Take me Home, Country Roads: New Study on Clean Transportation Strategies in Rural Northeast and Mid-Atlantic

November 12, 2020 | 11:34 am
a red Nissan electric vehicle at a charging stationNatural Resources Council of Maine
Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura
Senior Vehicles Engineer

A new study from M. J. Bradley & Associates, together with Union of Concerned Scientists, shows how rural communities in four states, Maine, Maryland, Vermont and Virginia, can benefit from clean transportation solutions, resulting in significant economic gains and reduced global warming emissions. The study has been released at a timely moment, as Northeastern and Mid-Atlantic states are discussing a final Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for the Transportation and Climate Initiative (TCI), a regional collaboration of 12 Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states and the District of Columbia that seeks to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from on-road vehicles.

The study compares the demographics, driving habits and the characteristics of vehicle fleets in rural, suburban, and urban areas. It identifies factors that accentuate the benefits of adopting electric vehicles (EVs), such as longer driving distances and the predominance of older and larger vehicles, but also factors that could present obstacles in this transition, such as higher poverty rates and an aging population. The study looks at policy approaches to help states transition to clean transportation. The findings are relevant for other states of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic, as the four states share characteristics with other states in the region.

Benefits from adoption of EVs in rural households

  1. Savings on fuel and maintenance

Savings on fuel and maintenance can be significant, particularly for low-income households where expenditure on fuel and maintenance is larger as a percentage of the household budget than for their urban counterparts. One study shows that rural households spend 7 percent more of their budget on transportation.

A typical rural household switching to an electric vehicle from a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle can save on average between $1,900 and $2,800 every year from fuel and maintenance. Lifetime savings, assuming a 15-year lifetime for an EV, can amount to between approximately $27,000 and $44,000, depending on the state, what type of vehicle is purchased and how many miles are driven. For comparison, in urban areas, the savings range from $22,000 to $31,000.

  1. Reduction in global warming emissions

Adopting clean transportation solutions in rural areas is a key step in reducing state emissions, as emissions from driving associated with rural households are higher than for urban households. Not just that, but these emissions are above the national average.

The fact that driving distances are longer and vehicles are larger, older and less fuel efficient, translates into more global warming emissions compared to driving in urban areas. However, these characteristics translate into bigger savings, once there is a switch to an electric vehicle. They also translate into bigger emission reductions, as studies affirm that driving on electricity produces fewer emissions than gasoline cars. 94 percent of people in the U.S. live where driving an EV produces less emissions than a 50-mile-per-gallon car.

Driving in rural areas of Maine and Vermont corresponds to more than 80% of the total state carbon emissions from vehicles, while in Virginia and Maryland, these shares are 43 and 33 percent, respectively.  Emissions in rural households range from an annual 11.5 metric tons of CO2 in Maine and Vermont to 14.5 metric tons in Virginia, compared to a lower and narrower range in urban households, 9.4 to 10.9 metric tons.  The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that a typical gasoline-powered passenger vehicle in the U.S. emits in one year less than half of these amounts, 4.6 metric tons of CO2.

Improved local air quality is a proven co-benefit of reduced global warming emissions, but estimating this was beyond the scope of the study.

Adoption of EVs in rural households: opportunities and challenges

The geographic, demographic and vehicle fleet profiles collected in the study suggest some factors that tend to favor the adoption of electric vehicles by rural households and therefore present opportunities, but also factors that may present challenges for this transition.

  1. OPPORTUNITY – Travel distances are longer

Rural workers travel longer distances to go to work, to school, to the doctor and to do errands. This means that a switch to an EV results in larger fuel savings than in areas where people drive less.

The study states, based on 2017 Bureau of Labor Statistics data, that on average rural workers drive 38 percent more miles to and from their jobs than their urban counterparts, while rural low-income workers travel 59 percent more. The chart below shows the annual Vehicle Miles Driven (VMT) per household. In Virginia, for instance, rural households drive over 7,000 more miles in one year compared to their urban counterparts. Also, rural areas have limited or no access to public transportation, so people have few mobility choices and are more dependent on their cars and trucks.

Bar graph of annual vehicle miles traveled (VMTs) per household in urban and rural areas in four east coast states


  1. OPPORTUNITY – Vehicles are older, larger, and less efficient

Vehicles in rural areas tend to be larger and older and therefore consume more fuel, not to mention the higher costs of maintaining such vehicles. This means that a switch to an EV results in larger fuel savings than in areas where vehicles are newer, smaller and more efficient.

Rural counties in all 4 states have a higher percentage of full-size SUVs, pick-up trucks, and vans, and a higher percentage of vehicles that are at least 10 years old. As a result, fuel economies in rural areas are lower than in urban areas (a difference ranging from 1.1 miles per gallon less in Maine to 1.6 miles per gallon less in Vermont).

Bar graph of vehicle sizes and ages in Maine, Maryland, Virginia, and Vermont



  1. OPPORTUNITY – More single-family households, fewer multi-unit dwellings

Rural residents are more likely to live in single-family houses, which presents an opportunity for easy charging. Many communities around the country have been successfully implementing charging stations in multi-unit dwellings (MUDs), but there is much work to be done to eliminate barriers. In all 4 states, as can be seen in the chart below, less than 16 percent of households in rural counties are MUDs.

  1. CHALLENGE – Lower average household income

In all four states, the study found that average household income was lower in rural counties than in urban counties. In Maryland, rural incomes are 13 percent lower than suburban incomes, and in Virginia they are 38 percent lower (suburban incomes are the highest in these two states). In rural counties, a larger share of households is below the poverty level. Households on lower incomes spend a larger share in basic needs such as transportation. Although the up-front cost of an electric vehicle compared to a conventional vehicle is still a barrier for many families, EV cost parity with conventional vehicles should be achieved within 5-10 years. Purchase subsidies can make a significant difference, as can the savings on fuel and maintenance of vehicles.

Bar graphs of % of households in multi-unit dwellings and average household income in MA, MD, VA, and VT

  1. CHALLENGE – An aging population

Without significant outreach and education, it is possible that older people are less likely to make a transition to a new vehicle technology. In rural areas, the percentage of the population older than 60 years of age ranges from 23 percent (in Maryland) to 30 percent (in Maine and Vermont), while in urban areas this range is lower, 19 percent (in Virginia) to 26 percent (in Maine). However, this group stands to benefit from other clean transportation initiatives, such as the expansion of ride-hailing, and free or low-cost public transportation services.

How do we build a clean transportation system in rural areas?

A thorough understanding of the different geographic, socio-economic and vehicle fleet characteristics of rural and urban communities discussed above lays an important foundation for the development of clean transportation policies that benefit everybody. The different rural/urban contexts pose not just different opportunities and but also different challenges for a transition to a clean transportation system, and should be taken into consideration in state and stakeholder discussions about the final Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for TCI, due at the end of 2020.

TCI not only seeks to reduce emissions, but it will bring in proceeds to help fund regional clean transportation solutions which include not only electrification, but also complementary policies that advance goals of equity and environmental justice. The states formally announced a regional commitment to a minimum of 35% from TCI proceeds for dedicated transportation investments in disadvantaged communities, as well as commitments to transparency and equitable processes.

The study looks at eight policies targeting rural areas which aim to incentivize the use of electric vehicles, increase mobility and regional connectivity, and revitalize rural communities.

  1. Electric Vehicle Incentives

Rural households should be included in federal and state EV incentive programs, and additional financing options for low-to-moderate income residents and small businesses should be available, as should tier rebates based on income eligibility.

  1. Charging Incentives

Public chargers should be placed in rural areas. Grant funds for small businesses should be increased so as to encourage public and private charger purchases. Vocational training should be made available for EV technicians and electrical workers to further EV and charger maintenance skills in rural communities. Partnerships should be developed with utilities, and tier residential charger rebates based on income eligibility should be implemented.

  1. Lead by Example Programs

Transit and public service fleets should be electrified, and local and regional charging networks developed. Programs to increase awareness around the benefits of EV ownership are important. Job opportunities should be created by incentivizing EV manufacturing in rural communities

  1. Vehicle Scrappage Programs

The retirement of older and less efficient vehicles should be encouraged.

  1. Corridor planning within regions

Regional and local planning processes should be coordinated, and future corridor needs should be evaluated. Rural transit services that facilitate access to jobs and schools should be created, as well as flexible bus routes. Barriers to charging infrastructure in interstate rest areas should be removed.

  1. Shared-Use Mobility

State funding for medical transportation services should be increased, as should car-sharing availability within rural communities. Community-specific mobility gaps should be addressed.

  1. Investing in Active Transportation

Planning should incorporate a variety of modes of transportation, and existing infrastructure should be maintained.

  1. Increasing Broadband Access

State and federal funding for broadband services within rural communities should be increased, and public-private partnerships to expand broadband services should be developed. Subsidized broadband options for low-to-moderate income residents should be made possible.


Rural communities stand poised to reap the largest financial benefits from the transition to electric vehicles and other benefits from advances in clean transportation.  The design and implementation of effective policies and programs by states and local governments targeting rural communities should meet the specific needs of rural residents. To do this, state officials should focus on outreach and community input from rural constituencies so that the set of solutions meets the needs and desires of residents. Reducing transportation costs are critical, as is the expansion of transportation options, such as linking rural communities with urban job centers and markets. The mobility needs of specific groups of people should be addressed, such as disadvantaged and low-income communities, the elderly, retirees and people with disabilities, and isolated communities which are distant from essential services, such as grocery stores, health care and schools. The lack of broadband access for workers and students in rural areas has recently come to the forefront because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

This study offers guidance for the design of policies and programs to encourage the adoption of electric vehicles in rural communities, as one among several clean transportation investment choices states can make to benefit their small town and rural residents. The study will hopefully foster state engagement with rural communities and will help inform the design of policies that increase economic opportunities in rural areas, reduce global warming emissions, improve local air pollution, and improve the quality of life of all rural residents.