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The Critical Role of Rural Communities in the U.S. Transportation System

Logo for USDOT's ROUTES program, showing roadways in a rural setting.Rural communities provide key linkages in America’s transportation system, connecting travelers to economic and recreational opportunities, as well as distributing freight from distribution centers and bedrock American industries such as agriculture, mining, forestry, and manufacturing to consumer points across the U.S.

Sixty-eight percent of America’s road miles are in rural areas (over 6 million miles), yet rural America faces significant safety and mobility challenges, such as high motor vehicle fatalities rates and poor transportation infrastructure condition and maintenance.

Rural residents have limited transportation options; only 36 percent have the choice between airline, rail, and bus transportation services. However, the demand for regionally focused, connected, accessible, and equitable public transit solutions is rising.

The U.S. system of airports, defined by the FAA’s National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS), is a critical part of the national network of transportation systems and provides 99 percent of the U.S. population with access to air transportation. Approximately 71 percent of rural Americans have access to airline service. For some rural residents, air service is the sole intercity transportation service available.

Investment in transportation provides access to recreation, community amenities, and employment, and can facilitate:

  • Public safety
  • The movement of goods and services
  • Transportation network efficiency
  • Accessibility and equity


Relative to roads in more densely populated areas, rural roadways have a disproportionately high number of fatalities. While only 19 percent of Americans live in rural areas, 47 percent of motor vehicle fatalities occur on rural roads.

This is a circular diagram about the Safe System Approach. On the circumference is a band with six safe system principles: Death and serious injuries are unacceptable, humans make mistakes, humans are vulnerable, responsibility is shared, safety is proactive, and redundancy is crucial. Inside this, the circle is divided into five sections with logos representing each section: Safer vehicles, safer speeds, safer roads, post-crash care, and safer people.Application of a Safe System Approach targeting infrastructure, human behavior, and other safety factors may reduce serious injuries and death on rural roads.

The Safe System Approach works by building and reinforcing multiple layers of protection to prevent crashes from happening and minimize the harm caused to those involved when crashes do occur.

USDOT has adopted a Safe System Approach, through the National Roadway Safety Strategy (NRSS), as its guiding paradigm to address roadway safety.

Discretionary grants can help support rural communities’ implementation of the Safe System Approach, consistent with its principle of shared responsibility.

Movement of Goods and Services

Rural transportation infrastructure is important for the movement of goods and connectivity to commercial markets.

A recent publication from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap, found freight to be a major concern of rural communities as resource based economies need efficient ways to transport goods to consumer markets.

Large volumes of freight either originate in rural areas or are transported through rural areas on the nation’s highways, railways, and inland waterways. Two-thirds of rail freight originates in rural areas, and nearly half of all truck vehicle-miles-traveled (VMT) occur on rural roads.

Today’s economy and the increase in size and weight of modern vehicles and equipment has led to higher demand for moving larger volumes of products across the country.

Transportation Network Efficiency

The Bureau of Transportation Statistics found that between 2000 and 2019, the volume of freight (in millions of tons) per year per interstate lane-mile grew 9 percent in rural areas versus 1.1 percent in urban areas and that 46 percent of truck vehicle miles traveled occurred in rural areas (see below graphic).

Infrastructure investments may assist suppliers in meeting this demand and maximize the efficiency and effectiveness of the existing transportation network.

Map of the United States, with lines showing volume of freight in millions of tons per year. From 2000 to 2019, rural volume per interstate lane-mile grew 9.0% in rural areas versus 1.1% in urban areas. 46% of truck vehicle miles traveled occurs in rural areas.

Accessibility and Equity

Reliable transportation infrastructure enhances quality of life, particularly in rural areas, by improving connectivity, mobility, and access to services like education and healthcare. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately one third of adults in rural communities live with a disability, impacting their ability to travel freely to the places they want and need to go.

USDOT is taking a comprehensive approach to advance accessibility and equity for all, including individuals with disabilities living in rural communities and others who have been historically underserved and adversely affected by persistent poverty or income inequality. Federal funding and financing provide opportunities to expand transportation alternatives for people with disabilities living in rural communities and for infrastructure investment in rural and Tribal communities, where roadways, sidewalks, and street crossings may need to be repaired or built.

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