#173 Breaking the urban-rural divide in transport planning and practice

BEYOND CITIES: It is now more important than ever to consider transport development issues in towns and rural areas. These are the future of place, and their needs are quite key. Here’s a short feature on eNCA one of the leading broadcasters in South Africa.

There is a stark contrast between the transport planning interventions in emerging cities, intermediary towns and rural areas. The Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) published a report in 2012 aimed at guiding the transport and land-use fraternities to balance the relationship between “spatial accessibility” and “proximity” thresholds for public services. In other words, they provided guidelines for how many public service points should be available for a certain settlement class. This is a particularly constitutional issue, because if you have the ‘right’ to education and healthcare but you’re located far from these public services they may be difficult to reach (i.e. low proximity). Simultaneously, services may be located far from a specific neighbourhood but they are accessible through a certain transportation service which may either take people there or bring the service to the people. 

Source: CSIR

“Developing towns are the underlying force in the process of urbanisation, and managing, investing and governing the transportation systems of the future will require an early start for these areas.”

The classifications are described below with an understanding that a metropolitan city is usually a place with more than 1 million people; while large cities are considered somewhere between 350 000 and 1 million people. Intuitively, this creates a complicated position of large cities or small metros  when they host nearly half a million people and depends heavily on the density (persons per hectare). Large towns and regional service centres with 100 000 to 350 000 inhabitants are places where small towns, dense dispersed settlements, villages and remote villages tend to travel to in order to make larger and less frequent purchases or participate in activities. However, each of these classifications require similar levels of service in terms of freight and passenger transport. To an extent that “it depends” on whether you’re living in a rural or an urban area, one’s commute should not reveal unreasonable disparity in the level of service offered by public transport services, or access to markets.  

Deciding on either direction depends on whether the providers of such transportation services can afford to transport a few people with low proximity to services long distances; or if the size of the catchment is sufficient for locals to access these services affordably. Here we must consider that urban and rural areas not only have different markets in labour, industries and service needs; but also in capacity to manage the delivery of services in public and private sectors. The issues are exacerbated by the fact that “townships”, “rural areas”, and “peri-urban areas” are somewhat more detailed nuances which one finds within and between the classifications highlighted here. To an extent that one may find an informal settlement near a large city; or an isolated peri-urban area along a highway; or a rural area (i.e. animal herding, no roadways and a traditional authority) in the middle of a large town. Under these circumstances it is important to navigate the value of the transportation system and its impact on commensurately equal opportunities to commute and bring products to market. 

While in the pre-1977 era small farmers had access to rail freight services due to cross-subsidised service lines between urban and rural areas, the current narrative in the Integrated Urban Development Framework (IUDF) published in 2016 reveals the importance of urban-rural relationships: 

“Urban development is not an alternative to rural development. Rural and urban areas complement each other and coexist in production, trade, information flow and governance. They are further connected through flows of people, and natural and economic resources.”

Source: IUDF

The framework operates along four strategic pillars, which go hand-in-glove: spatial integration, inclusion and access, growth and governance. Each one has significant implications for the mobility and access between and within the urban-rural dynamic. Particularly because the agglomeration effects of urban areas provide economies of scale and is composed of greater network effects due to the density of talent, labour and activity. However, the rural-urban push-pull factors outlined below from the IUDF highlight something quite important, but also miss a few things. Urban areas have an allure which tends to attract people from smaller towns toward these areas particularly in search of opportunities, realising aspirations or simply out of necessity because their current talent base does not fit the rural market.

Rural areas have an allure which is described as somewhat cultural and associated with a psychosocial support network which may not be as consumer oriented as what one may find in an urban area. Both these narratives are yet to change as technology, information and talent begins to bulge and towns face growth in population and opportunities albeit at a slow pace. Urbanisation however is slowing down, the rate at which it is taking place is declining, but the sheer numbers of people are on the rise: South Africa may have little over 70% of its population in an urban area— but this does not necessarily mean they will be living in the existing cities. While current investments in integrated transportation systems lean heavily into the metros, and large cities, towns need support to manage population growth, vehicle travel demand and increasing incomes in some areas. In other areas, towns need support to be more resilient as more and more residents leave the homeland in search of opportunity and realising aspirations. Developing towns are the underlying force in the process of urbanisation, and managing, investing and governing the transportation systems of the future will require an early start for these areas. Without empirical evidence, as yet, financing this readiness will be difficult. Commensurate investments in mobility and access through transport and land-use which reflect the future needs will add more value and reduce risks while retaining residents in towns as they grow, and reducing an unmanageable influx in existing urban areas. 

*Thank you for tuning in. My schedule is a bit loaded lately, however I’ll remain committed to the cause and share as and when possible.

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