Access to Intercity Transportation in Rural Areas

9/25/23 2023 data added and previous years updated
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics' access to intercity transportation interactive map shows, by county, the percent of the rural population with access to scheduled air (commercial), intercity bus, and intercity rail transportation for the years 2006, 2012, 2018, and 2021. Rural residents with access live within:
  • 75 miles of a large airport, that is, airports with at least 0.25 percent of total U.S. passenger boardings in a year, or
  • 25 miles of any other airport with scheduled commercial service, intercity bus stop, or intercity rail facility. 
The map additionally shows, by county, the change in the number of intercity transportation facilities from 2006-2021 and the locations of the facilities in each year.
For all years, a filter may be applied to display counties where the percent of the rural population with access to intercity transportation is within a selected range. For 2018 and 2021, additional filters are available to select counties where rural areas possess select demographic and socio-economic characteristics, for example counties where 10% of the rural population are 65 and older. The map will show the percent of the rural population with access to intercity transportation for counties meeting the filter criteria. In many counties, the percent of the selected demographic or socio-economic group with access to intercity transportation is less than that of the total rural population.
The percent of the nation’s rural population with access to intercity transportation rose from 87 percent in 2006 to 89 percent in 2018 and then fell to 85 percent in 2021. This resulted from a steady increase and then a decline in the number of intercity bus facilities serving rural areas. Part of the decline may be attributed to a change in the intercity bus stop data source used for 2021. For more information on data sources and methodology, see Methodology for Measuring Access to Transportation in Rural Areas.
The decline in the number of intercity bus transportation stops caused the percent of the rural population with no access to intercity transportation to rise to 15.0 percent in 2021. Those that lacked access lived farther than 75 miles from a large airport and/or 25 miles from a smaller airport, intercity bus stop, and/or intercity rail facility with scheduled service [1].
Changes in the rural population with and without access to scheduled intercity result from changes in 1) the number and locations of facilities serving rural areas, 2) the areas defined as rural, and 3) the population living in rural areas. The magnitude of changes due to 2) and 3) tends to be smaller when looking at percentages. For this reason, BTS presents all changes as percentages. All references to air transportation are to airports with scheduled commercial service. All references to intercity bus and intercity rail transportation are to stops with scheduled service.

Access by Mode and Year

More rural residents lacked access to air and intercity rail than intercity bus transportation. In 2021, 29 percent of rural residents had no access to intercity bus transportation. In comparison, 29 percent of rural residents had no access to air transportation and 59 percent had no access to intercity rail transportation. Looking at large airports only, 54 percent had no access.
The percent of the rural population without access to intercity bus transportation declined from 31 percent in 2006 to 21 percent in 2018 before rising to 29 percent in 2021. Part of the increase in 2021 may be attributed to a change in the intercity bus stop data source used for 2021 and the carriers included in that source file. Because carrier information was not part of the data in years prior to 2021, changes in coverage due to changes in carrier coverage could not be determined.
The percent of the rural population without access to air or intercity rail transportation remained virtually unchanged.

Geographic Variation in Access by State and Year

Aggregating the data to state level highlights the areas with the least access to scheduled intercity transportation. In 2021 the percent of rural residents without access to intercity transportation exceeded 15 percent (the percent of rural residents without access nationwide) in 25 states. In 15 of these 25 states, the percent without access to intercity transportation was greater in 2021 than in 2006. 
In many states the percentage point change is small. Air and rail transportation experienced the smallest change in the number and locations of facilities. Hence, for these modes, the percentage point change reflects the change in the areas defined as rural and the population living in rural areas in most states.

Year-Over-Year State-Level Changes

States with a large percentage point change in access experienced the largest changes in intercity transportation service. A larger percent of rural residents lost access to intercity transportation in South Dakota between 2006 and 2021 than any other state (26 percentage point decline). Rural residents in Iowa also experienced over a 20 percentage point decline between 2006 and 2021 in access to intercity transportation. In both states, this resulted from a loss of intercity bus service.
In contrast, Alabama experienced the largest gain in access, which resulted from an increase in intercity bus service. Four states - Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island - saw virtually no change. In these four states, nearly all of the state's rural population had access to intercity transportation in 2006 and 2021.

Year-Over-Year County-Level Changes

The total and state-level percentages hide significant geographic variation. Many rural counties in the Great Plains (Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, North Dakota, and South Dakota) lacked access to air, intercity bus, and intercity rail transportation in 2006, 2012, 2018, and 2021. Looking at intercity bus transportation, many counties in Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, Tennessee, and West Virginia lacked access in 2006 but gained access in 2018. Changes in access to intercity bus transportation from 2018 to 2021 are difficult to ascertain at the county-level due to a change in the data source for intercity bus stops during the time period. Counties without access to air and intercity rail transportation remained virtually unchanged from 2006 to 2018.
In 2018 there were 440 counties where all rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation and 593 in 2021. There were more counties without intercity rail transportation than all other modes given its smaller network size. 

Number of Facilities by Year

Just over 7,400 facilities with intercity service served rural areas in 2021 - more than double the number in 2006 due to a change in the intercity bus stop data source used for 2021 and the carriers included in that file. Because intercity bus carrier information was not part of the data in years prior to 2021, changes in the number of facilities due to changes in intercity bus carrier coverage could not be determined.
The number of airports and intercity rail facilities providing service in rural areas remained nearly the same, with 587 airports and 518 intercity rail facilities in 2006 and 542 and 534, respectively, in 2021. 

Changing the Distance Used to Measure Rural Areas With Access

BTS looked at the impacts of shortening and expanding the distance from a rural area to intercity transportation.
Shortening the distance by 10 miles, increased the number of counties where all rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation, particularly in the Great Plains, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky. The total percent of rural residents without access to intercity transportation in 2021 increases from 15 to 30 percent.
In contrast, expanding the distance by 10 miles decreases the number of counties where all rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation in the Great Plains, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Kentucky. The percent without access to intercity transportation in 2021 declines from 15 percent to 7 percent.
Excluding areas partially within urban areas increases the percent without access to intercity transportation from 15 percent to 25 percent. In other words, the most remote areas have even lower access to intercity transportation.

Selected Characteristics of the Rural Population Without Access

The figure on the right compares the characteristics of the rural population without access (blue bars) to the rural population (black bars). The selected groups disproportionately lack access to intercity transportation if the percent without access (blue bar) exceeds their overall representation in rural areas (black bar).
Populations in rural areas without access to intercity transportation disproportionately include low-income households. The percent 65 and over, the percent unemployed, and the percent of zero vehicle households also tends to be higher in rural areas without intercity transportation but the difference is smaller.

Data on Access to Intercity Transportation in Rural Areas by County and Intercity Transportation Facilities (rural and urban) as well as methodology are available. For any questions or comments, please contact please contact us at Ask A Librarian.
Previous reports on access to intercity transportation in rural areas:

[1] Airports for 2006, 2012, 2018, and 2021 are the commercial airports listed in the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Airport enplanement (passenger boarding) data and had scheduled passenger boardings per BTS' Office of Airline Administration airport summary T-3 data in the respective year. Large airports refer to those with at least 0.25 percent of total U.S. passenger boardings in a year. FAA specifies these as large and medium airports in their enplanement data. See methodology for further information: https://data.transportation.gov/stories/s/dbb4-pr2c
Bureau of Transportation Statistics
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