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Nearly one million people stranded in 'transport deserts' as rural travel links cut

10 February 2020

Thriving rural communities need to be well-connected with good public transport, yet 56 per cent of small towns in the South West and North East of England are found to be 'transport deserts' or at risk of becoming one: calls for the government to invest in rural communities by establishing a dedicated rural transport fund.

More than half of small towns in the south west and north east of England have such bad transport connectivity that they are considered to be living in 'transport deserts' or are at imminent risk of becoming one, according to new research conducted by Campaign for Better Transport for CPRE, the countryside charity. Nearly one million people (975,227) who live in these towns have no option for convenient and affordable public transport and risk being cut off from basic services if they don’t have access to a car.

A 'transport desert' occurs when a community lacks the public transport options for residents to be able to conveniently travel on a day to day basis without driving. The research is the first attempt to develop a scoring system to rank the public transport options available to rural communities.

Public transport services, including bus, train and community transport options, were scored in over 160 locations in the South West and North East against their accessibility and frequency. The analysis has shown that in 56 per cent of the cases, residents who can’t drive or are unable to afford a car are at risk of being cut off from basic services.

Darren Shirley, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said:

"Nearly a quarter of the country's population lives in small towns, too many of which have become transport deserts. In some cases, towns which lost their railway stations in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s are now losing the bus services that were brought in to replace them.
"Weak transport provision is a major barrier to participation in these towns, affecting low income households, older people and those in education and training the most. A lack of sustainable transport options also undermines efforts to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.
"Small towns have been sidelined for too long: the Government must act to reconnect these transport deserts."

Beneath the headlines, the research shows that the lack of public transport in some counties is even more severe: 

  • Dorset: ten out of the 14 small towns in Dorset have become 'transport deserts' or are at risk of being absorbed into one. This is 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.

Crispin Truman, chief executive at CPRE, the countryside charity, said: 

"A thriving countryside depends on well-connected small towns and villages serviced by low carbon public transport that fit into people’s everyday lives. But it is clear that, outside of England’s major cities, communities are being left high and dry in ever widening 'transport deserts' with completely inadequate bus and train connections. And this is having dramatic effect on rural communities – young people are compelled to move away, older people are left isolated and lonely, while less affluent families can be sucked into a cycle of debt and poverty. 

"CPRE is calling on the government to act now to reconnect everyone with proper public transport options. That means establishing a dedicated rural transport fund. But recent government funding to re-open some railway lines across the country does not go nearly far enough – especially in the shadow of the £28.8 billion planned spend on roads. If the prime minister and this Government are serious about 'spreading opportunity to every corner of the UK' we need decisive action to stop the march of 'transport deserts'."


For further information, case studies or to interview a spokesperson please contact: 

Jonathan Jones, CPRE Media Relations Lead, 020 7981 2819/ 078 3529 1907 for further information

Campaign for Better Transport press office: 020 3746 2235, communications@bettertransport.org.uk

Notes to editors

The full research paper can be found here.

Transport Deserts: a definition

A 'transport desert' is a settlement which is inappropriately served by public transport in a way that is likely to limit choices and opportunities for the people who live there. Living in a 'transport desert' means that you are reliant on travelling by car for your day to day life. For instance, you might not have access to a train line for getting to work, there might be no bus you can take to pick up groceries, or there might not be enough services to allow you to get to a GP appointment on time. 
It is worth stressing that the concept of a 'transport desert' is a relative one. For an individual, anywhere is a 'transport desert' if you lack the means to use the services and facilities available. Across the country, the quality and extent of public transport varies considerably. Equally, a relative lack of transport choice will mean something very different in a large city compared with a small village.

About the research:

The 'Transport Deserts' methodology is based on a simple indicative scoring system for each settlement. The scoring methodology seeks to capture the extent and usefulness of the public transport services in a way that is relatively simple and easy to understand. Marks are given for frequency of bus and train service in peak and off-peak periods, reflecting different user needs. Limited marks are also given for direct access to coach services and for taxi and community transport.

This methodology has been applied to two regions of England; the North East and the South West. These were selected as examples of regions with large rural areas which experience a diverse range of social and economic challenges. In the South West 111 settlements and small towns have been identified. In the North East 51 settlements and small towns have been identified.

Cuts to local bus services

According to Future of the Bus by the Campaign for Better Transport, cuts to local bus services have impacted 3000 bus routes between 2010 and 2018. That’s more than one bus route lost every single day for the last 8 years. Uniquely for a major transport mode, the UK has had no national strategy for buses. The government is set to release a national bus strategy in this parliament.

About CPRE, the countryside charity

CPRE is the countryside charity that campaigns to promote, enhance and protect the countryside for everyone’s benefit, wherever they live. With a local CPRE in every county, we work with communities, businesses and government to find positive and lasting ways to help the countryside thrive - today and for generations to come.

Founded in 1926, President: Emma Bridgewater, Patron: Her Majesty The Queen. www.cpre.org.uk

For more information on CPRE’s position go to our website to view our manifesto in full: 

About Campaign for Better Transport
Campaign for Better Transport operates in England and Wales. We campaign to bring sustainable transport to all and ensure solutions are delivered that improve the wellbeing of communities, quality of life and the environment. Campaign for Better Transport Charitable Trust is a registered charity (1101929).