COVID-19 Impacts

The aviation, road, maritime and rail transport sector for both freight and passenger transport were all significantly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Urban and rural mobility have also experienced the effects of the pandemic even if in different ways. Several organisations, development banks, NGOs and governments are now analysing the impacts of Covid-19 on the transport sector. Currently most of the data available focuses on developped countries. However, low-income countries are often those experiencing even more aggravated externalities. High Volume Transport, the Transport Research Laboratory and the International Road Federation are focusing on examining how COVID-19 is impacting developing economies.    

Road transport

As a result of lockdowns and travel restrictions, in 2020, global road transport activity decreased by almost 50% compared to 2019 (iea). There have been several consequences linked to this significant road transport decrease.

For example, toll roads have seen a dramatic reduction in revenue. In Mexico and Malaysia, revenues dropped by up to 40% as a result of national lockdowns (TRL/HVT). Long-distance transport demand has declined globally, with some low-income countries reporting up to 90% decrease, putting particularly independent drivers at risk of bankruptcy. In developing economies, many operators must absorb the costs of ownership, maintenance and other vehicle operating costs, whilst not being able to participate in social dialogue and with limited national social protection measures to compensate them from the loss of incurred revenue (ILO).

Despite dramatic reductions in traffic, data reveals that fatality rates per kilometre travelled have in fact increased in certain countries. In Kenya, for example, it is thought that accident numbers have gone up as individuals speed to reach their destination ahead of curfew hours, with public transport operators especially trying to go faster to complete more journeys and to thus generate more revenue. Moreover, lockdowns have resulted in more pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists. As these individuals are more vulnerable than other road users, this is also considered a contributing factor for higher accident rates, especially in developing countries. (World Bank).


In several countries, as a reaction to their first confirmed COVID-19 cases, national and city authorities placed restrictions on the movement of freight, in addition to restrictions on the movement of individuals. In certain instances, only essential goods such as food or medical supplies were allowed to be moved, or movement was only permitted on weekends. The International Transport Forum (ITF) estimated a strong reduction of about 33% in terms of global freight transport volumes in 2020 as a result of mobility and activity restrictions. Analysis shows a lower decrease in freight transport within cities (-8%) than in national and international freight activity (-37%) (ITF). 

Rail, maritime and air freight experienced different impacts as a result of the pandemic (Figure 1). These are discussed in the respective aviation, rail and maritime transport sections below.

Figure 1: Global trade by region in 2020

Passenger transport

 As soon as governments introduced restrictions such as closures of institutions, curfews or mandatory teleworking to reduce the movement of people, overall passenger transport dropped and the demand for public transport substantially declined. The number of trips to transit stations plummeted around the globe. Whilst high income countries overall displayed a greater reduction in public transport usage than low income countries, certain countries, such as Zimbabwe and South Africa reported up to 80% reductions (Figure 2). While the reduced access to public transport  has been less detrimental in high-income countries, given the higher availability of private cars, it has severely affected low-income countries where a vast majority of the population relies on public transport services (World Bank). 

Rail transport also saw a considerable decrease in terms of trips made in 2020. According to the European Commission, the reduction in passenger-kilometres was on average -48%. (UIC). Developing countries experienced a similar decline, with Sub-Saharan African railway companies being the worst hit. They reported a 55% drop in passenger traffic in passenger-kilometres in 2020 compared to 2019. (UIC). 

Further, commercial air traffic encountered a worldwide reduction as shown in Figure 3. As a result, airline companies experienced a relatively even decrease in revenue passenger-kilometre in all the regions of the world (IATA). Passenger ship services were also suspended in many countries. Europe and the Mediterranean saw the highest decline in ship calls (-14%), whilst Latin America experienced a 12% drop and Sub-Saharan Africa a 10% reduction (Figure 4).   

Figure 2: Changes in trips to transit stations in selected African cities in 2020
Google Mobility Data on the World Bank 
Figure 3: Number of daily commercial air traffic in 2020 compared to 2019, world
FlightRadar24 Statistics on OECD 
Figure 4: Total number of ship calls by region from 2019 to 2020
 on UNCAT 

Aviation, rail and maritime transport

Air, rail and maritime passenger transport all witnessed a sharp decrease following the pandemic outbreak, as outlined in the previous section. Significant changes occurred for freight transport as well. Air freight is particularly linked to aviation passenger transport as more than 50% of all air freight travels in the hold of passenger planes (Transport Geography). As airlines drastically cancelled most of their flights, this resulted in an average global cargo decline of 29% in April 2020 (compared to previous year) (deugro group). Some regions of the world (Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America) were more affected than others as shown in Figure 5. The highest capacity decline was encountered for exports to Europe; with -88% for South America and -65% for Sub-Saharan Africa. This is particularly critical across Latin America, the Caribbean and land-locked African countries where, in many cases, no alternative means of freight transport exist.

In Spring 2020, when countries started to impose economic and social restrictions and lockdowns, the number of maritime cargo carriers dropped significantly (between -13.2% and -20.8%) compared to the first months of the same year (Figure 6). However, developing countries and least developed countries experienced fewer negative trends when compared to developed countries and transition economies (Figure 7). Air and maritime freight capacity drain, along with the direct impacts of COVID-19 have exponentially increased shipping costs, forcing some regions to impose emergency support surcharges. Shippers who typically take advantage of air freight, are instead choosing to send their goods by train, when adequate rail infrastructure is available (Logistics Bureau). Frequently cancelled airline flights are currently making rail freight considerably more reliable in this period. This is particularly relevant for continental rail operators. South African rail freight is an interesting example of this trend, having the best rail infrastructure in Africa and connecting all nearby Sub-Saharan countries. After a significant drop in rail freight transport in April 2020 (-65.8%), it absorbed part of the previous air freight volumes, even reaching a 7.12% increase in September 2020 compared to December 2019 (CEIC).

Figure 5: Air cargo capacity decline, comparison between 22-28 April 2020 to the same week in 2019.
Seabury Capacity Tracking Database on deugro group 
Figure 6: Total number of ship calls worldwide per month, 2020 (Percentage change over 2019)
Figure 7: Total number of ship calls per type of economy and country grouping (2020-2019)

Urban mobility

Many COVID-19 restrictions focussed on temporarily reducing individuals’ movements and thus directly or indirectly impacted the demand and availability of public transport, which in turn had significant impacts on overall urban mobility. The pandemic has made cycling and walking more appealing as they allow users to respect physical distancing and to avoid closed, crowded spaces (Wold Bank). While many developed countries are seeing a modal shift, in developing countries walking and cycling still present significant challenges, with inadequate infrastructure and high car speeds making it difficult to commute safely (World Resources Institute).

For these reasons, many workers and commuters are still relying on public transport and, with the Covid-19 restrictions, they are more reliant on informal transport. In many low-income countries, 40-80% of urban transport services are provided by informal transport workers. In Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, informal jobs account for up to 30-40 % of the total number of transport jobs (ILO). However, Covid-19 regulations have also limited this transport sector’s operations by reducing its capacity. This has resulted in job losses for informal transport workers and has had severe repercussions on users as well. In Uganda for example, as operators were only allowed to carry passengers at 50% capacity, prices doubled to recover this loss in revenue. In turn, this meant that certain individuals could no longer afford to commute and lost their jobs. The impact of reduced urban mobility is far greater in less developed countries where most jobs are labour-based and teleworking is only feasible for a very limited part of the population. (World Bank/SSATP).

Rural mobility

Rural mobility has also been impacted by Covid-19 restrictions. In many Asian, African and South American low-income countries the sharp reduction in air freight has had a significant impact on people’s livelihoods. In recent years, those countries invested heavily in the provision of air freight to help farmers transport their produce to foreign markets in higher-value supply chains (World Bank). With the Covid-19 air freight capacity decline, most farmers were forced to heavily rely on local markets. However, the rural population in low-income countries tends to rely mainly on informal transport to access all services, especially to reach rural markets. The reduction of available informal transport and the increase in transport costs have impacted small farmer households aggravating their isolation and social exclusion. (UNHABITAT, FAO).