After a century of uncontested dominance, the automobile is beginning to teeter. Strained by the climate crisis and urban congestion, our societies are giving more and more thought to alternative forms of mobility. While the figures are still modest (80% of mechanised travel continues to take place by car), this incipient transformation is ushering in a golden age for mobility solutions. The automobile industry itself has numerous new entrants seeking to reclaim their piece of a huge pie. The sometimes disconcerting fund-raising campaigns carried out in the sector in 2019 and 2020 bear witness to this: 300 million for Bird, 2.25 billion for Waymo (who has been working on the subject for 10 years) or 1.15 billion for Cruise Automation (for a total of 7 billion raised in 3 years)… And despite the resurgence of individual motoring during the Covid-19 crisis (+10% in Shenzhen), cities appear set on paving the way for the post-car world.
In this context, full of initiatives and innovations, one grey area remains: rural mobilities. At a time when cities are deploying a plethora of offers, the countryside remains absolutely dependent on the individual car. The yellow vest crisis, born of a carbon tax project deemed unfair, brought this reality back to the fore. In a study published with McKinsey, the World Economic Forum makes the same observation and attempts to propose a framework to regulate and encourage rural mobilities. Titled DRIVER, it is organised around 6 pillars: dynamic road, involvement of residents, intermodality, versatility, efficiency and adequate dimensioning. To offer an “applied” interpretation of this model, we looked for original initiatives mirroring the broad categories identified by the WEF.
Dynamic roads for the remote areas.
With varying demand, low densities and ageing populations: rural areas are particularly well suited to dynamic systems, released from traditional set, strict lines. Transport on Demand (TOD) services help effectively respond to fluctuating needs. In Europe, the GoOpti service embodies a new generation of solutions in step with the flexibility-related needs voiced by rural areas. Born in Slovenia and now deployed in Austria, Italy and Germany, it builds on the TOD model to enable people living in under-served rural areas to easily reach local airports. More humble in scale, but every bit as interesting,Luxembourg’s Bummelbus project adds a social dimension to the concept. In addition to transport on demand, this Sate-funded service offers a path to reintegration for the long-term unemployed. The start-up VanO, incubated at Leonard, forms part of this trend. Designed as a complement to the rail networks, its on-demand vans provide a shared mobility offer for low-density areas operating extensive hours.
Residents asked to pitch in
In some rural areas, the private initiatives are failing to achieve sufficient levels of profitability. Concurrently, the public forces are sometimes powerless to compensate for a deficient mobility infrastructure. Lastly, the shortage of drivers limits the development of transport services. In the face of this unfavourable combination of factors, collaborative solutions are offering encouraging prospects. Following in the footsteps of BlaBlaCar, numerous carpooling solutions are now helping to maximise the value of the existing car fleet. Atchoum for instance offers a turnkey rural solidarity “carpooling” solution. RezoPouce revisits an old practice and proposes bring some order to hitch-hiking: a way to reduce waiting times and increase users’ sense of security. In a more radical vein, autonomous shuttle bus lines like those deployed in the spa town of Bad Birnbach in Germany offer a good solution to the shortage of manpower.
While the development of Mobility as a service is a worldwide movement, it has particular resonance in rural areas. The scarcity of transport supply requires precise interconnection of each mode of transportation, so as to guarantee an acceptable experience. In this context, the application of usage data makes it possible to fine-tune the offer and, in the long term, to make adjustments in real time. Rural Maas initiatives are developing everywhere. In Denmark, the MinRejseplan application offers a particularly effective illustration of this trend. It enables its users to immediately identify the quickest and cheapest multimodal alternative to the individual vehicle. Moreover, it is backed up by the Plustur service, a shared minibus offer applicable to the first and last kilometre. The Finnish application Whim, more generalist in nature, has become a model at the global level and goes well beyond the rural/urban dichotomy.
Looping mobility back in
To foster the viability of mobility enterprises in rural areas, hybridising services and opening up to new sectors form a promising avenue. In the face of ageing populations, the health sector is particularly buoyant and is already the scene of some interesting initiatives. In Japan, the isolation of the elderly is a national problem. The on-demand shuttle service Choisoko makes it possible for the most vulnerable to stay in contact with health institutions and businesses. In Belgium, service provider Buurtkar takes the opposite approach, offering a shop and a mobile service centre. This roving philosophy has the effect of greatly reducing the mobility needs of the most fragile people.
Optimising what already exists
While it is perhaps the least striking option offered by the DRIVER framework, it is also one of the most significant. In order to open up to new forms of mobility, the rural world must be able to rely on a constantly evolving technological offer, but also bring its infrastructure forward. In this respect, the bicycle offers a good case study. While the average 24 km distance that lies between rural dwellers and their workplace is a deterrent, the lack of infrastructure is another obstacle not to be overlooked. According to Nicolas Mercat, mobilities specialist at Inddigo, the two fronts for encouraging the use of bicycles in rural areas are the development of electrically assisted bicycles as “transitional objects” and the deployment of secured pathways.
A sizeable matter
Keeping up a public mobility service in rural areas can often turn out a mind-boggling challenge. In 2016, a Japanese rail station made headlines by maintaining service for a single high school student. While the pictures told a poetic story, they illustrate above all the need to adapt infrastructure to needs. The service TADOU, rolled out in the Doubs region following a curtailment of transport services in 2006, is a good example of rational adaptation to declining needs. It offers a system of taxis on demand to registered users. Passengers are limited to 20 uses per month and can travel to the destination of their choice across the territory of 6 communities of communes. Today, TADOU has around 400 users per month and proves that low activity does not always have to mean the demise of mobility services.