Motorization and its discontents


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Photo: Sarah Farat/World Bank
They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  While visiting the World Bank library the other day, I was struck by how many development publications featured pictures of motor vehicles on their covers, even though most of them covered topics that had little to do with transport.  The setting and tone of the pictures varied – sometimes they showed a lone car on a rural highway, sometimes congested vehicles in urban traffic, and sometimes a car displayed proudly as a status symbol – but the prevalence of motorized vehicles as a visual metaphor for development was unmistakable to me: in the public imagination, consciously or otherwise, many people associate development with more use of motorized vehicles.

Indeed, motorization – the process of adopting and using motor vehicles as a core part of economic and daily life – is closely linked with other dimensions of development such as urbanization and industrialization.

Motorization, however, is a double-edged sword.

For many households, being able to afford their own vehicle is often perceived as the key to accessing more jobs, more services, more opportunities—not to mention a status symbol. Likewise, vehicles can unlock possibilities for firms and individual entrepreneurs such as the young man from Uganda pictured on the right, proudly showing off his brand new boda boda (motorcycle taxi). 

But motorization also comes with a serious downside, in terms of challenges that many governments have difficulty managing.  Motor vehicles can undermine the livability of cities by cluttering up roads and open spaces—the scene of chaos and gridlock in the picture below, from Accra, is a telling example. In addition, vehicles create significant safety hazards for occupants and bystanders alike… in many developing countries, road deaths have effectively reached epidemic proportions. From an environmental standpoint, motorized transport is, of course, a major contributor to urban air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Lastly, motorization contributes to countries' hard currency challenges by exacerbating their long-term demand for petroleum products.

Given these challenges, how are developing countries going to align their motorization trajectories with their development goals?  What should the World Bank advise our clients about how to manage this process?

Recently, a multi-disciplinary team of specialists from the World Bank and partner organizations set out to build, pilot, and refine a methodology to guide our client countries on managing motorization. One of the key premises behind this work was that the motorization path of developed countries provided no clear guidance or model for the developing world. In OECD countries, where vehicle fleets tend to be cleaner and safer, quality improvements over time have primarily occurred through technological advances of new vehicles entering the fleet, fairly high rates of vehicles falling out of use, and relatively predictable adherence to vehicle maintenance regimes. In the developing world, by contrast, second-hand vehicle imports account for the vast majority of vehicle fleet growth. Different contexts call for different solutions, so our team had to develop a framework that would take into account the specific motorization pattern of developing countries.
We piloted the approach in Ethiopia and Kenya, using an interactive methodology anchored around three workshops involving key stakeholders—government officials, vehicle importers and operators, and representatives of the vehicle maintenance industry.  The last of these workshops concluded in March. 
Photo: Ajay Kumar and Fanny Barrett/World Bank
The key message underlying the framework is that motorization is a key part of a country's development process, and, indeed, is inevitable.  But it can be shaped by public policies and actions, which should be comprehensively thought out.  Specifically, four objectives can simultaneously underpin a country's approach to motorization if integrated into the approach:
  • Enhancing vehicle safety, particularly to reduce the impact of a potential crash on occupants (crashworthiness)
  • Lowering emissions
  • Improving the fuel economy of both the private and commercial vehicle fleet as it grows
  • Ensuring that the pace of motorization is in line with what the country is ready to absorb.
Most importantly, however, the approach to motorization management must be pragmatic: it must emphasize sequencing of measures and policies in line with capacities of the government and private sector.

The reports from these pilots are still being finalized, but already there is active discussion on extending this work in the two pilot countries through further technical assistance and lending operations.  In addition, several other countries have expressed interest in applying the methodology, including two outside Africa. 

The World Bank has been actively working in recent years to change the way we approach transport with our client countries, shifting the focus from simply delivering infrastructure to a more holistic vision of providing sustainable mobility solutions for all. As we continue this effort, let’s hope our work on motorization management can emerge as a way of incorporating the vehicles themselves into the conversation.


Roger Gorham

Transport Economist, Transport & ICT Global Practice

Join the Conversation

Steve M
June 15, 2017

Excellent work Roger and team. We would appreciate some guidance from this work on three issues: (i) policy on age limits of imported cars (Some countries have it, some don't...has this worked? what are the equity implications?); (ii)In the African context, should the focus as you have noted on the need for gradual processes at this time be on crashworthiness (which means airbags for example) or vehicle road worthiness (slightly humbler goals on issues like brakes, lights, reflectors)? Happy to discuss further; (iii) role of public transportation (some people don't necessarily want to use cars but when public transport is chaotic, they have little choice). Very interesting work indeed.

June 16, 2017

Interesting approach,
I would just add the optimisation of roads and streets use through traffic management and parking policies to avoid over investment in road infrastructures... which encourage motorization

Nyaga Kebuchi
June 16, 2017

Great summary Roger.
Ironically when second hand vehicles were first imported en masse from Japan and the UK in the early 1990s, into Kenya, it was the first time a simple emissions device - the CATALYTIC CONVERTER was introduced into the country. BRAND NEW CARs that were produced for the country at the time and sold at franchise dealers were low tech, and hence lacked catalytic converters as well as a host of other features like air bags. So, second hand imports from developed countries have had their advantages. We have witnessed the general car fleet in Kenya improve drastically from the claptrap fleet that used to exist pre-1995.
Today a seven year old truck, for instance, from the UK or Germany, may have a Euro IV or V diesel engine, whereas a new one at the local franchise dealers may be Euro I or II. A brand new truck from India, at the franchise dealers, might not even have a Euro rating. Targeted policies should identify what is acceptable as a new vehicle or a second hand imported vehicle
Setting second hand vehicle import age limits of 8 years, or even 5 years from Japan, or other advanced economies, will mean that the vehicle is more or less "current", even by developed economy standards. 10 to 15 year old would probably mean worn out vehicle and outdated technology.
Today we have a whole host of issues brought about by the tenfold increase in the number of vehicles, precipitated by the rush to import second hand vehicles. You have credibly outlined the challenges and measures that could be taken. Vastly improved public transport, NMT infrastructure, road tolls, parking management and improved vehicle technology are some of the next steps we envisage.
Improvement in bus and paratransit safety and emissions standards, for instance, will bring public transport out of the "dark ages" into the modern age. Measures that will improve specifications for bus body builders and chassis manufacturers would be a good step.
Thanks and regards,
Nyaga Kebuchi
Sustainable Transport Africa

Rich C
June 16, 2017

Road safety is important, but what about the impact of vehicles on pedestrians as well as occupants? In Nairobi, 500 of 700 road deaths were pedestrians in 2014. Reducing speeds, improving crossing points, segregated cycle facilities, should be key priorities too.

Dario Hidalgo
June 16, 2017

Interesting angle and needed support, but...
Roger Gorham makes a great case on the need to help countries have better vehicle fleets: less polluting and roadworthy. That would mitigate some of the issues of motorization: increased air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions, improved safety. He also indicates the importance of motor vehicles for access to livelihoods and opportunities and as a status symbol.
But the indication that motorization is inevatible and even desirable as part of economic growth, may be strongly misleading. The issue in city sustainability is not ownership, but excessive use. Even clean, safe vehicles cause gridlock and are involved in pedestrian traffic deaths. Motorcycles have been positive for economics, but also one of the reasons road traffic deaths are on the rise in many countries.
I feel the statement in this blog entry, and eventually in the World Bank Transport Policy described here, may need caution. Probably stressing the fourth element "Ensuring that the pace of motorization is in line with what the country is ready to abosorb" not just in availability of road and parking space, but in terms of road safety, envoronmental and energy impacts.
Still, it may be important to mention (probably not in the blog due to lack of space) that safe walking and bicycling and good quality public transport, along with demand management mechanisms and compact urban development, are the key elements of sustinable urban mobility (4 dimensions: access, safety, environment and prosperity).
Thanks Roger for bringing this important discussion to the table.