The recent Observer articles about the lack of broadband access in rural areas should remind us of a very simple fact: Distances matter.
It costs much less to provide services and access to people who live close to each other than to people who live further apart.
Consider the differences between five families per mile of rural road versus 10 families per one-tenth of a mile of city street. Those five demand a lot more per capita of internet fiber, power line, school busing, snow plowing, Meals on Wheels mileage, traffic policing and, of course, asphalt. The list goes on.
Ignorance of what should be obvious has become endemic. Making matters worse, non-farmers in sprawling suburbs and rural areas have come to feel entitled to city-quality amenities at rural tax rate prices.
And why not? For nearly a century now, government policies have largely hidden the added costs of serving low-density suburbs and exurban habitation.
The Rural Electrification Act was a real boon to farmers, but it also opened the door for a lot of non-farmers to move into the country without paying anything more for all of the additional wire and poles that were necessary to serve them.
Funding roads via gas taxes entirely fails to account for the enormous discrepancies in per-user costs between lightly traveled rural roads versus heavily traveled city streets.
Transportation subsidies for low-density residents are even more skewed when accounting for the fact that city taxpayers end up paying for city roadway capacity that rural folks demand, whereas the reverse isn’t true.
“Free” school busing is another expensive subsidy for non-farmers who live in low-density neighborhoods – they don’t pay a penny more for the service than people who live in town. Adding injury to insult, children whose parents choose to live within walking distance of schools are often confronted by traffic congestion which endangers their lives.
The same logic applies to mail and other delivery services. If people are worried about keeping the U.S. Postal Service afloat, maybe it – and other carriers – should be allowed to charge more to customers who require more miles of driving to serve.
The true costs of sprawl will only get worse if urban internet users are forced to subsidize non-urban ones.
Throughout most of human history, cities and villages were scaled to human legs. Our ancestors placed a high value on proximity in the communities they built. When you build streets by hand and do most of your traveling via your own metabolism, minimizing the costs of transportation is essential.
Motorized forms of transportation are wonderful in many ways, but they can lull us into forgetting basic economics. The fact that it is easier to drive 10 miles to everything than to walk three blocks doesn’t make 10 miles of road cheaper than three blocks of street. Or sewer pipe, power line or internet fiber.
It is high time we paid attention to the bottom line.
Village of Oregon