Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Public Transit

Public transit is a particularly popular social cause in many regions, and with good reason. Improving public transit has environmental benefits, it reduces congestion in areas with high traffic, and it can contribute to things like public safety and even general happiness levels. It also provides access to transportation to people who might not otherwise be able to afford it, an important consideration in a country where the gap between rich and poor is constantly on the rise, and increasing numbers of people are living in poverty.

Yet, it’s viewed fundamentally differently in urban and rural areas, and this can lead to a lack of understanding when it comes to public transit issues. Whether we’re talking about disputes over how public transit is funded or recommendations for people to get rid of their cars, a shortage of familiarity when it comes to how different communities live can bring a conversation to a screaming halt, because neither side really gets the other.

Here’s what public transit is really good for: Densely developed urban areas. It’s low cost and effective to implement when you have a relatively small area of ground to cover. It’s also possible to make it economically sustainable and self supporting when you have access to large numbers of riders. Things start to become more complicated as you reach the suburbs, however. Suburban communities are much more costly, in terms of setting up public transit infrastructure, because they are so far flung, and they are not dense. Suddenly, getting enough riders to make bus or train service functional is much more challenging, because there are fewer people.

In suburban areas, you can’t provide things like bus service every five minutes, because there aren’t enough potential riders to make the service worth it. This tends to result in eclectic bus schedules, and they are often not very functional or helpful. People who might want to take public transit can’t make it work for them, and as a result they buy cars, turning away from public transit and depriving it of potential riders. This makes it more expensive to run, leading to service cuts, leading to fewer riders, and so forth. Some of those car buyers are turning to carpooling and other resources, but others are not; they are the people driving alone on the freeway who earn the ire of so many people concerned about environmental issues and traffic congestion.

This problem multiplies significantly in rural areas, where people may live very far apart, and they do so primarily in single family residences. Potential ridership for public transit drops radically because there are simply fewer people. As a result, very limited transit schedules are available; a bus might only run once a day, or once a week. The routes are also typically very limited. You can’t send a bus along a 30 mile loop to hit two houses, because it’s simply not effective. Huge swaths of rural areas are functionally impossible to cover with public transit, and indeed, running public transit would be less environmentally friendly than just having people drive where they need to go, when they need to go. People who might want to use public transit and who live close enough to a route to make it feasible, sort of, are often forced to turn to cars because the schedule isn’t functional for them.

Public transit should be a high priority for urban areas, because it’s cost effective and it makes sense there. It contributes obvious savings and benefits and I’d argue dedicating government funds to it is a superb idea. Beyond having benefits for residents, it makes life much easier for visitors who might not want to deal with driving, or who might not be able to drive at all. Reduction of congestion improves quality of life for everyone in the city, good public transit can appeal to visitors from solo tourists to conference planners, and there are of course the environmental pluses, the reduction of pollution and reduced drain on resources. I am 100% behind developing public transit for urban areas.

In rural and suburban areas, though, things get much more complicated. Public transit might not be the most effective way of meeting the transportation needs of the population. There are definitely people living in these areas who have a demonstrated need for public transit, like people who cannot afford cars for transportation. But, unfortunately, meeting their needs would be a massive waste of resources and an active inefficiency. There is no solution here that is good; carpooling can be helpful for some people in rural areas, providing job opportunities that eliminate the need for transportation is another potential benefit, offering delivery can be good, encouraging members of a community to support each other with things like arranging rides to the doctor is also one approach.

But telling people in rural areas that they should be taking public transit instead of maintaining cars, or that they should be pushing for public transit in their regions if it’s not available or is of poor quality, is ludicrous. There’s a reason it’s not available. It’s not some willful conspiracy on the part of rural people to deny people the pleasure of buses and trains and ferries and other delightful things. It’s the result of a pretty basic cost-benefit analysis: There are not enough people to generate a need for public transit, and the people who are present couldn’t support it on their own.

Setting aside economic costs that make self-sustaining public transit in rural areas impossible, it’s not environmentally friendly. Sending empty buses around is a waste of environmental resources. A bus with a single rider is no better than the car with a solo driver. Addressing environmental issues related to transit in rural areas should involve different approaches, like getting rid of the need for transportation at all, and encouraging the adoption of more environmentally sustainable transit methods, like small cars for people who don’t need to be driving trucks, or community careshares in areas where people only need a car now and then and can band together as a group to share a resource.