Rural and Intercity Transportation


The nearly one in four older adults living in rural areas are at risk of becoming isolated from their communities if they lack adequate transportation opportunities. Nondrivers are particularly vulnerable, as the distances between rural residences and necessary services exacerbate their transportation challenges. Yet 40 percent of rural residents—many of them older adults or people with disabilities—live in counties with no public transportation options at all.

Rural residents need access to local services and larger urban centers, where regional health and retail facilities are typically located. Well-designed and adequately funded public transportation can help fill this need. In 2010, public transportation served 77 percent of America’s counties, but only six states had service in every county. Rural residents’ access to intercity bus service has declined significantly since the 1960s. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, from 2005 to 2010, 3.5 million rural residents lost access to scheduled intercity transportation. As a result, the number of rural residents without access to intercity transportation increased from 7 percent to 11 percent.

Travel for medical purposes has skyrocketed over the past three decades, outpacing population growth for all ages. Rural residents, who must travel farther to gain access to healthcare, are among those most affected by changes to the delivery of medical care. New advances in technology offer the potential to offset this increased travel demand. Among the advances, telehealth is a communication service that enables physicians located in hospitals or clinics to conduct some office visits via videoconference with patients located in satellite facilities in rural communities (see Chapter 7, Health—Access to Services: Telehealth).

Section 5311—this program seeks to address rural residents’ needs for public transportation by providing capital and operating assistance to transit providers in rural areas with a population under 50,000. It can fund both rural fixed-route and demand-response public transportation.

Intercity bus—an intercity bus service uses coaches to carry passengers long distances between localities and can be publicly or privately owned. Federal law requires states to spend at least 15 percent of their rural program annual appropriations for intercity bus transportation. When private investments have been made in long-haul intercity routes that connect with local intercity bus operations, federal law allows those private investments to count as the local and state funding match. This allows greater subsidies to unprofitable rural intercity feeder bus routes that private operators might otherwise discontinue. The state of Washington, for example, has demonstrated that involving private-sector intercity bus companies in building a network of intercity bus routes can reverse the trend of diminishing access to intercity service for rural areas.

Intercity passenger rail—passenger rail is another mobility option for people who travel both within congested regional corridors and between cities separated by long distances. The National Household Travel Survey found that in 2009 that people age 65 and older took almost five million trips on Amtrak. Passenger rail provides essential service to many rural communities. Rail is also an important contributor to economic development. With increased frequency and shorter travel times, high-speed rail could provide a competitive alternative to both auto and air for travel between metropolitan areas within 500 miles of one another.

Transportation for Native Americans and Alaskan Natives—the availability of transportation is a concern for both the Native American and Alaskan Native communities. Although the federal government recognizes Native American tribes as sovereign nations, generally they still must go through state transportation departments to obtain federal transportation funding. The exception is for funding under the Tribal Transportation Program administered by the Federal Highway Administration and the Section 531(c) Tribal Transit Program administered by the Federal Transit Administration.

Rural and Intercity Transportation: Policy

Community transportation resources

In this policy: FederalLocalState

Governments should strongly support the development and implementation of transportation programs and services that improve and enhance community transportation resources for older adults. This need is especially acute for those living in rural areas.

Governments should increase funding for the operating and capital costs of rural public transportation and provide for monitoring and evaluating such transportation to help identify improvement and expansion needs.

Congress should require research on how to develop and implement cost-effective nonemergency medical transportation programs.

Congress should increase funding for the Section 5311(c) Tribal Transit Program and require grant recipients to coordinate transportation services with Title VI Native American aging programs funded under the Older Americans Act.

The Department of Transportation and the Administration for Community Living should provide funds to state and local governments to initiate innovative, sustainable transportation models for older adults and people with disabilities in rural communities.

States should:

  • ensure funding mechanisms for operating and capital expenses for rural public transportation;
  • promote and monitor coordination of transportation funding and programs in rural areas; and
  • develop affordable public and private nonemergency medical transportation.

Technical assistance

In this policy: State

State departments of transportation should provide adequate technical assistance to rural areas to support effective, coordinated transportation planning.

State departments of transportation should provide a full public outreach and education program to rural areas to ensure local governments are knowledgeable about all available federal funding for rural areas and programmatic (application) requirements.

Passenger rail

In this policy: FederalState

States should establish dependable funding mechanisms for investment in passenger rail, and should support passenger rail systems that are integrated and coordinated with the nationwide passenger rail system.

Congress should support nationwide passenger rail service, including high-speed rail, that is integrated and coordinated with regional, state, and local passenger rail.

Congress should establish a dependable funding mechanism that ensures continuing broad-based nationwide passenger rail service, including high-speed rail. Congress should allow intercity passenger rail systems to be eligible for the broad flexible-funding provisions that govern the rest of the federal transportation program.

Native Americans and Alaskan Natives

In this policy: Federal

Congress should increase funding for the Section 5311(c) Tribal Transit Program and require grant recipients to coordinate transportation services with Title VI Native American aging programs funded under the Older Americans Act.

Congress should increase funding for the Tribal Transportation Program and encourage expenditures to be integrated with economic development, housing, and land-development plans.