Transportation Key to Getting Out of Poverty


“Transportation is about more than just moving people from point A to point B. It’s also a system that can either limit or expand the opportunities available to people based on where they live.” — Gilian B. White, The Atlantic

Last May a downtown apartment fire displaced some 50 decidedly not-well-off Pittsburghers. Grateful to have temporary housing in a suburban hotel while their apartments are being restored, the residents nonetheless expressed a sense of isolation when interviewed by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about their new environs.

Marooned in a landscape where the nearest bus stop is a distant mile away, the city dwellers pine for easy access to public transportation — their only affordable link to the jobs, services, families and friends that make up their normal lives.

In a follow up interview, one 80-year-old resident captured the feeling of lostness she and her fellow wanderers are experiencing. Even if a bus stop were nearby, her mobility is too limited to make the necessary transfers to see her regular dentist. So she pulled her own decayed tooth.

The tale of Pittsburgh’s suburban sojourners is a reminder of the critical role transportation plays in the lives of millions of America’s poor children, youth and adults.

Those of us who take a reliable vehicle (or more) for granted can scarce imagine how much our worlds would shrink were we suddenly on foot. And yet that is the order of the day for folks constantly derided in conservative media and corporate circles for not having steady jobs, keeping appointments or getting their kids to school on time.

Fortunately, transportation as an anti-poverty strategy is becoming more mainstream as service providers and other nonprofits connect the dots between landing a job and keeping a job. Some government and non-government agencies that once provided vocational training only, now try to address the transportation challenges so many of their clients/students face once their certificate or degree is completed.

And the models are there.

Not far from the downtown Pittsburgh apartments under reconstruction is an innovative program called Community Auto, a subsidiary of a an area multi-service agency. The concept is to solicit donated, make them roadworthy and sell them to working individuals and families.

Similar experiments center around bicycles rather than cars or trucks. Modeled on the internationally-focused Bicycles Against Poverty, a few credible US nonprofits have begun negotiating discount prices for new, sturdy bikes to be leased to working clients. Early results are encouraging, if not without some glitches.

We can’t know for sure whether pilot programs like these stand a chance in the current political zeitgeist. Compassion, experimentation and follow-through are not exactly the watchwords for the current administration when it comes to lowering the suffering index.

What we do know is that 45 million (14.5%) of Americans are living below the federal poverty line. And for many, hope is just one car, one bicycle away.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Pittsburgh, Pa. Email

From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2017

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