Urbanization has hurt small towns. Transit could help remedy their woes.

October 1, 2020

In 2020, living in a metropolitan area typically gives access to better health care, economic opportunity, and the most accessible transit. But today we want to go small, and talk about how public transit can benefit small towns too.

If you are reading this blog and live in Canada, you are probably living in a city. 71.7% of Canada’s population lives in metropolitan areas; 81.4% lives in what is considered an urban area. Our remarkable urbanization rate is in step with similar global trends storying a mass migration of people into cities. Put simply, in 2020, living in a metropolitan area typically gives access to better health care, economic opportunity, and the most accessible transit. But today we want to go small, and talk about how public transit can benefit small towns too.

Here’s some perspective. Drumheller, Alta. has a population density of 73.9 people per square kilometre. Compare Drumheller to Vancouver, British Columbia, whose population density is 5,493 people per square kilometre, and the entire socio-spatial structure within which public transit exists changes. Okay, we know. The word “socio-spatial” may be a little too academic. We’re trying to point out that the way communities are connected through transit is radically different depending on the population density of the place where they live. And one issue for small towns, who operate public transit systems less frequently, is that without public transportation, people often can’t access economic opportunities that would encourage them to stay in the town. As we argue, this situates them in a precarious but flexible position, ripe for innovation.

Transit is the problem and the solution in many small towns. Canada is an urbanized country, and the best paying jobs are concentrated in urban centres into which people can travel by transit. Consequently, small and medium-sized towns are vulnerable to brain drain, where bright students and workers must move elsewhere to access university or work. For example, a student from a small town may have to travel to an adjacent town because that’s where their university is. Without transit, it may simply be more practical for that student to move to the other town (which may also simply be a big city, where it will be easier for them to find a job). Many young people may never permanently return, resulting in an unbalanced demography. In fact, out-migration by young people is a primary reason that age demographics in small and medium-sized towns hew older. Compounding this challenge for towns is that conventional land use planning was designed to accommodate primary industries like agriculture and mining. As a result, density has never been prioritized, discouraging the development of cost-effective transit corridors.

Another problem is that recuperating the cost of operating a transit system is difficult for small towns. For example, in Ontario, fares in big cities, on average, cover 62% of the cost of operating transit systems. In towns with fewer than 50 000 people, fares only cover 35%. The picture becomes even more complex if there is a continual out-migration of people, which further dwindles the fare-paying base. Out-migration is a real cause for concern, too: census data demonstrates that there hasn’t been a net increase of people living in small towns and rural areas for 36 years. The combination of these challenges means building a fiscally sustainable transit system is hard work.

The cost of not investing is higher. In small towns, transit provides mobility for several underserved and marginalized groups who do not have access to private vehicles. These communities include elderly folks, who are often no longer able to drive and who require health care in adjacent towns (or just to get to the grocery store). Also included are young people, who may not have access to a car or a driver's license, low-income people, and women, who may feel unsafe walking alone. While small towns frequently do operate a paratransit service, these systems are by no means sufficient for the needs of underserved groups.

The story isn’t all bleak. Despite the challenges facing small towns, they have the potential to be laboratories for innovative new transit ideas. In contrast with large metropolitan transit agencies, small towns can experiment with groundbreaking new technologies -- if only because they’re not serving thousands of people a day. If launched properly, robust and inclusive public transit in small towns could be a way to retain residents. Here’s the scenario: a small town designs an integrated and responsive transit system that enables passengers to access health care, economic opportunities, and business centres. This transit system is predicated on facilitating transit to where most amenities and leisure activities are concentrated, which would boost local business and further grow these small economies. If you're enjoying the spoils of this system, why leave?

How can small towns go about designing a responsive transit system? Look no further than on-demand transit. Considering that the cost of public transit is often prohibitive for town councils, on-demand transit would focus on optimizing smaller budgets by balancing supply and demand without wasting funds. An on-demand service is unlikely to run empty buses on the road because it is specifically engineered to keep pace with community demand. This means savings on fuel, wages, and other expenditures. For example, data from a pilot project in Peace River, Alta. (population 6 842) showed that as wealth increased, service usage decreased, a common trend in boom-and-bust economies. Had this pilot been on-demand, Peace River could have modulated service in tandem with transit usage, providing robust and consistent, yet cost-effective, service. Finally, adopting on-demand would also strengthen the climate-conscious character of many towns – who are already innovating to combat climate change – by reducing both cars and empty buses on the road.

Small towns are often left out of broader discussions on transit. That’s a shame. Despite the challenges facing them in a landscape of urbanization, globalization, and demographic change, small towns remain vibrant centres of connection and community. They may also be staging a full-blown comeback in the coming post-pandemic years. COVID-19 is prompting many to wonder how the population size of urban centres will change. One thing is clear, though: sooner than later, towns will have the opportunity to shape conversations and policymaking around transit. And we should all be paying attention.


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