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The solution to rural mobility will leverage both new technology and existing local resources

  •   3 min read

How new technology and traditional community transport can work together to solve the rural transport crisis.

Jonathan Hampson

Head of UK Partnerships, Via

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When BSIP funding was announced in early April, rural authorities were left especially frustrated: with only 31 out of 70 BSIPs funded, how would the Prime Minister’s “Bus Back Better” initiative even begin to reverse the decades-long decline in rural transport services? For the roughly 18% of the UK population who live in rural areas, public transport is a necessity for those who do not own a car or cannot drive one. Rural councils left out of the awards resented the suggestion that their plans for these passengers were not “ambitious” enough, and instead reflected the realities of rural transport and the meaningful, though sometimes less flashy, changes that must be made. 

The government has promised that more funding is coming — but what options exist for rural authorities in the meantime? The funding shortfall must spark creative approaches to mobility, leveraging new technologies and operating practices without ignoring the strong foundations laid by community transport programs that have long filled the transport gaps in rural areas. New digital DRT schemes, many funded by the Rural Mobility Fund, have sprung up across the country to offer car-free transportation where demand is too dispersed to support fixed-route services. In the Tees Valley in the northeast, Tees Flex serves a passenger base of 10,000 across three rural zones totaling 400 sq km. In a formerly car-dependent area, 62% of passengers reported using their private cars less often — a win for the environment, to be sure, but also for passengers who do not own a car or cannot drive one.  

But in our enthusiasm for new technologies, we cannot ignore demand-responsive services that have been around for years, and which provide vital services with often-minimal resources: community transport programs. We agree with the Community Transport Association that the Rural Mobility Fund should not be limited to new DRT trials, but rather expanded to invest in the thousands of existing community transport networks and providers throughout the UK. In particular, we believe this funding should be used to facilitate the purchase of or access to modern DRT technologies that can streamline community transport operations, and would make an immediate impact on passengers’ lives.

Already, local authorities and councils have leveraged community transport providers as operational partners for DRT schemes:

  • Transport for Wales’ nationwide fflecsi scheme offers a common technological infrastructure that local councils can tap into in order to launch highly-customised DRT services in their regions. fflecsi services range from urban DRT in Cardiff and Newport to rural services delivered by local bus operators and, in Pembrokeshire, through the Pembrokeshire Voluntary Transport (PVT) organisation. Older passengers rate the service even more highly than their younger counterparts, suggesting that local authorities have successfully calibrated their services to be inclusive.
  • In Staffordshire, the Moorlands Connect DRT service launched with Ashbourne Community Transport as its operating partner. The service offers app-based booking and automated scheduling and dispatching, while maintaining phone-in booking to be inclusive of existing customers. For riders looking to travel to cities surrounding the service zone, Moorlands Connect facilitates transfers to local bus routes, making the most of existing infrastructure.

The success of these services suggests that modern DRT technology is compatible both with local community transport operators and the rural passengers who traditionally rely on community transport. As we look to “level up” transport throughout the United Kingdom, offering new technologies to community transport services is part of the solution to ensuring that passengers living in rural areas are not left behind. We believe that community transport providers can make the most of their existing resources by investing in technology, either on their own, as an operator for a local DRT service, or as a part of a broader, fflecsi-like scheme. We look forward to watching rural mobility continue to evolve and meet new challenges. 

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