Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide

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.

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Olivier Ortelpa; “Paris, Gilets Jaunes – Acte IX”

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.

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From left to right: Ofelia Bentacor, University of Las Palmas, moderator Juliette Foster, Gloria Hutt Hesse, Chile’s Minister of Transport and Telecommunications, and Helen Hughes discuss access for remote and rural communities during the ITF  Summit in Leipzig, Germany, on 23 May 2019.

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.

Links

ITF 2019 Summit session on Ensuring access for remote and rural communities

 

Can Electric Cars Drive Global Decarbonisation?

nancy-vandyckeBy Nancy L. Vandycke, Program Manager, Sustainable Mobility for All Initiative, World Bank

Can one plus one be more than two? I believe that it can. In fact, I would wager that we must find opportunities to do so if we are serious about delivering our goals for the Paris Climate Agreement. The transport-energy nexus is precisely a place where we can find such opportunities; more specifically, I am talking about the possibility of global decarbonisation through the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). That said, we must always be aware of potential pitfalls. Allow me to share my experience.

The promise of global emission reduction

In 2017, transport accounted for 24 per cent of total CO2 emissions from fuel combustion. To reduce emissions, many countries have been promoting the electrification of transport. For many, adopting the trend for EVs is a way to transition passenger fleet away from conventional gasoline and diesel-fuelled cars. In fact, last year, global sales of EV surpassed a million units. Under the current trend, EV production could almost quadruple by 2020, with China leading the way.

34851733984_ef336560fa_kAs more and more EVs replace internal combustion vehicles, the energy burden for transport will eventually shift from oil to electricity. This is good news for the power sector. By riding on the trend of increased EVs, it can become part of a solution for global decarbonisation.

There is an added bonus for the power sector. For years, its profitability has been in decline. Charging EVs will add some load to the power grid, which is a welcome development for utilities against the continued decline in electricity prices.

Such a scenario seems promising, but there are potential pitfalls along the way.

The pitfalls

For a long time now, the transport and energy sectors have been talking about decarbonisation in their own circles.

As I sat in conversations with industry leaders from each sector—both in my role as the lead for Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All) and as a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) global council on advanced energy technologies—I came to realise how disconnected the conversations about decarbonisation are. If we were to connect the two sectors, we must bring them to sit at the same table.

Accordingly, SuM4All invited experts in the energy sector to the table at our last consortium meeting in January 2019. However, it soon became clear that each side is speaking about decarbonisation in their own language and neither side could understand the other. Until both sides find a common language and tie their conversations together, it is unlikely that developments in these respective industries will succeed at decarbonising the global economy.

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Even if both sides manage to come to an agreement on a common language and approach, one must be thoughtful about the way both sectors collaborate.

As of today, renewable energy accounts for merely a quarter of total global power generation. Without greening the power grid, a wholesale adoption of EVs will not result in true decarbonisation in either sector. Half of the G20 countries have made progress in expanding renewable electricity generation in the years leading up to 2015, but, alarmingly, nine saw declines in 2015 and the preceding years. Reducing the carbon intensity of power generation is what matters in the end.

But this transformation will not happen overnight. As the share of renewables increases in the energy mix, the carbon intensity of energy production will also increase. In fact, in the short term, one expects an overall increase in carbon emissions with the EV deployment, simply because of the EV battery manufacturing.

The way forward

The good news is that if we manage to co-ordinate policy interventions within the transport and energy sectors, we can make great strides towards decarbonisation. For example, policy support measures that target electrification in the transport sector should be linked to renewable requirements on the energy side.  For this reason, I plan to bring a clear and simple message to the Electric and Digital Mobility event ahead of the upcoming ITF Summit: to fully leverage the power of mobility, we need to concurrently clean up the grid.

If we manage to do so, one plus one can indeed be more than two, and the Paris Climate Agreement goals will be very much within our reach.

Nancy L. Vandycke is a speaker at the TUMIVolt Conference on 21 May 2019 in Leipzig, Germany. The ITF Summit follows from 22-24 May.