A fundamental goal of ensuring connectivity in remote and rural communities is that of mitigating isolation. This can be done both through the provision of transport services and infrastructure and by improving digital connectivity, said Gloria Hutt Hesse, Chilean Minister of Transportation and Communication.
Chile’s has a strong culture of cost-benefit analysis in transport appraisal. However, projects designed to improve connectivity in remote communities rarely yield net benefits. Consequently, Chile has adapted its appraisal methodologies to account for factors specific to its most remote regions, in essence acknowledging the fundamental freedom in choosing one’s place to live. In providing public transport in these areas, predictability and frequency are the most important factors in ensuring small entrepreneurs and farmers are able to rely on public transport to bring their produce to nearby markets.
Ireland has made the availability of transport options for all rural areas a central element of its 2040 Transport Plan, on equity grounds. Helen Hughes, Director of Professional Services at Transport Infrastructure Ireland (TII), outlined the methodology used to determine levels of remoteness and the approach used to assess the vulnerability and resilience of the transport system serving different rural areas. Infrastructure maintenance takes place according to a classification and prioritisation of lifeline roads, based on assessing whether blockage could cause major disruption to a population’s access to essential services.
Ofelia Betancor, Professor of Applied Economics at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria argued that different remote regions have different needs and thus require different policy approaches. A broad perspective is needed – for example, providing transport subsidies can be a key way to promote tourism in remote and rural areas, as well as enhancing connectivity for the local population. Hence, appraisal methodologies should seek to combine both equity and efficiency perspectives in order to support good investment choices. We must also recognise that connectivity problems are often not technology based, but are about the vision of the problem and peoples’ needs. Ultimately, policy-makers should be offering people options, rather than prescribing solutions.
Sandra Lafortune, Director of International Relations and Trade Policy at Transport Canada, highlighted some of Canada’s current challenges in providing access to remote communities. Strikingly, 20% of the CAD 2 billion National Trade Borders Fund serves only 0.3% of the population in Canada’s northern and Arctic regions. In these regions, climate change and shrinking permafrost add to the problem of maintaining infrastructure, such as roads and runways.
A second round of fishbowl discussions explored the perspective of transport operators in rural and remote regions. Eléonore Lacroix, Head of General Studies, Development and Territories at RATP France, also highlighted the economic challenges of providing transport in low-density remote areas and argued that creative, rather than standardized, solutions are needed to address connectivity issues. She also noted that remote communities can exist in suburbs and small cities as well as in rural areas. Remoteness is not a fixed characteristic, as dynamic areas can become more and more remote over time, due to economic and social forces. A key consideration is that a long-term, stable vision is needed to address connectivity issues. This is as important as the availability of funding.
Yohei Fujigaki, Head of MaaS at Odakyu Railway noted that his organisation has been providing Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) options rural regions of Japan for over two decades, and that shrinking and ageing populations are exacerbating the challenges involved. He highlighted the need to develop user-friendly tools and applications and engage local communities, particularly in the absence of companies willing to explore thin rural markets. Importantly, a positive externality of providing algorithm-enabled on-demand transport was also the reduction of accidents of elderly people in private cars who otherwise faced the necessity to keep their licenses to stay mobile. However, DRT must be developed to a point where it is able to provide levels of freedom of movement comparable to those of a private car if we are to convince large numbers of people to shift modes away from private vehicles.
Looking forward, Timothy Reuter, Head of Tomorrow’s Airspace at the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the 4th Industrial Revolution, highlighted some examples in which drone technology contributes to improved connectivity for remote places. It is used for urgent blood transport in Rwanda and to lower freight (and hence food) costs in Canadian Cree Island communities, drones are one solution to “overcome geography”.
Head of General Studies, Development and Territories, Member of Directory Board