December 6, 2022

How does rural travel differ from urban travel

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The word “rural” conjures images of farms, open fields, and small towns. The word “urban” comes with images of high-rise buildings, busy city streets, and packed subways. These are broad generalizations but there are a lot of differences between rural and urban travel.

Understanding the unique challenges of each setting is an important step to creating successful transit solutions in both environments. In this article, we will explore how rural and urban travel differ from one another and how that impacts the design of transit services in each setting.

What is Rural Travel?

Rural travel occurs in areas where urbanization has not yet taken hold. This can cover everything from small towns to areas with large swaths of open land. Rural areas often have slower, less frequent transit services. Rural transit can be extremely dependent on a single highway or road.

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High-volume rural travel has the potential to be very congested with the demand for road space exceeding the available supply. Rural transit service can also be affected by fuel costs and maintenance issues related to aging equipment.

The travel patterns in rural areas are less predictable than in urban areas and are often driven by more seasonal activity. This can include agriculture, mining, forestry, and tourism. Because of the less predictable nature of travel in rural areas, service planning in these areas is often less frequent and may not be as detailed as in urban areas.

What is Urban Travel?

Urban travel occurs in areas that are densely populated and have high property values. Such Urban areas also have significant employment, a mix of residential types, and a range of access issues. Urban travel is generally much denser than rural travel, with passengers travelling shorter distances.

Urban travel also tends to have a higher modal split of transit use. Transit in urban areas tends to focus on travel between specific points. In some cases, such as in a downtown core, travel demand may be fairly constant throughout the day.

In other areas, such as suburban employment nodes, demand varies throughout the day and may be dependent on the schedules of nearby transit routes. Urban travel generally requires a higher level of service than rural travel with a larger portion of transit vehicles in service at any given time.

This is because urban travel patterns are generally more predictable and can be served by a larger fleet size.

Rural Bus Travel

Rural bus service is generally designed for riders who need to travel longer distances. In some cases, bus service may be a feeder route for rail service. Bus travel times are generally longer than rail travel times due to the vehicle types and traffic conditions along the route.

Rural bus travel often occurs on two-lane highways with few, if any, transit features. A rural bus route may be the only travel option in many areas. Buses are generally larger than rail vehicles and can accommodate a larger number of passengers.

Larger vehicles can often be used on rural bus routes, so higher frequencies of service can be provided with less downtime than rail service. This can be important if the rural bus service is the only travel option for many passengers. Rural bus service can generally be run on a fixed schedule, with scheduled service times between stops.

Urban Train Travel

Urban rail service is generally designed to operate on high-capacity lines with higher frequencies of service. These lines are usually grade-separated from other traffic, such as cars and trucks, and have priority over other modes. In many cases, rail service will operate above- or below grade in fully segregated rights-of-way.

This allows rail transit vehicles to operate at high speeds with few stops and few conflicts with other vehicles. High-capacity urban rail service usually operates with more regular schedules than buses.

This is because the vehicles are more reliable and the lines are less impacted by traffic. This allows rail transit agencies to provide fixed-timetable service between stops.

Differences in travel demand

Rural demand is driven by employment and destinations in rural areas tend to be less concentrated than urban destinations. Urban demand tends to be driven by employment, with trips beginning at a wide range of workplaces.

Rural areas also have a higher proportion of trips made for personal reasons, such as shopping and visiting friends and family, compared to urban areas. Rural travel also has a higher proportion of travel made by persons of a lower socio economic status than urban areas.

This may result in lower ridership levels and a greater reliance on subsidized fares. These differences in travel demand can have a significant impact on trip length. Rural travel often covers greater distances than urban travel and can be concentrated in certain areas at certain times of the day.

These differences can result in longer travel times on rural bus routes and shorter travel times on urban rail routes.

Differences in infrastructure requirements

The type of infrastructure used in each mode can have a significant impact on the operating costs of each mode. Rural buses can travel on lower-quality roads, requiring more frequent stops and a higher operating cost per mile. Rail infrastructure can be more expensive to construct, resulting in higher capital costs.

The maintenance of both modes is dependent on the quality of the infrastructure. Rural roads are generally less maintained than urban roads, resulting in a higher maintenance cost for rural bus routes. Rail infrastructure is generally maintained by the rail owner, such as a freight or passenger rail agency.

The type of infrastructure used in rural areas may be more limited than in urban areas. This can result in higher costs for rural transit agencies, limiting potential service offerings. Infrastructure in urban areas can usually accommodate both rail and bus services, allowing transit agencies to more easily meet travel needs in urban areas.

Differences in user behaviour

Rural users often have longer travel times than urban users, leading to lower average trip lengths and a larger proportion of one-way trips. Urban users are more likely to have shorter travel times and a higher proportion of round trips.

Round trips are common in urban areas where many destinations are walkable, allowing passengers to make return trips home on the same mode. The higher frequency of one-way trips in rural areas can make fixed schedule services less viable than in some urban areas.

This can lead to more demand for open ended or flex route service, which does not operate on a fixed schedule. The higher proportion of one-way trips and longer travel times in rural areas can also make it more challenging to schedule frequent services.

How does this affect service design?

These differences in travel patterns, infrastructure, and user behaviour can have a significant impact on the design of transit services in rural and urban areas. Rural buses may need to travel at lower speeds on lower-quality roads, with more frequent stops than urban buses.

Rural rail service may need higher-quality infrastructure with lower operating speeds and longer trip times than urban rail service. These differences will affect the type of vehicles used on each mode, the frequency of service, and the operating costs of each mode.

Rural travel patterns may also require more detailed service planning than urban areas. This may include a wider range of service types and schedules to accommodate the higher proportion of one-way trips. Rural agencies may also need to consider more flexible scheduling, such as allowing greater variation between the scheduled departure and arrival times.


Rural and urban travel differ in many ways, including the type of infrastructure used, travel demand, and user behaviour. The differences between rural and urban travel have important implications for the design of transit services in each setting.

Rural buses may need to travel at lower speeds on lower-quality roads with more frequent stops. Rural rail service may need higher-quality infrastructure with lower operating speeds and longer trip times. These differences can also have an impact on the types of vehicles used on each mode, the frequency of service, and the operating costs of each mode.

Rural travel patterns may require more detailed service planning than urban areas, including a wider range of service types and schedules and more flexible scheduling.

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