Data, technology, and partnerships are the three keys to sustainable transport

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A commuter uses his smartphone to request a ride. Photo: Aashim Tyagi, WRI India/Flickr
Photo: Aashim Tyagi, WRI India/Flickr

If you ask people on the street, what are the biggest challenges to resolve in the 21st century, most of them would respond “climate change” and they would be right.  Others would talk about the pandemic or population growth, and they would also be right.

Very few would likely talk about transport and mobility. This is, in my view, a big omission: while it may not be on everyone’s radar, achieving sustainable mobility has become one of the most urgent priorities of our time, and what happens in the transport sector will either decrease or exacerbate the impact of other global challenges.

Just consider the following:

While the transport situation varies in each country, none of them are on track to achieve sustainable mobility. The only way to address this complex, dynamic issue is to shift gears and innovate. 

Yes, but how? As in any other sector, data can go a long way in helping us make better decisions about transport. But there is a long way to go: in many developing countries, even the largest cities may not have the capacity to collect any transport data or provide basic information to users, such as public transit maps or schedules. This makes it difficult for residents to optimize their journeys, and makes it even harder for local authorities to plan and operate efficient transit networks.

This is where innovation can make a difference.  New technologies have created easier and cheaper ways to generate the missing data and to leverage it for effective decision-making:

  • It is now possible to generate data and produce transit maps simply by using open-source smartphone applications while riding public transport.  In Manila, Philippines, this helped the city administration realize that the number of transit routes was almost double the existing official estimates.
  • Soon, cars will be loaded with sensors, cameras, state-of-the art software and advanced computing.  This will generate floods of data and new intelligence to enhance vehicle efficiency. 
  • Traffic cameras will be used to calculate the density of traffic on roads and change traffic lights based on real-time road conditions.  This will help reduce congestion and carbon emissions. 
  • Machine-learning algorithms will extract data from crowd-sourced reports (Tweets, WAZE) to reveal “blackspots” for road crashes, helping governments take appropriate action and prioritize investment.

If you include autonomous fleets, and smart infrastructure, the global market for smart mobility will total more than $156 billion in the next five years.  Last year, Europe held the largest share of that market.

Data and new technologies are crucial, but they’re not enough.  You also need partnerships.  Sustainable Mobility for All initiative (SuM4All) has been working on all these different components to create a better transport future.

On the data side, we have compiled all the country data related to transport into one integrated system. We structured this data in such a way that we can identify and quantify the problems in the transport system for any country in the world.  We also took stock of all the main sustainable transport policy measures that have been tested around the world, and combined them into one catalogue of more than 190 “policy levers.” We then developed an algorithm that helps countries identify which of these measures are most relevant to their own circumstances. Known as the Global Roadmap of Action toward Sustainable Mobility (GRA), this tool also lets users to factor in the impact of systemic risks—such as climate change, natural disasters, or even a pandemic—and adapt their transport plans accordingly.

South Africa has been the first country to implement this new approach, and we expect that several other governments will follow suit. Looking ahead, tools like the GRA—combined with sustained progress on data, technology, and partnerships—will allow countries to monitor the performance of their transport systems in real time, and respond quickly with appropriate policy and investment.

The opportunities are enormous:

  • On the data side, big data generated by private sources should be rapidly added to data from public sources to enhance the quality and timeliness of monitoring.  In that context, we need a global policy framework to enable data-sharing between public and private actors, which is mindful of privacy and cyber-security considerations.  We have developed such a framework that is now ready to be piloted.
  • On the technology side, we have barely scratched the surface of what is possible. Over the next few years, Artificial Intelligence and other disruptive technologies are bound to play an ever-growing role in managing complex sectors like transport.
  • On the partnership side, there is much more that can be done, and I invite you to join the movement and share your expertise on the Sustainable Mobility for All platform.

Want to learn more about data and transport policy? Don’t miss the first edition of Knowledge Exchange (New Transport Policy for a Fast-Changing World) in September, where we will be introducing many of the tools mentioned above. Visit the SuM4All website to register and secure your spot!


Nancy Vandycke

Program Manager, Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All) and Lead Economist, World Bank

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