A long journey ahead – the future of rural transport?

by Emma Cooper, Chief Executive of Scottish Rural Action
From getting to work, to school, the doctor, the shops, we all need to get somewhere at some point. We all know it’s harder (or at least more expensive) to have a transport system that works for everyone in a rural community, but we also know it is an essential – and I mean ESSENTIAL – service. And with a growing concern over social isolation and mental health in rural communities, we should remember it’s not just for the practical tasks that we need to get around.
So I attended a conference this week on ‘Policy priorities for transport in Scotland – infrastructure, connectivity, and supporting economic growth’. A bit of a mouthful that, but I can’t disagree with the stated priorities although I would add a few (affordability, accessibility…).You won’t be surprised that the conversation was dominated by urban issues – congestion and air pollution rarely cause our rural-dwellers the same issues as urban folk – but there were a few gems for those interested in rural transport:

  1. Mobility as a Service (MaaS) – Stop! Put that credit agreement down. You don’t need to buy a new car. Firstly, you’ll be wanting a driverless model by 2020 anyway, and secondly, no-one is going to own their own car at all by 2027. Instead, we will all be purchasing ‘mobility’ instead, through car shares perhaps (driverless, zero carbon, flying ones I hope) – no-one quite knows what it will look like, so you have to let your imagination run free here – on a pay as you go or contract basis, presumably, much like mobile phone calls (‘communication as a service’).   Sounds great as I hate cleaning out the car anyway, as anyone unfortunate enough to have been given a lift by me knows, but I’m sceptical about the effect of MaaS on rural communities – will it improve the situation, or make it worse? If we leave it to the private sector to deliver MaaS, will we get left behind as ‘non-commercially viable’? After all, many of us still struggle to get a decent mobile phone signal.
  2. Devolving decisions – The community of Uist has been given its own bus budget to manage. Instead of the local authority deciding in consultation with the community where and when bus services should run, they’ve handed over the decision-making power. A great idea? Certainly sounds like it, and I’m looking forward to finding out more. If communities decide, we might get more innovative and effective systems for our money. Can’t argue with that. If it works, lets see more of this in the future.
  3. Ferry fare commitments – Last but not least, there was a welcome re-statement from Minister for Transport and Islands Humza Yousaf about the Scottish Government’s commitment, as per the Programme for Government, to reducing ferry fares for the northern routes. The introduction of RET, which has reduced fares elsewhere in Scotland but doesn’t apply to the north, has indicated a significant impact on the usage of ferry services with correlating social and economic benefits.

It’s good to know the future of transport  – short and long-term – is being talked about by the great and the good, but whatever it looks like, we must never forget it has to work for us all and not simply stop at the edge of a town or city.

Emma Cooper


Emma joined SRA in 2014 and was our Chief Executive until February 2019. She is going to be touring in a mega motorhome so might be out of touch with us for a while.

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