Cars, Women, and Minorities: The Democratization of Mobility in America

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The central role of automobility in American society is well recognized; far less understood is automobility’s importance for gaining entry into American society. Access to mainstream jobs and social opportunities in America depends in large part on having a car. American women have nearly achieved equality in this respect; in the United States, unlike anywhere else in the world, the percentage of women who hold drivers’ licenses is very close to that of men.

Minorities, on the other hand, are still lagging in key measures of automobility. For example, the percentage of African-American households having no cars is nearly five times as great as that of white households. Long-distance travel by African-Americans and Hispanics is only half that of whites.

These disparities have declined in recent decades, and the indications are that they will continue to decline. At the same time, the key demographic factor that led to transportation crises in the past, the Baby Boom, is itself changing. As Baby Boomers approach retirement age, their travel patterns are shifting away from peak-use periods. The explosive growth in traffic fueled by that generation is, for the most part, a thing of the past.

But automobility is under increasing attack, on grounds ranging from resource and environmental concerns to arguments over “urban sprawl.” Calls for restrictions on car use are becoming increasingly common. If such restrictions are imposed, their impact across our national landscape will be far from uniform. Their most severe effects will fall on those groups that either have recently attained mobility or are just now on the verge of attaining it. By undermining the “democratization of mobility,” such restrictions would weaken a key attribute of the American Dream.