Insular areas constitute a special category of space because of their particular features, which make them different from other spatial entities and which become reasons for geographical and socio-economic isolation and for increasing inequities on a local and trans-regional level. Indubitably, we are discussing about an exceptionally fragile environment of multi-factorial peripheralization. Such a peripheralization is related to distances from central areas, level of accessibility, dynamics of the collaboration relationships through developing networks, as well as the level of the developments and degree to which they are depended on the planning process of insular regions.
Numerous researchers have analyzed the relationship between transport infrastructure accessibility and insularity. Hierarchies in transport infrastructures of insular territories [17
], competitive transport mode choice [18
], routing issues for freight transport [19
], and strategic infrastructure comparison in insular territories [20
] can be considered as accessibility assessment based on the mobility studies in these regions. Congestion evaluation of regional accessibility is available to study congestion effects in insular areas [21
]. Travel time and behavior analysis based on accessibility scores derived from suitable indicators was conducted to ascertain the limited transport infrastructure [22
]. There has been great diversity in accessibility studies to determine the provision of transport infrastructure in insular areas, such as the level of accessibility measurements at regional scale [14
], stakeholder accessibility to island transport services [23
], and daily accessibility impact of high-speed transport [24
]. Performance indicators have evaluated the relation between mobility distribution and insularity and regional transportation and infrastructure planning for insular areas [25
]. Furthermore, several density indicators and analysis have been taken into account to investigate insularity’s economic challenges [26
] and social sustainability design for insular territories [27
When the proposed theoretical strategies and approaches enclose transport infrastructure and accessibility in the insular territories and islands, this study’s primary purpose is to fill the gap regarding the practical analysis of the level of accessibility and geographical limitation of insularity in Azores islands. The development of such a special category of region, as that of insular regions, necessitate a specific methodology that is focusing on parameters for the simultaneous approach of matters of particular features of accessibility. This study aims to provide comparative statistics on transport infrastructure accessibility to explain the relationship between accessibility level and settlement distribution in insular areas. Moreover, this study intended to answer whether island Azores’ geographic specificity affects the accessibility in this area and which accessibility routes to urban agglomeration and markets be identified.
The Azores Islands
The Azores is defined as an Autonomous Region since 1976 by the Constitution of the Portuguese Republic and by the Administrative Political Statue of the Autonomous Region of the Azores. The archipelago is located in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, dispersing along a southeast-northwest axis slightly over 600 km and covering a total area of 2322 km2. The region has its government with executive power and a regional legislative assembly, elected by direct universal suffrage, composed of nine islands of very heterogeneous and relatively small dimensions, just over 3300 km from Boston (United States of America) and roughly 1400 km from Lisbon. This framework defines it as the outermost region (OR) of the European Union (EU), in parallel with Madeira, Canaries, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, Martinique, Réunion, Saint-Barthélemy, and Saint-Martin. Some of the Azores’ significant development challenges come from this distancing from decision-making centers aggravated by its internal market fragmentation and dispersion.
The Azorean islands have particular edaphoclimatic conditions, which have directly influenced, over time, the socio-economic development of the region.
The region’s environmental and landscape richness, characterized by the abundance of green color, is also influenced by a temperate maritime climate, mild temperatures throughout the year (and consequent reduced thermal amplitude), regular rainfall, and significant variability of climatic conditions. This last aspect is one of the most distinctive characteristics of the Azores, inducing obvious repercussions in several economic sectors, namely, tourism, agriculture and livestock, fishing, transport (predominantly maritime and air), and energy.
From the geological point of view, in addition to the particularity of its location in a convergence zone of three tectonic plates, the Azores are experiencing ongoing volcanic activity. This context causes evident pressures on the population and, therefore, on the regional socio-economic development.
The archipelago’s location and geographical conditions have produced inherent structural challenges for its development, as historically proven. The small size of the islands and their dispersion result in significant fragmentation of the market, with natural repercussions on resource efficiency, economic activity, and the multiplication of productive structures and equipment. This situation is aggravated by the islands’ heterogeneous size, with direct impacts on population concentration and the degree of economic development. Nevertheless, the location of the islands has given the region, since the time of the discoveries, strategic importance in several domains, namely logistical and military, through the confluence of transatlantic routes, the development of services and support structures for navigation and aviation and support for military maneuvers in major world conflicts. On Terceira Island, the use of the Lajes Base revealed this importance in relations between the United States of America and Europe, which may be even more notorious if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Agreement is signed (commonly known as the free trade agreement).
According to data from population and housing censuses (Census), the AAR resident population differed 2.1% between 2001 and 2011, meaning an increase of 5009 individuals (Table 1
It is relevant to underline that the AAR still has a considerably young population, contrary to what is verified in the country. In fact, this is one of the relevant assets of the region, ensuring some stability in the medium and long term of the balance in the renewal of the active population.
At the end of the 90s of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st century, there was an effective convergence of the country’s regional economy and the European Union. The dynamics of growth in that period led the Azores to a close approximation to the values of creating national and community wealth. However, this momentum slowed down, and compared to Portugal, between 2010 and 2018, it did not show any evolution, even showing a setback compared to the European Union. Nevertheless, there was an approximation to the Autonomous Region of Madeira’s results, a reality more similar and more easily comparable with that of the Azores—once Madeira is also an Insular autonomous region of Portugal.
In the year 2000, the regional GDP only represented 1.9% of the country’s wealth, while in 2018, this value reached 2.1%. The variation in GDP per capita is more expressive since, at the beginning of the century, this indicator in the Azores (9979 €) corresponded to 80% of the national value (12,480 €) and currently reaches 88% (17,514 €). If we go further back in time, it appears that in 1995 the GDP per capita in the Azores was only 6894 euros compared to 8880 euros at the national level (78%). Thus, there is a significant evolution in the capacity to create wealth, even in a period of significant economic instability, such as that experienced between 2007 and 2012, whose impact on small and fragile economies—such as the Azorean—is amplified. Because of this impact, there was a stagnation in the region’s evolution vis-à-vis national results.
In terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), the AAR’s GDP per capita has historically remained below 75% of the EU average of 28. This performance classifies the region as one of the least developed regions in the community space, configuring criteria for allocating resources from the structural and investment funds, which have proved to be a fundamental lever for the regional economy.
Transport is recognized as one of the fundamental instruments for achieving the objectives set out in the EU Treaties, especially concerning the development of the internal market, eliminating border barriers, and matters of convergence, cohesion, and solidarity between the Member States. According to the documents “Cohesion and Transport” and “Keeping Europe moving—Sustainable mobility for our continent,” it appears that this fact justified the channeling of large investments for the expansion and improvement of infrastructure and in the reorganization of services in the last decades. Despite this reality, it can also be concluded from reading these documents that there are still many shortcomings and inefficiencies that occur in this area—i.e., goods and services, or funding are just a few examples. In the Azores, given the existing logistical complexity, this situation is evident.
Sea and air transport between islands and connections with the archipelago’s exteriors currently have an interesting offer that was fundamentally achieved by the sector’s development policies implemented in the last government periods.
Air transportation of passengers between islands is provided by the company SATA Air Azores. As for air passenger transport between the Azores and abroad, until the first quarter of 2015, it was provided under a codeshare regime by SATA International and TAP Air Portugal to destinations on the Portuguese Mainland, under an exclusivity regime covered by obligations of public service, and Madeira. Connections with other destinations outside the Azores have never been restricted and can operate any airline. This situation led to the immediate appearance of two low-cost airlines, Ryanair and Easy Jet, which is an initial phase, started to regularly connect São Miguel to Lisbon and Porto and a new offer from TAP. In December 2016, Ryanair started operations on the island of Terceira. The expectation is to extend connections to other European destinations and expand the contact point in the Azores. Nevertheless, Easy Jet stopped operating in the Azores in October 2017.
This liberalization of air routes between the Azores and abroad has brought new opportunities to the local economy, with an increase in passengers’ flow, including many tourists, with effects on other economic activities, such as hotels, a-car, catering, tourist entertainment, among many others. This measure’s potential benefits from the fact that the region’s air connections with the outside are the only regular entry and exit door for people. More than bringing two new airlines to operate the Azores destination, liberalization has allowed the Azores to be placed on the world map of low-cost connections. This is a recent business model, associated with the new consumer trends of the masses and the close relationship of the new generations with the information and communication technologies, which has been growing in viral way in recent years.
Transport plays a fundamental role in the economic and social development of a region. It is the mobility capacity of people and goods that enhances the dynamization of economic transactions, which translates into an increase in companies’ competitiveness and an improvement in people’s quality of life. In this way, low-cost airlines have boosted production and consumption, enabling a more economical circulation of people and goods.