The rural world on a quest for equality

Enlighten • Pulse #7 • 4 MIN
By Valérie Lachenaud By Dominique Dhumeaux Vice president of the Association of Rural Mayors of France (AMRF)

The ‘invisible’ have become visible. In 2018, the ‘gilets jaunes’ or ‘yellow‑vest’ movement aired the grievances of many different sectors of society, including citizens of rural communities who highlighted the inequalities they face — starting with transport. However, whilst general awareness has increased, Dominique Dhumeaux, vice president of the association of rural mayors of France (AMRF), says many lessons are still to be learned.

Interview

Dominique Dhumeaux, vice president of the association of rural mayors of France (AMRF).

Is transport inequality between urban and rural communities a real issue?

Even though it’s hard to compare situations, there is blatant inequality. To start with, consider the fact that in France 30% of the transport payroll tax levied on workers via their employers to raise capital for investment in transport infrastructure is generated by people from rural areas. This means that citizens of rural communities indirectly finance public transport, yet to travel to work they have no option but to take their car, because there is no alternative.

Figures show very high dependency on private vehicles, with 9 in 10 rural citizens required to use their own car to go to work or shop*

They’re doubly impacted. Not only are they forced to travel increasingly longer distances to get to work, receive medical care or access public services, but once they get to the city, they’re expected to leave their car on the outskirts and take the tram, or pay the high price for parking in the centre. I’m not criticising the ideas behind these systems, but when you add it all up, people from rural areas feel completely left out.

Wasn’t France’s new ‘LOM’ law on sustainable mobility intended to reduce these inequalities?

That was its original purpose but, after endless trade-offs, it lost sight of its initial purpose. Of the original 37 proposals to improve rural mobility, only two were retained. Worse still, they’re the least effective!

Do you think rural communities could act as mobility innovation laboratories?

They already have. Plenty of solutions have been rolled out in our regions. The Le Mans-Sarthe metropolitan tech cluster, for example, developed an electric car-sharing service called Mouv’n Go. The cluster provided engineering expertise for the communities involved, leading to numerous initiatives. Other towns have set up car-sharing schemes and on-demand transport services and built bike paths.

I’m a great believer in park & ride systems. I saw for myself just how effective they can be in Freiburg, Germany, in 2009. I was taken to the top of a hill from where we could see bus after bus converging on the car park of a railway station in the middle of nowhere, ferrying commuters just in time to catch a train that was about to leave. I’ve tried to develop a similar system in my town, but we’ve never managed to find an operator. The future also lies in autonomous vehicles, which hold a lot of promise.

There appears to be a lot more focus on rural issues in public debate than in recent years, especially following the launch of France’s “rural agenda” in 2019 outlining a specific action plan. Is this your feeling?

Things have shifted, there’s no denying it. Social media has allowed people in rural areas to connect and become more visible. This was crucial to politicians really paying them any attention — beyond any interest they may claim to have in these issues. It’s also true that growing ecological awareness and the ongoing pandemic have changed the way people see rural communities. What’s more, the national statistics office INSEE triggered a minor revolution by revamping its mapping model. As a result, the rural population has gone from 4.8 million to 24 million. So something has changed. But let’s not get carried away — it’ll be a while before this translates into action on the ground.

What could make a lasting improvement to rural life?

Mobility is the crux of the matter, and the source of all the difficulties facing rural dwellers. Determined action is needed so that, a few years from now, people in rural areas have a real alternative to the car. We can’t afford to wait; we must tackle this issue right now.

How should these new mobility solutions be funded?

The answer is simple: through a system of resource redistribution between local authorities that have ample resources and all the others and between urban and rural communities. Our cities and small rural towns are completely dependent on each other. Rural areas supply people in cities with food, water, clean air and places to get away from it all. Why isn’t this contribution acknowledged? Cities would have everything to gain from funding park & ride facilities, as this would enable people from rural areas to come to their high streets, rather than going to out-of-town shopping malls. Redistribution makes sense for the common good and yet, politically, it seems to be a nonstarter!

*Source: first survey by the Nicolas Hulot Foundation and Wimoov, in partnership with AMRF (the association of rural mayors of France).

Dominique Dhumeaux

Dominique Dhumeaux is vice president of AMRF (the association of rural mayors of France) and, since 2008, mayor of Fercé‑sur‑Sarthe, a town with a population of 630 in the Pays de la Loire region, west France. He helped draft France’s recent “LOM” mobility law and was actively involved in preparing the Rural Agenda in response to the Gilets Jaunes movement. He has developed numerous mobility solutions in his town, including a shared electric vehicle service.

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