Barriers to Transportation: Who is at Risk and Why

Transportation is a necessity to function in our society, and unfortunately, it is all too common of a problem for Americans. Approximately 91% of households have access to at least one car. That leaves 9% of people with no car, and for the houses that have two working adults and one car, this can be tricky. Imagine if that car breaks down, or gas prices skyrocket unexpectedly… this family would be left with no transportation. On top of that, only 45% of Americans have access to public transportation. So what happens when a family loses their transportation and then is a part of over half the population who can’t even rely on the bus to get them where they need to go? 

Access… What it Means

By now, you have heard that word, “access” a lot and you might be wondering what exactly it means. Access refers to the resources that a person/household needs in order to participate in something or get their needs met. Some of those resources include monetary sources, inherited wealth, relationships, or institutional support systems. 

For example, a resource could include having enough inherited wealth to make a down payment on a car. A resource might be a family member who can co-sign on a lease for that car. Being considered an American citizen and thus having the ability to get a driver’s license. All of these factors play into a person’s access to transportation. If something is working against a person, this can be considered a lack of access or a barrier


It is important to note that when discussing barriers and access, make sure to focus on specific populations that are at-risk to avoid overgeneralization and stereotyping. Some vulnerable groups may be mentioned within discussions of barriers. 

Access to a Vehicle

Having access to a vehicle is not easy for everyone. Purchasing a vehicle often requires a general amount of inherited wealth in order to put a down payment on a car, whether the car is new or used. Additionally, a co-signer is typically needed for a lease on a car, especially if a person has bad credit or is a minor; consider someone who struggled with debt due to student loans or poverty. The co-signer must be someone who does have good credit, so if someone comes from a family of poverty, it could be near impossible to find a co-signer. 

For the unemployed or for those with unsteady income, being able to commit to a monthly payment could also be a challenge. Additionally, even if buying a car is feasible, is auto insurance? Check out the table here to see how much auto insurance can cost in each state/ 

Auto Maintenance

Continuing to think about owning a vehicle, the amount of upkeep that comes with owning one can cost a pretty penny. From simple, routine maintenance to surprise accidents, keeping your car in good running shape is extremely expensive. Again, for people who do not have accumulated wealth or are living in poverty, access to finances needed to account for car emergencies and maintenance can be limited. Unpredictable (soaring) gas prices are simply not workable for budgeting or trying to conserve money. 

Access to License

Everyone knows going to the BMV is a total drag, but can you imagine going and not being able to pay for your registration and plates? Or worse, not even being able to get your license at all because you do not have your birth certificate or a social security card? Well, to be honest, you wouldn’t go, because there would be no point. You wouldn’t be able to get a license. 

This can be a huge issue for refugee or immigrant populations who may not have communication to family members in their country of origin. They may have fled their country, and things like their birth certificate or proof of identity may have gotten left behind in the midst of crisis. Further, licenses and registration and plates are expensive, saving up for the costs associated with this can take weeks for some families in poverty or struggling financially. If someone is working paycheck to paycheck, it most likely is not feasible to take time off of work to head to BMV during its open hours, either. 

Ability to Drive

If you don’t have a license for the reasons above, then you can’t drive. Well, you could, but you’d face even more serious fines and even jail time. 

The ability to drive in and of itself requires a lot of skills that are taken for granted. The elderly can find it harder to drive with delayed reaction time or other physical impairments like arthritis. Those with vision problems may not be able to drive themselves, or may be limited to daytime and clear conditions. For example, even with something as minor as a slight astigmatism, someone could be barred from driving at night or during rain, and it shows up as a restriction on their license. English Language Learners could have trouble reading road signs as well. 


People with disabilities may not be able to drive themselves either. Still, modified vehicles for a variety of disabilities can cost between $20,000 and $80,000 after purchasing the parts and labor necessary for installation. Imagine paying this on top of a vehicle that is already expensive in the first place. 

 Access to Public Transportation

Unfortunately, America is not known for its accessible public transportation. In a ranked list of public transit operations worldwide, the U.S. is only mentioned once at the bottom of the list for its New York subway/train system, which is still highly expensive for most people. 45% of people in the United States have access to public transit. For many people, even those living in urban environments, bus stops are at inconvenient, distant locations and can sometimes be double the commute time compared to driving a personal vehicle. 


While urban areas face limitations with public transit, rural areas struggle the most. A 2019 American Community Survey revealed that nearly 1 million households or 2.5 million individuals in rural areas do not have access to their own car. With poor public transportation systems offered in rural communities, their residents suffer: rural Americans struggle to travel to grocery stores, visit their doctors and make medical appointments, and even to find employment opportunities


  • Better Public Transportation: Investing more of our taxpayer dollars into efficient public transportation systems nationwide, such as affordable light rails and trains. 
  • Investment in Vulnerable Populations: The amount of strain that driving and owning a vehicle brings for at-risk populations is insurmountable. By investing in solutions, such as making disability modified vehicles more cost-friendly or covered by insurance, this could greatly decrease stress for these individuals.
  • Companies Offering Commuter Benefits: When companies offer commuter benefits in the same way they would PTO days or health plans, they eliminate the transportation barrier for vulnerable groups, expanding their workforce and increasing their equitable practices.
  • Mobility-as-a-Service (MaaS): Companies that offer MaaS provide dynamic solutions for commuters and travelers that are far more accessible. If the service is low-cost, offered through employers via commuter benefits, accessed with or without a smartphone, and can be local and adaptable to communities, everyone, including those at-risk, can benefit. 

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