How Our Sprawling Cities Hurt the Poor

I recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona and was amazed at how expansive and sprawly it really is.  Every city block feels monstrous in size and I sometimes think it will take me 15 minutes to make it a mile.  I found an apartment that is an 8 minute walk to work so I don’t deal with a commute.  However; I talk every single day to co-workers who complain about their shit-horrible 1-2 hours in the car everyday.  I understand the pain but no longer ascribe to that lifestyle.   The stories of my co-workers often get me thinking how the low income people living in our affordable housing programs are often completely screwed by the urban form that we have developed.

A recent article on Vox brought out the following and really got me thinking.

Our sprawling, car-centric cities and poor public transportation provide no real option for the millions of people who can’t afford to drive.

Plenty of wealthy people lament how our car-centric infrastructure and limited transit make driving a necessity — and they have good reason to do so. But if you can’t afford a car, these problems take on an entirely different character: they steal your time and money, prevent you from taking some jobs, and make it harder to move up the economic ladder.

Driving to Poverty:

Imagine if you need to drive 1 hour for a low-wage paying job?  Imagine you earn $10 an hour and you are eating up gas and paying hire car insurance because of it.  If the car is a little older, you then have to worry about it breaking down.  If you do not have any money saved up, what then?  How do you get to work if your car is broken and you have no money?  I speak to a lot of lower-income people who end up getting a new car and taking on a car payment that eats into their already limited expendable income.  The car insurance on these automobiles often increases further making things harder.   This scenario reminds me of the woman or man who just decides to stay home with the new baby when they find out daycare will be more than the part-time job they work.   It feels like a trap.

We could really delve into many of the historical issues around race and poverty when we look at the evil of sprawl.  How many low-income persons and minorities were left in wilting cities like Cleveland and Detroit while the better paying jobs moved to suburbs where housing costs and transportation networks made it inaccessible.

Public Transit is a Joke:

If you live in most American Cities, the idea of taking a bus or train to work is a miserable option.   It can take an hour for some people and multiple transfers to go to work when a car can get you there in half the time.  Now factor in trying to scoop up the kiddos from daycare and it is a mere impossibility.  Unless you live in Chicago, New York or a few other well-connected cities, public transit is not an option.

Mobility in Life:

The truth of the matter is that living in less sprawl is also good for low-income earners future.  Check out this quote from an article in Al-Jazeera-

One of the most striking findings is that living in more compact and connected metro areas can help low-income children get ahead financially as adults. “A child [in a low-sprawl area] born in the bottom 20 percent of the income scale has a better chance of rising to the top 20 percent of the income scale by the age of 30,” said Reid Ewing, a professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and the lead researcher.


It is clear that sprawl is not good for low-income families and persons.  It is something that anyone working in affordable housing should consider when developing and subsidizing affordable housing units.

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