Giorgio Ambrosino: “’Shared mobility’ is an essential part of the solution set to deal with rural challenges”

Giorgio Ambrosino will lead the workshop ‘The role of policy in improving mobility services in European rural areas’

Giorgio Ambrosino is an expert in Public Transport, Urban Mobility, Logistics and Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) with a broad background designing transport services that address disparate needs, such as rural areas, elderly or disabled people. This attention to difference makes him more sensitive to the various needs that may arise in a heterogeneous society such as the one we live in. To this must be added the work being developed from the European project SMARTA, which will also be addressed in the workshop given in the framework of the European Rural Parliament, on possible new directions for rural mobility, such as mobility limitations and their impact, existing good practices and where current policies could point.

A good, an improving mobility services: necessity or comfort? This is not a subject with a good solution.

Mobility is a basic need for everyone. People should have the possibility to move with freedom because mobility means access to services and participation in society. How rural mobility looks like today in many rural areas? Cars, cars and more cars. And so, what about people who cannot drive, or who don’t wish to do, or who would like to use sustainable means of transport? There is the need to develop a new approach for rural mobility, where shared mobility, interconnected with public transport, plays a pivotal role.

We would like a good mobility services to fix the population in rural areas, not for them to leave.

That’s the point. Mobility is essential for rural development and “sustainability” as a whole. People must be able to get around. Let us remember that people with cars already come and go as they please. They do not leave because they have mobility. The pressure to leave comes from young people who grow up feeling “trapped”, or families who feel their children won’t have opportunities. Businesses and activities in rural areas also need that their employees and their potential customers can reach them, so good mobility can be an opportunity. If a new vision is developed where stakeholders, at different levels, work together for redesigning and optimising the transport offer, substantial benefits should be achieved: people shift from private to shared mobility options, residents benefit from better access to health and education services, and likely in some countries rural depopulation trend will be halted or even reversed.

“Mobility means access to services and participation in society”

What are the current limitations of rural mobility?

Today, mobility choices in rural areas are very limited compared to those in urban areas. For too many rural places, it is the car or nothing. Over the past 20 years we have seen a ‘revolution’ in urban transport with strong policy, deep investment and a wide range of quality mobility services, all of which encourage mobility without a car (even if you own one). Nothing similar has happened to rural areas. On the contrary, in several countries we have seen reduction in mobility services (along with other essential services such as health, social, educational, etc.) due to a combination of factors including austerity measures. In rural areas, it is difficult to provide public transport services to meet all the needs of all the different user groups. The result is that rural areas have even more become highly auto-dependent. The inevitable outcome is that those with cars use them for most travel. Meanwhile those without cars are dependent on others for lifts they cannot travel, which often means they have reduced possibilities to participate in society.

There is a problem when public services are understood in terms of profitability, such as transport.

Conventional public transport services (fixed routes and timetables) in rural areas have little possibility to be profitable. They rely on public subsidies due to the dispersed population and lower number of passengers per journey. In many countries such as Italy and UK, these subsidies have been reduced in recent years as part of broader cutbacks in public spending, with the consequent reduction of those services dedicated to rural populations. Private operators are often not interested in rural areas, because there is no business for them. Mobility services need to be viewed as an important and value-adding service, that bring about benefits which justify public financial support. This will require changes in thinking and changes in policy. 

Mobility services need to be viewed as an important and value-adding service, that bring about benefits which justify public financial support”

What good practices exist in Europe?

Despite all these issues, across Europe, there are several examples of good initiatives in rural mobility. Most are initiated at the local level, some are initiated and managed by the local communities. Demand Responsive Transport services developed in close cooperation between municipalities, service providers and public transport operators, community-based transport services, volunteer drivers that provide lifts to healthcare and essential services, local carpooling: these are some examples of shared mobility solutions which contribute to improving mobility experience of rural populations.

What do you explain about the SMARTA Project?

The SMARTA Project is focused on rural shared mobility. Indeed, shared mobility is an essential part of the solution set to deal with rural challenges, both by combining travelers more efficiently and by improving the mobility options for people in rural areas. In particular, SMARTA pays attention to shared mobility solutions that connect rural areas with the public transport network and hubs, which are mostly concentrated in towns and urban areas. In this way, people in rural areas benefit from improved access both to the extensive public transport network and to services at local hubs.

“The workshop will deal with possible new directions for rural mobility, through a set of structured group discussions”

During 2018 and early-2019, the SMARTA Consortium carried out an in-depth analysis of the rural mobility frameworks in the EU-28 Member States. These are a set of Insight Papers, which describe how rural mobility is organized in each country. SMARTA also compared the frameworks across the European countries, and found that almost all countries lacked a rural mobility policy with specific targets or obligations. In parallel, the Consortium identified a set of Good Practices in rural mobility, not only related to conventional Public Transport but also extended to innovative transport forms based on ride sharing schemes for the residents of a rural area, vulnerable social groups and for visitors and tourists (a group that can result in highly variable demand). Based on the outcomes of these activities, the workshop will deal with possible new directions for rural mobility, through a set of structured group discussions. The main themes addressed will be: (i) the current limitations in rural mobility and how they impact on individuals, communities, local businesses and the work of support agencies; (ii) existing good practice and emerging solutions that could form the toolbox and guidance for improved rural mobility; (iii) whether/how new or adapted policy could enable better rural mobility, and what is appropriate to different levels of policy-makers (EU, national, regional, local); and (iv) what can practically be achieved within the existing framework.

Which pilot initiatives are being carried out through SMARTA or which would you highlight?

A number of EU project focused on rural shared mobility are currently ongoing. In March 2019, the EC launched the SMARTA 2 call for tender. The SMARTA 2 project will complement SMARTA by implementing four pilot demonstrators for sustainable shared mobility interconnected with public transport, including on multimodal travel information services; MAMBA is an INTERREG Baltic Sea Region project that commenced in Q3/2017. MAMBA is currently running a total of 9 pilots, of which 6 pilots relate to mobility services for people (i.e. Transport On Demand solutions, Maas, car-sharing) and 3 pilots relate to services coming to the people (i.e. Platforms and mobile applications). Another new relevant project is the INTERREG Central Europe SMACKER; SMACKER aims to promote public transport and mobility services that are demand-responsive and that connect local and regional systems to main corridors and transport nodes. Soft measures (e.g. behavior change campaigns) and hard measures (e.g. mobility service pilots) will be used to identify and promote eco-friendly solutions for public transport in rural and peripheral areas to achieve more liveable and sustainable environments, better integration of the population to main corridors and better services feeding main public transport. SMACKER will help local communities to re-design their transport services according to user needs and encourage people to use them.   

What expectations do you have about this Parliament?

Mostly, to share our findings to date and listen to what many other people have to say. We expect that we will hear perspectives that are new to us, and that these will help us better describe linkages between mobility and rural development. We think that many will agree that rural mobility matters, especially when it is not well provided. We will propose that there is the need to require all levels of policymakers (EU, Member State, Region, Local) to develop a vision for rural mobility in their area of coverage, define specific and measurable targets for rural mobility and assign responsibility and obligations for achievements of rural mobility targets. We expect that this Parliament will be the good occasion to i) discuss and share these emerging outcomes and results of the SMARTA Project and ii) encourage different stakeholders in being proactive for developing suitable policies for rural mobility and efficient operational solutions.