We have a new website go to gov.scot

Rural Accessibility





3.1 Rural areas have diverse characteristics so the aim was to select study areas to reflect as wide a range of this diversity as possible. Within the strategic classification of rural areas as remote, intermediate or commuter there are many different accessibility characteristics. Of particular importance is the need to consider areas by the nature of their economy to include wealthy, poor, growing and declining economies.

3.2 There was also a need to ensure that a range of transport characteristics were covered including:

  • levels of car ownership,
  • the level and quality of bus, taxi and rail services
  • the quality of the road network including links to the strategic road network.
  • Areas where local initiatives have sought to improve rural transport through innovative approaches to transport provision .

3.3 In consultation with the Project Advisory Group the five case study areas shown in Table 4 were selected.

Table 4 - Case Study Areas



Reason for Selection

West Aberdeenshire

Mixed, commuter/ affluent/agricultural.

Several local centres. Variety of public transport including community transport schemes operating.

East Ayrshire

Agricultural and declining industrial area..

Pockets of high unemployment. Local economic restructuring underway. Parts of the area remote rural with marginal farming. Very little community transport and public transport the responsibility of the PTE.

Caithness/ Sutherland

Remote mainland

Sparsely populated and generally 'thin' public transport with pockets of poverty.

East Lothian

Affluent commuter

High proportion of high income commuters and relatively good public transport. Important influence of major nearby urban area combined with local agricultural economic base. Well established demand responsive bus services.

Wigtownshire area in Dumfries and Galloway

Strongly rural/ agricultural

Discrete market centre with limited public transport. Good examples of different community transport schemes.

3.6 The study areas are shown in Figure 1.


Figure 1 - Case Study Areas

3.7 For each case study area, surveys were undertaken as follows:

  • A survey of local authorities and transport operators to identify trends within rural transport and plans being put in place to respond to, or influence these trends. This includes data collection on public and community transport in the area covering routes, timetables, passenger numbers, trends and plans for the future.
  • A postal survey with questionnaires sent to 10% of the residents in the area seeking information on travel patterns and attitudes to transport.
  • A telephone survey of about 50 residents in each area to follow up the postal responses with more detailed perceptions and views of accessibility issues
  • One focus group in each area, with a small number of those interviewed from the telephone surveys, to explore issues emerging from the telephone surveys particularly potential solutions to accessibility problems.

3.8 To provide the background for these surveys it is interesting to start by placing the study areas in context. A strategic analysis has therefore been undertaken looking at broad, regional accessibility to major centres and higher/middle order services.

Strategic Accessibility Characteristics of Study Areas

3.9 The strategic analysis starts by looking at average road travel-time to major urban centres, and then maps patterns of accessibility to major shopping centres and to regional health care facilities. The analysis has been undertaken at a postcode sector level covering the whole of Scotland but looking at the case study areas in detail. It must be emphasised that postcode sectors do not provide a level of detail sufficient for the analysis of rural policies. The strategic analysis has been undertaken to illustrate the strategic accessibility context for each of the study areas and postcode sectors provide sufficient detail for this. The methodology is described in detail in Appendix A.

3.10 The choice of "key services" for looking at strategic accessibility is a difficult one, although a potentially very long wish list is effectively constrained by the availability of appropriate data. Within the resources of this project it is only feasible to generate a limited number of travel-time surfaces under the three categories below:

  • Specialist Services - There are four cities in Scotland with a population of more than 150,000 1, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. These represent the top level of the urban hierarchy. They each offer the broadest range of specialist goods and services and are thus an appropriate focus for analysis of accessibility to such high level requirements.
  • Middle Order Shopping Services - Below the top tier of specialist services there is a long "tail" of smaller service centres, each providing a different combination of shopping opportunities, some perhaps higher level, covering a relatively large hinterland, others purely local. At the medium levels of the hierarchy these hinterlands appear to overlap to a considerable degree, so that adjacent towns of roughly comparable size may offer different and complementary goods and services to largely the same area.
  • Middle Order Hospitals Services - Key medical facilities have been defined in terms of accident and emergency units, general surgery centres and maternity hospitals. This list is clearly incomplete, but it is illustrative of what can be done through GIS analysis.

3.11 Generally speaking the highest order of goods and services (in other words the most specialised/expensive/infrequently used, and in pursuit of which most people are prepared to travel the longest distances) are found only in the largest cities, where a sufficient market is available both within the city itself, and in its large surrounding "hinterland". The time it takes to travel to the nearest high order service centre is a significant aspect of the accessibility. Examples of such services are specialised shops, financial and legal services, regional/national theatre and concert venues etc. The four largest cities in Scotland, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee are distinguished by the presence of a large number of such high order services. Carlisle and Newcastle-upon-Tyne were also included in the analysis to avoid boundary effects.

3.12 The pattern revealed by Figure 2 brings no great surprises, with a broad NW-SE trend in accessibility reflecting the location of the main cities, and highlighting the well known problems of the Highlands and Islands.

3.13 Turning to middle order services, a different approach to the identification of destinations is required, since it is much more difficult to identify a precise list of towns associated with a broad band of services. A simpler approach is to select particular services within the middle order, and to identify the destinations where these services are available. Two types of "middle order" services which previous research has shown to be of particular concern to rural residents are medium sized shopping centres, and medical services such as maternity units and accident and emergency centres.

3.14 Medium sized shopping centres are considered to be the sort of place visited occasionally for a full or half day's shopping, perhaps for specific items of clothing, or for Christmas gifts. In the absence of any published data, it was decided that such shopping centres could best be selected on the base of certain "indicator " retailers. A medium order shopping centre was defined as a location where three or more of these retailers are present. Thirteen Scottish towns/cities, namely Aberdeen, Ayr, Dumfries, Dundee, East Kilbride, Falkirk, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness, Kilmarnock, Kirkcaldy, Perth and Stirling, satisfy this criterion. The Northern English towns of Carlisle and Newcastle-upon-Tyne were also included.

3.15 Access to these centres is shown in Figure 3. Although most of the shopping centres are in the Central Belt or along the East Coast, and there are therefore many similarities between this pattern and the one shown in Figure 2, the presence of Inverness (a city of only 44,000 people) results in an "oasis" of more accessible postcode sectors in central Highland. This neatly illustrates the inadequacies of simple urban population as a proxy for the role of different towns and cities as service centres. Accessibility indicators, based on distance from settlements above a certain size, may be misleading since some settlements have a service function above that normally associated with their size by virtue of their remoteness and lack of competition.

3.16 Rural accessibility issues come to the fore in family life in a particularly powerful way at times when specialist medical assistance is needed. GP surgeries are fairly widely distributed and not usually very far from their customers. However, due to scale economies, various hospital functions are provided at a relatively limited number of locations, and journey times from remote rural locations may be surprisingly long.

3.17 The closure of rural maternity units has been a sensitive political issue, since centralisation causes anxiety in relation to emergency admissions, and the ease with which relatives and friends can visit mother and baby after the birth. Similarly, the closure of rural accident and emergency centres has engendered concerns regarding the possible threat to life associated with long journeys to hospital in emergency cases (even though smaller centres may not have had the specialist expertise available to provide optimum care).

3.18 Figure 4 reveals a rather complex and apparently inconsistent pattern of accessibility to maternity units. Provision seems relatively sparse in mainland Highland, and in Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. There appears to be, for instance no provision between Inverness and Wick, a distance of 100 miles, and no mainland provision on the West Coast north of Fort William 2. Some island areas are, by contrast, relatively well served (for example Arran, Islay, S Uist, Lewis and the Northern Isles) and have modest journey times. It has to be stressed, however that such a map cannot take account of various local solutions (perhaps provided by local GP practices, and involving delivery at home) which may well compensate for poor access to in patient maternity care in sparsely populated areas. A more objective assessment would need to take account of variations in policy and approach to provision between the different health boards. This is beyond the scope of the present project.

3.19 The map of travel time to the nearest accident and emergency unit (Figure 5) shows that the latter outnumber maternity units almost two to one (93 and 47 respectively). Their distribution is rather denser than that of maternity units in the eastern half of Scotland, but fairly similar in its sparsity in the north and west, where parts of Sutherland, Upland Tayside, Argyll and several Island areas are more than one and a half hours from the nearest accident and emergency unit. However, again, the map cannot take into account special provision in remote areas, through local GP surgeries for minor accidents, or the use of a helicopter in major incidents.


Figure 2: Road Travel Time to Nearest City (>150,000) by Rural Postcode Sector


Figure 3: Travel Time to Middle Order Shopping Centres by Rural Postcode Sector