Perfect opportunity to change transport for the better

The Sub-Saharan region face a real risk of insufficient food supplies because added border safety procedures are delaying trucks for up to four days, the writer says.
The Sub-Saharan region face a real risk of insufficient food supplies because added border safety procedures are delaying trucks for up to four days, the writer says.
Image: 123RF/ Ruslan Ivantsov

The old adage "Never waste a good crisis" comes to mind as we view the upheaval the Southern African transport industry faces due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now is the time to reassess, and to evolve. The crisis has revealed the weaknesses in the sector, globally, regionally and nationally.

For the sub-Saharan Africa region the crisis has made stark the importance of harmonisation in legislation and infrastructure. Already we in the region face a real risk of insufficient food supplies because added border safety procedures are delaying trucks for up to four days.

Contrast this with the day-long delay it caused in Europe's Schengen region, comprising 26 countries that officially abolished border controls. This is what harmonisation can do.

Twenty-two of Africa's more than 50 countries have completely closed their land borders in a bid to keep the virus at bay. There has been an estimated 40% decline in truck traffic in the sub-Saharan region, year-on-year, according to World Bank research.

Ports are also suffering delays as restrictions and reduced labour make it more challenging for ships to dock, load and disembark. Maritime traffic accounts for 90% of global trade, yet between April 6 and May 4 2020 there was a reported 45% decline in container vessels carrying goods around the world.

Air traffic is also severely affected, globally and regionally. It is expected that, due to income loss, few airlines will be back in the skies when travel restrictions are lifted, and many capital expenditure projects will be mothballed.

Greater harmonisation, critically, will protect food security. And it will also grease the wheels of other trade between countries in the region, and between Southern Africa and the rest of the world.

It is also an apposite time to reimagine the entire transport system, from ferrying food, to getting people where they want to go.

The Covid-19 pandemic is set to thrust between 70-million and 100-million people across the world deeper into poverty, according to World Bank projections. The transport sector is a vital cog in the wheel of social support, from public transport subsidies, to keeping a lid on the rising price of food and essential goods through import and export legislation so their transport goes ahead smoothly and safely.

In SA we have a vivid practical example of the impact the pandemic is having on the public transport sector, and the poor, who already spend up to 40% of personal income on moving about. Taxi owners are also struggling.

Now is the time, particularly in the region, to focus more on human needs as opposed to keeping our eyes only on the bottom line. It is also an opportunity to "think green" to meet the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to end poverty, improve health and education, reduce inequality and spur economic growth, all while also tackling climate change. The deadline is a decade away - 2030.

One of the most effective ways of improving the lives of economically vulnerable people in sub-Saharan Africa - and everyone else, too - is to invest in improved road infrastructure.

There is also a need to support smaller transport operators, to protect competition, and, in SA, to consider a more innovative and widely acceptable model for subsidising public transport.

The Covid-19 pandemic is the greatest crisis humanity has faced since World War II. The aftermath of that war dramatically changed society across the world, including transport. Now is another time to adapt - this time for the betterment of society and the planet.

*Hendricks is president of the SA Road Federation and transport client director for Aurecon (Africa)

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