The Long-Term Impacts of COVID-19: Transforming Transportation 2021
The second half of Transforming Transportation 2021 delved further into COVID-19’s impacts on the sector and closed with a collective call for leveraging transportation to spur wider change. Photo by Victor Idrogo/Banco Mundial LAC/Flickr

Plummeting bus and train ridership, lost jobs, overflowing warehouses, more inequality: 2020’s disruptions to the transport sector were widespread and deep. Speaking at Transforming Transportation 2021, co-hosted by WRI and the World Bank, sustainable mobility leaders from around the world and across the sector explored the deep impacts of the last year – what we know and what we are still learning.

Julian Ware, head of major projects funding for Transport for London and chair of the Transport Economics Committee for the International Association of Public Transport, said transit agencies have seen declines in revenues between 50-80%. National and local government spending is filling the gap in many places, but what’s less clear is what happens next. Do people go back to using planes, trains and automobiles? Do we work from home more often? “Those are much longer lasting changes in society and we really don’t know what those will be,” he said. 

The implications are enormous, from access to opportunity and socio-economic inequality to the survival of businesses. 

A Focus on Equity and Gender

“[The pandemic] is challenging us now to rethink how our transport systems around the world operate – and who they’re for,” said Harriet Tregoning, director of NUMO, the New Urban Mobility alliance. “Especially when it comes to access, or lack thereof.”

Lower-income groups and the marginalized, from women to informal workers, have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s effects in multiple ways. Economic mobility is strongly correlated with physical mobility, and in many places, women and girls face “huge barriers to both jobs and schooling” because of poor access to safe, affordable transportation, said Mamta Murthi, vice president for human development at the World Bank.

An all-women panel on Thursday emphasized the urgency for gender-responsive transport, agreeing that it’s time to move from half-measures – a transit agency temporarily hiring a gender consultant, for example – to fully incorporating gender concerns into transport planning in a comprehensive way.

Lina Fedirko, a senior associate at the ClimateWorks Foundation, said that carbon emissions from transport can’t be reduced without centering equity and without focusing on “intersectional strategies around behavior change and sustainable lifestyles.”

Heather Allen, an independent gender and transport consultant, highlighted a recent study of mobility in four sub-Saharan African cities during COVID-19 lockdowns. “What we found was that loss of livelihood has been widespread and very deep,” she said. “Women’s jobs were more likely to have been lost, and even if they were furloughed, it was difficult to get any salary at all.”

Women in the informal sector experienced a “double whammy,” Allen said, because markets and public transport were shut down, and many rely on trading at markets around transit hubs. So they lost customers and their workplaces.

In the United States, Black Americans have been disproportionately impacted by COVID, and transport has exacerbated the problem. “Most land use policies and transportation policies have divided Black neighborhoods and made the price of access to the economy private ownership of the automobile,” said Tregoning. 

In Detroit, just over a quarter of residents do not have access to a personal vehicle, noted Lisa Nuszkowski, founder and executive director of MoGo Detroit Bike Share. To help improve access for lower-income residents, the company started a pilot program with NUMO and the city of Detroit to provide 200 e-bikes to essential workers who lived within 6 miles of their job and didn’t have access to a vehicle or public transit. They also created an annual pass system for anyone who receives state benefits that costs just $5 a year.

In all countries, “this is a moment to think beyond the direct transport impacts,” Allen said. “Transport is a great facilitator for achieving the SDGs and empowerment.”

“We know more women using safe, sustainable transport will accelerate action on climate change,” said Anitha Bhatia, assistant secretary-general for resource management, sustainability and partnerships, and deputy executive director of UN Women. “We need to make sure we’re building back equal.”

Unfortunately, most places are not taking a gender lens to stimulus packages, Bhatia said. “There needs to be very specific targeting” of gender issues in any package designed to rebuild more resilient systems and economies, she urged, including special attention to care work and small firms, where women are over-represented.

Cycling, Informal Transport and Aviation

One early lesson from the pandemic is that cycling is on the rise. From Tirana (Mayor Erion Veliaj) to Shenzhen (Executive Vice Mayor Qingsheng Liu), mayors spoke about launching hundreds of kilometers of new bike lanes over the last year to accommodate surging demand.

“Transportation is changing radically and probably positively,” said Mayor Claudia Lopez of Bogotá, Colombia. The city has become a world leader in bike infrastructure, adding 85 kilometers of new lanes during COVID-19 and seeing an increase in cycling to 12% of all trips in the city, up from 6%.

More than 40% of Bogotá’s population are informal workers, and they cannot afford to stay home, explained Mobility Secretary Nicolás Estupiñán. Bike lanes help keep people moving and redistribute public space – the roads – so more residents can utilize it. 

“This is as much a sustainable issue, a transportation issue, but it was a courageous political issue, to try to level the use of public space in a more equitable way,” said Lopez.

The flipside is that Estupiñán estimates that as many as three quarters of new bike users are coming from public transit, a potentially ominous sign of things to come for mass transit. 

So-called “informal transit” services, like mini buses and tuk-tuks, have been hit particularly hard. “Almost on a daily basis [informal transit workers] are faced with the impossible choice of doing their job and risking their health or losing their income,” said Alana Dave, public transport officer at the International Transport Workers Federation.

Some 90% of public transport in sub-Saharan African cities is provided by informal services, said Ben Welle, director of integrated transport and innovation at WRI Ross Center. During the pandemic, it’s estimated that public transport closures and shutdowns in Africa may have pushed 80 million people into conditions of extreme hunger.

Going forward, a panel of experts argued for integration of informal transit services to be part of COVID-19 recovery in many places.

Meanwhile, one of the most regulated industries in the world is also struggling. Fang Liu, secretary general of the International Civil Aviation Organization, said that declines in airline traffic have been staggering, and warned about the need to support operators because of the complex nature of the industry. 

Before the pandemic, airlines flew more than 100,000 daily flights around the world, carrying 12 million passengers a day. In April 2020, Liu said, total traffic was just 2% of those numbers. More than 50 airline companies declared bankruptcy last year and Liu said she expects more in 2021. She noted it’s not just the airlines, but the manufacturers, the airports and all the service providers that support the system that are at stake.

Rethinking Supply Chains 

The pandemic has put unique strains on logistics networks, changing supply and demand rapidly. Global online retail sales are projected to grow from $3.5 trillion in 2019 to $6 trillion by 2024, said Alan McKinnon, professor of logistics at Kuehne-Nagel University. But in other sectors, like oil, demand dropped precipitously. In fact, when economic activity dropped during lockdowns, “for the first time, we came close to exhausting all available warehouse space in some countries,” McKinnon said. There were major labor issues too. At one point, over 400,000 mariners were stranded on the seas due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, McKinnon said. 

As countries shift to vaccine distribution, untangling these challenges is even more urgent. “We need to prepare now,” said Claudia Roa, vice president of DHL Americas’ life sciences and healthcare sector, which supplies medical equipment and supplies across Latin America. What we’ve learned is “the importance of planning ahead of time and communicating that plan to all the stakeholders involved in the distribution of the vaccine. And we are seeing in some cases that that is not happening.” She cited problems with personal protective equipment being pooled in just a few countries in the region and then supplies being held up at national borders as people frantically tried to adjust.

María del Rosario Oviedo Rojas, representing the vice minister of transport for Colombia, acknowledged the government’s role in creating an enabling environment for logistics companies. “The pandemic has been ideal to measure our government’s capacity to respond to extreme situations,” she said. She said that restoring confidence in public transportation is part of the solution, since those travel patterns affect the country’s entire transport network.

Rethinking how supply chains are managed also requires rethinking how data is managed and shared. Efficient logistics and urban mobility systems both require “data aggregation and sharing between multiple different sources,” said Aman Chitkara, manager for mobility at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development. That data can come from stakeholders as diverse as public transit operators, private mobility providers, the banking industry, telecom operators, and the city itself.

“The reality is that when we look at accelerating the adoption of 20th-century technology and encouraging the aggregation of some elements of private and public sector data, this can lead to significant common good outcomes,” said Margi Van Gogh, head of supply chain and transport for the World Economic Forum.

But Paulo Humanes, vice president for business development and new mobility at PTV Group, one of the largest transportation providers in the world and a Transforming Transportation 2021 sponsor, noted that we need to move beyond recognizing the potential of big data. “We need understanding, not just data,” he said. For example, a new loading zone being used by a new type of vehicle may cause changes in the road surface and new risks for pedestrians. But how do you connect those dots? That kind of actionable learning requires more collaboration.

Transport as a Motor for Change

“You cannot talk about transportation in an isolated way,” said Makhtar Diop, vice president for infrastructure at the World Bank. He reiterated that COP26 will be a critical moment for the sector. “We have a lot of stars aligned to make a big impact,” and not just on climate but on the many interlinked development objectives that transport touches on.

As the sector adjusts to the new reality of a changed landscape, leaders urged more collaboration and joint ownership of problem-solving.  

“We need collective action between the private sector and public sector,” said Florent Menegaux, CEO of Michelin. “We need finance corporations to finance the transition, to accept the fact that they cannot finance based on the old model, to accept the risk based on the new model.”

“The private sector can in fact be both the enabler and the accelerator for the critical solutions that are needed,” said Stephanie von Friedeburg, chief operating officer and interim managing director of the International Finance Corporation. The IFC, which encourages private sector growth in developing countries, has pledged $8 billion in “fast-track financial support” to companies. 

There are signs the pandemic has encouraged a change in mindset. McKinnon said logistics companies have been sharing assets with each other much more during the crisis than in the past, and in a recent survey of logistics company leaders, the vast majority said the pandemic will either not affect their decarbonization plans or affect them positively. 

In Luxembourg, “we are seeing more and more that people are using cycling or biking not only for leisure but for their daily business,” said Francois Bausch, deputy minister for mobility and public works. From public surveys, he cited evidence of “paradigm shifts” in transport behavior and even noted a rapid rebound in mass transit ridership in the country.

“It looks like bikes and e-bikes will be part of the new transport future…and perhaps it will come quicker than we thought,” agreed Jürgen Zattler, deputy director general for multilateral and European policy at the Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development in Germany. “[We] need to look at investments that have double benefits, that better equip us for future challenges…this is what will transform our cities.”

“I think the crisis that COVID brought us has a silver lining: we are seeing the importance of changing what was not working before, and we are realizing the urgency of the climate crisis,” said Pablo Fajnzylber, acting global director of the World Bank’s Transport Global Practice, which co-hosted the conference.

“COVID has shown us that when we have no cars in the street, they can have clean air and see the mountains…Everyone has seen what transport can do…and what it shouldn’t do,” said Ani Dasgupta, global director of WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. “We as a community have a role to play – to showcase how we can use transport as a vehicle for green recovery.”

“We need to use this spirit of chaos to build back differently,” said Stientje Van Veldhoven, minister for the environment and housing for the Netherlands. “We need to go faster and further. We have no time to waste.”

For more from Transforming Transportation, visit And join the conversation on Twitter with #TTDC21. 

Schuyler Null is Communications Manager for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Hillary Smith is Communications Assistant for WRI Ross Center for Sustainable Cities.

Right Menu Icon