Transportation access affects all other areas of life in Tompkins County. Residents of color have less access to personal vehicles than white residents. This makes life overall more challenging, from accessing employment and running errands to visiting friends and participating in community events.

Currently, personal motor vehicles represent the best mobility option for most county residents, in terms of flexibility and easily accessing services, but Ithaca suffers the challenges of congestion, parking, air quality, climate impacts, and collisions just like every other American metropolitan area.

Residents of color, with less access to personal motor vehicles than white residents, are forced to rely on other forms of transportation. Since the median household income for households of color is 40-52% that of white households, any transportation costs represent a larger share of annual income. Lower household income and rates of home ownership also means that for households of color that do own a motor vehicle, that vehicle likely represents a greater share of their wealth (an asset that depreciates quickly as compared with a home).

Tompkins County has a public transit system that serves downtown Ithaca rather well, but accessing the rest of the county by bus is challenging. The service does not reach most of the outer limits of the county, has limited daily trips to its most distant areas, and has even fewer routes and trips available at night.

The graph below shows how access to a motor vehicle correlates with income status and race. Over 90% of households headed by a white person have access to at least one motor vehicle, while fewer than two-thirds of households headed by someone of another race have the same access. This graph also shows that low-income residents of all races have similar motor vehicle access as non-white residents of all income levels.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 2012-2016 5-year estimates. Special Tabulation: Census Transportation Planning Products Program

These differences in motor vehicle access show up below in how residents get to work in Tompkins County. Residents with access to at least one motor vehicle use it to get to work 69% of the time. Residents without a motor vehicle use public transit, bicycles, or walking 78% of the time. Non-white residents rely on public transit 3.75x more than white residents, and on walking nearly twice as often.

Relying on current public transit limits how many places we can go in a day. The average commute by public transit is 50% longer than by driving (USCB, ACS 2012-2016).  Working around the bus schedule can lead to additional lost time, and using alternative transportation is even more complicated in the winter.

The graphs below show how these factors play out in residents’ weekday travel. Non-drivers in Tompkins County, disproportionately people of color, end up making fewer trips per day than drivers for all purposes other than civic, educational, or religious.

Non-drivers are at a disadvantage compared not only to drivers, but to the population average as well, because the majority of residents do drive every day. If you have ever applied to several entry-level jobs, you know the question of personal motor vehicle access usually comes up on job applications. This can create yet another barrier to employment, even if you can get to the job another way.

The graphs below shows the number of trips taken and the number of miles travelled are closely linked. Drivers often travel farther for work and other purposes, while non-drivers make fewer trips and travel shorter distances. Being able to drive in Tompkins County means accessing employment, services, and recreational events in a larger area, and being able to do more of these things in one day. These data together suggest that non-white residents would likely take advantage of increased access to resources and opportunities if their transportation options were more convenient.

In other words, in Tompkins County, not being white or having low income gives you roughly the same access to motor vehicles.

While some of this data is coded by race, and some only by driver status, combining inferences from these patterns gives a more complete picture. The following can be inferred about life in Tompkins County:

  • When people have access to motor vehicles, they overwhelmingly will drive as opposed to using other forms of transportation.
  • Residents who have a car and driver’s license make more trips, for longer distances, for all purposes (earning a living, social events, etc.) than residents who do not.
  • People of color, no matter income level, have significantly lower access to personal vehicles than whites. Their level of access is roughly the same as low-income residents of all races.
  • The fact that low income and race are related to similar barriers tells us that low-income residents of color experience a particular oppression that is greater than race or low income alone.
  • People of color, due to limited public transit and less access to motor vehicles, have less opportunity to make social visits, access employment, and take care of personal business than white people.

To address these disparities, two major directions are apparent. One potential solution is to subsidize personal motor vehicle ownership for low-income and non-white residents. In the short term, a motor vehicle can make an enormous difference in a family’s lives.

However, this would be burdensome to administer and expensive for a small local government. Without financial assistance, the less wealth a household has, the greater the relative expense of owning and maintaining a vehicle ($100-$150/hour mechanic fee can be crippling to someone living on $20,000 a year, but not for someone making $50,000 a year).

However, personal motor vehicles are expensive, both to purchase and maintain. Cars also have a limited service-life and can leave people in an emergency when they fail. Public subsidy could help with these things, but the administrative burden for thousands of personal motor vehicles would be far greater than a similar investment in public transit. A more accessible, reliable, and expanded public transit system could improve access for many residents for whom the barriers to motor vehicle access are too great to overcome quickly.

For long-term development of transportation equity in Tompkins County, investment in public transit infrastructure could go much farther. More frequent and reliable buses, as well as larger and accessible carshare programs, could close the gap of number of trips and trip miles made between drivers and non-drivers, and therefore between white and non-white residents.

Eliminating fares for TCAT could be one step towards these goals. Removing user cost would make the service more accessible to low-income residents. This could lead to an immediate boost in usage, which would improve the case for greater investment in transit. Making public transit free could also make it more attractive for people who have access to personal motor vehicles. More drivers choosing public transit would mean fewer cars on the road, which means less traffic, which means faster bus trips, lower emissions, and greater equity between drivers and non-drivers.