Report: Public transit and pedestrianization are as important to revitalizing rural downtowns as they are for big cities

A common misconception about active and multi-modal transportation investments to support walking, biking, rolling, and using public transit is that the demand for these initiatives is limited to urban communities, but recent studies have shown that people in rural areas are just as likely to walk to places as in urban areas if the options are safe and accessible.

This means that such investments are just as essential for revitalizing rural downtowns as they are for larger cities.

A new released report from Smart Growth America, An Active Roadmap: Best Practices in Rural Mobility, breaks down this myth and others as we dive into the diversity of American rural communities and small towns to discuss rural transportation needs and challenges along with success stories from rural and small town communities across the country.

The report says: “Many rural communities have found success by reinvesting in their downtowns and main streets and rediscovering their sense of place. Revitalizing these historic town centers can also create resilient economies and make it easier for people to live closer to work, groceries, health care, dining, and shopping, allowing them to walk or bike to these daily destinations,” the report says.

Rural cores should support walking and biking on main commercial corridors and main streets. As the street transitions out of the core area, the facility design that accommodates people walking and biking should change,” it continues.

According to the US Census, about 60 million people, or one in five individuals, live in rural America representing 97% of America’s land mass and contributing to 10% of the country’s gross domestic product. The perception of what a rural area is varies extensively, but for many, what comes to mind is a landscape consisting of farms, rolling foothills, and shuttered factories, inhabited by predominantly white communities.

The truth is that rural areas are as diverse as they are vast in terms of landscape, communities, and people with almost 22% of the rural population identifying as non-white. The key point is that there is no one all-encompassing definition of rural. The diverse history, cultures, and needs of rural communities vary from place to place—while rural areas are different from suburban and urban areas, they’re different from other rural areas too.

This diversity means that rural communities are on different paths; some communities have continued to thrive while improving their quality of life and experiencing stable or growing economies, while others have witnessed a long and slow decline.

This report explores the different ways that rural communities can adapt to thrive in a changing America, with a primary focus on active and multimodal modes of transportation as a tool. The presumption that living in a rural area inevitably means being dependent on a personal vehicle and driving long distances to access essential services negates the identities, experiences, and needs of the people in these complex and diverse communities.

The more than 1 million rural American households without cars face unique barriers as alternate modes are not always accessible or affordable. Rural non-drivers—including older adults, low-income individuals, school-aged children, and people with disabilities—need independent mobility options to take advantage of social and economic opportunities.

What does that look like in day-to-day life? Through various studies, we’ve known for a couple of decades that older adults who no longer drive make 15% fewer trips to the doctor, 59% fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65% fewer trips to visit friends and family, than drivers of the same age.

And, recent studies have shown that people in rural areas are just as likely to walk to places for leisure and transportation as those located in urban areas if the options are safe and accessible. But, rural areas face an increased risk of traffic death compared to their urban counterparts—while close to 19% of the US population lives in rural areas, they account for 49% of all traffic deaths.

It is necessary to re-evaluate outdated understandings of rural America to bridge these gaps, strengthen rural economies, and implement safer, sustainable, and equitable transportation networks and services for these communities.

The report is organized into four distinct parts:

Part 1: What is rural? Defining rural typologies.

In Part 1, we introduce seven rural typologies—ways to identify and describe similarities and differences across diverse rural communities. It is important to note that these typologies are not mutually exclusive, as rural communities may exhibit characteristics of more than one typology, but understanding a community’s relevant typologies can facilitate the implementation of strategies that may be more likely to succeed based on that community’s unique needs and challenges.

Part 2: What are the unique needs and challenges of rural communities?

In Part 2, we present a data synthesis and interpretation of key indicators that uniquely affect rural America, including demographics, economy, public health, travel patterns, and mode choices. We also revisit some of the common questions and popular notions about rural America using recent studies and literature to fact-check if they still stand true, including healthier living environments, driving trip distances, transit feasibility, and access to parks and nature.

Part 3: How can active and multimodal transportation be encouraged in rural America? Strategies for success.

In Part 3, we present strategies to address the issues identified in Part 2. These strategies for success are presented alongside success stories from rural communities across the country that have successfully implemented transportation planning, complete streets, and land use approaches to make their communities activity-friendly and increasingly accessible by walking, biking, rolling, and using transit.

Part 4: How can your rural community improve? The roadmap and takeaways.

The lessons, findings, and outcomes from the previous parts of the report informed the recommendations in this section. In Part 4, we discuss particular actionable steps to build more activity-friendly communities in rural America. Also included in this section are success stories focused on formulating strong visions, thoughtful community engagement, and the strength of building strong partnerships locally and regionally.

Key takeaway: Strategic transportation investments and improvements are important for building sustainable and resilient rural communities for people to thrive, not just survive. There is a demonstrated need to support and equip rural communities with tools to design transportation systems that meet the needs of their residents, as directly and cost-effectively as possible, now and in the future.

See the full report (PDF).

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