Imagine a wide, safe, and smooth road network linking Central Asia’s main cities, industrial, and touristic areas. What would that do for people, their mobility, access to jobs, trade, and local economies?
In landlocked economies, transport infrastructure plays a paramount role in enhancing economic activities. The Central Asia region stretches across a vast geographic area, strategically positioned as a gateway between Europe and Asia, enabling enormous potential to engage in, and with, global value chains.
Yet the region is failing to fully tap into that potential. Although it has demonstrated slight growth regarding transport infrastructure quality, the World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Index suggests transport infrastructure in Central Asia lags in comparison with the rest of the world. With the global median rating at 60 (on a scale from 1 to 143, with lower ratings meaning better transport infrastructure), Kazakhstan sits just below at 72, Tajikistan at 111, and Kyrgyzstan at 129.
This must change as the costs are simply too high.
The cost of bad roads
There are many sound economic reasons as to why more emphasis needs to be given to improving road quality and connectivity, including boosting trade, productivity, safety, and lowering costs. Region-specific studies have found causal benefits to improving bilateral trade. For example, in Kazakhstan a 1% increase in improvements of road infrastructure can lead to an increase in exports of 3.7% and imports of 2.3%. Another study yet to be published suggested the potential to boost firm productivity – a 10% improvement of local connectivity in Central Asia could increase firm production by 2.4%.
Moreover, there are opportunities to improve access to jobs. A 1% improvement in accessibility from better roads could lead to a 0.3–0.4% increase in the number of businesses and employment. Numerous studies have also demonstrated the correlation between poor quality roads and serious road accidents, which take lives and damages critical infrastructure. For example, 25% of crashes in Uzbekistan are caused by poor road conditions and poor infrastructure.
Bad roads also cost us more.
When roads are rough, user travel costs increase, due to vehicle depreciation and fuel drainage. Over the span of 35 years, rolling on rough roads can cost 50-fold more than rolling along on smooth ones. So, from a public policy standpoint, road investments are considered “pro-poor,” as gains from improved road quality are proportionately higher for the disadvantaged. Therefore, making and maintaining smooth roads is a fundamental tool for economic growth, especially in developing countries.
What’s stopping the region from maintaining and building up its vital road networks?
While we know road conditions are overall in below-average condition, this is largely based on freight surveys or anecdotal evidence from personal experiences and social media. What data there is on road conditions is neither easily accessible nor regularly updated, meaning it is near impossible to get a representative picture of which roads need maintenance repairs and rehabilitation.
Crowd-sourcing road data
That’s where crowdsourcing systems and software can offer the potential to create new data streams based on public input.
Unfortunately, existing open-source maps often have barriers to use, such as sign-up or log-in requirements and technical specifications to enter feedback. Through World Bank funding, the Central Asian Infrastructure unit commissioned a website CAroadcondition.com to simplify the process and enable any road user to contribute their experiences of driving through the region: truck drivers, marshrutka drivers, you, and us.
After defining a road network of interest through the five Central Asian states—Kazakhstan, Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—relatively smaller sections of roads were specified. All one needs to do is hover over a segment of the road and click to provide descriptive information of the trip executed, followed by a brief comment of the road and a five-star rating scale. Once each segment reaches 100 reviews, a colouring algorithm will showcase the levels of adequacy, along a spectrum from red to green for the entire road network.
At present the Central Asian Infrastructure team are working on a regional connectivity evaluation, aiming to rank which transport infrastructure projects should be prioritized based on this crowdsourcing tool. Through the website we plan to integrate gained crowd-sourced findings into a wider transport model as a “supply” input for the road data. For this project, the team is leaning on the support of Transport modelling experts CitiEU, as well as local and international consultants from CILT (Chartered Institute of Logistic and Transport) to help promote the use of the website and to supplement our findings with further qualitative insights. And we hope to complete our report by late February 2023.
Knowing where infrastructure weak spots are within the network will provide vital insights into how to prioritize funding and investments. More importantly, this crowdsourcing method introduces a “help us help you” model. The more accurate the public can be in documenting their driving experiences, the more precise government agencies and development partners, like the World Bank, can help fill pot-holes—ensuring a less costly, safer, and smoother ride for Central Asians.