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Rural Health Information Hub

Active Transportation Models

This model is useful for communities interested in investing in infrastructure to support walking, biking, roller blading, and other forms of non-vehicular physical activity. Active transportation, or any kind of human-powered transportation, is an inexpensive, accessible way for residents to get exercise, explore their communities, run errands, and commute to work or school. In some rural communities, walking and biking for transportation is almost as common as in cities, and 37% of trips taken by rural residents are less than 3 miles.

Dedicated infrastructure for biking and walking, including protected bike lanes and pedestrian crosswalks, is important for ensuring the physical safety of rural residents. Fatalities and injuries resulting from collisions with vehicles are higher for bicyclists in rural areas than in urban ones.

Examples of Programs that Promote Active Transportation

  • In the late 19th Century, the U.S. railroad industry built thousands of miles of rail for cargo and passenger transportation. Since then, many routes have been abandoned, particularly those that pass through rural communities. The Rails-to-Trails Conservancy supports local and state agencies interested in converting these corridors to paved or unpaved multi-use recreation pathways. Rural communities with rail-trail systems can benefit from increased tourism, increased property values, and lower crime around the rail corridor. These investments also provide additional opportunities for residents to enjoy their natural surroundings. States with large rural populations like West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Nebraska have built successful rail-trail systems.
  • Children who live in rural areas may face barriers to safely walking or biking to school. The National Center for Safe Routes to School supports communities that want to encourage active transportation to reduce child obesity, decrease traffic congestion near schools, and increase community connectedness. As of 2011, 41% of Safe Routes to School grants went to small towns and rural areas. There is evidence that Safe Routes to Schools increases active transportation.
  • Sheboygan County, Wisconsin was 1 of 4 communities selected for the Nonmotorized Transportation Pilot Program, a federal program that provided a $25 million grant to promote, improve, and evaluate walking and bicycling infrastructure.
  • Granville County, North Carolina developed the Granville Greenway system to improve walkability in an area where residents have relied solely on motor vehicle transportation. Since there is no public transit infrastructure in the county, the Greenway system has transformed old trail lines into paved pathways for pedestrians to walk and bike around the community.

Considerations for Implementation

While rumble strips can be an effective safety feature to reduce off-road incidents for vehicles, rumble strips can make it difficult, uncomfortable, and dangerous for bicyclists to ride along a road shoulder. Bicyclists may then be forced to ride in the lane, increasing the likelihood of a collision with a vehicle. The League of American Bicyclists provides specific guidance on how to maximize the benefit of rumble strips for both vehicles and bicycles.

Resources to Learn More

Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers: Walking and Bicycling in Small Towns and Rural America
This report discusses the economic, social, and public health benefits for rural and small towns that invest in active transportation infrastructure. It provides information for local activists or organizations interested in building a business case to support their work, including examples of success from other rural communities.
Organization(s): Rails-to-Trails Conservancy
Date: 1/2011

The League of American Bicyclists: Tools and Resources
The League of American Bicyclists, through their Bicycle Friendly America program, provides guidance to communities interested in promoting bicycle use. The League grades states, communities, businesses, and universities (both urban and rural) on the bicycle-friendliness of their infrastructure and policies and provides suggestions on how to improve.
Organization(s): The League of American Bicyclists

Safe Routes to School National Partnership: Rural Resources
The Safe Routes to School National Partnership published four fact sheets and a toolkit specific to rural concerns about successes and challenges that provide examples of programs that have supported rural efforts.
Organization(s): Safe Routes to School National Partnership

Small Town and Rural Multimodal Networks
This report and design resource is written for community transportation planners interested in promoting safe, accessible active transportation options. It describes how to apply national guidelines to rural settings, including case studies and detailed implementation notes.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Transportation, Federal Highway Administration
Date: 12/2016

Transportation and Health Tool
This tool links to sources for data on transportation and health indicators, suggests strategies for improving transportation and health-related outcomes, and information about the relationship between transportation and health.
Organization(s): U.S. Department of Transportation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Using Active Transportation and Context Sensitive Solutions to Enhance Livability in Rural Communities and Small Towns
Webinar discussing strategies for improving livability and connectivity in rural communities using collaborative efforts.
Organization(s): Federal Highway Administration
Date: 3/2017