A roadmap toward sustainable mobility: What we already knew, and what we’re learning from the pandemic

This page in:

A man with a face wask waits to board a train in Tokyo, Japan. Photo: Carina Sze/Unsplash
Photo: Carina Sze/Unsplash

From aviation to logistics and public transport, the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has completely upended the transport industry. But it has also demonstrated the vital importance of mobility to almost all aspects of our lives. Despite the current disruptions, we need transport more than ever to take key workers to their jobs, deliver essential supplies, maintain food security, and support economic recovery. It’s clear that we cannot build a more resilient world without resilient transport.

But what exactly do we mean by that? Although resilience has been an important part of the sustainable mobility agenda for quite some time, the conversation has focused mostly on protecting transport infrastructure from climate risk and natural disasters. Today’s crisis is different in that the pandemic has affected the delivery of transport services rather than the infrastructure itself. Specifically, health concerns and lockdown measures have caused passenger volumes to plummet while imposing a host of operational constraints on transport providers. In other words, we are looking at a profound market shock on both the demand and supply sides.

To overcome this challenge and protect the sector from future crises, decision makers need concrete, specific guidance. The recent Global Roadmap of Action Toward Sustainable Mobility (GRA) could be an important part of that process: it was designed precisely to help countries improve their transport systems—including from a resilience standpoint—by drawing on 180 tried-and-tested policy measures from around the world.

Interestingly, the tool was launched back in October, at a time when few people were familiar with the term “coronavirus.” Just a few months later, we live in a very different world. Now is a good time to look back on the GRA through the lens of COVID-19: How can we leverage this body of work to increase the short- and long-term resilience of the transport sector? And are there new measures that should be introduced in light of the pandemic?


Existing policy options

The GRA features more than 50 measures that are directly relevant to the current crisis, and that can make a significant contribution to the resilience of transport. These include:

  • Planning for an integrated multi-modal transport network. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of a flexible and adaptable transport system. Multi-modal planning is a key part of this: when a crisis such as COVID-19 cripples part of the transport network, the existence of other modes provide a critical alternative, ensuring people and goods can still get where they need to go.
  • Coordinating action among agencies. Effective coordination across the transport sector is important even under normal circumstances, and it becomes essential when dealing with a crisis or emergency situation.
  • Sharing data across platforms and systems. Big Data can make transport management much more efficient and responsive, especially when dealing with disruptions. But to make the most of these advances, operators and governments need clear protocols to share data effectively, while also addressing privacy and security considerations.
  • Repurposing road space to allow access for all modes. The pandemic has prompted many cities to pedestrianize some of their streets or create pop-up bike lanes as a way to avoid crowding on public transport.
  • Integrating new mobility solutions. Innovative models such as bicycle deliveries or shared mobility platforms have played an important part in preserving connectivity during the pandemic.
  • Promoting transit-oriented development. Even though public transport ridership is at an all-time low right now, we must continue to embrace the principles of transit-oriented development. That means fostering compact, walkable, mixed-use communities that are conducive to mass transit use and will help us create more resilient, more sustainable cities.
  • Phasing out of fuel subsidies or implementing fuel taxes. Reducing fuel subsidies and increasing fuel taxes could give governments the fiscal space they need to scale up investment in renewable energy, electric vehicles, or public transport. While these measures can be extremely unpopular, the historically low oil prices of the past few months would enable governments to reform fuel policy without a significant impact on consumer prices.


Early lessons from the pandemic

Even though the measures outlined in the GRA can go a long way, the pandemic has taught us a number of important new lessons on transport resilience, particularly when it comes to safety. As governments and development partners respond to COVID-19, it’s clear that we underestimated the value of some policy measures.  A number of new recommendations are emerging, many of which could be integrated into a future version of the GRA:

  • Developing physical distancing protocols for public transport.
  • Preparing contingency plans to provide lifeline mobility services for essential workers.
  • Relaxing restrictions on the operation of heavy goods vehicles during crisis response (e.g., automatically extending licenses).
  • Removing non-tariff barriers to facilitate the import/export of medical equipment and essential supplies.
  • Ensuring an optimal level of vehicle availability and use, which can serve different purposes depending on the sector. For freight transport, efficient vehicle use helps minimize the impact of disruptions to keep essential goods moving. For public transport, on the other hand, the main objective is to reduce passenger density and allow for social distancing. 

We want to hear from you! How has COVID-19 impacted the way you move? What do you think are the most important measures to make transport safer, more resilient, and more sustainable? Don’t hesitate to share your insights in the comments section below.


This article is the second in a series of three blog posts that assess the adequacy of transport concepts and tools in light of COVID-19. Read the first blog here.


Learn more:


Nancy Vandycke

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

Javier Morales Sarriera

Economist, Transport & ICT, World Bank

Gurpreet Singh Sehmi

Economist, Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All), World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000