National Complete Streets Coalition

Rural Areas and Small Towns

By planning, designing, and constructing Complete Streets, communities of all sizes – whether rural hamlets, small towns, or booming metropolises – are able to provide the quality access to jobs, health care, shops, and schools their residents deserve, while also achieving greater economic, environmental, and public health benefits. A Complete Streets approach can provide a more effective and balanced transportation system for the nearly 49 million Americans who live in rural areas and small towns.

Dangerous, incomplete roads

Residents of small towns are more likely to be hurt or killed on the transportation system than those in urban areas. In 2006, 23% of the U.S. population lived in rural areas, yet 56% of all traffic fatalities occurred in rural areas. Higher driving speeds on rural roads and arterials are more likely to cause fatalities: 68% of fatal crashes on rural roads occurred when the posted speed limit was 55 mph or higher.

Rural communities and small towns tend to have higher concentrations of older adults and low-income citizens, two populations that are less likely to own cars or drive. Without safer roads, those with limited transportation options have little choice: travel along high-speed roadways with few pedestrian accommodations or stay home. In limiting mobility to automobiles alone, these citizens risk isolation from community and the economy.

Improve access

Access to jobs, groceries, healthcare, education, and other destinations is just as vital in rural communities as in suburban or urban areas. More than 1.6 million rural households do not have access to a car. Public transportation, social service van pools, carpooling, and ridesharing services to reach healthcare, employment, and other resources can be a lifeline in rural areas, especially for older adults, people with disabilities, and low-income households. Sixty percent of rural areas have public transportation service, and demand for more options is growing: rural and small urban public transportation systems experienced a 20% rise in ridership from 2002 to 2005. And, just as in urban areas, public transportation trips usually begin and end as walking trips. Creating safe walking, bicycling, and public transportation options for rural residents builds a more livable, accessible community for people of all ages, abilities, and income levels.

Healthy choices for children

Children need safe roads to reach school and activities. Children who live in rural areas are at greater risk for obesity and related disease than children from other areas: children in rural areas are more likely to be overweight or obese than those in urban areas. Providing safe opportunities for walking and biking to and from school is a key strategy to keep kids active and healthy. Roads that are accommodating of children and other vulnerable users will be safer for everyone.

Sensitive to rural contexts

Complete Streets will look different in rural communities than they do in more urban counterparts, and care should be given to ensure rural roadways are not one-size-fits all or overly suburban in nature. For example, roads surrounded by agricultural use may be “complete” by simply providing wide shoulders to allow safe bicycling and walking and providing connections to regional trail and public transportation networks. On roads where homes and other destinations are concentrated along one side of the street, sidewalks with accessible curb cuts lining just that side may best fit the community context. In town centers, narrower streets, well-marked pedestrian crossings, sidewalks, and street trees can all work to improve safety while maintaining a pleasant, small town feel.

Powering Main Street

Complete Streets are important in helping town centers and Main Streets thrive, too, by improving street connectivity and allowing everyone, whether on foot, bike, or public transportation, to reach community focal points. Many smaller communities do not control their Main Streets; often, the state Department of Transportation does. Construction or widening of Main Streets that function as state highways takes its toll on pedestrian safety and can have a negative impact on small-town economies. In these cases, Complete Streets policies at the local level help communicate the community’s vision, and policies at the state level ensure safe, accessible, and attractive streets. Creating Complete Streets can facilitate reinvestment and economic development in the heart of a small town.

Rural communities want Complete Streets

The need for Complete Streets in rural areas and small towns is clear because so many of them have adopted policies. Ulster County, in the far reaches of the New York City metropolitan area, is home to a large state forest preserve as well as communities of varying sizes, like Kingston (pop. 23,000) and Woodstock (pop. 6,200). Its 2009 resolution will create Complete Streets in each of these different contexts. An ordinance in Sedro-Woolley, Washington ensures bicycling and walking are safe, convenient options for its 10,000 residents. De Soto, Missouri’s 7,000 residents will benefit from a 2008 ordinance requiring a Complete Streets approach. And the city of Manistique in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula recognizes how Complete Streets “support economic growth and community stability by providing accessible and efficient connections between home, school, work, recreation and retail destinations” for its 3,500 residents.


[all citations are available in the downloadable files]

Additional Resources

Examples of Complete Streets Policies in Rural Communities and Small Towns
National Complete Streets Coalition, April 2011

Sustainable Rural Communities (.pdf)
Partnership for Sustainable Communities, December 2011

Integrating Safety in the Rural Transportation Planning Process
Federal Highway Administration Office of Safety, November 2014

Design Guidance for High-Speed to Low-Speed Transition Zones for Rural Highways (NCHRP report 737)
Transportation Research Board of the National Academies, 2012

Active Transportation in Rural Communities and Small Towns
Rails to Trails Conservancy, February 2012

Case Studies on Transit and Livable Communities in Rural and Small Town America
Transportation for America, 2010

Putting Smart Growth to Work in Rural Communities
Smart Growth Network, 2010

Traffic Safety Facts: Rural/Urban Comparison (.pdf)
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Center for Statistics and Analysis

Planning for Transportation in Rural Areas
Federal Highway Administration

Greenway Guides
Dutchess County NY Department of Planning and Development

Greenway Guide: Walkable Communities (.pdf)
Dutchess County NY Department of Planning and Development

Greenway Guide: Rural Roads (.pdf)
Dutchess County NY Department of Planning and Development

Greenway Guide: Slower, Safer Streets (.pdf)
Dutchess County NY Department of Planning and Development

Greenway Guide: Building Bicycle Networks (.pdf)
Dutchess County NY Department of Planning and Development

  • Sign up for eNews
  • Join the Coalition
  • Donate Today
  • Schedule a Workshop