Rural living in a world with expensive fuel

By Philip Brewer on 1 June 2008 (Updated 24 May 2010) 24 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

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.

Looking back

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.

Looking ahead

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.  

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

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Guest's picture

Philip, you zero in on an important factor where I live. But "move to town" is a difficult remedy. For one thing, housing prices are sky high, and housing stock is tight, tight, tight in the small, upscale college community where I work. People live out in the country because they are priced out of anyplace within walking distance. And public transportation out here is sporadic and doesn't reach very far. At the same time, selling off country property is going to be problematic. I am stuck with my mortgage until one or both of those factors changes. We need better bus service, at least in this transition period until things shake out and we find better systems all around. Americans' reluctance to fund, and use, public transportation is a real stumbling block.

Guest's picture
Guest

While I'm glad to see rural living addressed, you still talk as if even every town HAS a bus stop to drive to! I've lived in 3 towns in my life, none have had a bus system, nor have the towns near them. We certainly need more bus systems in this country, but sometimes it gets frustrating when people who are used to busing just say "take the bus!" as if it solves everyones problems.

Philip Brewer's picture

I think we'll see more mass transit in the fairly near future.  Wealthy elites have resisted it primarily for two reasons.  First, they don't expect to use it, so it seems like an unnecessary expense.  Second, they see it mainly as a way for poor folks (i.e. undesirables) to get to "their" part of town, which they'd just as soon avoid.

The same wealthy elites who don't want poor folks to be able to get to their neighborhood do want workers and shoppers to be able to get to the shops and factories.  I wouldn't be a bit surprised if WalMart started being a strong force for mass transit in towns that don't have it, once the fuel cost of getting to the edge of town starts cutting into their bottom line.

Wherever there is some form of mass transit, even just a minimal system, we'll see a growing number of working class and lower-middle class folks start to use it.  This will gradually increase its support among voters, both those who ride the bus and those whose employees and customers use the bus.  This will help thwart the common tactic of opponents pointing to low ridership as "proof" that bus service wasn't needed

Linsey Knerl's picture

Some weeks we live and die by Amazon's free shipping.  I use Subscribe and Save for everything from laundry detergent to diapers.  It's for products I buy anyway, it's reasonably priced, and it allows me to let my household goods come to me.  I have gotten pretty good at figuring the per unit price, and it is on par or better than my local and usually overpriced store.  If I can't justify making a $12 trip to town for an item, I can have most anything shipped to my door for much less.

And while shopping once a week or less has been something we've been doing for almost a year, there are just some times you forget something.  Ordering online has saved us in time, money, and frustration.

wonderful piece, as usual, Philip! 

Guest's picture
Guest

Right on the mark--as usual! Folks in the US are facing what other countries have had to deal with for a very long time. Is some countries it's very common to have several workers share a flat (maybe paid for by the employer) during their work week. Co-housing is popular in other areas. Depending on and sharing transportation with your neighbors is yet another well used option. We're just so tied into the individuality and ideas of independence, especially those who choose to live in the country; we need to go back to our roots.
Just as a warning to those who do depend on mail, the USPS is seriously trying to cutback, and that includes rural routes. Keep alert and if you hear they are consolidating routes, or eliminating individual home delivery, SPEAK UP! They will listen. Utilizing the postal service is actually a good way to insure ongoing service: They can more easily justify keeping a route that has significant deliveries.

Guest's picture
Kevin

I spent a summer in college living in a house a couple miles out of town, with no car and sparse bus service. Along the lines of what Linsey said, Internet retailers were a huge help. I did close to 100% of my shopping through .com stores with free shipping. More broadly, I was able to do almost all of my "errands" over the web. My commute to work was a 45 minute walk, which turned out to be an enjoyable part of my day.

Internet access and reliable mail makes rural living much different from pre-railroad homesteading. We can order goods, communicate, consume mass-media entertainment, collaborate, access huge volumes of reference material, and so on, at negligible cost. A monthly trip to town isn't our only connection to the outside world; we can be connected constantly. It's true that we still need mobility to get to work, socialize in person, and obtain some goods, but very much of our needs can be met over the wire.

Philip Brewer's picture

I'm really interested to see whether information technology can make the long-distance, ground-shipping model work, as fuel gets more expensive.  (I think that next-day service, like passenger service, will go back to being a luxury that's only available to the wealthy.)

The old model, before FedEx, was for stuff to be stored locally in warehouses, which were supplied by rail, and from which stuff was shipped out in trucks. It was usually shipped to stores, which then did local delivery to urban customers.  (Rural customers had to come into town and bring stuff home themselves.)

FedEx, on the other hand, created a hub-and-spokes model, where everything was shipped to a central hub, where it was sorted and then put back on planes to be sent back out to the FedEx office closest to its destination.  That model wouldn't work for rail or barge shipping.

But maybe information technology can fill the gap.  A computer system, programmed with all the available shipping modes, could route packages on any transport that had space, preferring the cheapest and fastest ones.

The old model was for the local delivery to be done by a local firm, whether specialized delivery companies, or local stores handling their own deliveries (as furniture stores, but not much else, still do).  A local firm can set up delivery routes and schedules that make sense for their customers and the goods that they sell.  (Fresh groceries need prompter delivery, furniture needs to be delivered by people who can carry the heavy stuff in, etc.) But the local UPS or FedEx office can potentially have just as much "local knowledge" as a local delivery company, so that could continue to work.

In some form, though, I think delivery will grow in importance.  It's much more efficient for one truck to deliver goods to dozens of people than it is for dozens of people to all drive their own cars to the store.

Guest's picture
Lucille

I see lots of people driving Prius around town, many with out of town plates on them. But there are still plenty of people driving around in huge trucks and SUVs who think that high gas prices are not going to actually happen. They consider the current prices as a temporary thing and seem to act like it is some great American act of defiance by refusing to change.

We have consolidated trips and cut down on our driving. It is the same distance into most places in town as it is to the nearest bus service. Probably the one thing we end up wasting extra trips on seems to be milk. We run out and nobody says anything. I'm allergic to something they put in some of the brands of regular milk and the grocery within walking distance carries only that. But the pain of paying for an extra trip has made us more aware of things like milk and try to buy more on an already planned trip or call and have someone pick it up on their way back home.

We buy just about everything in bulk, buy multiples at a time on sale or buy multiples off of Amazon. It has really helped save extra trips.

Were just hoping housing demand stays up in our area so we can sell in a few years. Public transit, close to everything and having Amtrak access are really high on our list of things we want when we move.

Philip Brewer's picture

Exactly.  One reason we still live in the apartment that we do is that the bus stop is right across the street (about a 4-minute walk from our door).

As a bonus, the transit district has this great combined train and bus station that serves the city buses as well as Amtrak and the long-distance bus lines. 

We're planning a little experiment on our next trip--we're going to take the bus to the train station, so we don't have to leave our car parked downtown while we're on our trip.

We're well aware that Champaign has superior bus service, but it's not pure luck that we're here to take advantage of it.  We didn't pick Champaign for its bus service, of course--we both moved here after finding jobs, and had other local connections that prompted us to look here for jobs in the first place--but the great bus service is one small part of why we still live here.  The fact that Amtrak serves Champaign is another.

Myscha Theriault's picture

You know, Linsey turned me on to the Amazon thing shortly after I joined Wise Bread, and I have to say it was a HUGE help. We've also found Staples has free delivery as well as a decent membership rewards program. However, now that we are temporarily in a spot with no high speed internet, we are still having to dive into town a few days a week to actually use internet the way we are used to.

Regarding the local delivery . . . we were just talking about this with my folks over dinner a few weeks ago. We too think this is a nice start up opportunity for someone with a box van or truck. And also an extension of services for companies with consumable products, such as stove pellets. I think it would be great to see more than the Schwan's truck on a regular basis, and dream of produce coming to the door. . .

Guest's picture
Cindy M

and at how many people of all kinds ride them, even on Sundays. Of course, the buses seem better designed and faster, ha-ha, than when I rode them to high school 30-odd years ago. I donated my 10-year-old car (transmission kaput) a few months ago to the Salvation Army and made up my mind ahead of time I'd try life without one, not difficult as I work from home and most everything is within walking distance save church, so I take the bus downtown for that. I just hope to reach the point soon when I can stop having to reassure friends and family not to worry, quit feeling sorry for me, I'm not suffering in any way, yes, it's safe, yes, I can afford to buy another car, just don't want to. Happily, I truly actually like not driving and don't miss it, and it works for me.

Guest's picture
Guest

This doesn't really help those that live in truly rural areas or farmers. I grew up in a town of under 3000. The town now has very little in the way of retail space. These days to buy most anything besides groceries, domestic cars and medicine (good luck if you want something like leeks or ethnic foods) is in a town of about 15,000 which is 30 minutes away. Small hybrid cars are all Honda and Toyota still, so those need to be bought in the larger town. If you need it fixed or serviced, there's more gas down the drain. These rural areas are also often the places that actually need trucks and other gas guzzlers.

Linsey Knerl's picture

To the guest who commented before me:

I do feel your pain.  Hubby quit working a job that required commute to the nearest town (we are very small, less than 1900 people.) The 17 minute drive was killing us.  In fact, we didn't have a doctor within 20 minutes until just a few months ago, and our local dentist folded up shop, leaving us with little health care alternatives.

I am close to my family (mother lives right next door) so we often carpool into the nearest town and also go once a month to the city (Omaha) for all the things we can't mail-order or to do garage sales and maybe even take in a movie.  It's a long day with all the kids, but it really gives us a chance to get out, get it done, and we are thankful to be back home after spending all that money.  (It seems like a lot when you do it all on one day of the month!)

We used to have a membership to the Henry Doorly Zoo in Omaha, see movies regularly, eat at nice restaurants (there are none where I live), and really get into the culture of the area.  Our culture now is to simply stay home, use the library's free services, homeschool the kids, attend local events, take advantage of church fellowships and camps, and maybe we'll get a membership to the local pool.

Once everyone else committs to sticking around our home town, maybe they'll be enough of an opportunity for us to have a booming social life where we live (instead of driving 30+ miles in search of it.).... maybe. 

Guest's picture
Margaret D

My husband and I own a home on 7.5 acres in a very rural area. We live 20 minutes from the nearest towns with actual stores. I work 48 miles from home and my husband works 23 miles from home. My husband's work is in a town that I pass through to get to my office, so 3 days a week we carpool, the other 2 days I work from home and he takes my car. Before the gas prices reached $4 in our area, my husband and I would drive seperately (his truck only gets about 15 mpg!). However, our gas bill was getting so outrageous ($550 in one month) that we could no longer do that. I always stop by the grocery store on my way home from work so I don't have to make special trips. On the weekends we stay at home and tend to our gardens. If we run out of milk or something on the weekends, I supplement with dry milk until Monday, but I usually keep close tabs on that to make sure we don't run out. Moving into town is just not an option for us. One town would be farther from work and the other towns schools are not very good. Besides, our quality of life would change drastically if we moved to town. That is why I try not to complain too much when gas prices rise because it is our choice to life and work where we do. We just try to save where we can with gardening, carpooling, internet shopping with free shipping, and multi-tasking our trips. We try to be as resourceful as possible and hope that the gas prices go down eventually or alternatives will arise.

Guest's picture
Guest

I've seen a lot of people move from our small, rural town (pop. 450) to the bigger cities where they work in an effort to save money on gas. But what I tell my kids is that when the fuel situation starts to affect deliveries to the food stores, where will all those people get their food? Our tiny town is surrounded by fields and farms. If push comes to shove, we'll be able to band together and grow our own food and raise our own animals. We'll be able to quickly change local ordinances so that we can keep chickens and goats in town, maybe even a cow. Our small rural town, where we all know each other, will be able to become self-sufficient fairly easily and quickly compared to the apartment dwellers and others in the big cities. Read THE LONG EMERGENCY by James Howard Kuntsler for more information.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Guest:

I'm a big fan of Kunstler--not only of The Long Emergency but also of The Geography of Nowhere.  In the latter book, he speaks eloquently of walkable communities and vibrant downtowns.

A rural small town surounded by farms can be very fuel efficient, but the biggest part of the savings come from skipping the energy-intensive intermediate steps (where the wheat, corn, and soybeans are turned into crackers, chicken tenders, and ding-dongs).

Small cities and medium-sized towns are actually pretty hard to beat--there's huge energy savings possible when you have a few delivery trucks driving to a grocery store that's within walking distance of many households.

If self-sufficiency is your fall-back plan, I strongly suggest that you test the strategy with some small pilot programs--grow a big garden, talk to the village council about legalizing chickens, try going two weeks without driving to town.  Real self-suffiency is a hard path, and a little practical experience will be very helpful if it turns out that you need it.

Guest's picture
Em

There is another possibility - keep the tough guzzler for when it's really needed, get a solar array and convert a small commuter car to electric.

I've always planned for high energy costs, so I've always lived in the city. We use one gallon of gas a week commuting, and only because it's at odd times without transit.

Consider whether the country feeling is dependent on having many acres or one, on being very very far away from it all or simply on not having it intrude. Every town has pockets that are more country than city, some more than others, and some more affordably than others. Where I live now, a major Midwestern city, it's possible to find a few acres backing up to forested parkland within ten minutes of the city center - not exorbitantly priced, and in a good job market, too. If these areas get built up, you can cash out and move back to the country.

Just a thought.

Guest's picture
Guest

Bus service only exists in our city of 200,000 because of massive federal subsidies.

Even so, the routes are very limited.

It is a great option if you are lucky enough to live and work on the same bus route, but usually that means you must work at a school or hospital (i.e., work is in an area zoned residential)

If not, you must ride all the way downtown to change to another bus.

A 10-15 minute direct trip via car then becomes a 45 minutes to 1 hour bus trip - not the greatest option for commuters (especially since buses stop running at 5:30 pm)

Guest's picture
Michelle

Thank you for this article. I have lived and homeschooled our kids in the country for twelve years now, and even before prices got really high with fuel, we took few trips into town because of the logisitcs of getting three children to destinations so far away that they would fall asleep (and then be a little difficult to deal with upon arrival at our destination).
A few things we have done that have helped-
-In addition to growing many of our vegetables and fruits, we purchase food in bulk once a month. Nesheminy Valley delivers every four weeks to our house, and I sometimes order for other famiies. We do not have to order every month, just when we need more food, so we are always able to meet the minimum.
-we do live 5 minutes from a town of 500 so there are some amenities there. Even when the larger city and chains beckon, we have made every effort to support "the little guys" knowing all too well they will disappear if people think driving 45 minutes each way to WM (or another ubiquitous chain) will somehow save them money. I gratefully accept the smaller amount of choices and slightly higher prices to know I can call them in an emergency after hours, know the owners on a first name basis, and know that they in turn will reward my business with a purchase from our farm stand at the farmers' market occasionally,to keep the cycle going, in our communities.
-we started a local "barter network" three years ago, and have over 40 families who list skills, services, and machinery and tools (as well as trucks, etc) they can offer. I bought Paul Glover's "How to Create Your Own Money" book from Ithaca Hours (in NY), set a meeting date, initially met with four others also interested in a local economy. We now know several friendly people we would not have met that live near by in our spread out area- we have seen cabins, greenhouses, treehouses and garden structures built, received astronomy and drama homeschool classes, music lessons, computer assistance, catering help for a party, farm sittng, etc. etc. Luckily,, the group is now so large I am not even aware now of all the exchanges that go on.
By being able to rely on people that live in our rural area, and be relied uppon, we have created a stonger community that I feel is pretty well-prepared to handle the rising fuel prices.Transport to full time work is still an issue for many, but many needs now can be met locally and I foresee more telecommuting in addition to the carpools that are starting to form through the barter network. Our meetings are very informal (Once a month potlucks at a park) and I highly suggest that if you do not have a barter network/alternative currency in your area, that you consider starting one. Its been a lot of fun!
Thanks again for ideas on how t save fuel - I enjoy reading everyone's tips.

Guest's picture
Guest

When I was in Lima Peru I noticed that there were independent entrepreneurs in mini vans picking up people at street corners and taking them around town. Why couldn't someone do this in rural communities? Buy a minivan, and set up a schedule, and be available also at short notice if needed? Just a thought.
Diane

Guest's picture
Dianna

yes, our friend's children used to use these to commute to work in lima. i imagine that here this would be considered a gypsy taxi and i'm sure there are licensing laws about these things. seems like there's always a regulation prohibiting small, practical ideas, doesn't it? :P

Guest's picture
Guest

Like a previous Guest poster, I live near a town of 200,000 with a meager bus system (maybe it's even the same town!). I don't see the bus system expanding any time in the near future. We are in the Southwest where land is cheap, therefore the population is very spread-out. Homes tend to be sprawling ranch-style homes on large lots, and apartment complexes are made up of 8 or 10 3-story buildings surrounded by ample parking and lawn area. There likely aren't enough people per square mile to support the costs of mass transit. So I have to disagree with the article writer's optimism of bus system expansion, at least in this part of the U.S.

Guest's picture
Guest

I wonder what "rural" is by your definition? I live in a small town about an hour away from Oklahoma City, OK. It's a College town with about 55,000 or so people in it, if you include the college kids who are here about 9-10 months out of the year.

It may be sort of off topic but we are growing like weeds in this community. Everyday it seems as though there is another shopping center opening up here. There are two Walmarts and a Target and gobs of expensive housing additions and more being built. I see the city bus transit all over the place (with the exception of the outer lying areas of town). This could be because the state of Oklahoma actually has a booming economy w/ a positive growth when compared with the rest of the country. (This is in part due to the fact that we are an energy state and generally are not part of the national "bubbles" that our economy experiences and are therefore buffered from the "bursts")

My point is that not all "rural" type areas are subject to these economic forces and therefore not everyone of us needs to move to the big city. Personally I live in what I believe to be a wonderful community with all the positives of a big city ( culture, diversity, opputunity) and none of the negitives (crime, ect...)

Philip Brewer's picture

I hadn't really thought of what the cut-off point might be, but when I think "rural," I'm thinking of areas where there's at least 40 acres per household.

I'd call a community with 55,000 people a town.

Towns and small towns and villages are all much more fuel-efficient than rural areas.  A few big trucks can deliver goods to shops in the commercial center, and then a large segement of the community is within walking or bicycling distance of those shops.