Urban vs rural driving

by L

Driving in urban vs rural areas: what do Totebaggers think?

Our driving increased per trip when we moved to a more rural area, but our trips to work also decreased by a substantial amount.

Urban America Is Driving More. Rural America Is Driving Less. What Gives?


68 thoughts on “Urban vs rural driving

  1. Not only is the population shrinking it’s also aging which would presumably explain at least some of the drop.

  2. I agree with Rhett . I also think a lot of them use online services like Amazon.

  3. Hmmm. I am thinking that more of this is explained by their statistics than he thinks. As they note, the decrease in rural driving, and some of the increas in urban driving, is largely accounted for by the spreading exurbs changing the characterization of an area to urban. But it’s not just that the urban area got 20% bigger — it’s that the areas got reclassified because they are growing in population, because they are commuter towns near a big city. So maybe 10 years ago, that was a rural area with 10,000 people in it, driving around to their local grocery stores and schools and such, and venturing into town once a week or whatever (let’s assume 100 miles/week). So 10 years ago, that area was a 1M VMT/week on the rural side of the ledger.*

    But then people started moving in [either from rural areas because jobs, or from closer in because affordable housing], and over time it got converted to an urban area of 50,000 people. And even if you assume the same 10,000 “locals” stayed put, that’s still another 40,000 people — all of whom are driving much longer distances to their jobs in the city, because, duh, they moved to an exurban area. So let’s call that an average of 350 miles/wk [25-30 mile commute each way + schools/activites + weekend errands etc.]. So those 40,000 new people are adding 14M miles to the “urban” side of the ledger, in addition to the 1M that the pre-existing locals provided.

    So, basically, just because of the growth of urban areas/jobs, this one area has gone from 1M VMT on the rural side of the equation to 15M VMT on the urban side of the equation. I think his math focused only on the shift of 10,000 people from rural to urban, and while he mentions that it makes that shift because people move in, he misses the cumulative effect of the significantly longer daily commutes to the city from the exurbs.

    And the other factor is that our ability/willingness to build roads far outpaces our ability/willingness to build public transport to the exurbs, so as those exurbs grow, they also fill up with people who have no other realistic option than to drive into the city. Look at how rapidly NoVa has grown, and how long it is taking to extend Metro out towards Dulles — what are all those people going to do in the meantime? People who live closer in have a choice of Metro vs. driving; people who live farther out generally have to drive, even if they drive to a metro station and then use public transit for the second half of their commute. Add in things like HOT roads to make driving even easier for the car commuters, and there should be no surprise at all at these trends. It’s all about the choices available to people to find jobs and afford a house they like.

    *All numbers completely made up.

  4. We have acres of former farmland that is now what I call urban/suburban. Each area is set up with its own amenities so there is very little driving to get to a grocery store or other daily amenities.
    Here the jobs are more dispersed so though downtown has grown and more people driving into the city, there are a ton of people whose jobs involve driving between these urban/suburban areas. People don’t want long commutes, so as far as possible try to minimize that.

  5. what is the criteria for a road to be rural vs, urban? And is there a category in between?

  6. 50,000 is a good number as an example, LfB. My city hit 50,000 in the last census, and reaching that size makes a city eligible for federal funding/grants for who-knows-what.

  7. The reason I am trying to figure out the distinction is because I think there is a difference between truly rural driving (like the terrifying roads in eastern KY or parts of WVa) and pseudo rural (Litchfield County in CT, for example).

  8. well, my town has fewer than 50,000 people, but I hardly think we would qualify as rural driving! There has to be an in between category

  9. I guess Cape Cod would be classified as rural, especially in the winter, and I definitely do less driving when I’m here, or at least spend less time in the car than I do in Atlanta (it may be more miles but it just takes longer to drive around Atlanta). And people here go on and on about traffic in the summer and it is honestly fine (coming from someone who lives in a city with real traffic). I find I can zip around here quite easily at most times, but you’d think these people were sitting in traffic for hours every day of the summer the way they go on about it.

  10. Atlanta Mom – you’ve hit my issue with the definition of “traffic” here. My NJ commute was 70 miles round trip, which would take me ~3 hours a day. My RI commute (at its longest) was 40 miles round trip, which would take me ~1 hour. 1.5 in the summer when I’m traveling with the beach going and leaving folks.

    When researchers put a distinction of “rural” “urban” “suburban”, my “what I do for a living” hat goes on. Our work uses Land Use categories derived from National Land Cover Database classifications (we can ID something as urban in MA and RI using the same classification, apples to apples comparisons). The fact that the OP says the distinctions are different depending on the state means that they aren’t using consistent definitions. Therefore they could be double counting along the way (i.e. a suburban road in one state may be rural in another, so the rural category would be artificially inflated; same could be said for urban). Now it’s possible that everything evens out, but I doubt it. So this study is probably useless because their definitions aren’t consistent.

    Assuming the study can do some good, can it be used by DOTs to figure out which roads will need repairs sooner? If some rural roads are not being traveled as much, DOTs can put off repairs, or only do inspections, and focus limited resources on the heavily traveled roads which will fall into disrepair sooner than anticipated.

  11. We drove this one recently:

    I guess it’s rural? On the one hand, it’s right outside Crescent City. On the other hand, Crescent City’s population is apparently 6K and change so “city” may be a misnomer.

  12. I know the point of the post was not really “share videos of rural drives. . .” But clearly that was the aspect that spoke to me!

  13. I’m not getting what their point is. I agree with LfB that it seems to be pretty easily explained.

    I generally think people here don’t appreciate what “real” traffic is. I-25 and I-70 in Denver get backed up in rush hour, but nothing like places like NYC or Chicago.

    Although the ski traffic on I-70 has definitely gotten much, much worse in the last 10-15 years. We used to be able to leave at 6:30 on a Saturday morning and get to Summit County in about 90 minutes or so. Now if you leave at 6:30 it’s 2.5 hours. And coming back is worse, if you’re not on the road by 3:00, if not earlier, it’s 3 hours to get back. For comparison, without traffic it’s about 75 minutes from my house.

  14. “I’m not getting what their point is.”

    To be seen as clever and smart by demonstrating how conventional wisdom is misleading, a la “Freakonomics”?

    That’s all I can come up with.

  15. Except I don’t think this is demonstrating that conventional wisdom is misleading at all. But I’m basing that solely on their definitions. If you can’t define the terms consistently, you’re not showing much of anything.

    But this did get me thinking (as did L’s mention of her driving habits)… has anyone else noticed an uptick in the number of cars on their commute? Since I moved to RI, I’ve noted more and more cars on the road. I enjoyed a reverse commute for 8 years, but about 2-3 years in, I noticed more folks driving away from the capital city with me. DH noticed the same increase in cars on his drive into the capital city.

    The OP and others have talked about exburbs and the like – that cities are more spread out. That doesn’t fly in little Rhody. But the cost of living analysis with that might. I’m wondering that when the recession hit, folks that lived and worked in the richer, southern part of the state chose to move north, to a less expensive part. But folks in the capital had to make the same choice and chose to move south. I think both groups decided my city (which lies directly in the center of this easy commute highway pipeline) was the least expensive place to be and remain on the highway pipeline (there are far cheaper places west of all this, but it becomes one of those New England “you can’t get there from here” commutes).

    I really have nothing to support that theory. in my city, housing availability never changed, prices weren’t protected from the recession. So the only thing I can think of is that an equal number of people moved out of the state, to the south or north (staying on the 95 pipeline), so I am experiencing more folks passing through rather than RI-ers moving around.

    Just a thought… anyone else?

  16. The thing with NYC area traffic jams is that they tend to be in little spurts – you drive at speed for a bit, then suddenly have to slow to a crawl, and it is for no apparant reason because at some point you go back up to speed. Repeat ad nauseum. But it seems like everytime I have ever dared to be in a car heading from O’Hare to the Loop, I end up in some monster traffic jam that just sits there. And I had the same experience in Montreal when we stayed at a hotel near the airport – just these monster jams in which we sat and sat and sat, not moving.

  17. @Rhode — I agree with you, I don’t think they did actually demonstrate that the conventional wisdom was wrong. I just think that was what they were going for. Because, honestly, I can’t think of another reason to write this up — it’s just a bunch of statistics that they’re pretending means someting. Slow news day, maybe?

  18. Rhode – several years ago a friend of mine was transferred to your neck of the woods. Job was on the east side. They could not find any houses that fit their budget and their needs in RI or MA. The houses in budget were in need of repair, and the dirt floor basements with boulders scared them off (too rustic?). They ended up buying a new construction, out in the country near the CT border. A very long commute, but they felt it was worth it. Coming from the midwest they were looking for more space and newer homes.

  19. Coming from the midwest they were looking for more space and newer homes.

    Aren’t we all . . . but if you live in a higher-cost area you already know you’re not going to get that.

  20. “And coming back is worse, if you’re not on the road by 3:00, if not earlier, it’s 3 hours to get back.”

    How about if you ski until the lifts close, then have beverage in the lodge (on the deck if the weather’s nice), and head back at about 6?

    Or perhaps stay for dinner, and head home at about 7 or 7:30?

    This reminds me of T-Day weekends at south Tahoe. On Sunday morning, if you didn’t get on the road by about 9:30 or so, it’d be a slow go for a long way. We got around that by skiing until the lifts closed on Sunday; by the afternoon, there were no lift line, and the drive back was a clear shot, at least until we got into the central valley.

  21. On the graph on Rhett’s first post, any ideas why the non-metro change is, while downward overall, so cyclical?

  22. Lemon – ya that’s the area of RI I have never been too… you seriously can’t get there from here. And if you do it’s 2 lane roads with a double yellow line. One school bus in front of you and your commute is tripled.

    But I’m also a suburban kid who needs a grocery store within a reasonable drive. I’m not suited for the central part of the country, or some (relatively) far flung places on the coasts.

    “Aren’t we all . . . but if you live in a higher-cost area you already know you’re not going to get that.”

    You’d be surprised how many transplants don’t realize that. I equate it to the ex-pats on HGTV House Hunters International who dream of the spacious American kitchen and baths in the old section of Rome.

  23. Finn – recession? nonmetro living high when the economy is good, poor when the economy is bad (with the assumption that metro areas are where the jobs are at all the time).

    mid 1980s the nonmetro living was low, high in the mid 1990s…

  24. First of all, I find Slate to be almost worthless as a go to site. Milo may not see any difference between Slate and Vox ideologically, but I certainly do in terms of quality of articles and commentary.

    Aside from all of the other poorly analyzed variables, I believe that commercial taxi and vanpool use is not counted as “driving” but private car use in ride share services. etc is. So there is a uuuge shift in big cities on that account as well as the reclassification and inconsistent classification issue.

  25. Lemon, I also enjoyed the linked article about the accident that spilled snot snakes all over Oregon 101. (It’s in the top stories box in the sidebar.)

  26. What’s more, the snot snake article was actually relevant to today’s topic insofar as it presented one reason not to drive that particular rural route!

  27. The snot snake story is interesting – why were they being transported in a sedan? And are there snot snake farms in Oregon?

  28. Very true, Lemon, I would have hesitated to drive any kind of distance with three kids in that back seat, much less hundreds of snot snakes. So many questions!

  29. Meme: If you like Vox, have you tried their Weeds blog? I am a subscriber and like it. They have a “white paper of the week” section, which is actually my favorite part.

  30. They were eels to be exported to South Korea where they are considered an aphrodisiac. More details in the Newport paper.

  31. How about if you ski until the lifts close, then have beverage in the lodge (on the deck if the weather’s nice), and head back at about 6?

    Or perhaps stay for dinner, and head home at about 7 or 7:30?

    If you leave at 6, you’re still looking at well over 2 hours. 7:30 might be a little shorter, but then you’re not getting home until 9. And when you’re done skiing by 2 or so anyway, you don’t want to hang around for another 5 hours.

    I don’t mind coming back early to beat the traffic, it’s having to leave so early to beat the traffic going up that I’ve had enough of. The kids are tired of it as well. This year we’re thinking of doing a spring break trip and maybe some long weekends, and maybe play hooky a couple of times and go up mid-week. We’re done with the weekend day trips.

  32. Shoot, missed my own topic again. Not sure that we drive any less where we are now, but it is certainly more pleasant than in our last neighborhood. The whole foods is 20 minutes instead of 12 but when you get there there are tons of spots in the parking lot and no one is honking. Makes me think of this priceless gem: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2UFc1pr2yUU

  33. Tangent: Microsoft stopped supporting my Windows cell phone so I should probably replace it before I wind up SOL. I want an Android(?) phone that gets decent reception with a mediocre signal that I can talk on and hear/be heard fine. Battery life is a moderate priority. (Replaceable battery desired.) I send about 10 texts/month. I use no apps, because I’ve had a Windows phone for which no apps are available. I occasionally look things up on the web and use driving directions.

    I am cheap- refurbished would be fine- and there is a good chance I will lose this phone because I am scatterbrained.

    Any advice? Everything looks sort of the same. I had an iPhone once and didn’t care for it.

  34. Not to derail WCE’s hijack, but if anyone can recommend a good vent-mounted cell phone holder for vehicles, please do so.
    I tried Amazon’s top-selling windshield/dashboard mount (12,000 reviews!) but it absolutely refused to adhere to my dashboard, and I don’t want to mount it on the windshield.

  35. WCE, I like Samsung Galaxys. I have a 7s edge now. The newer ones (and probably ones from LG and motorola as well, I’m not sure) don’t let you replace the battery, but I don’t know why you would need to. I use my phone quite a bit during the day (calls, texts, emails, apps) and it’s usually still over 70% left when I get home.

    As for providers, if Sprint has decent coverage in your area, they extended their free year offer until the end of July. It’s literally unlimited talk/text/data for (almost) free for a year. You do have to pay a few bucks a month for the taxes. We just switched over from Verizon.


    The catch is you need to bring your own devices. Ours weren’t compatible so I bought used ones on swappa.com (the best place to buy and sell used phones). This lists the eligible phones, and they need to be unlocked –


    I assumed a used sprint s7 edge would work and it wouldn’t, it has to be an unlocked one. Once I figured that out it was easy to get four phones that worked. I even broke down and got DS an iphone because I great deal on one. I ended up spending about $1300 on four phones, but then sold our old ones for about $750, and we’re going to save close to $2,000 on the phone bill.

    Anyway, if you don’t want to try to do all that and don’t want to spend too much on a phone, you can get a used Galaxy S5 for about $115 or an S6 for about $180 on swappa.

  36. If you don’t use apps very often I would try the entry level Samsung. Galaxy. The model I got my husband is SM J320V.. The V likely stands for Verizon so a similar model for another service provider will not have that. He got it before the free replacement window and it was about 130 dollars at so called full price. With a new contract I would expect it to be free or nearly so. There are settings to prolong battery life that primarily affect data, not talk and text. I have an S7 with tons of apps and a car interface and between the car and home chargers I don’t run out of juice, and I have it in active use. LG and others also offer entry level smartphones, but we are a one platform family for Samsung mobile devices. It is easier for me to navigate only one system..

  37. More on topic, we went to see the Mets last night. We are in manhattan at Grand central The stadium is in Queens about 7 urban miles away. We took the express train with less than one block walk on either end. 30 min. And on the way back they had a special late night express 25 min. I got seats behind home plate in the law firm section. Just behind the walled off hedge fund section. Luckily deGrom and the boys delivered for DH. And back at Fenway the Yankees blew the save. Satsfaction.

  38. I’ve always wanted to replace my batteries after a year or two of use because they don’t hold charge as well. I will admit to sometimes forgetting to charge my phone at night so the battery occasionally gets drained, but designers should not assume humans will perfectly remember to charge their phones every night. Having to charge my phone means I also tend to forget it in the morning.

    Thanks for the swappa recommendation.

    Sprint has poor network in our area and we spend enough time in remote areas that I prefer to use either AT&T/Verizon or a provider that uses their networks.

  39. Huawei is supposed to make really good phones. I haven’t tried one b/c we have Verizon (CDMA network so compatability issue with many phones) but they’re fine with AT&T. Here’s one that’s cheap, well-reviewed, with a supposedly long-lasting (but not removeable) battery: https://smile.amazon.com/dp/B019O8YX1K/

  40. WCE, I recently got the Google Pixel bc our cell reception (on verizon) was poor in our new house and kept dropping work calls. It works on multiple cell carriers and wifi networks. But also has tons of apps and storage and a nice camera, so if you don’t need that YMMV. :) https://madeby.google.com/phone/

  41. @Scarlett: I’d be careful about the vent-mounted variety – I bought a Kenu Airframe, and I actually just returned it. The minor annoyance was the blocking the airflow/pulling the vent slats down with the weight of the phone. The slightly bigger annoyance was that I couldn’t adjust the angle of the phone to a comfortable viewing angle, and I was very limited on where I could install it to get the necessary phone clearance. The reason I returned it was that the whole thing flew off when I went around a corner, and since I had the top down, my phone nearly flew out onto the highway.

    I do suspect you might not corner quite as, um, enthusiastically as I do. But I had specifically checked for that issue in the Q&A and reviews, and they said it worked great, so I was annoyed.

  42. I’m glad the weather didn’t stop you from going to the Mets on Friday night. The rest of the weekend is amazing. I wish I could bottle the weather this weekend in NY, and keep it for the rest of the summer.

  43. LfB,
    Thanks for the input. I am now looking at CD slot holders. I have spent way too much time on this. One would the folks who put a man on the moon could come up with a solution. I kept my old school Garmin for years because it sat properly on its dashboard sandbag, but it’s just not as functional as the phone.

    Wondering if brand new vehicles have a screen that could connect via Bluetooth but IIRC your vehicle is new so perhaps not.

  44. Scarlett – I was going to mention that most new vehicles, including modest ones like Toyota, have bluetooth connections with the phone. You can receive and make voice calls through the car’s speaker system while driving. You can receive texts that are read aloud to you. Mine does not let you dictate a text back, but there are canned responses such as, see you soon, there in five minutes, or you can reply with a voice call. Some systems have a way to project your own nav program from the phone to a screen, but that uses a lot of data and power from the phone. My car has a proprietary nav system, which is inferior to Google maps or Waze, but perfect fine for finding some new acquaintance’s house in an unfamiliar subdivision or learning about an accident ahead on the highway. What I do when I really need the best directions is to have the detailed road map on full screen, but not use the navigation feature. I play Google Maps lady either on my phone with the bluetooth off or via bluetooth through the speakers. Also, you can use the speakers to play your pandora stations, or playlists or podcasts stored on your phone, . And I have Sirius XM for music and news and sports. You can charge the phone via a USB connection if you need to. I just leave it in my purse along with the modern “key”. I think Iphones have even better options on most cars, but I am an Android person.

  45. My car does have Bluetooth but I declined the navigation system. I did use my Garmin exactly as Meme describes — as the visual for directions from my phone but the Garmin has age-related glitches and has been retired. I will be buying a new vehicle shortly and was hoping for an improved navigation option.

  46. When I want to see the phone’s screen for navigation, I can lean it against the plastic cover that is over the gauge cluster (tachometer/speedometer), especially if it’s pushed toward the less-relevant tachometer side.

  47. “Some systems have a way to project your own nav program from the phone to a screen, but that uses a lot of data and power from the phone. ”

    That would be nice. I doubt my car has that but I will investigate. Like the nav. system Meme has in her car, mine is inferior to Google. For one thing, my built-in system seems to have a 3-second delay that can be problematic.

    The main problem I have with using my phone’s Google app linked up with the car’s bluetooth is that the volume controls both the map directions and any music I’m listening to. I like directions louder than the music but I haven’t managed to figure out if there’s a way to have that.. The built-in navigation system has a volume control that is separate from the one for music.

  48. Yes, the projecting option would be best. With a charger and unlimited data plan, that would work. Also if I could get a dummy monitor that could sit in the sandbag and connect to the phone that might work. Haven’t found anything like that so far.

  49. The point of using the car’s built in maps is that there is a big map on the backup screen and on mine, the name of the street you are on right on the small dash screen in easy view. If the car’s nav system is engaged it also shows their turn by turn directions in the dash screen. If I am using google maps for directions and just using the car’s map, not nav system, I often turn off the bluetooth and play XM music or listen to the regular radio through the speakers, while letting Ms Google Maps talk to in the background directly from the phone. You don’t need to have the phone at eye level if you have a decent map. I don’t go to a lot of unfamiliar places, so this all works very well for me.

  50. Yeah, I wish I could just project Google Maps onto the car’s nav system — I am used to it, I like it, I find it easy to zoom in and out and check traffic and such, and I’d honestly rather not be flipping around from radio to nav and all of that while driving. I didn’t have this problem in my old car, because the phone could sit in the cupholder, or right up against the dash in front of the shifter. But in the new car, the cupholders pop out of the dash and don’t have a solid bottom, so it slides through, and if it sits in front of the shifter, it covers the vent controls and radio buttons — not to mention its tendency to slide off around corners. So I need to find *something*.

    What I do like is the opportunity to use the Bluetooth to listen to the talking — my big recent trip, I ran Waze the entire way, because then the nice lady will tell you where the cops are. :-) Unfortunately, that works only when I am listening to music through my iPod, so if I wanted to listen to my satellite radio, I couldn’t hear the nice lady warning me any more.

    I just wish the tech would all play nicely with each other.

    Added bonus pet peeve: not only do those cupholders suck, but the driver’s cupholder is located immediately above where my phone and charger cord sits while I am running maps, so the condensation drips onto my electronics. So now I need a new car cup with much better insulation. Which will of course take up more of the already-limited interior drink space, so I will be tea-limited when driving. Damn Germans. :-)

  51. Wondering if brand new vehicles have a screen that could connect via Bluetooth but IIRC your vehicle is new so perhaps not.

    It’s called Apple Carplay and Android Auto. It allows the car’s screen to mirror your iphone or Android phone:

  52. When I want to use Waze and listen to Sirius, I use an old fashioned charger for my phone. I bypass my car so I can have both going at the same time. We use a holder for our phones that sits in a cup holder. I don’t really look at it unless necessary because it’s not eye level. I just listen to it when I’m in an unfamiliar place.

  53. “When I want to use Waze and listen to Sirius, I use an old fashioned charger for my phone. I bypass my car so I can have both going at the same time.”

    Alas, I can’t hear the nice lady with the top down and the music on. :-( I really like how running it through the car silences the music so I can hear the warning.

    Yeah, #firstworldproblems. :-)

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