Leading the Way
2020-08-17

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Unlocking the potential of rural communities

A great deal of emphasis during the COVID-19 pandemic has been centred on city mobility and the impact of the virus on economic and social activity. While cities play a critical role in stimulating our economy, we must not overlook rural areas, which also make a significant contribution.

Over time, many have decamped from their city dwellings and moved out to rural areas. As a result, they are increasingly becoming the home of a burgeoning mix of cultures and backgrounds. Far from playing second fiddle to towns and cities, rural areas are in fact the epicentre of rapid social change.

There has also been a perception that strategies to promote rural mobility are secondary to the primacy of urban centres. More recently however, there has been a shift towards understanding and remedying the historically poor mobility in rural areas, in recognition of the role they play in feeding cities and providing them with the renewable sources of energy that they need to keep the lights on.

There is still much to be done, but by shifting the focus onto how to support these communities and help them flourish, the foundations are being laid for strong economic growth and social cohesion.

If we look to Europe and particularly the EU SMARTA initiative, we can explore how to make the most of our rural areas for the benefit of the UK economy.

SMARTA

The SMARTA project, which brought together a mix of academics, transport planners and sustainability experts, sought to change mindsets, harness the power of rural communities and identify ways to improve rural mobility across Europe. Vectos participated in the programme since its inception in 2018, which culminated in setting out 30 Good Practices covering different aspects of shared mobility solutions.

From the outset, SMARTA was tasked with addressing key questions that would identify and address the challenges of rural areas. These included:

  • Achieving transport justice for rural areas – the need to balance transport efficiency with achieving better social cohesion and economic growth
  • Rural citizenship and belonging – identifying the role collaborative mobility solutions play as well as working across social divides
  • Turning social diversity in rural areas from an issue to an opportunity for mobility innovation

Historically, rural areas have been the Cinderella when it came to mobility planning and transport provision. Services were patchy at best and sclerotic at worst. Before SMARTA there just wasn’t the same level of joined up thinking when it came to understanding and supporting rural communities. The research undertaken by SMARTA highlighted the key patterns across over 30 countries in Europe and beyond. This in-depth review has exposed some key issues, most notably that only two EU member states have a specific policy and strategy for rural transport. This, combined with a persistent lack of resources, leads to a fragmented provision of transport in rural areas, many innovations relying on the voluntary efforts of the local communities themselves, and with no clear overarching strategy – papering over the cracks in mobility provision rather than seeing mobility provision as a key element for rural economic growth and social improvement

SMARTA has specifically looked at the potential of shared mobility and how new technology can make shared mobility services accessible to a wider rural public. The development of good practices by the project partners enabled SMARTA to identify four main interventions that would help address the challenges:

  • Rural mobility programmes – increasing the range and coverage of mobility options for all as well as offering suitable alternatives to car users (drivers and passengers)
  • Demand responsive transport – developing a range of transport solutions using the full range of vehicles from a car to full-sized bus, and providing flexible services to met the diverse needs of local rural populations
  • Shared mobility solutions – Introducing a broad range of services including “ride sharing” and “asset sharing”, which combine travellers for more efficient and sustainable travel, while improving the mobility options for people. SMARTA has been a critical part of the development of shared mobility practices with promising results being seen across Europe whether that be App-assisted hitchhiking in Southern France, community public transport services in Germany or car-sharing and pooling in the Austrian Tyrol and Central Greece respectively.
  • Better integrated public transport networks – redesigning existing services to better cater for the rural population through the use of Applications to provide information to users and to open the possibilities to introduce new services to communities currently deprived of public transport, as in Kilkenny in Southern Ireland.

Vectos and the other SMARTA partners is leading the challenge to policy makers and transport professionals to make up for 20 years focus on urban sustainable mobility and rebalance efforts towards the rural areas which are home to 28 per cent of Europe’s population and a majority of its land mass. The project is underlining that now is ‘The Time to Act’. Indeed, SMARTA was a political initiative of the European Parliament who provided the resources for the project and a new energy for greater action on rural mobility.