Disruption and Refocusing: COVID Response and the Climate Crisis at Transforming Transportation 2021
The first day of Transforming Transportation 2021 emphasized transportation’s critical role in both recovering from COVID-19 and facing up to the climate crisis. Photo by 4X-image/iStock

2020 brought tremendous disruption to the global transportation sector. As the world coped with a pandemic, millions began working from home and millions more lost their jobs. Logistics networks were broken and then reshaped. All while the planet experienced the second hottest year in human history, behind only 2016. 

Speaking at Transforming Transportation 2021, the annual conference hosted by WRI and the World Bank, leaders from the public, private, academic and civil society spheres emphasized that transportation is key to both recovering from COVID-19 and facing up to the climate crisis. With more than 4,000 registrants from cities as diverse as Accra, Beirut and Quirama, the all-virtual event is a unique convening of global thought leaders at a critical time.

“We need system change, not climate change,” said Andrew Steer, president and CEO of WRI. “There are no silver bullets,” but transport’s centrality to so many development objectives means it has tremendous potential. “If you are a government and you want to reboot your economy and you want to create jobs quickly, there is no better option than to use new, green transportation, including cycling and walking.”

Transport, as a sector, has ground to make up. Carbon emissions from transport are increasing year over year. Road traffic deaths are also increasing. In too many places, getting around is too expensive, unsafe, or time consuming. 

“The transportation sector is critical in achieving sustainable development – the gaps, though, are huge,” said World Bank President David Malpass. “They include sustainability and also affordability. We estimate that it’s $420 billion per year that’s needed for roads, ports, airports and rail. 840 million people still live more than 2 kilometers away from a usable road in low-income countries.”

“We have now a window that we need to seize,” said Makhtar Diop, vice president for infrastructure at the World Bank. “We are seeing the costs of renewable energy going down drastically, we are seeing a very fast adoption of new technologies in transport…we have a convergence of technology adoption, which is accelerated, with a social contract that is telling us to do things differently.”

Building Momentum to COP26

Part of what COVID-19 has made clear is the need for more collective resilience to crises across sectors and the opportunity for rapid change. “There’s been a focusing of everyone’s minds,” said Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. “Things have to move faster, further… The decisions can’t just be left to when a [national] government wants to do something.”

Stientje Van Veldhoven, minister for the environment and housing for the Netherlands, said the climate crisis “is not imminent, it’s here.” “We are the first generation who really knows how bad it is,” she said, “and also the last generation who can make a change.”

“I think public transport and active transportation are going to play crucial roles, both in the developing world and developed world,” said Van Veldhoven. “It’s good for climate but it also has a direct impact on health, especially in our inner cities.”

To make transport part of the solution, Steer highlighted five key shifts that are needed: 1) strengthen and reimagine public transport; 2) double-down on active transport; 3) shift people and goods to rail; 4) electrify what’s left; and 5) invest in research and development for harder-to-abate sectors, like aviation, maritime shipping and heavy freight.

One reason to care about active mobility and small vehicles, like bikes and scooters, said Lina Fedirko, senior associate at ClimateWorks Foundation, is that it can be a “lever for zero-emission mobility in cities – a way to redefine access and extend the transit system. It’s more efficient and less polluting than gas cars, and it enables the concept of the ‘15-minute city.’” Several leaders and experts noted this connection between urban planning, transportation and climate change. More compact cities are more walkable, more efficient and greener.

“I think it’s really striking, the difference between conversations today and conversations even two or three years ago about the link between growth and climate,” said Stephanie Edwards, head of international climate change strategy and projects for the UK Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. A Coalition for Urban Transitions report, for example, found that more compact, connected, clean cities will net more than $24 trillion in benefits by 2050.

But as governments look to recover from the economic impact of the pandemic, will sustainable investments be a priority? Early returns have been mixed, with some countries investing heavily in green stimulus but many others pouring money into grey industries.  

A priority for the UK Government’s presidency of COP26, hosted in Glasgow in November, is “the idea that we will make the zero-emission transition quicker, easier and cheaper, if we work together,” said Edwards.

Aki-Sawyerr called for more help for developing countries. “We can’t go to COP and pledge all these commitments and only the countries with the wherewithal to make them happen go forth,” she said. “We need to make sure no country is left behind.” 

“As with COVID, if the investment isn’t being made everywhere, then the problem is still going to affect everyone,” Aki-Sawyerr said.

Unlocking Human Development

While the climate calculus for improving transport is clear, it’s no greater than the development and livelihood impacts of the sector. “Perhaps more so than anything else, people’s access to transportation really determines what their life outcomes are,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance.

From access to jobs to health care to education, “transport is a great enabler and equalizer,” said Mamta Murthi, vice president for human development at the World Bank. It’s access to opportunities, but also safe access to opportunity that really makes transportation critical to many development outcomes.

“Road crashes have a direct effect on human capital,” said Murthi. More than 1.35 million people die in road crashes annually. Road crash deaths and injuries disproportionately impact young adults in their prime working years and rank among the leading causes of long-term disabilities, she said.

“We can’t afford to lose 5% or more of our economic productivity to a problem that has a solution and that is avoidable,” said Iman Abubaker, urban mobility project manager for WRI Africa. “As the youngest continent, there is huge potential for transformation with our youth. We definitely cannot afford to lose our most active and productive population groups, our 15-to-29-year-olds, to road traffic collisions.” 

Meanwhile, air pollution from transport is another major health problem that affects multiple development outcomes – and not just in developing countries. “In the Netherlands alone, one in five children that suffers from asthma has this because of air pollution,” said Van Veldhoven. 

In California, sustainable transportation solutions are essential to many health problems, from air pollution and sedentary lifestyles to stark inequalities between groups, said Ellen Greenberg, deputy director for the California Department of Transportation.

“Transport and health need to work together in order to achieve human development outcomes,” said Murthi. “This was always important, but it’s even more important as we think about a post pandemic recovery and building back better.”

“We Can Do This”

“[The pandemic] shows that if we reduce the amount of travel, we plan our cities better…if we make our public transport safer and more accessible…all of these things will help,” said Etienne Krug, director of the Department for Management of Noncommunicable Diseases, Disability, Violence and Injury Prevention at the World Health Organization. “We can do this.”

But transforming transportation cannot mean simply replacing all cars with electric and autonomous vehicles. “We’ve had 50 million people die since the invention of the car on the world’s roads,” Krug said. “If we’re going to wait for the whole fleet of vehicles to be replaced by electric and self-driving cars, we’re going to wait for another few decades and will have another 30, 40, 50 million people dead.”

Electric vehicles themselves don’t necessarily eliminate all air pollution if the grid is still dirty. Nor do they reduce dangerous speeds or change how cities are designed.

Studies of lower-traffic neighborhoods show they can add up to two hours more of physical activity per week, creating a “big difference” in people’s health, said James Woodcock, a principal research associate at the University of Cambridge.

“You’ve got to deal with those root causes, of urban planning and land use planning,” said Mayor Aki-Sawyerr. 

Indeed, California’s Ellen Greenberg said the single biggest urban planning issue for the United States’ most populous state is housing affordability. Local zoning and other political dynamics have created an enormous shortfall in housing supply.

Several municipal and national leaders noted new urban initiatives underway. George Njao, director general of Kenya’s National Transport and Safety Authority, said that to build a more sustainable, accessible transport system in Nairobi, they are focusing on establishing bus rapid transit (BRT) and commuter rail, including five new lines.

In Delhi, Transport Minister Kailash Gahlot spotlighted the city’s ambitious electrification agenda. From August to January, they added almost 6,000 electric vehicles to the roads. The target for the next five years is for 25% of all new vehicles sold in the city to be electric. In 2019, in an effort to improve inclusion and security, the city also made public transport services free for all women. Analysis is ongoing on the impacts of the initiative, but Gahlot said the city has received encouraging feedback.

Su Song, a research associate for WRI China, said she is seeing most big cities shift from private mobility to buses and biking and walking. In Beijing, biking and walking together account for 42% of total trips; in Shanghai, 40%. Evidence from some surveys in Beijing and other big cities indicate people are cycling longer distances after COVID for daily commuting. (Evidence from the United States and other locales, as Greenberg and others noted, is more mixed on the impact of COVID on vehicles miles traveled and personal car use.) 

The Mayor of Bogotá, Colombia, Claudia López, said the city has added 85 kilometers of new bike lanes during the pandemic and had seen the percentage of daily trips by bike increase from 6% to 12%.

Across the world, more than 400 cities so far have launched pop-up bike lanes since the pandemic. Taken together with longer-term trends on electrification and commitments to zero-out emissions – including more than 10,000 cities that have signed up to the Global Covenant of Mayors – these are promising signs of positive change.

“As we think now about building back better, green transport is absolutely essential,” said Steer. “Transport has a central role to play in this decisive year, going into this decisive decade.”

Stay tuned for more from Transforming Transportation, including on public transit sustainability, informal transport, cycling and freight. And join the conversation on Twitter with #TTDC21

Schuyler Null is Communications Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Hillary Smith is Communications Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

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