Why Do We Let the Rural Tail Wag the Urban Dog?

Straphanger

Although I was born in what was then the fourth-largest city in America (Houston has since bumped my native Philadelphia to fifth place), I grew up in a small town, and have lived in small towns for much of my life. In Blue Hill, Maine, where we settled in my tenth year, the kids had a derogatory name for transplants from more populated areas. A “straphanger” was someone from Away – or more literally, someone who might have hung onto a strap on a public bus.

There were no public buses in Blue Hill. Everybody drove, and still does. Driving is more than independent transportation to rural Americans. It’s a way of life, and it’s not going away any time soon.

The problem with cars isn’t rural areas. Obviously people in the country need cars. (This isn’t to say to say that they can’t carpool, or drive to a convenient parking area and take a bus from there, as many people do to get to their jobs at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor.) But I have never maintained that renouncing car ownership is for everyone.

Fortunately, most Americans don’t live in small towns. According to the 2010 Census, 80.7% of the U.S. population lives in urban areas. But this is slightly deceptive. The Census differentiates between cities, with populations greater than 50,000, and “urban clusters” with populations between 2,500 and 50,000. By this definition, many Maine communities that are really small towns with a traffic light or two would be considered urban clusters. Bangor would be considered an urban cluster. The state would have only one true city: Portland.

Still, the 486 cities in the Census account for 71.2% of the entire population, while the 3,087 urban clusters account for 9.6%. This leaves just 19.3% of Americans living in true rural areas, completely dependent on the car.

Given this data, the question must be asked: why do we allow the rural tail to wag the urban dog when it comes to transportation policies? Rural Americans balk at taxpayer subsidies for public transportation, which they don’t use. But by the same reasoning, why should urban residents have to foot the bill for the miles of roads and utility wires, and all the public services that are much more expensive to provide to far-flung places?

Though not a real city by the Census definition, Bangor is big enough to sustain a public transportation system serving several outlying towns. Four of every five Americans live in areas where good public transportation could make a significant dent in the number of cars on the road. But planners are slow to pick up on this. Infrastructure for cars is still considered an investment and public transportation a subsidy. Though it’s all public money, the connotation of those two words reveals the continuing American bias toward the automobile. Build a road in the middle of nowhere, and you’re providing infrastructure. Expand an urban bus route or extend the hours, and you’re wasting taxpayers’ money.

It reflects the rural bias in our politics as well. North and South Dakota, with a combined population of 1.6 million, have four votes between them in the US Senate, while California, with a population 38.8 million, has two. The District of Columbia has none.

Is it any wonder there is money for roads but not for more buses and trains? As Jane Holtz Kay, author of Asphalt Nation, documented nearly 20 years ago, building more roads simply produces more driving – a phenomenon she called “generated traffic.” In fact, the number of cars increases faster than the capacity of the road. You can’t build your way out of congestion.

Yes, people who live in rural areas, who commute to jobs in other towns, who might live miles from the nearest store or school, or have kids who need to get to hockey practice and medical appointments and such – they need cars, and trucks. But that’s less that 20% of the population. Yet more that 90% of all American households own cars.

Let’s do the math. Assuming that all the rural households own cars, and simplifying the numbers, nine of every ten American households own cars. Two of those are in rural areas. The other seven are in cities or urban clusters. Thus seven of every eight households potentially within reach of good public transportation are still driving.

But there is good news. In 2007, only 8.7% of American households did not own a car. In 2012, that number had risen to 9.2%. Many multi-car households are giving up extra vehicles. The bus I take to work is often packed, to the point where some riders have to stand, and hang onto a strap.

 

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