How do we support access to transport in rural areas?

Kris Beuret
Consultant annd Chair of the ITS UK Inclusive Mobility Forum

The days of frequent bus services in rural areas are long gone – if they ever existed. Yet around a fifth of the population (10 million) in England live in such areas, of which an estimated fifth (2 million) have some kind of disability.

Of course, the majority of rural households have a car, but this still leaves a lot of people without access to adequate alternative transport leading to social isolation and problems in accessing employment, education and healthcare.

Ways of addressing this problem was the theme of the ITS UK Inclusive Mobility Forum’s April discussion led by three experts. For ITS UK members, detailed slides are available here.

What was discussed?

Beate Kubitz, an expert on Demand Responsive Transport (DRT), for which ITS systems are essential, presented first. Beate highlighted that there is fragmentation of legislation and responsibilities involved in delivering DRT services, with The lack of an obligation to link bus or DRT timetables with rail was a particular gap.  Beate went on to describe a successful DRT scheme (HertsLynx) in Hertfordshire which has led to 40,000 more people being able to use an accessible service.  Some of the lessons from the scheme included the need for detailed data and mapping analysis and better integration, including service design ‘tweaks’ in networks.

Robbie Gibb is the Door-to-Door Connectivity Project Lead for Customer Service Delivery and Economic development at East West Rail and has longstanding experience of the rail industry.  He outlined the need for the rail industry to take a ‘whole journey’ view of rail travel including the journey to and from the train. But solutions were not so easy in rural areas where transport systems were fragmented.  The need to engage with both local communities and transport providers was an essential starting point, he added.

Dr Michael Gavin, who is an international expert on the taxi industry, focused on the potential of taxis and private hire vehicles (PHVs) in rural areas.  Of the 289,000 taxis or PHV vehicles in England only 36,000 (8%) were wheelchair accessible vehicles (WAVs) and just under half of these were in London.  Clearly access to taxis outside London was challenging. However, Mike went on to discuss the process of increasing WAVs in London as an indication of a wider solution in the rest of the country, starting with the legislation introduced by ITS UK President Steve Norris who as Transport Minister, insisted that all London taxis be WAVs.

The scheme was supported by incentives led by then Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, including an addition to the metered fare, access to bus lanes, exemption from the congestion charge and a subsidised taxicard scheme. Michael’s point was that, whilst not perfect, the virtuous circle of funding and access satisfied both taxi drivers and disabled passengers and resulted in people with mobility difficulties making twice as many trips as those without mobility difficulties by 2020.

Conclusion

Some key takeaways from the session included:

  1. It is clear that there are a lot of people in rural areas, especially people with a variety of disabilities, who don’t have access to transport.
  2. Solutions include better data and management systems supported by marketing and engagement with local communities.  There are opportunities for ITS skills and new ideas including addressing the exclusion of those without digital connectivity.
  3. However, subsidies are essential and, fares whether by DRT or taxis, will probably need to be higher than urban bus services.
  4. Finally there is an urgent need for legislation to encourage liaison between transport suppliers,  local authorities and central government – all of which require political leadership and imagination.

We welcome your thoughts on the conclusions above. If you’d like to share your thoughts, email us at contact@its-uk.org.