Rural bus services are often a lifeline for citizens. Through our work over the last year, we’ve met with communities who rely on these services. They include families who require access to jobs, schools and childcare. They include young people just starting their career, older people who need access to shops and friends, and those with disabilities who need support to move freely.
The stark reality of public sector cuts is that many non-statutory, rural transport services are at risk of being cut. With cuts comes the very real truth of alienating communities and negatively impacting the economy.
It’s time for something different
Together, we carried out in-depth research speaking directly with the users who depend on transport to understand the challenges and identify opportunities, including interviews and ride-alongs with residents and local suppliers, as well as analysing wider data on the transport network and demand.
The challenge lies in increasing the provision of viable transport options to rural communities while also reducing cost. We spotted an opportunity to help meet travel demand by improving existing demand responsive transport (DRT) — flexible routing and scheduling of shared-ride vehicles according to passengers needs.
These services were already operating in areas of Suffolk and Essex where we’d established latent demand, yet regularly ran with spare capacity and downtime. We found that the existing DRT programmes didn’t offer a seamless experience. Most local residents were unaware of how to use these services, or perceived that they ‘aren’t meant for them’. What could happen if we made these services more accessible and appealing to a wider audience? How might technology play a role in helping more people to access these services? How might clearer signals of the true travel demand help shape local services to be more effective and efficient?
With Suffolk and Essex, we developed the concept for a new digital booking platform, called RIDE. With a clear branding proposition and a user-friendly experience, the platform allows residents to discover and book local on-demand services offered by many local suppliers and enables residents to request services to help identify new opportunities. For the last six months, we’ve tested and developed this concept by partnering with local services to promote and run real journeys to underserved local destinations and events in rural Essex and Suffolk.
Time for growth
We are excited that Suffolk is growing this service by introducing a new service through a six-month pilot programme. Beginning 1 August, a new Demand Responsive service will link Haverhill directly with West Suffolk Hospital, a high-demand destination 18 miles away from the town centre. Thanks to our partnership, Suffolk is entering this new pilot route with the confidence and know-how to provide viable travel options that will help people make the journeys they need.
The creation and implementation of this new service signals a shift in how councils can become active investors in new services, rather than passive recipients of the old, big-bus services.
Now it’s your turn
With a creative outlook and a willingness to learn from the community, we can create better, viable rural transport options with the tools and services we already have. We learnt a great deal during our 12 months of designing and testing alongside Suffolk and Essex, capturing an in-depth look at the challenges of rural transport in a paper written with Transport Catapult.
We know RIDE is only one possible solution to an increasing issue of rural communities being cut-off from opportunity. We are positive other solutions exist that are waiting to be uncovered and we’d love to hear more about what other councils are up to in facing this challenge.