by Will Duncan
Countries around the world struggle with a divide between urban centres and rural regions. Bridging it requires imaginative transport policy to connect citizens everywhere with the services they need and give remote communities a better future.
After decades of weak growth and limited investment, many regional communities across the developed world feel forgotten; left behind by national governments in thriving capital cities. A sharp rise in regional inequality since the beginning of the millennium has exposed new and profound political divisions.
Take the Gilets Jaunes protests, for example, which have gripped France each Saturday since November 2018. It began as a demonstration against a fuel tax, but evolved into an array of anti-government political objectives. The movement highlights the growing dissatisfaction of a society divided into vibrant, globalised urban centres on the one hand and a periphery that is left behind, still struggling to adjust to decades of economic reform on the other.
It’s important for policy-makers to recognise the political fault line the urban-rural divide represents. Regional inequality, intensified by the global financial crisis in most developed countries, has contributed to “growing public discontent with the political, economic, and social status quo” in neglected regional areas, according to the OECD’s 2019 Regional Outlook,
Productivity growth is concentrated in just a single region in one-third of OECD countries — think the Paris region in France or the wealth gap that separates northern from southern Italy.
Cities are economic powerhouses. They are dynamic, yet efficient; with large, dense populations that concentrate innovation, creativity, and extraordinary productivity in close proximity. With more than half the world’s population now living in urban areas (and nearly three quarters in Europe), it’s no surprise that cities are often the primary focus of transport and infrastructure policy experts. Cities’ exceptionally active economies as well as their specific and complex problems from congestion via crime to inequality demand attention and substantial public investment.
Targeting attention on urban regions risks further alienating rural areas, yet “orthodox economics has few answers to the problem of regional inequality”, as The Economist noted.
Transport as an equity issue
Transport connectivity plays a major role in regional integration — that much is clear. Good physical links ensure accessibility and build stronger communities by fostering economic development and social inclusion.
“In the end, it’s an equity issue”, noted Ofelia Betancor of the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria at a session dedicated to remote and rural communities during the recent Summit of the International Transport Forum. “We need to combine .. social evaluation criteria with equity criteria”, argued Betancor.
Basic services such as doctors, libraries and post offices are critically important for rural communities. But the available public and private services are often in decline, due to a lack of profitability (and of resources to compensate for that lack), which has left far-out communities further isolated and disadvantaged.
Stronger links between people and products, employment and markets are essential to empowering citizens in regional areas.
Most developed countries are supporting disadvantaged peripheral communities, providing some kind of buffer to regional decline. But simple redistribution — taking from rich areas in order to give to the less well-off regions — has often proved inadequate in the long-run, and expensive projects do not necessarily generate a significant return on investment.
Connectivity beyond planes, trains, and automobiles
So bridging the urban-rural divide not only requires considerable, disproportionate, public investment — it requires thinking outside the box. Governments must be creative and embrace innovation when considering better regional connectivity.
Investment in rural roads, rail, and aviation is obviously essential to bringing a population closer together. But so is considering structural reforms that might strengthen urban-rural economic interdependencies, and harnessing the possibilities of digitalisation, 5G networks or drone technology to connect remote and rural places.
Digital access via the internet provides new ways of linking in citizens outside the main population centres and should be part of policies for enhancing the well-being of rural communities. ”If you want to overcome social isolation, if you want people to have better access to job opportunities, digital connection is a must now,” summed up Helen Hughes, Director of Professional Services at Transport Infrastructure Ireland.
But it is the countryside where digital connectivity is in greatest need for improvement. Currently, urban areas outperform rural areas in quality of internet access in every American state, for example. And many rural EU regions have poor broadband speeds or no broadband connectivity at all.
A better-connected population would represent a vital step in bridging the divide and avoiding the resentment against better-off better-connected urban “elites”. A long-term commitment to maintaining and expanding and infrastructure important to rural communities and innovative approaches to linking in rural areas is essential to help them remain viable and thrive, and ensure that no-one feels left behind.
Will Duncan is currently studying a Master’s in Public Policy at Sciences Po in Paris, France, and is an intern at the International Transport Forum at the OECD.
ITF 2019 Summit session on Ensuring access for remote and rural communities