Getting From Here to There in Rural America

Rural transit is something that has been on my mind for years. When I was growing up, my family was fortunate enough to have a car when we needed to travel the 20 miles to get to town, or 10 miles in the opposite direction to the nearest grocery store. But financial circumstances are wont to change, and a mechanical issue at the wrong time can have devastating effects for people who are completely reliant on their car for everyday needs.

Roughly 61 million people in the U.S. live in a rural area. According to PRB (Population Reference Bureau), 30% of rural residents commute 30 minutes one way to work and 4% travel as much as 90 minutes. Beyond the obvious gas and time costs, long commutes require continuous maintenance on vehicles.

My own mother makes a 46-mile, 70-minute commute with traffic every day for work, just as she’s done for the last 18 years. The question that’s probably on your mind if you’re an urbanist—the same one I have asked several times—is, “Why wouldn’t you just move?” She usually replies with something like, “Ah, yeah, I probably should.”

I ask this question, but I know better than anyone the complexities behind her decision to stay. A decision based initially on public school quality and low cost of living has transitioned into a commitment. She takes care of my elderly grandmother. She likes being near and available to my aunt who lives with a disability (and having coffee with her for that matter). She has a home with several acres that is paid off. Her church is there, her community. Having land means being able to trap shoot, explore, have a garden; it involves a sense of freedom. Still, nowhere closer than the city can provide the benefits of her job position, so like many Americans, she gets in the car and commutes.

Newer, efficient cars are more costly than older, utilitarian models. Inclement weather, gravel roads, and the need to haul children or supplies usually result in low-efficiency, gas-guzzling machines as the go-to means of transport. The cost of this accumulates in major maintenance and gas expenses.

Poverty rates are higher in rural areas than urban ones. 16.7% of rural Americans live in poverty, compared to 13% of those in urban communities. For impoverished workers, a sudden cost—repairing a head gasket, for instance—can decimate a limited budget. Aging and disability also contribute to lack of driving ability, and rates of disability are higher in less-dense communities as well.

Being carless in rural communities has more consequences than just a lack of basic mobility. It also affects one’s ability to improve those circumstances. The pivotal question on job applications, “Do you have reliable means of transportation?” may be one you overlook, but if you’re without a car in the country, the answer is a resounding, disqualifying “No.” Whether because of finance or circumstance, the situation of not having or being able to drive a car becomes a constant need to beg rides from friends and loved ones, many of whom have their own sizable commutes to attend to. (As someone who grew up in a rural area, I can report that it is also a verifiable contributor to teen angst.) It limits how hirable you can be and the pool of jobs you might take. It’s not an easy situation, especially when acquiring a car can mean overloading yourself with significant amounts of debt.

The federal Department of Transportation provides grants for transportation assistance programs through the 5311 program. For the program that serves my hometown and surrounding counties, SMTS, this federal funding covers 50% of the operating budget. The remainder must be made up through fees and donations. With SMTS, door-to-door service can be provided on a scheduled basis. Riders over 60 or under with a disability have suggested fees; for others, a cost is calculated by distance.

The service isn’t well known, or uniformly available. According to the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center, about 70% of rural America even has access to services like SMTS. The other 30% has no transit assistance of any sort. Areas without relief include large swaths of the southern and western plains. The service also fails to provide fixed routes for most rural residents. It is more of a spot treatment for the small number of individuals who are aware of the service, qualify for waived fees, and fall within the service area.

But expanding door to door service or modeling transit in rural communities after urban ones would be an admitted money pit. The scale, schedules, and cost of urban transit simply aren’t something our rural towns and regions have the capacity to take on. So what can be done?

Import Replacement is something we’ve written about before and could be part of solution. The long-term goal is to cultivate local economies and make more goods and services available locally, reducing residents’ need to travel outside their communities. It’s possible to start small, by simply coordinating to provide things on a scheduled basis. In the linked article, our president, Chuck Marohn, describes how he suggested a town bring in a barber or beautician one day a month rather than having the whole town consistently drive 40 minutes each to the next town over. In towns lacking services, such concerted efforts to get more of those services available locally could lessen the burden of limited mobility.

In many places, commuters are traveling along major corridors to the same key economic centers. While door to door service is costly in sparsely populated regions, park and ride services could be a low lift transition to providing transit relief. For rural residents commuting into urban centers, there are few routes, and they are along specific highways. Servicing these areas could help, while expanding the talent pools for small and midsize cities where employers struggle to fill positions. Those without cars would still struggle, but the accessibility of a several-mile trip to a transit hub is much easier to tackle than a 40-mile one.

Like anything we discuss at Strong Towns, there is no exact prescriptive solution. The size and placement of an area, the citizens’ specific needs, and funding are all qualifiers for what services can be provided, if any. But as more young people flock to cities and the countryside experiences brain drain, mobility needs to be considered in small towns. If Strong Towns need strong citizens, they largely need to be employed and employable, mobile, and have access to services. One of the biggest hurdles to becoming that strong citizen for roughly ⅕ of the United States is the ability to drive.

(Cover photo is courtesy of Warren Wong.)