Vehicles allow people to obtain jobs, services and other meaningful necessities. Owning a car, however, is not possible for everyone, which puts many at a disadvantage when it comes to earning a livelihood.
While asking for rides can be a viable work-around, having assured access to transportation represents a significant step toward achieving greater equity and justice. Learn how to finance a car, purchase the right car insurance, save on daily expenses and play a role in making transportation more accessible to all.
How to Budget for a Car
Not having access to a private vehicle or public transportation can make life difficult — especially in metropolitan areas, where most jobs are located. New automobiles cost an average of $42,802, which put them out of reach for many.
Many consumers also underestimate the total cost of car ownership. The benefits of mobility, however, often include greater economic opportunities, such as jobs, education and time with loved ones. Owning a car also means that one will be able to drive at any time.
Finding Car Grants and Incentives
A number of programs offered by the federal and state governments, charities, nonprofits and private companies help those who lack the resources to purchase a car. These programs offer car-buying assistance in the form of a loan, grant or car donation and are typically available to those who are low-income earners. Below are a few resources to use to get started:
- The Grantsmanship Center: The center is a resource which can help you find potential car grants. To start, simply click on your state in the map shown under 'State Grant Resources.'
- Grants.gov: Grants.gov is a database that lists a number of federal grants. Simply filter the search results to "Individuals" and "Transportation" to find available grants. There are not always funding opportunities for individuals, but it’s worth a try to check.
- FuelEconomy.gov: You can earn up to $7,500 in federal tax credits if you purchase certain all-electric or plug-in hybrid cars after 2010. This resource outlines the different vehicle make and models and how much credit you can get for each.
- U.S. Department of Energy: Find federal and state grants and incentives related to alternative fuels and advanced vehicles in this database from the U.S. Department of Energy. To start, simply filter according to your state and category.
Ways to Finance a Car
While applying for grants and incentives can make the car-buying process easier, they can be quite difficult to find and obtain. Financing can be a strong option even if you have bad credit or low income. Most frequently, auto dealers act as intermediaries between lenders and consumers when it comes to financing a car. But you may also be able to get loans from other institutions, or try leasing a car.
A number of institutions offer auto loans, including car dealerships, banks and credit unions. With the right loan and repayment terms, it’s possible to get a new or used car at an affordable price relative to your income. In fact, applying for an auto loan is one of the most common ways to finance a car. However, loans are another monthly payment to consider — which can be made worse if you get unfavorable rates. Additionally, finding an auto loan with bad credit can limit your options. The key is to find a car and loan that fits your budget and has repayment terms that suit your situation.
Leasing a Car
If owning a car is not the best financial option, you can consider leasing one instead. This means that you will make monthly payments for a car over a certain period of time and return it after the period ends. Ultimately, leasing a car can cost less on a monthly basis, and it also includes maintenance coverage. Keep in mind, however, that leasing a car comes with limitations. You will be assigned certain mileage limits, which can prevent you from long commutes or cross-country trips, and you won’t build up equity when you lease a vehicle. This makes it more expensive in the long-run.
Purchasing the Right Car Insurance
Beyond paying the monthly bill for an auto loan or lease, most states require that you purchase car insurance. This provides financial protection in case of an accident, which is crucial for low-income individuals.
Car insurance does not have to be expensive, nor does it have to be of bad quality. There are a number of cheap auto insurance options for low-income individuals available from insurers and low cost auto insurance programs in various states. Below are a few tips for purchasing the right car insurance.
Determine how much and what type of insurance you need. While insurers are required to offer you the state minimums, you can always opt to increase your limits or add more coverage.
Gather quotes from several insurance companies to find the cheapest rates.
Look at the customer service ratings of a company to figure out which companies balance user satisfaction and financial sustainability.
How to Save on Public Transportation
Aside from purchasing a car, public transit and private vehicle services are both viable transportation options. Often, using buses and trains costs far less on a monthly basis and is far more eco-friendly than riding in a car. However, it can be easy to rack up transportation costs if you frequently go with costly options like traditional taxis and Uber or Lyft. Aim to find ways to save where possible.
Look for discounts
Check to see if you qualify for certain discounts. For instance, if you are a senior or are a student, you may be able to get a reduced fare.
Find rewards programs
Rewards programs in your city and state often provide discounts to students, government employees, veterans and those with a disability.
Bike or walk where possible
The easiest way to save money on public transportation is to ride your bicycle or walk to your destination. If you must take a bus and a train, consider biking to your train station and leaving your bike somewhere safe. This way, you’ll get to save and improve your health at the same time.
If you live near a coworker or classmate, consider asking them to carpool and split the cost of gas. Gas is one of the biggest expenses when it comes to owning a vehicle.
Look for free services
Some cities and states run a few routes that are free for all passengers. This is a viable way to save if you are running errands during the day, but be warned that service is often offered far from peak hours.
Support Programs to Improve Access to Cars and Transportation
Having convenient access to transportation can help people reach work, healthcare, educational and entertainment institutions. However, 45% of Americans don’t have access to transit, making it difficult to navigate day-to-day life. From creating new bus routes in underserved areas to reducing traffic and congestion by offering better mobility choices, a number of organizations and local governments have launched programs to increase access to cars and public transit.
Government Programs and Nonprofit Assistance
While most government efforts are typically geared towards improving public transit infrastructure, some local governments and nonprofit organizations offer assistance to help eligible individuals purchase a car. While this often does not cover the full amount, grants or rebates can go a long way toward promoting economic opportunity and social equity. Below are a few local government and nonprofit programs:
- Clean Vehicle Assistance Program: This California program provides up to $5,000 in grants and affordable financing options to Californians who want to purchase a new or used hybrid or electric vehicle.
- Delaware Clean Vehicle Rebate Program: This Delaware program grants a cash rebate of up to $2,500 for purchasing battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, propane and natural gas cars.
- New York State Drive Clean Rebate: Those who have bought or are leasing electric cars in New York can get a rebate of up to $2,000.
- Wheels to Work: Sharing House has launched a Wheels to Work program in North Carolina which lets eligible individuals pay $20 for 24 months to purchase a vehicle. Similar programs in Wisconsin and New York help eligible individuals secure reliable and affordable transportation or obtain financial assistance for vehicle repairs.
Additional Assistance Programs
If you’re a senior, veteran, or a person with a disability, you may qualify for even more assistance programs. Purchasing a car or looking for accessible transportation if you fall under one of these groups may be difficult — even more so if you’re faced with a low income. This is why it’s important to find and identify assistance programs in your area for your specific group. If your state is not listed, try to look for clean car or wheels-to-work programs in your area.
Support for Seniors
To remain independent and improve their health, older drivers need affordable transportation options. While it’s possible to get auto loans as a senior, public transit can also serve seniors so long as they are healthy and mobile.
Below are a few resources that can help seniors find affordable transportation:
- Volunteer Assisted Transportation (VAT): Based in Knoxville, Tennessee, this program provides rides for seniors and persons with disabilities who need assistance when traveling.
- Partners in Care: This organization offers no-cost transportation to older adults in Pasadena, Maryland in order to help them remain independent as they age.
- Eldercare Locator: This is a great resource to find your county’s Area Agency on Aging, which can help connect you with local programs and public transportation services for seniors in your county.
- Rides in Sight: This resource provides a database on transportation programs for older adults and those who are visually-impaired.
Support for Veterans
Access to transportation is essential for military veterans who are reintegrating themselves into their communities. Veterans who need transportation assistance can turn to a number of programs offered by federal and state governments and nonprofits.
Below are a few places to consider:
- Veterans Transportation Program (VTP): VTP offers services which provide safe and reliable transportation to VA health care facilities or reimburse costs associated with arriving at VA facilities.
- Need a Ride?: The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) organization has a fleet of transportation services around the country which provide free transportation to and from VA medical facilities.
- Veterans Automobile Allowance: Through this program, veterans with a disability related to their military service may be eligible to receive a one-time payment up to more than $21,000 in order to purchase a vehicle.
- Operation Homefront: To help military families facing difficult financial situations, Operation Homefront provides a variety of assistance programs, such as auto repair assistance, moving assistance and travel and transportation assistance.
Support for People with Disabilities
The American with Disabilities Act (ADA) has ensured that those who have mobility difficulties or are disabled have access to transportation. Most transportation assistance programs for the disabled vary based on each state, but the best way to find details is through the National Aging and Disability Transportation Center.
The NADTC provides an assistance center to help those with a disability locate transportation options in their area. A variety of other resources can help as well.
- Help Hope Live: This nonprofit offers a way for people to raise funds for their mobility needs and also offers one-time assistance grants to help with emergencies.
- Mobility Works: MobilityWorks can help you locate disability assistance and grants and other resources in your area.
- Bryon Riesch Paralysis Foundation: This foundation has given home and transportation accessibility assistance to those living with mobility disabilities.
- IM ABLE Foundation: IM ABLE Grants provide hand-cycles and other adaptive athletic gear to disabled individuals, in addition to instructional training programs.
- Mobility Resource: The Mobility Resource offers a host of resources and tools that can give insight into the available state grants for wheelchair-accessible vans in your state.
Other Benefits, Discounts and Support Programs
Transportation support and car assistance programs are available at the state and local level. A few popular public transit systems offer discounts to a variety of groups, while Washington state even offers repair grants. Below are a few resources to look out for.
- Washington Car Repair Grant: This offers one-time grants up to $1,000 to households who have been financially impacted by COVID-19 and rely on their car to continue working.
- Regional Transportation District: The RTD, which operates in Colorado, offers a host of discounts to youth, seniors, individuals with disabilities and individuals with low income.
- Ride Metro: The METRO in places like Phoenix, Arizona and Houston, Texas offers discounted fares on bus and light-rail services for students, seniors and disabled individuals. They also offer free fares to disabled or decorated veterans, jurors and seniors.
Achieving Transportation Justice: Policy Change and Advocacy
A variety of initiatives are being undertaken to make public transit easier and more accessible for all. For instance, in Montana, Organization Link, along with local and tribal government agencies, built the North Montana Transit System, which provided four regional bus routes and coordinated services for people within the Great Plains.
In Texas, Capital Metro, one of Austin’s public transit providers, is increasing their fleet by adding 197 new electric buses. And in California, the California City Transportation Initiative is working to make the streets safer and enact new life-saving policies.
Even city governments are tackling accessible transportation issues by launching policies aimed at developers to facilitate increased access to sustainable transportation.
Overcoming Barriers: How to Find Support
The value of owning a car or having access to one has only increased during the pandemic, perhaps due the flexibility that a vehicle provides. One recent study found that people’s valuation of owning and using a car increased by 260% during a pandemic month to $3,361, compared with a pre-pandemic month of approximately $933.
You should not feel alone if you are overcoming barriers that stem from a lack of access to vehicles and transportation. A number of urban transit advocacy organizations may help improve transportation accessibility in your community. Below are a few organizations you can start checking out:
- National Alliance of Public Transportation Advocates: NAPTA is a national organization that includes transit coalitions, transit rider organizations and advocates that aim to increase investment in public transportation. They also have a member directory that you can identify organizations in your areas.
- Public Advocates: Public Advocates is a civil rights law firm focused on education, housing and other issues. It also aims to secure transportation investments and improve funding to public transportation services for low-income individuals.
- Transportation for America: T4America is an advocacy organization that supports transit systems that are safe, affordable and convenient for people of all means.
- Safe Routes Partnership: The Safe Routes Partnership is a nonprofit organization that is dedicated to ensuring that children arrive safely at school, regardless of whether they are walking, biking or using their scooter.
- Transportation Alternatives: Transportation Alternatives aims to make New York’s streets safer for walking, biking and public transit. It pushes for changes in public policy, street design, enforcement and resource allocation to help transform the city’s streets.
Expert Insight on Improving Access to Cars & Transportation
MoneyGeek reached out to experts to better understand the key issues around transportation.
- How can improving access to cars and transportation help people achieve economic security?
- What are ways individuals with low income can get a car? What advice can you give to help people budget for a car?
- What transportation policies have helped to address inequality? What policies should still be implemented?
Co-Founder at Vinpit
Professor of Marketing and International Business at Baruch College, CUNY
Director of Marketing at RVezy
Additional Resources for Improving Access to Cars & Transportation
There are plenty of resources that emphasize how transportation plays a role in economic opportunity and social equity, along with programs to overcome barriers to transportation or vehicle access.
- American Association of Retired Persons: The AARP outlines a few transportation options for seniors to consider, from ride-hailing and carpooling to paratransit and public transit.
- Bay Area Air Quality Management District: If you live in California, this resource can help you find grants and rebates for electric cars and charging.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: This resource provided by the CDC explores how and why the current public transportation infrastructure in America is impacting the health of citizens.
- Consumer Reports: The Consumer Reports blog outlines how to find help getting a new car at the lowest possible price by negotiating with salespeople.
- Florida Navigator: Florida Navigator is a helpful database managed by the Agency for Persons with Disabilities and provides a list of agency disability programs in Florida.
- The Hamilton Project: This paper from the Hamilton Project provides in-depth insight into the current condition and utilization of highways and public transit in the U.S., along with how changes in infrastructure can affect the environment and economic activity of the area. It also recommends policies that can help improve mobility.
- National Center for Mobility Management: The National Center for Mobility Management provides numerous resources on healthcare and transportation services, mostly focused on seniors and people with disabilities. It also includes resources on grants and external funding opportunities.
- Transportation Research Board: This resource by the Transportation Research Board is a three-part blog series that explores socioeconomic equity and transportation. It offers resources for people with disabilities and ways to improve inclusion and diversity in the transportation workforce.
- U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs: The VA provides information on the Veterans Transportation Service (VTS) locations, and the database should let you view a list of participating VA medical centers in your area.
- Voices for Public Transit: Voices for Public Transit describes itself as a nationwide advocacy movement dedicated to expanding public transportation. Its database helps locate legislators in your state who you can address if you have a concern.
About Nathan Paulus
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- Mass Transit. "CapMetro Board approves one of the largest electric bus procurements in the U.S.." Accessed October 13, 2021.
- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Auto Dealer Loan Intermediation." Accessed May 1, 2023.
- National Equity Atlas. "Car access: Everyone needs reliable transportation access and in most American communities that means a car." Accessed October 13, 2021.
- Nature. "The Value of Car Ownership and Use in the United States." Accessed November 3, 2021.
- United States Census Bureau. "American Community Survey." Accessed October 11, 2021.