The Commission for Rural Communities (CRC) and Commission for Integrated Transport (CfIT) last week visited the Rural Wheels initiative in Cumbria, a shared taxi scheme that provides subsidised travel for rural communities. The visit marks the start of a campaign in support of CfIT's recent report calling for Government to announce and fund a large-scale shared taxi project, 'TaxiPlus'.
The project would increase transport facilities in rural areas whilst also addressing the need to reduce carbon emissions in rural areas. According to CRC, rural bus provision has declined steadily over the past decades as bus operators focus on more lucrative urban markets. Rural isolation has been compounded by a move away from local service provision – the closure of post offices, shops and garages in particular – resulting in poor access to many facilities for the 19 per cent of the English population (9.5 million people) who live in rural areas. According to CRC, these communities often have little choice but to own a car when bus services are infrequent, stop early in the day, and don't run at all at weekends. But in a recession, with petrol prices rising again and redundancies hitting families hard, it is simply not possible for many to maintain their own private car leading to significant pockets of social exclusion.
CfIT and the CRC strongly believe that there is a practical, affordable answer to this growing rural problem, demonstrated by the Rural Wheels initiative . Rural Wheels in Cumbria is one of the UK's best examples of a shared taxi scheme that is integrated into the wider transport network. Operated by Cumbria County Council, it provides door-to-door transport when people want it and at reasonable cost, using smart card technology for ease of payment. The scheme covers the entire county and last year carried over 12,000 people, charging 30p per mile. It is run and managed by the Council's passenger transport team.
Dr. Lynn Sloman, Vice-Chair of CfIT says: "This is a truly innovative solution to a really intractable problem in rural areas. Rural Wheels offers a practical, affordable way for people to be connected to train and bus services; this is about simple, everyday needs, taking your children to school or getting to and from work.
“However, our research has found that the framework for operating shared-taxi schemes is complicated. We need reform of the licensing of taxis and the funding for public transport in order to stimulate these services. This is why we are now pushing for Government to fund a seven-year large-scale pilot project to demonstrate the value of these 'TaxiPlus' shared taxi schemes. We've arranged this visit for policy makers to see at first hand the opportunity shared taxis can provide for rural people."
Dr. Stuart Burgess, chair of the CRC and the Government's Rural Advocate, adds: "Rural bus provision has declined steadily over the past twenty years. This, combined with a reduction in local services, such as post offices and shops, has resulted in poorer access to many facilities for the 9.5 million people living in rural England.
"CRC's research has shown that just half of rural households are located within 13 minutes of an hourly or better bus service, compared with almost 90 per cent in urban areas. Even if buses are running, services are generally patchy, operate just two or three times a week, and can be inconvenient and expensive.
"Many people are forced to buy a car or second car just to carry out basic daily tasks such as going to work, taking children to school or accessing medical facilities − often stretching themselves financially to do so. Low income households in the least densely populated areas spend over 30 per cent more on motoring per week than those in more densely populated areas.”