Illustration of a brain inside a head

26 Apr 2019

Rural Transport

Planes, Trains and Automobiles transformed

At Snook we are preparing a series of scenario pieces to inform discussion about how a human-centred future might look. This is the first of these pieces, and opens the horizon on how we see rural transport futures. We don’t know that the future will look like this, but we know it won’t look like it does now. Join us in the conversation about what you think will happen, and more importantly how we can put humans at the heart of that future – on rural transport and much much more.

In “The Village” – the BBC drama by Peter Moffat, starring Maxine Peake, the modern age is ushered in by the arrival of a bus for the first time to the eponymous village in the Derbyshire Dales. My own grandmother cycled everywhere in rural south Armagh, on the Irish border, including a gasp-inducing 2-mile cycle whilst in labour – hours before giving birth to my mother. For many rural areas, transport has never really worked. For those who could afford cars, it might have been ok in the 1990s before the huge increases in insurance costs. But for those who can’t drive – and that’s both young people and many older people who didn’t learn – it excludes them from access to health and educational opportunities, jobs and society more broadly.

We have never created the rural equivalent of Mass public transport systems. As transport became more available to the working classes in cities, most people outside cities did not have access to that sort of transport. And when we came to design rural transport systems they were often done on urban models. All too often rural transport was designed by people with little experience of living in rural areas. This meant that as urban communities enjoyed growing connectivity, many areas outside our cities were left behind. The volume of passengers was never enough to sustain regular bus services, and sharing lifts went out of fashion in the 1980s, amid growing individualism and fear of crime.

We are now at a turning point. The rural bus is becoming endangered, and at the same time technology is changing how we move around. That creates the opportunity to replace a system that has worked for the few, but failed the many. Snook is interested in making sure that we put design principles at the heart of these changes, and that technology becomes a solution to the existing problems, rather than adding to those problems. We want to take an asset-based approach that knits existing social relationships with new technology to build an infrastructure that is a techno-socio-physical hybrid. That is, a new way of rural living that builds on existing connections to harness technology and overcome transport problems.

Snook has been working on ideas like “Mobility as a Service”, which sees transport, not in traditional infrastructure terms (road building, buying new vehicles), but rather as a way of allowing people to do everyday things they need to do. By getting to work, educational institutions and health providers it helps people to be a part of society, and that’s what Mobility as a Service is all about. Improved accessible transport services can help us reduce isolation and loneliness. This is an important shift in focus and should inform how we adopt new technology. It starts with identifying where people need to travel and identifying how that need can be met. This is particularly important as it will allow us to build inclusive transport systems that accommodate people who can’t drive a private car – because of age, disability, or wealth. We need to replace dysfunctional transport systems with transit that works for all.

Here are four speculative scenarios that might transform rural transport, we are keen to work with you to help make these possibilities realities, delivered through human centred design:

Platform based lift sharing

The first shift that could happen is the development of an online or app-based platform for lift sharing. This would allow people to share journeys they are planning to take, or were taking, and they can pick people up on the way. This could also allow for mileage to be recompensed – this is in contrast to the Uber model of replacing taxi drivers. It’s about creating an exchange economy, rather than turning over existing jobs to big corporations.

This is both eminently doable, and something that is closely aligned with existing apps like Uber. The real question is – why hasn’t it happened yet?

That might be because the money behind Uber is massive, and no ‘not for profit’ provider has the marketing budget to embed itself in people’s travel habits.

However, by using behavioural science and working with big institutional partners we could get a platform to scale. By bringing together all the public agencies working in an area like Dumfries and Galloway, or one of the national parks, we could align commuting data and allow drivers to share their travel information with others. This could create the basis for a working rural version of demand-responsive transport. By mapping routes and getting public sector workers to explore whether they could offer a lift, we could begin to build a culture of lift sharing again.

This could also help people with picking up prescriptions, groceries and other helpful acts. The overspill benefits may include stronger relationships and better connections, with more reciprocity. We may see the emergence of shared electric minibuses doing shorter commutes that are no longer being served by buses. This looks like a 21st-century reinvention of the bus.

Big technological shifts in electric vehicles and automation

We seem to be on the brink of a transformation in engine technology and automation. While it seems that full automation may be some way away, there’s a real chance that the task of driving will become much simpler over the coming years. Especially in the UK, the opportunities for energy generation in rural areas will also create opportunities. The Isle of Unst in Orkney has created a hydrogen economy making zero-emission transport the norm both by car and (soon) ferry, using surplus renewable energy. When there is more energy than is needed to power the island, it is used to create hydrogen, which then provides zero carbon transport. As renewable prices plunge this will become a more frequent approach – especially in wind and wave-rich rural areas.

The emergence of electric bikes and scooters with substantial ranges – often of over 20 miles, also gives us the opportunity to think through how we can do that tricky last mile of transport or even the sort of journey my grandmother did every day! At a lower price, and less maintenance than a car, and with very low running costs, these products may be transformational for rural areas. Bike sharing like the Santander sponsored scheme in London might make sense with electric bikes in rural areas.  

Changes in work make transport less necessary

We know that work is changing rapidly. Working from home is becoming more common. There are more co-working spaces, and an increasing list of tasks can be undertaken remotely. That’s mostly the case for what are (or were) office jobs, but it may become more widespread as small scale manufacturing using digital looms and 3D printers becomes more prevalent. This will create a repair economy, where fixing broken items becomes more common. The repair economy may be further facilitated through open-sourcing of plans for physical objects.

We won’t have to get in a car to get furniture, or a new fridge, we could get them manufactured locally. This will relocate jobs and reduce travel miles.

In some, cases drones will replace delivery journeys, and there may be an interesting reshaping of the nature of some rural journeys. There is the possibility of a ‘just in time’ delivery approach (using drones to deploy parts as they’re needed) developing in rural areas, which will accelerate the move to small-scale local manufacturing. It’s possible that rural mail deliveries will be carried out by drone in the very near future. This will lead to the development of distributed manufacturing, much of which will be in rural areas.

Office jobs will be transformed by advances in teleconferencing, incorporating virtual reality and augmented reality. Co-working spaces will replace the office as the normal place for office jobs. Meetings will happen in salons where full interaction with colleagues in other locations will happen through virtual reality. 5G mobile phone technology and broadband rollout will need to keep pace with this, and that will be a vital pressure point for government and service providers.

If you don’t have to get in a car or bus to go to a manufacturing job, if you are going to a local coworking space for your office job, then your need for transport reduces substantially. This aligns with some of the Scottish Government’s Manufacturing Action Plan to grow smart manufacturing through optimising supply chains.

Rural transport will be best transformed by the human-centred adoption of technology

We know that technology will disrupt transport as we know it. We also know that if we don’t make the change in transport human-centred, it will fail to meet the needs of rural communities. That’s why design is so important. We need to use design principles to make sure that technology solves the vital problems facing us. By identifying where it’s is necessary, shifting the incentives for different types of transport and matching supply to demand; we can create inclusive rural transport. And that will help to end depopulation and keep vibrant communities in rural areas. If we get it right , the advantages enjoyed by rural areas may make them the preferred spaces to live.

We are looking at how ideas like Mobility as a Service can help us to create a human-centred transport system for everyone, and getting it right for rural areas is particularly important.

If you’re interested in discussing how we can prepare for more effective use of new technology get in touch. We’re really keen to work with others to make sure we put people at the heart of adoption of new transport technologies.

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