Notes From the Urban/Rural Divide: Trip Planning and the Rural Resident

One aspect of rural life that seems especially unfamiliar to people in urban areas is the procedure known as Going to Town. For people living in areas where they may be surrounded by people and businesses, there’s a sense of constant contact, of the ready availability of resources. This is especially true of middle and upper class urban people, who don’t know what it’s like to have to ride buses for 90 minutes to get to the grocery store because there’s a good chance there’s a store in their neighbourhood, or they have private cars they can take to grab groceries.

Going to Town, though, can be quite an ordeal in some rural areas. The closest neighbours may be 15 minutes away by car or more, let alone businesses. Which means that substantial trip planning is required before venturing outside the house. You cannot run to the corner store when you need a carton of milk, and you sure as hell are not going to drive 30 minutes just because you forgot to get toilet paper at the store. Every trip is a procedure, not a quick errand.

Thus, it’s common for people in rural areas to plan ahead with things like buying in bulk, often at big box stores because they may not be able to afford pricing at other locations, or because big box stores are all there is within easy reach. When you’ve already had to drive half an hour, going an extra 15 minutes to get to the locally owned business may not seem especially appealing. Telling rural people to support local businesses and avoid big box stores demonstrates profound ignorance about the realities of taking a trip to town when you live 30 minutes away.

I live fairly close to town. It’s a drive of a couple of miles, and I could bike it, if I was feeling ambitious and wanted to rupture my aorta trying to cycle back up Pudding Creek Road (even some cars whine at the trip). I still have the Going to Town mindset, though, and get annoyed when circumstances force me to make multiple trips in a day, or to go to town several days in a row. I have it easy compared to people who need to make much longer trips, often over much worse roads, to get basic tasks accomplished.

This isn’t just about trip planning from the perspective of rural residents, who need to generate a long list of errands to make a Trip to Town worth it; you try to hit the post office, the grocery store, the feed store, and if something comes up the next day that necessitates a trip to town, well, it may just have to wait until the next time you can go, because you are not going to make a special trip for that. That something might well be the delayed prescription that finally arrived, or a medical appointment, or a parent-teacher meeting, or any number of other things. So it goes.

It also shows up in socialisation, which can be really hard in rural areas. It’s not easy to hop over to a friend’s place when you live 45 minutes apart, on bad roads, and both work a lot. Rural people don’t have as many opportunities for casual socialisation, which is why the post office and the grocery store tend to be happening places. This can be alienating to visitors, who find it strange when people block up the aisle with their carts while they chat. This isn’t a mere exchange of pleasantries and an inconvenience to the city slicker, though; it’s a critical opportunity for social interaction and a chance to reach out and be reminded that you are not alone.

Older adults and people with disabilities in rural areas are often especially isolated. They may not have very many visitors and can have a hard time getting around. If you are a wheelchair user who doesn’t drive, for example, a trip to a neighbour’s might require you to use your power chair on a rural road with no shoulder, which is extremely unsafe. If you have chronic pain or fatigue, saddling up to go to town to visit people eats up all your energy, and at that point, you haven’t even had a chance to socialise yet. This can be an especially big problem in times of crisis; someone who needs some help around the house for a few weeks to recover from a fall, for instance, may be forced into a nursing home, because there just isn’t enough support available.

And, of course, the rural surcharge reflecting the difficulty of getting around shows up on deliveries. People in remote rural areas may not be able to arrange for deliveries of any goods at all because they are outside the delivery range. Furniture stores, for example, do not want to schlep 45 minutes, especially when there’s a narrow chance of another delivery in the same general area to offset the cost. When deliveries are available, they come with an extra fee. UPS charges an extra $5 to deliver to my house. And I live only a few miles outside of town.

The realities of transportation planning in rural areas usually require that you have a car to make plans with, because public transit is not available. And they require very careful planning and scheduling that are not favorable to casual disruptions. You cannot ‘just’ run down to the post office to mail something, for example, you need to Go to Town to do it, and that requires an added level of complexity. Not just physical, but also emotional, because there is a disconnect between outlying rural areas and Town. Many people do not like Going to Town.

We might be dismissed as hayseeds or loners because we don’t really want to be in town, but it’s jarring. It’s hard to transition from the quiet and remoteness of your home to the relative bustle of town. Especially when town doesn’t have what you need, and you know that you’re going to have to go to the city, which may be many hours away, to meet a basic need. This is a growing problem in rural areas hit hard by the economic crisis, where local businesses are dwindling away and products and services are not available in town because town is dying.

Trip planning concerns for rural residents may be unfamiliar to urban people, but when they tell us how to plan and conduct our lives without thought as to what our lives are actually like, it becomes a pretty big problem.