Rural Transport Services
For a long time, building roads in rural areas was considered as one of the main solutions to promote economic and social development and reduce poverty through improved access to markets, social facilities, and better information flows. However, as the rural transport overview indicates, for many developing countries this strategy has proven insufficient, often because little attention is paid to essential Rural Transport Services (RTS). Provision of roads is merely one way of facilitating transport services, which are themselves fundamental to delivering the desired economic and social improvements for poor rural communities. With the past imbalance in transport investments, RTS in most developing countries are underdeveloped and in most cases unavailable, unreliable and/or expensive, posing a serious impediment to reaping the benefits of any network and/or road infrastructure improvements. The overall benefits of improved rural transport will not be realised unless road, waterways and to some extent railway transport services are also improved and sustained.
Sustainable RTS aim to connect urban and rural areas, and rural areas with each other. Services may be provided by head loading, carts, bicycle taxis, motorcycle taxis, rickshaws, animal haulage, through to more capital intensive vehicles such as cars, minibuses, buses, tractors, pick-ups and trucks. Intermediate Means of Transport (IMT) can provide a range of affordable RTS solutions.
These services may be complementary and offer opportunities to connect at transport multi-modal rural hubs . Services may be scheduled, as is often the case for long distances buses. The more local services may usually be flexible; with vehicles and drivers available for hire at designated locations.
Designing appropriate RTS interventions requires a holistic understanding of the mechanisms through which rural transport services are provided and used in the rural economy of developing countries. Affordability, safety, reliability and/or efficiency are all factors at play in designing appropriate transport services in general, however in a rural context additional aspects should be considered as is explained below. Whatever technology is adopted, it must be sustainable within the local capacity to service, maintain and refurbish/obtain spares for any vehicles used.
In general demand is based on the economic, financial and social needs of transport users including any specific requirements of women, marginalised and/or vulnerable groups, such as People with Disabilities. Low demand, short journeys, and the limited ability of rural passengers to pay for transport services are general causes for an inadequate RTS coverage. And when the services do exist they are often unreliable and expensive, poorly planned, scarce (in terms of number of vehicles), resulting in high rural transport costs and service gaps. From the operator’s side rural transport services are in many cases unprofitable or provide little return for effort and inputs, and therefore do not attract new investments on the supply side.
There is a particular difficulty in assessing potential demand. Most conventional transport planning is based on extrapolating current demand. A key assumption is that generated traffic/demand is a small incremental increase over the existing usage. For rural transport planning in general and services in particular, there is a particularly challenging situation. Current usage of transport services is often low and can even be zero. However, well planned interventions can liberate substantial suppressed or latent demand. Conventional planning tools are not designed for this situation. This is the reason why innovative tools such as IRAP can be very useful in indicating priorities between investment in transport services, transport infrastructure or social/economic facilities.
Farmers may invest in particular crops, if they are convinced that affordable services will be available to transport their produce after the harvest to ensure a payback for their efforts.
Creating a 'critical mass' of end users on one side and investing in appropriate transport technologies on the other may contribute to optimising both supply and demand.
Certain means of transport may be unknown in a particular location. There could be potential for introduction of new appropriate modes with suitable investigation, awareness creation and support.
One of the challenges however is to find the optimal balance between a strong enforced regulatory framework and poor people's mobility since a very rigid framework may restrict people's access to services, or render them too expensive.
In designing appropriate RTS issues like equity, gender, and governance need to be assessed. These factors may lie outside the 'traditional' scope of economic analyses but will contribute to successful outcomes. The more traditional factors are topography, agro-ecological zones, farming systems, population density, economic development, remoteness, income levels, ethnicity, culture and transport systems in general. These can all influence the quality and nature of RTS as well as the overall supply and demand.
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Updated February 2010