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.
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,
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 in/to rural communities due to cost burdens
associated with serving a population that is geographically dispersed. These costs can include longer distances
between pick-up locations and longer wait times between passengers, which can increase costs for drivers 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