While people often choose to live remotely to save on real estate cost, the bad axiom of rural mobility is that most every other expense goes up with distance from density. Regardless (or at least without enough regard), people continue to choose to live remotely without the economic foundation to do so, and many have their circumstances diminished after they make the move, leaving lots of far-flung people needing logistical help with basic aspects of life. Help with job-seeking and commuting (job-access) is often crucial on the path to stability.
Programs around the country sporadically address this by offering job seekers grants for the purchase of – or repairs to – a car to get them to interviews, and then work. These are one time “boot-strap” grants aiming to push grantees over the first big hurdle of the working world, after which they’ll be on the road to self-sufficiency – or not.
Likely the end-of-life car will be purchased – or the triage will be performed on a grantee’s owned vehicle – only to have another major expense incurred within months, sidelining the vehicle and wasting much of the grant. Cars wear out fairly predictably, but proper maintenance and insurance are beyond the means (or are simply not the priorities) of many car owners, and the less money someone has, the less likely they will attend to automotive hygiene.
Now without a vehicle, the grantee must scramble for other means to get to work or face joblessness again.
A better approach brings the logic of leasing to the rural job-access world.
Money now directed to grants could instead subsidize lease arrangements between drivers and local garages scattered around a state. Local rural auto repair shops are ubiquitous and often represent the apex of frugality and ingenuity while being artists at keeping inexpensive cars and trucks running inexpensively for their neighbors. A standard contract could be developed specifying acceptable car models and conditions and each garage would field a small fleet of daily-drivers and substitutes for cars in accidents or needing heavy maintenance. Garages can source vehicles much more knowledgeably and inexpensively than individuals, and having a profit motive (the difference between the contract’s allocation and the garage’s true cost) should keep abuse costs down, as the drivers will need to account for treatment of the vehicle to the local garages.
Having a managed fleet means bringing huge peace of mind to drivers, with road service, loaner cars, and planned maintenance all part of the contract. Drivers are relieved of ownership and the possibility of losing same to missed loan payments, vehicle title loans gone bad, or lack of insurance. On a practical level, people coming off of public assistance are often in a state of personal chaos and may be solely focussed on dealing with a new worklife while remaining a responsible parent. This leaves little energy for the niceties of car ownership.
A managed fleet benefits the rest of the community by supplanting unsafe and uninsured vehicles with ones that are looked after and legal. Success of a subsidized job-access program such as this could offer a new paradigm for low-cost vehicle use; a version of car sharing tailored to low and middle income commuters.
Another benefit of a managed approach to rural mobility is the ability for drivers to tap into ways to decrease their lease fee by driving others (registered to receive mobility benefits) or by making the vehicle available during non-commute hours through some car-sharing framework (e.g.: Relay Rides). As the point of all this is not to subsidize remote living but simply to head off joblessness, vehicle operation could be strictly (even mechanically) limited to commuting, also through car-sharing technology.
Lastly, making the project’s funding and budgeting transparent (while protecting privacy appropriately) could draw donations from the private sector for subsidies targeting specific goals. Much as the “Heifer Project” puts an a la carte face on donating food to third world countries, local employers and others able to control the precise benefit of their donation will be more likely to buy-in.