The COVID-19 pandemic left road transport in uncharted territory. The current decrease of passenger and freight vehicles on the roads contributed to the largest ever annual fall in CO2 emissions in 2020, more than during any previous economic crisis or war. However, this temporary reduction is not sufficient to achieve a 1.5C global temperature target (Carbon Brief). Road transport losses – goods and passengers – are now set to exceed USD 1 trillion globally in 2020 (IRU). Thus, making roads a focal point to the transport sector’s sustainable recovery.
Roads play a crucial role in maintaining lines of supply and keeping essential workers and goods moving. It is also clear that our roads must not simply return to an electric-powered norm, but one that encompasses both active mobility and tactical urbanism. In response to COVID-19, governments around the world released multi-billion-euro recovery packages. Policies and interventions have varied in their approach to the transport sector.
Many low-income countries have decided to rethink the design and planning of their road infrastructures. In 2020, 10 sub-Saharan African countries have invested in the design of new roads to improve their supply chain (OECD). The COVID-19 pandemic has made those countries realise that having a strong dependence on foreign trade is not sustainable in the long run. In fact, in those countries most of their goods, included food, are either exported to other continents or imported from abroad. Almost 50% of Africa’s rice consumption and more than 75% of its wheat consumption is imported from other regions of the world (FAO). This has resulted in the exacerbation of hunger and food insecurity in many countries due to the COVID-19 logistics restrictions. Sub-Saharan countries are now investing in the creation of better road links to accelerate intra-continental supply chain integration. They aim to take into account the outbreak of other future pandemics by designing faster corridors with improved border facilities. A Similar project was launched in July 2020 in Nepal. The World Bank and the Government of Nepal signed a $450 million road support project to boost the country’s COVID-19 recovery (The World Bank). Sustainable transport and inclusive transport infrastructures are key to sustain and accelerate the country’s economic growth. The project’s focus is travel time and transport cost reduction for road freight. Moreover, the road corridors will be carefully designed to reduce their environmental impact and to improve road safety. New borders will also be created to minimise delays and to enhance better sanitation and better goods screening.
Developing countries are also opting to integrate economic assistance to respond to the decrease in road freight transport. In Sri Lanka, the government has reduced taxes to road freight companies transporting rice, tea, animal feed, as well as locally produced sanitary clothing and food (The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport). In Kenya, similar policies were put in place to reduce taxes for road operators and to create new cash-transfer schemes to support the essential food transport to urban markets (IMF). However, these interventions need to be improved and better designed since they have not been successful in many countries. An analysis of measures in 80 nations has shown that the majority of mobility and logistics companies, 80% of which are Small to Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs), have not benefitted from those measures (IRU). Moreover, in several African countries experience from the avian flu outbreak (2008), the Ebola crisis (2015) and the cholera outbreak (2018) demonstrated that financial aid and tax relief measures have a limited and temporary effect. A useful policy would be to protect and improve informal disseminated markets. They are easier to reach for the majority of the population, hence reducing travel time and road traffic. Those markets also help small road operators to access them more frequently avoiding overcrowded central markets (The Conversation).
Due to COVID-19’s pervasiveness, there is potential for a modal shift away from public and shared transport towards increased private vehicle use, viewed to be safer during the pandemic. In China, private car usage is projected to double its share post-pandemic in urban areas. (PIARC) However, the current global and substantial decrease in private transport is seen by several governments as an opportunity to change travel behaviour and to encourage more active forms of mobility. Cities worldwide have introduced pop-up lanes for walking and cycling. (PIARC, World Economic Forum). Some low-income countries like Ethiopia, have implemented in 2020 new urban mobility plans, after experiencing the positive effects of COVID-19 on road traffic and congestion. Ethiopia has taken advantage of the current situation to plan a 2020-2029 non-motorised transport strategy (UN). Car trips in urban areas will be discouraged with the reduction of available car lanes and car parks. Most of the road infrastructures will be redesigned to give more space to cycle lanes and footpaths.
COVID-19 has provided an opportunity to effectively rethink approaches in the road transport sector. The lower emission levels, reduced urban traffic, and improved air quality observed in the early pandemic can be maintained through balanced sustainable road transport measures. Moreover, in developing countries, financial measures and urban land-use improvements are also fundamental to promote better post-COVID-19 road transport and economic growth.