Rural areas across much of Asia are undergoing profound economic, social and demographic changes. Not only goods and people, but ideas, values, and cultural practices, are moving, both physically and virtually, across multi-layered transport networks. “Vertical connectivity”, or connectivity between micro-, meso-, and macro-level networks, is becoming increasingly more important for the development of agricultural value chains; access to jobs in urban areas; the reduction of food loss and waste; rural tourism; health supply systems; disaster preparedness; and other dimensions of rural development. Policymakers therefore need to take a more comprehensive approach to rural transport planning to ensure that these different network levels are connected.
Transport systems can be said to be made up of infrastructure, transport services, and transport nodes. Most rural transport sector plans focus on rural infrastructure development, particularly rural roads. Countries such as Bangladesh, China, and India, have made tremendous progress in connecting rural areas through large-scale rural road construction programmes. More recently, governments are trying to increase the benefits of these roads by integrating connectivity from local to higher level networks into investment decision-making processes. Some governments, including China and Sri Lanka, are also proactively supporting rural services such as passenger buses. New ride-hailing motorcycle services, such as those popular in Indonesia, may have the potential to improve service connectivity in rural areas in the future.
Transport nodes link infrastructure and services within and between network levels. From the perspective of rural connectivity, three types of nodes deserve further attention. First, rural freight centres play an important role in e-commerce, which is becoming increasingly important for both consumers and producers as ICT connectivity extends into rural areas. Secondly, roadside markets help rural residents to access macro-level transport networks. Thirdly, “macro-nodes” such as air and seaports, dry ports, border crossings, and bus and railway stations, can have significant impacts on local economies. Increasing local people’s access to various types of nodes, for example by improving rural roads and services, could enhance their welfare, but further research is needed on the impacts of transport projects and policies as it has been found that different groups react to such interventions in different ways.
To design effective rural transport policies, governments need a large volume of data as well as the technical capacity to analyse this data. Most governments have road asset management systems, but not all rural roads are included. In order to monitor target 9.1 under SDG 9, the international community adopted the Rural Access Index (RAI), which is the share of the rural population who live within 2 kilometers of an all-season road as a proportion of the total rural population. While there are still challenges in using the RAI as a universal indicator, research is currently being conducted to try to overcome these challenges. Already, Geographic Information Systems (GIS), data collected from mobile phone movements, unmanned aerial vehicles, and other technologies are helping to capture relevant data. As these technologies evolve, it will become easier for countries to monitor transport connectivity.
Rural transport connectivity is clearly an important transport sector goal for governments in Asia and the Pacific. More investment in rural transport infrastructure can help improve connectivity, but it needs to be targeted to link different network levels together. Rural road asset management systems should be strengthened. Meanwhile, investments in rural transport services and nodes are also needed to improve the efficiency of rural transport systems. Governments need to increase their efforts in collecting and analyzing relevant data to monitor progress, including the Rural Access Index. Furthermore, more cooperation is needed between all levels of government, as well as between stakeholders from different sectors, to share information and experiences. More policy-relevant research should be commissioned on how rural transport can contribute more effectively to greater mobility and higher living standards in rural areas.