Ever since emerging from a haystack somewhere west of the Mississippi and making my way to the District of Columbia, I have been occasionally called upon to set the record straight about what life is like in flyover country. These occasions are usually precipitated by one of three causes: 1) I refer to a soft drink as pop; 2) one of our colorful politicians says something that makes us all wonder: What kind of place would elect a person like that; or 3) the assertion is made that people in rural America don’t walk, don’t bike, don’t care to start, and thus we can turn our attention back to the important matters of the day: debating whether a different shade of green should be used for Portland’s cycletracks.
People walk and bike in the Midwest, and often at rates that rival or surpass walkable cities such as the District of Columbia or Seattle, according to a 2012 report by Rails to Trails Conservancy–Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers: Walking and Bicycling inSmall Towns and Rural America. Moreover, when it comes to spending transportation dollars on sidewalks, bike lanes, and pedestrian-friendly development, rural Americans overwhelmingly support such investments: sidewalks were ranked most desirable among eight choices for transportation facilities.
Grand Rapids MN: the chair for he who is first among pedestrians–Paul Bunyan
How can this be? Two explanations:
  1. I didn’t really grow up in a haystack; like most people in rural America, I grew up in a city. Most cities that survive were laid out by the railroads on a grid pattern, making for very walkable neighborhoods and downtowns. Longer trips–say you want to go from the Bass Pro Shop on the east end of town, to the Red Lobster on the west end–can be made in about 15 minutes… in traffic. Biking that distance is not a stretch–especially when most roads have wide shoulders and little traffic.
  2. Economics. Everyone feels the pinch of $4/gallon gasoline, but those in rural America, where incomes are lower, feel it first. Their response: drive a little less, complain a little more, and get on with life.


Long winters spent dreaming about riding may explain this creation hanging on the wall of Island Park Cycles in Fargo ND. It’ll do 45 on the flats without a tailwind. Who needs a complete street when you can keep up with the cars?

Tracy Hadden Loh, author of the Active Transportation Beyond Urban Centers report, will facilitate a panel of experts at Pro Walk/Pro Bike 2012, which will explore transportation in rural America and its significance for advocacy. Here’s a teaser:

The data demonstrate unequivocally that walking and biking are woven into the fabric of rural life. Communities beyond urban centers are ambitiously pursuing and enjoying the benefits of the trails, sidewalks, and road improvements that enable safe and convenient active transportation. Who are these communities? What roles do walking and bicycling play in the small town and rural setting? How is the disproportionate impact of the obesity epidemic in rural areas related? Understanding these stories is an important part of educating decision-makers in a persuasive way about the role walking and bicycling play in the lives of their constituents and neighbors.


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