Reconnecting America People * Places * Possibility

Books & ReportsBooks & Reports Home

Putting Transit to Work in Main Street America: How Smaller Cities and Rural Places Are Using Transit and Mobility Investments to Strengthen Their Economies and Communities


Public transportation plays a critical and expanding role in rural America. Just as it does in urban environments, public transportation in small towns and rural areas provides mo­bility choices and promotes sustainable economies. Across the country, small towns and rural communities are developing partnerships to build intermodal transit centers, creat­ing circulator buses to catalyze private investments in their downtowns, and improving connections between people and jobs. Small towns are using public transportation in­vestments to help address the challenges of limited resources, populations both shrinking and growing older, industrial decline, and the loss of farmland. Through strong partner­ships and creative funding mechanisms, rural America is creating stronger and healthier communities through transit1 investments. Connie Garber, a passionate advocate of rural services and transportation director at York County Community Action Corporation in Maine, sums up the motivation of rural transportation leaders: “We all are headed for the same goal: a more robust economy that helps all of the people in the communities we serve.”

In this report, the researchers have explored how smaller cities, towns, and rural places are integrating transit into their communities. This report seeks to elevate the emerging best practices in smaller cities and rural places where transit investments are helping to set the stage for a robust future. This report is intended to help local planners, elected lead­ers, and policymakers understand the strategies, partnerships, resources, and plans being enacted in comparable communities across the country.

Key research questions include:

  • What types of transit investments are smaller communities making?
  • What impact has transit had on the economy and quality of life of those smaller com­munities?
  • Has transit affected the historic character that exists in many of America’s small towns, or has it been integrated seamlessly into the community?
  • Can a modest or incremental approach to transit investment yield results, or do only large-scale, urban-style systems yield bene. ts?
  • How do different players in.uence the process?
  • What is the role of the federal government in small-town transit projects?

When examining transportation investments in small towns and rural places, it is impor­tant to keep in mind the unique mobility challenges such areas face. Many rural places have long distances between destinations, and small-town residents often must travel a long way to reach specialized services or venues in larger towns and cities. The rural population in America is older than in urban areas, and older Americans experience more mobility challenges as their ability to drive decreases. As intercity bus and rail access has declined over the last several decades, small towns and rural places have become increas­ingly isolated from larger population centers.2 The cost of transportation for Americans living in such communities is high, and household budgets are tied to the cost of gasoline for the family car, the primary – and in many cases only – means of getting around.

These factors suggest that small towns and rural areas would bene.t from transporta­tion alternatives. But it is also clear that transit in these communities cannot look like the transit systems of larger cities. Historic low-density land-use patterns in rural areas make designing and operating transit service more challenging. Local resources to support transit planning and service are limited, and small-town residents may feel that while tran­sit can be wonderful in a big city, it just isn’t something that would .t in with their lifestyle.

End notes

1 The words “public transportation” and “transit” are used interchangeably throughout this report.

2 Rural Access to Intercity Transportation Has Declined. (2011). Research and Innovative Technol­ogy Administration, Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Retrieved December 2011 from http://bit. ly/wc9xxf

Download the full report

Webinar: Putting Transit to Work in Main Street America

CTAA Podcast (MP3): Putting Transit to Work in Main Street America

Also available are slides from a presentation given by Reconnecting America Program Associate Elizabeth Wampler discussing a draft version of the report.

View slideshow presentation on the report