Commentary: The Post-pandemic Era Can Be a New Era for Asia's Roads, Too

20 May 2021

Roads in Asia and the Pacific have been essential for the transport of supplies and services, frontline workers, food, and now vaccines. It is time to revive these vital arteries to prepare for economic recovery. This commentary appears on the Asia Development Blog.

The Post-pandemic Era Can Be a New Era for Asia's Roads, Too

By Chen Chen and Ravi Peri

As our world struggles with the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, hope is now returning with the implementation of social regulations and vaccination programs. With these developments, we now have an opportunity to recollect experiences in the road sector in the past year, and to look ahead.

For the last 70 years since the end of the Second World War, the road industry has worked very hard to expand road networks, to upgrade services, and to respond to climate change. The hard work, together with those to improve rail, sea, and air transport, brings a much better-connected world than in any other time in human history.

This progress has been put in jeopardy as the pandemic hit the road sector badly. One impact has been the perception that transport connections, such as roads and air transport, helped spread the virus. By March 2020, almost all Asia and Pacific countries imposed domestic and international travel restrictions. We all observed amazing images of empty roads, sometimes only with birds and animals on them.

Secondly, formal and informal road-based public transport, including buses and modes such as jeepneys in the Philippines or three-wheelers in South Asia, were badly impacted by restrictions. This hurt the livelihood of vulnerable and underprivileged groups. Road transport is essential for poor families to reach basic necessities, education, and healthcare services.

The third negative impact was on financing, both from the public and private sector. Existing toll roads encountered issues of near zero traffic, suspension of tolls, and evaporating credit from banks.

While these negative impacts were felt by the region's road sector, roads were playing a critical part in transporting essential supplies, frontline workers, and the needs of the population amid the pandemic when restrictions were eased.

How can we keep these vital transport arteries open and healthy amid pandemic recovery and prepare them for the return of robust economic activity?

For one, we need to keep the roads in good shape. Road maintenance is considered an essential service to continue, even during the lockdown in many countries. Road construction and maintenance resumed swiftly. The natural confinement of most maintenance activities to a stretch of road allows a relatively easy introduction of COVID-19 prevention measures. If financing can be assured, the construction industry can quickly resume work when the external environment and policies allow.

The surge of e-commerce, such as online shopping and food delivery services, has created a spike in last-mile delivery. For example, online grocery sales in Singapore have increased nearly fourfold since early April 2020. While logistics businesses faced serious short-term challenges, their growth during the period is as impressive. In the longer term, shifting retail purchases online and consolidating logistics networks would demand good road connections and conditions, but could contribute to reduced traffic and positive environmental benefits.

Public transport might see a rapid recovery while private transport would remain as the primary mode of travel on roads. Road space needs to be better utilized to accommodate these emerging transport modes. Walking and cycling became more popular as healthy transport during the pandemic, but these will need dedicated space and facilities to ensure their use and safety during and after recovery.

With the maturity of autonomous driving technology, estimated requirements for road width may shrink significantly. The uptake of work-from-home practices, e-learning, and e-commerce could also change traffic patterns. These trends indicate opportunities for road designers to rethink the use of roads to accommodate more "pandemic-proof transport modes."

Digitalization of the road sector also needs to be expedited. Efforts should be made to broaden digital inclusion to realize the full benefits of more integrated and agile systems. For example, the introduction of building information modeling can facilitate the progress of construction automation. Big data-based road asset management systems can help predict the requirements of road works in response to road deterioration, disasters, and pandemics. Travel demand of vulnerable groups, particularly low-income and underprivileged children, should also be monitored to meet their needs in future pandemics.

As devastating as it was, the pandemic has provided a good opportunity for the road sector to upgrade its management and infrastructure. However, many developing economies are facing tight budgets, higher debt, and limited access to capital markets. Large-scale public investments might not be immediately possible everywhere. In such a scenario, public investments should focus on essential social services and generating employment.

Due to the constraints in public resources, public-private partnerships will be needed even more than before the pandemic. However, the private sector is struggling as well, and the pandemic starkly brought out the need for proper risk-sharing mechanisms to bring in private investors. This could include the government making larger investments in the partnership and underpinning user fees with "minimum revenue guarantees" so that the banking system is protected.

The resilience demonstrated by the road sector during the pandemic is commendable. Now is the time to kick-off of a new era for the road sector. We know that recovery and continued progress toward an inclusive and sustainable road sector is within reach, and our efforts will ensure that we get there together.

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