Sustainable Development Goals: What if transport was the missing piece?

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Sustainable Development Goals: What if transport was the missing piece?
Photo: Arne Hoel/World Bank

It’s been almost five years since the international community adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the Paris Climate Agreement. Today, we have to acknowledge that progress has been slow, and no country is on track to meet all 17 SDGs. Worse, we are even losing ground in many areas, such as extreme poverty, inequality, and climate change. So, what can we do to reverse this trend?  

For long, the conversation on the SDGs has been dominated by big ideas rather than facts. What was missing, in particular, was a set of robust data and methodologies to measure the gap between ambition and reality. That is no longer the case: two initiatives have recently launched tools that will allow the international community to monitor progress toward sustainable development in a more systematic, more accurate way—and, ultimately, will help countries come up with evidence-based solutions:

  • The UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDNS) developed an index to track countries’ overall performance on the 17 SDGs. Each country receives an SDG score that represents its distance (as a percentage) to the SDGs. For example, Sweden's Index score of 85 means that the country is on average 85 percent of the way to the best possible outcome on the SDGs.
  • Sustainable Mobility for All (SuM4All) released its Sustainable Mobility Index score in January 2020. The Index features country scores on sustainable mobility, which reflect countries’ distance (as a percentage) to the four goals that define sustainable mobility: universal access, efficiency, safety, and green mobility. Building on this work, SuM4All is getting ready to release the first edition of "Mobility at a Glance: Country Dashboards." The new report is due to come out later this month, and will compile 183 country profiles, with country scores and ranks. 

Each of these tools is, in and of itself, a treasure trove of information. But things get even more interesting once you start comparing them side by side. Specifically, correlating these two sets of country scores allows us to test one key hypothesis: can weaknesses in the transport sector explain slow progress on the SDGs? 

Why test that hypothesis? Transport does not have a dedicated SDG, yet it plays a critical role in enabling other SDGs.  For example, without reliable and sustainable transport systems, young people cannot attend school (SDG 4), women cannot access opportunities for employment and empowerment (SDG 5), and the world cannot achieve curtail greenhouse gas emissions (SDG 13). 

If transport is so crucial, could poor performance in the sector be the root cause of slow progress on the SDGs?   

We put that hypothesis to the test using the SDGs and Sustainable Mobility scores, which cover more than 180 countries. Our analysis confirmed that there is indeed a strong correlation between performance on mobility and on the SDGs. The figure below makes this abundantly clear.

2019 Global SM Index Score
Source: Sustainable Development Solution Network and Sustainable Mobility for All GTF 2.0

Furthermore, we tested the relationship between the sustainable mobility index score and the SDG index Scores for 180 countries, while controlling for the income level of those countries (GDP per capita). The result shows that the sustainable mobility index score has a positive and significant influence on the SDG Index Score. This finding reinforces the centrality of Transport and sustainable mobility in reaching the SDGs.

The conclusion? Unless countries double down on their efforts to promote sustainable mobility in all its dimensions—efficiency, safety, equity of access, and green mobility—we will continue to see insufficient progress on several major SDGs.

Of course, the data, methodology, and indicators that have been used to produce these country scores have their limits. But even though they might not be perfect, these scores offer unprecedented insight into global mobility, the SDGs, and the linkages between the two.

There is some serious potential here. By connecting the dots between transport and other global goals, we have a unique opportunity to change the narrative on sustainable development, and to make transport an integral part of SDG implementation.


Nancy Vandycke

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

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