ITC debates rural transport accessibility

Rural Transport in Britain: how can we improve provision and accessibility?

Alan Baxter CBE welcomes audienceThe Occasion

Transport is essential for the sustainability of the UK’s rural communities, providing connectivity for many residents to their key services, employment and families. At the same time, rural transport provision has been declining since 2007 according to DfT figures, and many operators struggle to make routes financially viable. With many local services under threat from cutbacks and austerity measures, how can we ensure rural transport in the future is accessible, affordable and more widely available? Is this an unachievable goal? Or can realistic strategies be developed to improve conditions for these vulnerable communities?

The ITC hosted a Discussion Evening to debate these issues on 22nd October 2013 chaired by Dr Stephen Hickey, an ITC Commissioner and Chairman of the Community Transport Association (CTA). The subject was introduced via presentations from a distinguished panel comprising: John Birtwistle, Projects Director at FirstGroup; Bill Freeman, Chief Executive of the CTA; and Peter Warman, Director of WarmanConsult.


Rural Transport in Britain – key issues raised by the speakers:

  • John Birtwistle explained the challenges faced by commercial operators of rural transport services. These included falling demand for rural public transport, congestion caused by poor parking from car-users, and the lack of a constant churn of passengers on many routes. He added that a further issue was related to market restrictions, whereby competition rules sometimes blocked the purchase of small family-run bus operators by larger firms when the former wanted to sell. The costs of purchasing and maintaining vehicles were on the rise, but at the same time subsidies from local authorities were under threat. All these factors were making commercial operations in rural areas less profitable and therefore less viable. However, he suggested that a number of these problems could be addressed, and rural communities should take the initiative in working with operators to maintain viable services.
  • Bill Freeman examined the role of the charitable and voluntary sector in rural transport provision. He reported that not-for-profit services had a vital role, with half of all CTA journeys nationwide being in rural areas, with tens of thousands of volunteers helping to operate services. However, he also warned of serious challenges ahead, including local authority funding cuts, falling incomes of users, and a lack of integrated network planning. To address these issues he called for leadership from local authorities in providing a strategic vision for rural services, and also for policy and regulatory changes to make community transport services easier to run.
  • Peter Warman focused on the future of rural transport and how provision could be improved. He noted that current problems had been in the making for 50 years and that the origin of rural settlements was often unrelated to their present role. Only a few commercial scheduled public transport solutions were feasible, he noted, mainly along inter-urban corridors. The car-dependent rural resident was increasingly vulnerable due to fewer filling stations, and a ‘travel-assured’ alternative to the car would be valuable to such residents. Widespread mobile phone coverage and the roll-out of super-fast broadband during the next three years in rural areas would make possible new solutions, including local travel assurance schemes and virtual local travel brokerage schemes run by individual parishes with high community involvement.

John Birtwistle explains commercial operations

Key themes raised in the discussion:

  • Local communities have a major role to play. Many delegates suggested that local communities need to be more active in bringing users together and supporting community transport. At the same time there were calls for stronger leadership from local authorities in determining and setting local transport strategies. A plea was made for local authorities to take a holistic view of their service provision obligations, and not consider public transport in isolation. It was suggested that existing assets could be harnessed better, such as community goodwill and underused vehicles.
  • Demographic trends will change rural transport needs. A recurring theme was the way in which rural demographics were changing transport behaviour. It was noted that rural populations were aging as younger people looked for employment and cheaper housing elsewhere. The sharp increase in female driving licence holding after the 1960s was reflected in an increasing proportion of older women using cars in rural areas. The higher proportion of retirees in rural areas means more time to volunteer for community transport schemes until eventually they need to give up driving a car.
  • Improved legislation and regulatory changes can help. Several delegates suggested that red tape should be cut for rural service providers, including rail and taxi services. A more proportionate system of bus industry regulation was also seen as important. Some believed that legislative changes should also be implemented, such as allowing Section 19 small bus permit operators to access the concessionary fare scheme. Measures to improve rural road safety would improve the situation for rural walkers and cyclists. Concern was also expressed about the potential adverse effects of relaxing local parking restrictions, given the potential of this measure to increase obstructions for buses in villages and rural settlements.
  • Issues of equity should be taken into consideration. A debate arose about whether rural living was a lifestyle choice, given the high costs of rural living and the fact that only a tiny proportion of people in England lived a great distance from an urban area. Others noted that many rural residents, such as farm labourers, were not wealthy and subsidies for learning to drive would be help these people access employment. A further suggestion to improve fairness was to make the concessionary fares scheme more equitable.
  • Successful rural transport initiatives should be replicated more widely. Numerous delegates reported on initiatives that were helping to improve the provision of rural transport. Informal and formal Liftshare schemes are expanding to meet some forms of demand. The Wheels to Work scheme was also identified as a crucial asset matching transport with employment needs. A further example given was the way in which some counties had cut all subsidies for local transport, yet had retained reasonable rural transport provision through partnerships with commercial operators, a network of demand-responsive vehicles, and sharing resources with neighbouring authorities.
  • We need to harness both technological and social innovation. A major theme was whether the increasing availability of super-fast broadband in rural areas would provide new tools for demand-sensitive community transport. Others suggested that social innovation was at least as important in order to encourage rural communities to take initiatives and responsibility for finding appropriate local transport solutions.