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The Urban/Rural Divide


Now it’s time to approach the main topic of this blog series: attitudes!  This will, by nature, be a bit less of a scientific analysis than previous posts on policy and infrastructure, but I’ll try to keep anecdotes short and relevant.

In Part II, I mentioned the urban/rural divide, and I’d like to take a closer look at that idea now.  Anyone who has traveled around the US can attest that rural areas are most easily navigated by car.  There are several obvious reasons for this, including long distances between destinations and low travel density, which make buses or other transit systems less efficient and attractive.  These physical factors lead to a very high level of dependence on private automobiles.  The question I want to answer, though, is: is there a real difference in attitudes towards alternative (non-car) modes of transportation between rural and urban residents?  Answering this question may be a tall order, so let’s start small with a few examples.

Going back to the issue of the 2013 Virginia General Assembly, I decided to take a closer look at one of the three bike bills that failed to pass: SB 736, the “dooring” bill.  This bill died in committee on a tie vote.  The vote was highly partisan, but more interesting is what we see in the following maps showing the size of the district of each voting member of the transportation committee.  Each district is made to encompass approximately the same number of people (warning: pdf), so a smaller district on the map means it is more densely populated (urban), and a larger district means that the population is more spread out (rural).  The map on the left shows the yay votes, and at right is the nay votes. I used the mapping tool available here to generate these images.

Left: Yea votes, Right: Nay votes

Left: Yea votes, Right: Nay votes (click for larger image)

What immediately jumps out from this comparison is that the committee members who supported the dooring bill represent more urban districts and those who opposed it represent more rural districts.  Whether this accurately reflects the attitudes of constituents or merely the politicians that ostensibly represent them is, of course, a separate question.

The problem that arises is that an urban area with a greater mix of transportation modes may span several jurisdictions of cities, counties, and states.  In the DC metro area there are different traffic laws in Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Maryland.  Even within just the Virginia portion the metro area spans three counties and three cities.  If the city of Alexandria passed a no-dooring ordinance, how would residents of Fairfax County who occasionally drive in Alexandria know about it?  This is one reason why transportation-related bills naturally go to the state level; regulatory consistency promotes awareness and, by extension, adherence.  At the state level, however, rural residents and their representatives may not appreciate the need for these added regulations and vote them down.  Rural perceptions of cyclists often focus on leisure or sport riders, and are less likely to view bikes as a real form of transportation.  How relevant could a dooring bill be to a small town that doesn’t even use parallel parking?

On the other hand, maybe the urban/rural divide is too simplistic.  More subtle factors are definitely at play: rural areas have been losing young people to cities for years and the rate continues to increase.  Young people are known to be much less enamored of cars than older generations, so part of the difference in attitudes could simply be a reflection of broader generational changes.  At any rate, the urban/rural divide represents an important feature affecting transportation choices and will be worth revisiting in future posts.

Transportation Series Index
Part 1: Freedom of Movement
Part 2: Coded in Law
Part 3: The Urban/Rural Divide
Part 4: The Source of Value
Part 5: Copenhagen
Part 6: E-bikes in America
Part 7: A Two-Day Trip?
Part 8: The Way Forward: Complete Streets
Part 9: Of Race and Socioeconomics
Part 10: The Power of Attitudes

1 Comment

  1. […] This article was originally published at The Mechanic Speaks. […]

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