Feb 5, 2015

A solution that works

SmartMove seminar in Poland encourages the revival of rural public transport services

[Krakow, Poland – February 1, 2015] In a small community in southern Poland, public transport fell victim to the usual problem confronting rural markets: declining ridership, funding problems and a service that was less than barebones. Eventually the service operator gave up on the area. What remains is a car belonging to the parish priest and now used to ferry local elderly people to and from medical appointments.

This was a typical story shared by Polish participants at a recent seminar in Krakow on proactive marketing for sustainable rural transport. The event, delivered as part of the SmartMove project, provided advice to local authorities and others about the use of individualised marketing to maximise patronage of rural transport systems on tight budgets. About 40 people attended the event, including several local politicians and public transport stakeholders in Poland.

The main thrust of the seminar was the method of customer outreach known as active mobility consultancy, in which the public transport service is marketed through sharply focused campaigns targeting individual households within a certain catchment area of a transport line. Such campaigns seek to engage households — through phone calls, events and home visits — in order to identify the reasons car users don’t use public transport. Once this is done, tailor-made information is provided to enable people to switch modes.

Experience has shown that a lack of information is indeed a big barrier. Many rural residents don’t even know that public transport serves their area. Some might be aware of the service but don’t know the location or timetable of their nearest bus stop. Some may know where their nearest stop is, but don’t know of a convenient way to reach it (e.g. by bike or a neighbourhood car pool).

Active mobility consultancy can work. The SmartMove project is based on a successful pilot project carried out in 2009 in a rural corner of northeastern Austria called Waldviertel. As presented at the Krakow seminar by Roman Klementschitz of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, the case involved a rural public transport system that was typical of many others in Europe. Patronage was declining and funding wasn’t assured for the future. “We told people, if you don’t use it, you might lose it”, Klementschitz recalled. “We told them that even if you don’t use it now, you might want to use it in a few years when you’re retired.”

The Waldviertel campaign targeted nearly 900 households. To start, the campaigners contacted households by phone to see if they were interested in a campaign that would provide them with free individualised information about the public transport service in their immediate surroundings. More than three-quarters of those contacted chose to take part, and the campaign led to great results: ridership on the bus line in the target area saw an increase in patronage of about 33 percent, far above the average growth in the Waldviertel region (19 percent).

Indeed, several of the Polish seminar participants are in search of such remedies. Take the village of Macharz, just outside Krakow, for example. According to a seminar participant, public transport operators say the community’s population of 4,000 simply isn’t sufficient to support public transport.

Another participant said public transport in a suburb of Warsaw had such a dubious cost/benefit ratio that the local mayor cancelled the service contract with the capital city’s PT operator. Local residents responded by voting the man out of office, but public transport remains a vexed question there.

In short, rural public transport in Poland faces familiar problems. Supply is poor and budgets are often too tight to increase it. An AMC campaign is a cheaper alternative — a way to get more passengers onto existing (perhaps partly empty) vehicles.

Wrapping up the meeting, SmartMove project coordinator Oliver Roider, also of the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences Vienna, said that running a successful rural public transport system is a puzzle, and that SmartMove offers one piece of the solution. SmartMove is a first step to see how you can attract more riders with a given supply that is far from ideal.

”Waldviertel is similar to many rural areas all over Europe – it’s an area with some very small villages and a very limited public transport supply – but it boosted public transport use significantly.”

Photo credit: studio 43 - Nektarios Basdekis