Uncovering JAPA

A Driver's License Can Equal Carpooling, Safety, and Social Justice

How can planners make driving safer and make stronger arguments for carpooling at the same time? Many planners are interested in encouraging public transit and other modes of shared transportation for environmental, infrastructure, or efficiency reasons.

However, an important component of carpooling is ensuring that those carpool drivers have driver's licenses.

Authors Ryan Allen and Jueyu Wang examine this issue in "Immigrant Legal Status and Commute Mode Choice for Hispanics in the United States," Journal of the American Planning Association (Vol. 86, No. 3).

Undocumented Immigrants' Commuting Habits Studied

Using data from the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) the authors identify likely undocumented immigrants to understand their commuting mode choices compared with documented immigrants and native-born Hispanic Americans.

The authors found that two-thirds of undocumented immigrant commuters drive to work.

The pertinent issue that arises from their findings revolves around undocumented immigrants' ability to obtain a driver's license and whether planners should encourage alternative modes of commuting for this group.

Prior research has demonstrated that undocumented immigrants are less likely to drive in the first few years of living in the United States. Being stopped by law enforcement officials without a license is a misdemeanor, but for an undocumented immigrant, "[a]n arrest may also trigger identification by Immigration and Customs Enforcement and eventual deportation." However, car ownership becomes more likely as undocumented immigrants live here longer.

Undocumented Immigrants Face Commuting Challenges

The authors suggest that there is a correlation between car ownership and the research finding that as undocumented immigrants live here longer, they tend to move to suburban areas, increasing the need for a car.

Only about 43 percent of undocumented immigrants reside in states where they can obtain a license, so a majority of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. cannot drive legally.

While some of these immigrants may have foreign licenses, there is no way of ensuring that the two-thirds of undocumented immigrant commuters who drive to work across the country have proved that they know how to properly operate a vehicle or know the rules of the road.

What does this mean for all of us?

The authors note that continuing to block the ability of undocumented immigrants to obtain licenses is detrimental not only to the unlicensed drivers themselves but to everyone who uses the roads.

In theory, encouraging undocumented immigrants to carpool with licensed drivers would make driving safer for everyone. It is also consistent with the planning profession's promotion of shared modes of transport to reduce the number of commuters who travel alone.

A necessary step toward that goal is increasing the number of licensed drivers within the undocumented immigrant community. It is possible that undocumented immigrants would be more likely to ride with and trust another undocumented immigrant with a license. In this case, having a driver's license would become an asset to the community and be beneficial for all of us.

There is not a lot of research into undocumented immigrants and modes of transportation. Research areas are waiting to be studied that would support the planner's role in simultaneously advocating for social justice and making the city safer.

With the many crises and threats that we are confronting — some of which impact certain communities more than others — planners could take an increasingly more prominent role in presenting solutions to these problems.

The authors offer more statistics about specific states and cities and include ideas for legislation that could increase access to a driver's license. Those interested in engaging in immigration policy and transportation will find this research valuable.

Top image: Getty Images photo.

About the Author
Laier-Rayshon Smith is a dual Master in Urban Planning and Master in Design Studies candidate at Harvard University.

October 29, 2020

By Laier-Rayshon Smith