COVID-19, COP26 and the future of public transport


On May 17th, the International Transport Forum (ITF) published the ITF Transport Outlook 2021. It’s the first time in the organization’s history that its flagship publication – published every two years – is centred around climate change and the need to decarbonize transport. It’s no wonder when you realize that this November, world leaders will gather in Glasgow for the COP26 summit to accelerate global policies to reduce CO2 emissions.

Being an intergovernmental organization with 63 member countries – and administratively integrated with the OECD, yet politically autonomous – it is difficult for the ITF to start a revolution. However, with the 2017 and 2019 versions of the Transport Outlook still in my mind, I find the Transport Outlook 2021 refreshing to read and, in a way, revolutionary. The shock of the COVID-19 pandemic has also shaken up the international transport community, and that is reflected in the three policy scenarios at the core of the 249-page publication.

I will analyze these three scenarios for you in this article (originally published on LinkedIn). As a Public Transport Expert, I will especially consider what these three scenarios, in combination with the foreseen energy transition, mean for the future of public transport.

Simply recover from the COVID-19 pandemic…

The first of the three policy scenarios in the Transport Outlook, all three of which analyze the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on transport systems and their role in social equity and human well-being, and each one with a 2050 horizon, is called Recover.

Extensive and comprehensive modelling of global transport demand by ITF shows a 2.3-fold increase in passenger transport and a 2.6-fold growth in freight transport (both in the 2015-2050 period). In some ways, the Recover scenario is a business-as-usual one. It is based on the economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic and represents the world’s current efforts to transfer to more sustainable transport systems, extrapolated to 2050.

The total transport sector (i.e. land, sea and air) is a large contributor to global greenhouse gas emissions, and the Recover scenario means a 16% increase in CO2 emissions from the sector in 2050 (even if today’s commitments to decarbonize transport are fully implemented). This practically means defaulting on the 2015 Paris Agreement.

…or reshape the economy and make COP26 successful

The second of the three scenarios in the ITF Transport Outlook 2021 is called Reshape. This scenario represents a paradigm shift for transport in which governments increase their ambition to decarbonize transport. In this scenario, governments adopt well-known transformational transport decarbonization policies in the post-pandemic era, such as the encouragement of changes in the behaviour of transport users and the uptake of cleaner energy and vehicle technologies.

The Reshape+ scenario goes a step further. In this third and final policy scenario, governments seize decarbonization opportunities created by the COVID-19 pandemic. The Reshape+ scenario extends the Reshape scenario with:

  • measures reinforcing the reduction of business travel (as observed during the pandemic);
  • measures encouraging walking and cycling (as implemented by a number of cities in 2020);
  • pandemic impacts on non-transport sectors, such as the regionalization of trade.

The policy measures to decarbonize transport in the Reshape+ scenario clearly consider the current COVID-19 crisis as an opportunity to do things differently. With aligned actions to enhance environmental objectives with economic recovery and policies for inclusion, this scenario will:

  • create new jobs in new low-carbon sectors;
  • improve the economic efficiency of cities and connect more people to jobs;
  • improve access for groups whose travel needs are poorly catered to by existing transport systems (e.g. children, the elderly, women and people with mobility restrictions).

The ITF Transport Outlook 2021 reckons that a new paradigm – based on accessibility and denser neighbourhoods – needs to replace the current paradigm, which is based on mobility, fast trips and urban sprawl. The Reshape+ scenario is therefore especially effective for urban passenger transport demand, which could face a reduction of 22% in the period up to 2050 in comparison to the current trajectory as reflected in the Recover scenario (for non-urban passenger transport demand and freight transport demand, these percentages are -5% and -18%, respectively).

To reach this -22% ambition of urban passenger transport demand, the ITF stresses that land use and transport planning must be integrated to achieve greater access to opportunities without forcing people to travel more. The overall picture of the Reshape+ scenario is that total transport CO2 emissions (from urban travel, non-urban travel and freight transport) can be cut by almost 70% with the right policies. This brings the goals of the Paris Agreement, to limit the global temperature rise to 1.5 C above pre-industrial levels, within reach.

During the COP26 summit – the 26th United Nations Climate Change conference due to take place in Glasgow from 1 to 12 November 2021 – governments will enhance their ambitions for the first time (in a five-year recurring cycle since the Paris Agreement itself). The Reshape+ scenario is a solid basis for governments to enhance their transport-related ambitions to curb greenhouse emissions . . . and to make COP26 successful!

The future of public transport

Earlier this year, Arthur D. Little, a management consulting firm, published a study called The Future of Mobility postCOVID-19 – Turning a crisis into an opportunity, which reflects a number of the ITF’s findings. I myself devoted two LinkedIn articles (in May 2020 and June 2020) to the COVID-19 pandemic and the future of public transport. I also shared some thoughts last month on the consequences of fresh ambitions to reach net zero-carbon economies (in the EU, China and the US) and the future of public transport in Modasti Consulting’s May 2021 newsletter.

It’s interesting to notice that both the ITF Transport Outlook and the above-mentioned Arthur D. Little (ADL) study have common ground with my thoughts about the future of public transport:

  1. Cities will change because of the pandemic. While the ITF argues that denser cities are required, the ADL report mentions a pandemic-related trend of multipolarity, in which smaller communities around the original centre begin to flourish and become self-sustaining, reducing the need for people to commute on a regular basis. Many experts believe that the pandemic will end the dominance of the conventional five-day commute (because many people will continue working from home for a substantial part of the working week), and I personally think that this will increase the efficiency of public transport operations (because of the flattening of peak hours, labelled as ‘Retiming’ in the ADL report).
  2. Socio-economic inequality is expected to increase as a result of the pandemic’s economic downturn, and this needs to be addressed by national and local authorities. If these authorities strictly follow the ITF’s Reshape+ scenario, there will be no problem, but as the ADL report argues, there is also a trend towards greater acceptance by mainstream transport authorities of private mobility solution providers as a valid complement to public mobility systems. We need to be cautious that some cities will start to have a division between conventional (affordable) public transport and fancy (expensive) on-demand services.
  3. Digitalization and multimodal ITS integration have been accelerated during the pandemic. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) have enabled the rise of integrated ticketing systems (often contactless, reducing the risk of coronavirus contamination) and crowdedness apps (allowing passengers to see if their train or vehicle is crowded or not).

Apart from these trends, the future of low-carbon public transport will have the following characteristics:

  • High-speed rail will shift long-distance travel from air to land (possibly complemented by the start of a global Hyperloop network in the 2030s).
  • The phase-out of diesel trains on non-electrified railways, either by investing in overhead-wire supply or by replacing diesel trains with hydrogen trains, a new technology on the verge of a breakthrough.
  • Electrification of bus systems by scaling up grid capacity, installing charging points and introducing battery-electric buses.
  • Automated metro systems, since metro systems are at the core of mobility in many megacities, where driverless metro systems can cater to more passengers than conventional ones.
  • Mobility as a Service (MaaS) in which urbanites have access to tailored mobility solutions (such as regular public transport, on-demand cars, shared bikes, and e-scooters) via one standardized pay-and-go platform.

Cities on the road to zero-carbon

I believe we are at the start of a completely new era in which cities will quickly transform their transportation systems into CO2-neutral systems after their governments have increased their climate ambitions at COP26. A few examples that have been announced in the last 9 months:

The need for new funding mechanisms

We need to have large amounts of new capital to make the shift to the new net-zero carbon economy. As The Economist describes the challenges in the transport sector in this June 12th article: “To stay on track for net zero, by 2030 annual production of electric vehicles needs to be ten times higher than it was last year and the number of roadside charging stations 31 times bigger.”

To be clear, this is only based on current (global) ambitions. If ambitions rise at COP26, the above-mentioned figures will rise as well (the current investment for all sectors to realize plans is estimated to be a mind-boggling $35 trillion, according to the Economist article).

Private capital investments are very high in the renewable energy sector (wind, water and hydropower), but when it comes to investments in public transport infrastructure, the appetite of big investors is still low (with the exception of MaaS and shared bike and e-scooter schemes).

There is a need for new financing mechanisms to unlock more private funding for the construction and operation of new – low-carbon – green public transport networks. The finance sector itself also has to change. As COP26 President Alok Sharma describes it in a June 10th opinion article (titled ‘Finance Needs to Stop Living in the Past’): “A recent study by Imperial College London and the International Energy Agency found investments in renewables have repeatedly seen better returns than those in fossil fuels. (…) The entire financial sector needs to map out a pathway to sustainability if we’re to secure that greener, more profitable future.”

I truly hope that in the remaining months leading up to COP26, global climate ambitions will become mainstream in my sector: the public transport sector. Companies that are stuck in the past (e.g. bus manufacturers without decent electric bus models in their catalogues) need to speed up their efforts to change. And more importantly, national governments and public transport authorities must break down institutional barriers and come up with effective financial instruments to foster Public Private Partnerships (PPPs). The result of these new policies will be a major surge of much-needed investments in high-speed railways, electric buses, hydrogen trains and new, automated metro systems!

Arjen Jaarsma is a Public Transport Expert who specializes in Decarbonization of Transport, Public Transport Visions, Public Transport Networks and Public Transport Services. He is the founder of Modasti Consulting

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