Get on Board, Why Public Transport Matters for Rural People & Places

Rural Public Transport or notIn our MERGeS project funded by the Geospatial Commission through Innovate UK’s SBRI funding, Rural Techs was fortunate to have as a partner the Gloucestershire’s Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI). The CCRI is also part of the recently created National Innovation Centre for Rural Enterprise. This draws together a number of leading university research centres. NICRE is publishing regular short State of the Art Reviews on rural matters such as levelling up where innovation can help.

Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins, a senior research fellow at NICRE and part of the MERGeS CCRI team led by John Powell, summarises in the latest Review some of the issues related to rural transport. This draws from CCRI’s ongoing work and MERGeS as she explains in this blog.

Changing and Challenging Landscape

The ways we live, work and move are changing.  Many of us changed our travel patterns during Covid restrictions, and at least some of the ‘new normal’ is likely to stick.

Fewer daily commutes could be good news for sustainability; but there are also worrying trends away from public transport. For rural areas, further falls in passenger numbers could mean missing the bus for good. 

Rural public transport provision is challenging, and services across the UK, have long been in decline. Stopping the slide matters for three reasons:

  1. Shared transport is more efficient than private cars. Transport contributes over 25% of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions. How we get from A to B plays a big part in our progress towards net zero. Although electric vehicles have had plenty of press, they are not a magic bullet. EV infrastructure and affordability will pose real issues for rural areas. 
  2. Public transport particularly matters for those without other options. In rural communities, younger people may rely on the bus to get to college; while older people need to get out to shop and socialise. Without adequate public transport services, we risk widening gaps between the ‘transport rich’ and ‘transport poor’. The ‘poor’ can become isolated. The danger is we limit who can live a good life in rural areas and thus who lives in and maintains our rural communities. 
  3. Public transport is an essential part of the fabric that connects people and helps rural communities thrive. We need to change our understanding of its role. We can’t keep on begrudging the bus as a slow substitute for private cars; nor as just for concessionary card holders. This is why real transformation in rural public transport must begin with innovation.

The Role and Time of Innovation

This spring, the Government published Bus Back Better, the new national bus strategy for England, plus the long-awaited Williams Rail Review. Both call for transport networks that are better integrated, more convenient and user-friendly. 

Of course, policies are one thing – practice quite another. Organisations including the Campaign for Better Transport,  CPRE and WI have rightly raised their voices for real action. But change for the better won’t happen if enterprise and local authorities stay seated on the platform.  Innovation certainly won’t happen if doers and decision-makers keep looking back down the tracks at old models, either. 

State of the Art Review

In NICRE’s State of the Art Review Future innovation for rural public transport, the inspiration comes from Mobility as a Service, or MaaS. There are many different definitions, but the most common elements are:

  • Integrating multimodal services and multiple service providers.
  • Using digital technology and GPS for real-time information and simplified payment.
  • Taking a user-centric approach that enables choice, flexibility and seamless service. 

MaaS was born in urban Helsinki. But that doesn’t mean hammering a square city peg into a round rural space. We can and should design place-based systems that don’t keep rural people place-bound. 

Our review isn’t a how-to guide or a policy menu. We’ve looked at the research evidence and distilled some key principles for change. And, we really do want to urge change. It’s obvious that rural transport can’t keep on just keeping on. 

For NICRE, the big question is always: how can rural enterprise and innovation help? Bryonny explains: “Rural Techs is a good example with its work on a MaaS feasibility study in the Forest of Dean, and the inspiring, innovative solutions being developed for rural areas generally. When I asked Andrew what advice he would give to innovators and planners in rural transport, he says: Be radical. Think system-wide for the future potential of the technology-enabled world in which we all live both rural and urban.” 

At Rural Techs, we think a good place to start that trip is by reading the State of the Art Review Future innovation for rural public transport. And then take action now.