The lockdown led to earth-shattering changes in the way we lead our lives, in the cultural fabric and in the way we move from one place to another. In many parts of the western world, public transport gave way to “active mobility” — walking and cycling — which have more scope as means of transport for sticking to social distancing norms (ironically, more people are taking their cars out as seen in Indian cities).
Public transport has been completely halted or reduced in some cities, to control the spread of the novel coronavirus. As a result, city councils in Brussels, Milan, and other European cities set up flexible bicycle lanes.
As countries open up across the world, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for governments to reconsider green transport on an all-pervasive scale. Going back to the way things were — bumper to bumper traffic due to the mass use of private vehicles — will neither be sustainable for the governments nor healthy for the citizens. The post lockdown period is an opportunity for the transport sector to start over in a more efficient and conducive manner rather than the polluting business-as-usual mentality.
One step in that direction is being taken by the UNECE (United Nations Economic Commission for Europe). Its member countries are creating a task force to lay down a set of principles for green transport and healthy mobility. THE PEP (Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme) is making this collective happen, with UNECE and WHO Europe in partnership.
Why shift to green transport?
The promotion of green and healthy transport will have a direct impact on jobs in the transport sector and in other sectors of the economy. Since such a transition alters the demand for certain modes of transport and this, in turn, influences the demand for related goods and services, green and healthy transport will necessarily involve the creation of jobs in certain sectors and their destruction in others.
Land transport is an important sector in terms of job creation and economic development. It employs over 60 million workers around the world, representing more than 2% of global employment. Total employment is even higher if one counts the indirect jobs that depend on value chains associated with the transport sector.
At the same time, because of the resources it consumes and the pollution it causes, transport also contributes to environmental degradation and to health problems. If global and local environmental objectives are to be achieved while promoting the transport sector as a source of decent work, it is essential that the pursuit of environmental sustainability should be at the heart of government policy. Government spending on the fuel industry, which has a very low employment content, can be redirected to other sectors of the economy with a greater impact on employment, such as public transport.
The big environmental footprint that transport currently generates means that structural transformation of the sector can play a major role in promoting an environmentally sustainable, green economy. Indeed, reducing GHG emissions and air pollution, increasing transport safety, and improving health outcomes by encouraging active mobility are all priority areas for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Green transport solutions
There are several ways in which the sustainability of the various modes of transport (road, rail, waterway and air) can be enhanced, including increased energy efficiency, the use of alternative clean and renewable fuels, modal shifts and electrification (especially when a large proportion of electricity is generated from renewables).
Many strategies are available for enhancing the fuel efficiency of new and existing road freight transport vehicles and reducing their emissions. These include switching to alternative fuels (to replace diesel), engine upgrades, improved aerodynamics, electrification, the development of lightweight materials for heavy and light-duty trucks, and improved logistics management using information and communication technologies.
However, despite the sound business case, these strategies have still not been widely adopted. In private passenger transport, efforts have been made to increase fuel efficiency and encourage modal shifts – e.g. by reducing the use of private cars in favour of public transport, cycling and walking in some cities – but there is still ample room for improvement.