An action plan to halt the sharp decline in the use of rural and island bus services is being drawn up.
Hitrans is looking to tackle the problem, which has been heightened by the impacts of Covid019.
The regional transport partnership for the Highlands and Islands wants more funding from the Scottish Government to be targeted on sustaining rural and island bus service.
It believes that lessons can be learned from the pandemic to tailor future services more closely to the needs of local communities, with major input from community transport groups.
‘We have to protect what we have got’
Mary Jean Devon, 75, is a councillor who is wheelchair-bound as a result of MS and lives in Tobermory, on the isle of Mull. She said: “It is a bit like the ferries. Buses are working on a skeleton timetable because of the pandemic.
“It is really important that we get these services back when the pandemic ends, particularly in tourist time when lot of people come over here for the day and they have no car.
“We have to protect what we have got, especially for elderly people who don’t drive any more. It can be a manoeuvre to get off the island sometimes.
“West Coast Motors have helped with delivery of food boxes from the council to vulnerable people. They do play a big part in island life but they are operating on a restricted time table.
“So many of us depend on the bus to get to the boat.”
Hitrans is advocating the reinstatement of a Rural Transport Fund and the Regional Transport Partnership capital passenger transport grant to support improvements to infrastructure and public transport capital assets. Also recommended is the introduction of an Enhanced Demand Responsive Transport funding stream – managed at Regional Transport Partnership level and developed with local authorities and community anchor groups.
‘This is a major challenge’
Partnership board chairman Councillor Allan Henderson will be writing to Michael Matheson, MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Transport Infrastructure and Connectivity, to recommend the new measures to better support rural and island communities which he says have been hit hardest by the pandemic.
He said: “Many residents who were very reliant on subsidised local bus services and Community Transport for access have become increasingly isolated through lockdown and the Covid experience, and we now have the challenge (with partners) to support these residents, often younger residents and older people, to become socially active again, to regain their mobility and improve their wellbeing.
“This is a major challenge for the coming months and years, and one in which local bus services and community transport should have a significant role if it is supported. This is a prime example of where transport affords benefits far beyond transport itself, benefitting wider health and social care services.”
Covid-19 had seen the adoption of more home working and working closer to home, across the public and private sectors. This presents the opportunity to reshape rural bus services and community transport.
He added: “There is potential to benefit from community involvement on the back of the strength of the community response through the Covid experience – growth in, and growth of, Community Anchor Organisations with a will to shape and deliver change and services within their communities.
“There is a real opportunity in the current context to deliver services in new ways.”