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Reconnecting our 'Transport Deserts'

Darren Shirley's picture

For many years we've heard about places that no longer had any public transport. It became such a theme that we coined a term for them - 'transport deserts'. 

Many of the people who contacted us from these places spoke of the decline in public transport starting with the loss of their train station as a result of Beeching's cuts, and ending when, after decades of decline, the final bus service to the town was withdrawn as a result of local authority funding cuts. 

The loss of public transport can have a devastating effect on the local area, reducing people's access to employment and education; impacting on people's health and wellbeing; reducing people's independence; and restricting people's social activities. People who are unable to drive or afford to own a car are often the worst affected. Even if you are able to use a car to get around, car dependency brings its own problems, not least in increased congestion and reduced air quality. A lack of sustainable transport options is also undermining the Government's efforts to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

We wanted to work out a way to identify these places, and crucially identify places that were at risk of becoming transport deserts before they were unreachable by public transport. We devised a methodology that uses a scoring system to rate towns according to the availability of public and community transport to underpin our future work on local transport. We applied it to two regions of England - the North East and the South West - in a report for CPRE, the countryside charity. The areas were selected as examples of regions with large rural areas which experience a diverse range of social and economic challenges. The report, Transport Deserts: The absence of transport choice in England’s small towns, is our first attempt to develop a system to rank the public transport choice in towns across the regions.  

We found that more than half (56 per cent) of small towns in these two areas of the country have such bad transport connectivity that they are considered to be living in 'transport deserts' or are at imminent risk of becoming one.

The report found that in:

  • Dorset, ten out of the 14 small towns have become 'transport deserts' or are at risk of being absorbed into one, after 80 per cent cuts to spending on bus services in the county
  • Devon, 17 of the 25 towns investigated are in the same position
  • County Durham, only six of the 22 small towns covered by the research have a remaining train station
  • Northumberland, six of the 12 towns investigated are at risk of becoming 'transport deserts', including Alnwick, Newbiggin and Seaton Delaval.

With nearly a quarter of the country's population living in small towns, this report shows that public transport for these 975,227 people has been sidelined for too long: the Government must act now to reconnect these transport deserts.

Read the research in full: Transport Deserts: The absence of transport choice in England’s small towns