Any way you look at it, rural transport is a mess. It’s simply unsustainable in its current form, environmentally, economically or socially.
Transport in the countryside means car. Only 11% of the rural population use the bus more than once a week. 6% use the train on a similar basis pre-Covid. CO2 produced by transport hasn’t changed since 1990, according to official figures to 2019. This reflects the greater numbers and use of cars. An easy way to reverse this, is to make more use of shared transport for people on the same journey.
The pandemic has slashed bus passenger numbers with safety concerns and home-working. Bus transport was already experiencing a 30-year spiral of decline. As fewer people used the bus because of greater access to cars, so routes became uneconomic. Route cuts drove more to cars and greater subsidy. Subsidy cuts then removed routes and travellers.
The lack of a viable public transport system serving all areas has significant social costs. Rural inhabitants do not have the same level of connectivity digitally or in travel. Their life options reduce.
Time to Be Bold
In March, the Department for Transport launched its Bus Back Better Strategy. This created Local Transport Authorities replacing Transport Commissioners. It provides the opportunity for place-based solutions to meet each area’s challenges. The big danger is that the rural issues will be hidden in urban-dominated travel data. This is avoidable by separate publication of rural and urban data.
Local Transport Authorities need to take the opportunity to be radical not continue business as usual. In this they could follow Ambition 1 of the Western Gateway. It creates a vision of smart ticketing enabling travel anywhere in the Western Gateway area in a golden hour. This relies on multiple modes of transport serving both urban and rural, not just cars.
Mobility as a Service (MaaS)
Technology and consumer demand has changed the world. Various concepts of MaaS have grown from those trends.
For example, the numbers of urban young no longer learning to drive has increased dramatically. Why? Because they have no need for costly car ownership and parking hassles. They have alternatives. Through apps they plan, book and pay for journeys to wherever by publicly accessible transport. Mobility is now a service and makes life simpler.
Rural does not have those interconnections of train, bus, taxi or Uber. It has under pressure bus companies justifying routes, community transport filling gaps and costly taxis called on only when necessary.
Yet there is a willingness for these rural operators to work together, enabled by the solutions we’re developing in Rural Technologies. These help to level up society, the economy and respond practically to the climate emergency.