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Rural residents who live far from cities are slightly less likely to commute to work alone than their metropolitan counterparts, a new study from the University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center says.
The study found that while 80% of metropolitan residents commuted solo to work, only 76% of residents who lived far from a metro or small city did.
Because they live farther from cities, we might think rural residents have a longer commute time. But metropolitan residents actually are more likely than nonmetro residents to have long commutes. More than a third of metropolitan workers drive a half hour or more to work, while less than a quarter of residents in remoter rural nonmetropolitan counties drive that far to get to work.
Commuting patterns in so-called “micropolitan” counties were unique (micropolitan counties are those outside metro areas that have cities of 10,000 to less than 50,000 residents, generally speaking). While their commuting rates were similar to metropolitan areas, they tended to have a smaller part of the population engaging in long commutes.
The findings imply that public health officials who want to address Americans’ sedentary lifestyle should consider locality when they create programs to reduce commuting to relieve traffic congestion and pollution and improve health.
For example, walking or biking to work (called “active” forms of commuting) simply isn’t an option for people who live too far from their workplace. Infrastructure like sidewalks and bike lanes also can play a part in whether active commuting is feasible. Public transit is rarely an option, as well.
The paper doesn’t explore the possible causes of the variation in commuting patterns between urban and rural. We think the very definition of “metropolitan area” might have something to do with it. One of the criteria used to determine whether a county is in an MSA or not is the percentage of people who commute to the core urban area to work from an outlying county. When the percentage of workers who commute to a core county rises above 25 percent, the county becomes part of the metropolitan area. When that happens, all those long suburban commutes into a central city become part of the metropolitan area’s commuting data, leaving the remaining nonmetro counties with fewer commuters.
Conversely, commuting times might be lower in micropolitan areas because traffic is lighter and urban sprawl has not yet pushed workers to the fringes.