In a net-zero carbon world, a fundamental challenge for the rural economy will be transport. This affects how society works, lives, plays, studies and ages.
Rural areas depend on car ownership to travel. The decision to sell no new purely petrol or diesel cars from 2030 will directly impact on the ability of rural areas to move around. If all owners were to move simply to electric vehicles there would be strain on the electricity generation and transmission networks. The rollout of mobile and broadband coverage does not augur well for such large-scale deployment in rural areas.
Data on rural transport is relatively limited. Increasingly the world has become urbanised. In England, urban areas account for 83% of the population. But rural areas cover 90% of the land space. Data is available on the main trunk routes that cross the nation. Less well-known are the movements within districts.
Rural Techs is driven by data. Hence the Forest Inhabitants Travel Survey (FITS) undertaken as part of the MERGeS project*. This started to collect baselines on behaviours, perceptions and outline use from almost 400 individuals, who live in the District of the Forest of Dean. The data that follows comes from that research.
Certainty Crowns Cars as King
The survey reveals a multitude of complex trips of varying lengths in different modes of life principally served by the car. Only 3% of the households surveyed did not have a car. Fewer than the English average of 10% for rural areas. However, both figures understate those with restricted access to a car. The average number of cars per household is 1.98. Two cars available is fine for a two-person household; but not for 30% of households with more than 2 people. Nor for those where the individual is unable to drive due to age (young and old) or never having learned to drive (youth).
As generalisations: the rural transport demand is for certainty and complex trips; the public transport supply is linear and binary. The perceptions analysis revealed that rural travellers prize certainty. That is why they use their cars so much. The car is there when needed and it’s seen as reliable.
Rural Transport Patterns
A substantial amount of travel data was collected with start and end points for shopping, leisure, work, health and study. Each confirms the car’s dominance.
55% of respondents use their car daily and a further 29.2% at least half of the week. 46.2% never use a bus and 42.6% use it every month or less. 30% never use rail but 63.6% only use it occasionally. A third use taxis occasionally. Three quarters never use something they would recognise as car share. 94.6% of this sample never used community transport, be that dialaride services or non-commercial bus routes. This reliance on the car is a major issue. It arises through the lack of supply of reasonable alternatives with associated high levels of uncertainty of service.
If you’re employed to work five days a week, you get there by car. As work days become fewer, you’re more likely to use alternative transport. But even working a single day, 58% use a car or motorbike.
The concept that you live where you work has changed fundamentally given the survey’s multitude of start and end points. The commute is not local to the nearest town or business park, but often much wider. Active travel cannot fill this gap. The contrary trend is the 32%, who pre-Covid work primarily from home. 9% of those working in a home-based office, also cite another place of regular work, often a city such as London, Lancaster or Swansea. This trend will only accelerate with post-covid working practices.
*FITS was undertaken as part of Rural Techs MERGeS project funded by the Geospatial Commission’s Innovate UK SBRI competition: Using geospatial data to solve transport challenges phase 1. The Geospatial Commission & Innovate UK do not endorse any of the findings or positions outlined in the work being published by the projects.