Developing Asia’s urban transport and air pollution disaster: Where’s the tipping point?



The quality of urban transportation systems is a key defining factor separating Asia’s developed and developing nations. Hong Kong, Seoul, Singapore, Tokyo and Beijing are praised for their world-class urban transportation systems (ranked on the 2017 Sustainable Cities Mobility Index as numbers one, four, eight, thirteen and sixteen respectively). Whilst Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Jakarta and Delhi are notorious for their transportation failures.

A poor transport system is not just an inconvenient reality, it is a key barrier to economic progress and a depressant of human and environmental health.

As the world’s most densely populated city, Manila’s chaotic traffic jams choke $2 billion Philippine pesos ($40 million USD) worth of national productivity every single day. Morning and evening peak travel times showcase the shortcomings of Manila’s transport system as hundreds of people queue just to enter the train station or board a bus. In the Philippines, air pollution is responsible for an incredulous 1 in 4 of all deaths nationwide.

Vietnam is another example of urban transportation and air pollution disgrace. 8,000 new bikes and 750 cars hit Vietnamese streets every single day. Private vehicles offer a quick-fix solution to the deficient public transport system, which meets only 5% of Ho Chi Minh City’s (HCMC) travel demands, and 7.5% of Hanoi’s needs. In 2016, the average carcinogenic particulate matter reading (an air pollutant primarily released from fossil fuel combustion engines) in Hanoi was five times higher than the annually average level recommended by the World Health Organization.

Why are Asia’s developing nations frequently characterised by deficient transport systems and air pollution?

There is an inextricable relationship between a thriving GDP, robust public transport system and improved air quality. Deficient transport systems not only detract from mobility and business productivity, but deplete our precious human and environmental resources that constitute the economy.

Let’s look at Japan – a global leader in transportation and pioneer of the high-speed rail network. Built over 50 years ago, the bullet train remains the gold standard for efficient travel today (with an average delay time of less than a minute) and has helped Japan’s technical and economic ascension. Research reports estimate the time saving on the Shinkansen train network to be worth a significant $4.8 billion USD per year.

Comparatively, the Vietnamese government’s investments in transport exist far more fervently on paper than in reality. Whilst metro train lines are currently being constructed in both HCMC and Hanoi, both are severely over budget and delayed. HCMC’s metro Line 1 (of 10 lines) is now 3 years behind schedule and $1.09 billion USD over budget. This is even despite Japan covering 88% of the revised $2.49 billion USD budget. Japanese contractors have since filed for more than $90 million USD compensation due to delays.

How much chaos does it take to make governments prioritise public transport systems?

Despite being just as famous for its curries as its standstill traffic jams, India is catching on. Japan’s 320km/hour bullet train may be India’s ticket to an improved economy, supported by a collaboration between the two nations. Its use in India is intended to resurrect the current dilapidated urban transport system. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe inaugurated India’s first bullet train project in September 2017, worth $19 million USD and financed at 0.1%.

Another common factor about Asia’s most polluted cities? Over-population.

Shanghai has taken initiative on the population front, promising to cap the city’s population at 25 million to battle ‘big city disease’. Over-population and rapid urbanisation place great strain on urban transportation systems. If cities do not supply sufficient access to basic services and supporting infrastructure, they will become plagued by environmental pollution, traffic congestion and public service shortage. Growing private vehicle ownership, common in nations with a rapidly rising middle class, further complicates strategies to enhance mobility and reduce pollution.

An efficient transport system, as witnessed in many cases across Asia, improves mobility and reduces air pollution. This supports a healthier, more productive population. The result? Benefits compound and economies thrive.

Unfortunately, without genuine investments in transport, developing Asia will continue to choke in its own smog.

Alexandra Devlin is the Climate Change and Energy Security Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.

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