Going Two Ways at Once: Distance as a Defining Rural Characteristic

Last Updated: January 27, 2014

This article appeared in the January 2014 Rural Policy Matters.

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In many aspects of public policy, rural communities, schools, and institutions are treated as if they have the same characteristics as their counterparts in urban and suburban locations. The consequences can be far-reaching and damaging, not only to rural communities and their residents, but to the well-being of the nation.

In November, RPM launched an occasional series on the characteristics of rural and what those characteristics mean for public policy, especially education policy. In that issue, It’s Complicated: Why What’s Rural Matters examined the many official definitions of rural and the effects of those definitions on research, the distribution of public resources, and the access of rural residents to a variety of services and opportunities.

There is no single definition of rural because rural and urban are dimensional concepts existing along multiple continuums. Further, rural communities vary dramatically in their circumstances, demographics, histories, economies, cultures, and governance structures. There are many good reasons for using different definitions for different purposes and in different contexts.

Despite this complexity, rural communities share characteristics related to low total population (small size), low population density (sparseness), and relative isolation (remoteness) that distinguish them from urban and suburban places. These characteristics interact with each other and with geographic and economic context in a variety of ways that create both opportunities and challenges deserving of thoughtful policy attention.

The costs of distance: direct, indirect, transferred

Whether the community is sparse, remote, or both, residents and institutions in small places grapple with distance: distance between residents’ homes; distance from homes to jobs, schools, shopping, health care; and distance to large population centers and their concentrations of economic activity, services, and supports.

Distance is one of the most important considerations when it comes to public policy for rural areas. So what are its implications, especially for schools and communities?

The most obvious implication is cost. Rural residents and schools spend relatively high percentages of their budgets on transportation: residents often drive long distances in their daily lives and many rural school districts operate extensive bus systems. That means more money for gas, more wear-and-tear on vehicles, more time on the road, more planning and coordination, and higher delivery costs for many basic goods and services. The budgets of rural institutions and households must always account for the financial demands of distance.

But money and time are not the only costs of distance.

Distance takes a powerful toll on participation. It happens in a lot of different ways with surprising ramifications.

For example, students who attend rural schools located far from their homes participate in curricular and co-curricular activities at far lower rates than students whose schools are nearby. It is not uncommon in the U.S. for rural students to spend three to five hours a day on a school bus: leave in the dark, get home in the dark.

Most students with long bus rides don’t have time for the demands of rigorous coursework, and unless their families have the financial resources for private transportation, they won’t be taking part in school teams and clubs either. Instead, they spend a long portion of their day passive and sedentary.

Distance also constrains the participation of families and communities in schools. This is particularly true for families whose time is limited because of work demands and for families for whom reliable transportation and gas money are problems.

Students who take part in school activities are more likely to graduate, have better chances to receive college scholarships, exhibit better behavior, and experience other protective benefits. Families that engage with schools strengthen the academic and behavioral outcomes of their students. And, communities that maintain strong connections to schools provide a variety of academic and financial supports to the school along with stronger social infrastructure for residents. That's important because communities with strong social infrastructure are able to provide many more supports to students and help relieve pressures on individual families.

These indirect costs of distance affect the lifelong prospects of many rural residents, reducing their lifetime earnings, constraining their financial contributions to the larger economy, and sapping the country of the intellectual, creative, and cultural gifts of large portions of our rural sector.

When states and school districts say they have to close a school to save money (despite research that has shown time and again that significant savings almost never occur), a big part of what they really mean is they are transferring costs of distance to students and their families.

Some school districts attempt to mitigate the negative effects of distance by running two sets of buses, particularly for afternoon routes. One run takes students home at the end of the regular school day; a second run takes students home at the end of after school activities.

But this arrangement is expensive, raising transportation costs by as much as 50% if buses run full routes. Some districts run shortened routes. But that solution excludes students who don’t live on the shortened route or forces families to pick up their students at some distance from their homes. Further, many rural schools find that the first run buses are not able to make it back to school in time to pick up the after school students, so a second run is not an option.

Policy solutions and alternatives

Clearly, budget allocations for schools and other rural institutions must account for the added costs of transportation over long distances. Those allocations need to be made in a variety of ways. But before we talk about additional transportation funding, it is important to back up and consider solutions that reduce distance and the costs that go along with it.

Keep institutions as close as possible to where residents live. When schools are located close to students’ homes, the direct costs of transportation and the indirect toll on participation and social infrastructure are reduced or eliminated. Further, smaller schools that are more integrated with their communities offer a variety of well-documented academic and social benefits to students. In upcoming installments of this series, we’ll examine small size as a defining rural characteristic.

Invest in high-speed internet and other technologies that provide services and communications in place. Technological infrastructure reduces the need for travel and is a necessary resource for economic development.

Coordinate programs and services to reduce travel requirements. Coordination can happen in a variety of ways that do not require eliminating services and can be tailored to needs and preferences of local communities. For example, some school cafeterias work with Meals on Wheels programs; book mobiles and mobile clinics might collaborate; full-service schools can offer medical, social service, health and fitness, adult education, and arts cultural programming to all residents.

Take programs to communities, rather than requiring communities to come to centralized programs. For example, instead of trying to make an after-school program work at a highly consolidated school, take after school services to communities. Those programs might include tutoring, community gardens, entrepreneurial training, and academic place-based learning assignments in small community centers where families can more easily participate and entire communities can benefit.

Consider the school bus system a rural public transportation system. Few rural areas have workable public transportation programs. But almost all rural areas have school buses. Liability, capacity, and coordination concerns do pose barriers, but these issues can be addressed. The potential benefits of parents being able to ride the bus with their child, volunteer at school, visit the doctor, and ride home that afternoon are obvious. Similar benefits could happen with transportation to community after-school centers.

Allocate sufficient transportation funding for rural institutions—and their patrons. Sufficient transportation funding means schools and other institutions do not have to sacrifice their core mission to cover transportation costs that simply do not exist in urban and suburban places. Sufficient transportation funding also means funding to cover costs transferred to participants. For example, parent engagement programs in high-poverty rural areas should provide reimbursements or mileage allocations to families.


Read more from the January 2014 Rural Policy Matters.