WASHINGTON, D.C. – Walking and bicycling facilities have become essential community assets across America, providing crucial options for healthy and affordable transportation. Yet many people have long assumed that walking and biking are strictly a “big city” phenomenon—and that rural Americans can’t benefit substantially from investment in bicycling and pedestrian infrastructure. But an important new analysis tells a much different story.
"Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers: Walking and Bicycling in Small Towns and Rural America," released today and produced by Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, reveals the surprising prevalence of walking and bicycling in rural communities across the country.
In these smaller communities -- from Idaho to Mississippi, Wisconsin to Wyoming -- the rates of walking and bicycling are often comparable to what you find in large cities. In some cases, the rates are higher. For example, the share of work trips made by bicycle in some small towns, with population 2,500 to 10,000, is nearly double that found in urban centers. These data presented in "Beyond Urban Centers" demonstrate unequivocally that walking and biking are woven into the fabric of rural life.
“In the past, such studies have divided America into binary categories of either urban or rural,” Tracy Hadden Loh, RTC’s research manager and co-author of "Beyond Urban Centers," said. “That split paints an inaccurate picture of the travel patterns of millions of people.”
By recognizing the key distinctions between categories of rural and urban communities, "Beyond Urban Centers" presents a more complete picture of how Americans move every day. Some key findings include:
- Among a list of transportation priorities -- including major roads and long-distance travel -- rural Americans selected sidewalks more often than any other transportation need. Almost nine in 10 also cited the importance of pedestrian-friendly communities, and nearly three out of four reported that bike lanes are important.
- The share of work trips made by bicycle in small towns is nearly double that of urban centers. Among all trips taken in rural towns of between 10,000 and 50,000 residents, just as many people bike as in the urban core. Within small towns of 2,500 to 10,000 residents, people walk for work purposes at a rate almost identical to Urban Core communities.
- Biking, walking and trail infrastructure projects create more jobs per dollar than highway projects.
The full report is available online at: www.railstotrails.org/beyondurbancenters
The findings come at a crucial time for rural populations. With the United States Congress currently considering the reauthorization of a multi-year surface transportation bill, ignoring the demand for active transportation options—such as walking and biking—in small towns and rural areas would severely impact the economic, social, individual and environmental health of these communities.
"Beyond Urban Centers" underscores that the federal government has played a critical role in enabling walking and biking in rural areas through programs such as Transportation Enhancements and Safe Routes to School. Continued federal investment in active transportation infrastructure is cost-effective and essential to a balanced transportation system that meets the needs of all Americans. Contrary to preconceptions, those needs are at least as critical in small town America as in larger cities.
“Small communities need safe and convenient walking and bicycling facilities just as much as big cities,” said Kevin Mills, RTC’s vice president of policy and trail development, and "Beyond Urban Centers" co-author. “To meet this need, Transportation Enhancements, the nation's top source for active transportation investment, has provided twice the funding per capita in rural America than in big cities.”
To learn the role biking and walking have played in your community, explore an interactive online tool at www.railstotrails.org/beyondurbancenters. You can search the map to reveal bicycle infrastructure in your area, local stories of active transportation, county health data, congressional districts and bicycle and pedestrian fatalities.
Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit organization with more than 150,000 members and supporters, is the nation's largest trails organization dedicated to connecting people and communities by creating a nationwide network of public trails, many from former rail lines and connecting corridors. Founded in 1986, Rails-to-Trails Conservancy's national office is located in Washington, D.C., with regional offices in California, Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania. For more information, visit www.railstotrails.org.