You’re walking in the countryside, in a landscape unchanged for centuries, when an NHS drone drifts overhead. Incongruous, yes. Fantasy, no. Welcome to the future of rural transport, where medical supplies are dispatched by remote-controlled aircraft, villages linked by electric-bike lanes and farm produce delivered via an underground tunnel. It’s a brave new world and it could be coming soon to a locality near you...
If you live in a rural area, you’ll know that public transport is patchy at best and home deliveries can be hit and miss. Take the buses. Or, rather, don’t take them because you’ll wait forever. Buses are notoriously thin on the ground in the countryside – more than 3,000 local-authority-supported services have been axed or reduced in the past ten years.
“It’s harder to make a commercial case for many routes because people in rural areas tend to be dispersed,” explains Silviya Barrett, head of policy, research and projects at advocacy group Campaign for Better Transport. “The local authority can’t afford to run a service frequently, so a route becomes less attractive. You then get fewer passengers, the routes become even more expensive to run and you’re on a downward spiral.”
From isolation to innovation
The fact that rural residents often feel cut off has taken a serious toll on everything from job opportunities to mental health. But there’s good news in the air: the recent pandemic has inspired innovation.
“Covid has kicked off a revolution for rural areas,” says Jenny Milne, who sits on the International Transport Forum’s working group for rural mobility and innovation and is studying for a PhD in rural mobility. “It has nurtured collaboration that would have taken years to get off the ground.”
Shops and charities, she notes, made huge strides working with bus companies during the various lockdowns to deliver food to customers. The buses still took passengers, but the dual purpose reinforced their value.
The pandemic also accelerated an idea for the NHS to use drones to carry medical tests and supplies to Scottish islands. “Drones can travel in straight lines at about 100km an hour,” explains Alex Brown, head of operations at Skyports, the company behind the drone deliveries. “They are faster and more direct than lorries. No one needs to worry about syncing road transport with ferry crossings.” Drones, he adds, don’t need individual drivers; fleets are overseen by a pilot at HQ.
During a three-month trial, drones saved 12,000 hours in waiting and transport time for Covid tests and other pathology samples. This is life-changing. One patient was saved from going blind because the NHS staff could get a test result and start treatment so quickly. The scheme has now become permanent.
As well as shuttling medical supplies, drones are also being used to deliver post. Royal Mail has been testing drone deliveries in Scotland and the Isles of Scilly. “Rural environments used to be the last place to see technology,” Alex says. “Now they are becoming the first to benefit from it.”
Drones have another benefit – they’re electric, which means they could help us tackle the climate emergency. Cycle lanes for e-bikes, allowing people to bike safely between villages, also fit the bill.
Zoe Avison, policy analyst for Green Alliance, points to a study by the Centre for Research into Energy Demand Solutions, which showed that e-bikes might be more useful in rural areas than urban ones if we want to lower the amount of carbon produced by our transport because in cities there are other low-carbon options. The challenge now is to show there’s demand for them. Villages could also make them available for local hire.
Plans in the pipeline
We’ve seen initiatives that are on the ground and above the ground, but what about those underground? Tech company Magway is designing small tunnels (or large pipelines) to deliver goods on ‘pods’ riding electromagnetic waves. It is aiming to roll out the first network this year.
Like drones and e-bikes, the carriages, which are about the size of a tote bag and travel at about 30mph milliseconds apart, are eco-friendly as they are emission-free. (For the science, see magway.com.)
Co-founder Phill Davies points out that the tunnels will mean fewer large vehicles on the road, improving safety and reducing damage to road surfaces. As they are underground, they also can’t be seen, making them ideal for Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Finally, we could soon see electric air ‘taxis’ or electric helicopters, which again could be useful in reaching remote spots. Skyports, the company behind the drone deliveries, is designing a vertiport (the area where they take off and land) in Shannon in Ireland. The future is on our doorstep…
Use It or Lose It
Not all solutions to patchy rural transport, however, need to be expensive or take time to get going. Some may be considerably simpler, argues Jenny Milne of the International Transport Forum. “It’s about using the assets you’ve got,” she explains.
“In rural communities, your neighbour might be going to town and offer to pick something up for you. You may decline because you feel guilty. In Upstate New York, it’s different. Your neighbour would get ‘mobility credit’ for running this sort of errand – perhaps in the form of a shop voucher. In that case, you might take up the offer as there would be no need to feel bad: they would be getting compensated for their time.”
All this just leaves one question: what about people who have chosen to live rurally because they want a simple, old-fashioned life? They needn’t worry about drones blighting the landscape or interrupting their peace and quiet, says Alex Brown of Skyports. “When people think of drones, they often think of ones you might buy as toys over the internet. These are different. You can hear them when they take off and land, but they’re mostly silent. They fly so fast that they’re hard to spot.”
In any case, communities must be consulted, says Jenny Milne of the International Transport Forum. Do local people want drones? Do they want sky taxis? Or do they just want a frequent bus? It’s time to have your say. Let us know your thoughts by emailing email@example.com.
This feature is from Country Living magazine – SUBSCRIBE HERE
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