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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation

Contemplating Livability in Rural Areas

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

It is important for transportation planners to remember that when they talk about livability, they are really talking about a highly personal and idealized perception of how everyday life and transport intertwine.

Or, as Lisa Aultman-Hall put a finer point on it during a talk at Volpe, “Transportation systems for livable communities work with land use to give robust, reliable mobility.”

“It’s not just about moving people faster,” said Aultman-Hall, founding director of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont. “It’s about improving quality of life.”

Challenges in Measuring Livability

According to Lisa Aultman-Hall, founding director of the Transportation Research Center at the University of Vermont, there is no single reason why livability lost its buzzword status, but there are a few hypotheses.

In 2009, a new federal transportation vision was blossoming that would have community-based, rural, suburban, and urban livability as its centerpiece. By spring 2010, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials published its influential report The Road to Livability and the Transportation Research Board (TRB) featured livability during its annual meeting in January 2011.The 2012 TRB meeting, however, took a right turn away from livability toward a focus on how transportation could create more jobs.

Lisa Aultman-HallAccording to Aultman-Hall, there is no single reason why livability lost its buzzword status, but there are a few hypotheses. One of the more important theories is that livability is largely unmeasurable. Planners and the public might find common ground on what livability means, but when crafting transportation policies, many different strategies may emerge that are difficult to justify qualitatively.

Lisa Aultman-Hall spoke at Volpe about how livability was often talked about in urban terms, but those solutuions don't necessarily work in rural areas. (Volpe photo)

Aultman-Hall explained that another problem with the rise of livability was that livability was nearly always talked about in urban terms. Strategies often focused on making areas more pedestrian-, bike-, and public transit-friendly, and those solutions don’t necessarily work in areas where the population is far-flung. That made livability a tough sell in rural states.

Rural Challenges for Transportation Planning

While the term "livability" is diminished, for now, federal planning must still account for rural areas, and rural areas come with challenges that are very distinct from challenges in urban areas, Aultman-Hall said. For instance, electricity infrastructure and telecommunications are weaker in rural areas; growth happens slowly, and so does land use change; there is less revenue for looking after miles of aging infrastructure; and the ways that rural areas are physically laid out can defy homogeneous strategies for livability, Aultman-Hall said.

Vermont, for example, is comprised of clusters of small towns. Montana, by contrast, has vast open areas and few towns. Vermont and Montana are both rural, but their visions of livability may differ from each other as much as if they were compared to the average Chicagoan’s vision of livability.

Aultman-Hall stressed that it’s important that rural planners consider the nation’s transportation policy landscape when tackling livability issues in their communities. Right now, that means showing how transportation policy can have a positive impact on the economy.

 “I’m starting to think that the motivator for reform going forward will be about transportation costs,” Aultman-Hall said.

A family of four riding bikes.