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Ohio State University Extension


Rural Transportation Programs and Their Benefits

Community Development
Gwynn Stewart, MS, Extension Educator, Community Development, Ohio State University Extension, Noble County
Godwin Apaliyah, PhD, Extension Educator, Community Development, Ohio State University Extension, Fayette County

Did you know that Ohio’s county and local governments can play a critical role in strengthening community transportation resources and providing public transportation options?Riders on a van used for rural transportation

According to The County Commissioners Association of Ohio, counties may create transit authorities to provide public transit service alone or in conjunction with other local governance. There are 27 urban and 35 rural systems in Ohio serving all or part of 65 counties.

Ohio’s Rural Transportation Programs Defined

In Ohio, The Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) Office of Transit outlines the responsibilities for the state’s rural program, simply referred to as the “Rural Transit Program.” The Federal Surface Transportation Act of 1978 amended the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 and provided operating assistance to rural and small urban transportation systems. Prior to 1978, operating assistance was available only to urbanized areas (areas of 50,000 in population or more). The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) changed the name of the Urban Mass Transportation Act of 1964 to the Federal Transit Act. Operating and capital assistance to rural transportation systems is financed by Section 5311, Formula Grant for Other than Urbanized Areas (formerly Section 18) as re-authorized in 2015 under the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation (FAST) Act and codified in 49 U.S.C. Chapter 53.

The goals of Ohio’s Rural Transit Program are to:

  • enhance the access of people in rural areas to shopping, health care, employment, public services, education, shopping and recreation.
  • assist in the development, maintenance, improvement, and use of public transportation.
  • encourage and facilitate the most efficient use of all federal and state funds used to provide public transportation in rural areas through the coordination of programs and services.

Funding for Programs

Funding for rural transportation programs may come from a variety of sources. As previously mentioned, federal operating and capital assistance to rural transportation systems is financed by the Section 5311, Formula Grant for Other than Urbanized Areas. Transportation services are often operated using multiple funding sources. Funding may include federal, state, local, private foundations, and even faith-based or other non-profit organizations. All funding agencies and the eventual recipients of the funds operate in an environment regulated by specific accounting and auditing standards.

Existing transportation organizations may be looking for opportunities to expand regionally. Approaching already operating transportation providers may prove easier than starting an additional entity. Shared services, minimal initial public investment, and expanded availability of potential contract services are often used as local “match” for state and federal dollars, which makes partnering regionally a good choice, if available. Possible contracts may be coordinated through a variety of sources, including local Health and Human Services organizations that cover transportation such as non-emergency medical transportation, county boards of developmental disabilities, school systems that need specialized transports, senior programs and others.

Types of Rural Transportation in Ohio

Rural public transportation can be operated in a few different modes. One is fixed-route service, where a bus follows a schedule at designated passenger stops. Another is point deviated fixed-route service where a bus follows a schedule and defined stops like a fixed route but can “deviate” from a stop up to three-quarters of a mile to pick up and drop off passengers. Demand-response service allows passengers to schedule trips in advance from an origin to a destination, while picking up and dropping off other passengers along the way. This is a common mode of public transportation in rural areas. Generally, fixed-route service requires a complementary paratransit plan covering the same service area and hours with demand-response service for those with disabilities, while demand-response and point deviated fixed-route services do not require such a plan.

Potential Impacts of Transportation in Community and Economic Development

Transportation may play a key role in community and economic development from a variety of angles. From a traditional economic development perspective, access to public transportation may increase productivity or enhance jobs and labor market accessibility (Dowell, 2017). Expanding existing or providing new transportation resources may result in an expansion of an area’s labor pool, as well as additional employment options to workers.

From a community development perspective, transportation access may impact the well-being of rural residents by providing access to food, social support, education, employment, and recreation and community services. As an identified social determinant of health, access to high-quality affordable transportation is fundamental to mental, physical, and emotional well-being (Henning-Smith et al. 2017). Access to transportation in rural communities is also an important tool in reducing social isolation for groups such as older adults and people with disabilities.

Access to transportation may also impact usage of health care services in a variety of ways. For instance, some residents without their own transportation may over rely on emergency departments and ambulance services for non-emergency health care access. If public transportation and/or Medicaid, managed-care or senior-based services were available, they may limit the overuse of emergency-based services for non-emergency use.

  • Transportation plays a critical role in shaping economies. Even though not all transportation projects generate benefits, some investments are considered strategic drivers for development. The economic impact of transportation projects can be measured in the benefits they bring to economic growth, job creation, trade facilitation, and the economies of scale created. Research shows that transportation impacts economic development in many ways (Dowell, 2017).
  • Transportation supports clusters. First, effective planning in transportation can overcome this constraint and reinforce agglomerations by allowing more people to come closer together in higher density developments. Second, the right transportation investments sustain clusters of industries and businesses by supporting their closer proximity to each other, improving productivity and creating clusters of activities. Finally, efficient transportation reduces the time and distance between the suburbs to the downtown areas.
  • Transportation increases productivity. When transportation improvements increase the accessibility of people and businesses to reach jobs, services, goods, and activities, productivity also increases. This is achieved due to reduced travel time and infrastructure enhancements. It also encourages business productivity in other areas as well. For example, transportation improvements may improve freight delivery times.
  • Transportation enhances job and labor force accessibility. Another economic benefit of transportation improvement is the resulting larger pool of employees available for the job market. This may come from a new transit or commuter rail line that makes it possible for employees to reach previously inaccessible jobs. Or, road improvements may decrease employees’ travel time by car or bus. Overall, employers can better match employees with appropriate jobs based on the job requirements and employees’ skills.

At the same time, new or improved transportation options increase the population’s direct access to more job options, making an area more attractive. Given the importance that Millennials place on mobility and their desire to forego car ownership, access to employment and recreation in walkable, bikeable, and transit-accessible areas is becoming a key factor for recruiting this critical workforce group.

  • Transportation opens new markets for businesses. New and improved transportation options do more than decrease the travel time or distance for commuters, they can be a factor in shifting the business sectors attracted to the metropolitan area. Building a multi-modal facility opens new markets for companies searching for locations with the appropriate transportation infrastructure for their corporate needs and manufacturing plants.
  • Transportation enhances supply chain efficiency. When businesses are clustered together, it is easier and quicker for them to reach their suppliers and customers. This phenomenon has a positive impact on freight logistics and delivery scheduling. Easier access to needed supplies and materials and faster delivery times to customers can help lower transportation and inventory carrying costs while increasing both productivity and profitability.

At the same time, improvements in the transportation infrastructure allow companies to expand their market reach and access to a larger customer base, which can increase their competitiveness.

By improving access to markets, goods and services, employment, housing, health care, and education while reducing the cost of moving people and goods, transportation projects can increase economic productivity and development.

Access Barriers to Transportation in Rural Communities

Access to transportation can still be a significant challenge in some rural communities. Despite the above community and economic benefits of transportation, across America and around the state of Ohio, only 11 percent of rural residents report having access to public transportation near their home, compared to 83 percent of central cities in metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) (Bayne et al. 2017). MSAs group counties and cities into specific geographic areas for population censuses and compilations of related statistical data.

Barriers to public transportation in rural areas may include low population numbers, infrastructure, and the longer travel distances (Bayne et al. 2017). Implementation of public transportation in these areas may require collaboration and regionalization in thinking, and in planning and design of programs.

Anecdotally, providers indicate that adoption rates in rural areas may take longer. Cultural challenges in rural areas include stoicism—personal pride or independence—to the point where individuals won’t seek assistance and continue to drive, even if their health may make doing so unsafe (Bayne et al. 2017).


Bayne, A., Siegfried, A., Stauffer, P., Knudson, A., (April 2018). Promising practices for increasing access to transportation in rural communities. The Walsh Center for Rural Health Analysis Rural Evaluation Brief.

Dowell, P. (2017). The top five ways transportation impacts economic development. Civil & Structural Engineer, April 5, 2017. Retrieved from

Office of Management and Budget. (June 28, 2010). Standards for Delineating Metropolitan and Micropolitan Statistical Areas. Federal Register Part IV-2010.

The Ohio Department of Transportation Office of Transit. (June 2019).  Public Transit Map. Requirement for comparable complementary paratransit service. 49 CFR § 37.121 Code of Federal Regulations, U.S. Government Publishing Office, October 1, 2018.

The Ohio Department of Transportation Office of Transit. (Sept. 2012). Rural Transit Manual.

Sharing the Costs of Human Services Transportation. (2011). Transit Cooperative Research Program Report 144, (1)

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Originally posted Oct 22, 2019.