Investment in Transit Can Reduce Energy Burden for Low Income Households

It’s undeniable. The energy burden is larger for low income households in the United States, and transportation costs play a big role.

For low-income households, the largest majority of non-disposable income goes toward rent, transportation, and energy, in that specific order (CNT 2016).[1]  ACEEE recently released Lifting the High Energy Burden in America's Largest Cities, which highlighted the financial burden energy costs place on households across the United States. The major finding: an overwhelming majority of low-income and minority households experience higher-than-average energy burdens. The proportion of total household income that low-income households pay to energy bills is more than three times what higher-income households pay, on average. Energy efficiency can help reduce this burden and improve energy affordability for households across the board.

The elevated burden on low-income households is compounded by transportation costs.The average household in spends almost 20% of total income on transportation expenses. For low-income households in Detroit, this average burden can be as high as 30%.1 Latino households in Detroit experience amongst the greatest energy burdens in the country.

In Detroit, many jobs have moved away from the urban core, leaving low-income and minority communities inadequately served by affordable and efficient transportation options. With personal vehicles serving as the primary mode of transportation, expenditures on vehicles, gasoline, insurance, and maintenance is substantial in addition to very unpredictable. For every one dollar earned, the average household spends 18 cents on transportation. Of that expenditure, 94 percent goes toward buying, maintaining and operating cars.[2] Transit riders save approximately $1,400 in gas per year (subject to change dependent on current gas prices.)[3] Investment in public transportation improvement, like the RTA Master Plan, creates and sustains employment. Moreover, for every one billion USD of federal investment in the transportation infrastructure 47,500 jobs are created.[4]                                                                

And what’s better: public transportation not only increases energy efficiency on a micro-level and strengthens the economy on the macro-level, but also produces numerous environmental benefits. Public transportation produces 95 percent less carbon monoxide, 90 percent less in volatile organic compounds, and half the amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, per passenger mile, as privately-owned vehicles.[5] Promoting public transportation reduces transportation costs for families, but also our chips away at our toxic dependence on fossil fuels. Public transportation use in the United States saves 4 million gallons of gasoline per day. 5 Public transportation connects communities to help reduce sprawl, increase urban density, increase walkability, decrease parking lot construction and preserve the valuable green space.

There are even notable public health benefits. The ACEEE posits that families who face higher energy burdens experience negative long-term health effects. Statistically, these families are at greater risk for respiratory diseases and increased stress. Lower rates of respiratory illness and heart disease are associated with public transportation vehicles than with the high emissions levels of private vehicles.                                                                        

As you can see, programs, including public transportation improvement, that address high energy burden also help alleviate poverty and provide other benefits to society beyond energy savings, such as economic development, employment, education, and public health. In November, voters in the 4-county RTA region have the opportunity decide on whether or not to pass a $1.2 million, 20-year property tax millage to pay for the improvements to public transportation for Detroit and the surrounding counties.  On November 8, Vote Yes for Regional Transit so you, too, can stand with us to improve our environment and fight social inequality.                                   


[1] See the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Index for more information on housing and transportation affordability:

[2] Consumer Expenditures in 2004. BLS Report 992. Washington: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, April 2006.

[3] Public Transportation and Petroleum Savings in the U.S.: Reducing Dependence on Oil. Fairfax, VA: ICF International, January 2007.                                                                                                                                         

[4] “Introduction to JOBMOD.” Washington: Federal Highway Administration, 2002.

[5] Shapiro, Robert J., Kevin A. Hassett, and Frank Arnold. Conserving Energy and Preserving the Environment: The Role of Public Transportation. Washington: American Public Transportation Association, 2002. 

Published on August 25, 2016