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Rural mobility: a need for debate and policy action at EU level

By Andrea Lorenzini, SMARTA project

Throughout rural Europe, most people have little or no choice about how they travel. Their only choice is whether they can travel at all. Almost all travel is made by private car, other than what can be accessed nearby on foot, also with consequences on air quality and the emissions of greenhouse gases. Households own multiple cars, from sheer necessity. Those without cars are dependent on others for lifts, or they must forego travel and their lives become limited.

The solutions for urban areas do not always fit well with the rural environment, for many and evident reasons. Specific actions are needed that understand and respond to the rural mobility needs. In particular, this requires focussing not only on the needed conventional public transport services but also on the complementary “shared mobility solutions” and frameworks better suited to local implementation.


What are the key issues that should be addressed in a vision of the future for vibrant rural areas?

On the initiative of the European Parliament, the SMART Rural Transport Areas project (SMARTA) was mobilised in 2018, seeking to understand existing frameworks for rural mobility across Europe and how these can be improved. The aim was to gain knowledge of the mobility problems, needs and preferences of people living in and visiting rural areas. It worked with sites implementing various forms of rural mobility, to evaluate and understand how Good Practices can be used to enhance services and inspire wider take-up. In essence, SMARTA is Rethinking Rural Mobility for an inclusive, prosperous, and sustainable rural Europe.

While the toolbox of measures is there, meaningful deployment requires urgent action – first on policy for rural mobility, then on programmes to implement such policy throughout Europe. The goal should be to have target-bound rural mobility policy in all Member States by 2025, and effective frameworks in place in all Member States by 2030. While decisions on matters such as coverage, service levels and means of delivery would always be the prerogative of the individual Member State, it cannot continue that there are neither mandated levels of service nor assigned responsibility to ensure their provision.

SMARTA proposed four main points:

  • Recognise mobility as a core enabler for rural areas and all its activities. Good mobility means access to work, education, services, society. Rural mobility can be viewed as a cross‑cutting ‘multiplier’ that can allow or improve outcomes of other investments. By contrast, if mobility is absent, there are a lot of issues and negative consequences.
  • Debunk the common view that ‘in rural areas, ‘Everyone has a car’. Of course, this is not true. Many people cannot drive, by reason of age, condition, or affordability. In the absence of good public transport or shared mobility services, many people cannot get around. This serious gap limits their participation in society, and their contribution to the economy
  • There is a need for urgent action, first on policy for rural mobility, then on programmes to implement such policy throughout Europe. In contrast with urban areas, where we have seen initiatives, policies, and funding programmes for improving sustainable mobility, there has not been similar attention to rural mobility. The lack of policy and responsibilities leads to limited supply of mobility services, which leads to limited mobility for people without cars. Leaders must act to change this.
  • Once the policy is in place, develop a package of mobility solutions. Develop suitable blends of organised forms of mobility with complementary measures, including shared mobility, customised to the needs of each area and its available resources.


What actions could be implemented now, to kick-start the process?

Rural territories require policy frameworks which improve mobility in EU regions, backed by action on the ground and capacity-building. SMARTA developed three key proposals:

  • Set up a ‘Policy Debate’: It could start with a focus on an appreciation of the rural mobility challenge, both in how it impacts other European and national policies; examining potential solutions; and identifying whether there is the basis for consensus on structured intervention. Then proceed focusing on the key features of European and national policies, implementation pathways, supporting instruments. The Policy Debate can build on recent work done by EU projects on rural mobility such as SMARTA, MAMBA and Move on Green. Some special events may be organised, but the debate should mostly be conducted in existing fora such as the European Parliament Committees, conferences of Ministers, events and conferences of ELARD, ERP, ENRD, etc.
  • Establish a ‘Rural Mobility Forum’, establish and support a ‘Rural Mobility and Technical Assistance Programme’: There is currently no forum in Europe dealing with rural mobility. Initially, this would be an accompanying measure to the Policy Debate, but with the aim of becoming permanent. It would enable a much broader discussion and sharing of ideas among local stakeholders including communities, local government, agencies, health and social services, etc. The Commission could also establish a Rural Mobility Technical Assistance Programme to bridge the know-how gap of local agencies, communities or service providers, and enable local implementers and innovators to implement integrated shared mobility solutions.
  • At the Member State level: develop specific policy on rural mobility, then develop programmes to implement such policy. The challenge is to motivate each Member State to develop such a policy. The SMARTA project has proposed three different policy pathways, aiming to achieve this.


Key Products of the SMARTA Project

The key outputs from the project have been finalised and are now available: SMARTA Video (c. 6 minutes); SMARTA Brochure ; SMARTA Policy Recommendations ; SMARTA Final Conference ; SMARTA Webinar series ; SMARTA Insight Papers ; SMARTA Good Practices ; SMARTA Report on rural Good PracticesSMARTA Website. For further information on the outcomes of the project, you can also contact Andrea Lorenzini.

28 April 2021

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