Rural communities, health, obesity, bicycling, and walking--the research

One of the most common points brought up in our discussions with elected officials, government leaders, and staff--for instance at the recent National Bike Summit--is "rural communities aren't interested in bicycling and walking--that is only for big cities!"

Many believe that it is impossible to live in a small town or rural area without a car, and that few residents in those areas are interested in bicycling and walking facilities.


However, the research and data shows just the opposite:  People in rural communities actually need bicycling and walking facilities just as much--if not more than--those in cities, because:

  1. Small towns, as a whole, are noticeably lacking bicycling and walking facilities compared with larger cities
  2. Health, fitness, and obesity levels in small towns are actually worse than in larger cities, and a much of the reason is exactly this relative lack of safe bicycling and walking facilities
  3. People in small towns depend on bicycling and (particularly) walking for basic transportation just as much as those in larger cities (in fact, just a little bit more)
  4. People in rural communities want improved bicycle and pedestrian facilities just as much as people living in larger towns and cities
  5. Unfortunately, federal and state transportation policies are mostly to blame for creating the current, bad situation for bicycling and walking in rural communities.  This implies that changing state and federal transportation policies so that bicycling and walking facilities are routinely included in transportation projects is even more important for the health and safety of citizens in rural communities than it is for those who live in bigger cities or large metropolitan areas.
The reason for the last point is that a greater proportion of the main roads in small towns are funded by state and federal dollars.  In the past, state DOTs have been willing to add bicycle & pedestrian accommodations to these roads only if the surrounding communities have the funds to pay for those additions.
Small, rural communities just don't have the funds.  And that means they don't get facilities.
Here are a number of articles summarizing research and data to back up these points: