Why a Rural and Small Town Focused Guide?

Rural and small town America is diverse and varied throughout the country. According to the FHWA's Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas, 75 percent of America’s 3,000 counties qualify as rural and cover 81 percent of the land area. Approximately 19 percent of the population live in rural areas. For more information on official designations of urban and rural areas, refer to FHWA's website on Census Urbanized Areas and MPO/TMA Designation, available here

The field of planning and design for walking and bicycling is advancing rapidly, as more communities across America value incorporating active transportation into their daily lives. Much of the research and analysis of infrastructure design has been focused on larger cities, such as New York City, Portland, and Chicago. This guide is intended to provide design information on bicycle and pedestrian facilities specifically applicable to small towns and rural communities.

Figure 1-1. Rural town definitions adapted from FHWA Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas 2001.

There is a need and desire to make travel safer and more active in small and rural communities.

While rural places vary considerably in geographic scale and character, there are common issues that prevail.

Longer Non-Local Trip Distances
Rural trip distances have been increasing.+

Higher Crash Rates
While only 19 percent of the population lives in rural areas, 58 percent of all fatal crashes and 60 percent of traffic fatalities were recorded in rural regions.+

Health Disparities
Rural areas have higher rates of physical inactivity and chronic disease than urbanized areas.+

Income Disparities
Urban households earn 32 percent more in yearly income than rural households.+

Though in many rural communities, residents live long distances from services, most small towns provide a compact center well suited for walking and bicycling trips.

1 mile walk = 20 minutes (3 mph)

1 mile bike ride = 6 minutes (10 mph)

Allendale, SC
Population 3,328

Palmer, AK
Population 6,250

Rushford, MN
Population 2,102

Ukiah, CA
Population 15,956

Building a Rural and Small Town Multimodal Network

Many communities have invested in good places to walk or ride a bicycle. However, few smaller communities have a complete network that supports people comfortably walking and bicycling throughout the community.

A complete network creates safe, comfortable, and accessible multimodal routes for people walking and bicycling. The network may be comprised of varying facilities that appeal to a range of ages and abilities, such as shared use paths, sidewalks, and bike lanes. These facilities also provide equitable transportation for people of all income levels.

A safe and direct network provides convenient access to key destinations, while minimizing exposure to motor vehicle traffic. In addition to physical safety, user comfort is an important aspect of a multimodal network. Typically, additional separation between motor vehicles and those walking or bicycling, or slowing motor vehicles to walking and bicycling compatible speeds, is desired to create a more comfortable network.

Small and rural towns have great potential for creating viable networks that serve residents and visitors. Common attributes of a small town network include connections between communities that are located along highways and access to retail businesses and schools in a relatively small area within the community core. Communities with strong ties to public lands may also prioritize connections to natural areas, and tribal communities may desire access to ceremonial sites outside of the core.

Figure 2-2. Network Connections for Rural Communities and Small Towns

Creating Networks

Networks are interconnected pedestrian and/or bicycle transportation facilities that allow people of all ages and abilities to safely and conveniently get where they want to go.

Developing interconnected networks of bicycling and walking facilities in rural and small town settings can be challenging due to a lack of alternate through roadways and the concentration of motor vehicle traffic on major roads. Planners and engineers must think creatively to establish connected facilities within communities, and consider how all roadway types and independent connections can be used to create access to key locations. A connected network is not developed by a single trail, sidewalk, or bike lane but is comprised of many facilities that support walking and bicycling throughout the community.

FHWA’s Case Studies in Delivering Safe, Comfortable and Connected Pedestrian and Bicycle Networks 2016 lists principles of exemplary multimodal network creation. These principles are listed below, and the following images illustrate these concepts in a variety of network scenarios.

COHESION: How connected is the network in terms of its concentration of destinations and routes?

DIRECTNESS: Does the network provide direct and convenient access to destinations?

ACCESSIBILITY: How well does the network accommodate travel for all users, regardless of age or ability?

ALTERNATIVES: Are there a number of different route choices available within the network?

SAFETY & SECURITY: Does the network provide routes that minimize risk of injury, danger, and crime?

COMFORT: Does the network appeal to a broad range of ages and ability levels and is consideration given to user amenities?

Connections near schools should provide increased separation of walking and biking facilities that are more appropriate for younger users.
Rural cores should support walking and biking on main commercial corridors and main streets. As the street transitions out of the core area, the facility design that accommodates people walking and biking should change.
Adjacent roadways or shared use paths may complement the transportation function of a primary roadway.
Some facilities may only span short distances to provide connections and fill gaps along a greater network or facility corridor. Transitions between facility types are important and should not be overlooked.

Common Challenges in Small Towns and Rural Areas

Agricultural Uses

Small towns and rural areas near agricultural-operations need to consider the needs of wide and slow moving special equipment.

Public Lands Access

Many small town and rural communities are located near public lands that serve as popular destinations. Creating comfortable linkages, in effect, extends these public lands into their surrounding communities.

Auto Oriented Roadways

With lower densities and greater distances, many small towns and rural areas have developed in a more auto-oriented fashion than urban areas.

Lack of Transportation Options

A singular focus on automobile mobility results in a lack of facilities for people walking and bicycling, making travel by these modes difficult and less safe.

Constrained Terrain

Rural highways often have physical constraints that make the provision of cost-effective facilities for bicycling and walking difficult.


Pedestrian crossings are often not defined and may be difficult to warrant based on low existing use; however, not providing pedestrian crossings makes streets act as barriers that divide communities.

Highway as a Main Street

State highways often pass through the heart of small towns and may prioritize through traffic over local access. Some may be wide and over designed, and some may be constrained and hard to change.

Climate and Maintenance

Winter maintenance is a significant constraint in much of the country. Many small towns and counties do not have adequate resources to pay for special equipment to clear certain types of active transportation facilities.