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Bridging the gap: the case for improving public transport infrastructure in rural areas

Transportation By Georgie Hill, Consultant, Transportation – 17 August 2023

A train traveling through a green countryside in rural England


Georgie smiling to camera in a pale blouse standing in an office space

Georgie Hill

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Public transport is a component that cannot be discounted when discussing sustainable urban living. Good public transport networks are fundamental to enable efficient mobility whilst reducing environmental impacts. There is, however, a stark contrast between rural and urban areas. Rural areas have relatively lower population density, alongside public transport infrastructure and accessibility coming with unique challenges. There are lessons to be learnt in terms of the impact on sustainability from public transport infrastructures in urban areas that can be implemented in the UK’s rural regions.

According to a 2020 study as part of the Statistical Digest of Rural England, most rural areas had 90 per cent of commuting by car (as a driver or passenger) compared to 72 per cent in the most urban areas. Rural communities in the UK often grapple with limited public transport options. Sparse populations and vast distances make it challenging to establish extensive financially viable transportation networks. As a result, residents in rural areas are often dependent on private vehicles for daily commuting. This subsequent reliance on cars contributes to increased carbon emissions, traffic congestion and road maintenance costs – ultimately hindering sustainability goals.

In stark contrast, urban cities boast well-developed public transport systems such as buses, trams, subways and trains. These systems offer affordable and convenient transportation alternatives to private vehicles, and hence, reduce congestion and improve air quality. According to a 2021 study from Centre for Cities, the average city resident emits around 1.4 tonnes a year, compared to 2.5 for people living outside cities. Such transportation networks are all the more essential given the densely populated nature of urban areas in the UK. In recent times, urban areas have been at the forefront of sustainable transportation initiatives: embracing electric buses, light rail networks, and bike-sharing schemes to further reduce their environmental footprint. This new wave of sustainable public transportation in urban areas creates potential for rural areas to implement similar practices.

However, achieving sustainable transportation in rural areas also requires innovative solutions tailored to their unique circumstances. The adoption of emerging technologies and concepts like autonomous vehicles, ridesharing platforms, and on-demand services holds promise for enhancing mobility options in rural communities. These solutions can optimise routes, reduce operating costs, and increase accessibility for remote areas. Furthermore, integrating renewable energy sources into public transport networks, such as solar-powered bus stops or electric charging infrastructure, can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Collaborative efforts between local governments, transport authorities and community organisations are essential to prioritise sustainable public transport in rural areas.

A recent residential study from Climate Action was launched in the rural town of Strathaven in South Lanarkshire, Scotland, which launched a number of initiatives to encourage eco-friendly transport via a neighbourhood hub. The organisation Climate Action Strathaven operates a bike repair shop, an e-bike rental programme, and an e-cargo cycle that may be used for deliveries by neighbourhood businesses. The town centre’s Strathaven Cycle and General Repair Shop have evolved into a focal point for neighbourhood people to interact with the initiative. With assistance from the Community Climate Asset Fund of the Scottish Government, it also debuted an electric car club vehicle in 2021. Peer-to-peer automobile sharing is also possible thanks to the web platform. Paths for All is responsible for delivery, with funding given by Transport Scotland.

Investing in rural public transport not only benefits the environment but also strengthens rural economies, reduces social isolation and improves overall quality of life. By providing reliable and affordable transport options, rural communities can connect to employment opportunities, healthcare services and education centres, fostering economic growth and social cohesion. Investing in public transport infrastructure will pave the way for a greener, more connected, and sustainable future for all.