Should tranpsortation also be covered by social services?

With the geographic spread of poverty to the suburbs, should transportation be considered a necessary social service?

“One thing that’s pretty incredible, if we start to think about it, is that transportation has been outside of what we define as a human service,” says Alexandra Murphy, a sociologist who studies poverty at the University of Michigan. “Even though it’s widely acknowledged that transportation creates opportunity and hardship.”

This week, however, saw the launch of one of the U.S.’s largest-ever subsidized bus-fare programs. King County, a Washington State county that includes Seattle, will now allow low-income residents to ride buses, trains, and ferries for $1.50, when standard fares can be more than $3. Other U.S. cities will watching closely to see if the program works, the New York Times reported…

“Transportation agencies don’t often have a poverty mission at their core like health and human services agencies do,” says Scott Allard, a public affairs researcher at the University of Washington. Providing lower-than-average fares “has typically not been in their mandate,” says Howard Chernick, an economist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Institute of Research on Poverty.

Human services departments may be reluctant to take on transportation because of liability issues that don’t exist with food and housing, Murphy, the University of Michigan sociologist, thinks. What if someone driving a subsidized car gets into an accident? “It’s the perception that it’s a quagmire that people don’t even want to walk into,” she says.


Owning a car is not cheap and with more jobs and poorer residents in the suburbs, cheap and reliable transportation becomes a bigger necessity. Public transportation options in the suburbs are often limited (hours, perhaps only bus or train) or do not go all the places with jobs. I don’t see why it would be difficult to provide some sort of credit or voucher for public transportation based on income limits. While this might limit employees to living in existing public transportation corridors, it would be a start.

This reminds me of a program I remember hearing about a few years where the state of Wisconsin was piloting a program that provided cheap yet reliable cars for lower-income residents.

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