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Won’t you be my neighbour?

Evan Bennett discusses the necessity of sustainable transport in developing interconnected communities.

A Hole In The Plan

On September 8th 2000, the United Nations published the Millenium Declaration, a list of 60 far-reaching goals that the organisation would pursue over the new millennium. Eight of these goals were titled the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs) and were to be completed by the UN’s partner states by 2015. Included in these goals, among other things, were tasks of eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, reducing child mortality, and combating deadly diseases such as HIV and Malaria. While hopes were initially high for the MDGs, 2015 came and went, and little global progress had been made. In response to the marginal failure of the MDGs, and mounting pressure from the global community to address the looming climate crisis, the United Nations crafted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2016. Like the MDGs, the SDGs aimed to make sweeping improvements across the developing world, but this time, placing greater emphasis on sustainability and environmentalism. The SDGs also built upon the MDGs by involving more specific measures that spread across multiple sectors, accompanied by detailed metrics to measure global progress towards the completion of these goals. However, while the SDGs were lauded as a significant improvement upon their predecessors, there was one area that was noticeably absent: the transportation sector.

While the Sustainable Development Goals include measures to assist in the development of nearly every facet of society, there is hardly any mention of the transport sector across any of the 17 SDGs. This is particularly surprising given the sector’s impact on global crises and development. Some reports hold transportation accountable for around 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions, so no wonder it has been identified as a “cross-cutting” sector – one that has the potential to catalyse or thwart progress towards the completion of the SDGs. As a result, the sustainable development of communities around the world is dependent on a comprehensive effort to increase the sustainability of the transportation sector. While much progress is needed, success stories from across the globe highlight the transportation sector’s ability to stimulate progress towards sustainable, interconnected communities.

From The Outside In

At its core, increased access to sustainable transportation infrastructure has the power to create new opportunities and connections in and between rural communities. For individuals, the ability to commute between villages and into major cities can have profound impacts on their local economies and wellbeing. In fact, one of the largest hurdles to overcome extreme poverty in underdeveloped areas is reforming this lack of connectivity with people beyond the locale. While limited access to technology and the internet create a “digital divide” between one another, the physical barrier of poor transportation infrastructure remains the most prominent form of isolation that these communities face.

Despite its absence from the SDGs, there are already examples of programmes directed at improving transportation and national connectivity. In 2012, China’s Ministry of Transport initiated a huge development of their T-Union bus system, alongside contactless travel cards to encourage ease of payment. The system, commonly referred to as TU, has recently been expanded to all rural villages in China, providing affordable access to both small towns and major cities. Accompanying the TU is China’s Transport Telecommunication & Information Centre (CTTIC), which has approved significant investment into rural roads to facilitate private travel. The CTTIC has also authorised plans for the implementation of more substantial practices throughout the country, targeting cargo and public transport in particular.

While many of the CTTIC’s efforts to make the nation’s transportation sector more efficient and sustainable are yet to be realised, there is evidence that the expansion of TU has been a success. The project has allowed for villagers to travel to and from major cities, fostering interconnectivity through the exchange of ideas among those who were once isolated. In turn, China has observed positive results, specifically in the agricultural industry, where villagers have been able to widen the market for their goods.

A (Driver’s) Seat at the Table

The direct impact of sustainable transportation infrastructure in developing countries is certainly a positive one. Moreover, on account of the interrelated nature of the SDGs, increasing transport opportunities is likely to have knock-on effects on other sustainability goals. Perhaps one of the more unexpected products of the advancement of the sustainable transport sector is that on SDG 5: gender equality.

To see where gender equality has been improved by the transportation sector, one should look no further than Ms Esenam Nyador, the founder of Miss Taxi Ghana. Nyador started Miss Taxi in 2017 wanting to reduce gender segregation in Accra by providing taxi services to the women of Ghana, by the women of Ghana. Since its inception, the grassroots organisation has grown into a national brand and is now one of the largest private taxi services in the country. To ensure Miss Taxi always has enough drivers on hand, Nyador has introduced a wide array of educational programs for Ghanaian women, which culminates in students’ certification in one or more transport-related industries. Women can become taxi drivers, commercial truck drivers, or forklift operators by completing one of Miss Taxi’s classes. And while the company has achieved its goal of equality by increasing women’s involvement in the industry, Miss Taxi has created something even more important for female commuters: safety. By staffing a strong network of like-minded Ghanaian women, those who use Nyador’s service feel more secure, furthering the impact that this program has had on clients and employees alike.

We Can Be Green Too

The most substantial impact that investment in a sustainable transport sector can have on the progress of the SDGs is through the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, when they met in the fall of 2020, delegates to the UN’s Second Global Conference on Sustainable Transport commented that the balance between economic growth and carbon neutrality is fundamental for sustainable development. While the act of striking this balance is a daunting task, many significant projects across the world have demonstrated that it is possible.

In Europe, the Netherlands is largely leading the charge towards carbon neutrality. At the conference, Barbara Visser, the nation’s Minister of Transport and Water Management touted drastic improvements to the nation’s expansive network of cycleways and celebrated wide public use of the cycling system. Visser also praised Dutch incentive packages and public programmes that actively encourage private citizens to reduce their carbon footprint. In Asia, various nations are working closely with Western organisations to invest in low-emission light rail and bus transport in order to create a more sustainable and equitable transportation sector. In Nepal, for example, the government has received sizable investments from Western companies and foundations to drastically improve Nepali transportation. With these grants, the government hopes to construct light rail and monorail systems throughout the country and into China, allowing for community building and trade across borders while cutting down on carbon emissions.

Are We There Yet?

Although not specifically mentioned in the SDGs, it is evident that the transportation sector will play an integral role in the sustainable development of the world’s nations throughout the 21st century. By examining emerging laws and initiatives, such as China’s intention to build the Global Innovation and Knowledge Centre for Sustainable Transportation, it is clear that we are beginning to realise the power that the transportation sector holds moving towards a “net-zero” age. Furthermore, as we enter what is hopefully the latter stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become especially apparent that community building cannot happen without transportation, either digital or physical. The United Nations continues to strive for the completion of the Sustainable Development Goals, and one thing is clear: continued and increased investment in the sustainability of the global transport sector remains paramount.

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