Rural America needs a new transportation policy, and broadband is key

Long rural road with one car driving on it

By Rayla Bellis

Rural areas have unique transportation needs that national transportation policy hasn’t always successfully addressed, as we’ve previously covered. Those needs have evolved substantially over the past few decades in the face of changing economic realities. A recent article in the ITE Journal reflected on the history of rural America and what transportation policies might best support rural communities moving forward. The author argues that improving high-speed broadband internet access is a crucial step in making transportation work for rural economies.

A century ago, Main Street was the social and commercial hub of most rural communities, and traffic was mostly local. That began to change as people traveled more for business and leisure, and rural communities also started to serve as places for travelers and freight drivers to stop for gas, food, or lodging on longer distance trips. With the construction of the interstate system, many main streets became state highways. Some localities responded to growing traffic on those routes by requesting a bypass for non-local trips, only to find development followed the new highways, leading to disinvestment and vacant storefronts in historic downtowns.

Rural economies have also changed substantially, and declined. Agriculture has become concentrated into larger and more mechanized farms, and the share of rural residents living on farms has shrunk substantially. Rural communities are increasingly seeking to revitalize their main streets to attract residents, a talented workforce, and tourists, including through Complete Streets investments to make their historic downtowns more walkable.

The article argues that poor broadband access and cellular service pose significant barriers to economic recovery in rural communities. Improving both is crucial to those downtown revitalization efforts, as well as to help rural communities leverage transportation assets to find new economic drivers. The author notes that rural areas are well-suited to play key roles as freight and e-commerce evolve, but they will need to be able to take advantage of technologies like connected and autonomous freight fleets or air deliveries. These technologies, especially AVs, could one day also help improve access to medical services and other needs for rural areas’ aging populations. However, they will require that rural areas have universal broadband. The author argues that just as national policy was needed to bring universal electricity to rural America, national policy will be needed to bring universal broadband access.

Photo credit: North Dakota NDDOT