Rural Transport Overview

Rural Transport is a vital 'enabling' component of a developing country economy that will contribute substantially to the achievement of the high profile social and economic Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

Rural Transport comprises two distinct elements:

Mobility is characterised by the transport means available - both motorised and non-motorised - for people to transport themselves and their goods, and for services to be provided. The means are typically owned and operated by individuals and the private sector.

Transport Infrastructure is the rural roads, tracks, trails, paths, watercourse structures and footbridges, as well as rural waterways and their transfer facilities. Responsibility for the provision and maintenance of transport infrastructure usually falls to the central or local government, or the communities themselves. Limited availability of government resources often means that the burden of Transport Infrastructure provision and maintenance falls mainly on the poor rural communities; the stakeholders least able to contribute in resource or knowledge terms.

It is an unfortunate feature of the Rural Transport sector that for many rural communities both the means of transport and the infrastructure are poorly developed. Infrastructure conditions are usually inferior because of lack of resources to improve and maintain them, and routes are often impassable particularly in times of rains or floods. Furthermore the Access to hospitals, schools and other services may be far less than optimal. The result is often high unit transport costs and unreliable access; both are real constraints to investment, production, economic and social development. In these circumstances poverty remains entrenched.

However, it is widely recognised that there are usually substantial inefficiencies in the current Rural Transport sector and systems. The gTKP aims to help the communities, government agencies, NGOs, development agencies and sector practitioners identify aspects of the current Rural Transport sector that can be improved. The gTKP strives to provide connection to the knowledge and good practices to initiate and realise the considerable potential benefits of improved access and mobility. This will be achieved through improved use of the currently available resources and also in anticipation of the attraction of additional resources targeted to cost-effective interventions.

Communities are often unaware of the potential of affordable improvements in means of transport, whether it be head loading, panniers, animal transport, bicycle, motorcycle or other intermediate means of transport (IMTs), or indeed (possibly) locally manufactured or adapted vehicles. Some of these options may be more appropriate than those currently in use locally with respect to the characteristics of the goods and people to be transported and the local route conditions. Alternative means may offer reductions in unit transport costs, may be flexible to carry out various tasks (e.g. both in farming and transport), or be better able to cope with the prevailing range of route conditions.

Although there is considerable research and information available on improving the various aspects of rural transport, the knowledge is generally dispersed and difficult to access for busy practitioners and other interested persons. gTKP is working to compile knowledge into easily accessible topics and briefings, and to signpost users to where more detailed information may be obtained. gTKP is also a forum for practitioners, researchers and others to contribute and comment on the important issues relating to Rural Transport. The various Discussion Groups will allow comments and contributions to be web-posted to share with others.


Any competent review of an existing Rural Transport system should be able to identify aspects that could be improved, with the currently available resources, or with justifiable additional interventions. Initiatives may be required to secure improvements towards one or more of the following aims:-

  • A National Policy on Rural Transport in place developed after stakeholder consultation.
  • An appropriate institutional framework and agreed responsibilities for Rural Transport policy implementation.
  • Appropriate classification of the road network according to the road task. Including categories of Low Volume Rural Roads (LVRR). LVRR have low volumes of traffic, as defined by four wheel, two and more axle traffic, but may have very high volumes of alternative traffic modes, such as foot, bicycle, motorcycle, ox-cart etc.
  • Appropriate and affordable Standards, Specifications and Guidelines for each category of road, which will enable the application of Rural Road Engineering good practice, including:
    • provision of Low Cost Structures
    • improvement of the natural road surface (Engineered Natural Surfaces) where appropriate, and drainage
    • appropriate use of gravel surface
    • provision of more durable surface options in Spot Improvement - locations or more extensive route lengths where affordable and justifiable
  • environment and sustainability issues accommodated
  • Pragmatic partnerships between communities, government and other stakeholders developed to realise improvements in Rural Transport.
  • Realistic strategies for improving Rural Transport Services in place.
  • Potentials for both motorised and non-motorized transport services recognised and issues of commercial viability, affordability, reliability and safetyaddressed.
  • Good practice guidelines on planning, design, construction and maintenance in place, using Rural Accessibility Planning tools where appropriate to determine optimal transport and other rural infrastructure investment priorities.
  • Realistic Whole Life Costing methods used to support investment and fund allocation decisions.
  • Environmentally Optimised Design (EOD) strategies in place to include investment options from Basic Access and Spot Improvements through to Whole Link upgrades.
  • Policies, guidelines and implementation making best use of local resources (materials, labour, skills, enterprises, communities, intermediate equipment, etc.)
  • Appropriate and affordable levels of road maintenance established and sustainable financing secured in cooperation with the Finance Ministry.
  • Appropriate contract documentation in use that facilitates local enterprise involvement and use of local resource based methods supported where appropriate by low cost equipment.
  • Pragmatic Supervision and Quality Control arrangements in place.
  • Access by potentially damaging vehicles controlled.
  • Awareness Creation and Training of operatives, decision makers and other key stakeholders funded, available and widely used.
  • Traditional and potential social resources and practices recognised and the role of women and disadvantaged groups satisfactorily accommodated to realise improved performance potential.
  • Monitoring public Rural Transport investments and expenditures carried out routinely to ensure value for money.
  • Appropriate Human Resource Development policies and dedicated resources for the implementation.

An overarching policy concern is the role of transport in poverty reduction. Rural poverty accounts for nearly 63 percent of poverty worldwide, reaching 90 percent in some countries like Bangladesh and ranging between 65 and 90 percent in Sub-Saharan Africa. Rural areas are usually defined by sparse populations and settlements, land-based livelihoods, low densities of economic activities and therefore low incomes. In many countries, development of rural transport infrastructure and services is hampered by difficult terrain, poor foundation soils and/or adverse weather. Conventional investments in transport infrastructure are based on economic modelling with an emphasis on economic rates of return, while operation of transport services is determined by market viability. These methods are largely unsuitable in rural areas where there are very low volumes of economic activities, and key development priorities revolve around access to basic services such as health, education, employment and basic commodity markets. However, in such circumstances better access to such basic services does not necessarily lead to increases in income, unless coupled to complementary initiatives.

The scale of the task ahead can be gauged by the fact that in some regions, such as Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America, only about 15% of roads are to paved all-weather standard, after about 100 years of motor transport development (World Bank data). We need a radical rethink on the way we help bring rural transport services and appropriate transport infrastructure to the remaining disconnected communities. Basic Access strategies have an important role to play.

An key issue with regard to rural transport infrastructure investment is the hitherto almost universal assumption that the government or community will be responsible for, and implement, adequate road maintenance. There is little evidence to show that this is a realistic assumption and many investments have failed to achieve their desired benefits, indirectly contributing to the negative views of the transport sector in some quarters. It is time for more realism and responsibility to be taken in pragmatically assessing the likelihood of maintenance at the design and economic evaluation stage, and adjusting design and construction strategy accordingly where necessary.

At the global level, rural transport and access are important components in the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. Currently, there are proposals that time and distance - key parameters in rural transport and access planning should be used as an indicator of progress towards MDGs. Significant progress has been made in establishing a global standard for rural access planning, through the Rural Access Index. Transport and improved mobility can lead to greater access to health care and therefore a reduction in child and maternal mortality. In addition, it can be a tool for promoting greater gender equity by enabling higher school attendance, especially for girls in rural areas who may otherwise spend a lot of time on domestic tasks such as the transport of water, farm produce and firewood. Applying local-resource-based approaches can have significant impact on employment and wages for poor women and men, as well as the development of local industries such as materials processing and contracting.

Measures to optimise the location of key services can be complimentary to improving infrastructure and mobility. Effective rural transport systems should aim at synergies between location, infrastructure and transport services. Tools such as the Integrated Rural Accessibility Planning (IRAP) approach focuses on the household as the generator of rural transport trips and uses a simple criteria to prioritise access improvements based on the time spent to reach basic economic and social services. It incorporates both the mobility and site location aspects of access.

gTKP aims to build a database of knowledge on all of the above aspects, and make it accessible to the communities, government agencies, NGOs, development agencies and sector practitioners.

gTKP will promote international level recommendations and guidelines for good practice in rural access/transport.

If you would like to comment or contribute on any Rural Transport issue for discussion or web posting, write to info(at)

Updated February 2010