Methods for Determining Population Characteristics in Rural Areas for Community Impact Assessments and Improved Public Involvement

Focus Area

Environmental Justice


Community & Cultural Concerns, Environmental Process






2-3 years

Research Idea Scope

Problem Statement – The most widely accepted and used source of information on income levels for environmental justice analysis is the U.S. Census Bureau. However, such analysis based on income levels is sensitive, difficult to measure, and problematic to assess. Due in part to the sensitivity of income-based data, census income results are narrowed only to the block group level. Block groups vary in size, and in rural areas are arbitrarily determined by geographical features. For such areas, this block group level of detail is often of little use in capturing an accurate picture of the economic variability that exists within a transportation project’s area of potential environmental or community impact. Furthermore, the variability in data from block group to block group proves to be problematic and inaccurate during comparisons and assessments of potential impacts. Proposed Research – The research should identify existing sources of economic and demographic data for rural communities and should suggest methods to document or predict changes in population composition. At a minimum, the data should be able to be stratified by typology of rural and/or exurban community economies (e.g., old/declining, insulated, mature/stable, and new/developing). Methods to identify the different rates of change in different communities should be included. Although this problem is not as acute for other census data, there is a similar lack of available information for communities where the population shifts may be more rapid. Alternative sources of economic and demographic information and methods for interpreting existing data need to be identified or developed for rural areas. The results of this research will improve the accuracy, reliability, and sensitivity of environmental justice and community population analysis in rural areas and should result in a reduction in the time required to identify appropriate transportation projects for these communities. This information and analysis approach can also prove useful to tribal communities and other underserved populations that are seeking to improve the results of their community visioning and public involvement strategies. One goal is to understand the dynamics involved in the process of communication among diverse and underserved populations, including organizational cultures, to achieve community visioning and public involvement. The research would take an integrated approach to data research, collection, analysis, and the creation of public policy that keeps communities whole while preserving their sense of identity and culture. The research should also identify methods of characterizing rural populations.

Part of the conundrum of “rural development” is that rural communities in many states are experiencing new population and development patterns, which require new transportation services and facilities. However, the population and demographic information needed for planning and structuring such a project is usually outdated or inadequate. How can we better identify “community” interests in low-density areas, particularly where there are cultural barriers such as multiple languages or ethnic groups who do not interact with others?

Urgency and Payoff

The results of the research will provide a variety of analytical methods that can be used to help ensure success in reducing barriers to cooperation for transportation in rural communities. The product should be translatable into formats that can be used by communities where English is not the primary communication language.

Suggested By

ADD50, Environmental Justice in Transportation Committee, as specified in the TRB Research Needs Database, 2009. (Submitted to TRB database 6/2007)