The right to have access to the services and amenities that enable everybody to participate fully in society is considered essential. Given that rural areas are characterised by people and services often being some distance from each other, it is no surprise that substantial problems related to accessibility may be found in rural locations.
Despite the impression that the majority of the population are car owning, there remain significant non-mobile groups. Typically those on low incomes, including job seekers, those unable to drive, such as the young and older people, and mothers with young children, can rely on local public transport services.
A report by the Bevan Foundation (2013) highlights the importance of public transport for the elderly, ‘Many older people rely on public transport, usually the bus, to get out and about. Some have never been able to drive a car, while many others are no longer able to do so because of their health, the cost or concern about traffic. Bus services therefore matter a great deal to older people, arguably more than to any other group in society.’
Without support, bus networks would not exist in rural areas. A BBC report (20th February 2014) highlighted that nearly 100 subsidised bus routes have been cut by councils in Wales in the past three years. Thus the traditional models of public transport delivery (based on fixed timetables and routes) can fail to meet the needs of passengers in rural areas because areas are being left without services or they can be too infrequent and inflexible.
Research undertaken by the Wales Transport Research Centre, based at the University of South Wales, has investigated the use of Demand Responsive Transport (DRT) services as a means of addressing social exclusion and rural accessibility by providing a more flexible and customer responsive service. The research aimed to answer a question posed by the Welsh Government, ‘how do we provide a high quality bus service for rural areas?’ In partnership with Welsh Government and Carmarthenshire County Council, Ceredigion County Council and Traveline Cymru, the concept and then the technical aspects for a new integrated rural transport network were developed.
A DRT service called Bwcabus was introduced in August 2009 funded by the Welsh Government, the European Convergence Fund and Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion County Councils. The aim of Bwcabus is to improve public transport and accessibility to key services for rural communities in West Wales.
Bwcabus operates in the relatively sparsely populated rural areas to the north of Carmarthen and south of Aberystwyth, covering the Teifi Valley and south Ceredigion. Bwcabus initially covered the rural areas surrounding Llandysul, Drefach Felindre, Henllan, Newcastle Emlyn and Cenarth. Following the award of additional funding the service was expanded in December 2011, additionally covering Lampeter, Llanybydder, Aberaeron and Llangeithio.
The system is designed to provide rural communities with a local bus service which is integrated with strategic public transport services, offering connections to Carmarthen, Cardigan, Aberaeron, Aberystwyth and beyond. Bwcabus is a provides a key link into the Welsh Governments flagship Traws Cymru T1 service and new T5 services.
The Bwcabus service consists of a DRT feeder bus service that operates to flexible schedules determined by the demands of customers. A DRT timetable is not fixed and will vary each day. This form of ‘dynamic’ scheduling allows passengers greater flexibility to book journeys at the times (or close to the times) they require. The Bwcabus integrates with timetabled fixed route services connecting key population centres. Therefore Bwcabus facilitates a large number of journey options between the fixed and demand responsive services.
At the heart of the Bwcabus operation is the scheduling system designed and built by the University of South Wales. The complete system includes journey scheduling, booking management and public transport information import and management. Bwcabus utilises several information and communications technologies to manage bookings and to send and receive information.
The implementation of the Bwcabus service demonstrates a solution to providing ‘dynamic’ demand responsive transport scheduling in rural areas. This approach has proven that providing rural communities with an integrated rural public transport network can increase the frequency of public transport use, improve accessibility by public transport, encourage a reduction in car use, and assist in lifting rural communities out of deprivation.