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Nearly a million stranded in ‘transport deserts’ as rural travel links cut

10 February 2020

Our new report has shown that more than half of small towns in the South West and North East of England have such bad transport connectivity that they’re considered to be ‘transport deserts’ or are at imminent risk of becoming one.

A ‘transport desert’ occurs when a community lacks the public transport options for residents to be able to conveniently travel on a day-to-day basis without driving. The research has been conducted by the Campaign for Better Transport (CBT) for CPRE, the countryside charity, and is the first attempt to develop a scoring system to rank the public transport options available to rural communities. Nearly one million people (975,227) who live in these towns have no option for convenient and affordable public transport and risk being cut off from basic services if they don’t have access to a car. 

Public transport services, including bus, train and community transport options, were scored in over 160 locations in the South West and North East against their accessibility and frequency. The analysis has shown that in 56% of the cases, residents who can’t drive or are unable to afford a car are at risk of being cut off from basic services.

Crispin Truman, chief executive at CPRE, the countryside charity, said:

‘A thriving countryside depends on well-connected small towns and villages serviced by low carbon public transport that fit into people’s everyday lives. But it’s clear that, outside of England’s major cities, communities are being left high and dry in ever-widening transport deserts with completely inadequate bus and train connections. And this is having a dramatic effect on rural communities – young people are compelled to move away, older people are left isolated and lonely, while less affluent families can be sucked into a cycle of debt and poverty.

‘We’re calling on the government to act now to reconnect everyone with proper public transport options. That means establishing a dedicated rural transport fund. But recent government funding to reopen some railway lines across the country does not go nearly far enough – especially in the shadow of the £28.8 billion planned spend on roads. If the prime minister and this government are serious about ‘spreading opportunity to every corner of the UK’ we need decisive action to stop the march of transport deserts’.

Beneath the headlines, the research shows that the lack of public transport in some counties is even more severe:

    • Dorset: 10 out of the 14 small towns in Dorset have become transport deserts or are at risk of being absorbed into one. This is after 80% cuts to spending on bus services in the county.
    • Devon: 17 of the 25 towns investigated are in the same position.
    • County Durham: Only 6 of the 22 small towns covered by the research have a remaining train station.
    • Northumberland: 6 of the 12 towns investigated are at risk of becoming transport deserts, including Alnwick, Newbiggin, and Seaton Delaval.

Darren Shirley, Chief Executive of Campaign for Better Transport, said:

‘Nearly a quarter of the country’s population lives in small towns, too many of which have become transport deserts. In some cases, towns that lost their railway stations in the Beeching cuts of the 1960s are now losing the bus services that were brought in to replace them. Weak transport provision is a major barrier to participation in these towns, affecting low income households, older people and those in education and training the most. A lack of sustainable transport options also undermines efforts to reach net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

‘Small towns have been sidelined for too long: the government must act to reconnect these transport deserts.’

Please call our Media Relations Lead, Jonathan Jones, on 020 7981 2819 / 078 3529 1907 for further information.

Notes to editors

The full research paper can be found here: Transport deserts report, 2020.

Transport deserts: a definition

A ‘transport desert’ is a settlement that is inappropriately served by public transport in a way that’s likely to limit choices and opportunities for the people who live there. Living in a ‘transport desert’ means that you are reliant on travelling by car for your day-to-day life. For instance, you might not have access to a train line for getting to work, a bus that you can take to shop for groceries or enough services to allow you to get to a GP appointment on time.

It’s worth stressing that the concept of a ‘transport desert’ is a relative one. For an individual, anywhere is a ‘transport desert’ if they lack the means to use the services and facilities available. Across the country, the quality and extent of public transport varies considerably. Equally, a relative lack of transport choice will mean something very different in a large city compared with a small village.

About the research

The transport deserts’ methodology is based on a simple indicative scoring system for each settlement. The scoring methodology seeks to capture the extent and usefulness of the public transport services in a way that’s relatively simple and easy to understand. Marks are given for the frequency of bus and train service in peak and off-peak periods, reflecting different user needs. Limited marks are also given for direct access to coach services and for taxi and community transport.

This methodology has been applied to two regions of England; the north east and the south west. These were selected as examples of regions with large rural areas which experience a diverse range of social and economic challenges. In the south west, 111 settlements and small towns were identified. In the north east, 51 settlements and small towns were identified.

Cuts to local bus services

According to Future of the Bus by the Campaign for Better Transport, cuts to local bus services have impacted 3000 bus routes between 2010 and 2018. That’s more than one bus route lost every single day for the last 8 years. Uniquely for a major transport mode, the UK has had no national strategy for buses. The government is set to release a national bus strategy in this parliament.