Research by Klein, Basu & Smart – In the driver’s seat: Pathways to automobile ownership for lower-income households in the United States

February 28, 2023


We examine how lower-income households in the United States acquire automobiles. Although car ownership plays a vital role in social and economic mobility in the US, transportation scholars know little about how low-income households obtain cars. Better understanding the pathways to car ownership can help policymakers and non-government actors design interventions to assist low-income households in acquiring and maintaining cars. Our research contributes to basic social science by illuminating the financial and quality of life effects of obtaining cars through various means. We use an online opt-in survey of adults from lower-income households to examine how and why they acquire cars and the effects of these different pathways to car ownership on finances and quality of life.

We identify-five pathways to car ownership. The most common pathway is to acquire a used car from a dealer (38% of our sample), followed by buying a used car informally (24%), purchasing a new car (17%), receiving a car as a gift (15%), and via a move-in with someone who has a car (5%). Respondents most often acquired a car for financial reasons and to increase accessibility. In contrast, the COVID-19 pandemic, life events, and built environment factors played a smaller role.

Respondents reported that acquiring a car had a positive effect on their lives. Almost 90% of respondents said that acquiring the car was worth it, despite nearly half of the survey respondents experiencing financial hardship related to car ownership, operation, and maintenance.


Nicholas J. Klein, Rounaq Basu, Michael J. Smart, In the driver’s seat: Pathways to automobile ownership for lower-income households in the United States, Transportation Research Interdisciplinary Perspectives, Volume 18, 2023, 100787, ISSN 2590-1982,

Nicholas J Klein ’14 is a PhD alum of the Bloustein School

Michael J. Smart is an Associate Professor and Director, PhD Program at the Bloustein School

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