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Wednesday 28 April 2021

INSIGHTS: A spotlight on rural mobility

In the wake of Covid-19 and the climate emergency, the need to “build back better” has never been more crucial, particularly for those areas that were already struggling to keep up. The rural-urban divide is prevalent across many areas, including productivity, digital infrastructure, and access to transport and services. The government’s levelling up agenda provides us with renewed impetus to tackle these issues and revitalise rural communities, ensuring that investment is not just concentrated in cities, but fairly and effectively distributed across the whole region. Before we act, we must understand; rural areas face different challenges and have different needs to larger towns and cities. These differences must be front and centre of our approach.

Our work on the Future of Rural Mobility (FoRMS) has highlighted that enhanced connectivity has the potential to reinvigorate the economic vitality of rural towns and villages. New technologies, alongside new ways of working and delivering services, can improve the way we live and work. Remote learning and working opportunities, better access to employment and digital connectivity can empower rural areas to retain young talent, attract business investment and reduce isolation.

Based on ONS figures, 35% of our population here in the Midlands live in rural areas. Data analysed by Midlands Connect suggests that rural areas of the Midlands region have higher levels of carbon emissions than their urban counterparts. The transport sector is the largest emissions contributor and decarbonising transport in rural areas – although challenging – can have a huge impact on meeting our climate goals, as well as supporting vulnerable communities and regenerating local economies. If we are to reduce carbon emissions from transport in the Midlands, greater emphasis on rural emissions is crucial.

In the Midlands, most of the Strategic Road Network (SRN) – motorways and major “trunk” A-roads – runs through more rural areas and emissions per mile are much higher on the SRN due to the higher proportion of goods vehicles and longer-distance trips. Public transport in rural areas is patchwork at best; lower demand caused by smaller populations lead to infrequent or unreliable services; this reduces demand further causing costs to escalate. Declining local authority budgets have left very little (if any) funding available for non-statutory services like bus routes, and the impacts of Covid-19 have only piled on the pressure. The government’s national bus strategy “Bus Back Better” prioritises innovation and new technologies with less focus on improving service provision and accessibility in rural areas. Grid capacity for electric buses is currently very limited in rural areas and the costs associated with the rollout of zero-emission buses is therefore much higher, requiring regular returns to the depot to recharge which leads to lost revenue.

Poor public transport means that many rural households rely on private vehicles to access services. EVs will likely have an increasingly important role and we will be working with our rural partners to discuss the role that EV charging infrastructure can play in reducing carbon emissions from transport in these areas. Mode shift (shifting drivers to walking/cycling and public transport) efforts will have limited impact in a rural setting due to the extended length of the first/last mile in these areas. Decarbonising rural transport therefore must concentrate on shifting people to EVs, and at an accelerated rate.

The post-pandemic era brings the opportunity for more remote working and the UK property market is already witnessing substantially increased interest in rural properties. This potential increase in rural populations could put pressure on existing rural services if not properly planned. But it is also an opportunity, as an increased population of those accustomed to better services can drive demand and improve infrastructure, not just in transport but digital infrastructure, healthcare and others. A network of rural hubs would provide an opportunity for hubs to restructure public transport by providing feeder services that link to more direct bus routes. Rural hubs could provide enhanced passenger information, charging facilities for electric bikes, cars and buses, digital hotspot and logistics services, as well as working with healthcare and other service providers such as co-working and retail.

It is also important to remember that the demographic within rural areas can be very different to urban areas, with a higher proportion of older adults compared with the typically younger profile of urban populations. This not only impacts the type of services needed, but also propensity to take up new technology. It will be important to undertake robust needs assessments of different rural areas, going beyond the traditional planning processes and drawing on data and insight generated by the wider public sector and voluntary and community sector, to target services and interventions accordingly.

Now is the perfect time for Sub-national Transport Bodies to work with local partners and Government to implement policies and deliver investments that will improve the lives, opportunities and social mobility of rural communities. Whether it be reducing carbon emissions, improving public transport or boosting digital infrastructure, understanding the needs of the population is central to creating a fairer and more equal society that supports productivity and wellbeing, across the whole region.

Laura Spinks is a transport planner at Midlands Connect

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