Why the poor live in cities

Cabrini-Green, Chicago

If you ask any big city mayor what is one of the most pressing problems facing his or her city, I’m guessing poverty will be high on the list. Cities across the United States are filled with pockets of hardship, and while rural poverty is widespread, too, impoverishment within metropolitan areas tends to be strikingly concentrated near downtown. Did the rich flee or the poor converge? One study says transit provides the answer.

The article begins with pages of hypotheses, formulae, and tables, but the real history of the trend is buried at the end, just before the conclusion. The key to it all is the fact that public transportation is a distinctly modern invention, and before its advent, most people lived within walking distance of their jobs, regardless of income.

It is in the late 18th and early 19th centuries that we get a geographic glimpse, uninfluenced by modern public transit, at where the rich and poor lived. Proximity to employment dictated where people lived, and people, then as now, worked everywhere. Even the most successful hedge fund’s offices are cleaned by janitors who make little more than minimum wage, and this maxim held true back in the 18th and 19th centuries as well. The difference then was that the middle-class, the well-to-do, and even some of the wealthy walked to work. Only the fabulously wealthy had hansom cabs and carriages to take them about.

When mass transit started catching on, it was mostly enjoyed by those with money, like most new technologies. Affluent types began fleeing the city for “streetcar suburbs.” But as transit prices started dropping, a new technology burst onto the scene—the automobile. For the rich, cars were far better than cramped street cars. They could travel from home to work in relative privacy (though comfort was not a given due to the poor condition of most roads in those days). Plus, cars doubled as a status symbol.

Again, the poor were stuck in the city, and many remain stuck there today. The cost of owning and operating a car is simply beyond reach for a chunk of society. And given the limited reach or slow speed of many American mass transit systems, people without cars need to live closer to their jobs, which are typically in the city.

It’s a tidy narrative, and one that the study backs up with both anecdotal snapshots,¹ statistical models, and data-driven time points from the modern day. The modern observations paint a convincing picture, and one that backs up the narrative. In cities with extensive subway systems, the study found that incomes dip slightly within a one-mile ring of downtown—where land values drop but remain accessible by transit—and then rise and hold steady from three to seven miles out. Transit usage also rises after that first mile, peaking two miles out, where incomes begin to rise. This peak exists in those cities because rail systems—they move far more quickly—appeal to more than just the poor. Wealthier people are more willing to forsake their car for a train and a simpler commute. But in newer American cities without subway systems, buses rule. In those places, most people with sufficient means pay for the shorter commute by car.² The final piece of evidence lies in the geographic distribution of jobs. In “old” American cities with extensive transit, 55 percent of the jobs in the metro area are within five miles of downtown. In “new” cities, 81 percent of jobs are more than five miles out.

The evidence in this paper led me to a few conclusions of my own. First, since the poor are less likely to use roads and highways, government highway subsidies are regressive, that economic term that describes a policy that benefits the rich more than the poor. That makes transit subsidies progressive, but even that is an oversimplification. Transit gives the poor greater access to employment, which will hopefully make them not poor in the future. It also boosts property values in the near vicinity. Since the better-off can afford pricier houses, they clearly benefit, too. Still, some communities fail to understand transit’s merits, instead equating it with an influx of poverty. These rich communities³ will eventually need more viable transit options, though, because they employ poorer people to do the things they’d prefer not to do. And as gas prices rise, no one will want to pay through the nose for that privilege.

  1. “…in New York, 52 percent of workers earning less than $10 per week walked to work in 1907. Only 12 percent of workers earning $20 per day used that form of transportation, and instead used streetcars. Just as the car today favored the non-poor, the streetcar did in the past, and it helps to explain why the poor lived close to the city center 100 years ago.”
  2. This in turn gives the non-poor in those cities a negative opinion of transit. As in, “Only the poor take the bus.”
  3. Parts of Orange County, I’m looking at you.


Glaeser, E., Kahn, M., & Rappaport, J. (2008). Why do the poor live in cities The role of public transportation Journal of Urban Economics, 63 (1), 1-24 DOI: 10.1016/j.jue.2006.12.004

Photo by reallyboring.

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Paying for proximity: The value of houses near train stations

Do people follow trains, or do trains follow people? London’s Underground solves a riddle

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  1. Good article, it reminds of Georgetown, Ontario. Its residents are happy with not having any type public transit because they don’t want immigrants or poor people moving in. This was just a theory of mine but it has been confirmed every time i meet someone from there – so sad. The only way of getting around is by car or taxi. Not very convenient.

    1. Ha! Ironic! People say the same thing about Georgetown, Washington D.C.!

      (they have long resisted having a Metro station built in the historic and upscale neighborhood).

  2. Fascinating! I never really think about how mass transit is a “new” thing, but it definitely helps to explain a lot about our (socially-stratified) society today as opposed to 150 years ago. The whole rings of income mapping is especially interesting.

  3. I believe you mean “Hansom cabs,” not “handsome cabs,” although, as the taxis of the day, they were accessible to more than the fabulously wealthy.

  4. The Auto destroyed the use of an effective rail system. With the advent of the highway system, less and less money was spent on rail. Without funding, the rails were allowed to fail with few capable of self funding. Passenger rail has become a curiosity, and for the most part a venue for the more affluent.
    The “rings” of urbanisation are less easy to define with the exception of the concentration of the lowest poverty in the largest of the city constructs. Here we have an odd disparity. Those of the wealthiest have enclaves within the rings of the poorest, the majority of this class or strata have homes in other cities as well.
    Until such time that there will be no stratfication based upon material posessions, there will be the poorest and the wealthiest greatly devided yet each so
    dependent upon the other. jla

  5. Rebs at http://persquaremile.com/2011/05/17/why-the-poor-live-in-cities/#comment-2048 reminds me of my time in Atlanta, when public votes on expanding transit service were framed as allowing criminals greater access to the affluent suburbs. So when did anyone last see a burglar waiting for a bus ride home, big screen TV at his side?

    I read an article in the WSJ, must be ten years ago, that covered this topic and the notion of a transit authority controlling or encouraging development in NYC, that the construction of the subway allowed more people easy access into Manhattan for work. Likewise, in Seattle, many of the neighborhoods were platted at the end of a streetcar line (long since torn out).

  6. From my experience, there are different types of poor. As easy as it is to just generalize the poor as one type, they really come in several. I tend to see two types of poor:

    1) Working class poor – This is the poor most America prefers to see. These are the ones that try to escape poverty by finding any job they can, save up as much as they can, and build up their children’s future by helping them succeed in school the best they can offer. They might rely on government benefits, but they try not to be too dependent on them.

    2) The lazy poor – The is the poor most Americans rather dislike. They might have a job, but many of this type don’t. They consistently rely on government services, and often abuse the system. They don’t help their kids often enough, which results in the kids doing more harm to the society by joining gangs, destroying public property, etc.

    Both #1 & #2 may use public transit a lot, but it’s usually #2 that stands out. Having ridden on the bus several times around Houston, I’ve seen both (an occasionally middle class folks too, though not enough) and #2 have given me more bad experiences than I’d like. I took the misfortune of going through downtown one night and after leaving a downtown station, at least 3 smellly people got on board at different times. Each wore rather poor taste in threads, but what was worse was that they had some collection of salvaged garbage with them. This one man sat across from me, had tons of junk on his walker, and absolutely reeked the whole time! I tried my best to hold my breath every minute, or breathe into my shirt. I haven’t taken the bus since.

    Another issue with #2 is they often hit the downtown area. Houstonians are known for their generosity through charity and volunteer events, but in our normal lives, we don’t really want to have to rub shoulders with #2 if we don’t need to. People don’t like seeing beggars on the street, or worried about getting mugged or pickpocketed. That’s a reason why Downtown Houston has very few residential inhabitants. The numbers ranged in the low thousands if at that.

    Point being is that the worst of the poor, often push people far away as possible to not get into contact with them. It should also be mentioned that many cities have not had such a track record of providing quality mass transit either through itself or through lack of funds.

  7. The rural areas of America are full of poor people, isolated from cities, jobs, supermarkets due to lack of transportation. People often pretend that they don’t exist. Pick any state capital and drive 25 miles out and you will find poverty. Most people are poor in America, not” middle-class”, very few are wealthy.