Types of Transportation
Rural community members primarily use six types of transportation to move around their environment. Depending on the community, some types of transportation may be more commonly available than others. These include:
- Buses, including those that operate within and between communities
- Passenger train service, including Amtrak or commuter rail lines
- Passenger air service, which can be commercial, private, or semi-private
- Personal vehicles like automobiles, including vans and cars for hire like taxis or ride-sharing services, and golf carts or all-terrain vehicles (ATVs)
- Pedestrian transportation, which includes walking and bicycling
- Boats, which may be personally owned or operated as a ferry service
Many rural communities use buses as the primary vehicle for their public transportation systems, operating fixed-route service on a regular schedule. Unlike rail systems that can require large investments in infrastructure, local or city bus systems use existing roads and lower-cost bus stops. This allows for more flexibility when designing, scheduling, and changing service routes.
The intercity bus system, which often operates larger charter or coach buses, has historically served as a significant form of transportation in rural areas. Intercity buses can provide critically important links between rural communities as well as transportation to larger, regional transit hubs like airports. However, transportation systems are increasingly focusing on expanding routes between large urban centers instead of smaller rural areas. In addition, many transportation carriers that formerly served smaller communities are reducing services because of low ridership and decreased profitability.
Passenger Train Service
Like intercity buses, passenger trains provide vital transportation links between rural communities. The National Railroad Passenger Corporation, also known as Amtrak, is the primary provider of this service in the continental United States. The state of Alaska also owns the Alaska Railroad, which provides intercity passenger and freight service. While the majority of passenger train riders live in metropolitan areas like the urban Northeast Corridor, trains can provide affordable, accessible transportation for rural residents traveling into cities for medical care, business, employment, and other services.
Passenger Air Service
People living in remote areas or places with very limited ground transportation access, like parts of Alaska, may rely on airplanes to conduct business, deliver goods, transport mail, obtain medical care, and visit friends or family. The federal government provides a subsidy through the Essential Air Service program that is designed to support commercial flights from small communities that would otherwise have limited or no commercial passenger air service. Currently, the program supports 60 rural communities in Alaska and 115 communities in the contiguous United States.
Automobiles are the dominant mode of transportation in rural areas. Research indicates that only 60% of rural counties have public transportation available and of those, 28% have limited service. As such, rural residents are much more reliant on personal vehicles (cars, trucks, and vans) for routine travel needs. According to the Rural Transit Fact Book, over 90% of passenger trips in rural areas occur in automobiles, and over 80% of rural workers commute alone in a private vehicle. Only 4% of rural households report having zero vehicles available to them.
Rural residents are also more likely to continue driving over the age of 75 compared to their urban counterparts. However, for older adults and others who are unable to drive in rural areas, car-dominant communities can be difficult to navigate. In addition, ride-sharing services and commercial taxis may offer limited services to rural communities due to cost burdens associated with serving a population that is widely dispersed. These costs can include longer distances between pick-up locations and longer wait times between passengers, which can increase costs for operators that may also be passed down to users.
In addition to automobiles, rural residents may use golf carts or ATVs for short trips around their communities, often using sidewalks and bike lanes to safely avoid automobile traffic. These methods can be particularly useful for younger and older residents because they are relatively inexpensive and operate at slower speeds than cars.
Biking and walking are becoming increasingly popular forms of transportation and exercise. However, many people living in rural areas may not be able to walk to work or school because of long distances between destinations or concerns about safety. Some rural communities are considering strategies to support pedestrian infrastructure to make it easier and safer for people to walk or bicycle around their community, to other transportation hubs like bus stations, and for recreation. Additionally, bike share programs in rural communities can make biking more affordable and accessible.
Particularly in some Alaskan communities with limited road access, boats may be an important source of transportation between population centers and services. In other places, ferries may serve as a link between island or river communities. Public and private ferry services are generally designed to carry both passengers and their automobiles. Waterways can also be significant sources of economic activity for rural communities from tourism, shipping, or fishing and harvesting operations.
Resources to Learn More
The League of American Bicyclists
Resources and links which provide guidance and examples of how to create a bicycle-friendly community. Includes examples of initiatives implemented across the country which have helped make it easier for people to use bicycles as a mode of transportation.
Toolkit for Estimating Demand for Rural Intercity
Designed for state transportation departments and bus service providers interested in learning about the needs for intercity bus services in their communities. Assists the reader with comparing potential routes and considering how to prioritize their resources. The toolkits and files for the accompanying CD-ROM can be downloaded at no cost or purchased in hard copy.
Author(s): Fravel, F., Barboza, R., & Quan, J.
Organization(s): Transit Cooperative Research Program