National Academies Press: OpenBook

Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap (2021)

Chapter: Chapter 1 Background

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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26343.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26343.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26343.
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Suggested Citation:"Chapter 1 Background." National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2021. Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. doi: 10.17226/26343.
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Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap 1 C H A P T E R 1 Background Defining Rural America For many people, the phrase “rural America” brings to mind images of the country’s agricultural heartland: the tractors and combines, the vast fields of corn and cotton, the red barns and brown tobacco sheds, the cattle and hogs. In truth, the diversity of the nation’s rural areas goes far beyond these images. The rural United States includes the remote native villages of the Alaskan coasts (some accessible only by air or water), the small mountain towns of inland Puerto Rico, the ski resorts of Colorado and Vermont, the forests of the Pacific Northwest and the southern Appalachians, the lakes and rivers of Upstate New York and northern Wisconsin, the remote Pacific islands of Saipan and Rota, and Native American reservations from Mississippi and Minnesota to Oklahoma and Oregon. Rural America is equally the hundreds of state and national parks from Yellowstone to Stone Mountain, and the thousands of exurban communities that lie just beyond major metropolitan areas from Atlanta to Chicago, and St. Louis to San Luis Obispo. In the broadest sense, “rural America” stretches from Point Udall, Guam in the western Pacific to Point Udall, Virgin Islands in the Caribbean: locations named for two brothers that span 9500 miles and 14-time zones. In all, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that rural areas cover 97% of the nation’s land area and are home to about 60 million people (19% of the population). Thus, the fundamental challenge of creating a Rural Transportation Research Roadmap (herein referred to as Roadmap) is capturing the diversity of American rural communities while providing an opportunity to coalesce around research needs that address the transportation challenges they share. For decades, demographers and public officials have struggled to establish practical working definitions of “rural” areas and “rural” transportation. This is more than a semantic exercise: many government agencies administer separate urban and rural programs with differing eligibility criteria. Thus, among state, regional, and local transportation agencies, “rural” is defined in multiple ways, sometimes indefinite and often conflicting. The U.S. Census defines urban and rural areas based on population density at the census tract level (Figure 3a). More specifically, based on a detailed set of geospatial criteria, the Census identifies Urbanized Areas with populations of 50,000 or more, and Urban Clusters with 2,500 to 49,999 residents (U.S. Census Bureau 2011). These cities and suburbs comprise the nation’s “urban” land; all other areas are “rural.” For purposes such as roadway functional classification, state and regional agencies usually adjust Census boundaries to match municipal limits. Meanwhile, Federal agencies such as the Department of Agriculture often prefer to think in terms of “predominantly rural” and “predominantly urban” counties (Figure 3b). Public health policymakers tend to be concerned about “frontier and remote” areas with long travel times to medical services (Figure 3c). Thus, for some purposes “rural” refers solely to areas with low population density, while for others it identifies combinations of low population density and long distance to more populous areas. A completely different set of urban and rural definitions arises in the field of highway design, where “urban” usually refers to roadways equipped with curbs and gutters (and underground storm sewers), while “rural” refers to roadways drained by ditches. These terms—and the thousands of design criteria that incorporate them—implicitly convey expectations about differing traffic speeds and road user behavior. Nevertheless, to the roadway designer there is no inherent conflict in building an “urban cross section”

Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap 2 through the business district of a village with a population of 250, nor in constructing a “rural cross section” through a metropolitan park. For the purposes of this Roadmap, no specific definition of “rural” has been adopted. Instead, the Roadmap focuses on transportation research needs that are generally relevant to areas with rural characteristics. (To read more about the rural community types developed for this Roadmap see Chapter 2.) Thus, the Roadmap is not intended to resolve, redefine, or override programmatic or administrative definitions of “rural” transportation. Indeed, developing a unified definition of “rural” would likely require a multi-year effort far exceeding the scope of this Roadmap. (a) Census tract level urban/rural boundaries are irregular and sometimes bisect communities. (b) Predominantly urban (brown) and predominantly rural (grey) counties as defined by USDA. (c) Level 1 Frontier and Remote (blue) areas defined by USDA and the US Health Service. Figure 3. State and Federal Agencies Have Varying Definitions of “Rural” and “Remote” Areas. Why Focus on Rural Transportation? The United States has 3031 counties1, 19,519 municipalities, and 16,630 townships (U.S. Census Bureau 2013). The vast majority of these communities are partially or entirely rural: as noted above, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that rural areas cover 97% of the nation’s land area and are home to about 60 million people (19% of the population). Although only 19% of the population lives in rural areas, more than 70% of the U.S.’s four million miles of roadways are in rural areas (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2018). The rural transportation system also includes numerous airports, railways, inland and coastal waterways, and bicycle, pedestrian, and multi-use paths and trails. Approximately 47% of the nation’s motor vehicle fatalities occur in rural areas, a situation the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has referred to as an “epidemic on wheels” (Sullivan 2017). Historically, the total number of motor vehicle fatalities in the United States was higher in rural areas than in urban locales. While this situation has reversed recently, crash report data compiled by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates that this is due to an increase in urban fatalities, not a reduction in rural deaths. Specifically, the agency reports that in 2015 the number of urban and rural fatalities was essentially equal (17,573 urban and 17,715 rural) (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration 2018). By 2017, the number of urban motor vehicle fatalities had grown to 19,038 while rural fatalities declined slightly to 17,216. The changing geography of motor vehicle fatalities appears to result from a combination factors, including growth in the urban population and declining rural population. Specifically, the Census Bureau 1 Counties are called “boroughs” in Alaska and “parishes” in Louisiana, and do not exist in Connecticut or Rhode Island

Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap 3 reports that the nation’s urban population increased by 12.7% from 2007 to 2016, while the rural population decreased by 11.8%. Based on 2011-2015 national data, the Census reports several urban/rural differences that are important in the context of transportation research (U.S. Census Bureau 2016): • The U.S. rural population of 60 million is comprised of 47 million adults (age 18+) and 13 million children (under age 18). • Adults in rural areas had a median age of 51, while the median age of urban adults was 45. • Rural adults had lower rates of poverty (11.7% compared with 14.0%) but were less likely to have obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher (19.5% compared with 29.0%). • Children in rural areas had lower rates of poverty (18.9% compared with 22.3%), but more of them were uninsured (7.3% compared with 6.3%). • Compared with households in urban areas, rural households had lower median income ($52,386 compared with $54,296). States with the highest median household incomes in rural areas were Connecticut ($93,382) and New Jersey ($92,972) (not statistically different from each other). The state with the lowest rural median household income was Mississippi ($40,200). • Among rural areas, poverty rates varied from a low in Connecticut (4.6%) to a high in New Mexico (21.9%). • While 17.3% of households in urban areas did not have internet access, the proportion in rural areas was 23.8%. • Median home values were lower in rural areas ($151,300 compared with $190,900). In states where local government revenue derives primarily from property taxes, this points toward budgetary challenges for transportation agencies in rural counties and small municipalities due to the combined effect of lower per capita tax base and large roadway mileages. • Looking at the very long run, from 1900 to 2015 the rural population in the United States grew from 46 million to 60 million (an increase of 30%). In the same time period, the urban population grew from 30 million to 292 million (an increase of 873%). Other important rural/urban differences include: • Uneven economic and population growth (e.g., rural areas losing population and jobs). • Smaller rural proportion of funding for transportation services, infrastructure, and maintenance (e.g., less population, fewer crash hot spots, lack of available data, less congestion, smaller tax base). • Lack of alternative transportation modes for access, mobility, and freight transportation. For example, nearly 40 percent of rural residents live in a county with no public transportation service (Burkhardt 2004). • Increasing consolidation of rural services such as hospitals and schools. • Lack of economic diversification, resulting in boom-bust cycles driven by external market forces. For example, some rural communities are highly dependent on agriculture, forestry, or mining for their economic base. Others rely mainly on tourism (e.g., ski areas, gateway communities, public lands, resort/themed areas). • Hard-to-predict surges in roadway demand due to rural natural resource utilization projects (e.g., mining, petroleum/gas extraction, wind turbine arrays, etc.). • High rural reliance on volunteers to provide human and social services (fire suppression, emergency medical services, meal programs for elderly residents, ride programs for residents with disabilities, etc.). • Shortage of infrastructure and services available to aging populations and people with disabilities. • Higher cost of transporting the products created by rural economies to distant markets. • Lack of technical infrastructure (i.e., power and communication) to support innovative technology (e.g., automated vehicles and connected vehicles). • Vulnerability to flooding and other weather-related disruptions due to the low engineering standards historically applied to rural transportation facilities such as secondary roads.

Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap 4 Taken together, these factors indicate that the issues facing rural transportation agencies are materially different from those faced by their urban counterparts. Rural transportation research needs are not simply a “smaller version” of those affecting urban areas. Need for NCHRP 20-122 Project A safe, efficient, and interconnected national transportation system benefits all Americans and national interests. Rural transportation systems are not used solely by rural residents; they also provide access and mobility to those traveling between urban centers, connect urban residents to tourism and outdoor recreation opportunities, and support industries such as agriculture, forestry, fisheries, petroleum extraction, and mining. As discussed above, the transportation challenges in rural areas differ from those in their urban counterparts. Nevertheless, transportation funding and innovation efforts often focus mainly on urban areas where the perceived need is larger due to population and high-profile issues such as congestion and crash hot spots. When research focuses only on urban areas, some of the biggest safety and operational concerns can “slip through the cracks.” With the current focus on zero fatalities (i.e., Road to Zero, Toward Zero Deaths, Vision Zero), the advent of automated and connected vehicles, the increasing frequency of natural disasters, and a notable infrastructure maintenance deficit, it is even more important to focus on the safety, technological, and funding inequities in rural areas (as captured by an emerging theme from the National Working Summit on Transportation in Rural America in 2016: “on the road to zero, we cannot ignore rural” (Sullivan 2017)). Furthermore, a focus on rural transportation research needs supports the priorities of the current U.S. political administration. Upon her appointment in 2017, the U.S. Secretary of Transportation declared that one of her three top priorities is reducing the inequity between urban and rural transportation. This brought rural transportation to the forefront of national transportation policy and initiatives. Based on these priorities, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials Special Committee on Research and Innovation (herein referred to as AASHTO R&I Committee) requested several actions including: (1) a presentation on the current and past Cooperative Research Program (CRP) projects focused on rural transportation issues and solutions, (2) a focus on rural transportation policy at the Transportation Research Board’s 2019 Executive Committee meeting, and (3) the creation of a Rural Transportation Issues Research Roadmap through an NCHRP project. This project, NCHRP 20-122 Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap, was solicited in August 2018 with the intent to fulfill the third action above. NCHRP 20-122 Project Objectives The intent of NCHRP 20-122 was to create a Research Roadmap to assist state departments of transportation and other public agencies and help inform policy–driven investment decisions. The objectives of the research were to “(1) identify critical rural transportation issues that can be addressed by research through NCHRP and other research programs; (2) produce a Research Roadmap; and (3) submit, by November 1, 2018, at least five Problem Statements drawn from the Research Roadmap that are appropriate for consideration for NCHRP funding in the FY 2020 program.”

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Although only 19% of the population lives in rural areas, more than 70% of the U.S.’s four million miles of roadways are in rural areas. The rural transportation system also includes numerous airports; railways; inland and coastal waterways; rural and intercity buses; and bicycle, pedestrian, and multi-use paths and trails. In addition, approximately 47% of the nation’s motor vehicle fatalities occur in rural areas.

The TRB National Cooperative Highway Research Program's pre-publication draft of NCHRP Research Report 988: Rural Transportation Issues: Research Roadmap is designed to assist state departments of transportation and other public agencies and help inform policy–driven investment decisions.

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