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Exploring Bicycle and Public Transit Use by Low-Income Latino Immigrants

Posted by Content Coordinator on Thursday, June 2nd, 2016



Executive Summary

Immigration to the United States is growing. Over the next four decades, many immigrants will come from Latin America with few resources, relying on public transit, bicycling, and walking to meet their transportation needs. Previous research on low-income immigrant travel has relied on national surveys and qualitative analysis, which underrepresent disadvantaged population groups and slower modes of travel, or are unable to speak to broader patterns in the population. This study addresses additional research needs by exploring the travel behavior and experiences of low-income immigrants.


The analysis is based on interviews with 14 low-income immigrants and a paper-based intercept survey of 2,078 adults in the San Francisco Bay Area. Survey site selection criteria resulted in a purposive oversample of low-income immigrants. Interviews generated questions for the survey instrument and focused on experiences with transit and bicycling, transportation barriers, and transportation preferences. The survey asked about respondents’ recent travel, their experiences with transit and bicycling, and their sociodemographic information. Both qualitative and quantitative information contribute to the findings in this report.

Key Findings

First, low-income immigrants talked about five major barriers that made public transit use difficult for them: safety, discrimination, cost, legibility, and reliability. In our interviews, crime was the most prominent barrier—almost every interviewee had a story about their experiences with verbal or physical violence when accessing or using public transit. In contrast to the interview data, among survey respondents transit cost was the most commonly identified barrier for low-income immigrants.

Second, there were small differences in personal vehicle access and travel patterns according to income and immigrant status, consistent with prior research. Low-income immigrants were less likely than those with higher incomes to have access to a motor vehicle, and were less likely than U.S.-born or higher-income immigrants to have access to a bicycle.

Third, most reported barriers to public transit use were about the same irrespective of income and immigrant status, including concerns about affordability, neighborhood crime, reliability, transit access, and sufficient information about public transit. But some barriers are unique to low-income immigrants. Low-income immigrants were much less willing to substitute taking public transit for driving when they have the option to drive, suggesting they obtain car access for particular purposes that transit does not serve, or that their experiences on public transit have been unpleasant. Low-income immigrants were also less willing ride their bicycles for any trip purpose, a finding that is contrary to claims made in other published research. Respondents surveyed at day labor sites rode bicycles more frequently than those surveyed at other locations, suggesting type of employment partially accounts for this finding.

The study results yield a number of implications for policy. The prevalence of concerns about transit affordability, crime, and reliability suggest transit agencies should consider income-based fare reductions, coordinated crime prevention with local law enforcement, and improved scheduling. A significant minority of transit riders value bicycle access to transit, suggesting judicious investment in bike-transit integration is warranted. Finally, because some differences in immigrant travel habits and experiences were significant, travel and on-board surveys should collect data on nativity.

I. Introduction

Over 40 million immigrants live in the United States, composing about 13 percent of the U.S. population. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that the foreign-born population will grow by 85 percent over the next 45 years, resulting in the largest share of immigrants in this country’s history. One out of every five Americans will have been born elsewhere by 2060. Many will come from poorer countries in Latin America, a region that currently accounts for the majority of U.S. immigration. Public transportation is a vital link in meeting the mobility needs of immigrants. Roughly 2 percent of all trips nationwide are made by public transit, but immigrant households earning less than $25,000 per year take nearly 9 percent of their trips on public transportation.

Previous research on the travel behavior of low-income immigrants has used national transportation surveys, telephone-based surveys, qualitative interviews, and focus groups to understand particular influences on travel. However, general transportation surveys tend to underrepresent disadvantaged population groups and slower modes of travel, and qualitative data cannot speak to general patterns in a population group. To overcome these limitations, we designed a mixed-methods study, including both interviews and an original survey, in which we recruited low-income immigrants in neighborhoods where they were most likely to travel. We define a low-income immigrant as a person born outside the United States whose household earned $25,000 or less in the previous year, the approximate federal poverty level for a family of four.

The purpose of this study is to better understand how low-income immigrants’ travel behavior differs from that of other immigrants and people born in the US. We focus on two primary questions:

  • How frequently do low-income immigrants drive, take public transit, walk, and cycle, and how does this compare to other groups?
  • What preferences do low-income immigrants hold, and what barriers and constraints do they face, in taking transit, bicycling, and accessing transit by bicycle?

We designed an intercept survey after interviewing 14 low-income immigrants, whom we recruited through organizations that provide social services and employment opportunities in low-income communities. We collected 2,087 responses from the survey, administered at 44 locations across the San Francisco Bay Area – primarily at rail and bus stops, but also at street fairs, grocery stores, flea markets, and day laborer waiting sites.

The remainder of the report is organized as follows. Chapter II briefly reviews the literature on immigrant travel behavior and influences on transit and bicycle travel in the U.S. Chapter III describes the methodology of the study, including interview recruitment and interview data analysis, survey questionnaire design, intercept site selection, and survey data analysis.

Chapter IV discusses in-depth interview findings, yielding five themes that helped us design the questionnaire. Chapter V describes sociodemographic characteristics and travel habits of survey respondents. The report concludes with a summary of findings and offers policy recommendations to address the travel needs of low-income immigrants.

Figure 1. Mode Choice in the San Francisco Bay Area (weighted by population)

Download full version (PDF): Exploring Bicycle and Public Transit Use by Low-Income Latino Immigrants

About the Mineta Transportation Institute
The Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) conducts research, education, and information and technology transfer, focusing on multimodal surface transportation policy and management issues. It was established by Congress in 1991 as part of the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) and was reauthorized under TEA-21 and again under SAFETEA-LU. The Institute is funded by Congress through the US Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Research and Innovative Technology Administration, by the California Legislature through the Department of Transportation (Caltrans), and by other public and private grants and donations, including grants from the US Department of Homeland Security.

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