Rural Transport Services

For a long time, building roads in rural areas was considered as one of the main solutions to promote economic and social development and reduce poverty through improved access to markets, social facilities, and better information flows. However, as the rural transport overview indicates, for many developing countries this strategy has proven insufficient, often because little attention is paid to essential Rural Transport Services (RTS). Provision of roads is merely one way of facilitating transport services, which are themselves fundamental to delivering the desired economic and social improvements for poor rural communities. With the past imbalance in transport investments, RTS in most developing countries are underdeveloped and in most cases unavailable, unreliable and/or expensive, posing a serious impediment to reaping the benefits of any network and/or road infrastructure improvements. The overall benefits of improved rural transport will not be realised unless road, waterways and to some extent railway transport services are also improved and sustained.

Sustainable RTS aim to connect urban and rural areas, and rural areas with each other. Services may be provided by head loading, carts, bicycle taxis, motorcycle taxis, rickshaws, animal haulage, through to more capital intensive vehicles such as cars, minibuses, buses, tractors, pick-ups and trucks. Intermediate Means of Transport (IMT) can provide a range of affordable RTS solutions.

These services may be complementary and offer opportunities to connect at transport multi-modal rural hubs . Services may be scheduled, as is often the case for long distances buses. The more local services may usually be flexible; with vehicles and drivers available for hire at designated locations.

Designing appropriate RTS interventions requires a holistic understanding of the mechanisms through which rural transport services are provided and used in the rural economy of developing countries. Affordability, safety, reliability and/or efficiency are all factors at play in designing appropriate transport services in general, however in a rural context additional aspects should be considered as is explained below. Whatever technology is adopted, it must be sustainable within the local capacity to service, maintain and refurbish/obtain spares for any vehicles used.

Assessing Demand
As a first step Rural Transport Patterns and Surveys are an important tool to better capture the availability and needs for transport services in a particular rural area, starting at the basic household level. Integrated planning methodologies, such as Integrated Rural Accessibility Planning (IRAP) to design RTS should meet the needs of all end-users while at the same time consider the overall context and regulatory framework. Obviously, an integrated RTS assesses both supply and demand, aiming to reduce the existing gap between supply - through appropriate means of transport - and the existing and expected demand.

In general demand is based on the economic, financial and social needs of transport users including any specific requirements of women, marginalised and/or vulnerable groups, such as People with Disabilities. Low demand, short journeys, and the limited ability of rural passengers to pay for transport services are general causes for an inadequate RTS coverage. And when the services do exist they are often unreliable and expensive, poorly planned, scarce (in terms of number of vehicles), resulting in high rural transport costs and service gaps. From the operator’s side rural transport services are in many cases unprofitable or provide little return for effort and inputs, and therefore do not attract new investments on the supply side.

There is a particular difficulty in assessing potential demand. Most conventional transport planning is based on extrapolating current demand. A key assumption is that generated traffic/demand is a small incremental increase over the existing usage. For rural transport planning in general and services in particular, there is a particularly challenging situation. Current usage of transport services is often low and can even be zero. However, well planned interventions can liberate substantial suppressed or latent demand. Conventional planning tools are not designed for this situation. This is the reason why innovative tools such as IRAP can be very useful in indicating priorities between investment in transport services, transport infrastructure or social/economic facilities.

Farmers may invest in particular crops, if they are convinced that affordable services will be available to transport their produce after the harvest to ensure a payback for their efforts.

Creating a 'critical mass' of end users on one side and investing in appropriate transport technologies on the other may contribute to optimising both supply and demand.

Meeting Demand
As indicated in the introduction, a wide range of vehicles can be used to provide rural transport services. Generally, increased capital investment correlates with increased carrying capacity and reduced unit costs, assuming satisfactory load factors. Intermediate Means of Transport (IMT) can offer affordable and flexible options to provide services. Some modes may be particularly suited to certain conditions, for example short distance travel in flat terrain suggests the option of bicycle taxis. Poorly maintained routes may only permit 4 Wheel Drive vehicles or agricultural tractors with consequential higher unit operating costs. Poor road surfaces will increase operating costs as spares and maintenance consumption and journey times will be adversely affected. At the basic level, head or animal loading may be the only option on narrow mountain tracks. Quite a range of factors will influence the choice of vehicle or other mode. For vehicles, a number of issues need to be clearly understood by the local entrepreneurs and advisers. These include the influence of factors such as finance costs (usually high and maybe suggesting labour-intensive rather than capital-intensive solutions), route conditions, expected vehicle life, depreciation, utilisation, load factors, demand market and risk assessment and overheads. Realistic Vehicle Operating Costs (VOCs) calculations are vital for understanding the fundamentals and risks in pursuit of a viable and sustainable service operation.  The Local Transport Solutions for Rural Development handbook is a good starting point for these considerations.

Certain means of transport may be unknown in a particular location. There could be potential for introduction of new appropriate modes with suitable investigation, awareness creation and support.

Enabling Environment
Poor regulation has been identified as another major constraint in the development of sustainable RTS. A solid regulatory framework encourages and provides enough incentives for rural operators to improve their services, and should be a stimulus in building partnerships between government, private sector and civil society to design RTS. Policy makers and regulators play a key role in this. The following aspects need to be considered:

  • Transport of freight and passengers
  • Seasonal and load flexibility issues
  • Range of mode/vehicle options
  • Holistic costing of transport options (incorporating financing, depreciation and utilisation aspects)
  • Transport or fiscal subsidies
  • Safety
  • Design and organisation of terminals/hubs
  • Credit to access NMT/IMT
  • Licensing system
  • Animal welfare
  • Promotion of alternative technologies for increased transport efficiency
  • Training, demonstration and mentoring
  • Promotion and media initiatives

One of the challenges however is to find the optimal balance between a strong enforced regulatory framework and poor people's mobility since a very rigid framework may restrict people's access to services, or render them too expensive.

In designing appropriate RTS issues like equity, gender, and governance need to be assessed. These factors may lie outside the 'traditional' scope of economic analyses but will contribute to successful outcomes. The more traditional factors are topography, agro-ecological zones, farming systems, population density, economic development, remoteness, income levels, ethnicity, culture and transport systems in general. These can all influence the quality and nature of RTS as well as the overall supply and demand.

Key documents

Useful Links


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