9 Sections 45 minutes Author: Shared-Use Mobility Center
While rural and small towns have much to offer, many of these communities are experiencing overall population decline, increases in aging populations, and economic hardship, leaving them in a state of stagnation. The imbalance of resources, lower population density, and distance from urban centers often make certain mobility offerings – like traditional fixed-route bus service or shared active transportation programs – financially unsustainable in smaller towns. As a result, many residents are met with limited travel options that make it difficult to access essential services and maintain a higher quality of life. In this module, users will learn about the innovative ways small and rural communities tackle transportation challenges.
These software applications integrate all available transportation services in the region onto one single platform, offering residents better trip planning support. Most online trip planners are compatible only with traditional, fixed-route service, meaning that many of the flexible on-demand services are not included. This is particularly problematic for riders in small and rural markets, where fixed-route service is less prevalent. Several agencies across the county are working to address this gap. However, it should be noted that the presence and affordability of broadband in rural areas may be a limiting factor in taking on technological solutions.
Rural and small towns are characterized by low population density, decentralized trip destinations and origins, and car-oriented infrastructure. Thus, the provision of public transportation is often more expensive and comes with minimal connectivity and coverage. Additionally, since rural and small towns often have a substantial aging population, they often focus on providing specialized transportation services, which can leave out members of the general public who may not have access to a vehicle.
Community needs assessments can help identify and understand the unmet mobility needs of communities and develop solutions in collaboration with residents, especially in a rural context. By undertaking comprehensive processes to understand mobility needs, service information and procurement gaps are bridged between rural communities and mobility operators.
Bikeshare and scooter share programs are often owned and operated by non-profit organizations or local jurisdictions in smaller towns or rural communities. Often, these services are led by parks or city departments and run on a library model, where bikes can be accessed from local institutions. Furthermore, a number of municipalities that are potentially too small to support an independent bikeshare program are collaborating with their neighbors to establish county-wide programs. For instance, the City of Aurora, Downtown Neighborhood Association of Elgin, City of Batavia, and Village of Montgomery partnered with the Kane County Division of Transportation and Koloni to establish a Fox Valley Bike Share System.
Although neither volunteer transportation organizations nor carpooling are new trends, there has been a greater push to formalize these traditionally less formal activities in recent years. For instance, the Nebraska Department of Transportation chose to incentivize vanpooling throughout the state by establishing Go NEWhere, a vanpooling program. Through this program, the Nebraska Department of Transportation (NDOT) provides a subsidy of up to $400 per month to groups who rent vans from Enterprise for carpooling to and from work.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section provides background information, trends, definitions, and challenges with transportation in rural settings.
Depending on your source, defining a rural area may be driven by population density, geographic isolation, or even commuting patterns. While the US Census Bureau considers rural to be an area with less than 2,500 people, the US Office of Management and Budget considers rural areas to be those not a part of metropolitan areas (50,0000 people or more). The various ways to define rural areas reflect the multidimensional nature of these spaces. Similarly, the term small town has a wide array of connotations, encompassing communities ranging from tiny villages to sprawling suburbs. For this Learning Module, both rural and small towns are discussed since many small towns have a similar set of transportation needs as their rural counterparts and are often geographically isolated within a greater rural context.
Unlike in densely populated urban communities, residents in rural areas and small towns do not usually have access to a wide range of mobility options. Typically, fixed-route public transit service is either limited or non-existent, flexible services require significant advance notice, and a private car is the most common mode of transportation. This is concerning as over a million households in rural America do not own personal vehicles.
Furthermore, rural populations are also older than their urban counterparts, with residents 65 and older making up 18% of adults in rural areas compared to 13% in urban areas.  This is a crucial consideration for transportation planners, as the elderly tend to have greater mobility limitations. In fact, about one-third of people 65 and older have a disability that limits mobility. 
As a result of the many challenges faced by rural and small towns, public agencies, non-profit organizations, and companies are collaborating in new ways to leverage emerging technology and service models to improve mobility options for rural and small town residents. Similar to the Michigan Department of Transportation, some agencies focus attention on populations with the greatest mobility difficulties, such as the elderly and people with disabilities. Others, like the Minnesota Department of Transportation, are developing regional platforms to enable multi-modal trip planning and payment for rural, small town, and urban residents. Municipalities, like the City of Wilson in rural central North Carolina, are replacing fixed-route transit services with on-demand, microtransit to provide more targeted service and solve first/last mile connections. Finally, private entities, like Iowa-based company Koloni, are working to find models for shared micromobility services that better fit the needs of smaller communities.
Micromobility: Fleets of small, low-speed vehicles, primarily used for single-person short trips in urban areas with good connectivity and a density of destinations. It serves as a first and last-mile option that is faster than hailing a taxi, walking, or transferring to low-frequency transit. Common forms of micromobility include bikeshare and scootershare, and semi-motorized variants of these modes. Typical trips are 1-3 miles, but some trips can be much longer, especially when aided by an electric vehicle.
Mobility-on-Demand (MOD): A multimodal system of transportation services where an individual can use transportation when and where they need it, without the need for their own personal vehicle. It provides travel options in an integrated network to allow people to get to work, run errands, and go about their daily lives.
Mobility Management: An innovative approach for managing and delivering coordinated transportation services. Mobility management programs focus on connecting customers to the transportation service that will best meet their travel needs through trip planning support, travel training, and aggregation of transportation service information.
Rural: The US Census Bureau does not formally define “rural” areas. However, an area is considered rural if it does not fit into the category of urbanized area (50,000 or more people) or urban cluster (between 2,500 to 50,000 people). Typically, rural areas have a lower population density and limited commercial land use.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section discusses planning considerations, challenges, and trends in small town transportation, and provides some resources for planners.
Since mobility needs and local conditions such as street design or geography will differ across communities, local transportation systems have different functions, assets, and barriers that must be addressed during the planning process. As a result, there is not a clear one-size-fits-all planning and implementation plan that can be easily adapted from one market to another.
Taking a context-sensitive approach is crucial to advancing programs and projects; however, remaining cognizant of emerging trends regarding the travel needs of rural and small communities will help inform future planning efforts. A June 2019 report from Todd Litman at the Victoria Transport Policy Initiative found eight primary trends and their corresponding impact on rural transportation demands. Planners should be aware of these trends and explore how they impact local transportation needs and expectations:
Many rural and small town communities are located along roadways designed for high-speed vehicle traffic, which makes walking, bicycling, and forms of micromobility unappealing and unsafe. While rural communities are often defined by the long distances one must travel to access grocery stores, medical facilities, or employment, most small towns were at one point well suited for walking and biking trips because of their compact community core. Initially, vehicles were not needed to travel short distances within these communities, but over time roads were widened to prioritize through traffic over local access. When looking to incorporate active transportation options and certain types of shared mobility into rural networks, resources such as The Small Town and Rural Multimodal Networks guide offer design and project implementation approaches to support connected, safe, and low emission travel for people of all ages and abilities in a rural and small town context. Some rural and small town communities have adopted mixed-use zoning along main corridors and integrated design requirements for complete streets to better accommodate active transportation networks.
Planners should consider how independent connections and roadway types work together to foster access to key destinations and create a network where shared mobility will thrive. Thinking about the user of multimodal transportation infrastructure will help to determine design characteristics and how to best facilitate user comfort. According to the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Case Studies in Delivering Safe, Comfortable and Connected Pedestrian and Bicycle Networks 2016, a cohesive network will be driven by the following principles:
The following guides offer further understanding of planning for shared mobility in a rural context. These guides touch on a number of planning related activities such as network planning, partnership development, and participation.
The following organizations offer technical assistance related to rural transportation projects:
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section focuses on some operational considerations for small town transportation.
Rural or small town residents may be more reliant on personal vehicles than their urban counterparts due to the low density and long travel distances that characterize their communities. Other modes, such as public transit, are available in these communities as a transportation option for residents with minimal access or use of personal vehicles; however, they are often confined to limited service hours, days of operations, and coverage. While these alternative options are not as widespread or comprehensive compared to those in more urban settings, services like demand-response (dial-a-ride) and vanpool transportation act as essential lifelines for those with great mobility needs.
Current gaps in rural and small town transit services have the opportunity to be addressed through emerging shared-use mobility practices that offer flexible, reliable, and convenient service. Yet, implementation of these shared mobility options in rural and small towns are minimal compared to urban settings.
The specific transportation needs of rural areas depend greatly on the type of rural area. The categorization of rural is often associated with agricultural communities that have little to no transportation infrastructure. Areas with small populations and low densities are located immediately outside urban boundaries (suburban areas) or slightly further out (exurban areas). Still, they are likely to have varying degrees of access to the urban transportation system. For example, public agencies and community groups in Tompkins County, NY are working to integrate the transportation services offered by various mobility providers to better connect the surrounding rural communities with downtown Ithaca transit options. In general, the variety of the connotations surrounding rural means that policies and programs designed for some rural communities or small markets are not well-suited to the needs of others.
The transportation needs of small towns vary considerably depending on their geographic context. A small town could be home to a college campus, be located within a larger metropolitan area, or be surrounded by farmland. A small town with a college campus could likely support a small bikeshare system or other forms of shared mobility, whereas a small town within a rural setting may require more creative strategies given the lower population density. In addition, variations in topography and the presence of geographic features can influence what types of shared modes are best suited for implementation in smaller communities. For instance, small towns defined by their hilly terrain may be more inclined to consider a bikeshare with pedal-assist e-bikes.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section reviews equity considerations in rural and small town transportation planning.
If individuals in these lower-density communities cannot drive themselves, they often lack access to alternatives. For example, a study conducted in New Brunswick, Canada, found that if older drivers in rural areas lost access to a personal vehicle, the number of trips taken would decrease by 34%. From a health and wellness standpoint, that lack of mobility is frustrating and dangerous; an older adult who cannot drive has an immediate increased risk for adverse health outcomes, and takes 15% fewer trips to the doctor.  Because of the lack of transportation options, rural populations tend to overrely on emergency departments and ambulance services for non-emergency health care access. The lack of mobility options in small and rural communities is not just a challenge for the aging populations. In general, public transportation is tied to job creation, economic growth, and improved quality of life. Unfortunately, limited financial resources and low population density in smaller towns often make certain mobility offerings – like traditional fixed-route bus service or shared active transportation programs – fiscally unsustainable. In conjunction with the lower median income rates, higher poverty rates, and higher healthcare costs seen in rural areas, the lack of transportation becomes a barrier to building social and economic wealth. Factors such as a lack of mobility options lead rural areas to spend about 7% more of their budgets on transportation-related expenses than those in urban areas.  Rural residents are more likely to identify the financial burden of travel and price of fuel as travel barriers.
Low-income individuals and people of color are disproportionately impacted by inadequate access to transportation which has exacerbated health disparities and brought about consequences related to education and future opportunity. Due to a lack of adequate transportation, missed medical appointments often lead to worsened medical issues, while high transportation costs can force families to limit spending for other basic needs. Access to medical care, nutritious food, and employment opportunities is especially crucial to those in rural areas where many services and destinations are spread apart. Most outlying areas, where an increasing percentage of American jobs are located, are only accessible by car.
On average, those who are Black or of Hispanic ethnicity have to travel further to reach medical, dental, and vision care in both urban and rural areas compared to White populations. According to a study by the Southwest Rural Health Research Center published in 2021, Black individuals traveled around 8.29 miles to reach care in urban areas compared to 23.54 miles in rural areas. Rural residents of Hispanic ethnicity traveled more than three times the distance to reach care than Hispanic populations in urban areas. This discrepancy is also seen in the time it takes to reach destinations, with rural residents across both ethnicities facing longer travel times compared to their urban counterparts.
While equity is often a key component of all shared mobility planning or implementation projects, below are a few examples of how entities have used shared mobility to address transportation equity in their communities.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section discusses this environmental considerations in rural transportation and provides some additional resources.
Rural communities across the country are particularly vulnerable to ongoing climate risks and stressors due to their geography and demographic composition. Physical isolation brings forth limited access to resources essential to everyday living. Those who live in rural areas often have to travel farther to access employment, medical facilities, and retail. They spend more money on fuel and car maintenance and produce more carbon emissions per capita.
Adapting rural transportation infrastructure to withstand the costly hazards brought about by climate change will require considerable additional investment. In rural areas, roads and bridges make it possible for residents to access essential services like healthcare and support the overall economic livelihood of communities. Climate change presents a costly risk in terms of maintenance, repairs, and disruptions in connectivity. Infrastructure will be degraded, require more maintenance, and see a potential decrease in lifespan. The disruption of essential transportation networks will have consequences on both private and shared modes of travel. Still, integration of shared mobility options such as microtransit and electrification of shared vehicles allows rural and small town communities to expand their use of environmentally friendly travel and lower greenhouse gas emissions.
While shared mobility services are found to offer significant environmental benefits through the reduction of passenger transport emissions, the mitigation capacity of these modes varies across landscapes and depends largely on the presence of mode shares. Successful deployment and supplementary emission reduction depend on residents’ willingness to adopt these services. Even though most shared mobility benefits in rural and small town communities are associated with access to destinations rather than the environment, the provision of these services will help residents reap the benefits associated with economic opportunity and healthcare access in a more sustainable way.
Below are a few examples of how entities have intentionally added an electrification component to their shared mobility projects.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section contains several of partnerships and programs working toward improving mobility options for residents in rural and small communities.
To properly select the shared-use mobility service best suited to meet rural and small town community needs, interested parties should research and identify the existing mobility challenges and clearly illustrate how shared mobility can address a specific issue. Community needs assessments are a great way to help identify and understand the unmet mobility needs of communities and develop solutions in collaborations with residents, especially in a rural context. Key elements of Community Transportation Needs Assessments often include analysis of existing data and transportation accessibility indicators and community engagement efforts. Programs like California’s Clean Mobility Options and NYSERDA’s Clean Transportation Prizes leverage community needs assessments to promote mobility options in both urban and rural areas in their respective states.
Because many shared mobility providers primarily operate in urban settings, they may not know how their services can operate and become successful in rural and small towns. Thus, programs like these can bridge service informational and procurement gaps between rural communities’ mobility needs and mobility operators. There may be trips traditionally filled by rural transit that can see improved success through shared mobility services.
Before partnering with a shared mobility provider, public entities should identify data reporting needs. Services funded by grants through particular entities might require data reporting on items like operational performance. Remaining cognizant of the data to be collected from the potential implementation of a shared mobility service and clarifying those data needs to the shared mobility providers ahead of time will lend itself to the success of a pilot project. Data sharing agreements between cities and private providers often present challenges because of concerns surrounding privacy and proprietary interests.
Public agencies may want to partner with private providers that have experience operating in rural or small town communities because private operators will have better knowledge on if and how their products can succeed in those spaces. However, private mobility providers are not the only private partners that can engage in rural shared mobility implementation. Healthcare organizations or local employers may be interested in partnering because they share a similar mission or can benefit from shared mobility operations.
Often, shared mobility public-private partnerships arise out of the way to address issues facing the existing public transportation system and its riders. Shared mobility is often used to bridge modes in the current transportation network but in the rural context, public entities will often partner with private mobility providers to improve connections to services often located 5, 10, or 20 miles away. Additionally, partnerships can arise out of a need to fill gaps in current services. In rural and small town environments, partnerships can support mobility at specific times or places that are not supported through the current public transit services.
This section has several examples of public agency partnerships and programs that improve mobility options for residents in rural and small communities. Some examples involve efforts that better connect exurban and suburban areas with their urban neighbors, while others are focused on addressing the mobility needs of the elderly and people with disabilities. These examples represent a small collection of the many projects currently underway across the country. Examples are broken up into five categories: Trip Planning Platforms, On-demand Service Improvements, Active Transportation Programs, Volunteer Transportation Programs, and Carsharing and Carpooling Programs.
One of the largest trends in mobility on-demand approaches involves developing online platforms and applications that better inform users of their transportation options across multiple service providers.
Many municipalities and community organizations are also looking to the private sector to help move the needle on on-demand services in their communities.
Although volunteer transportation organizations (VTO) are not new concepts, VTOs are currently well-suited to leverage local networks of volunteer drivers and innovations in trip routing and booking technology to improve service and offerings.
Another trend among communities of all sizes is the exploration of active transportation programs, such as bikeshares and electric-powered scooter share systems (e-scooters). However, rural and small communities need to adjust the financial and operating models to make such systems fit their local needs.
Through a Planet M awarded grant, Hi-Ho Mobility partnered with Aequitas Mobility Services to pilot delivering prescription drugs to rural homes around Battle Creek, MI.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
In order to sustain or get your shared mobility project off the ground, funding is essential. This section discusses some considerations for funding rural transportation projects.
Several grant and technical assistance programs – particularly at the federal and state level – can support local efforts to improve mobility options in rural and small communities. Additionally, coordination between different public entities and departments can support the cost-effective allocation of public monies toward transportation. For instance, different public agencies and departments, including health, or social services, could coordinate and merge their separate transportation services into one service.
Many state funding programs and opportunities related to transportation can be found on state agency websites, specifically those dedicated to the departments of transportation, economic development, and the environment. Below are two examples of state led programs that address shared mobility.
Clean Mobility Options is a program directing $32 million in funding and capacity-building to disadvantaged communities deploying zero-emission carsharing, carpooling/vanpooling, bikesharing/scooter-sharing, innovative transit services, and ride-on-demand services. This program is administered by CALSTART and Shared-Use Mobility Center (SUMC) in partnership with CivicWell. In its first year, the Clean Mobility Options Voucher Pilot Program awarded $20 million worth of Mobility Project vouchers to eligible underserved communities, with $2 million of that specifically directed toward Native American tribal governments. In addition, the program also awarded Community Transportation Needs Assessment vouchers worth a total of $1.15 million to small and large communities across California.
New York’s Clean Transportation Prizes competitions initiative dedicates $85 million dollars to advance sustainable transportation solutions as a part of the effort to reduce the transportation sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. This initiative is administered by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) in partnership with the New York State Department of Public Service (DPS) and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). Under this initiative, there are currently three funding programs, including the Clean Neighborhoods Challenge. The Clean Neighborhoods Challenge funds projects that aim to reduce air pollution, address transportation challenges, and enable widespread electric and active transportation use in New York States’ disadvantaged communities.
Rural and Small Town Transportation
Policy lays the groundwork that will guide decision-making processes and actions related to rural and small town transportation services.
In many rural communities, counties play a major role in maintaining transportation infrastructure, providing transit options, and providing essential community services. In states where there are Regional Planning Organizations, also known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations, these entities will coordinate with the county and municipalities to prioritize rural transportation needs and develop plans which guide transportation decision-making and activities. In areas without Regional Planning Organizations, the state will have a process for working with counties and municipalities to prioritize transportation needs and develop statewide plans.
In general, it is important to ensure that local policies do not conflict with state or federal requirements. For example, anyone interested in establishing a bikeshare system should know whether the state has established requirements regarding helmet use, bike use on sidewalks, and speed limits. For those interested in pursuing partnerships with TNCs or microtransit providers, compliance with ADA requirements needs consideration in the earliest stages.
The federal government has a number of policies in place regarding transportation to which local planners must adhere. Below are a few of the key acts and statements:
Historically, most local transportation initiatives were more concerned with abiding by federal requirements than with state-level policies. This is largely because states did not have a great deal of documentation on implementing innovative transportation projects. However, with the advent of new technology and the proliferation of e-bikes and scooters, states are continuing to recognize the need to adjust their existing language to more appropriately address the emerging mobility options. For instance, 29 states and Washington DC have passed legislation concerning autonomous vehicles, while five more have issued a related executive order. Similarly, the emergence of scooters is pushing several states to codify their definition and permitted use, although definitions differ between states. For example, the same scooter that is legally categorized in California as a “motorized scooter” and is required to be ridden on the road is categorized as a “toy vehicle” in Colorado and is therefore required to be ridden on the sidewalk. As new mobility options emerge in the coming years, local planners will need to keep up to date on the language and requirements included in related state policies.
Many states are actively encouraged by the private operators themselves to pass legislation regulating the industry. TNCs are lobbying state representatives to legislate the market because the statewide regulations tend to be far less constraining toward TNC operations than city regulations. Moreover, 41 states have passed preemptive laws that limit the ability of local municipalities to set their own standards.  The Portland, OR mayor wrote a public letter discouraging Lyft’s actions in early 2019, claiming that “if your lobbying efforts were to succeed, Portland would no longer be able to manage our transportation system to best support the mobility, safety, accessibility, sustainability and equity needs of our City”.  Relatedly, several states are currently working to enshrine better data protections and data sharing requirements in state legislation. These regulations will impact public agency partnerships with any private mobility operator, from TNCs to bikeshare operators to e-scooter companies.
These statewide regulations can prove limiting for smaller transit or regional government agencies interested in partnering with private operators. For example, suppose a county agency wanted to partner with a TNC for an on-demand service. In that case, the statewide regulations could restrict the amount or type of data the local agency could require from the operator. Furthermore, because smaller communities tend to have less negotiating power when dealing with these companies, the TNC would have even less incentive to provide the local agency with any more than the bare minimum of data required by the state.
As a result, public agencies serving small and rural communities need to be particularly diligent about attending to state legislative efforts regarding shared mobility and emerging transportation technology. There are several resources that smaller municipalities can utilize to ensure their interests are addressed in statewide regulations. Some such resources include:
Rural and Small Town Transportation
This section lists the references used in this learning module