Making transport sustainable in Africa

Roger Gorham Infrastructure & Energy News & Analysis

Sustainable transport as a concept is broadly accepted as a desirable, if elusive, objective in many world regions, but in Africa, it is only just beginning to attract the serious attention of policy makers.

Until recently, a policy objective of “sustainable transport” would have been seen as having little relevance to Africa’s nearly one billion population. Many high-level policy circles would have branded it as a misguided effort to target transport policy to a set of issues that are of interest to more developed countries. The urgent needs of enhancing Africa’s internal and external connectivity in order to boost economic productivity and improve food security to help lift Africans out of poverty would have been understood as incompatible with – or perhaps even in conflict with – objectives of sustainable transport.

Two factors are changing this perception. The first is the sheer size and scale of impending African growth. That growth is expected to be manifest both in massive population expansion – a doubling of the population by 2040 over 2010 levels – and economic output. McKinsey & Company forecast nearly a trebling of the continent’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2040, growing from $1.3 trillion in 2010 to about $4.7 trillion in 2040 (in 2005 US dollars). Combined with population forecasts, this economic growth implies a 75% growth in per capita GDP between now and 2040.

In other world regions, such substantial growth in per capita GDP has been accompanied by two related phenomena: urbanization and motorization. UN Habitat forecasts that population growth in African cities will far outstrip population growth in the continent as a whole, such that the urban population in African cities in 2040 will be the same as the total African population today.
Motorization of society is also closely linked to urbanization and per capita GDP growth. Dargay and Gately (1999), for example, have demonstrated the non-monotonic relationship between per capita income (PCI) and motor vehicle penetration rates across a range of countries. In low-income non-OECD Asian countries, the rate of growth of motor vehicle penetration is faster than the rate of per capita income growth when PCIs are between about $3,000 and $15,000 (in 1995 Purchasing Power Parity, or PPP).

In Africa, policy makers are realizing that they are facing similar circumstances, in which vehicle growth might outstrip per capita GDP growth. Already, even with relatively low levels of vehicle penetration, many African cities are grappling with very high levels of congestion and declining air quality associated with motor vehicle use.

African leaders recognize the urgency of addressing the continent’s transport needs, even while they grapple with the daunting numbers. The African Union’s Programme for Infrastructure Development in Africa developed a Priority Action Plan in 2012 that calls for $24.4 billion in investments in transport projects alone by 2020, roughly $10 billion more than the entire value of private sector investment in all sub-Saharan African infrastructure in 2012. The Africa Infrastructure Country Diagnostic, a joint research program of the World Bank, the African Development Bank and other development partners, found that $18 billion in transport investment would be needed annually to provide adequate regional, national, rural and urban road connectivity complemented by adequate rail, port and airport infrastructure.

The second phenomenon that is helping to change perceptions about the need for sustainable transport policies in Africa is a growing understanding of what is meant by the term “sustainable transport” in helping to orient transport policy making.

A focus on the concept of sustainable transport does not mean adopting an agenda of irrelevance to the African context; on the contrary, leaders are beginning to realize that focusing on sustainability can help put into focus the very issues that are at the core of African challenges at current stages of development throughout the continent. That is, there is longstanding recognition that facilitating transport is a key enabler of societies to achieve wealth, economic development, quality of life, and the personal aspirations of its members. Sustainable transport as a policy approach seeks to allow transport to play that role, while also trying to reduce the total amount of motorized vehicle movement needed to attain those goals, and to make motorized vehicle movements that do occur less damaging on human and natural environments.

Reflecting the changing perception in high-level policy circles about the need to address sustainable transport as a topic, last year, Environment and Transport Ministers or their representatives from 43 African countries met in Nairobi in October, under the auspices of the African Sustainable Transport Forum (ASTF). At this Forum, Ministers with different portfolios from across Africa came together to discuss for the first time how transport can be made more sustainable in Africa; that is, how transport can be used as a facilitator of development while limiting its negative impacts on human and natural environments.

The emphasis of the discussions was on the need to find African solutions to African problems. The Forum, which was opened by H.E. Uhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya, and Mr. Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General of the United Nations, met over three days, allowing technical experts and high-level officials to discuss how to harmonize sustainable transport policy in Africa and give voice to African concerns about transport in global sustainability discussions. The participants adopted the Africa Sustainable Transport Forum Action Framework, which outlined three key priority areas for sustainable transport: road safety, vehicle emissions and energy efficiency, and accessibility and sustainable infrastructure. Within these priority areas, 13 priority actions were articulated:

• Implement the African Action Plan for the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011 – 2020;
• Set up dedicated institutions for road safety and allocate funding;
• Ensure comprehensive data collection and reporting mechanisms on road safety incidents and trends;
• Develop and adopt a Non-Motorised Transport Policy;
• Develop and adopt Non-Motorised Transport Design Guidelines;
• Ensure air quality monitoring takes place in all main cities;
• Develop vehicle emission standards and suitable inspection and testing;
• Develop vehicle import regulations at both regional and national levels, based on either vehicle age, mileage or emissions;
• Develop regulations for the adoption of cleaner fuels – especially low sulphur fuels – at a national level;
• Undertake a country-level fuel economy analysis and develop a national level policy to improve fuel economy;
• Develop a national policy on sustainable urban transport;
• Develop integrated transport plans with a specific focus on multi-modal transport; and
• Undertake an assessment and develop a national policy on mass-transit systems.

In addition to these specific actions, Ministers identified four supporting activities that were considered critical: data generation and monitoring; ensuring adequate financing of not only infrastructure, but also institutions; capacity building; and advocacy, championing and awareness-raising for sustainable transport principles.

The ASTF Action Framework is an important milestone, in that it represents a number of “firsts”. It is the first time in Africa that three key components of sustainability in transport – safety, emissions and infrastructure – have been brought together in a holistic framework. It also marks the first time that Transport and Environment ministers from around Africa have met to jointly discuss sustainable transport, as well as the first time that sustainable transport has been identified as a priority for Africa by the very policy makers in a position to effect change.

Implementation of the Action Framework will require concerted action on the part of governments around Africa, as well as some commitment of resources to meet the key priority actions enumerated above. Implementation is being supported by partners, including the United Nations Environment Program, the World Bank and the Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP), who also collaborated in support of the Nairobi conference; however, resources are scarce compared with needs. Given the scale of the range of needs facing the continent over the next several years and decades, and the reality that billions, if not trillions, of dollars of investment will flow in the sector in response to these needs, it is critical that the relatively modest agenda identified in the Action Framework be implemented as extensively and as quickly as possible, to make sure that the investment to follow be done sustainably, and that future generations not be locked into unsustainable patterns and pathways.

Beyond the Action Framework, Ministers and technical experts alike at the ASTF meeting identified the need for more permanent and ongoing discussions about sustainable transport at a continental level, possibly and ideally within the rubric of the African Union. This expression of need should be welcomed by all who work on transport in Africa, not only because it reflects a recognition of the seriousness of the issue, but also because it may signal newfound interest in integrating sustainable transport into the policy development process.
Here, the key area of focus needs to be on the word at the core of the concept, namely sustain – what is it that transport policy, investments and measures should be helping to sustain? The ASTF Action Framework makes an important start, identifying – through its three priority areas of road safety, vehicle emissions and energy efficiency, and accessibility and sustainable infrastructure – three dimensions, or values to be sustained or preserved over time: accessibility itself (the core objective of transport as a sector in the first place), human life and health, and resources.

But there are other dimensions of sustainability that might also merit consideration in a comprehensive sustainable transport framework going forward. These include sustaining or preserving: affordability, economic value of assets, social cohesion, and the ability of future generations to make viable choices. The desire expressed by Ministers and technical experts to continue to discuss sustainable transport in a continent-wide framework through an ASTF follow-up, means that there will be further opportunities for evolving an even more comprehensive and development-oriented understanding of sustainable transport for Africa.

The timing for the adoption of the Africa Sustainable Transport Action Framework could not be more appropriate. This month, the UN General Assembly is adopting the Sustainable Development Goals, the framework that will shape the global development agenda for the next 15 years. An analysis by the Sustainable Low Carbon Transport Partnership (SLOCAT) of the draft SDG framework that has been largely adopted by UN negotiators in August found that sustainable transport is directly linked to 10 of the 17 enumerated goals, and impacts 17 of the 169 specific targets. As the world’s focus shifts from preparation and negotiation of the SDGs to implementation, regional frameworks providing sectoral guidance, such as the ASTF Action Framework, will take on increasing importance.

Written by

Roger Gorham is a transport economist and urban development specialist with the World Bank, with over 20 years of experience in urban transport, land-use, air quality and climate change. His current portfolio centres on Africa, having worked on urban transport projects in Lagos, Addis Ababa and Nairobi. He also works extensively with the Africa Transport Policy Program (SSATP) on urban transport and sustainability policy. He leads efforts on behalf of the Bank and SSATP, in concert with the United Nations Environment Program and others, supporting the development of an Africa Sustainable Transport Forum, which had its inaugural meeting in October 2014.