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Douglas Burns: Why a Rural Iowa Day Is Longer

On Tuesday, we talked about the “rural brain drain” – the mass exodus of young achievers from small-town, rural America. What they’ve left behind is a swath of small towns in decline.

One key in reversing the trend is to bring the smart kids back. Our guest Douglas Burns, of Carroll, Iowa, is one such “returner.” He went to journalism school at Northwestern University and reported from Washington, DC for several years before returning to Carroll to write for his family’s newspaper, the Daily Times Herald. In this guest post, he makes his pitch for why living in rural Iowa is better.

In promoting Carroll, Iowa, we talk a lot about what we have. There are the good schools. There’s the work ethic.

Jack Wardell, our parks director, can make a pretty darned good argument that recreational amenities play a key role in luring and keeping businesses and employees in Carroll.

We have many churches, and few serious crimes. There are more soup suppers than armed robberies.

All of these things are splendid.

But it’s time we talked about something we Carroll residents generally don’t have: a commute.

As a result of our minutes-only drives to and from work we literally have more time in our days than others in the nation — and the state for that matter.

The time other people spend driving we spend living.

As a former resident of the Washington, D.C., area I did the commute thing for four years.

It took me about 45 minutes to get to work in the district, and at least 45 minutes to get back home to Arlington, Va., especially if I left the office at a reasonable hour.

That was stressful driving, too.

Now I can get from Hillcrest Drive here in Carroll to the Daily Times Herald in less than five minutes.

I’m fond of telling my citified friends that I have a one-song commute, meaning whatever tune is on the radio when I leave for work is generally still playing when I park outside the newspaper.

Because I rack up just 10 minutes of driving from home to work and back, instead of a 90-minute two-way commute, I have about 80 minutes more each workday or 400 minutes more a week or 1,600 minutes more a month or 20,000 more minutes a year in Carroll than I did in D.C.

That’s 333 hours each year that I get back by living in a place where I don’t have to commute.

That’s eight weeks of work at 40 hours per week.

That’s astounding.

Why aren’t more employers locating their offices here? Computers and phones work as well in Iowa as they do in New York City.

We even have competition between high-speed Internet service providers now, with one firm, Western Iowa Networks, routing Asian-speed fiber-optics to our homes and businesses.

Our recruiting motto could be: “Move to Carroll, Iowa: We give you eight more weeks of work.”

There are advantages in one’s personal life as well.

Since I’m not commuting, I can watch 166 more movies each year.

I can read a lot more books.

Let’s see, if I read at the very reasonable pace of 30 pages per hour, I can read twenty 500-page books in a year instead of sitting in traffic.

Throw in some paperback fiction and that increases dramatically.

Think about how smart your kids would be if you had an extra 80 minutes to read to them and talk to them each and every day of the week.

What about exercise?

Instead of spending that time inching along in traffic or standing next to someone with a bad cough on the subway like they do in the cities, I can run six miles a day at the leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile — and then have 20 minutes to do some sit-ups and pull-ups.

And who says that all this time has to be spent efficiently and wisely?

Some people could look at that 80 minutes a day as an opportunity to watch more basketball and football on television or eat more pizza or drink more beer or have more sex.

Hey, it’s your time, and this is a free country.

We just happen to have more clock to enjoy the freedom than do the commuting saps of Los Angeles and New York and even Des Moines and Omaha.

Douglas Burns

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  • http://SilverClipboard.com/ Wellington Grey

    Sorry Mr. Burns, but what you describe is actually a problem with suburban life, not urban life. I’ve lived and worked in a city for six years and my commute everyday was a 12 minute walk. The suburbs are a horrible place to live. Cities don’t have to be.

    The reason people live in cities is that they are interesting places. You need a certain amount of population density before many things are possible.

  • David Wunschel

    The first post is partially correct. It is possible for some in urban areas to live near where they work, but not a majority. Having where you want to live or can afford to live within walking distance or a short drive is still rare in an urban area. Public transportion can alleviate that issue, but it depends on the city (ask Seattlites). Almost everyone in a small town lacks a significant commute. The disadvantage, you have to travel on weekends to visit “interesting places”. interesting discussion.

  • Tyler Peterson

    I recently moved from the empty streets of Pocatello to the clogged arteries of the DC Area. I miss the peace of mind I had on the Idaho roadways. Here are three ideas to help improve the commute in DC:

    1. Have parties on the metro. Why does everybody on the metro operate like a drone? The social rules of the metro allow riders only to listen to ipods, read books or briefs, and sit with the mouth shut. We need people dancing in the aisles, singing cheesy songs together and creating a metro community. I recommend “Take me out to the Ball Game” or “Jimmy Crack Corn and I don’t care.”

    2. Use chutes and ladders instead of escalators and elevators at metro stations. Imagine sliding down the Foggy Bottom entrance in a potato bag! How exciting! Slides are cheap to maintain and a whole lot of fun. Ladders would help us keep in better shape. We could have ladder races with prizes for the winners.

    3. Assign themes to metro cars. The Texas Hold ‘Em Car. The Book Club Car. The Swinger Car. The Redskins Fans Car. Getting people to engage in activities and shared interests on the metro would be good for everyone. Community Groups could sponsor certain cars and advertisers could target their audiences more effectively, allowing metro to bring in more revenue.

    These steps would make riding the metro a more pleasant experience. More people would choose to ride the metro than use cars for the added value of interacting with friends and having a good time.

  • Troy McCullough

    While Doug Burns is stuck in his car during his short daily rural commute, this poor “commuting sap” in New York is listening to talented musicians on subway platforms, reading books, scanning newspapers, watching movies on my iPod, checking e-mail, planning my workday, taking in breathtaking views of the Manhattan skyline, sometimes even napping and often participating in that timeless New York activity of people watching.

    Mr. Burns can boast all he wants about his short driving commute, but my longer walking/subway commute is more productive, comes with built-in exercise and is certainly a lot more interesting.

  • M.P. McNarney

    Looking to take Doug Burns up on his offer? Here are -all- of the jobs available in Carroll, according to today’s Carroll Daily Times Herald, monster.com, and craigslist going back two weeks:

    -Breeding tech at sow farm
    -Farm help for fall harvest
    -Trucker (livestock)
    -Pepsi warehouse worker, FT ($12.40/hr)
    -Call center, FT (outbound cable TV sales)
    -Med tech at Greene County Hospital
    -RN at nursing home
    -LPN at nursing home
    -Outreach worker, FT, for nonprofit social services agency
    -Night kitchen manager
    -Production operator at ethanol plant
    -Accountant at ethanol plant
    -Night custodian
    -School aide (elem and middle)
    -HS coaching jobs (wrestling, drama)
    -HS asst coaching jobs (wrestling)
    -MS track coach
    -Saleswoman at ladies’ clothing store
    -Store manager at sportswear outlet (FT)
    -Occupational therapist
    -CSR for an insurance agency (30 hours a week, maybe full-time later, $9/hr)
    -Security guard ($8/hr)

    When you’re working at the family business, It’s easy to take shots at “sap commuters” who left Iowa to endure gut-busting commutes in America’s suburban wasteland. But if Burns really wants to stop the brain drain in Carroll, he should tell his friends at the chamber of commerce to raise wages, create better jobs and attract employers beyond warehouses and call centers.

  • Drake Mabry

    I have a question for Mr. Burns. What does the lowest paid reporter in his newsroom make?

    Living in a small town would be great – if we could all afford it.

  • Ellen Dibble

    In the late 1960s I knew a woman who lived in the country an hour away from her work in a small city. She said what she valued most was the long commute. It was quiet time away from all responsibilities, she said. She was British, and I think she didn’t really want or need a congenial community.
    Suburbs are really different from rural towns. I can’t think about them in the same basket. The people in the forum on Hollowing Out expressed a lot of dismay about the small-mindedness of small towns. It sounds like plenty of people feel excluded in these supposedly last vestiges of tightly-knit community.
    The small towns could be just as invigorating as the Manhattan subway cited above if the people… I’m thinking the attitudes in the city superimposed on small towns could be very therapeutic. Diplomacy of a sort.

  • Craig Textor

    Way ta go, Doug B.! Put those big-city hooligans in their place! And I’ll meet you over at the Maid-Rite.

  • Pelgie

    As someone who has enjoyed life in many parts of the US including Phoenix and Chicago, and who now lives in the country just outside of a town of 60,000 in Iowa, I have to agree that I agree with Doug. The more than an hour per day that I spent in Chicago and Phoenix traffic made me insane. Yes, there are a few perks to living in a big city such as quantity of great restaurants, late night party scene, etc. Fun when you are in your 20s and single for sure. But, I don’t know why so many people who are settled down with kids are willing to continue to live this life when they could enjoy more of life in a smaller town as Doug described. The schools out here in “rural iowa” are great, the people friendly, there are plenty of things to do, the air is fresh and the land is beautiful (check out the upper mississippi river valley in person before you knock it). I agree that not every job is a great job- but there are many good jobs to be had. As an example, my husband and I both matched our professional salaries out here in Iowa that we had in the bigger cities…and bought a great house for less than $300k. Not worrying about the expensive cost of living that comes with city/suburban living is at the top of my list of favorite perks along with traffic avoidance.

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