Thinking differently about smaller town needs

Small towns often lack basic services that people in larger centres take for granted. What this means in practice is that the choice to live in a smaller town condemns you to being part of the automobile culture (I say “condemns” because, aside from worries about the ability to keep the roads in good order, the affordability of fuel now and in the future, and the cost of vehicles themselves, we all get older, and eventually, for all of us, we reach a point where we are physically unable to drive).

Take a taxi service, for instance. In a city, you pick up the phone and dial the company of your choice, and within a few minutes the car is there to take you where you need to go. (You probably also have a municipal transit system with frequent service as an option.) In a town of reasonable size, you pick up the phone and call the company in town, and soon enough you’ll have a car and driver. (You may also have a municipal transit service with infrequent service as an option.)

Go to a town that’s smaller yet, and the odds are there’s nothing there. No transit system, of course, and no taxi company.

I was listening yesterday to a podcast (the KunstlerCast) where host Duncan Crary and presenter James Howard Kunstler were at the recent annual meetings of the Congress for the New Urbanism. They were talking with a number of the “next generation new urbanists”, who all felt their futures were not in building new developments like Seaside, FL, or infill in large cities like City Centre in West Palm Beach, FL (where this year’s sessions were held) but in revitalising smaller towns to be real working communities again.

This got me thinking, and later yesterday a long conversation with a good friend of mine who lives in just such a small, midwestern American town gave rise to ideas about just how simple it would be to have a small town taxi.

My friend isn’t elderly, but he does have health issues, and lives alone. His house has more room than he needs. (There’s a lot of people like this in places like his.)

What a taxi company needs is one or more taxi vehicles — the current “taxi of choice” in North America is a hybrid car; in Europe it has historically been a diesel-fuelled Mercedes (I’ve been in immaculate taxis in Europe with over 5,000,000 km on the odometer that get around 50 mpg) — drivers for same, and someone to answer customer calls (a dispatcher).

At the same time, and for the future as it appears now, we have a youth unemployment problem. We also have too many young people who literally can’t afford to move out of their parents’ homes for lack of enough income to pay rent, food, transportation and other costs.

Match up the person with the space (who rents the room affordably, and handles dispatch) with a younger driver (who can get a car loan even if they don’t qualify for much else). One car taxi company.

The town only needs to licence the business, put a medallion on the cab itself, and grant a taxi licence to the driver. It would be helpful if it helped publicize the number (most small towns send out lists of “town numbers” including the hospital, doctors, churches and the like along with their utility services, police, etc., a single card often taped up near the phone). It also needs to set flat rates to distant points — the local bigger centre with the secondary and tertiary care hospitals, the biggest regional airport, etc. (What will make this a viable business in the early going is precisely these long trips.)

All of a sudden this small town is a better place to come and live, or to set up shop, because it’s not 100% dependent upon each person owning and operating their own vehicle. At the same time the young person is earning a living, paying their way, and gaining business experience for the future. (This is not a make-work job in the same sense driving in a city fleet of cabs would be: as a very small company, they would have a hand in its management and administration, adding useful skills to their resume.)

I tell this story because it’s an example of how to create better places to live. Perhaps a few of my friends who live in places like this will find their town suddenly sprouting an amenity like this (perhaps one or two of them might even find a housemate out of it).

More important, though, it’s an exemplar of how to link ideas together to come up with local solutions to problems: it’s the way communities are built.

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3 Comments

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  1. Right now I’m driving taxi for my friend who started up a business just like you described. We’re in rural northern NY where distances are very big, but between the 4 local colleges and several “local” airports, it has more than enough business to keep us going. I couldn’t imagine how some people would get to where they need to go sometimes if we weren’t here.

  2. Do you think a taxi business in small towns of Pakistan is a great idea?
    I love cars and also want to participate in socio development process of my town ( by providing a good reliable taxi service).
    Please comment and give your views on my project.

    • I do not know much about Pakistan. Conceptually, if people are willing to pay for services, if it is safe for you to carry substantial amounts of cash, if your insurance allows you to drive others for a fee, if your driver’s licence allows you to legally chauffeur others, etc. it should work. Good luck!

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