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How engineers can help people in rural areas use their cars less

11 June 2024

More people are needing cars to get around the countryside. Engineers can help turn this trend around, writes Alex Buley.

How engineers can help people in rural areas use their cars less
The UK’s National Transport Survey reports an increase in rural car use. Image credit: Canva

For many, there’s a sense of freedom that comes when you finally get behind the wheel of your first car – a battered, old Peugeot 206, in my case.

But I’ve come to realise that true freedom is about having the choice to use two wheels as well as four.

But for those living in the UK countryside, travelling by car is often the only option.

This is known as car dependency.

More people are using cars

It’s a shame to see car dependency increasing, particularly in rural and semi-rural areas.

Even in the decade since I got my licence, I’ve seen roads become more congested.

Even the quiet country lanes I cycled around as a teenager have become choked at peak times, as drivers seek ‘rat runs’ to avoid the traffic.

While major urban centres have plateaued in car use, all other categories, particularly rural and semi-rural communities, have seen an increase of 10% over the past decade.

This just makes it less appealing, safe, and viable to cycle or walk, forcing people into cars, and keeping the problem going.

Even the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t change people’s habits around travel.

Vehicle use has met or exceeded pre-pandemic levels, with the length of time lost to traffic up 5% above pre-Covid levels.

People need cars to live their lives

Many people living in rural areas still rely on private cars to reach workplaces and live their lives.

As such, people in the countryside without access to a car struggle to get around and face the risk of being excluded and isolated.

Tackling this challenge is an important step towards a sustainable society, underlined by UN Sustainable Development Goal 9.1, which calls for affordable and equitable infrastructure access for all.

Transport infrastructure and net zero

As net zero deadlines inch closer, this cultural march in the UK towards an American-style car dependent society is troubling.

How can we tackle this?

In cities the answers are often easier to identify, but for rural and semi-rural communities the solution is far from clear.

The early careers' roundtable was held in Bristol during Prof Anusha Shah's visit. Image credit: the ICE
The early careers' roundtable was held in Bristol during Prof Anusha Shah's visit. Image credit: the ICE

In February 2024, I co-chaired a roundtable discussion on the topic of rural transport infrastructure in the context of net zero.

This was part of ICE President Prof Anusha Shah’s visit to the South West.

It was fantastic to explore the issues with the president, industry experts and a group of early career professionals from the region.

The roundtable highlighted some interesting case studies and common themes.

Public transport

There is a perspective within the UK that our rail services are unreliable. In fact, this is largely not true.

While delays happen, most train services run on time, with most delays being no more than 10 minutes.

What we do struggle with is providing services to those who need them, especially in rural areas.

The Beeching Cuts in the 1960s wiped out rural railways and set a precedent for rural transport infrastructure for the following decades.

Cutting rural public transport services is often justified on the basis that they are uneconomical.

But I would argue that the negative economic and social knock-on effects far outweigh the money saved from axing rural transport.

The Dartmoor Line

The reopening of the Dartmoor Line between Okehampton and Exeter is an excellent example of how restoring rural railway lines and stations gives wider economic, social, and environmental benefits to these communities.

With almost 100 times the population of Okehampton using the line in the first two years, it’s not hard to see why it’s been such a success.

The Okehampton case study shows that if you create facilities and services, people will come.

Active travel corridors

The National Cycle Network (NCN) aims to connect communities and encourage easy, safe active travel across the UK.

It was started by Sustrans, with the first route created from the former Bath to Bristol branch line, axed under Beeching.

The wider idea of the NCN connecting communities via existing corridors is one that could change the way we travel, effectively creating a modal shift to more sustainable transport.

Rural communities often have major road arteries (or arterial roads) cutting across them with little thought given to wider connectivity.

Meanwhile, disused routes from old infrastructure can be found throughout the countryside.

These routes could be turned into active travel corridors with some effort, imagination, and investment.

The A354

A great example of this is the A354, connecting Dorchester to Weymouth.

Created off the back of the 2012 Olympics, the existing highway was realigned, given new junctions, wider capacity, and safety upgrades.

The old infrastructure wasn’t ripped up, but now forms a shared use path, part of the NCN Route 26.

Why can’t we do this along more major road corridors, creating safe, separate active travel corridors along existing infrastructure?

Not only would this help to alleviate traffic, but it can also bring economic, social and health benefits for communities along the routes by encouraging walking and cycling over cars.

Modal hubs

Multimodal mobility hubs are points or locations that link multiple different transportation options together.

This allows users to have convenient and faster transfers from one mode of transport to another, and increases accessibility in rural areas.

While reopening railway lines and active travel corridors to decrease rural car dependency works well, we need to look at the wider system.

Each transport line, each route, is a strand in a wider web.

Cutting even one strand can cause wider instability across the whole network.

Cutting multiple strands can cause full structural collapse.

We need a diverse system with choice and an accessible, easy, well thought-out transport system with multiple nodes, and strands. This is vital to rural economic prosperity and social and environmental resilience and sustainability.

The key to changing people hearts and minds

People living in rural areas need more options.

Only then can we begin to change people’s minds, perceptions, and habits about transport. As engineers, we need to champion active travel, ‘walkability’, public transport, and well-designed, connected, diverse transport systems across rural areas.

The car does give freedom, and for some people it’s the only viable choice, even where other options exist.

But if everyone travels by car, that freedom is an illusion.

We need to create choice in our transport infrastructure if we’re ever going to achieve transport freedom for all.

  • Alex Buley , ICE South West Future Leader and civil engineer at Mott MacDonald