September 2020

Challenging the status quo: how do we resolve mobility challenges in the North?

In the UK and particularly the north of England mobility has long been a challenge due to both societal and physical barriers. The large polycentric city regions have extensive rural hinterland areas with under-funded and fragmented transport systems that have caused a high level of car dependency and reduced opportunities to participate in society. Local and Regional authorities have strived to implement local policies and projects to address this.

On the Edge, a report by the Government funded Rural Resource Unit, highlighted that rural areas in Greater Manchester often feel marginalised and isolated, not only from the main urban conurbation and its policies, but also from each other. It is precisely for these reasons that more work needs to be done to increase parity between the urban and rural areas to ensure greater unity.

Vectos’s involvement in the European SMARTA (Smart Rural Transport Areas) research project has shown us how new transport solutions could bring tangible and lasting benefits for these northern rural communities. The SMARTA project shares best practice through exploring, identifying and piloting smart and sustainable transport services to exploit existing mobility policies and solutions in rural areas improving connections within communities and enhancing links to surrounding areas. Raising awareness of how these successful sustainable shared mobility services can be interconnected with Public Transport to improve rural mobility.

The pilot studies that have been undertaken in other countries show that a significant number of these schemes could be adapted to deal with mobility barriers in our regions. For example, whilst Manchester city centre has gone through a significant renaissance since the 2002 Commonwealth Games, in outer areas of the city region the nature of the road network is problematic when applied to local geography and mitigated against sustainable movement patterns.

In Wigan for example the major roads wind through many small centres, resulting in slow journey times. People living in these areas have to travel further to reach key services and therefore have less potential to walk or cycle. Public transport provision is also limited due to the low demand, which means greater car-dependence. At the same time, their importance as locations for recreation or their position on strategic routes can lead to high traffic volumes on unsuitable roads. It could be argued that this and other economic policies have brought traffic from rural areas into the large city centres where facilities are increasingly concentrated.

Learning from best practice is essential if we are to enact positive and long-lasting change for areas like Greater Manchester and the other northern city regions. Our research arm, Vectos International, has been supporting four iMOVE living labs by developing new business models for Mobility as a Service (MaaS), and one case study in particular in Sweden stands out as a model that would be effective in the North in limiting harmful car use.

In Gothenburg, Sweden, one of the trials took place in a newly built housing complex, in which access to mobility modes such as car sharing, bike sharing, and public transport was included in the rent, in the form of allowances for each mode. This included the membership fee for the car sharing club. The result was increased take up of modes already paid for and with the increased convenience of use, which encouraged residents to change their behaviour towards more sustainable modes of transport. Novel and smart ways of building in, and financially ‘nudging’ use and take up of, sustainable transport through MAAS is a successful principal that could be applied across our city regions including smaller ‘satellite’ towns and communities or any place where residential development is concentrated.

The north of England, with its history of progressive thinking, could reap the benefits of such approaches. By taking a holistic view and adopting similar local measures and incentivising, it could not only address historic mobility issues but also redefine local attitudes towards transport and harnessing technology to improve access to sustainable transport, positioning it as the central hub for innovation and excellence in the sustainable mobility sphere. The opportunities are there for the taking. Watch this space.