Why community engagement and empowerment is critical to transport recovery, sustainability and inclusion

We are at a critical juncture with transport and travel, with unprecedented threats and opportunities that have emerged or been magnified by Covid-19. More people are walking and cycling, and vitally-important investment is going into making it easier and safer for people to use these healthy, low-carbon, cheap modes. At the same time, people are being told to avoid public transport, confidence is down, and traffic levels – and the associated threat to health and climate – are rising again. As we grapple with this dichotomy, we need to ask: what role can community involvement and empowerment play in tackling immediate and long-term threats and helping us to build a more sustainable and inclusive transport future?

It’s understandable that this may be overlooked in transport debates, but our experience, and a raft of research, suggests it holds an important key. Community engagement can be seen as a ‘nice to have’, but in recent years, we and our partners have been increasingly clear about the tangible, crucial outcomes it delivers. The community rail movement, made up of 71 community-based partnerships and 1,000+ station friends groups and enterprises across Britain, brought together under the Community Rail Network’s umbrella, is testament to that. The Department for Transport’s Community Rail Development Strategy underlines how this growing, grassroots movement enables communities to have a voice, promotes sustainable and healthy travel, enhances inclusion, and supports development. Our evidence base affirms that community rail matters: delivering wide-ranging benefits to people and places, creating higher usage on local lines, and enabling communities to derive greater value from (and feel pride in and ownership for) their railways and stations.

Community rail does this by performing a neat trick: it demonstrates how our railways serve, care about, and are all about their communities, while empowering those communities to influence the railway’s development and make positive change. It creates dialogue and relationships at local level, between train operators, other rail partners, authorities, bus operators, schools, colleges, hospitals, businesses and community groups. In doing so, it develops mutual understanding, positivity, and opportunities for making things work better for local people. This takes various forms, from volunteers creating station gardens that benefit wellbeing and nature, to railway confidence programmes that help young people access work and education opportunities, to advising operators and authorities on service improvements and modal integration. Increasingly, this work goes well beyond rail, thinking holistically about sustainable journeys, the role of transport within communities, and how it can better serve those communities in the future.

While much usual community rail activity is on hold, our members have been adapting and continuing to deliver positive impact, supporting local resilience and developing plans. We feel certain community rail will have a greater role moving forward, helping our railways and communities cope with the challenges ahead, and build back better. Our members hold a unique ability to create trust and positivity in rail, and to assist rail partners to listen and respond to nuanced local needs: both will be doubly important in the months ahead.

When it comes to achieving a green recovery, multi-disciplinary research (in sustainability, communications, social psychology and planning) strongly points to local dialogue, involvement and empowerment as our best hope for turning the corner on the long-term crisis we face, the climate emergency. This is particularly the case with transport, where we need widespread behavioural and lifestyle shifts to achieve rapid decarbonisation, and a transition that benefits inclusion, health and wellbeing, rather than leaving people behind. Such change won’t be achieved through swapping petrol and diesel cars for electric, nor by simply ‘persuading’ people to make different choices. We will need to work together, locally, to overcome barriers, assimilate sustainable travel with local lifestyles and identities, and make changes that work for all.

Community rail has much to bring, to Covid-19 recovery, and creating more sustainable and inclusive travel and communities. Its lessons and insights are powerful, and relevant across transport and community development. Perhaps most importantly, it reminds us that it’s never been more important for us to collaborate, across organisations, modes and disciplines, and for that work to be community-orientated and community-driven.

Find out more about community rail at communityrail.org.uk.

About the Author

This post was written by Jools Townsend. Jools is the Chief executive of Community Rail Network

Jools Townsend

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