The keynote session at this year’s Asian Development Bank Transport Forum

For Heather Thompson, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, the pandemic disruption is a chance to invest in systems built around people. Speaking at the opening event of the Asian Development Bank’s annual Transport Forum, Thompson said cities should plan more connected green public spaces, change vehicle-only streets to “complete streets”, and create more “15-minute-neighbourhoods”, where everything is in walking distance and the need for transport is reduced.

Heather Thompson, CEO of the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy: invest in systems built around people

This sort of vision set the tone for the event: while Hong Kong officials were notably absent from the line-up of senior policymakers, 1,200 delegates joined online to ask how our thinking on transport and transport policy changes when freedom of mobility is suddenly unavailable? How do we mitigate the negative effects of increasing private transport and use the current crisis to decisively shape sustainable mobility futures? And, a burning question for Asia, now that everyone has seen the striking pictures of clear skies in various usually polluted cities, why would we continue to accept motor vehicle pollution?

Heavy on the agenda was discussion of the emerging “new normal” for transport and mobility planning and operations.

With 30% of the annual budget of the Asian Development Bank supporting investments in sustainable mobility, delegates addressed the need to react to current challenges and resolutely advance “people first” strategies.

Walking and cycling have seen an increase of up to 400% in cities worldwide, but future road use regulations and infrastructure adjustments for safe access and usage need to be in place as well. For a sustainable recovery, an investment in walking and cycling infrastructure has a higher employment multiplier (jobs per unit of investment) than an investment in charging facilities or electric car manufacturing, quotes the ADB in its Guidance Note on Covid-19 and Transport in Asia and the Pacific.

The redistribution of road space towards active mobility is happening in cities across all member states.

In Metro Manila, the transport minister created the city’s longest protected bicycle lane along the infamous Epifanio Delos Santos Avenue (EDSA), with bikes becoming a “necessity” according to news reports, due to transportation challenges created by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Commuters in Manila use a new protected bike lane

James Leather, ADB’s sustainable transport lead, says that the improvised new bike lanes need to be accompanied by safety measures for cyclists who are now exposed to speeding motorists.

The transformation of Asian dense cities into green, connected, livable cities with public transport and active mobility at the core certainly is a major step into a climate-resilient future. But how will public transport operators cope with the decline in passenger numbers if social distancing and reduced transit demand is part of the new mobility reality?

Since there is no alternative to public transportation in densely populated urban Asia, speakers proposed we should consider it as a public good, a basic infrastructure that needs to be funded regardless of fare revenue generation.

Re-creating public transport as a service accessible to all, with defined performance standards, will require new business models beyond the current fare-based ones. To shape a green and safe mobility infrastructure, city administrators should use systems thinking and involve multiple stakeholders, including non-transport stakeholders, in the decision-making processes.

One new alliance for transport departments is the collaboration with health departments, says Kim Yong-tae of the International Transport Forum. The goal is not only to help them and operators create a sanitary and healthy “low touch” travel environment, but also to achieve clean air and zero emissions in transport.

He also sees more concrete measures in transport and climate action as cities now have much better data on the quantifiable impact of urban transport interventions.

Since pandemic measures are likely to be necessary for another two years, a cross-sectoral effort to transformative changes of the entire mobility system, including behavioural changes, is a societal innovation challenge that will shape the next decades of urban mobility, says Kim.

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