(April 2004) With the United States becoming increasingly urban, city dwellers are not the only ones facing long commutes. In 2000, about 30 percent of rural area residents commuted more than 30 minutes one way to work, according to census data, and 4 percent of commuters from these areas traveled more than 90 minutes one way — higher than the 3 percent of residents in metropolitan areas or small cities who made such a commute.

These findings, by the Population Reference Bureau’s Rural Families Data Center, highlight the economic conundrum many rural residents face: Finding a decent wage often involves traveling long distances to work, yet retaining affordable housing, and maintaining family ties, is easier in a small community.

Part of the personal cost of long commutes is high vehicle maintenance needs and, increasingly, high fuel prices. For instance, a 2002 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service found that transportation expenses accounted for a higher proportion of the cost of raising a child for rural families, although the overall cost of raising a child in a nonmetro area was lower. The spatial isolation of many rural households adds to the relative cost of raising children.

For the 8 percent of rural residents who reported in the 2000 Census that they do not have access to a car, getting to work, running errands, or picking up children from day care can be a daily struggle. While about half of rural counties provide some kind of public transit, the most isolated areas often do not provide such a service, according to the 2002 study by the Economic Research Service, and taxis are unavailable. Data from the 2000 Census show that only about 36,000 nonmetropolitan residents reported using public transportation, or about 0.44 percent, compared with 6 percent for metropolitan areas. In contrast, 30 percent of “nonmetro commutes” took place in cars that the driver did not own but had presumably borrowed from a friend or relative, the Economic Research Service said in 1996.

Even when public transit services exist, people traveling to medical appointments or accomplishing other tasks may be more likely to use the services than commuters traveling to work. A prime reason many rural transit systems do not draw commuters is that their services stop at the county line, according to the Economic Research Service’s 2002 transportation study, and thus provide little benefit to those with long commutes. In 2000, 27 percent of workers in the United States and 31 percent of the rural labor force worked outside their counties of residence, according to census data.

Addressing the Impact

While those who have studied the consequences of rural commuting offer a variety of recommendations to communities and governments, many say the preponderance of commuting requires officials to reconsider their assumptions about the needs of small towns and rural areas.

For instance, the 1996 Economic Research Service study notes that Nebraska officials, as they undertook a survey of community needs regarding water and wastewater issues, assumed that because the state’s rural counties were losing population, they would find many small towns with decreasing future municipal water needs. Instead, they found that a number of towns had become bedroom communities for increasing numbers of low-income people who commute to distant employment centers.

Likewise, the 2002 Economic Research Service report on the cost of raising children said government officials, when computing child support or foster care payments, need to recognize the different costs families in different areas face. For rural families, transportation costs can be a major expense.

In a 2004 study on housing and commuting patterns in Appalachia, Mark Mather, the director of the Rural Families Data Center, suggested officials in that largely rural part of the country consider the following steps: providing affordable rental housing closer to areas of job growth, providing affordable day care for parents who have to commute long distances, and helping families build credit so they can get vehicle loans.

Another way to help residents who must commute long distances would be to improve public transportation, a task that may be possible in cases where many commuters are traveling to the same job center. When Tunica County, Miss., was allowed to open casino gambling, offering more than 11,000 jobs in a county of 8,300 residents, it became clear that commuters would be integral to the industry’s survival, according to a report by the Transit Cooperative Research Program. The DARTS public transportation system, which served five counties in one of the lowest-income areas of the United States, modified its routes to ensure workers could use the system to commute to and from the casino. With the system in place, a study by the Transit Cooperative Research Program, a joint effort between the Federal Transit Administration, the National Academies, and the Transit Development Corp., estimates the DARTS system generates a total employment benefit of $2.7 million, when factoring in not only paychecks but the prospect that many riders would be unemployed and collecting government assistance if the system did not exist.

As a result, the Transit Cooperative Research Program suggests that rural transit providers focus on fulfilling the needs of specific kinds of commuters — workers, students, medical patients, etc. — while setting service times and prices that will be attractive to potential riders.

Lori Nitschke is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.


Mark Lino, “Expenditures on Children by Rural Families,” Rural America 17, no. 1 (Spring 2002), accessed online at www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ruralamerica/ra171/ra171d.pdf, on April 20, 2004.

Eileen S. Stommes and Dennis M. Brown, “Transportation in Rural America: Issues for the 21st Century,” Rural America 16, no. 4 (Winter 2002), accessed online at www.ers.usda.gov/publications/ruralamerica/ra164/ra164b.pdf, on April 20, 2004.

Lorna Aldrich, Calvin Beale, and Kathleen Kassel, “Commuting and the Economic Functions of Small Towns and Places,” Rural Development Perspectives 12 no. 3 (1996), accessed online at www.ers.usda.gov/publications/rdp/rdp697/rdp697e.pdf, on April 20, 2004.

“Assessment of the Economic Impacts of Rural Public Transportation,” Transit Cooperative Research Program, accessed online at www.tcrponline.org/bin/publications.pl?category=9, on April 20, 2004.