The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated digitalization and so changed the way we work, learn and do our shopping and doctor visits. Even after the pandemic much of it will stay. This has also consequences on where we might live. At least for office workers their work location got less important and living outside of cities has become an attractive option. This could reduce housing shortage in the cities but also help to solve issues of suburban and rural communities.
This article is about Mobility as a Service in suburban and rural areas and their lower dependency on transport. It outlines current challenges, ideas and initiatives. And it puts a bet on the Next Big Thing: high quality living and remote working in the countryside.
Urban, Suburban and Rural Areas
What is urban and what is rural? There are many definitions for levels of urbanization and they differ a lot. In Denmark a 300 people community would be considered as “urban”, whereas in China “urban” probably starts with more than a million people. From a transport point of view the most relevant metrics in addition to longer distances might be the population and their density as their combination determines which modes of transport and infrastructure are most appropriate. So we follow the World Bank’s definition for this purpose, which describes three types of settlements:
- Cities/Urban: population >50,000 with a density of >1,500 inhabitants per km2
- Towns/Suburban: population >5,000 with a density of >300 inhabitants per km2
- Rural: which consist mostly of low-density grid cells
Rural Area Challenges
What is the issue with rural areas? Their challenges vary per region in their order – but many rural communities share the same to a certain degree. With an increasing urbanization the issues got worse over time. The top five challenges of rural areas in Europe according to SmartRural21 are:
- Aging / youth migration
- Limited entrepreneurial activity
- Lack of good transport connection
- Lack of access to fast Internet connection
As we will see later in this article, solving the transportation Internet issues 4 and 5 could mitigate the issues 1-3 in consequence.
Issue 4, the lack of good transport connection, also often becomes an issue for the city nearby: the gravity of available jobs combined with centrifugal force or high costs for housing in the cities leads to many people working in the cities but living in the outskirts. In case of poor public transport or mobility services between the cities and their suburban or rural homes, people depend on their own cars. Inbound commuters drive their cars into the city and cause congestion, pollution, accidents and all related urban traffic issues as outlined in the article “How to keep cars out of cities”. For example in New Delhi up to 40% of the entire traffic or 400.000 vehicles per day come from inbound commuters. But outbound commuting can also add a significant share to the commuter traffic: e.g. in Berlin two third is inbound and one third outbound commute. So the lack of good transport connection is not just a rural problem. It can induce massive transport-related issues from the surrounding areas into the cities as well.
A common but short-sighted and toxic policy to ‘connect’ rural areas are tax reductions via commuting allowance for driving the distance from someone’s home to the workplace in the city. In Europe such commuting allowances exist e.g. in Austria, Belgium, France, Germany, Luxemburg, Poland, Portugal and Switzerland. This allowance is a subsidy and incentive for long rides, emissions and all the negative effects associated with it. It clearly contradicts climate protection efforts and environmental scientists urge to abolish the commuting allowance. The tax savings from skipping this policy could be used e.g. to finance rural development and mobility options to achieve the same. Making the tax allowance dependent on using public transport or offering a carpool was another idea discussed.
Solving suburban transport issues will reduce urban transport issues as well. The good news is that recent developments might mitigate some of these issues.
What has Changed?
The pandemic has served as a catalyzer for digitalization and accelerated changes, which were already on their way:
- Home Office
- Online Shopping
- Distance Learning
In combination these changes make office workers less dependent on living close to an office in an expensive, overcrowded, noisy and polluted city. If you are one of these privileged people, who can work from home, you can call yourself lucky.
Many companies have realized that their productivity has improved during the lockdown. Video conferences are usually more efficient and workers get less distracted at home than in an open floor environment. Coffee and cigarette breaks without exchanging gossip are also shorter. So no surprise that many companies even think of shrinking their expensive office space to just a few hot desks and meeting facilities – but otherwise give their staff the freedom to work from home. Future will show how work day patterns will look like in such a teleworking environment. Consulting firms with their four day remote and one day jointly in the office scheme might become a blueprint.
Assuming your future schedule will require you to meet your team in the office only once a week for workshops and face to face meetings, this gives you four days per week where you don’t need to commute, save time, money and reduce your carbon footprint. On the fifth day you might therefore accept a longer commute – of course with sustainable modes of transport, ideally giving you time to work or relax on a train instead of driving a car. For people, who prefer to work in an office environment with other people around, rural coworking spaces closer to their homes might be an option. We’ll touch on it later in this article. Even if you never wanted to become a digital nomad – your job no longer requires you to live in the city. You are free now.
No news for electronic commerce unless you have ever lived in the countryside. There you may have experienced how much effort it is to get some specific goods if you local shops haven’t got them in stock. Today almost everything can be purchased online and delivered to you – even in rural areas. As long as you have basic shopping facilities around, shopping is no longer an issue in the countryside and passenger traffic gets reduced.
Baker van hybrid commerce: When I was a kid living in the countryside, twice a week the local baker browsed the hills of the area with his delivery vehicle, blew the horn and stopped at crossings close to some farm houses. The locals knew roughly when the baker would appear and could hear the horn blowing already minutes before on the neighboring hills. When the baker’s van arrived, people were already waiting and could buy bread, cakes but also some other grocery goods directly from the vehicle. Recently I have heard from a rural food truck driver that they have extended a similar offer with a click & collect delivery service, allowing their local customers to order specific goods online to be delivered on their next tour. This allows delivery vehicles to extend their regular stock with a wide range of grocery products delivered on-demand despite the limited capacity of the van. This approach could give otherwise unprofitable local grocery stores an advantage and solve a mobility issue at once.
The most important skills our kids learn at school are social skills, not knowledge. And no, kids won’t learn them remotely. So physical kindergartens and schools will still be needed.
When my parents decided to move from a city in Germany to the Austrian countryside, I was eleven years old and had to switch from an urban high school to a foreign small village school. Terrible? No! Not at all. After some time I very much enjoyed it. It was a healthy and respectful environment with children from all backgrounds and social classes, who learned to deal with and support each other: important social skills. But what about the level of education? Will children from small village schools have any prospects? Well, I became an engineer. Other schoolmates became farmers, carpenters, construction workers, teachers or one even a chemist with a PhD. You got the full range – at a time when online learning did not even exist.
Today’s pupils have more options. They find private tuitions at YouTube or in online learning groups – and they gain knowledge far beyond their school’s curriculum if they want to. This is even more the case for students. Given the growing number and quality of massive open online courses (MOOC), where thousands of students can attend and interact at the same time, lecture halls with ex cathedra teaching look like relics from the Stone Age to me.
Distance learning is a big chance for students from rural areas and even from developing countries. If you look at the participant locations of Harvard Business School Online or MITx courses, you see more and more students from all over the world getting access to excellent education and to the world’s labor market without being on site. All they need is a computer, solar power, and an Internet connection. So if you hire new staff in future, you might just want to mention the time zone rather than a specific work location in the job description and so have access to a much broader applicant base.
The biggest change might currently happen in the health sector – with medical practices and hospitals close to a breaking point and medical staff at high infection risk. To protect their patients and themselves many doctors try to reduce the number of walk-in visits by offering online consultations. For minor issues not requiring physical examinations or treatments it reduces the need to travel to the doctor’s office.
Especially preventive medical checkups and preliminary diagnoses can be supported by medical expert systems, such as skin cancer prevention apps. These systems use artificial intelligence to tap into the experience of thousands of examinations – more experience than any human doctor can ever obtain. They will never make a doctor obsolete – but can support them with routine tasks and also reduce travel needs for patients.
All of the above mentioned developments are no longer fiction. They have become part of the new normal. These developments make people less location-dependent and so help avoiding unnecessary transport. And they give at least many office workers more choices on where they want to live and work. Following Winston Churchill’s advice to “never let a good crisis go to waste” people could make use of the current crisis, embrace these changes and mitigate the downsides caused by increasing urbanization. If people not just live in rural areas but also work there and get basic supplies, there is less need to travel.
In a recent article “From peak city to ghost town: the urban centres hit hardest by Covid-19” the Financial Times outlined how hard some of the world’s leading business hubs got hit by the pandemic. During the lockdown their business districts were widely deserted and locals living there tried to move out to the surrounding countryside. Before the crisis when home office was not an option, the transport costs limited their range. With home office this has changed.
Will the pandemic have triggered a turnaround and the peak of urbanization has been reached? Probably not. But office workers might spread out even further to the surrounding countryside and also work there, which gives suburban and rural transport a higher priority. Assuming that even remote office workers will need to go to their office from time to time, this development will likely be predominant in the vicinity of large cities with a lot of offices. A focus for improving transport infrastructure and MaaS systems will likely be on the suburban areas as they will promise the best value for money.
A lack of transport connections was among the top five challenges named for rural areas. In rural areas public transport is often centered around school buses. This can mean that there is just one bus in the morning, one in the afternoon and none at the weekends nor on holidays. Due to this lack of transportation options, people living in the so-called mobility deserts often depend on their cars. In case they have no access to a car, cannot afford one or cannot drive, this leaves them without basic mobility in a state of transport poverty. As a result in suburban areas and even more in rural areas there are more cars per household. The longer distances in rural areas lead to an even higher percentage of vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in rural areas. The image below shows the respective distributions for the United States.
Car ownership depends on the available alternatives. By comparing two extremes you can imagine what is possible with providing alternatives to cars. Of course factors such as the population density or the political system also play an important role.
The US is one of the most car-centric countries. Public transport is often seen there as public welfare and public transport users are sometimes stigmatized as “bus people”. Respectively few households own no cars: 13% in cities and just 5% in suburban and rural areas. This is a very different mindset than what the former mayor of Bogotá, Gustavo Petro, suggests: “A developed country is not when the poor have cars. It is when the rich use public transportation.” Leading by example could also help changing the perception for sustainable mobility as Mark Rutte, Prime Minister of the Netherlands, demonstrates by – of course – cycling to work.
The low ridership figures and respective loss in ticket revenues during the COVID-19 pandemic has caused many public transport companies to drastically cut down their services while struggling for survival. A financial collapse of public transportation agencies in the US would especially hurt low-income riders and essential workers but also those in the less profitable suburban and rural areas.
In contrast to the US the very dense Singapore is known for very strict car ownership policies, high taxes on cars but excellent public transport. This is reflected in an extremely low car ownership of just 12% on average or 88% of households owning no car. European countries are located somewhere in between these two extremes, closer to the US.
Another indicator for the importance of alternative modes of transport for a low car ownership are data from some cities in Australia. They show that car ownership decreases within walking distance to the next train station. Similar patterns can be seen close to subway stations, where also property prices increase as a consequence, see the article on mobility hubs.
There are many pointers indicating that it needs better, more reliable, accessible and affordable alternatives before people abandon their own cars, which is understandable. And it will take time to build up trust – trust that the new alternative mobility services will not disappear suddenly leaving the user stranded without a car. A public private partnership (PPP) with an established, trusted public transport provider as the leading brand might help to gain trust faster.
Rural Mobility Services
Following an Avoid-Shift-Improve approach, we have seen that we can avoid some traffic by enabling people to work close to where they live. To shift the remaining traffic from cars to more sustainable modes of transport, these modes simply need to be the better alternatives.
Legacy public transport systems using fixed route scheduled buses or railways work well on highly frequented routes. In the countryside this is often the case for school buses or shuttles to specific destinations such as ski lifts in touristic areas at certain times – but unlikely for the daily commute use case. So they regularly cannot compete with cars in rural areas. They are not flexible enough and their costs are too high. The large vehicles require high occupancy to be efficient although combining the transport of goods and passengers could increase efficiency. WLAN Internet connectivity and bookable seats in trains would allow travelers to work on their journey, which would be a major advantage compared to self-driving a car. Due to the low usage their frequency and operating hours are often very limited, leading to an even lower usage, leading to further service cuts and so on – a vicious circle. Simply increasing their frequency, operating hours or even more their area of operation to solve this chicken-egg-problem would exponentially increase their costs. So fixed route scheduled traffic is not an option for commuting in far-flung areas with a low population density. But what are the alternatives?
Demand-responsive transit (DRT) services such as shuttle buses, taxis or ride hailing services can only operate sustainably if the trip revenues (incl. subsidies) cover the costs for the total distance from their base via the passenger’s origin and destination back to their base. This is also true for citizens’ bus services driven by volunteers or autonomous vehicles. It would just reduce the costs for the driver but not change the logic. It becomes obvious that the ratio between base-to-passenger and the passenger’s trip distances largely determine their efficiency. The closer they are located to the passenger, the better. The same is true for emissions: if rides cannot be shared, starting at your own house creates the lowest emissions. Under the assumption that both options have the same relative costs and emissions, your own car systematically wins. For DRT the ride from and to base always comes on top. I hate to say it but for this reason privately owned vehicles may be the best option for single household point-to-point rides in far-flung areas, both from an economical and from an ecological perspective. The vehicles don’t need to be cars. For many trips cycling or using an electric moped might also do the job. Nevertheless DRT services might still be needed to serve those who cannot drive a vehicle on their own or don’t have one available. And DRT can be the better option as soon as they are used as feeder traffic e.g. to connect to a train station or if rides get pooled.
Ride sharing or carpooling covering multiple households or consecutive rides in a spatial sequence can change the calculation and make DRT the best option – even this is challenging from an operations point of view. Carpooling effectiveness is very much dependent on the matching probability, which can be very low in rural areas, at least for point-to-point connections, see the article on carpooling lessons learned. The matching probability will be much higher if pooling gets used as feeder traffic on the first or last mile connecting to a mobility hub. Another aspect is flexibility: if passengers request rides well in advance and define a time window instead of just a point in time, drivers and passengers can adjust to it and so increase the matching probability a lot.
Peer-to-peer (P2P) ride sharing or carpooling as a form of neighbourhood assistance is already very common in many regions, although it is usually limited to direct neighbors. Adding passengers to rides, which already happen, is by far the most efficient, cheapest and least polluting option. Online carpooling platforms can build on the existing neighbourhood assistance and help connect more people and so improve matching probability. Given its economical and ecological benefits and its cultural anchoring in rural societies, P2P ride sharing is likely the most promising transport option for an improved coverage of rural areas. To be effective it requires a carpooling platform connecting supply and demand as well as support from the local communities, ideally covering all users of an entire area and not just single communities.
Shared vehicles such as shared scooters, bikes, mopeds or cars will most likely be offered in a station-based round-trip business model with the pick-up and return at the same station, not in a free-floating one. This approach minimized the rebalancing costs, which would otherwise dramatically increase the operational costs. Nevertheless vehicle sharing stations in sparsely populated areas share one problem: the users need to get to the stations. In case the stations are not located within walking distance, the user needs another vehicle to get there, which limits their use to just a few people. Some exceptions might be use cases such as driving to the station by bike to get a shared car needed for transporting goods. Discounted overnight tariffs, which allows users to take a vehicle home overnight and bring it back the next morning, could also increase the value of the transport system by virtually “extending” its service hours. In touristic areas bike sharing schemes provide an opportunity for additional revenues and offer tourists a sustainable way to explore the area, preferably with e-bikes or pedelecs in hilly or mountainous areas.
Analog to P2P ride sharing, peer-to-peer vehicle sharing among neighbors may be more efficient. This kind of neighbourhood assistance could also be supported via online sharing platforms and tailored insurance offers. Especially in developing countries bikes and electric mopeds can significantly improve people’s mobility as they usually need less maintenance and the ‘fuel’ can be locally produced with solar panels. The World Bicycle Relief even directly supports pupils and small businesses in developing countries with subsidized, sturdy bikes and the training of local mechanics. Safe bike paths also support the use of bikes.
Boats or planes are often the only means of transport in areas with poor or no streets. When I worked on a small island in Alaska, the company owner had his own two-seater plane, which he shared with two neighbors and offered “flight pooling” to the rest of the little community. He told me that this was much cheaper and faster than a seagoing boat.
Mobility as a Service platforms allow the combination of all aforementioned modes of transport and their most efficient use. They could gradually build on the existing modes in co-creation with the local community stakeholders and so assure acceptance and adoption. Rural MaaS systems might face other challenges than urban MaaS systems: in some areas there might be a lack of mobile network coverage or frequent power outages, which requires offline solutions for disruption handling or for the unlocking of shared vehicles. Computer illiteracy is another aspect, which may be solved via a call center. A fancy smartphone app alone won’t do the job. Local phone support, driver services and vehicle maintenance also create business opportunities for the community.
Mobility Hubs and CoWorking Spaces
Switching modes will likely require some waiting time in between. This gives safe and convenient waiting areas in mobility hubs a higher importance than in cities, where you have alternative shelter options. Park & Ride as well as Bike & Ride facilities with electric vehicle charging options allow people from the area to drive the first miles with their own vehicles and then proceed their journey with more sustainable modes.
Rural mobility hubs in villages could also fulfill important community functions: they could also serve as café, a co-working space, a baker and grocery store, a post office, a parcel locker, a notice board, or a communication hub where the community meets – a contemporary fireside or village lime tree. For more potential functions see the article on mobility hubs.
Human beings need social interaction and constant work at home can lead to isolation and loneliness. It may also be hard to focus on work while young kids are at home. The more home office workers live in an area, the higher the need for a local coworking space, where people can gather in a working atmosphere, even when they work for different companies.
Broadband internet access: In remote areas without a cable connection a satellite connection might be an alternative. This would currently still be too expensive for a single home office but with the upcoming StarLink connections it can be affordable for shared coworking locations. Building up such an infrastructure in rural areas, which allows residents to live and work and get 80% of their daily needs covered in their home village could create polycentric or polynuclear settlements with lower commuting needs and distances.
A short bike ride to and from the village’s coworking office might also be a healthy routine to start and end a working day. In addition to properly equipped working desks, the spaces would need meeting rooms equipped for video conferences. And in case the workers would still have to go to the office in the city, they are already halfway there, located at a mobility hub.
In many towns and villages there are abandoned buildings such as old train stations in locations well suited for mobility hubs. These buildings could eventually be used for this purpose. Alternative locations are extensions for existing meeting places such as bakeries, cafés or the local pub – always depending on the wants and needs of the community.
Customer Wants and Needs
Customer requirements regarding mobility services in rural areas may differ significantly. Four user categories may be predominant:
- Locals – people, who live there since their youth, often elderly people with deep-rooted behaviours
- Home comers – people, who grew up there, then moved out and now return to their roots
- Incomers – city dwellers, who got attracted by the countryside and moved out from the city
- Tourists – even if they will only be present in some regions, they might be a key enabler for new mobility services
All of these customer groups have very different wants and needs and mindsets. The three latter ones usually bring additional money, which is why they might fuel the change. Especially home comers might play a key role as they are trusted by the locals but likely also understand all other groups. They might be more open to new mobility services based on their experience in cities but also know the circumstances for a local implementation. And they might be able to mediate when young hipsters and old farmers don’t understand each other. Mobility services wanted by tourists will be seen as investments rather than as public welfare.
When it comes to the provision of transport modes it is important to understand who in the community is able to drive on their own and who needs to be driven. Children, the elderly and people with special needs need to be considered in the modal mix. Especially elderly people might struggle with new modes of transport and the unknown way of booking them although they will be the ones who profit most. For them a low-threshold offer and trusted people nudging them, taking them by their hand and jointly performing a test ride might help to overcome reservations and make them familiar with their new mobility options.
The corona crisis has accelerated the digitalization trends such as working from home and made us less dependent on cities. It now allows many office workers to live in the countryside and at least partially work there. This is also an opportunity for rural areas to attract these people and revitalize their villages. This would also relieve some housing and traffic pressure from cities. Good public transport connections to the next city will play an important role in this development and MaaS can be a key enabler as well as coworking-enabled mobility hubs.
Now I have to end this article as I’ on the run to check out some opportunities in a nice village not too far away …
- The European SMARTA (SMArt Rural Transport Areas) project offered workshops, webinars and a collection of good practices and country-specific insight papers with links to local initiatives
- Reasons for the increasing motorized individual transport in rural areas (German language)
- Importance of stakeholder involvement for rural MaaS
- The All Aboard initiative is piloting MaaS in rural areas in Finland
- Rural bike sharing in the US
- Implementing Mobility hubs in rural areas (CoMoUK webinar recording)
- Interreg Europe info on how to foster collaborative spaces in rural areas
- Southworking in Italy
- Coworkland in Germany
- Coworking in Australia
- CoWork Wiki for North America and Europe
Feel free to add further sources via comments.