The urgent need to reinvent rural mobility
Individual drivers offering taxi services in the countryside is one of the ideas included in France’s new mobility law. Slated for autumn 2018, the legislation is expected to authorise local authorities to pay drivers who occasionally give rides to other passengers, in an effort to combat the lack of public transport in rural areas and strengthen community spirit.
Isolated rural areas
Sparsely populated regions are home to nearly 35% of the French population(1). There are real obstacles to mobility in these areas, even for the most mundane, everyday journeys.
In rural areas such as these, going to the shops, the doctor or the hairdresser requires people to make a journey. For example, 45% of the people living in rural communities are faced with transport constraints simply when buying their groceries(2). Cars are very often the only possible means of transport(3), but owning a car is very expensive for those living in these areas, who are sometimes in a fragile financial position. Indeed, rural families in France dedicate twice as much of their budget to transport as the rest of the country. In addition, distances are getting greater and families are often obliged to own a second car. In low-income areas, this expense can account for up to 40% of a family’s budget: “By 2020, energy bills will have increased three-fold, which will obviously cause huge problems for people who have no choice but to use their car to get around,” warns Béatrice Vauday, President of Ecosyst’M.
A matter of equality
Big cities, towns and sparsely populated regions have increasingly unequal access to mobility.
In peripheral areas, part of the population is placed under a sort of house arrest: “Whether for access to employment, social and professional integration, health care, housing, education or culture, mobility determines the effectiveness of other public policies, especially for people living in rural areas,” says Valérie Dreyfuss, Managing Director of French think tank Laboratoire de la mobilité inclusive.
Inaccessible train stations
According to data from French rail and road transport regulator Arafer, France has the second-largest rail network in Europe. With nearly 3,000 railway stations and stops, 90% of the population lives less than 10 kilometres from a train station.
The question is how to cover those precious kilometres that separate train stations from people living in rural areas. It has not been possible to replicate the solutions proposed for cities in the countryside. The cost per person of making a bus drive from village to village is too high for local authorities, both financially and in terms of CO2 emissions.
At a time when the “Spinetta” report on French rail has questioned the continued relevance of much discussed yet seldom used countryside railway lines, rural and suburban mobility is in urgent need of reinvention. Every day, local authorities are becoming more dependent on new technologies and acts of community spirit to reach this end.
Civil society to the rescue
But what if the solutions came from a bottom-up approach? By encouraging French people to share their vehicles in rural areas, Ayen in Corrèze has already paved the way.
This commune of 700 people is not served by public transport. The bus service has been cancelled and all that remains is an on-demand shuttle that only operates two days per week. This makes it rather difficult for elderly people to get to the hospital 25 kilometres away.
In partnership with French national rail company SNCF, the town has established a local car-sharing system called Ecosyst’M, which uses a platform to put people in contact with one another. The residents of Ayen who wish to benefit from car sharing are invited to buy vouchers worth a certain number of kilometres. Thanks to this system, no financial transaction takes place between car sharers, who simply arrange a meeting point.
“This service really helps a lot of people who can no longer travel around in rural areas,” says Jérôme Perdrix, the elected representative in charge of sustainable development. Ayen already has nearly 30 active drivers, with car sharers covering an average distance of 2,000 kilometres every month.
This spirit of civic responsibility is supplementing existing acts of community support, as only an estimated one-third of car shares pass through a social platform. The other journeys are simply the result of families and neighbours helping each other out, acting as the last bulwark against isolation for people without access to public transport.
(1) Laboratoire de la mobilité inclusive
(2) According to a study by Elabe for the Laboratoire de la mobilité inclusive
(3) French National Transport and Mobility Survey 2008