Getting Rural America Back on Its Feet

It’s a good feeling when our work in Northeast Iowa mirrors that of the national scene. Take, for example, this excellent article from Planning magazine about walkability in rural America. What’s most notable to us is that the article echoes so many of the findings of the long-range transportation plan we recently completed for our region, Safe Mobility for Everyone.

Here are a few choice excerpts from the article with comparisons to findings from our region’s transportation plan in bold text provided by Aaron Detter, one of UERPC’s Regional Planners. We highly recommend reading the full article. Plus, there’s also a little surprise that involves our region! Read along to find out!

  • “A 2018 AARP national survey of U.S. adults over the age of 18 found that 30 percent of rural residents walk regularly for at least some trips.”
    • Our region’s survey found that 30% sometimes walk to go to classes, run errands, socialize, recreate, visit family and friends, and more—and many more wish they could do so.
  • “Another federal DOT survey suggests that rural residents strongly desire access to walking infrastructure. It found that 95 percent of them rate sidewalks as important to their community, a higher figure than for major roads, adequate parking, and airport access.”
    • 36% of respondents to our region’s survey included walking and bicycling improvements as a top priority if they could “change one thing” about the current transportation system—more than any other category, including improving the condition of rural roads and bridges and city streets.
  • “While distances can be a challenge for people walking in the countryside itself, small towns and cities seem well-suited for pedestrian transportation.”
    • This is especially remarkable and I think really highlights the untapped walkability potential of our communities here in Northeast Iowa. More than a quarter of respondents to our survey (27%) live less than one mile from their workplace! 44% live two miles or less from their workplace! 2017 U.S. Census Bureau estimates reveal something even more stunning about rates of people walking in our region. As noted in Safe Mobility for Everyone:
      • “Workers in Winneshiek County were more likely to walk to work than in other counties at approximately 15%. Estimated walking rates in the larger towns tended to be higher than the regional average (7%) with approximately 9% walking to work in towns with populations of 1,000 or greater on average (including Lansing, population 999 at the 2010 census). Decorah and Fayette have the highest rates of people walking to work in the region, with 33% and 30%, respectively.
      • “These are staggeringly high rates of walking to work by American standards. For example, some of America’s largest and most walkable cities have significantly lower rates of people walking to work based on 2017 estimates—Portland, OR (5.7%); Chicago, IL (6.7%); New York, NY (10%); San Francisco, CA (11.1%); and Boston, MA (14.6%). For comparison, 2.9% of workers commute by foot in Iowa’s most populous city, Des Moines. In many cases, towns saw higher rates of walking to work among women than men. According to 2017 Census Bureau estimates, 38% of women walk to work in Fayette, 36% in Decorah, 18% in Lansing, 16% in Postville, 12% in Calmar and Elkader, and 11% in West Union.”
  • “For a long time, pedestrians… have been viewed as a city thing. But as the health and economic benefits of walkable communities become more apparent, rural communities don’t want to be left behind.”
    • As just noted, we’re walking way more here in our towns than people are in much, much larger cities. Isn’t that Amazing!
  • “Tapping this potential offers a prime opportunity to reverse the economic and population decline engulfing many rural communities. That’s because there is growing evidence that walkability is a key way to stimulate economic development and attract young people to a place. Still, fewer rural residents walk than would like to.”
    • From Safe Mobility for Everyone: “More than a third of survey respondents (36%) would prefer to walk on trips to run errands, attend classes, socialize, recreate, etc. ‘if all options were available, safe, comfortable, and convenient.’ These statements of preference, qualified by ideal conditions, demonstrate a latent demand for more, better, safer connections for walking and bicycling in our region. We have many people who strongly wish they were able to walk or bicycle but are unwilling to do so out of fear and inconvenience given current conditions.
  • “AARP has put a spotlight on making walking more safe and convenient in communities of all sizes because many older people are among the one-third of Americans who don’t drive…”
    • From Safe Mobility for Everyone: “While [the group aged 65 and older] constituted 19% of our region’s population at the 2010 census, it is projected to grow to 29% by the year 2030. The transportation needs and preferences of older populations will likely require adjustments to current infrastructure and funding priorities. The availability of safe and affordable transportation options for people of all ages and abilities allows older people to live more independently in their communities and can contribute greatly to the quality of life in the region.”
  • “Battle Lake, Minnesota (pop. 735) downsized a highway running through town… narrowing the roadway from four lanes to three, and widening the sidewalk through downtown… The results were immediate. Twenty-one new businesses have opened in town, including a hotel and bakery, since the project was completed in 2014… The region’s summer tourists appreciate the improvements, but the reason for doing it was to attract new families and jobs to Battle Lake [emphasis added]. ‘We didn’t want to become another small town on the prairie that loses people, loses our school, and becomes a ghost town,’ adds resident Dan Malmstrom.”
    • This is an excellent example of a town like many of our communities, who saw myriad benefits to making their town more walkable, including a slew of new businesses and, they hope, keeping and attracting young families. Many studies have shown it, but this is an example of a peer community in our region of the country that brings it home: walkability = economic development.
  • And finally, here is the awesome surprise:  “[Safe Routes to School] projects directly tackle the particular obstacles in a community that keep kids off their feet, which in many places includes schools built away from town in the countryside. That problem was solved in two Iowa towns by creating the off-road Turkey River Recreational Corridor, which connects an elementary and middle school campus within the towns of Clermont (pop. 562) and Elgin (pop. 724).
    • This is the national magazine of the American Planning Association, and two towns in our region are the example given for successful Safe Routes to School efforts in rural America! And congratulations to the TRRC for the shout-out.


From the Upper Explorerland Regional Planning Commission newsletter, January 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.