InTrans / Jul 15, 2015

Village by Village: Rural living

Go! Magazine

Rural aerial viewposted on July 15, 2015

Traveling from place to place has become even more complex when you take into consideration the divide between the “types” of homesteads. In this article, we will be focusing on what many consider “county living” or “small-town life”—AKA rural.

What comes to mind when you think of a rural village? Is it filled with miles upon miles of countryside? Are there cornucopias of horse and cattle farms? What about the occasional rural town or “pass-through town?” Does it have mom and pop shops? Roadside produce for sale?

If we want to really “measure” rural, we would have to look at the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines rural as less than 1,000 people per square mile. But then there is the Federal Highway Administration, which even identifies places just outside of highly urban areas as rural. If we used the Federal Highway Administration’s definition, we could estimate that 83 percent of the land in the United States is rural but only home to 21 percent of the population or 50 million people total.

It is all subjective. If you lived in New York City, you would probably consider a population of 25,000 people as rural; conversely, if you lived in an area with a population of 25,000, you would consider a place with less than 2,000 rural.

Let’s look at some of the history behind this topic and closely examine how traffic engineers and planners help design infrastructure for rural villages and towns today.

How did it all begin?

In the 17th century, United States citizens relied primarily on what was called “subsistence farming,” which meant growing your own food for a living. Agriculture was (and still is) a major force supporting the American economy. By 1790, about 90 percent of the total population (3,929,214 people) were farmers. But back then farming was a lot more labor intensive, which required many more people living on the actual land they farmed.

As technology became more prevalent—like the introduction of steam tractors in 1868, refrigerated freight cars to carry meat in 1888, and the first gasoline tractor in 1892—agriculture in America changed dramatically. In 1830 it took about 250-300 hours to harvest 100 bushels of wheat, whereas in 1965 it took only five labor hours to produce the same amount. Over time, less people were required to do the work to feed the country, and technology (like canning foods and refrigerators) allowed for more food to be preserved and travel further, thus allowing people to live farther away from rural places and still get enough to eat. Today just two percent of the United States population are farmers.

In the late 20th century, the rural population across production communities in the Corn Belt such as some parts of Iowa, Kansas, and Nebraska began focusing on just one “industry” (like agriculture). And then, with many young people leaving these rural areas were they grew up for the education, jobs, and amenities provided by larger cities, communities in the Midwest saw a steady decrease in the number of families and an increase in aging adults. In Iowa, for example, the rural population changed from 48 percent of the state’s population in 1910 to 26.5 percent in 2010—that’s almost half the population gone in one century! Although Iowa’s total state population has increased over 10 percent from 2000 to 2010 that increase has happened in the major, often urban, cities across Iowa.

How do you get around?

With this increase in aging adults in rural areas, traffic engineers and planners working in this type of area must consider safety and accessibility into their development of rural transportation infrastructure. Many people in rural areas are getting older without young people to replace them. In Iowa, for example, the average age of a farmer in 2012 was 58, and the overall number of children in rural areas fell by almost 8,900.

First, there is safety. In 2006, about 56 percent of all traffic fatalities occurred in rural areas, although only 21 percent of the population lived there. This is due to high speeding on rural roads, lower seat belt usage by drivers and passengers in rural areas, and the increased travel times for Emergency Medical Service to arrive. Did you know that most emergency medical services in rural areas are actually volunteer run? That means the ambulance response times, in some cases, can be more than 15 minutes (since they are covering a larger area and are not fully staffed). To help control the amount of overall roadway fatalities, traffic engineers often suggest the implementation of what is called a “traffic corridor.” With a greater police presence on this designated stretch of road, local authorities are able to survey drivers to make sure they are not committing any traffic violations like speeding, not wearing a seat belt, and tailgating. To encourage good behavior, fines are increased in these corridors for any of the above violations.

Second, there is accessibility. Another priority is increasing accessibility for people that do not have access to or cannot drive a personal vehicle. Maintaining the ability to travel is directly tied to people’s quality of life, so considerations about the location of amenities in rural places are important. To improve accessibility, engineers and planners have worked to create “complete streets” across different cities, towns, and villages. Due to the low density of rural areas, public transportation is difficult because it requires a certain amount of ridership to be profitable. Instead, rural villages and towns have suggested designing homes, businesses, churches, and community centers in close proximity to each other, reducing the need for cars. Another option is to promote the use of intercity buses, which service nearby cities and larger rural towns. This would provide a greater rider base for people traveling to and from rural/urban areas.

Why is this important?

Imagine that the doctor’s office, grocery store, and shopping mall were all in one place. If you were elderly and could no longer drive, proximity would be vital for you to still access these important resources. Or imagine that you have a family that depends on safe roads for taking your kids to school. Making sure that drivers are obeying the speed limit and are distraction-free is vital to ensuring the safety of rural roads. For these reasons, traffic engineers and planners must implement different kinds of strategies to create safe and accessible rural “homesteads.”

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By Jackie Nester, Go! Staff Writer

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