Rural living in a world with expensive fuel
Rising fuel costs are hard on everybody, but one group gets hit especially hard: Rural folks--especially rural folks who work in town. On my previous posts on expensive fuel, commenters have said that, even after doing all the stuff I talked about, they still can't make ends meet. They've got a point.
There are actually two groups who complain that my "expensive fuel" posts don't help. This post isn't for the ones who find the idea of driving less to be inconceivable. This post is for the people who have already eliminated unnecessary trips and combined the rest as best they can, already started running any errands they can on bicycle or by foot, already insulated their house. But when they plug higher fuel costs into their budget, their income just doesn't cover it--because every little errand is a long drive to town, and some of those errands have to be done promptly.
If you live in the country, but you work in town, you're stuck driving the round trip every work day. You can fiddle around the edges--maybe arrange to work 10-hour days and only go in 4 days a week, maybe telecommute one or two days a week, maybe buy a very fuel-efficient car--but the basic calculation doesn't change.
The arrangement of living in the country but working in the city has been working great, up to now, only because fuel was cheap, but it's worth observing that this isn't a new problem. It is, rather, a very old problem.
Until the invention of the railroad, rural living meant self-sufficient living--if you couldn't make it yourself, you'd better have brought it with you. Depending on just how rural you were, trips to town might be monthly, or they might be something that you did just one or two times a year.
Even the railroad didn't mean that everyone could pop out to the store anytime they wanted, but it was a big change. It meant that even in a small town, you could (eventually) get pretty much any manufactured item. For rural folks who only went into town monthly or semi-annually, that was good enough. You went to town, you ordered the stuff you needed at the store, and they had it waiting for you on your next visit.
The car, of course, worked an even more drastic change on the landscape. For a brief period--less than 100 years--it's been possible to have the advantages of rural living without giving up the advantages of living in town. Because it's been this way for as long as most people have been alive, it's easy to forget just how different it is from the way people had always lived before.
Maybe energy prices will stabilize, or even fall from current levels. In fact, markets being what they are, I can virtually guarantee that oil will, at some point, be cheaper than it is right now--maybe a lot cheaper. I think, though, that the long-term trend is up.
If I'm right, anyone who lives out in the country needs to do some serious thinking.
One option is to continue with ordinary efforts at saving fuel. This is a nice incremental strategy that actually scales well. Wise Bread has already had some stories on how to increase the fuel efficiency of your driving--slow down, keep your tires inflated, etc. (See Gas Efficient Driving and Hypermiling, for example.) Beyond that, you can get a very fuel-efficient car, switch to a small motorcycle or a scooter, aggressively combine trips and reduce trips, make some trips by bicycle or on foot, etc.
These are the same ideas I've mentioned before, that simply don't do the trick for some rural folks, especially those who are trying to get by on low incomes.
It's possible to turn the fuel-saving efforts up a notch. In fact, it's something that everyone will be doing pretty soon--as higher and higher prices require it of more and more people. But to people who are used to fuel being cheap, it's going to seem extreme. Here are some examples:
- If you work in town, crash on a friend's couch four nights a week. You only have to make one round trip to town.
- Carpool even if you don't work together. Drive as far as the last bus stop at the edge of town. From there, you all take buses to get to where you need to go.
- Coordinate with your neighbors to make every trip in the most appropriate vehicle: The guy with the hybrid drives when several people need to get to town; the guy with the pickup drives when something needs to get hauled; the guy with the motorcycle drives when someone urgently needs a prescription picked up at the pharmacy.
- If you or one of your neighbors has a big enough house, close up one house and have both families live in the other. You can drastically reduce heating and electricity costs.
As you see, a lot of these strategies depend on friends and neighbors helping one another out. That used to be ordinary neighborly behavior, but the past couple of generations, we've been so rich that it wasn't necessary to rely on your neighbors: Ordinary folks could have both a car and a pickup (and could drive the car even for trips that could be handled on a motorcycle, bicycle, or even on foot).
You don't have to do any of those things, if you're rich enough to buy all the fuel you need. But, as fuel gets more expensive, anyone who wants to live in the country will have to adjust. They can continue to live much as they've been living, gradually making more and more drastic efforts to use less fuel. Or they can change their lifestyle completely. Their other choices are:
- Become more self-sufficient. If you can produce most of what you need at home, you can reduce the number of trips you make to the city from the current 5 a week, potentially to zero. There's a sliding scale here--even the pioneers weren't totally self-sufficient--but the key step is finding a way to make ends meet without having a job in the city.
- Move to the city. That drastically cuts your need for fuel for going to work, running ordinary errands, and so on. It also (depending on what city you pick and exactly where you work and live) puts you within reach of mass transit, makes walking and bicycling more practical, increases your opportunities for car pooling, and so on.
It's possible that we'll be saved from this fate by either cheaper fuel or vastly more efficient cars, but I don't think so. I do expect that we'll see lots of fuel--it'll just be expensive. We'll also see much more efficient cars--they just won't be efficient enough (or cheap enough) to pick up the slack.
Aggressive fuel efficiency will do the trick for a while. Eventually, though, even a maximum amount of scrimping, saving, and sharing will fall short. When that happens, people will be left with the same two options that people have had since the first city was built: Be self-sufficient in the country, or move to town.