Can rural roads be good places to walk and bicycle? Why yes, they certainly can! My daughters got their first bicycles when they were five or six. They loved the bikes — but they couldn’t ride them. Because the streets in our small city were a little too busy for crazily uncoordinated families with bicycles and small children, we would drag ourselves, the girls, and the bikes over to the park every couple weeks. We would run around awkwardly holding the bicycle seats and trying to prevent the girls from crashing to the ground. While this did succeed in providing the whole family with physical activity, it wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t translating into the girls riding on their own.
Then we went on a family vacation for a week to Fort Bragg, a small rural community on the California coast. The streets outside our rented house were roughly paved, with no sidewalks, and certainly no bike lanes. They also saw almost no car traffic. My older daughter rolled up and down the street as I walked behind and chatted with my mother. We admired the yards, caught glimpses of the ocean, and met the very large dogs of one of the neighbors. She kept rolling. Within a couple of days, she had the hang of it, and her sister followed suit. Those calm, low traffic roads were an ideal place to perfect bicycle riding skills and enjoy slow bicycling excursions with beginning riders.
But rural communities can also pose some real challenges for getting children and adults bicycling and walking. Long distances, high speed highways cutting through towns, loose dogs, and a lack of sidewalks and bicycle lanes can make it challenging — and sometimes deadly — to walk or bicycle in rural areas. At the same time, rural communities have a special need for the benefits of Safe Routes to School and safer streets, because they see very high obesity rates for children and adults, high injury and fatality rates from collisions, millions of low income residents without access to cars, and poorer infrastructure for safe and convenient walking and bicycling. What can be done?
In partnership with Safe Routes to School practitioners in rural communities around the country, we’ve developed three new factsheets to help overcome obstacles and get rural dwellers the health benefits of walking and bicycling. The first provides an introduction to Safe Routes to School, highlighting why Safe Routes to School is so good for rural communities (Rural Communities: Making Safe Routes Work). The second delves into the challenges of Safe Routes to School in rural areas, and highlights successful rural programs and the innovative approaches they’ve used to overcome hurdles (Rural Communities: Best Practices and Promising Approaches for Safe Routes). The third takes on rural active transportation generally, setting out an approach for how rural communities can support walking and bicycling more broadly (Rural Communities: A Two Pronged Approach for Improving Walking and Bicycling).
Rural communities can be great places for walking and bicycling — but they require some different techniques than urban or suburban communities. These factsheets help rural families enjoy bicycling and walking on those lovely calm streets, while assisting in developing strategies for overcoming the challenges that may be there too.
Sara Zimmerman is the Technical Assistance Director at the Safe Routes to School National Partnership. Previously she has worked on legal and policy issues related to childhood obesity as a staff attorney and program director with ChangeLab Solutions, a national nonprofit that works to make the healthy choice the easy choice.