Life events, poverty, and car ownership in the United States: A mobility biography approach

Nicholas J. Klein, Michael J. Smart


What causes families to buy or give up a car in the U.S.? Following the mobility biography approach, we use a nationally representative panel data set, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), to examine the role of life events and changes in the built environment and compare the effect that these events have on changes in car ownership. We find that coupling, graduating from college, and the birth or adoption of a child all are associated with increases in car ownership, while breaking up is associated with decreases in car ownership. Moving to or away from transit-rich, dense, walkable neighborhoods matters but only when one moves to a very different type of neighborhood. We also find that life events have a stronger association with gaining a car for non-poor families than for families in poverty. Life events are windows of opportunity when families reevaluate their travel patterns. Interventions at these critical junctures could be an expedient way to decrease car ownership and its attendant problems, especially when combined with improving alternatives to the automobile.


car ownership; mobility biography; life events; PSID

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