A wake-up call: Building back better to achieve sustainable mobility for all

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Young woman wearing a face mask in Mali. Photo: World Bank/Flickr
Photo: World Bank/Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about a significant setback for the world’s ambition to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. Within a blink of an eye, what started as a health crisis became an economic crisis, a food crisis, a housing crisis, a mobility crisis, and a political crisis. Everything has collided with everything else.

The global poverty rate, for instance, is predicted to increase by 7-percent in 2020 due to the economic lockdowns and job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic (compared to the 2-percent decline in 2018). This increase in global poverty is a threat to the SDG 1 on ending poverty. In most cities, the acute rise in the poverty rate, combined with the shutdown of public transport, has negatively affected SDG 11 on sustainable cities.

To manage the initial shock caused by the pandemic, more than $18 trillion have been spent to stimulate economies around the world. This stimulus funding in G20 countries and Sub-Saharan African countries averaged 22% and 3% of GDP respectively. Despite the cushion on the short-term social and economic impact, the pandemic has already pushed the world into one of the worse economic recessions. Not forgetting the irreversible loss of human capitals – with over 850,000 lives lost globally.

COVID-19 has laid bare the fragile economic, social, and environmental underpinnings of our world today. As we adapt to the uncertainties, face risks, and increasing interconnected systems, the policy implications are clear: priority should be given to interventions that strengthen system resilience.


Going beyond the short-term cushion for the COVID-19 impact

Could the scientific and technological advancements in our world today have prepared us to better manage the pandemic? In answering this question, some ongoing discussions are giving a fresh look at several old concepts and approaches of managing public health crisis:

  • The forty-year-old concept of “system” as a cohesive conglomeration of interrelated and interdependent parts. Changing one part of a system may affect other parts of the whole system. System-wide thinking contrasts with a focus on components or elements of that system.
  • The notion of “risks” in the form of external shocks, and the vulnerability of a system to those risks (for example, a pandemic) beyond the component that the risk is directly felt.
  • Resilience”, that is, the ability of a system to react to perturbations, internal failures, and environmental events by absorbing the disturbance and/or reorganizing to maintain its functions. The word resilience originated in the 17th century from the Latin term “resilire”, which means to jump back. Early studies, according to which the system “bounces” back to the equilibrium state pre-disturbance, related resilience to stability and the capacity to absorb environmental shocks and still maintain function. The concept now includes the ability of the system to face and adapt to change. This proactive perspective focuses on the capacity of a complex system to face change and adapt to it by renewal, reorganization, and find a new state of equilibrium.


Transport as a connector and standalone system

Let’s look at the transport system. Transport is a fundamental connector of human mobility as well as economic and social activities. As such, it is an essential component of a complex system that spans across all personal, communal, private, and public activities and corresponds with the human society as we perceive it. At the same time, transport is a standalone entity, which consists of the transport infrastructure and related elements, including highways and toll roads, bridges, vehicles, equipment, staff, organization, and software, etc.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created major disruptions, within the transport sector as a connector or standalone system. For example, it undermined the reliability and efficiency of transport networks, particularly in trucking or air cargo. And because freight transport operations, logistics, and the production of goods are so tightly synchronized, these disruptions have created a ripple effect on global commerce, exposing the fragility of the entire supply chain. Globally, we have seen shortages in the availability of medical supplies, raw materials, sub-assemblies, and finished goods, as well as logistical issues and inventory build-up.


Prioritizing system resilience

As we continue to expand our thinking towards taking a holistic approach to prevent and better manage a global pandemic, there is a good opportunity to reorganize this thinking and integrate parallel discussions into this system-wide framework. For the transport industry/sector, at least two other critical risks will increasingly define future policy choices:

  1. Climate change and extreme weather events. The way that transport systems have been designed and operated over the years can no longer withstand the demands of climate change. Water rises over bridges. Humans and physical structures on steep hills are vulnerable to frequent landslides. Tornadoes rip through towns. Planes are grounded. Coastal areas are underwater. Pathways of disruption consist of abrupt impacts on physical infrastructure as well as non-physical factors such as health and wellbeing of the human capital. It also includes disruptions resulting from interconnections with other critical infrastructure and social systems (e.g., sustainable energy, employment etc.).
  2. Failure of IT systems (cyber risks) associated with disruptive technologies and increasing interconnectivity. Information technology and interconnectivity have improved efficiency and functionality for transport infrastructure. However, they have also brought an increased risk associated with failure of critical IT systems, cyber and data privacy breaches, or the inability to keep the pace with changes and technological advancement. The transport industry ranks third in security vulnerability, according to a recent Insurance Company Assessment (Gallagher). We have seen it playout in a cyber-attack that reportedly created huge problems for the world’s biggest carrier of seaborne freight that transports about 15% of global trade by containers. Container ships stood still at sea and 76 port terminals around the world were grounded to a halt.


Build back better with resilience

In the drive for more progress in recent decades, we had ignored or undermined one reality: our systems are vulnerable to risks. When building back better, policymakers and stakeholders need to consider how these risks affect infrastructure and services and how disruptions to certain components may affect people’s lives, decisions and behavior. There is a need to think about what preventive measures, interventions, and policies can be adopted to increase the capacity to absorb future shocks. In particular, we must include resilience issues in the design of sustainable mobility for all policies and action plans to steer the progress of the SDGs back on track.


Nancy Vandycke

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

José Viegas

Former Secretary-General, International Transport Forum

Javier Morales Sarriera

Economist, Transport & ICT, World Bank

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