Life events, poverty, and car ownership in the United States: A mobility biography approach




car ownership, mobility biography, life events, PSID


What causes families to buy or give up a car in the U.S.? Following the mobility biography approach, we use a nationally representative panel data set, the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID), to examine the role of life events and changes in the built environment and compare the effect that these events have on changes in car ownership. We find that coupling, graduating from college, and the birth or adoption of a child all are associated with increases in car ownership, while breaking up is associated with decreases in car ownership. Moving to or away from transit-rich, dense, walkable neighborhoods matters but only when one moves to a very different type of neighborhood. We also find that life events have a stronger association with gaining a car for non-poor families than for families in poverty. Life events are windows of opportunity when families reevaluate their travel patterns. Interventions at these critical junctures could be an expedient way to decrease car ownership and its attendant problems, especially when combined with improving alternatives to the automobile.

Author Biographies

Nicholas J. Klein, Cornell University

Nicholas J. Klein is an Assistant Professor in the Department of City and Regional Planning at Cornell University

Michael J. Smart, Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey

Michael J. Smart is an Associate Professor in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey


Axhausen, K. W. (2002). A dynamic understanding of travel demand: A sketch. Arbeitsberichte Verkehrs- Und Raumplanung, 119, 1–20.

Behrens, R., & Mistro, R. D. (2010). Shocking habits: Methodological issues in analyzing changing personal travel behavior over time. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 4(5), 253–271.

Beige, S., & Axhausen, K. W. (2012). Interdependencies between turning points in life and long-term mobility decisions. Transportation, 39(4), 857–872.

Bento, A. M., Cropper, M. L., Mobarak, A. M., & Vinha, K. (2005). The effects of urban spatial structure on travel demand in the United States. The Review of Economics and Statistics, 87(3), 466–478.

Boarnet, M. G. (2017). Land use, travel behavior, and disaggregate travel data. In G. Giuliano & S. Hanson (Eds.), The geography of urban transportation (4th edition, pp. 139–163). New York: The Guilford Press.

Brown, A. E. (2017). Car-less or car-free? Socioeconomic and mobility differences among zero-car households. Transport Policy, 60, 152–159.

Buehler, R., Pucher, J., Gerike, R., & Götschi, T. (2017). Reducing car dependence in the heart of Europe: Lessons from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. Transport Reviews, 37(1), 4–28.

Busch-Geertsema, A., & Lanzendorf, M. (2017). From university to work life – Jumping behind the wheel? Explaining mode change of students making the transition to professional life. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 106(Supplement C), 181–196.

Cao, X., Mokhtarian, P. L., & Handy, S. L. (2007). Do changes in neighborhood characteristics lead to changes in travel behavior? A structural equations modeling approach. Transportation, 34(5), 535–556.

Cao, X., Mokhtarian, P. L., & Handy, S. L. (2009). Examining the impacts of residential self‐selection on travel behavior: A focus on empirical findings. Transport Reviews, 29(3), 359–395.

Chatterjee, K., & Scheiner, J. (2015, July 19). Understanding changing travel behavior over the life course: Contributions from biographical research. Presented at the 14th International Conference on Travel Behaviour Research, Windsor, UK. Retrieved from

Clark, B., Chatterjee, K., & Melia, S. (2015). Changes in level of household car ownership: The role of life events and spatial context. Transportation, 43(4), 565–599.

Clark, B., Lyons, G., & Chatterjee, K. (2016). Understanding the process that gives rise to household car ownership level changes. Journal of Transport Geography, 55, 110–120.

Cullen, I. (1978). The treatment of time in the explanation of spatial behavior. In T. Carlstein, D. Parkes, & N. J. Thrift (Eds.), Human activity and time geography. London: E. Arnold. Retrieved from

Dargay, J. M. (2001). The effect of income on car ownership: Evidence of asymmetry. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 35(9), 807–821.

Dargay, J. M., & Hanly, M. (2007). Volatility of car ownership, commuting mode and time in the UK. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 41(10), 934–948.

Delbosc, A., & Nakanishi, H. (2017). A life course perspective on the travel of Australian millennials. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 104(Supplement C), 319–336.

Edwards, J. D., Lunsman, M., Perkins, M., Rebok, G. W., & Roth, D. L. (2009). Driving cessation and health trajectories in older adults. The Journals of Gerontology: Series A, 64A(12), 1290–1295.

Elder, G. H., & Giele, J. Z. (Eds.). (2009). The craft of life course research. New York: Guilford Press. Retrieved from

Ewing, R., & Cervero, R. (2010). Travel and the built environment. Journal of the American Planning Association, 76(3), 265–294.

Fujii, S., & Kitamura, R. (2003). What does a one-month free bus ticket do to habitual drivers? An experimental analysis of habit and attitude change. Transportation, 30(1), 81–95.

Gärling, T., & Axhausen, K. W. (2003). Introduction: Habitual travel choice. Transportation, 30(1), 1–11.

Giuliano, G., & Golob, T. F. (1990). Using longitudinal methods for analysis of a short-term transportation demonstration project. Transportation, 17(1), 1–28.

Handy, S. (2018). Enough with the “D’s” already — Let’s get back to “A.” Transfers Magazine, (1), 24–26.

Handy, S., Cao, X., & Mokhtarian, P. (2005). Correlation or causality between the built environment and travel behavior? Evidence from Northern California. Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 10(6), 427–444.

Janke, J., & Handy, S. (2019). How life course events trigger changes in bicycling attitudes and behavior: Insights into causality. Travel Behavior and Society, 16, 31–41.

Johnson, D. S., McGonagle, K. A., Freedman, V. A., & Sastry, N. (2018). Fifty years of the Panel Study of Income Dynamics: Past, present, and future. The Annal of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 680(1), 9–28.

Jones, H., Chatterjee, K., & Gray, S. (2014). A biographical approach to studying individual change and continuity in walking and cycling over the life course. Journal of Transport & Health, 1(3), 182–189.

King, D. A., Smart, M. J., & Manville, M. (2019). The poverty of the carless: Toward universal auto access. Journal of Planning Education and Research, 0739456X18823252.

Kitamura, R. (2009). Life-style and travel demand. Transportation, 36(6), 679–710.

Klein, N. J., & Smart, M. J. (2017). Car today, gone tomorrow: The ephemeral car in low-income, immigrant and minority families. Transportation, 44(3), 495–510.

Klinger, T., & Lanzendorf, M. (2016). Moving between mobility cultures: What affects the travel behavior of new residents? Transportation, 43(2), 243–271.

Krizek, K., & Waddell, P. (2002). Analysis of lifestyle choices: Neighborhood type, travel patterns, and activity participation. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 1807, 119–128.

Lanzendorf, M. (2003). Mobility biographies. A new perspective for understanding travel behavior. Paper presented at the 10th International Conference on Travel Behavior Research (IATBR), Lucerne, Switzerland, August, 2003.

Lanzendorf, M. (2010). Key events and their effect on mobility biographies: The case of childbirth. International Journal of Sustainable Transportation, 4(5), 272–292.

Manaugh, K., & El-Geneidy, A. (2011). Validating walkability indices: How do different households respond to the walkability of their neighborhood? Transportation Research Part D: Transport and Environment, 16(4), 309–315.

McGonagle, K. A., Schoeni, R. F., Sastry, N., & Freedman, V. A. (2012). The Panel Study of Income Dynamics: Overview, recent innovations, and potential for life course research. Longit Life Course Study, 3(2), 268–284.

Miles, A., Moore, N., & Muir, S. (2014). Mobility biographies: Studying transport and travel behavior through life histories. In F. Hülsmann, K. Roller, & R. Gerike (Eds.), Strategies for sustainable mobilities: Opportunities and challenges (pp. 173–188). Farnham, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.

Müggenburg, H., Busch-Geertsema, A., & Lanzendorf, M. (2015). Mobility biographies: A review of achievements and challenges of the mobility biographies approach and a framework for further research. Journal of Transport Geography, 46, 151–163.

Oakil, A. T., Ettema, D., Arentze, T., & Timmermans, H. (2014). Changing household car ownership level and life cycle events: An action in anticipation or an action on occurrence. Transportation, 41(4), 889–904.

Oakil, A. T., Manting, D., & Nijland, H. (2018). The role of individual characteristics in car ownership shortly after relationship dissolution. Transportation, 1–12.

Owen, A., Levinson, D. M., & Murphy, B. (2017). Access across America: Transit 2015 data [data set]. Retrieved from

Panel Study of Income Dynamics, restricted use data. (2015). Produced and distributed by the Survey Research Center, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan, Institute for Social Research.

Prillwitz, J., Harms, S., & Lanzendorf, M. (2006). Impact of life-course events on car ownership. Transportation Research Record: Journal of the Transportation Research Board, 1985, 71–77.

Ralph, K. M., & Brown, A. E. (2017). The role of habit and residential location in travel behavior change programs, a field experiment. Transportation.

Rau, H., & Manton, R. (2016). Life events and mobility milestones: Advances in mobility biography theory and research. Journal of Transport Geography, 52(Supplement C), 51–60.

Rau, H., & Sattlegger, L. (2017). Shared journeys, linked lives: A relational-biographical approach to mobility practices. Mobilities.

Rosenbloom, S. (2001). Driving cessation among older people: When does it happen and what impact does it have? Transportation Research Record, 1779(1), 93–99.

Salomon, I. (1983). Life-style —A broader perspective on travel behavior. In S. Carpenter & P. Jones (Eds.), Recent advances in travel demand analysis (pp. 290–310). Aldershot, Hants, England: Gower.

Salomon, I., & Ben-Akiva, M. (1983). The use of the life-style concept in travel demand models. Environment and Planning A, 15(5), 623–638.

Sastry, N., Fomby, P., & McGonagle, K. (2018). Using the Panel Study of Income Dynamics (PSID) to conduct life course health development analysis. In N. Halfon, C. B. Forrest, R. M. Lerner, & E. M. Faustman (Eds.), Handbook of life course health development (pp. 579–599).

Sattlegger, L., & Rau, H. (2016). Carlessness in a car‐centric world: A reconstructive approach to qualitative mobility biographies research. Journal of Transport Geography, 53(Supplement C), 22–31.

Scheiner, J. (2014a). Gendered key events in the life course: Effects on changes in travel mode choice over time. Journal of Transport Geography, 37(Supplement C), 47–60.

Scheiner, J. (2014b). Residential self-selection in travel behavior: Towards an integration into mobility biographies. Journal of Transport and Land Use, 7(3), 15–28.

Scheiner, J. (2017). Mobility biographies and mobility socialization—New approaches to an old research field. In J. Zhang (Ed.), Life-oriented behavioral research for urban policy (pp. 385–401). Berlin: Springer.

Scheiner, J. (2018). Why is there change in travel behavior? In search of a theoretical framework for mobility biographies. Erdkunde, 72(1), 41–62.

Scheiner, J., & Holz-Rau, C. (2013a). A comprehensive study of life course, cohort, and period effects on changes in travel mode use. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice, 47, 167–181.

Scheiner, J., & Holz-Rau, C. (2013b). Changes in travel mode use after residential relocation: A contribution to mobility biographies. Transportation, 40(2), 431–458.

Schwanen, T., & Mokhtarian, P. L. (2005). What affects commute mode choice: Neighborhood physical structure or preferences toward neighborhoods? Journal of Transport Geography, 13(1), 83–99.

Smart, M. J. (2018). Walkability, transit, and body mass index: A panel approach. Journal of Transport & Health, 8, 193–201.

Thigpen, C. (2018). Do bicycling experiences and exposure influence bicycling skills and Attitudes? Evidence from a bicycle-friendly university. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice.

Thomas, A. (2016). A more sustainable minivan? An exploratory study of electric bicycle use by San Francisco Bay Area families. Presented at the Transportation Research Board 95th Annual MeetingTransportation Research Board, Washington DC. Retrieved from

US Census Bureau. (2018, August 16). How the Census Bureau measures poverty. Retrieved from

U.S. Census Bureau. (n.d.). US 2010 decennial census, tables “SE:T1. Total population” and “SE:T2. Population density (per sq. mile)." Retrieved from

van der Waerden, P., Timmermans, H., & Borgers, A. (2003). The influence of key events and critical incidents on transport mode choice switching behavior: A descriptive analysis. Proceedings of 10th International Conference on Travel Behavior Research, 2003. Retrieved from

Verplanken, B., Aarts, H., & van Knippenberg, A. (1997). Habit, information acquisition, and the process of making travel mode choices. European Journal of Social Psychology, 27(5), 539–560.

Verplanken, B., & Roy, D. (2016). Empowering interventions to promote sustainable lifestyles: Testing the habit discontinuity hypothesis in a field experiment. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 45(Supplement C), 127–134.

Voulgaris, C. T., Taylor, B. D., Blumenberg, E., Brown, A., & Ralph, K. (2016). Synergistic neighborhood relationships with travel behavior: An analysis of travel in 30,000 US neighborhoods. Journal of Transport and Land Use, 10(1) 437–461.

Waddell, P. (2000). Towards a behavioral integration of land use and transportation modelling. Paper presented at the 9th International Association for Travel Behavior Research Conference, Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. Retrieved from

Walk Score. (2016). Walk Score website. Retrieved from

Walker, J. L., & Li, J. (2007). Latent lifestyle preferences and household location decisions. Journal of Geographical Systems, 9(1), 77–101.

Zhao, P., & Zhang, Y. (2018). Travel behavior and life course: Examining changes in car use after residential relocation in Beijing. Journal of Transport Geography, 73, 41–53.


Additional Files



How to Cite

Klein, N. J., & Smart, M. J. (2019). Life events, poverty, and car ownership in the United States: A mobility biography approach. Journal of Transport and Land Use, 12(1).