Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash


Why rural roads?

Rural roads play an essential role in achieving more than half of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and fulfilling the promise of the 2030 UN Agenda for Sustainable Development to ‘leave no one behind’. Safe, reliable, and affordable rural transport infrastructures are crucial to enable rural access to markets, services and employment opportunities helping to achieve zero hunger and poverty alleviation. Efficient rural roads, in fact, stimulate agricultural production, the development of modern supply chains for crop delivery and the prevention of food loss. Rural transport is also indispensable for social development in low-income countries as it allows, for instance, better access to education and health.

The context of rural transport

In order to be designed effectively, rural roads need to be considered as part of a wider and more complex context: rural transport. Rural transport comprises three distinct and strongly interconnected elements:

  • Mobility which 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 which is the physical part of a road network. Rural roads are part of the transport infrastructure. When designed, other aspects of the transport infrastructure near the rural road such as paths, tracks, watercourse structures, footbridges and rural waterways need to be taken into account as their characteristics will influence the final result of the project. 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.
  • Transport nodes which are the locations where transport exchanges and transfers take place. An example of a rural transport node could be an intersection that farmers reach by their private vehicle and where they transfer their produce onto a bigger vehicle to be transported in a nearby urban area. In this example, the characteristics of the first rural road, characterised by smaller vehicles and the second one, with higher loads, are different and in order to design improved connectivity from origin to destination, the characteristics of the transport node need to be identified in a precise way.

The role of research

Roughly 50% of the world’s population is directly dependent on rural roads for access to any basic facility (UNESCAP). Studies evaluating the relationship between rural infrastructure investments and socio-economic indicators have generally found that there is a positive relationship between access to rural roads and economic and social welfare. However, not all rural road projects deliver economic growth, nor reduce poverty significantly. This has often happened in the past when the roads have been designed without a thorough preliminary analysis and research on all the underlying issues linked and influencing rural transport such as sociodemographic characteristics of the rural population, local governance characteristics and economic evaluation of the project at a local and wider level. For this reason, several governments, NGOs, development banks and organisations are more and more investing in rural roads to improve economic growth and development with a particular emphasis on the research that needs to be undertaken before the design of the physical infrastructure. A successful example of this type of approach has been implemented by ReCAP. ReCAP (Research for Community Access Partnership) is a partnership aiming to create improved accessibility for poor and disadvantaged rural communities in Africa (AfCAP) and Asia (AsCAP). More specifically, the main focus is to improve rural transport, both rural mobility and physical infrastructures, to allow for better access to economic opportunities and social facilities.

The investments made by ReCAP are essential for the development of low-income countries. Lack of investments in rural roads causes what is defined as the “rural trap”; poor road infrastructure is responsible for insufficient access to (transport) services leading to partial economic opportunities and low value-added which attracts limited public investment in roads and, as a result, poor road infrastructure. This vicious circle can be broken and several aspects should be identified and improved with the currently available resources, or with justifiable additional interventions.

How to improve rural roads and rural mobility

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 with 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).
  • 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
    • use of gravel surface when necessary
    • provision of more durable and sustainable surface options in Spot Improvement - locations or more extensive route lengths where affordable and justifiable. The ReCAP website offers access to the Low Volume Roads DPC software. This software was designed and improved by ReCAP to allow designers to quickly and easily evaluate different design options for rural roads.                                 
  • Pragmatic partnerships between communities, government and other stakeholders developed to realise improvements in Rural Transport paired with realistic strategies for improving Rural Transport Services in place. AsCAP and AfCAP programmes from ReCAP are an example of successful partnerships. 
  • Potentials for both motorised and non-motorized transport services recognised and issues of   commercial viability, affordability, reliability and safety addressed.
  • 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 and 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 the 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 and equity.
  • 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.
  • Evaluation and mitigation of environmental and social externalities.

The ReCAP rural access library offers reports and case studies about rural road projects. The resources available offer guidance on how to identify and respond to the mobility needs of rural communities in low-income countries.