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The Future of Rural Mobility

Posted by U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao

I just attended the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, and had the opportunity to highlight the need to pay attention to the transportation needs of rural, as well as urban, communities.  In many countries, including the United States, rural transportation networks are vital to economic growth, creating opportunity, and ensuring that no one is left behind in the 4th Industrial Revolution.    

Yet many rural communities in the United States continue to face transportation disparities. For example, only 19 percent of Americans live in rural communities.  Yet 69% of highway lane miles are in rural areas. Nearly half of all truck vehicle miles traveled occur on rural roads. And, two-thirds of all U.S. rail freight originates in rural areas.

The result is a disproportionate high rate of highway fatalities in rural areas:

  • 72 percent of large truck occupant fatalities,
  • 67 percent of pickup occupant fatalities, and
  • 58 percent of SUV occupant fatalities occur in rural areas.

In fact, 46% of total highway fatalities in our country occur on rural roads-- twice that of urban roads.  This is of special concern because safety is the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Number One priority.  So it’s vitally important not only to growth and competitiveness, but to safety, that the transportation and infrastructure needs of rural communities be addressed.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is working hard to address these inequities through a number of initiatives.  The Department distributes about $70 billion annually for infrastructure needs.  Since FY 2016, the rural share of discretionary funds awarded nearly doubled in the 9 transportation programs that distinguish between rural and non-rural. And the number of awards made to rural projects more than tripled.

Rural Project Initiative Implementation: This initiative allows more sponsors of infrastructure projects in rural communities to utilize the Department’s major loan program, which offers generous financing and loan repayment terms.

ROUTES Initiative: The Rural Opportunities to Use Transportation for Economic Success (ROUTES) initiative helps rural communities access federal transportation grant funding and loan programs.  It also improves data sharing to help rural communities better analyze their transportation needs.  As part of this initiative, the Department established a ROUTES Council, which supports rural communities to better identify and assess their transportation needs, and re-balance DOT discretionary grants to address those needs.  Access to transportation can also be a significant challenge for seniors, people with disabilities and low-income communities in rural areas.  Public transportation is a lifeline for them.  So the ROUTES initiative will be addressing public transit in rural areas, as well.

Addressing rural-urban transportation disparities will help ensure a more inclusive transportation network for the future.  That’s a goal that all countries can and should incorporate into their national transportation plans.

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