TOPIC: $175 Billion for Sustainable Transport

Southeast Asia is investing in public transport. 

Even at conferences about political security in the region, the various officials at both the regional level (here, I am referring to the ADB and ASEAN) and the national level (especially Indonesia and Thailand), are adamant in bringing up their interest for the development of rail infrastructure. This initiative goes hand in hand with the push towards fostering a habit and culture of technical research and innovation for Southeast Asia. The development and promulgation of Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and the expansion of a connectivity network (not just digitally based, but including rail and market connectivity as well) are clearly the two major directions of economic development in the region right now. 

The commitment is visible: one of the largest financial agreements coming out of Rio+20 is the $175 billion USD pledge made by the ADB (with seven other multilateral development banks) for sustainable transport. “These sustainable transport improvements will benefit billions of people, especially the poor, and support environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” said Bindu Lohani, ADB’s Vice President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development. ADB’s portion of the commitment numbers at $30 billion USD. 

At this point, I must be specific (given that I have demonstrated a tendency above to highlight rail as the focus of transportation infrastructure development in the region): the funds will go towards promoting all forms of sustainable transport. This means public transport, bicycle and walking infrastructure, energy-efficient vehicles and fuels, and inland waterways. The manner in which the funds will be utilized will be parallel to the already existing projects of the ADB in sustainable transport. In example: funding will be directed towards ADB’s current support of the development of bus rapid transit systems in cities of Bangladesh, Mongolia, and China. The projects are ambitious; when completed, the systems will carry from 100,000 to a million passengers daily. 

The emphasis on sustainable transport is not misplaced. Apart from the obvious need for the development of public transportation infrastructure – rapid motorization and urbanization have drastically increased air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions, and health and social problems; complications which account for losses at more than 10% of GDP for the Asia and Pacific region – this initiative will also bolster economic development, by providing people with better access to center of employment and services. Sustainable transport neatly fits into the unique green model for development that Southeast Asia is interested in creating, supporting environmental sustainability and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And the move must happen now: statistics for Asia and the Pacific show that Asia’s share of the global vehicle fleet is projected to rise from 9% in 1980 to 46% in 2030. When the transport sector already accounts for nearly two-thirds of total oil consumption in the world, this trend (to provide a contextual mental picture, motor vehicle growth is almost four times faster than population growth in Asia) could have devastating consequences not only for the environment, but also the economy.

Investing in an alternative to motor vehicle usage will benefit billions of people, especially the poor – who have been increasingly marginalized in the export-oriented-foreign-investor-lead economic boom in the region. An expanded transport system will provide basic access to rural communities, linking them to cities, jobs, and markets.

Of course, the regional integration dimension of an extensive transportation infrastructure is of particular interest – especially when we take a look at the actors involved (ASEAN, the ADB, as well as the regional powerhouses of Indonesia and Thailand, whose banks are major funders of community building movements). Linking rural and urban centers and connecting countries will promote regional cooperation and integration. From there, it’s a small leap to a connectivity superhighway of ideas, building a foundation for addressing shared issues.

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