Definitions of 'rural areas' vary significantly throughout Europe, and the criteria used for definition ranges from population to geographical position, from land-use to income. Nonetheless, inherent in the nature of 'rurality' is a relatively low density of population and geographical isolation. The combination of low population density and geographical isolation means that conventional approaches to passenger transport, which are based on significant numbers of passengers travelling together, lose their viability in rural areas. On the freight side, prices for goods and services in rural areas are generally higher, unless the pricing regime in effect has standard rates across a whole State or country (e.g. postal prices). Innovative demand-responsive transport services can stop or reverse the population loss, improve the quality of life and revitalise rural areas.
The project objectives were to:
- compile an inventory and assess experiences on rural access to transport in several European countries;
- identify further research needs by consulting widely with key stakeholders and rural citizens.
Specific aims of the project were to analyse the application of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) in rural transport systems, and to study the potential for integrating passenger and freight transport.
A database containing past and present experiences on rural access to transport has been developed and can be consulted on the project's web site. The database includes a total of 134 books and articles and over 100 case studies, providing an extensive overview of rural transport systems in Europe.
Twenty-eight case studies (both passenger and freight transport) were analysed in depth with regard to:
- resource inputs and service delivery outputs;
- legal base and preconditions for operation;
- use of telematics;
- experience with integrated passenger and freight transport.
A Good Practice Guide targeted at rural communities presents 12 different transport schemes providing innovative rural services across Europe.
A report on future research needs has been prepared, based on extensive consultation with key stakeholders and validated during an international seminar. The report addresses several topics, including the integration of local services, the licensing environment for demand responsive services, the institutional and legal barriers, and the role of telematics.
Improving rural transport services is part of a development and wealth redistribution policy. On the development side, the policy gives traditionally isolated areas potential mobility not dependent on the private vehicle. With respect to wealth redistribution, the policy favours public transport 'captives' and 'poor' demand segments, such as elderly people and young people. VIRGIL has highlighted problems of rural transport and ideas to improve it, providing a Europe-wide overview. The project's results are of immediate interest both for the local/regional/national authorities promoting rural transport and for the operators providing such services.
The project specifically highlights the tremendous possibilities that ICTs offer in improving rural transport. The need for telematics is largely dependent on the need for flexibility of rural transport. The deployment of telematics in rural transport is still relatively new and most countries have little experience. Comprehensive research is needed into the viability and operational characteristics of using ICTs in integrated ticketing (e.g. multi-purpose contactless smart cards), pre-booking, real-time passenger information and route-planning systems. The research should not focus on developing new, high-technology tools, but should concentrate on the adaptation of already existing telematic tools. Experience from the VIRGIL project has shown that, compared to urban transport, simpler and lighter software systems could be in place for the needs of rural transport.
Rural services carrying both goods and passengers can provide environmental benefits due to better capacity utilisation, economical benefits for providers and users, and an image gain for the region by focusing on environmentally sensitive tourism. There is only a limited experience with such services in most European countries, but VIRGIL proposed that such a possibility should be researched. The main issues in preventing the integration of freight and passenger transport are the legislative barriers (e.g. in Italy).