Friday, November 16, 2007

Extreme transportation challenges in western Alaska, but is it "rural"?

A story this morning on NPR told of how gasoline prices are "frozen" in the western Alaska community of Bethel because fuel is transported in during warm weather and then doled out over the course of the winter. This is both good and bad for local residents. It is bad because it means gas prices are always high ($5 to $7/gallon) due to the high transportation costs associated with getting gasoline (and other product) to Bethel. It is good because when gas prices are creeping up (or zooming up), prices in Bethel are set, at least until the next season (or until the supply runs out and gas is flown in, the added transportation costs inflating prices even more).

Listening to the story caused me think that Bethel must be a sort of "wide spot in the road" place that happens nevertheless to be a regional center for many surrounding villages. While Bethel is clearly remote, however, its population of 6,262 means it doesn't even qualify as a "rural" place, as that term is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau. Nevertheless, at 340 miles from Anchorage, a commercial hub for 56 surrounding villages in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, it is surely more rural than many places with smaller populations that are within an urban shadow. Material consequences of this rurality include the increased cost of transportation (and other facets of inconvenience associated with spatial isolation), along with the fact that such costs drive up prices for all sorts of goods and services.


mpb said...

Bethel must be a sort of "wide spot in the road" place

I suppose we would be if we had a connecting road anywhere.

Bethel is actually characterized as "frontier". Our region has a population density of 1/2 person per square mile. The city's population is considerably less than the figure you mention, these days. About 600-650 were said to have left in the past year.

For more info on our region, check out where is Bethel

Jeff Edwards said...

From what I remember from my trip to Bethel (indeed a regional hub, I was on my way to St. Mary's), it's really hard to categorize in a way that meaningfully compares to other places. At the same time feeling a lot like little St. Mary's, it has it's own airport and civic center and a lot of cars (I have no real idea how they got there).

mpb said...

You give a very good example of the need for standard measures for comparing.

St Mary's is a sub-regional hub with 551 people (assuming the Census figures are accurate).

Bethel's "civic center" is called a community center like most in rural Alaska. Ours has the regional public library; a small museum exhibit; and a larger multipurpose room which is rented out by the college for meetings. In other places there tends to be just a large room (well, larger than anyone's home. Standard housing tends to run under 500 square feet).

Cars come by barge or cargo plane (or by river in winter to the outlying Villages). A sudden influx of money in the late 90s brought many, many in. If Bethel had been rated by Forbes Magazine last year, we would be the 4th richest city behind San Francisco.

Trying to make meaningful comparisons between northern NM and western Alaska is very difficult (I also try to use Vermont and Washington to tease out various factors). Biocultural anthropologists use carbon or energy flow but that is very tedious and expensive to collect data.