Going the country mile

Enlighten • Pulse #3 • 7 min
By Marie-Noëlle Bauer

Living in the country can be bliss, but for those inhabiting remote, sparsely populated areas, getting around can prove a real hassle. We look at the complex challenges of rural mobility, as well as the creative, bespoke transport solutions emerging to render residents’ journeys less taxing.

It’s many a city-dweller’s dream: escaping the urban rat race and moving to the countryside to enjoy a better quality of life. A study published by the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP) in October 2018 found that 81% of the French population deems rural living “an ideal lifestyle” (with just 5% of current country residents saying they’d wish to leave) (Source).

But of course, fantasy rarely matches up to the reality ; just like the city, the country’s many advantages are coupled with distinct challenges.  According to the same study, one of the main reasons respondents were dissuaded from making the big move to the countryside was the dearth of transportation (54%) – a real disadvantage particularly affecting young people, the elderly, the mobility impaired and the unemployed.

Shared mobility has become a high-stakes issue in the European Union, 57% of which spans rural regions, holding approximately 24% of its population (Source). It not only bolsters the attractiveness of regions, it also supports carbon-emission objectives and improves the quality of life and public health in general. With the need to be mobile for all sorts of reasons, some of these communities are increasingly open to new and more creative transport solutions.

MANY COUNTRYSIDES, NOT JUST THE ONE

Adopting a monolithic view of the countryside is easy. But in fact, there are several versions of the “countryside”, differing wildly in size and proximity to other areas. Topography, economic conditions and population are important factors in defining the variance of habitability between these rural zones, and a genuine understanding of all three of these is the first step to determining genuine local mobility needs, rather than resorting to a one size­fits­all solution. Take Spain as an example. Many villages are being hit hard by depopulation, with more than 4,000 villages and towns currently at risk of becoming entirely deserted in the near future. However, El Pais newspaper recently reported that the mountainous areas north of the capital are enjoying a demographic boom (Source).

Over the last 20 years, 42 towns in rural Sierra Norte have leapt from 17,500 to 26,000 inhabitants, an increase partly due to better connection with Madrid’s metropolitan area. Those numbers should be further boosted by a €130 million package aimed at reviving rural Madrid approved in September 2018, which includes high­speed internet as well as “a minibus service ferrying children to and from extra­curricular activities”.

ACKNOWLEDGING THE INDIVIDUALS IN THE CROWD

Understanding the distinct needs of the inhabitants is just as important as knowing the landscape. While mass transit has for long been the leading philosophy in the transportation industry, this can’t still be the case today.

With the irrepressible need for customisation, offerings have to be adapted to address the growing diversity and complexity of passengers. To achieve this, operators and transport authorities must focus on citizens’ behaviour and needs, while moving beyond the parameters of patronage and passenger flows.

BESPOKE IS BEST

When tackling the challenges of rural mobility, it’s essential to resist the temptation of finding a quick fix by implementing ideas that better fit urban areas, or over­reliance on digital tools. Ayen, a rural and isolated commune in Southeast France with a population of 720, is doing just that with Ecosyst’M. Instead of using a digital platform, it relies entirely on human interactions, with 20% percent of its drivers over 80 years old. Riders can show up at a public transport station that has the Ecosyst’M sticker and wait for a participating driver to stop, send an SMS or call to set up a ride. Passengers only contribute to fuel costs, 6 cents (€) per kilometre. However, Ecosyst’M reaches beyond mobility; it also has a meaningful social impact, fostering local solidarity and interdependence.

In rural areas, sharing schemes and community-run initiatives often prove better options than advanced technical solutions. However, as options proliferate, so can passenger confusion. Local transit authorities play an important coordination role, ensuring new initiatives are easy to access and understand.

THE CAR IS STILL KING

Private vehicles are still the preferred mobility solution in the countryside, but they can be exploited in more astute ways. It’s essential that local authorities give their full support to car-sharing solutions that result in closer community ties and lower carbon emissions.

To this end, a member of ACRE (Action with Communities in Rural England), the Humber & Wolds Rural Community Council, launched a volunteer car service to support citizens. Drivers use their own vehicles to transport locals to destinations of their choice (hospitals, doctors’ offices, local shops, community meetings, and more). Passengers pay just £0.45/mile to cover fuel and other associated costs, a cost­effective option for rural community members with no other suitable private or public transport options.

On the tech front, an app by Keolis partner Cmabulle, a car­sharing network, supports parents whose kids go to the same school or take part in the same extra­curricular activities. It works on the basis that: the school or activity creates a so­called “bulle de confiance” (safety bubble) on the app. It then invites parents (whose kids are subscribed) to sign up and contact each other via Cmabulle in order to organise safe carpools.

ON DEMAND MOBILITY

One of the rural frustrations highlighted by UK­based ACRE, is how not having access “to appropriate forms of transport to the right place at the right time” hampers jobseekers from accessing “services and jobs in neighbouring towns”. A possible solution ? More intuitive transport initiatives, like Keolis Filo’r in the French Rouen­Normandie region. Locals can make last-minute minibus reservations for less common routes without regular bus services via phone, web or app. Completing over 750 trips/day, Filo’r provides a turnkey way for residents to move around their region and connect to major network arteries.  An initiative spanning 29 community­owned vehicles, 57 communes in the region and serving an estimated 50,000 inhabitants.

KEEPING IT FLEXIBLE

Even regular bus routes are being reviewed to better meet rural locals’ needs, which allows for optional stops within a defined area. Flexo, a bus service that operates on a regular timetable but allows for on­demand stops, is proving beneficial in the suburbs of Dijon, Caen and Bordeaux. This aptly named hybrid service benefits both riders and the community at large by adapting to evolving lifestyles and extending existing coverage during off­peak hours and in remote or commercial areas. The options for creative vehicle use don’t stop there: school buses or private medical vehicles could be repurposed for other citizens when off­duty, for example.  So long as there is smooth communication between passengers and operators, the opportunities abound.

AND GET BIKING

Two­wheelers are also getting in on the action.  According to ACRE, the 34 Wheels to Work (W2W) programmes rolled out in areas such as Shropshire and Wiltshire have been “providing affordable modes of transport (often mopeds, small motorcycles and bicycles) to enable young people – including those with disabilities – to travel to work, college and training”. Users pay about £20­£35 per week – depending on the type of vehicle – and W2W provides compulsory basic training, insurance and maintenance. The idea is that the vehicle “lease” lasts until the person obtains their own ride, which is generally within six months.

Nationally, “the schemes have saved taxpayers more than £19 million per year”. Thinking outside the box and a healthy dose of pragmatism are crucial when imagining rural mobility solutions. Sustainable, cost­saving, inclusive initiatives are already making locals’ daily routines easier, while further stoking city­dwellers’ envy of that ideal countryside lifestyle.

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