Now in its 6th year, the SmartCatalonia Challenge is an initiative of the Catalan Ministry for Digital Policy and Public Administration. The award aims to foster creation of innovative digital solutions and startups to answer the challenges facing rural and urban areas in Catalonia. At the award ceremony on September 20, 2020, Shotl was chosen from 10 finalists to win Challenge 2 “How to Improve Mobility for Rural Populations to Access Basic Goods and Services.”
Our proposal was developed and presented in collaboration with the Town Council of Calaf. A town in the Alta Segarra region in central Catalonia, Calaf has 3500 inhabitants and offers basic services like education and healthcare, as well as sports and leisure facilities, markets, citizens associations, etc. Thirteen small villages lie in the surrounding area, all with under 600 habitants. Population density in the region is just 13.19 inhabitants/km².
Public transport in the region is only routed between major urban centers, so small villages are only served if they happen to lie along a major route, such as Calaf-Barcelona-Calaf. Even residents in small villages that are served must endure long wait times for low-frequency public transport to travel to Calaf. For many, particularly the young and old who rely on others, this means dependence on private vehicles is the only practical option.
We propose to repurpose an existing City Council van —currently used for day center transport— to provide flexible, on-demand public transport between Calaf and outlying villages. Since most journeys take 15-25 minutes, running services with a fixed schedule would mean an average frequency of every 4 hours, which offers little improvement on current services. We propose instead to enable flexible routes and schedules according to user requests made via app or a dedicated telephone line. Similar successful projects in suburban areas like Vallirana in Barcelona suggest this will reduce wait times to just 25 minutes.
For the service to be successful, ticket prices must be affordable, in line with public transport, and priced so that users contribute to the cost of running the service. Our service also allows for all necessary Covid-19 safety measures, including the possibility to automate capacity control via our platform.
We are very excited about this project, and not only because of what it offers residents of l’Alta Segarra. In recent years in Spain, the phenomenon of rural depopulation—known as “empty Spain”—has become a serious concern. Lack of employment opportunities, essential services and public transport have all contributed to the abandonment of smaller towns and villages. Now, though, in a post-Covid world where home working has become the norm, these rural areas could become more attractive for people wishing to escape the cities. For this to become a practical reality, however, easy access to basic goods and services remains essential. We will, therefore, be watching our pilot project in Calaf closely in the hope it could serve as a model for other isolated rural areas in the future.
Quick connected services in low-density areas must be provided by a transport mode that’s adaptable and ready to arrive quickly to every home, whenever it is needed.