Hinterland on the move
The current state
Despite increasing urbanization 44 percent of all people are still living in rural areas. In the least developed countries that percentage is clearly higher, but even in the European Union, one in four residents lives in the countryside. In the sparsely populated areas there, the provision of public transportation poses a technical, and even more so, a financial challenge. Service schedules are limited and area coverage is inadequate. Consequently, privately owned passenger vehicles remain the most important means of transportation especially in industrial nations. In the countryside, many households have two or even three cars and public transportation is practically of no consequence. The dominance of passenger cars has an adverse effect on the environment – and puts entire segments of the population at a disadvantage: children, senior citizens, patients, people with disabilities and those without driver’s licenses or the requisite financial means.
In the countries of the global south, the situation is a lot more difficult: According to the World Bank, that’s where around one billion people live in villages that are more than two kilometers (1.2 miles) away from the next road that can be traveled all year round; in some African countries, the situation is particularly precarious. There, people can only cover distances that their feet can handle, which means that they’re cut off from the world economically and socially, especially during the rainy season. Where markets, schools and health clinics are not accessible economic development stagnates and poverty becomes entrenched.
Relatively well-developed highways exist even in the global south but they don’t provide access to villages and farm fields. There’s a lack of feeder roads and, in many cases, even of bridges. Many people can use only trails, on which moving forward is tiresome and time-consuming; even the procurement of water or firewood poses a huge challenge, let alone gaining access to education and healthcare.
“The construction of farming and forestry roads is central,” says Susanne Neubert, Co-Leader of the Seminar for Rural Development at Berlin’s Humboldt University. In fact, where farming and forestry roads connect people there’s measurable improvement. In Ethiopian villages that were connected to the road network, the level of consumption increased to 16 percent, while poverty slightly decreased. A similar situation exists in Bangladesh: less poverty, more income – plus more children attending school. In Indonesia, the construction of farming and forestry roads made it possible for many people to use healthcare services instead of seeing the traditional healers. In Nepal, the mountainous country in the Himalayas, more than 8,000 suspension bridges that significantly shortened distances were built with support from a Swiss development organization. As a result, more children are now going to school, and the number of visits to healthcare centers keeps increasing. Along every fifth bridge, shops, snack bars or repair shops were opened. Another example that shows that roads lead to growth.
Bicycles bring mobility to villages – provided they’re cheap, rugged and easy to repair. “Buffalo” is such a bike. “Because it changes lives” it’s one of the best bicycles in the world, wrote a news magazine. “Buffalo” has been designed specifically for bumpy, sandy or rocky trails; its luggage rack carries 100 kilograms (220 lbs.). A charity called World Bicyle Relief has provided people with more than 700,000 of such rugged bikes to date. 147 euros pay for one “Buffalo” that puts a lot of things in motion, for instance in Zambia: After they were able to commute by bike, 19 percent less girls dropped out of school. In addition, they missed fewer school days, got better grades in math and had a significantly lower risk of being molested on their way to school. In Kenya, nurses were able to visit twice as many patients once they were traveling on a “Buffalo” while the bikes enabled farmers to increase their milk deliveries by a quarter and to raise their income accordingly. Instead of on two wheels and muscle power the Mobility for Africa startup, a for-profit social enterprise in Zimbabwe, relies on three wheels and electric power. Hamba (“Let’s go”) is the name of the three-wheeler offroad vehicle that’s equipped with replaceable batteries and has a payload of up to 400 kilograms (882 lbs.). Based on hire-purchase agreements, it’s used primarily by smallholder cooperatives that are typically managed by women. Although the Hambas that operate with hydroelectric or solar power as far as possible are clearly more expensive than bicycles they haul much larger loads and cover longer distances in less time. A UK infrastructure fund endowed with public money recently invested two million dollars in the startup – for 400 additional Hambas, 600 replaceable batteries and eight new charging stations.
Not only the transportation of people is prone to be stalled in rural areas, but so is the hauling of goods. Be it a German Hallig island, an Italian mountain village or a steppe oasis in the Argentine Pampa – the delivery of goods in any of those locations is no more than a sideline business, whereas airborne deliveries using drones would be a possible way of reliably connecting people and goods. In Malawi, Southeastern Africa, whose dirt road network is regularly unpassable due to flooding, uncrewed multirotor aircraft have been flying with valuable goods on board for years: antibiotics, pain killers, infusions, lab samples – things that on the ground would not find their recipients fast enough. The German Agency for International Cooperation (GIZ) has been implementing the project together with UNICEF and aviation company Wingcopter. The drones hauling healthcare goods have completed some 2,100 airborne deliveries reaching more than a quarter million people in the Kasungu region. Driven by the high costs of ground-bound deliveries, consignors around the world are pursuing the opportunity of incorporating drones into their supply chains. Yet the hurdles are high. “It’s actually not that hard to deliver a package via drone,” said former Boeing executive David Carbon at an Amazon event in November 2022. “It’s a very different problem space to design, build, certify and operate an autonomous safety-critical system that can operate over densely populated environments within the national airspace.” Especially in sparsely populated countries such as Australia, Canada, the United States, Chile or Norway in which many settlements today are connected to the rest of the world primarily through flights with propeller aircraft thought is being given to using electric air taxis as flying means of public transportation. That would enable to keep remote regions that despite their remoteness are important economically, culturally or from strategic perspectives alive with a smaller investment than currently. The government of New Zealand recently commissioned a study to explore whether autonomous drone taxis could someday be used to cost-efficiently connect remote towns with the nearest airport. The outcome of the study was that it might be worthwhile, someday.
Along the North Sea coast, DeLijn, a government-owned transportation company in Belgium, operates not only “Kusttram,” that with a length of 67 kilometers (42 miles) is arguably the world’s longest streetcar line but also “Flexbus,” one of the biggest on-call bus systems. The flexible “ride-pooling on-demand” mobility offering is a system of demand-driven collective rides that are pooled and served with a single vehicle. The “Flexbus” heads for a range of permanent bus stops in the more sparsely populated areas of Flanders, albeit without a bus schedule and fixed route. Passengers book rides by means of an app or by phone and algorithms calculate via what routes as many people as possible can be hauled with as few vehicles as possible – preferably so that train or regular bus connections can be reached. The buses cover distances of more than 17,000 kilometers (10,563 miles) with more than 3,000 passengers per workday. Such on-demand transportation services have been available in many places worldwide. In the East Anglian County of Suffolk as well as in Bielsko-Biala, Poland and in the Portuguese administrative division of Médio Tejo. “In order for us to be able to offer commuters and travelers a strong alternative to driving cars in the future we need flexible and digitally connected systems in short-haul public transportation,” says Ina Brandes, minister of transportation of the state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Her department intends to enhance the availability of ride-pooling opportunities in order to connect more people to short-haul public transportation. Temporal and geographic emphases are placed on suburban and rural areas and nighttime hours in the cities, according to a study that has identified a significant demand for mobility between cities and counties as well. Whether in England, Portugal, Canada or Germany, income from such systems rarely covers the costs so that public support and funding are necessary. However, such funding requirements may be less than for a rigid offering of public transportation with regular buses hauling small numbers of passengers.
The local policymakers at Jinseki-Kogen, a sparsely populated town with 10,000 residents in the Japanese prefecture of Hiroshima, recently got rid of the village bus, replacing it by taxis as needed; people without driver’s licenses, senior citizens and people with disabilities receive an allowance for using the taxis. Although that increased the transportation budget of Jinseki-Kogen to some extent, the switch is deemed to be a success. Not only because the taxis can cover a lot more rides than the bus used to but also because more elderly people decided to give up their driver’s licenses, which enhanced traffic safety. The government of South Australia is trying to provide mobility to special-needs groups in a similar way: wheelchair users receive a supplement for taxi rides, just like people whose abilities to use public transportation are impaired. In Innisfil/Ontario, Canada, 30 Uber rides per person per month are funded. The integration of the taxi business into short-haul public transportation has the advantage of using existing personnel and the existing taxi fleet for the required transportation capacity, which reduces costs.
Cars in France typically have just one occupant: the driver. That’s why 200 million empty passenger car seats are traveling around the country, many of them in rural areas – while well over half of the population there is living more than a 10-minute walk away from the next bus stop. Ecov, a French startup, developed an innovative solution for that problem: car-pooling in real time. Looking for a ride? Thanks to digital assistance, that request can be met spontaneously. The system called “Covoiturage” works almost like a bus: with fixed stops and routes but without a schedule and long waiting periods. Users report desired rides and destinations by using an app or sending a text message and by pushing a button at stops equipped with call boxes; participating drivers are immediately notified, also by app or by illuminated signs at the stops. In that way, a privately owned passenger car becomes a partly public vehicle. By now Ecov has developed 60 lines in various regions of France together with authorities that are responsible for short-haul public transportation. They pay one euro to drivers per passenger hauled, and two in some places, while the passengers in most cases don’t have to pay anything. Waiting periods often amounting to just a few minutes make the system attractive. In a survey of participants in one of the Ecov networks, 80 percent of the respondents stated that they had previous been on the road as solo drivers. More than one in five said they sold their car, according to Thomas Matagne, President of Ecov. Society benefits in any event: less traffic, less congestion, less CO2 emissions – but more disposable income. An average user saves 1,500 euros per year.
In Germany, the railroad network has shrunk by some 15,000 kilometers (9,320 miles) since 1950. However, a trend reversal has been taking place there for a few years with a reactivation of abandoned tracks amounting to 919 kilometers (571 miles) since 1994, most of them in rural areas. The trend of reactivating abandoned railroads can be observed in other places too. The UK government, for instance, is planning to reopen railroad tracks in order to “breathe life into” remote villages again. And even in the United States, where around 725 villages and small towns lost their railroad connections up until the middle of the 1990s, some of them have since been reconnected. The German Federal Institute for Research on Building, Urban Affairs and Spatial Development has investigated the effects of railroad reactivations. Even though not all the expected effects have materialized, some have, according to a study: Rural areas are becoming increasingly attractive to citizens and businesses. The housing market strain in conurbations is relieved. Transportation requires less space which then may be used for parks, for example. Access to recreational areas and resorts is possible in eco-friendly ways, especially in terms of bicycle tourism. Finally, the accident rate drops and passenger car owners save costs of ownership. The Transport for London authority is also pinning hopes on the new east-west railroad line connecting suburbs in the Greater London Area with the metropolis to not only revive the outskirts (where 90,000 dwellings are planned to be constructed in the wake of the project, among other things) but to provide the entire UK economy with a boost that’s going to be worth billions of pounds. A north-south line that’s currently in planning is expected to become a job engine too.
Driverless mini-buses are already being tested in many places. In Australia, in Germany, in the Netherlands and especially in Japan. A study by the Roland Berger business consultancy says that robomobiles could particularly reconnect senior citizens, young people without driver’s licenses and disabled people living in rural areas where availability of public transportation is typically inadequate.
The promise is more quality of life thanks to autonomous shuttles. That hope is based mainly on the fact that in conventional bus services in industrial countries personnel costs account for around 45 percent whereas most of those costs would be saved when no drivers are needed. A study by the Hamburg Technical University revealed that autonomous shuttles in trouble-free service would in fact be nearly one third cheaper than conventional diesel-powered mini-buses. Experts expect such robomobiles to be ready for market as early as in 2025 and by 2040 at the latest.