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Getting Around When You’re Just Getting By: The Travel Behavior and Transportation Expenditures of Low-Income Adults

Executive Summary

Recent increases in fuel prices, combined with the deep downturn in the economy, have raised concerns among policymakers and advocates about the burdens of transportation costs on the poor. Moreover, low-income travelers have been at the center of recent debates over the fairness of proposed transportation finance instruments such as congestion pricing and gas-tax increases. Despite these concerns, relatively little is known about how low-income households manage their transportation costs while also preserving their desired level and quality of mobility. This study begins to fill that gap by exploring the challenges low-income residents face in covering their transportation costs.


The analysis is based on in-depth interviews with 73 low-income adults living in or near the City of San José, California, in the San Francisco Bay Area. The sample was diverse by many criteria, but overrepresented individuals who had extremely low incomes. (Some were homeless; many relied on food banks and/or public benefits and services.) The interviews centered around four general areas of interest: travel behavior and transportation spending patterns; the costs and benefits of alternative modes of travel; transportation cost management strategies; and opinions about the effects of changing transportation prices on travel behavior.


Key findings include the following:

  1. Most low-income households are concerned about their transportation costs.
  2. Low-income. individuals actively and strategically manage their limited household resources in order to survive and respond to changes in income or transportation costs. They do so by using strategies such as (a) modifications to travel behavior, (b) creative cost-covering strategies, (c) careful management of household expenditures, including transportation expenditures, and (d) reductions in discretionary spending.
  3. In making mode-choice decisions, low-income travelers—like higher-income travelers—carefully evaluate the costs of travel (time and out-of-pocket expenses) against the benefits of each mode available to them.
  4. Some interviewees were willing to accept higher transportation expenditures—such as the costs of auto ownership or congestion tolls—if they believed that they currently benefit or would potentially benefit from these increased expenses.
  5. Although low-income households find ways to cover their transportation expenditures, many of these strategies create hardship.


The study findings suggest a wide variety of policy and planning strategies that could increase transportation affordability, as well as minimize the effects of new transportation taxes or fees on low-income people. These fall under several themes:

  1. Target transportation subsidy programs to low-income people in general, in addition to such population subgroups as the elderly and the disabled. This approach would help user-side subsidies reach those who most need them.
  2. Divide large, lump-sum transportation costs such as transit passes into smaller, more frequent payments, to make the costs more manageable.
  3. Help low-income families access a wide variety of essential destinations such as support services, government offices, and businesses.
  4. Recognize that the specific transportation supports needed vary by household structure, life stage, and residential location. For example, reduced-cost transit passes may help those living near public transit but will do little to aid families in rural communities with minimal transit service. Even within the same geographic area, families’ travel needs vary by employment patterns, family responsibilities, and disabilities that may make certain modes inaccessible.

In addition, we propose various strategies for collecting new data that would allow policymakers to assess which policies would most effectively and efficiently ease the transportation burden for low-income families.