In a Small Alaskan Town, Public Transit Barely Exists and Everyone Travels in Cabs

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Cab driver, take the wheel. In Bethel, Alaska, more commuters are hopping in taxis than driving their own vehicles—and the 6000-person town's affection for hitching rides is defying national trends.

According to 2013 census data [PDF], about 76 percent of Americans over the age of 16 drove to work alone, while just 5.2 percent took public transportation. 

But in Bethel, located about 400 miles west of Anchorage, only 25 percent of workers head to the office in their own cars, less than 1 percent take public transportation (only five people reported making the trek on the area's two buses), and 62 percent find another mode of transportation. Often, they turn to cabs, The Atlantic reports. And if they can't afford to—23 percent of the population lives below the poverty line—they just walk.

While pounding the pavement isn't the most appealing option in the frosty Alaskan weather and the cab fares quickly add up—every ride around town costs a flat rate of $5—owning a personal car in Bethel fuels a new set of problems.

Despite the fact that it's considered the government and transit hub for 56 surrounding villages, no roads lead into or out of the city, which makes bringing new vehicles into Bethel nearly impossible. Those that are already on the city's primarily-dirt roads can cost double what they would in other states. Add in the fact that gas costs $6 per gallon (the national average is $2.65) and those $5 cab rides make a little more sense.

In 1975, there were only three cabs in the city and residents were even more likely to depend on their own two feet. But cab companies and drivers from overseas—often Korea, Albania, Macedonia—saw an emerging market. Today, Bethel is the city with the most cabs per capita in the country, with 70 total taxi drivers—one for every 85 people. "In one sense, our cabs are our public transit," Leif Albertson, the vice-mayor, told The Atlantic.

But they're not just a way to get around town. The cars for hire often serve as safe spaces for bootlegging or as a venue for imbibing.

Alaskan small towns treat alcohol like hard drugs—booze is restricted or flat-out forbidden in many areas after local studies have linked drinking to acts of crime and violence. Prior to 2009, it was illegal to sell alcohol in Bethel, and although the town voted to ditch the "dry" designation, there are still no liquor licenses. While that hasn't stopped residents from having a good time, at least the drinkers likely aren't driving themselves home.

[h/t The Atlantic]