capita steadily increased through 2000, declining only slightly in recent years.

From the very beginning, US women - particularly affluent women - used automobiles, participating in women's auto races, taking cross-country trips and otherwise driving for recreation (Seiler, 2008; Wachs, 1992). Their automobile use was shaped by their gender roles, which, as Seiler (2008, 51-52) writes, prescribed 'the type of driving to which women were directed and the imaginary relationship with the car and the highway they were encouraged to develop'. For example, Walsh (2008, 380) writes that gas-powered automobiles were considered 'a piece of masculine machinery which was difficult and dirty to drive and beyond the capability and fastidiousness of women to operate'. These vehicles were associated with men who were strong enough to operate the cranks necessary to start them and who relied on them to access distant locations (Berger, 1992; Seiler, 2008; Walsh, 2008).

In response to women's mounting enthusiasm for driving, automobile manufacturers quickly mobilised to meet their growing demand for cars. …

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