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Getting on board - why public transport matters for rural people and places

Getting on board - why public transport matters for rural people and places

5 August 2021

A changing and challenging landscape

The ways we live, work and move are changing, writes Bryonny Goodwin-Hawkins senior research fellow at NICRE, based at the Countryside and Community Research Institute. Many of us changed our travel patterns during COVID-19 restrictions, and at least some of the ‘new normal’ will likely 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. First, shared transport is more efficient than private cars. Transport contributes more than a quarter of the UK’s total greenhouse gas emissions, so how we get from A to B plays a big part in progress towards net zero. Although electric vehicles have had plenty of press – and policy action – they are not a magic bullet, and infrastructure and affordability still pose real rural issues.

Second, public transport particularly matters for those without other options. In our rural communities, young people may rely on the bus to get to college, and older people need to get out and about to shop and socialise. Without adequate public transport services, we risk widening gaps between the ‘transport rich’ and ‘transport poor’. The results will isolate individuals, but limiting who can live a good life in rural areas will also ultimately limit who lives in our communities.

Third, we need to understand public transport as an essential part of the fabric that connects people and helps rural communities thrive. We can’t keep on begrudging the bus as a slow substitute for private cars, just as we shouldn’t think that getting on board is only for concessionary card holders. This is why real transformation in rural public transport must begin with innovation. The time is now, too.

The role of innovation

This year, 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 TransportCPRE 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. While, for example, the CPRE’s call for investment at ‘every village, every hour’ standards is laudable, fixed routes reflect the past rather than being fit for the future.

State of the Art Review

In our State of the Art Review Future innovation for rural public transport (August 2021) (PDF: 471KB), Andrew Callard and I take inspiration 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 keeping on.

For NICRE, the big question is always: how can rural enterprise and innovation help? Andrew is a good example. His company, Rural Technologies Ltd, have been working on a MaaS feasibility study in the Forest of Dean, and they’re developing some inspiring, innovative solutions. When I ask Andrew what advice he would give to innovators and planners in rural transport, he says: “Be radical.”

Read the State of the Art Review Future innovation for rural public transport (August 2021) (PDF: 471KB).







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