By Rayla Bellis
Many transit agencies have been forced to drastically scale back services due to rapidly declining revenues, and rural providers are no exception. Many were already operating on incredibly tight budgets, serving large geographic areas with a small staff of part-time drivers. While it is easy to see how pandemic-related service cuts will impact people in urban areas who rely on transit, the impacts will likely be just as devastating for many rural communities, especially the pockets of rural America with disproportionately low car ownership.
The latest American Community Survey data shows more than one million households in predominantly rural counties do not have access to a vehicle. On a national level, the majority of households without a car are in urban counties, but the rates aren’t as different as you might expect: approximately nine percent of households in urban counties do not have access to a car compared to six percent of households in primarily rural counties. There are 292 counties in the U.S. where at least 10 percent of households don’t have a car (out of 3,142 total counties nationwide), and more than half of those counties (164 counties, or 56 percent) are majority rural. Those 164 rural counties are primarily located in Kentucky, West Virginia, South Dakota, Arkansas, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alaska.
The residents in those 164 rural counties also face other challenges likely exacerbated by low car-ownership and underfunded transit. Data from Kaiser Health News shows 119 of those 164 counties do not have any intensive care unit beds, meaning people with health emergencies must travel to a neighboring county. Some of those 164 counties do not have a single hospital. This is part of a larger trend of rural hospital closures nationwide, but relatively low car-ownership makes poor healthcare access more challenging. Many people in those 164 rural counties also face substantial poverty and poor internet access. About 80 percent of households nationwide have a broadband subscription, compared to approximately 74 percent for all rural counties, and just 62 percent for the 164 rural counties where at least one in 10 households don’t have a car.
In other words, these are regions of rural America where residents will continue to be especially vulnerable to the near-term health crisis and long-lasting economic impacts of COVID-19. A lack of transportation options will make those challenges much harder to address.