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Transport Equity
December 3, 2020

What’s the Difference Between Rural and Urban Transport?

Let’s dive deeper into the differences between rural and urban transport, its systems and the transport modes most prominent.

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Urban and rural communities are extremely different and each have their own way of doing life—including their preferred modes of transportation. 

Because of the successful outworkings of Public Transportation in urban cities, expectations can be placed on rural communities to offer similar services available within these metropolitan areas. However, execution of this is more difficult due to various factors—including geography, funding, population density and proximity to transport. Let’s dive deeper into the differences between rural and urban transport, its systems and the transport modes most prominent.

What’s the difference between rural and urban transport?

Because urban areas are so densely populated and infrastructure is geographically closer than in rural areas—Public Transportation is more readily available and accessible in an urban context. In developed countries, rural areas have a primary dependence on car usage due to a potential lack of convenient access to transport services provided to the community.

The biggest difference therefore between rural and urban transport is the use of privately owned and motorised modes in rural settings, versus a higher utilisation of non-motorised modes and Public Transport within urban and metropolitan areas.

The difference between urban and rural transport systems

It should be noted that traditional urban transport systems are most effective in areas where the population is higher and therefore frequent where fixed-route travel options can be taken advantage of.

The cost of operating these typical successful urban transport systems within a rural context, although possible, may not necessarily be appropriate to implement due to large service zones and less ridership. Rural areas need the flexibility to create alternative transit systems that best cater to the needs of the community and their population. 

For example in developed countries, communities outside of densely populated urban areas have become highly car-dependent. 

In a 2019 study comparing modes of commuting in rural and urban areas in the United Kingdom, it was discovered that: 

  • The odds of commuters using a bus to commute in urban areas is 2.8 times greater than in rural area; 
  • The odds of commuters walking to commute to work in urban areas is 1.9 times than in rural areas; 
  • The odds of commuters cycling to work in urban area is 2.8 times than in rural areas.

Consequently, those who commute in urbanised communities are far more likely to walk, cycle or catch the bus to work, as opposed to those commuting in more rural areas. The study also found that for those in urbanised settings, the distance from work to home was a large determinant in the likelihood of walking, as was having company to cycle with on the journey. 

What can be applied in one transit landscape however—be it urban or rural—may not be applicable to another. 

For example, walking or cycling in rural communities is just not a possibility for many as a form of regular transport, primarily because of the distance that would need to be travelled and the time taken to do this. In rural settings journey times are naturally longer in time and distance.  This is also applicable vice versa when looking at the highly capitalised fixed-route and large buses that have successful uptake in urban settings. As stated previously, in a rural town this may not be a sustainable economic option for councils or counties as ridership is much lower and zone coverage far larger. 

Another big difference found in an urban and rural transport context is how the tourism industry is positively affected through transport planning initiatives in an urbanised setting. Cities are much more attractive destinations due to their easy access to transit options—lack of accessibility to or within towns will put limitations on potential and non-driving visitors. And because tourist attractions in rural areas are geographically scattered, poor transport planning influences how and where tourists will travel. Urban areas are definitely advantaged at a local level when it comes to the tourism industry because of convenient transit options.

What are the modes of transportation in urban and rural areas?

Modes of transportation in urban and rural areas can be categorised into two primary ways—motorised and non-motorised. 

1. Non-Motorised Modes

Non-motorised modes of transport are the most sustainable and economically viable form of transit.

As you would expect, in urban developed areas non-motorised modes of transport like walking, cycling or traveling via electric scooter etc are the most common forms of commuting. In developing nations other popular modes of transport within cities include human-operated transports like cycle rickshaws, popular in Asia and Africa. According to the Sustainability Journal, the smaller the city is, the higher use of non-motorised transport. 

There is also a correlation between non-motorised vehicle use and urban poverty, with the poor unable to utilise and afford motorised transport options. Consequently walking or cycling long-distances to school or the workplace is more common in developing countries and capital cities. Check out a list of charities that donate bicycles to families in urban poverty.

Many cities are implementing transport policies to encourage non-motorised transport use and a modal shift. For example, bicycle-sharing schemes in Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), Daejon (Korea), and Hangzhou (China) have been introduced to their communities with a result in heightened uptake in general bicycle use found. And Electric Bicycles have also replaced regular cycling options and gasoline powered scooters in many Chinese cities.

The Sustainability Journal also states that banning gasoline powered vehicles from entering city centres continues to encourage more sustainable non-motorised transit options in urban areas, as does improving technology with electric-based alternatives.

2. Motorised Modes

Motorised vehicles are an extremely popular mode of transport with an estimated 1.4 billion cars in the world (remember there’s 7.8 billion people)! Motorised vehicles despite their convenience, are a huge contributor to environmental issues such as non-renewable energy consumption, environmental pollution and traffic accidents

Single occupancy vehicles (SOV’s) are the most mainstream motorised mode of transportation used in rural communities. Motorised modes of transport are popularly used in rural areas where there’s further distance required for travel, and are often a more attractive option for residents because of its flexibility. Data in the UK shows that over 50% of families in rural communities own two or more cars—largely because of the lack of access to flexible and convenient public transit alternatives. This lack of difficulty in access to transport is known as ‘transport disadvantage.’ Transport disadvantage also encompasses the difficulty of financially maintaining vehicles, which rural families can be faced with. 

Motorised modes used in cities such as buses, trains or rideshare services (including taxis) are heavily relied on in major cities and are supported well by the community. These Public Transport alternatives in rural settings are far less popular, especially when transport strategies as modelled by urban cities are not a great foundation for rural transit development. And although ridesharing alternatives are available in rural communities, when passengers are being charged per mile/kilometre—it becomes an expensive way for individuals without access to their own vehicles or Public Transport to move around. 

It should be noted that many cities around the world are taking measures to reduce the number of motorised vehicles on roads—take Singapore as a classic example. 

12% of Singapore’s land area is taken up by roads. In order to limit the use of SOV’s in Singapore and car growth, the Government only allows for a specific number of vehicles available for registration—these permits are known as Certificates of Entitlement (COE). It’s also extremely expensive for citizens to own vehicles, costing upwards of US$90,000 for new Toyota Corolla (as of November 2020, including taxes). Vehicles are also not allowed to be older than 10-15 years depending on the COE. Singapore has committed to spending S$36 billion by 2021 to create a car-lite society where people will happily choose to walk, cycle and take public transport.

As sustainability and C02 emission goals are continued to be implemented world-wide, we will see Governments create policies to discourage motorised single occupancy vehicle use.

Why should rural transport start doing its own thing? 

Transit Agencies in both urban and rural settings need to work in ways that will be efficient, sustainable and profitable within their own contexts. 

Agencies operating in rural communities cannot possibly be expected to implement transit strategies and modes that work for urban settings—and yet we still find empty buses running on fixed-routes in small towns. Why is this still happening?

Our world has evolved and technology developed exponentially within the last two decades—with transit solutions available to common problems through technological advancement. Transport doesn’t have to be left behind—councils can service their community in smarter ways!

A great alternative for this in rural areas is the implementation of Demand-Responsive Transport (DRT).

Demand-Responsive Transport is the implementation of dynamic and on-demand technology that serves a passenger’s need in real-time. No more excess waiting times and no more underutilised buses. Rural transport finally has a more affordable alternative that can cut down on distances travelled by picking up and dropping off passengers when it works for their schedules. The technology can work with existing fleets, pick passengers up where they are or at an agreed meeting point, and accept bookings in advance or last minute —all for the cost of a regular bus trip. 

For a comprehensive introduction to Demand-Responsive Transport, check out this blog

Rural Transit Agencies need to branch out on their own and start doing what’s best for their service and community. Our world is becoming more environmentally conscious, and citizens are demanding a level of convenience unseen in previous times. The time to start offering the community flexible, convenience, affordable and more sustainable transport is now. 

Get insights to one of our latest Demand-Responsive Transport projects with North Lincolnshire Council's JustGoBus service— with a ten times larger service zone than your average DRT project.

About the Author

Ellyse McCallum

Ellyse McCallum


Australian-based digital marketer passionate about making an impactful societal change through every-day life. Ellyse loves spending time in nature, drinking coffee and hanging with family and friends (preferably all at the same time)!