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

The economic benefits of improved transport accessibility

 By Lorenzo Casullo, International Transport Forum

Cover photo accessibility RT croppedA transport journey is very often the first step to participating in economic and social activities – from jobs to schools to hospitals. So if we are no promote full participation and inclusion of all citizens, including those with mobility impairments and disabilities, it is imperative to provide accessible transport options for the largest possible share of the population.

Accessible transportation should be at the forefront not only of mobility policies, but also of urban development at large. An urban approach to greater accessibility should integrate transport planning for all at the early stages of design.

Therefore, a key question is: how can we ensure that decision makers (at the local and national level) invest adequate and targeted sums of money to achieve these goals? Likewise, how can we better promote legislation about the rights of passengers and the duties of transport providers so that accessibility for all is maximised?

Filling the gap

This is the challenge that we, at the International Transport Forum, have laid out for discussion with our member countries and partner organisations. And being a think-tank with a focus on economic policies, we have identified one crucial factor that represents a barrier to investment and more far-reaching regulations – namely, the lack of a common approach to identify and value (including in monetary terms) the economic benefits of accessible transport.

Economic Benefits of Accessibility Report Cover w line around

 

A year ago, we gathered world experts and campaigners in Paris so as to work together towards a clear objective: filling the gap in the theory and practice of accessibility benefits. We produced this report which today stands as a unique compendium of good practice in this field.

We do not wish for our focus on economic benefits to be seen as alternative to the rights-based approaches that the United Nations have successfully rolled out globally, and that numerous governments including those in this room today implement with determination across the world. Rather, our work aims to complement these efforts.

A win-win situation

Our conclusion is that without a clear and robust framework to value the benefits of greater accessibility, these improvements will fail to become a priority – especially when other types of investment (such as to reduced congestion and improved safety) display a large benefits-tag, but accessible transport does not.

Most importantly, assessing the socio-economic benefits of accessibility shows decision-makers a clear win-win situation: investment in accessible transport is beneficial to a large section of the population, and not just to those who are mobility-impaired at the time of planned investment.

Let’s focus on these two key findings – that designing transport systems for those that are less mobile is actually good for everyone, and; that if we do not demonstrate value, accessibility investment will be not be a priority.

More than marginal

First, how do we show that greater transport accessibility is good for all passengers? We need to identify the main beneficiaries. Moving away from a narrower focus on current passengers with some disability, we find that those who benefit also include passengers that are temporarily encumbered in their movements – such as parents with small children, travellers with heavy luggage, pregnant and injured people.

Identifying the beneficiaries of accessible transport

Recent research in the UK and in France gives us an indicative magnitude of this exercise. Studies for the Access for All programme in Britain show that only 1% of passengers at railway stations define themselves as disabled, but more than 5% fall in the “temporarily encumbered” category. Detailed surveys in the Paris metropolitan area confirm that beneficiaries go beyond the less mobile passengers, and include 7% of the population travelling with temporary limitations. For all these travellers, low-floor buses, lifts to stations and simpler pedestrian crossings are of great importance.

An even wider focus on beneficiaries should take into account those who are currently not using transport systems because they are inaccessible to them. For these citizens, better transport accessibility does not mean a “marginally better” journey. It means an entirely transformational impact, providing freedom to access opportunities and services that would have otherwise been precluded. And the number of future beneficiaries is only going to grow in ageing societies.

Capturing the benefits

Secondly, how do we demonstrate the economic value of such investment? We need to adapt and further develop existing economic approaches. Transport practitioners already use those robust approaches in the assessment of economic impacts, and their application to accessible transport is absolutely possible.

Our report is there to help anyone identify and capture these benefits, which include welfare benefits, reduced health and social care costs, and broader economic impacts such as increased participation to economic activities. We also need to add new benefits to the list, including social benefits like reduced stress levels and lower fear of isolation; and private sector benefits such as increased patronage for transport providers.

Identifying and capturing economic benefits

The rare examples of economic valuations undertaken to date demonstrate that the magnitude of potential benefits from improved transport accessibility is often large enough to offset the higher costs. We see this in Britain where the government found a positive business case for investing in accessible railway stations; and in Norway where the National Transport Institute showed that the benefits of making universally accessible bus stops outweigh the costs. In France, a start-up  called Wheeliz is the first peer-to-peer rental website specialising in disability adapted cars for wheelchair users – its growth across Europe is backed by investors.

Whenever you have the chance to do so, outline the socio-economic benefits that accessible transport can unlock. Let’s make this argument to attract more and better investment. Let’s work together towards more accessible and more inclusive cities for all.


Lorenzo Casullo is an economist with the International Transport Forum. This text is based on his presentation at the DESA/DSPD Forum on Advancing Accessible and Inclusive Urban Development for All, held on 14 June 2017 in the context of the 10th session of the Conference of States Parties to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD).