Rural community health suffers from lack of bicycling & walking facilities

A study by Tegan Boehmer of the Saint Louis University School of Public Health has confirmed what many of us have suspected for years: The lack of walking and bicycling facilities in rural towns reduces the amount of walking and bicycling rural citizens engage in, and this has a measurable negative affect on health in rural communities.

Rural communities as a rule have fewer sidewalks, fewer pedestrian safety amenities like crosswalks and pedestrian phases at traffic signals, fewer bicycle facilities and bicycle lanes, and fewer recreational trails.

In Missouri, towns are typically bisected by one or more MoDOT roads, and those roads have by far the most, fastest motor traffic and the least bicycle and pedestrian accommodations.

Since motor travel concentrates on MoDOT roads, commercial areas tend to cluster there as well. And poor bicycle and pedestrian access to these primary destinations has a clear effect on citizens' health, Boehmer's study found:
Several indicators of the perceived neighborhood environment were associated with being obese, including further distance to the nearest recreational facility, unpleasant community for physical activity, feeling unsafe from crime or traffic, and few non-residential destinations.
A summary on the St. Louis University web site says:
Her research validates the importance of community leaders, researchers and practitioners from the fields of public health, urban planning and transportation collaborating to design communities that encourage a healthy lifestyle, she adds.

About a quarter of the population in the South and Midwest live in rural towns. Obesity and a more sedentary lifestyle are more common in rural communities than in large metropolitan areas and suburban areas, previous research has found.
The lack of recreational facilities such as trails also plays a vital role:
"Further distance to the closest recreational facility increased the likelihood of being obese," Boehmer says. "In particular, obese persons were more likely to perceive no walking or biking trail within a 10-minute walk from home when compared with other types of recreational facilities."

Nearly half of the participants reported lack of sidewalks on most streets and stated they felt unsafe from traffic while walking or biking. Those who expressed concerns about traffic safety also were more likely to be obese, the study found.

"Promoting and enhancing existing trails or adding nearby trails could be a useful intervention in rural communities," Boehmer says. "They may be a more economical alternative than sidewalks in making it safer for rural residents to be physically active, particularly in areas with winding or narrow roads."
A summary of Boehmer's article is found here.

A March 2008 study suggests that intervention to remove neighborhood barriers to active transportation can be an effective strategy in urban, suburban, and rural areas.

A strong correlation between degree of urbanization and the amount of walking and bicycling has been noted. However, this research suggests that the reason is not so much development patterns or density but simply the lack of good infrastructure for walking and bicycling in rural areas.