Key issues and evidence


The Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 defines an island community as a community which consists of two or more individuals, all of whom permanently inhabit an island (whether or not the same island), and is based on common interest, identity or geography.

Island communities face challenges compared to mainland and urban areas with regards to transport. Engagement undertaken as part of the development of NTS2 identified the following concerns and unique challenges relevant to island communities:

  • centralisation of public transport and limited provision in peripheral areas;
  • poor journey connections, lack of seamlessness and lack of ticket integration;
  • car dependencies due to poor public transport links;
  • insufficient active travel infrastructure on islands;
  • limited evening and weekend public transport services, resulting in difficulties accessing services and participating in social/community activities;
  • incoherent, inconsistent and confusing public transport timetables across all modes;
  • the ability of public transport to meet the needs and expectations of tourists and visitors, especially to Scotland’s islands;
  • higher costs of accessibility on islands and in rural areas;
  • imbalance of service provision and demand to meet concessionary transport needs; and
  • call for more flexible and pro-active support needed for the berthing of cruise ships at ports.

Island communities have similar issues to those living in remote and rural areas, but in many cases the challenges can be greater. Research by Highlands and Islands Enterprise (2013) has shown that the minimum income that households require for an acceptable standard of living in Scotland’s island communities is well above that required in the rest of the UK, and in many cases higher than in other areas of rural Scotland. Island rurality can exacerbate inequality already experienced by certain groups including those facing socio-economic disadvantage or those with protected characteristics. The ICIA for NTS2 identified that factors resulting in additional costs for households in island communities compared to the rest of the UK include:

  • longer commuting distances compounded by higher fuel prices;
  • issues around integrated timetabling;
  • the additional cost incurred with the need to make occasional trips to the mainland;
  • additional ferry/air costs for inter-island travel. Island communities can also face additional freight costs, such as to get goods, including farming and seafood produce, to market or to import energy sources or building materials and labour. Additional charges for deliveries can also be a challenge.

Travel Behaviours

For school-aged children, walking is the most common mode of travelling for school across Scotland (in excess of 40% mode share for Primary and Secondary schools), which contrasts to travel behaviours of working age adults who generally travel to work by either car or van. Pupils attending Secondary and Special Educational Needs educational facilities are significantly more likely to travel by bus rather than be driven by car to school (Sustrans, 2020).

Young people in island and rural areas are noted to be particularly reliant on Public Transport to access educational, employment opportunities as well as for leisure and recreational purposes. However, the high cost and low provision of services and facilities in island and rural areas presents a significant barrier for young people to access employment, leisure, health and education facilities. Therefore, having a driving licence and being able to afford a car is sometimes a necessity for large swathes of young people across Scotland, most notably in island and rural locations. Lack of cycle infrastructure and the long distances needed to travel in order to access services and facilities can often mean that cycling is a less favourable option. For short journeys within island communities, cycle journeys are often made on narrow roads, where availability of land and road space is limited.

The situation is more complex for people on low incomes living in rural areas. People in rural areas drive more frequently than those in urban areas. The issue of ‘forced’ car ownership has been identified in both rural and urban areas but is particularly pronounced in rural areas where lack of public transport means that people can be forced into running a car even if it puts real pressures on their budget.

Bus use is higher in urban areas and lower in rural areas with The Scottish Household Survey travel diary highlighting that 53 per cent of those who used the bus the previous day lived in large urban areas compared to three per cent of users living in remote rural areas. (This compares to population estimates of 35% living in large urban areas and 6% living in remote rural areas) (Transport Scotland, 2020).

Research by Citizens Advice Scotland in 2016 found that the price varied across Scotland’s bus routes ranging from 7p per mile to £1.80 per mile. The costs of travel to essential services were generally much higher in remote rural areas; the average return cost of travelling to college in Scotland was £6, for example, but was £10.50 in remote rural areas.

Transport Poverty

Work undertaken by Sustrans highlights around one million people across Scotland live in ‘high risk’ zones and are vulnerable to transport poverty. A high risk of transport poverty is identified as being greatest in regions with (relatively) low income, high car availability and limited access to essential services by public transport. The majority of high-risk data zones for transport poverty (that is, nearly 30% of high-risk data zones) are located in accessible rural areas and small towns (28%). Only 20% are located in remote rural areas, 13% in remote small towns/very remote small towns, and 9% in remote/very remote small towns, and 9% in large/other urban areas. Of the 16 data zones allocated the maximum risk score, all are located within rural areas located predominantly in Council Areas covering the Scottish Islands. Over 90 per cent of the zones considered within the Na h-Eileanan Siar council area categorised as being high risk, other local council areas with island communities such as Argyll and Bute and Orkney also had a notable proportion of zones categorised as high risk for transport poverty.


In the years preceding the COVID-19 pandemic, visitor spend in the Highlands and Islands region was worth around of £1.5bn and, in some areas, jobs in tourism represented up to 43% of the workforce (Highlands and Islands Enterprise, 2015). Transform Scotland’s estimates place cycle tourism at £345 million per annum across Scotland. These two tourism themes intersect via long distance routes on the National Cycle Network (NCN) such as the Caledonia Way in Argyll and on the Hebridean Way in Na h-Eileanan Siar. There is further evidence from Transform Scotland (2018) that sustainable growth in the cycle tourism sector can be brought about by further investment in the NCN and that this could bring further benefits to island communities.

< Previous | Contents | Next >

Back to top