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Barriers to Transportation in Rural Areas

Rural communities face challenges in offering safe, affordable, and reliable methods of transportation. This section provides an overview of barriers to establishing or accessing transportation programs in rural communities. For more information about considerations for implementing transportation programs, see Module 4 Implementation Considerations.

Safety and Infrastructure Issues

Lower population density in rural areas often leads to lower ridership for fixed transit routes and a smaller tax base to fund maintenance and repair of transportation systems. The lack of investment in infrastructure in rural communities coupled with increasing use of rural roads over time has also affected transportation safety. The U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Highway Administration estimates that 40% of roads in rural areas are “inadequate for current travel,” while nearly 50% of bridges over 20 feet long are currently considered “structurally deficient.” The Federal Highway Administration also reports that in 2012, 54% of all road fatalities occurred in rural areas.

Since many rural residents rely on personal automobiles as their main means of transportation, maintenance of rural roads is crucial for daily travel. The quality of existing roadways in rural areas is also of concern. Due to environmental constraints, many rural roads are built from gravel or dirt, which are potential safety hazards. Additionally, the terrain of many rural areas at the state and even local level can vary significantly, with many rural areas having rougher terrain than urban areas. This geographic diversity indicates that no single type of transportation can fit the needs of every rural community.

The frequency of travel on some of these rural roads has increased over the past years as tourism becomes a growing business in the rural U.S. Most of the country's national parks are located in rural regions, which draws huge populations each year. In addition, much of the nation's food industry relies on transportation of products long distances on rural roads and highways. The safety and structural integrity of these roads is important to maintain an interconnected transportation system.

Coordination of Programs and Services

With several federal agencies and various local organizations involved in coordinating transportation systems and programs throughout the U.S., coordination of services is important. Rural communities often face challenges related to fragmentation and duplication of services among different programs — such as Medicaid or Veteran's Affairs services — that serve clients in the same geographic area. This lack of coordination among local and state agencies can lead to inefficient use of limited resources. Communication between workforce programs continues to be a problem in many rural regions. The National Network for the Transportation Workforce aims to close this gap in communication by serving as a regional coordinating body for transportation workforce programs throughout the country in an effort to alleviate this issue.


Long distances are a key barrier for many people living in rural areas. Average trips for medical or dental services are about 9 miles longer in rural regions. Those with a personal vehicle can be adversely affected by rising gas prices, making longer trips more expensive. For those without a personal vehicle, traveling long distances can be especially burdensome. People who do not have access to a motor vehicle often have to rely on public transportation services, and destinations are not always located on a public transportation route.

Population Density

Low population density over a large expanse of land defines many rural areas. From 2010 to 2013, the number of non-metro counties that are decreasing in population reached a historic high of 61%, indicating that low population density will remain an issue in many regions. Regions with low population density face challenges with constructing and maintaining transportation systems due to a smaller pool of local tax payers to finance transit projects.

Resources to Learn More

Rural Connections: Challenges and Opportunities in America's Heartland
This document summarizes challenges and opportunities related to transportation in rural U.S. It describes the transportation infrastructure in the country, changes in use and capacity of rural networks, and how roads and highways are at the center of rural life and the economy.
Organization(s): TRIP
Date: 5/2019

Rural Transportation: Challenges and Opportunities
Describes results from a survey about challenges and opportunities related to rural transportation.
Author(s): Henning-Smith, C., Evenson, A., Corbett, A., et al.
Organization(s): University of Minnesota Rural Health Research Center
Date: November 2017

Rural Transportation Unique-Considerations
Describes rural transportation barriers and opportunities and transportation efforts in Kansas.
Organization(s): Public Health Law Center at Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Date: February 2019

Transportation and Health in Rural Missouri
Describes rural transportation challenges in rural Missouri, including the impact of transportation on health and policy and program interventions and approaches.
Organization(s): Missouri Foundation for Health
Date: October 2018