Rural mobility poverty – a pressing issue across the Baltic Sea Region

Mobility poverty is a major hurdle for socio-economic prosperity in rural areas all across Europe. Inadequate public transport coverage and low frequency prevents the population from accessing services and social and economic opportunities. The effect that this has on the quality of life in sparsely populated areas often exacerbates an already negative demographic development. To address this issue, the MAMBA project has tested innovative mobility solutions to maximise rural mobility and accessibility of services in the Baltic Sea Region.

Mobility solutions for low-demand rural areas

The challenges of rural mobility are closely intertwined with the general demographic development in rural Europe, with declining and ageing populations. Due to diminishing demand, maintaining efficient and economically viable public transport services is becoming increasingly difficult, and the lack of mobility options significantly reduces people’s opportunities to get an education, commute to a job, access services and participate in social activities.

“This can become a vicious circle,” says MAMBA project leader Nicole Rönnspieß of the Diakonisches Werk Schleswig-Holstein in Germany. “Out-migration negatively impacts the ability to finance public transport, which leads to reduced social services and a poorer quality of life. That, in turn, accelerates the depopulation and thus reduces demand even further. This development is especially critical for vulnerable parts of the population, such as the elderly and disabled.”

During the past three years, the MAMBA project partners have implemented a range of solutions to improve mobility in rural parts of the Baltic Sea Region. The solutions include car-sharing and ride-sharing apps, transport-on-demand services, and mobility-as-a-service style systems, which integrate various forms of transport into one platform or application to reduce the need for private cars.

Rural mobility is a global priority

“When we talk about mobility, we’re not just talking about the journey itself, we’re also talking about what people want to achieve,” says Linda Randall, Research Fellow at Nordregio. She explains that the solutions tested in the nine MAMBA pilot projects can be divided into two main categories: people-to-service and service-to-people. “Often, the most effective mobility solution is to bring the service to the people. If there’s no doctor in a small, rural town, for instance, it might make the most sense to bring the doctor there on a regular basis.”

Rönnspieß points out that mobility also is a prominent theme of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. In fact, rural transport and rural mobility play an important role in more than half of the Sustainable Development Goals and the underlying targets. The EU has committed to being a frontrunner in implementing the 2030 Agenda, together with its Member States.

“Rural depopulation is taking place in all countries of the world, and many rural areas in Europe are faced with limited access to mobility,” she explains. “There’s no alternative, we must address this issue. And the solution cannot be that everyone moves to the cities. Our aim has to be to strengthen the rural areas and ensure a good quality of life there with good access to efficient social services.”

Need for better insights

The fundamental question that the MAMBA project has sought to answer is how to organise rural mobility and health and social services in the future, making sure that they remain accessible to those living in sparsely populated rural areas. An important aspect of this question is how technology and digitalisation can be used to support this aim, and also how authorities and service providers can involve the users in developing new solutions. According to Julien Grunfelder, Head of the GIS department at Nordregio, the MAMBA project fills a gap in the mobility research.

“Most mobility studies focus on urban areas, which means that the information on rural mobility, especially in areas with population decline, is limited,” he says. “The low population density means that you only have a few potential users of public transport. Our mission has therefore been to identify and test smaller, customised solutions that better fit the needs of low-demand rural areas.”

Each of the nine mobility solutions that have been tested during the MAMBA project is adapted to the local demography, geography, accessibility to public transport and the local mobility needs. Some of the pilots provide direct transport between rural areas and cities to improve access to services, while others were designed to create better links to the public transport system or provide additional mobility options. A step-by-step guide for the implementation of rural mobility solutions, based on the experience from the MAMBA pilot activities, has been made available at the MAMBA project’s webpage.

Shifting the discourse towards accessibility

Randall explains that one of the initial aims of the MAMBA project was to evaluate the cost-effectiveness of each solution, but as the project evolved, this focus changed.

“If we think only in terms of the cost per passenger transported, it can be quite difficult to argue that rural mobility solutions are cost-effective. Therefore, we’ve tried to reframe the conversation to be not just about transport but also about accessibility. If better mobility gives people access to jobs rather than being unemployed or having to leave the community, or if it enables an elderly person to remain in their own home rather than moving to a care facility, there’s a broader societal benefit. The argument of providing good rural mobility is much stronger if we turn our focus to accessibility.”

In light of the demographic development, addressing the mobility needs of the steadily growing elderly population has been a key priority throughout the project.

“This group is becoming increasingly diverse and it’s quite different what mobility poverty means to them. A healthy 68 year-old is likely to be quite attached to his/her car, as it’s probably always been their only real mobility option, whereas for a frail 80 year-old, mobility poverty actually means not being able to get around at all. There’s a very strong social aspect to rural mobility.”

Legislation remains an obstacle to innovation

Furthermore, the MAMBA project analysed the legal environment for new mobility services, providing insights into the passenger transportation legislation, financing and public procurement, and requirements regarding insurance and data protection. The analysis was conducted by German think tank IKEM – Institute for Climate Protection, Energy and Mobility. These legal aspects are further described in the MAMBA policy guide for rural mobility, which will be published shortly.

“One of the main obstacles is that the legislation does not always accommodate new solutions like on-demand mobility or ride-sharing, which also makes it difficult to finance them,” says Elias Eickelmann, Senior Research Associate at IKEM. “In some cases, it even makes it impossible to test these solutions and assess their potential in a rural context. This needs to change if we want to address this challenge in all its complexity. Moreover, creating legal options for testing new mobility forms ensures equal opportunities for those who want to introduce new technology ideas and innovative rural mobility solutions.”

One of the project’s main recommendations is that countries should implement planning tools for the long-term development of mobility in rural areas. Another priority is to improve social inclusion and access to the services, for instance by introducing financial incentives to ensure accessibility.

“We also highlight the importance of providing financial and administrative support to grass roots initiatives in rural areas,” Eickelmann says. “Citizen-driven initiatives can be an important driving force when it comes to rebuilding a functional rural public transport and mobility system. The local citizens are often capable of identifying the right solutions, as they know the transport needs in the area first-hand.”

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