Why more roads don't (automatically) lead to sustainable development

The Serajgonj Tangail highway in Bangladesh. Do roads guarantee economic development? Photo by: Abir Abdullah / ADB / CC BY-NC-ND

Many images come to mind when one thinks of a country’s economic development. But among the most common are good roads, efficient public transportation systems and modern airports.

Building, maintaining and, when necessary, upgrading transport infrastructure are indeed essential components of sustainable development. Transport infrastructure development creates jobs, boosts economic growth, improves the delivery of public services like education or health, and contributes to better regional interconnectivity. For example, China’s extensive road and railway network has been instrumental in the Asian giant’s rise to become the world’s second-largest economy after the United States.

In a nutshell, investing in transport systems is money well-spent. However, does that mean that better roads will automatically lead to poverty eradication?

Not necessarily, according to several experts who attended a recent forum on sustainable transport systems hosted by the Asian Development Bank in Manila. Some even raised the question: Why are we doing so many large infrastructure development programs and — even more importantly — for whom?

“We should build roads and transport infrastructure for people. People should be at the center of this development,” said Xiaomei Duan, the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy’s chief technical officer in China.

Duan added that we should abandon the “windshield perspective” where the development of public transportation is decided by public officials that never use buses or trains themselves.

It’s this lack of understanding — and some might say, empathy — that aggravates the overall problem in some countries instead of creating truly sustainable development projects, noted Debra Efroymson, regional director of Canada-based advocacy group HealthBridge.

“Yes, we can build roads and bridges but in building them, we should understand the risks and threats that come with it. We have to manage it properly,” she said. “Building more roads encourages more demand for cars, ingestion, [greenhouse gas] emissions and health risks. We should pursue development that allows people to be healthy and provides more mobility [and alternatives].”

More than 25 percent of annual carbon dioxide emissions right now come from vehicles, and this figure is expected to rise significantly in the next few years, according to London-based road safety charity FIA Foundation. The foundation also called attention to the fact that around 2.5 million people were killed in road accidents in the past four years alone, which cost the global economy close to $700 million a year.

Despite this, vibrant Asia-Pacific is still keen on developing and upgrading its transport infrastructure to boost economic development, even if that meant that more people will be able to afford cars, thus choking the region’s already extremely congested cities even further.

ADB Secretary Woochung Um explained that in many parts of Asia, affluence and social status are still manifested through ownership of certain material possessions like automobiles. Most people who can afford driving to work in the region will avoid using public transport at all costs. This is in stark contrast for instance with Europe, where walking, riding a bicycle or taking the bus, subway and train are the most popular ways to travel short distances — even among the rich — in urban centers like Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen.

So what can we do to get Asia-Pacific on track to promoting sustainable transport systems? One way is to provide alternatives that encourage people to change their mindset, according to Jose Manuel Viegas, secretary-general of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s International Transport Forum.

“We’ve been building cities for cars [and] not for people. We need a change of perception. It’s not ideal to drive every time you need to move,” Viegas said. “But it’s not enough to talk about it. You need to give people sustainable options [on transportation].”

What do you think can be done to promote better, more sustainable transport systems in Asia-Pacific? Please let us know by sending an email to news@devex.com or leaving a comment below.

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About the author

  • Lean 2

    Lean Alfred Santos

    Lean Alfred Santos is a Devex development reporter focusing on the development community in Asia-Pacific, including major players such as the Asian Development Bank and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prior to joining Devex, he covered Philippine and international business and economic news, sports and politics. Lean is based in Manila.