Our research identifies rural ‘transport deserts’: do you live in one?

Avatar for Chris Hinchliff
By Chris Hinchliff
10th February 2020

We’re calling for a new rural transport fund to get isolated communities connected.

Wherever we live and whatever our personal circumstances, we all deserve to be able to get to work and to places to socialise and reach local services like our GP easily. Making sure that we can all reliably and affordably reach the facilities that we need is a basic part of living in a fair society.

We’ve undertaken new research, working with the Campaign for Better Transport, into how well connected our rural communities are. It shows that outside of England’s major cities, communities are being left in ever-expanding ‘transport deserts’ with inadequate bus and train connections.

We’ve coined the phrase ‘transport desert’ to describe the experience for communities who lack public transport options for residents to be able to travel conveniently on a day-to-day basis without needing to drive. And our research findings are clear: a majority of small towns across two major regions in England are now showing signs of becoming a transport desert.

A plan of action

The report reveals that more than half of small towns in the south west and north east of England are already transport deserts, or are at serious risk of becoming one. Cuts to local bus services are making this situation worse, impacting over 3000 bus routes between 2010 and 2018. That’s more than one bus route being taken away from town and village residents every single day for the last 8 years.

A lack of good rural public transport has huge knock-on effects on these villages and towns. Younger people are being forced to move away for better access to education or work, older people can be left lonely or isolated and those on low incomes can be driven into debt by the need to own a car.

We want the government to invest more money in rural transport, set ambitious targets for the proportion of people living within walking distance of a bus stop and reopen rural railways across the country. There have been some brilliant examples of local people coming up with their own, innovative solutions, such as coming together to provide volunteer-based options like community minibuses. We’d like to see dedicated funding to build on this and increase the amount of public transport – especially in the areas where we found particular issues.

Desert regions

Our research shows that the lack of public transport in some counties is especially worrying. Here are some key facts from two especially badly-affected regions:

North east

  • In County Durham, just six of the 22 small towns covered by the research have a remaining train station.
  • In Northumberland, six of the 12 towns investigated are at risk of becoming transport deserts, including Alnwick, Newbiggin, and Seaton Delaval.
  • Across the North East as a whole, half of the local authorities no longer spend any money supporting bus services connecting rural communities.

South west

  • After 80% cuts to spending on bus services, nine out of the 13 small towns in Dorset have become transport deserts or are at risk of being absorbed into one.
  • In Devon, 17 of the 25 towns investigated are in the same position – and so are 14 of the 16 towns in Gloucestershire.
  • Some towns with over 10,000 residents, like Verwood in Dorset, have just one bus per hour to another major settlement at peak hours.

Explore more

Want to explore the data in depth? You can read our handy summary here or explore the full report here.

To support our work on transport deserts and other issues around fair, clean rural transport, sign up to receive our emails with updates on our campaigning work, or become a member and support us in calling for better local transport links for our rural communities.

A detail of a woman holding a child's hand; the child holds train tickets