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A major African step to make sustainable transport a reality

Roger Gorham's picture
Promoting Sustainable Transport Across Africa

The term “sustainable transport” evokes a wide range of images and perceptions among transport professionals and lay people alike. For some, it means a range of technology solutions – from diesel particulate filters to ebikes, Copenhagen wheels, or buses running on compressed natural gas.  For others, the term can refer to changes in behavior, like improving the way vehicles are maintained or driven, or efforts to carpool.  For yet others, the term implies even more radical changes, like wholesale shifts in the way cities are designed, and/or smart city approaches that use ICT technologies to fundamentally change the way people interact with their surroundings. “Sustainable Transport” can mean any or all these things, including expanding access to transport services in rural areas. 
 
But however the term is interpreted, it is not normally associated with Africa.  Indeed, in many respects, common images of African transport are synonymous with unsustainability – high rates of traffic growth and congestion (even in cities with comparatively low motorization rates), high traffic injury and fatality rates from substandard road safety practices, highly polluting vehicles, minimal formal public transport services, poor enforcement of road worthiness and vehicle overloading– and the list could go on.  
 
It is then very telling that the inaugural conference of the Africa Sustainable Transport Forum took place in Nairobi, Kenya in late October, with not only a great deal of interest but also high-level participation (with delegates from 42 African countries, including 25 Ministers). The conference was hosted by the Kenyan government, with support from the World Bank-led Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP) and the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP). The Ministerial portion of the conference was opened by both President Kenyatta and Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. 
 
Over three days, technical experts and ministers discussed what transport sustainability means for the continent, resulting in the first ever Sustainable Transport Action Framework for Africa. There were a number of other “firsts” associated with the conference: the first time African transport and environment ministers gathered together to discuss transport issues; the first time that “sustainability”, as a key objective of transport policy in Africa, was the focus of the agenda; and the first time that a Secretary General of the United Nations had ever opened an international conference focused on transport.
 
The Sustainable Transport Action Framework for Africa calls for a number of actions by African governments, including data collection, monitoring, and reporting at an Africa-wide scale of specific key indicators on traffic–related fatalities, air quality and its health impacts, NMT infrastructure, and others. It also calls for setting up systems for air quality monitoring in main cities, developing vehicle emissions standards and vehicle import regulations, national urban transport policies and integrated, multi-modal transport plans, among other measures.  While some of these called-for actions were new, others were a restatement of calls to action made in other contexts.  What is significant about this framework is the recognition at the ministerial level of the importance of sustainable transport as a policy issue for Africa, and the recognition of the breadth of actions that will be needed to address it. 
 
Equally important is the call for the Africa Sustainable Transport Forum to continue as a permanent platform for discussions about sustainable transport, including a follow-up regional conference in 2015.  In other words, African ministers recognized that there is a need for “sustainability” in the discussion about sustainable transport, and agreed to tackle the challenges to make regional connectivity, urban and rural mobility, and road safety more efficient.
 
This recognition is a critically needed and welcome change in shaping the transport policy discussion in Africa. Till now, sustainability has been a forgotten element in a discussion mostly dominated by concerns about connectivity (both within the continent and to the rest of the world), affordability, and integration. To be sure, these concerns are also critical for Africa’s development. But Africa is a region where transport already is the largest contributor to fine particulate pollution in cities, even though the rate of motorization is among the lowest in the world.  It is a region where 16 percent of the world’s traffic fatalities occur even though it only has 2 percent of the world’s vehicle fleet.  It is a region where the rate of urban growth is the highest in the world, and the car fleet of a city like Nairobi doubles every six years.  Yet it is also a region where much of the infrastructure to shape mobility patterns for decades to come has yet to be built, and where eliminating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity can come crashing against environmental limits if transport’s growth and development is not carefully nurtured and planned.  In this sense, the Africa Sustainable Transport Forum or ASTF has great potential to support the World Bank’s and African countries’ sustainability goals.
 
In fact, both the United Nations Secretary General and the Executive Director for UNEP indirectly recognized the importance of this to the Bank’s Africa agenda.  Secretary General Ban Ki Moon, during his address in Nairobi, noted that “Making the transition to sustainable transport is crucial to addressing climate change and achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, which are currently being discussed by member states as part of their efforts to shape a bold development agenda for the period beyond 2015. I have created a high level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport that is to provide recommendations on action that is needed at the global, national, and local levels.  I will make sure that the outcomes of your deliberations today will be provided to the Advisory Group.”
 
UNEP’s Achim Steiner observed in his statement to the Ministers that “In 2012, the World Bank with the other multilateral development banks identified transport as a key issue coming out of the Rio+20 Conference. The development banks came together and committed themselves to make available US$175 billion for sustainable transport. Our initiative to develop an African Action Framework for sustainable transportation will help identify priorities and channel and scale up investment into sustainable transport in Africa.”
 
In this context, the Bank has already mobilized some resources to continue this collaborative effort with UNEP in supporting the ASTF objectives, both through the Korean Green Growth Trust Fund and the Bank’s SSATP work program, focusing on urban mobility and accessibility, road safety, and regional integration.
 
We think this work will support the efforts and commitment expressed by various ministers towards making sustainable transport a reality in the African continent. The actions agreed on at the Africa Sustainable Transport Forum are a major step in the right direction.  That’s why it is critical for all relevant stakeholders –national and local governments, private sector, civil society, and donors - to do their part in supporting these efforts.

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