Asian countries need to look beyond transport systems based on private vehicles if they hope to keep their cities clean, efficient, and prosperous.

Buses, trains, bikes, and river ferries are only for poor people. Prosperous people use private cars in cities that are laced with highways.

These simple but powerful ideas are key stumbling blocks to the development of sustainable transport systems in Asia, according to James Leather, a principal transport specialist with ADB’s Southeast Asia Department.

“For a long time, the common wisdom has been the notion that cars are ‘great’ or that the symbol of an industrialized country is that it has new highways,” said Leather, during a recent live online chat on the topic. “These are difficult barriers to overcome, especially since most countries in developing Asia still buy in to the idea that owning a private vehicle is part of having an increased income.”

The solution

Sustainable transport is the solution, but what does that mean? The concept does not have a universally accepted definition, but in general it is transport systems that are environmentally friendly, accessible, and affordable. ADB has developed a rating system called the Sustainable Transport Appraisal Rating (STAR) that helps communities identify if a proposed transport system is sustainable.

"Sustainable transport cities, such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York, London, or Paris have a high share - around 80 % - of public transport, walking, and cycling. This is the kind of target all cities should aim for. "

James Leather, co-chair of ADB’s Transport Community of Practice

“Sustainable transport cities, such as Tokyo, Seoul, New York, London, or Paris have a high share - around 80 % - of public transport, walking, and cycling,” said Leather, the co-chair of ADB’s Transport Community of Practice. “This is the kind of target all cities should aim for.”

“Japan, in particular, has for a long time led in the advancement of rail and Seoul has currently embraced transport alternatives, such as bike and car sharing and removing urban expressways to improve the environment,” he said. “These mature mobility systems and initiatives are still far from perfect, and while they are not like Hamburg’s plan to go carless, they represent some best practices that developing countries in Asia and the Pacific can apply.”

Stumbling blocks

The road to sustainable transport systems will not be easy for countries in the region, said Leather, who specializes in integrated urban transport systems.

"Transport in Asia and the Pacific faces a web of issues that need a strategic solution,” he said. “Countries across the region, from India to the Solomon Islands, have to contend with road safety, air pollution, social sustainability, climate change impacts, lack of public financing, decrepit infrastructure, and even cross-border bottlenecks, among others.”

Road safety

Building modern, sustainable transport systems will also contribute to addressing the epidemic of road deaths in the region, which kills more people than tuberculosis and malaria, said Leather.

“Road safety is an extremely important area for the region, especially the rapidly growing economies of Asia which are seeing the highest growth in fatalities and serious injuries of anywhere in the world,” he said.

“Every day 3,000 individuals and 500 children are killed as a result of road traffic-related injuries. Over 85% of these casualties occur in low-income and middle-income countries. Road traffic injury is the leading cause of death for children and young people in Asia and the Pacific.”

Sustainable transport also helps decrease poverty by providing greater access to markets and basic services, such as schools and health centers, at an affordable cost.

Inland waterway transport

One innovative approach that ADB is taking to increase sustainable transport options in Asian cities is the use of inland waterways.

“Inland waterway transport is about transporting people and goods over rivers and canals, instead of taking the usual road routes,” said Leather. “Inland waterway transport is oftentimes referred to as the ‘poor man’s transport’. This shouldn’t be the case. There is a need for better awareness of this mode’s benefits.”