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Transport in the Face of the Pandemic

By Young Tae Kim, ITF Secretary-General

A global health crisis of the magnitude we are experiencing has not struck the international community for over a century. In this unprecedented crisis, all countries and all areas of our daily life are profoundly affected and in disarray.

No vaccine and no cure for the new disease are known at this point. Scientists everywhere are working around the clock towards a remedy, but it will take time and humankind remains exposed in the meantime.

The sole weapon we currently possess against the virus is to constrain human contact as far as possible. The virus is incapable of travelling; it is we humans who, inadvertently, carry it to new places where it can then wreak more havoc.

As a result, the world has come to a near standstill. From local transport to global supply chains, nothing has been spared. In urban traffic and on global trade routes, bustling movement has given way to eerie calm. Roads around the world resemble ”arteries without blood”, as one commentator put it. Activity in the aviation sector has fallen by 90% or thereabouts; car sales have slumped by the same order of magnitude in some countries; in many cities the level of citizens’ mobility is in the single-digit percentages compared to the pre-Coronavirus era.

A paradigm shift for transport

The transport sector finds itself in a totally unprecedented situation. One of its chief roles in society is to enable citizens to meet face to face, it is perhaps the main facilitator of social interaction. Now, that function has come to a halt as result of the restrictions in place around the world.

At the same time, it must continue to function where moving people and goods is an imperative, not a choice. Doctors and nurses must be able to get to work. Hospitals must be able to receive the supplies they need. Confined citizens rely on provisions being delivered to shops. Not least, international supply chains must continue to move as seamlessly as possible to keep the inevitable economic impact as limited as possible.

It is a paradigm shift. Never before have world leaders put such constraints on the movement of people and goods. Now decisions have to be made on how to run transport services within these constraints and how to help the sector survive this difficult time. 

Health workers are the undisputed heroes of the current struggle. Not far after them come the lorry drivers that deliver food supplies to supermarkets, the bus and taxi drivers who take doctors and nurses to their workplace in hospitals, the ship crews that keep supply chains from faltering entirely, and the pilots who are flying stranded travellers home come not far behind. We owe them gratitude and, above all, every effort to ensure that they can do their job in maximum safety.

Overcoming the crisis

The transport sector as a whole is responding with compassion and creativity to the Coronavirus crisis. Car makers are shifting production to make respirators. Rail operators are turning high-speed trains into rolling hospitals. Grounded airline cabin crews with first-responder training are supporting medical professionals. Taxis and ride-sharing services offer free transport to patients and medical staff or deliver food to vulnerable citizens. There are many more examples.

Already we can see that, as terrible as the crisis is, it brings out the best in many. It is also a reminder of three essential factors for a successful recovery: First, we will overcome the crisis more quickly and effectively if we work together across existing divides, of whatever sort they may be. The example of companies from very different fields teaming up to build breathing aides together is a very practical example.

Second, expertise and evidence-based decisions count and make all the difference. We will hardly beat the virus and resurrect our economies based on guesswork and gut feelings. The sharing of private sector mobility data with governments to help contain Covid-19 infections is a shining example where these two basic tenets come together.

Third, while we deal with the crisis in the most effective way, we must start to think about the future and plan for the post-pandemic age. For the world after the Corona crisis will no longer be the same. Many and profound changes will be forced upon us. We do have the knowledge and the tools to shape them, and to seek out the opportunities in this epochal transformation, but we must make the right choices.

Preparing for the coming transformation

Some observers have pointed to the positives associated with the unprecedented drop in transport activity. Air pollution has fallen markedly in many regions. Greenhouse gas emissions from transport are likely to be 20% lower in 2020 than under normal circumstances, according to ITF projections. The number of traffic deaths is likely to fall as a result of fewer cars on the roads. Cycling has gained ground as a low-risk, healthy alternative to shared transport in many places. New technologies such as drones and automated vehicles are showing their potential by carrying out tasks with the minimum human contact that the present situation calls for.

Yet there is a risk that even these few upsides of a bleak and harrowing crisis may not last. If our economies rebound by burning fossil fuels as a result of unheard-of -- and urgently needed -- economic stimulus programmes around the world, CO2 emissions for one thing, including those from transport, could very quickly skyrocket again. Governments have the choice to set policies in ways that will boost the transformation of transport towards more sustainable, more accessible and more inclusive mobility that is also more resilient.

Transport and mobility are at the epicenter not only of the immediate, but also the long-term, challenges posed by the Coronavirus pandemic. Now is the moment to reflect on those, heeding the advice of the great French scientist Louis Pasteur, whose discovery of the principles of vaccination saved millions of lives: “Chance favours the prepared mind”.

Solutions to overcome the crisis and mitigate its impact must be found across transport modes and across economic sectors. The time of silos is over. In concert with sectors such as energy, trade, tourism or urbanism, the transport sector will have to play an important role in the recovery. The ITF will contribute its share – by carrying forward the global policy dialogue for better transport, and by helping governments to build an evidence-base for better decisions in these difficult times. This dedicated webpage on transport and Covid-19, which will be our central information hub for our member countries and for the larger public, is only the first step.