Is it too early to agree on SDG indicators for transport?

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In March, the international community of statisticians will gather in New York and Ottawa to discuss and agree on a global indicator framework for the 17 Sustainable Development Goals and the 169 targets of the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”. The task at hand is ambitious. In 2015, heads of state from around the world committed to do nothing less than “transform our world”. Monitoring progress towards this ambition is essential, but technically and politically challenging: it will require endorsement from all UN Member States on how to measure progress. In March, it will be the second attempt at getting this endorsement.

Why is it important? “What gets measured, gets done”. Measuring progress is essential for transparency and accountability. It allows us to understand our accomplishments and failures along the way, and identify corrective measures and actions—in short, it allows us to get things done.

What is the issue? Politically, the SDG process has been country led. This means that countries—and not international agencies, as in the case of the Millennium Development Goals—have guided the whole SDG process, including leading discussions and the selection of goals, targets and indicators.   Technically, the development of a robust and high-quality indicator framework is highly complex: the indicator should align closely with each target, have an agreed-upon methodology, and have global coverage. In reality, many indicators do not. For example, the indicator proposed to measure the 11.2 SDG target (“By 2030, provide access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all”) is the “proportion of population that has convenient access to public transport”. Data is not yet available for this indicator. Additional indicators may be needed to cover all aspects of the target.

The UN General Assembly mandated the Inter-Agency and Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators (IAEG-SDG) composed of 27 representatives of country statistical offices to develop this global indicator framework. Last year, the IAEG-SDG submitted the initial framework consisting of 230 indicators to the UN Statistical Commission. These indicators were classified into three tiers on the basis of their level of methodological development and the availability of data at the global level. Out of the 230 indicators that were initially proposed, only 35% of them had established methodology and data regularly produced (Tier I). Another 38% did not have an established methodology, or had a methodology that was still under development (Tier III)!

This year, the IAEG has made some modifications to the initial global indicator framework, consisting now of 230 indicators and an additional 36 new indicators. If agreed by the Statistical Commission in March, it will be submitted to the Economic and Social Council, and the UN General Assembly for endorsement. This global indicator framework will then be used.

Where does transport stand?  Contrary to all other infrastructure sectors, transport does not have a distinct SDG. This means that transport is “hidden” under other sector SDGs that relate to transport. For example, transport is implicit in the SDG 11 on Making Cities and Human Settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. The current global indicator framework proposes 10 transport indicators. 60% of them have an established methodology and data regularly produced. That is the case, for instance, of SDG indicator 3.6.1—death rate due to road traffic injuries. But another 40% have no established methodology, or a methodology that is still being developed. One example is SDG indicator 9.1.1 on the proportion of the rural population who live within 2 kilometers of an all-season road. This means that there is a high risk that very few transport-related indicators might be included in the SDG tracking framework.

Another problem concerns the fact that these indicators are an imperfect proxy for the type of transformation we aim for in transport and mobility. For example, “universal access in cities” would be better measured by access to job opportunities (“percentage of jobs that are accessible within 60 minutes by public transport or non-motorized transport”), rather than access to public transportation.

Beyond the SDGs. The World Bank has convened global players in the sustainable transport arena to develop a “Global Tracking Framework”, focusing on transport indicators that will measure progress toward sustainable mobility, and the SDGs in particular. The success of this endeavor will be measured by the transport community’s ability to develop a truly multi-stakeholder coalition. In order to accomplish this, the transport community has agreed to put in place an “Interim” leadership structure, consisting of a steering committee, and open working groups. Together, this coalition will work toward preparing the first baseline report on global mobility.


Nancy Vandycke

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

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