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Rural Accessibility





2.1 There is a very extensive body of literature on issues related to rural accessibility. Over the last 30 years the research has evolved in line with national and local policy. Initial studies (e.g. DoE 1971) attempted to assess the importance of rural public transport and its role in rural lifestyles. The main focus was therefore on mobility. These studies identified the unequal distribution of mobility between different rural population groups and sought to establish minimum level of service criteria based upon a range of factors.

2.2 A major advance was made by incorporating this thinking about mobility within the wider concept of accessibility. The seminal work from this period (Moseley 1979) structured the consideration of rural accessibility under three main themes:

  • The population group - This took account of the wishes of each individual to engage in defined activities.
  • The activity supply point - This identified the opportunities based upon the land use supply which would allow any individual to satisfy their desire to participate in the activity under consideration.
  • The availability of transportation - This defined how an individual could traverse space to reach the relevant facility.

2.3 This work recognised that transport was a derived demand and that the analysis of accessibility needed to consider both the supply of opportunities and the supply of transport for each population group. Unfortunately despite these theoretical advances in the 1970s, the apparent complexity of accessibility analysis hindered the application of the concept as a planning tool. There was no policy priority or administrative structure to encourage joint working between the relevant public agencies to allow transport provision to be considered jointly with the provision of healthcare, education etc. There was therefore little demand for more integrated appraisal using accessibility techniques.

2.4 This potential obstacle had been recognised by Moseley in 1979. He therefore suggested that standards of accessibility should be established by Central Government to provide a framework for local decisions in each local community about service planning.

2.5 In recent years there has been renewed interest in a more integrated planning approach, and accessibility analysis is recognised as having an increasing role to play in identifying efficient, effective and equitable solutions. Issues such as the need to reduce social exclusion in rural areas have introduced a new political priority to overcoming the problems of rural inaccessibility (Scottish Executive 2000). The debate now centres on:

  • Identifying the accessibility needs of rural dwellers and the impacts, including social exclusion, of poor accessibility.
  • The transport policy interventions which have sought to improve rural accessibility.
  • Practical techniques for measuring accessibility in rural areas that can be used to support expenditure decisions and prioritise initiatives.

2.6 The literature review below therefore considers previous work under each of these three topics. Under each strand, the focus of the work is Scottish issues but relevant international literature is also considered where appropriate.

Accessibility needs of rural dwellers

2.7 Rural areas have diverse characteristics and the problems faced by rural dwellers vary according to the specific needs of individuals.

2.8 To allow practical analysis of issues, rural areas have been categorised in National Planning Policy Guidance (Scottish Executive 1999) as commuter, intermediate or remote. This national classification is defined using simple accessibility measures. Commuter areas are defined as being within 60 minutes travel time of a principal centre, intermediate areas are 60 to 120 minutes from a principal centre and remote rural areas are more than two hours travel from a principal centre.

2.9 In Scotland about 170,000 people live in remote areas, 270,000 live in intermediate rural areas and about 600,000 live in commuter rural areas. Each type of area has its own characteristics and within each type there is a wide range of issues and problems including the desire for improved accessibility. In each local area practical solutions require approaches to be tailored to local needs.

2.10 Access to a principal centre is, however only one aspect of rural accessibility. Access to regional and local population centres increases in importance with remoteness. Regional centres will often have a population of around 30,000 and offer a wide range of public and private services and local centres will usually have a population of over 2,000 but provide only basic services.

2.11 The existing definitions of types of rural areas are therefore vague so research has been undertaken to investigate if a more robust typology can be developed. Recent work (RGU 2001) suggested eight theoretical typologies based on transport and geographical conditions. The typologies include two peri-urban areas, three contrasting market towns with hinterlands and three types of remote areas. The research suggests that the typologies should be further developed to allow social and economic differences to be considered in greater depth.

2.12 An alternative approach to categorising rural areas by geographical area is to classify them by the characteristics of the travel need. A review for the Countryside Agency in England (TAS 1993) identified that, for the purposes of appraisal, need could be considered as follows:

  • Comparative need - This compares individual cases with averages or with other similar situations. The level of need is determined by equity aims but recognising that trade-offs are made by rural residents i.e. poorer accessibility to theatres in exchange for better access to the countryside.
  • Expressed need - Demand as an indicator of expressed need is identified as the most common measure for defining need in current practice. However this method does not address the issue of latent or frustrated demand, and does not address the issue of enforced demand e.g. owning and financing the operation of a car because there is no alternative, rather than by choice.
  • Stated need - There is an obvious place for including what people say they need in the development of transport policies through a consultative process.
  • Community need - This requires an objective view to be taken to defining the need for a minimum level of access to basic services such as a doctor's surgery, educational facilities etc.

2.13 The research suggests that each of the four methods has some validity, and in practice a robust appraisal methodology would incorporate elements from all of the approaches.

2.14 Solutions to rural exclusion problems are likely to be most effective if developed with local communities (Scottish Executive 1996). Community approaches link the identification of need with delivery of the solutions allowing effective targeting of measures. However objective criteria are still needed to determine the overall level, and prioritisation of public resources for such initiatives.

2.15 The policy emphasis on the equity issues has increased in recent years and research has identified factors leading to social exclusion in rural areas (Shucksmith 2000). This outlines the current problems with private and public services, notably transport, public housing and childcare, and the ineffectiveness of the welfare state in reaching some rural dwellers. A number of policy recommendations were made, including: the need for rural 'exclusion-proofing' of new and existing policy; tackling issues concerning low pay, and benefits take-up; and reducing poverty amongst older people. Recommendations particularly relevant to accessibility included the following:

  • Many people experiencing social exclusion in rural areas live dispersed amongst apparent affluence, rather than concentrated in specific areas. Area based intervention may therefore be insufficient.
  • Aspirations for community based initiatives are required to tackle the problems, but top-down incentives need to be supported by parallel initiatives for community capacity building.
  • Current economic and transport trends will lead to an increase in social exclusion in rural areas.

2.16 The work suggests that, to achieve integration into paid work for many people, fresh thinking on transport is required. Subsidised taxis for targeted groups, grants to help with car purchase and help with car tax and insurance costs are all suggested. More local service provision such as small shops and schools, and local community transport schemes, have the dual benefit of providing work for local people and improving access to services. The research therefore emphasises the need for a joined up approach in tackling social exclusion.

2.17 Recognising the need for this comprehensive approach, a conceptual framework for viewing social exclusion in rural areas has been proposed (Scottish Executive 2000). This identifies four main systems which give an individual a sense of belonging in rural society:

  • private market processes,
  • public services,
  • voluntary schemes
  • cultural support.

2.18 Each of these systems has a role in addressing rural accessibility issues. A recent policy review (Scottish Executive 2000) identified that discussions about service provision in rural areas tended to highlight the following services as of importance.

  • Work
  • Banks
  • Shops
  • Chemists
  • Post offices
  • Libraries
  • Childcare and out of hours school care
  • Sport and leisure facilities
  • Information and advice services
  • Health and social care
  • Education and training
  • Community halls
  • Local government Offices
  • Employment Service and DSS offices
  • Public and community transport

2.19 The public sector has the primary role in providing most of these services. Even where services are predominantly controlled by the private sector, public support is often required in some form. Local service provision is therefore largely within the control of public agencies.

2.20 Debates about service provision in remote areas tend to focus on the quality of a few core services: the shop, the primary school, the GP, the community hall and public transport. Of particular concern is the wide disparity in opportunities available to different groups in society. Lack of access to services particularly disadvantages older people, families on low incomes and young people (Scottish Office 1998).

2.21 A structure for assessing the transport related dimensions of social exclusion was proposed by Church et al (1999) and used in research for the Scottish Executive (2001b). This suggested that exclusion could be: physical, geographical, economic, time based, facility based, fear based, or due to space management strategies. Accessibility levels for rural residents are more likely to be sensitive to each of these factors than for their urban counterparts.

2.22 This highlights the crucial relationships between transport and social exclusion. Car ownership is critical in explaining the large range in accessibility levels experienced by rural dwellers. The limited supply of public transport is a major factor in accessibility for non-car households, given the declining availability of local services such as shops, primary schools and health facilities in rural areas. This is a particular problem for people without cars who live in remote areas (Scottish Executive 1998).

2.23 Low income car-owning households are also at risk of exclusion due to low accessibility levels. The declining relative costs of car use in recent decades have enabled this group to adopt a car-dependent lifestyle but levels of accessibility are dependent upon fuel prices, so that they could face increasing exclusion with rising fuel costs. It was also found that certain groups, particularly the job seeker and teenager, experienced social and economic exclusion due principally to transport and accessibility issues.

2.24 Overall, in considering rural accessibility levels there is at least as much variance between population groups and specific travel purposes as between geographical areas. Therefore geographical classification of rural areas is only a starting point in assessing the needs of rural dwellers. Accessibility also needs to be considered by trip purpose and population sector.

Transport Policy Interventions

2.25 Private transport by car will invariably offer the best accessibility in rural areas. However concerns about the impact of the car are leading many authorities to restrict or manage car access (Countryside Agency 1999).

2.26 For the declining numbers of people without a car, rural public transport offers lifeline services, but as the numbers of passengers reduces the cost of providing these services to the public sector is increasing. Significant funding has been provided by the Scottish Executive to local authorities in recent years to stem the rate of decline (Scottish Executive 2001c). Research for the Executive on the impacts of this funding has concluded that:

  • The cost of providing transport services increases with remoteness.
  • Shopping was the most frequent trip purpose for passengers on scheduled bus services and the surveys revealed a high percentage of female and elderly users on the new bus services.
  • The new transport services were provided with very little analysis of the levels of unmet need, but the new services were successful in penetrating the key target market of residents who have no access to a car in remoter areas.
  • 36% of those making journeys on new services in remote areas would not have travelled if the service had not been available, with the equivalent percentage for peri-urban areas being 23%.
  • Investment in peri-urban areas was most successful in targeting social exclusion.
  • Greater efforts should be made to ensure that community transport investment is distributed more widely across Scotland in the future.
  • Priority should be given to community transport schemes which provide services for individuals rather than only for groups.
  • Local transport strategies should set and monitor clear objectives for rural transport including the future role of conventional bus, demand responsive bus services and community transport measures.

2.27 The findings of this research therefore confirm an ongoing need for public funding of rural transport, but recommend better targeting of these funds through more rigorous analysis of rural transport needs to achieve more efficient and equitable solutions.

2.28 European work (VIRGIL 2000) has reviewed the experience throughout Europe of transport schemes to improve rural transport under four main themes:

  • Enhancement of regular bus services.
  • Development of on-demand or responsive services.
  • Integration of goods and passenger transport.
  • Development of multi-purpose and/or multi-agency transport services.
  • This work notes the general absence of appraisal in bringing forward project plans and, for the UK projects, the report states:

"We are not aware of any real use application of systems for assessing socio-economic benefits to set against the costs of rural passenger transport services. Indeed, even simple accessibility indices are conspicuous by their absence. Detailed Cost Benefit Analysis is only required or undertaken for large projects, such as major road, rail or infrastructure investment."

2.30 To allow a consistent review of the various projects across Europe, 14 criteria were defined within this research as shown in Table 1. Although this framework has primarily been used in research it also provides a useful list of questions which the promoters of rural transport projects could usefully consider.

Table 1 - VIRGIL criteria for evaluating rural transport schemes



1: Operational viability

Is service only means of public transport in the area?

Is it a supplementary service to regular services?

Does the service substitute a previous service?

2: Use of telematics Has telematics been utilised in:

Reservation of service?

Ticketing system?

Information system?

Traffic planning, e.g. routing?

3: Potential for integrated passenger / freight transport

Freight in passenger traffic?

Passengers in freight traffic?

4: Applicability Is a similar service concept in use:

In the same region

In the same country

In other European countries

5: Economic viability Can economic viability be determined based on the following indicators:

Total annual cost of operation

Ticket (fares) revenues (passengers and freight)

Annual surplus / deficit

Financing of deficit

Continuation of financing

6: Geographical coverage

Has the service brought new areas within service which have not had previous public transport services?

7: Social viability Has the service particularly improved / decreased the mobility for:

Elderly people

Disabled people

School children

8: Flexibility of service Is there any degree of flexibility of the service with regard to:





9: Technical suitability of vehicle fleet

What is the standard passenger capacity?

Are there any special comfort features?

Is there wheelchair access?

Is there low-floor access?

Is there separate access to a freight space?

10: Training of personnel Is there special training for:

Vehicle drivers and assistants

Reservation personnel

11: Efficiency of reservation and data collection system Have the following systems been considered:

Reservation via Travel Despatch Centre or in-vehicle mobile phone / radio link

Automatic, semi-automatic or manual data collection

12: Reallocation of labour

Has the service resulted in re-allocation of resources between different public sectors (measurable cross-sector benefits)?

13: Users' opinion

Is the users' opinion positive about the service?

14: Marketing

Is there sufficient marketing of the services to users?

2.31 The VIRGIL project has assessed a large number of case studies against the above criteria from throughout Europe including over 20 from the UK. It therefore provides a powerful source of information on the practical experiences of local authorities and others of implementing rural transport projects.

2.32 Voluntary and community schemes are proving to be successful in many places and can provide good value solutions to local needs. To help promote these initiatives there is an increasing amount of guidance available to help people organise, research, evaluate, and promote successful schemes e.g. Scottish Office 2001, CTA 1997. Successful case studies across Scotland are described in these documents.

2.33 Research (Scottish Office 1998) has also shown that public transport is little used by the majority of people in rural Scotland. Rural residents who use public transport usually do not have regular access to a car and confine their trips to short journeys which they can make using a reasonably frequent public transport service. Due to lack of provision and flexibility, many rural dwellers were unwilling or unable to consider public transport as an alternative and are regarded as car dependent. Two main types of car dependence were identified:

  • Structural dependence - Those who are dependent on their cars because there are no viable alternatives
  • Conscious dependence - Those who rely on their vehicle but could realistically undertake their journeys by alternative modes.

2.34 Cars are regarded as a fundamental necessity by the majority of households in rural Scotland, who rely on this mode for the bulk of their travel. Those in more isolated areas make a higher proportion of their journeys by car than those living close to shops, employment and services. Income is also an important indicator of car use.

2.35 There are also interesting trends by journey purpose. Travel by car to a supermarket is a car journey common to all people, regardless of location, affluence or remoteness. Having a car is also often regarded as crucial to obtaining and keeping employment, and in the most peripheral areas car sharing for shopping and employment was prevalent. Consequently, many rural dwellers without regular access to a car are still dependent on friends' or relatives' cars for these sorts of journeys. The majority of non car available households are in and around small towns and villages, close to shops, services and at least some employment.

2..36 To reconcile this car dependence with national transport policy, an integrated approach to policy intervention is needed (Farrington et al 2000). Policy benefits can be maximised and negative impacts minimised by reducing the need for mobility in rural areas, improving accessibility by other means, such as supporting rural services (retail, health, etc.). However, the work has identified that progress with practical schemes, supported with funding from the relevant agencies, requires an objective method of assessing accessibility levels which is calibrated with people's perceptions of their needs.

2.37 In any local area conflict and synergy between transport policies and the goals of rural development can be identified. When evaluated against the aims of achieving social, economic and environmental sustainability, transport policies are seen to have many positive elements which seek to improve accessibility via increasing public transport-based mobility (e.g. the Public Transport Fund and the Rural Transport Initiative Fund). However some policies have conflicting elements, notably fuel tax which has positive environmental benefits but potential negative implications for social and economic sustainability.

Measuring Accessibility in Rural Areas

2.38 There have been various approaches to provide a more robust analytical approach to measuring rural accessibility. The relative role of demand and accessibility analysis in appraisal has shadowed the perceived need of policy makers to balance efficiency and equity aims. Moseley (1979) identified that setting national accessibility standards would be likely to increase the need for public support for transport. However, national government experiments (Coe and Fairfield 1980) concluded that "People living in rural areas have to adapt to their environment by adopting a lifestyle involving limited mobility or by making their own arrangements for transport".

2.39 In the early 1980s a programme of research in England sought to define a methodology for assessing accessibility problems in rural areas (Kilvington and McKenzie 1985). This work gave further insight into rural accessibility problems, and confirmed that travel behaviour and need in rural areas was too complex to be measured accurately by any simple formula.

2.40 A disaggregate approach was therefore needed, so research for the Countryside Agency (TAS 1993) suggested that accessibility analysis should consider:

  • The category of person
  • The availability of a car
  • The journey purpose.

2.41 The extent to which any person faces an accessibility problem will depend upon a combination of these three characteristics. This work suggested a research programme to identify levels of rural accessibility across Europe, compare accessibility for urban and rural dwellers, and to benchmark standards of rural accessibility. However this research was not taken forward and there continues to be very limited accessibility analysis in developing practical initiatives.

2.42 At a European level in the early 1990s peripherality indices were developed to define criteria for financial support. The European Commission continues to favour this approach, and Scottish economic development agencies now also use such peripherality indices as a tool for regional policy targeting and evaluation.

2.43 In Scotland various measuring techniques have been used in rural areas for accessibility (Copus 2000, SIRP 2000). Most of these analyses have used distance or drive times to represent the deterrent effect of existing transport supply. This can be helpful in understanding the spatial pattern of activity but does not allow alternative transport options to be evaluated. This is discussed further in Chapter 5.

2.44 Where accessibility has been measured, (Halden et al 1995) it has been found that remote economies can be more self contained than intermediate rural areas, giving better accessibility to a few essential services such as work and shopping. However remote economies face particular challenges in achieving accessibility to more specialised services such as regional hospitals.

2.45 A recent Scottish review of accessibility measuring techniques (Scottish Executive 2000) suggested a practical framework for accessibility analysis including for rural areas. Any accessibility issue must be defined in terms of four categories:

  • The type of person.
  • Whether accessibility at the trip origin or destination is being considered.
  • What is the policy issue being considered.
  • What methodology is to being used to calculate accessibility.

2.46 The main elements in each category are summarised in Table 2.

Table 2 - Framework for Accessibility Analysis



Type of person

Car available

People by age, socio-economic group, gender, ethnic group etc.

Non car available

Mobility impaired

Origin or destination

Origin accessibility defines access to work, shops etc.
Destination accessibility defines access of shops, employment locations etc.

Policy issue

Accessibility by/of walk and cycle
Accessibility to/of opportunities by transport system
Access to/of the transport system itself
Accessibility by/of freight
Comparisons of accessibility measures


Opportunity, or Value Measures at a level of complexity and accuracy commensurate with the appraisal need.

2.47 This approach is structured using the same three main categories identified in 2.2 but expanded to include practical methodologies and to reflect policy appraisal needs. It is equally applicable to urban and rural areas. However it also highlights that, although accessibility analysis is very flexible, it can become complex or confusing if the policy questions being asked are not identified at the outset. Clear policies relating to a group of people for a particular purpose can be analysed easily using accessibility techniques. Vague aspirations for better accessibility are often more clearly analysed by looking at the narrower concept of mobility.

2.48 A national accessibility target for rural areas in England was set in the 10 year transport plan (DETR 2000). This seeks to increase the proportion of the rural population living within 10 minutes walk of an hourly or better bus service by one third by 2010. It is not clear how this target was arrived at but a similar target for Scotland would introduce pressure to divert funding towards less remote rural areas where higher population densities and more frequent bus services would make the target threshold achievable. Off major inter-urban corridors hourly or better bus services are generally only seen within commuter rural areas.

2.49 For Scottish rural areas a target for access to the transport system would be more difficult to define since some of the best current practice involves targeted services for particular population groups on specified days of the week. Nevertheless recent research (Scottish Executive 2000) suggested that national accessibility targets for Scotland would be an effective way for Government to commit to policy delivery without becoming involved in the detailed scheme planning which is best handled at a local level. Targets by trip purpose and population group would provide the level of focus needed to implement policy aims whilst recognising Scotland's diversity.

2.50 A major constraint on analysis of accessibility is the availability of spatially referenced data. However the increasing development of geographical information systems (GIS) means that data are becoming much more widely available for both the distribution of population by characteristics and on services such as employment locations and shops.

2.51 A comprehensive review of spatially referenced data for rural areas has recently been undertaken (SIRP 2000). This has identified how data on rural services could be linked and analysed through the use of the Scottish Executive Geographical Information Systems (SEGIS). The work has suggested the progressive development of national data to cover locations of:

  • GPs, Hospitals, Dentists, Chemists
  • Primary Schools, Secondary Schools, FE & HE Colleges, Universities
  • Post Offices, Banks and Building Societies
  • Supermarkets, Independent Grocers
  • Petrol Stations

2.52 There is already a very large amount of spatially referenced data within SEGIS for these services and for population and household characteristics and further development and refinement of these data is in progress.

2.53 As part of the development of SEGIS it was proposed that accessibility indicators could be included for rural areas. To date drive time isochrones have been used. The advantages and disadvantages of this approach were considered in research for the Scottish Executive and are summarised in Table 3 (SIRP 2000).

Table 3 - The use of Drive Time Isochrones in SIRP



  • For the purposes of the Scottish Household Survey analysis, a drivetime threshold of 30 minutes was used for defining 'accessibility'. This is viewed as a 'cut-off' drivetime which people are prepared to travel for in order to reach many services.
  • Perceived as a simple indicator which will be understood.
  • Drive time accessibility assumes accessibility is inextricably linked with car travel. For those people without use of a car at all times for whatever reason, accessibility is much more likely to be a function of public transport routing and scheduling.
  • The location of centroids from which to calculate drivetime isochrones is a potential source of disagreement.
  • A 30 minute isochrone from a large town or city may barely reach the edge of the town giving a misleading picture of accessibility since secondary centres may be available nearer the periphery of the town.
  • They are generally based on average vehicle speeds and even for roads of the same class speeds may vary significantly and by time of day.
  • Maps can be aesthetically unpleasing so software packages tend to interpolate between points on a road network producing 'star' patterns with broad extensions rather than linear extensions of road networks.

2.54 Overall, the research concludes that, lines delineating 30 minute drive times should be seen as 'fuzzy' and decisions based on this classification which directly affect areas close to boundaries should take account of this fact.

2.55 Drive time isochrones are not therefore considered to be a final solution, but rather an interim step towards measuring rural accessibility.