Access to Intercity Transportation in Rural Areas

01/09/2020 version 1.0 (updated 3/22/20 with 2018 American Community Survey data)
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, and 2018. 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 2006-2018 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, 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 86.6 percent in 2006 to 89.0 percent in 2018. This resulted from a steady increase in the number of intercity bus facilities serving rural areas. Despite that increase, there were still gaps in 2018 with 11.0 percent of the rural population – 9.9 million people – lacking access to intercity transportation. 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 percents. For this reason, BTS presents all changes as percents. 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 2018, 21.2 percent of rural residents had no access to intercity bus transportation. In comparison, 28.8 percent of rural residents had no access to air transportation and 59.9 percent had no access to intercity rail transportation. Looking at large airports only, 53.7 percent had no access.
The percent of the rural population without access to intercity bus transportation declined from 30.1 percent in 2006 to 21.2 percent in 2018. 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 2018 the percent of rural residents without access to intercity transportation exceeded 11.0 percent (the percent of rural residents without access nationwide) in 22 states. With the exception of Nevada and Iowa, these same states showed lower access in 2006. In 2006 but not in 2018, Alaska, Idaho, and Utah showed lower than national access. In 2006 and 2018, the percent of rural residents without access to intercity transportation was highest in North Dakota, at 42.6 and 44.2 percent respectively.
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 Arkansas between 2006 and 2018 than any other state, followed by New Mexico. 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. Several 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 2018.

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, and 2018. 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. Counties without access to air and intercity rail transportation remained virtually unchanged from 2006 to 2018.
In 2018 there were 414 counties where all rural residents lacked access to intercity transportation. There were more counties without intercity rail transportation than all other modes given its smaller network size. 

Number of Facilities by Year
A total of 3,617 facilities with intercity service served rural areas in 2018 - up 34.1 percent from 2,698 facilities in 2006. The total number of facilities increased because the number of intercity bus stops grew 53.2 percent (from 1,718 in 2006 to 2,632 in 2018). The number of airports and intercity rail facilities remained nearly the same, with 464 airports and 516 intercity rail facilities in 2006 and 463 and 522 respectively in 2018. The overall growth in the number of facilities serving rural areas contributed to the decline in the percent with no access to intercity service.

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 2018 increases from 11.0 to 25.7 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 2018 declines from 11.0 percent to 4.8 percent.

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.


[1] Airports for 2006, 2012, and 2018 are the commercial airports listed in the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA's) Airport enplanement (passenger boarding) data and had scheduled passenger boardngs 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
The Bureau of Transportation Statistics, part of the U.S. Department of Transportation, is the preeminent source of statistics on commercial aviation, multimodal freight activity, and transportation economics, and provides context to decision makers and the public for understanding statistics on transportation.