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A pivotal moment for the transport sector – and lessons for resilience

Empty roads, 90% reduction in transport usage and massive reductions in ticketing income. Covid-19 has had a devastating impact on the transport sector.

In most countries, road and transport administrations have emerged as an essential service because of their role in keeping key road networks and facilities open and operational. This is especially important for regulating and maintaining the movement of essential goods, supplies, services and workers, and ensuring integrity of the supply chain.

Since late March 2020, the World Road Association (PIARC) has organised a series of COVID-19 Webinars in English, French, and Spanish, coordinated by a PIARC COVID-19 Response Team. These webinars have provided a global platform to share relevant information and practices from around the world on pandemic impacts and responses for the road and transport community and assist in promoting best practice approaches.

At these webinars, countries worldwide have shared their current situations, giving a real-time picture of the impact. This has highlighted not only the challenges during this crisis for road transportation (passengers and freight transport), and administrative and contractual activities in construction and maintenance, but also outlined the long-term implications beyond the immediate crisis, including user behavioural change, business resilience planning, and accelerated development of technology and automation.

A dedicated PIARC Webpage on Covid-19 Response has been set up by PIARC along with new Bulletins summarising key lessons for the road community resulting from a global reach of 475 participants from 57 different countries across ten webinars. Latest Bulletin here.

We share below some key emerging issues identified by the PIARC Response Team in the context of resilience:

Responses to COVID-19

  • Some response measures have been implemented to manage immediate threats, whereas others provide a basis for efficient recovery. The primary concern of both road administrations and contractors is ensuring employees’ health and safety, for example, in providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Approaches vary across the world e.g. between urban and rural areas, and between countries, and there are a range of issues, for example, availability of masks, appropriate water supply (for handwashing), transport to and from site, workers’ accommodation and canteens. In some countries, hotels have been closed and this caused issues for contractors.
  • It is important to train employees who will continue to perform critical functions, so that they protect their health. Preventive training should be increased by disseminating measures and good practices for physical and mental health.
  • Maintaining business continuity has been a great challenge for road administrations, as maintaining the highest level of activity with limited human resources is required, while staff have been advised to work from home.
  • The road administrations are finding various ways of keeping construction and maintenance work going by revising contracts, adjusting tenders for new projects, and revising risk management procedures. A key point is to maintain strategic links between the different sectors of public administration, state and local road administrations, road operators and service providers for road organizations.
  • One of the main actions taken in China was the closure of the city where the pandemic originated, replicated in other cities that became new epicentres of the epidemic. For transportation, this highlighted the importance of redundancy in the road network so that when one road or area is closed, there are viable alternatives.
  • It is important to ensure transportation operations and safety, for example, for road surveillance or inspection activities. This includes inspection points in transport terminals to identify potential COVID-19 cases or implementing electronic toll collection.
  • Home office and teleworking has been implemented many places, which requires good data-systems and solutions.
  • Cybersecurity and personal data protection are now front and centre as organisations are using remote working across multiple locations, including working from home.
  • A greater drive for new technologies is required in the fields of management, roads and transport. Intelligent Transport Systems (ITS) have a fundamental role to connect users.

Recovery from Covid-19  

  • Major changes in the demand for public and private transport have been observed with associated implications (e.g. falls in revenues). These will need to be tracked, fully understood into the recovery period, and managed. Already, broad economic, social, and environmental impacts have been observed. For example, it has already been observed that reduced transport has led to a decrease in emissions to the atmosphere, as well as a decrease in local pollution. On the other hand, the reduction in travel has also reduced revenues from gasoline taxes and the toll collection in roads.
  • There are longer-term implications of Covid-19 beyond the immediate crisis, including uncertainty over the speed and shape of recovery. Immediate actions are required to adapt to the current circumstances, but without losing sight that afterwards we will have to re-evaluate our responses to the impacts of Covid-19, draw conclusions, and manage the changes that are necessary to enable the provision of more resilient services to society.
  • Prepare bids to recover construction works as soon as possible. Ensure the budget for road construction and maintenance.
  • Ensure the operations of transport corridors in a regime where some areas will have to stay closed due to the risk of infection transmission.
  • Consideration is required regarding the implementation of recovery processes, reactivation of works, and identification of how to carry out these tasks.
  • Companies have higher expenses to guarantee the health of their personnel and, and the cost of supplies could be increased.
  • Whilst the impact of the pandemic is strongly negative on the economy and society in the short-term, a number of positive impacts are being observed including reduction in transport emissions, improvement in air quality, less noise, increase in walking and cycling, and a sharp fall in road accidents and casualties. Efforts must be made to maintain these positive impacts after the crisis, including in the context of tackling climate change and decarbonisation.

Adaptations to COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is a single disruptive event, with multiple complex associated economic and social impacts which may leave a deep permanent mark, including in the operating and business environment for road and transport administrations, and their supply chain partners.

There are cascading effects, where reduced capacity to handle one problem increases the risk of another problem. In addition, the COVID-19 situation can amplify the effect of other otherwise manageable threats. For example, other natural hazards, such as landslides, floods, storms or earthquakes are still occurring in the face of COVID-19, leading to further challenges regarding network operation and isolation of communities.

The vast effects of the pandemic on all aspects of society have not been experienced in our lifetime. We will have to develop sectoral policies for addressing such pandemics and develop related guidelines.

Experiences from COVID-19 reveal the need to adapt to situations where road administrations learn to prepare for and manage new and unconceivable threats. This means building up flexibility, and our ability to recognise and chose the most sustainable measures that enable us to efficiently and effectively return to normal.

With thanks to Caroline Evans (Chair PIARC Technical Committee 1.4), Mark Henry Rubarenzya (Member PIARC Technical Committee 1.4), Gordana Petkovic (Member PIARC Technical Committee 1.4), and Juan Fernando Mendoza Sánchez (Spanish Speaker Secretary of TC 1.4) and all members of the wider PIARC Covid-19 Response Team.

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