Fertile Ground for Innovation: A Fresh Look at Rural Mobility

Our rural regions are highly car-dependent, creating huge problems for those who do not want to use their car or cannot drive or afford a car. Carl Adler looks at innovative transport options that better connect rural users.

New options on offer: A rural mobility hub in France | Copyright: Ecov France

Rural areas around the world are in the midst of significant changes. Remote workers from urban areas have taken up residence in the countryside. Families looking for fresh air and space have sought property in small towns and villages. Rural societies have also been rocked by high levels of outmigration and shrinking economic opportunities. The growing gulf between cities and rural areas represents one of the most significant societal divisions within many countries today. Transport discrepancies between rural and urban areas are an oft-overlooked and critical aspect of these broader differences. Within the world of transport, urban mobility is a frequently discussed and highly visible concept, while rural transport is often an afterthought or missing entirely from the discourse. In fact, mobility policies for rural areas are often addressed through an urban lens. This leads to service which does not align with the realities of rural life and further disenfranchises rural residents from participation in society. Furthermore, broad initiatives to decarbonise transport which tend to prioritise urban transport, threaten to sweep rural mobility issues under the rug altogether.

Transport policies become a tipping point in the urban-rural divide: “Gilets Jaunes” protests in France

By taking stock of rural transport realities and innovations in the field, ITF’s Innovations for Better Rural Mobility report provides policymakers with a path forward to provide rural-dwellers with excellent mobility solutions. The report’s strongest message is political: to be successful, new rural transport initiatives must stem from the experiences of people living in rural environments.

Rural and remote mobility is characterised by heavy dependence on private cars. This is unlikely to change in the near future. However, many people living in rural areas cannot drive or do not own cars. These individuals are often members of the least-advantaged segments of society: the elderly, low-income people, individuals with physical mobility constraints. Providing mobility options to rural areas is an important way to foster inclusion and give all rural-dwellers an opportunity to live full lives.

There are several common logistical challenges related to providing good practice mobility solutions to rural areas. Distances are often too great for micromobility solutions to be implemented as standalone modalities. Demand is frequently perceived to be too low for conventional means of shared transport like bus lines to be practical or financially viable. However, these obstacles make the field of rural mobility a fertile ground for innovation. For example, a Finnish pilot programme aimed to unify different forms of subsidised rural transport (e.g. paratransit and schoolbuses) through a digital platform in an attempt to merge parallel or redundant transport networks into one system. An app-based carpooling system in France has given people a new and reliable way to get around. Digital innovations such as these are vital to making rural mobility as efficient and user-friendly as possible, thus increasing access and use.

Finally, different localities have experimented with implementing transport hubs in rural areas. These typically bring various forms of transport, like buses, car-sharing stations and bicycles for last-mile connectivity, into one physical space. In addition to helping rural residents connect to many more types of transport, these mobility hubs can be further drivers of economic growth in rural areas and function as spaces of congregation and commerce.

The SMARTA Project provides a snapshot of Europe’s rural mobility situation

In light of the exciting changes digital technologies can bring to rural mobility, now is an opportune time for policymakers to look at rural mobility policies. Throughout this exercise, it is of the utmost importance that rural mobility is considered differently from urban mobility and that policy is informed by people living rural lives. In the words of Professor Laurie Pickup, the Innovative Mobility for the Periphery Working Group chair, “Peripheral, outlying, marginal, etc. – are urban words. Rural areas may be ‘peripheral’ to city-dwellers, but to rural communities, these areas are the centre of their worlds.”

Carl Adler is a Master student at Sciences Po Paris and is working on an internship at the International Transport Forum.

Join ITF’s “Ask the Author” session with your questions on rural mobility on Thursday, 27 January 2022. Free registration here

“Transport for Inclusive Societies” is the theme of the ITF 2022 Summit, to be held in Leipzig, Germany, from 18 to 20 May 2022. See the Summit programme