Our new research, 'The future of rural bus services in the UK', shows how we can turn the tide of cut off communities and make sure our towns and villages stay accessible for everyone.
Across much of rural UK, public transport is poor and getting worse. Sending the occasional bus on circuitous routes around far apart villages was never a particularly attractive proposition to passengers or policy makers. Add in a decade of year-on-year cuts to local authority supported bus services, and you have a recipe for the wholesale loss of entire transport networks.
But accessible and affordable public transport is as important in rural areas as anywhere else. If there's no bus, then those without a car, typically older people, younger people and those on low incomes, find themselves stranded and isolated. And even those who can drive are finding themselves on increasingly congested roads with the associated air pollution and environmental damage increased car use causes.
Whilst there is widespread recognition that rural public transport is vital and needs to be improved, there has been little coherent national leadership or support to achieve this. Despite some success stories, overall a patchwork of different types of public transport has developed with little or no coordination between them. There are services run by different operators who don't jointly plan their network (let alone allow passengers to use a return ticket bought from a different bus operator on the same route) and there's public money paying for school and patient transport which others aren't allowed to use.
Things need to change, and our research sets out how. Creating comprehensive and consistent networks in rural areas can be achieved if we pool resources and involve communities in planning. As a basis, this should include:
- Buses and local rail services that connect with each other
- More 'demand responsive' services, like dial-a-ride, with flexible routes in areas with less demand
- Community-based transport, like taxis and minibuses, as part of the public transport network
- Using technology like apps and smart ticketing to provide transport where and when people need it
- Examining how car clubs, bike hire schemes and ‘mobility as a service’, which lets people plan and book journeys involving multiple transport modes in one go, might be used in rural areas.
Based on these ideas, there is an opportunity to rethink rural public transport and ensure all communities have a genuine choice about how they travel.