The Asian Development Bank is helping developing countries in Asia and the Pacific re-think the way people and goods are moved within and across borders.

About 44 million people are being added to Asia's urban population every year. That is equivalent to 120,000 people a day. This trend is set to continue since 80% of Asia’s new economic growth this century will be in urban areas. Growth on this scale is placing an enormous strain on transport and mobility in cities and towns across the region. Vehicle numbers in Asia are doubling every 5 to 7 years.

Road congestion already costs Asian economies an estimated 2%-5% of their gross domestic product every year due to lost time and higher transport costs. The region's cities suffer from the highest air pollution levels in the world with as much as 80% attributable to transport. Health problems due to air pollution, such as respiratory diseases, cost many Asian developing countries 2-4% of their gross domestic product.

In addition, Asia’s motorized transport has become a significant contributor to the global problem of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to climate change. In 2012, transport was responsible for 23% of global greenhouse gas emissions from combustion of fuel, making it the second largest emitting sector after electricity and heat generation which produces 42%. Already, non-OECD countries account for more than half of global transport emissions, with some 19% of this coming from developing Asia alone. The region's dilemma is that it badly needs sophisticated transport systems to drive growth but also has to significantly reduce its transport emissions to counter climate change.

Mitigating climate change in transport

As incomes continue to rise, vehicle ownership in much of the region is growing at 8% or more annually. At that rate, Asia’s vehicle fleet will double by 2024 and emissions will also more than double.The city of Delhi already has more than 16 million cars on its crowded streets. By 2020 that number will rise to over thirty million. Since 2013 Beijing has had to frequently enforce measures to restrict the number of private vehicles in the city to an estimated five million when air pollution levels become critical.

“It’s quite understandable that many people aspire to have their own private car, but the problem is, in Asia’s big cities, this leads to terrible congestion, air pollution, and with this we’re getting high emissions. So the challenge is to quickly roll out good mass transport systems and have people vote with their feet,” says Tyrrell Duncan, an Asian Development Bank transport advisor.

A key part of tackling Asia’s current transport crisis involves getting people to change to more energy efficient and cost effective modes of getting around, such as shifting from road to rail or waterways. Other strategies involve encouraging or legislating passengers away from private vehicles and onto public transport and bicycles.

Urban planners can design districts and whole towns that reduce the need to travel by creating local clusters of economic activity that require less mobility. Travel can also be decreased by greater use of the internet, which can enable many office staff to live and work in the same place.

Asian nations and the private sector need to support and fund research and development and mainstream technologies that are more energy efficient—including improving vehicle standards; developing improved vehicle technologies and fuels; and improving transport efficiency using information technology.

ADB’s sustainable transport initiative

Through its Sustainable Transport Initiative, ADB is expanding its operations in developing competitive long-distance railways and inland waterways, and providing support for investment in missing transportation links that will reduce energy consumption and emissions by reducing distances.

These will serve as demonstration projects to encourage wider use by other developing countries. In supporting railways and inland waterways, ADB will be promoting business models capable of realizing the potential competitiveness of these modes of transport within the public sector, privately, or through public-private partnerships.

“The first bus rapid transit project that we approved was in Lanzhou, the capital of China’s Ganzhou province, back in 2012. We also have similar projects underway in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and we have planned projects in Pakistan and the Philippines. We’re also supporting metro rail initiatives in several countries, such as India and Viet Nam,” Mr. Duncan said.

The ADB-financed bus rapid transit project in Yichang, Hubei Province, in the People’s Republic of China, is a good example of how sustainable transport can be cost effective as well as helping the environment. The system is designed to carry 400,000 passengers daily. It costs about $4 million per kilometer, which is one tenth to one fiftieth the cost of a metro rail system. The project was completed in less than 3 years and became operational in July 2015.

With the overall goal of scaling up sustainable transport by up to 50% of loans and grants by 2017, ADB plans to work closely with developing member countries to expand the number of sustainable transport projects it supports in order to get Asia moving in a way that does not promote climate change, pollution and congestion in the decades ahead.