The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has caused upheaval to transport systems but it also presents opportunities for reshaping mobility in Asia and the Pacific. Since the first quarter of 2020, public transport services have seen reductions in passenger demand amidst lockdowns and fears of virus transmission, with the aviation industry badly affected by a dramatic fall in air travel, and shippers and other transport operators hit by supply chain problems. At the same time, the onset of COVID-19 has also seen changes in personal mobility choices with many people turning to bicycles and other low-impact forms of transport.
As Asia and the Pacific emerges from the pandemic, policy makers have a unique chance to adopt a ‘build forward better’ approach to transport development. This will include reducing the over-reliance on carbon-intensive forms of travel, which has become critically important as climate change hazards present rising threats to existing transport networks. The sector itself is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon dioxide emissions at 24% of the global total, with Asia’s emissions growing faster than anywhere else.
“While the pandemic impacts must be acknowledged, they need to be seen as part of a wider vision and part of a long-term strategy for transport that aligns with international agreements such as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the Paris Agreement, and the UN Decade of Action on Road Safety and the need to decarbonize the transport sector,” said Bertrand Goalou, Principal Transport Specialist, ADB. “Continuing to address the pandemic impacts while delivering on the wider long-term vision is possible and should be pursued.”
Asia and the Pacific has made substantial headway on transport development over recent decades, but there are still glaring gaps, with around 1.4 billion people, or 61% of the region’s urban population, lacking good access to public transport, while about 630 million rural dwellers are also without adequate services. To fully meet transport infrastructure needs will require additional funding, equivalent to 2.4% of the region’s gross domestic product.
The shift to electric vehicles, which will accelerate as technologies improve and costs come down, will be part of the push to decarbonize transport. In this area, Asia and the Pacific is leading other regions, accounting for 97% of all global electric vehicles. At the same time forum participants will be considering other critical aspects of a new transport future, including the use of knowledge, data, and digital technology for smarter transport, and the need for innovative financing solutions to fund infrastructure.
Assisting developing member countries to provide low-carbon, safe, accessible and affordable transport, which will help them meet their Paris Climate Agreement commitments and SDGs, is the focus of ADB work in the sector. ADB has been at the forefront of many trend-setting transport initiatives across the region, including a flagship bus rapid transport corridor in Peshawar, Pakistan, which has improved travel for all, including the elderly, women and those with disabilities, and which received international recognition with a Sustainable Transport Award.
In the Kyrgyz Republic, an electric bus project in Bishkek will reduce carbon emissions and traffic congestion, while an ADB-assisted regional road project in Mongolia is making roads more climate and disaster resilient, and strengthening the ability of oversight agencies to maintain the quality of the road networks. More than 2,000 people a day lose their lives in road crashes in Asia and the Pacific, and ADB is both a financer and Secretariat for the Asia-Pacific Road Safety Observatory, which seeks to raise awareness and establish regional standards and ambitions to reduce the toll. A land and maritime project in the Solomon Islands, and other similar interventions in the Pacific, are improving the efficiency and disaster resilience of both roads and ports amongst remote and small island developing states, while ADB has played a prominent role in efforts to strengthen cross-border infrastructure and customs logistics capabilities in the Greater Mekong Subregion and in Central and West Asia.
ADB, in 2022, published ‘Reimagining the Future of Transport Across Asia and the Pacific’ which unlocks insights on megatrends shaping transport in the region. The publication is designed to inspire project teams and policy makers to explore new pathways and approaches for investment, planning and transport policy. The wide range of megatrends includes demographic shifts, urban migration, new behavior patterns from users, the use of advanced technologies for managing transport systems, climate change, and the growing use of electrification and alternative fuels as transport energy sources.
The report then outlines eight plausible visions, underpinned by principles and strategies, which can enable policymakers to adopt differentiated approaches in planning future transport strategies and systems, taking into account individual country circumstances and challenges.
“We are probably in the middle of the greatest transformation in transport to ever take place.”
Chief of Transport Sector Group, ADB
As transport services become increasingly complex policymakers need to be agile and forward thinking when developing systems for the future. The surge in work-from-home practices and the greater use of bicycles that emerged during the pandemic, have highlighted the need for new approaches to transport systems. In addition, strains on public resources mean public-private partnerships, which include risk-sharing mechanisms, will become an even more important tool for financing these systems in future.
For ports and shipping, the pandemic has caused serious congestion and slowdowns in the transport of goods and this gridlock has highlighted the need for ports to invest more in automation and smart technology systems to plan, manage and troubleshoot operations, resulting in faster and more efficient cargo movements.
“We are probably in the middle of the greatest transformation in transport to ever take place,” said Jamie Leather, Chief of Transport Sector Group, ADB. “While the decarbonization of the sector must be accelerated, transport must become smarter and better able to keep pace with a future that is always changing.”
As Asia and the Pacific looks to that future it will need to make full use of both public and private resources, along with new technologies and alternative energy sources to deliver efficient, affordable transport solutions, while simultaneously reducing the region’s carbon footprint.