OPINION: It's time to hold transportation accountable for global sustainability

by Makhtar Diop | World Bank
Thursday, 16 January 2020 17:00 GMT

The new Febus hydrogen bus is seen before a presentation in Pau, France, January 14, 2020. REUTERS/Regis Duvignau

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Improving how people and goods reach each other is key to solving global challenges, from poverty to climate change

Transportation is a means to many ends. It has the power to heal, educate, and generate prosperity. It forms the foundation for markets and human connections. Improving how people and goods reach each other is the key to solving many global challenges, from alleviating poverty to economic growth to combating climate change.

But too often, transportation is also part of the problem. Almost half a billion people in Africa are locked in poverty, in large part because they have no access to all-weather roads. One in six women in the world do not look for jobs out of fear of harassment in transit.

Annual road deaths are a staggering 1.35 million – comparable to malaria or HIV – and grow every year. Around the world, inefficiencies in border administration, transportation, and communication infrastructure wipe out $2.6 trillion in potential GDP gains.

Perhaps more troubling, transportation challenges are exacerbating climate change. More than 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation. The problem will only grow: 1.2 billion additional cars will double the global fleet by 2030.

And in a vicious cycle, climate change is taking a larger economic toll on mobility: damage to transportation infrastructure from natural disasters costs about $15 billion annually, imposing the largest fiscal burdens on low-income countries.

The solutions to these problems are not mysterious. For instance, reducing the age of vehicle fleets and using fuel-efficient technologies that already exist could cut average fuel consumption by 50 percent. 


What is missing, however, is the urgent recognition that transportation is not just about roads or ports. As a fundamental driver of economic and social development, mobility is critical to boosting everything from health and education, to social inclusion, to conflict prevention and resolution. Too much is riding on transportation for it to remain an afterthought in global development.

There has been some attention to the situation, including the current UN Decade of Action on Road Safety and Habitat III’s New Urban Agenda. This week, the World Bank and the World Resources Institute’s Transforming Transportation 2020 conference brings together global mobility stakeholders to discuss the way ahead.

The automotive, maritime, and air industries are embracing their own sets of policies and targets, most notably in climate emissions and pollution control. Encouraging work is also underway to boost shared and cleaner transportation, including electric vehicles.

We need to aggressively pursue electric mobility along with clean energy generation; however, it must not come at the expense of making transportation accessible for everyone—especially in developing countries.

So far, results have been disappointing, but three important structural elements can help put the world on track to achieve sustainable mobility:

First, we need “system-wide” approaches. The future of transportation is multimodal and data-driven. Initiatives such as Sustainable Mobility for All are helping transform “ideas and common sense” into evidence and action. The recently-launched policy toolkit Global Roadmap of Action Towards Sustainable Mobility helps countries do just that.

Second, in addition to focusing on investments, we must also incorporate the policies, regulations, and institutional approaches that shape long-term transportation demands. Many challenges – from climate impact to affordability to congestion – will not be solved by pouring asphalt or laying train tracks. They require solid institutions, regulations, and policies to make transportation investments sustainable and effective.

Finally, we have to leverage the private sector much more intensively. Private sector innovation, as well as financing, will be key to achieving new transportation business models and data-driven services. Last year, private investment in transportation increased to nearly $55 billion, surpassing energy. The needs are estimated in the trillions, and with the right environment, investments can only grow.

How we approach mobility today will have serious consequences for people’s lives and the future of the planet. Everyone – governments, corporations, investors, and financial and development institutions – has a responsibility to ensure that sustainable transportation is part of the solution.

Makhtar Diop is Vice President for Infrastructure at the World Bank. From 2012 to 2018, he oversaw all World Bank lending in the Africa region.