Access to cars and transit can influence individuals’ ability to reach opportunities such as jobs, health care, and other important activities. While access to cars and public transit varies considerably across time, space, and across populations, most research portrays car access as a snapshot in time; some people have a car and others do not. But does this snapshot approach mask variation in car ownership over time? And how does access to particular types of transportation resources influence individuals’ economic outcomes?

The authors improve upon existing research by using panel data from 1999 to 2013 from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to examine levels of automobile access in groups that have variable access: poor families, immigrants, and people of color. They further employ two new national datasets of access to jobs using public transit. These datasets are used to examine the effect of transit and automobile access on income growth over time within families, controlling for a number of relevant variables.

The research found that for most families, being “carless” is a temporary condition. While 13% of families in the US are carless in any given year, only 5% of families are carless for all seven waves of data examined in the analysis. The research also found that poor families, immigrants, and people of color (particularly blacks) are considerably more likely to transition into and out car owner-ship frequently and are less likely to have a car in any survey year than are non-poor families, the US-born, and whites.

The research also found that improving automobile access is associated with a decreased probability of future unemployment and is associated with greater income gains. However, the analysis suggests that the costs of owning and maintaining a car may be greater than the income gains associated with in-creased car ownership. The relationship between public transit and improved economic outcomes is less clear. The research found that living in areas with access to high-quality public transportation has no relationship with future earnings. However, transit serves an important purpose in providing mobility for those who cannot or choose not to own a car.

Publication Date


Publication Type



Transit and Passenger Rail

MTI Project



Car ownership, Public transit, Transit accessibility, Panel data, Economic outcomes