Drivers of Opportunity: Car Access and Economic Mobility

In a post-COVID world, do Americans still feel that a car can help them get ahead?

For more than a century, cars have been a central fixture of American life.

But in a post-COVID world, where many are still working from home and where virtual doctor’s appointments and online classes have become more available, how do Americans now feel about the benefits of car ownership?  

According to a new Capital One Insights Center survey, many consumers who don’t have access to a car because they can’t afford one report that lack of access has limited their ability to look for a job. They also report that having access to a car would likely benefit other aspects of their employment, healthcare and their children’s educational opportunities.

Car ownership is not the answer for every household. But our survey indicates that post-pandemic changes in where people work and live haven’t changed the perception that access to a car would have significant economic benefits, particularly among those who don’t own one.

Why this matters

Several studies have found that owning or having access to a car is associated with improved economic outcomes, from steady employment and better earnings to higher educational attainment. In one survey, respondents said that reliable transportation to and from work was the biggest contributor to their social and economic mobility. On the flip side, households without cars were more likely to miss and delay medical care and had fewer choices for where to buy food

Alternatives to cars—like ride-sharing and public transportation—are more prominent and convenient in urban areas. Also, a greater number of people live in lower-density neighborhoods (such as suburban neighborhoods and rural communities) with declining proximity to jobs, compared with city residents. All of which means that suburban and rural residents are necessarily more dependent on cars

What’s more, over the past 20 years, poverty has grown more sharply in suburban counties than in urban or rural counties–which suggests that many residents who can’t afford a car are living in areas where access to jobs and other opportunities are limited without one.

Key Findings

In partnership with Morning Consult, we surveyed 7,110 US adults from June 15 to July 6, 2023, about their perceptions of car ownership. We expand on previous studies by surveying respondents post-COVID and across the income spectrum.

Of those respondents, we focus on those who said they do not have access to a personal vehicle because they can’t afford one. 

To go to work, take their children to school, access healthcare, and buy groceries and other necessities, these respondents report using various alternate methods of transportation or will get a ride or borrow a car from someone else.

Americans who lack car access because they can't afford a car primarily walk or ride the bus

Employment: About 34% report that having access to a car would affect their access to jobs. Many also report that they would have more options for where to work and envision a higher income, career progression or more control over their time.

About 28% of respondents believe that access to a car would help them earn a higher income

Respondents in this group report not applying to jobs they wanted because of the distance (35%), turning down job offers (22%) and being screened out of the hiring process (11%).

Respondents report that distance is the greatest hurdle when job-searching without a car

Education: About 77% of parents who lack car access because they can’t afford a car report at least one way that having a car could improve their child’s education or access to activities with their friends or after school.

About 31% of parents believe that access to a car would decrease stress on their child

Healthcare access: Of Americans who lack car access because they can’t afford a car, roughly a third report that having a car would allow them to keep or show up on time for their healthcare appointments. About a quarter report that having a car would give them better choices to support their overall health, while another quarter said that having a car would expand access to more providers.

About 21% of respondents believe that a car would make them feel empowered to seek regular healthcare

Social benefits: Americans who lack car access because they can’t afford a car reported several other perceived benefits of having a car, including convenience, flexibility, freedom, and the “ability to easily transport goods,” like groceries.

More than two-thirds of respondents believe access to a car offers convenience and flexibility

Improving access to cars

Research has shown that having access to a car can enable families to take advantage of opportunities that can improve their economic and personal well-being. And a growing share of those who can’t afford a car may be living in areas where they need car access. 

Expanding car access is not the only solution, but for many households, owning or accessing a private vehicle widens the availability of job opportunities and other key outcomes. Policymakers should continue to focus on long-term solutions for expanded, improved and affordable public transportation–but should also address the immediate needs of those who lack access to such resources. For many families, cars can provide a critical lifeline and can serve as a foundation for improved financial well-being. 

Solutions, like those offered by the National Equity Atlas, include such recommendations as expanding transit options beyond urban areas, as well as policies that help more people get access to cars. And several nonprofits and community partners help support affordable car ownership, such as Texas-based nonprofit On the Road Lending (which partners with Capital One), and programs designed to subsidize car repairs and maintenance.


The Capital One Vehicle Access survey was conducted online from June 15 to July 6, 2023, in partnership with Morning Consult.

We surveyed a nationally representative sample of 7,110 US adults, including an oversample of those living in Dallas-Fort Worth (n=275). Quotas were set so that two-thirds of the sample had low-to-middle incomes (less than $100,000) and one-third had higher incomes ($100,000+). In our sample, 4,057 respondents had a personal vehicle and 3,053 respondents did not. Of the respondents who did not own a personal vehicle, 840 respondents said they did not own a car because they could not afford one. 

The data were unweighted. Results from the general population sample have a margin of error of +1/-1 percentage points. Results from the Dallas-Fort Worth sample have a margin of error of +/-6 percentage points.

Note: all data in this report is from self-reported, anonymous research of U.S. consumers broadly, not specifically from or about Capital One customers or employees.

About the Capital One Insights Center

The Center combines Capital One research and partnerships to produce insights that advance equity and inclusion. As a nascent platform for data and dialogue, the Center strives to help changemakers create an inclusive society, build thriving communities and develop financial tools that enrich lives. The Center draws on Capital One’s deep market expertise and legacy of revolutionizing the credit system through the application of data, information and technology. 


This material has been prepared by the Capital One Insights Center, a non-partisan center for objective research and insights, and is provided solely for general information purposes. Unless otherwise specifically stated, any views, analysis or opinions expressed herein are solely those of the Capital One Insights Center’s staff, researchers and listed partners (if applicable) and may differ from the views and opinions expressed by Capital One Financial Corporation, other departments or divisions of Capital One Financial Corporation, or its affiliates and/or subsidiaries (Capital One). Information has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. 

The data relied on for this report are based on self-reported survey data from anonymous respondents across the U.S. Survey respondents included may or may not have relationships with any number of financial institutions and/or products. Capital One Insights Center does not know, nor is it able to determine, if any of the survey respondents have a relationship with Capital One. Certain information herein is also based on data obtained from third-party sources believed to be reliable. 

Analysis and conclusions constitute the Capital One Insights Center’s judgment as of the date of this report and are subject to change without notice. Furthermore, the analysis and views will not be updated or otherwise revised to reflect information that subsequently becomes available or circumstances existing, or changes occurring, after the date of publication. 

Any opinions expressed herein should not be construed as an individual recommendation for any particular customer or client and is not intended as advice or recommendations of particular securities, financial instruments, market conditions or strategies. Capital One Financial Corporation and its affiliates and/or subsidiaries may issue reports or have opinions that are inconsistent with, and reach different conclusions from, this report.

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