Stuck in the Suez Canal: Lessons from the Logjam

by Olaf Merk

On 23 March, a mega container ship got stuck in the Suez Canal – and remained stuck for six days. Despite the digging, towing and dredging, the only thing that was unblocked was creativity in the form of Suez memes on the web. The mega-ship proved to be the vessel on which all possible human problems could be projected. Now that she is refloated, hilarity can ebb away and give way to reflections on the implications of this incident.

Let’s start with the principal actors: the Canal and the ship. The Suez Canal is one of the world’s maritime chokepoints. Around 12% of world trade passes through it, approximately fifty ships each day, mostly container ships and tankers. The Suez route is considerably shorter than its alternative, the Cape route. Nevertheless, shipping companies regularly snob the Suez Canal, especially in times of low oil prices and as a way to put pressure on the Suez Canal Authority to cut canal dues.

The other actor was the mega-ship: the “Ever Given” is 400 metres long and 60 metres wide, she can carry more than 20 000 containers. This is exactly the type of ship for which the Suez Canal was widened and deepened in 2016.

What happened?

How exactly did the giant vessel get stuck? Little certainty here so far, and much conjecture. The ship owner remained silent throughout the process, as did the ship operator. The ship manager blamed the wind and denied that there was power failure.  That it is a mega-ship that caused an important global trade route to shut down is no coincidence, and many experts have warned about the risks they create. These gigantic ships are more difficult to manoeuvre and get more easily stuck due to their deep draft. They are also heavier than smaller containership, so more complicated to refloat.

More clarity should come from the investigation of the accident. The flag state of the “Ever Given” has a reputation for dodging such responsibilities, but it is hard to imagine that it dare to do so now given the global attention. Thanks to a heroic effort by the salvage company and the canal authority the ship was freed after a week and traffic on the world’s busiest shortcut could resume. Zoom out, happy ending.

But not really. The backlog of hundreds of other ships waiting to transit through the Canal is creating enormous challenges in ports and throughout the whole supply chain. Some observers calculated the costs of the Suez Canal blockage to be between USD 6 to 10 billion per week. Just remember: the reliability of ship schedules has been in freefall since June 2020. Two out of three container ships are delayed; in the beginning of 2021 the average was five days. If a few days of Suez Canal blockage leads to billions of dollars economic costs, imagine the extent of the loss due to delayed vessels just prior to the incident.

The costs of no canal

The supply chain disruption that we will see in the coming weeks is the quintessence of the mega-ship: maximise the economies of scale on the ships, but leave it up to ports to clean up any mess that may result. Ports will now be put under pressure to catch up and find additional handling capacity when this was already stretched. They will need to keep some vessels waiting and get blamed for “port congestion” that is not their fault.

This is nothing new: various organisations have recently blamed port congestion for increased freight rates, although these already started to rise in May 2020, well before port activity was back to normal after the dip due to Covid-19. Do not expect carriers to pay for the situation that their mega-ships have caused. The Suez blockage has reduced effective ship capacity, so will likely lead to further increases in ocean freight rates. Customers and ports will pay the price instead, and maybe a few insurers.

A report on “The Impact of Mega-Ships“ the ITF published in 2015 described this dynamic, in which mega-ships create benefits and profits for their owners and operators, while the costs they incur – such as those for longer berths or truck congestion in port cities – are left for others to pay.

Deeper causes of disruption

At that time, the mega-ship strategy of carriers was, to some extent, self-defeating: as new mega-ships contributed to oversupply of ships, ocean freight rates were going to be low and profits limited. This has changed now. The intended effect of mega-ships was to force a market consolidation, which has happened. The unintended effect has been increased cooperation between the major carriers. The world’s top ten carriers are now interlinked in various alliances and consortia, providing carriers with the mechanisms to coordinate ship capacity. During the Covid-19 crisis, they used this power to their advantage by stabilising and pushing up freight rates

Thus, the current disruption of the maritime supply chain is not about a mega-ship stuck in the Suez Canal, and it not about lack of adequate infrastructure in ports – ultimately, it is about a lack of effective competition policy for global liner shipping. In Europe, regulators are now urging ports to free up capacity to deal with the after-effects of the Suez incident. There have not been reports that they also urged carriers to reinstate more capacity to Asia-Europe trade routes when trade picked up again in Q3 and Q4/2020, but carriers deployed 4% less capacity than over the same period in 2019.

The mega-ship incident in the Suez Canal has shown the vulnerabilities of the global maritime supply chain. Some stakeholders will no doubt push for a new expansion of the Suez Canal, more port infrastructure and the development of alternative maritime routes, for example the Arctic Sea routes. This would be misguided. The main vulnerability is the mega-ship and the world of integrated mega-carriers that it has created.

Changes in deployed container ship capacity on different trade lanes (YoY)

Source: ITF, MDS Transmodal

Olaf Merk is Project Manager for Ports and Shipping at the International Transport Forum

Gender in the balance: the win-win of designing innovations for all

This UN International Day of Women and Girls in Science, Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli encourages us to seize the opportunity for more inclusive transport policies in the wake of the Covid pandemic

Increasing numbers of people cycling and walking has been one of the few pieces of good news to come out of the Covid crisis. But what if you live in a society where girls are not even allowed to learn to ride a bike? What if you’re afraid to walk to home from work at night? The pandemic has revealed many long-standing problems and highlighted many urgent issues for women and girls as transport users, and as employees in the transport sector. But there is hope: these issues can be addressed using the many tools at our disposal, from technological innovations to better government policy.

If we want to change behaviours, attitudes and capacities, the best place to start is by listening to the experiences and proposals of those most directly concerned. The third edition of the ITF Compendium on Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development: A Gender Perspective does just that. The publication presents a wealth of ideas from women on how to make transport more inclusive and sustainable.

The wide-ranging contributions share a common starting point: transport is not gender neutral. Women prefer flexible modes that facilitate trip chaining more than men, for example. And since women do most of the unpaid care work that many families depend on, they travel more with children and other dependents – the “mobility of care”. Anyone who has struggled to get small children and related paraphernalia up public transport stairs or onto a bus will be painfully aware that these needs are usually not accommodated in the design of transport infrastructure, services or vehicles.

Women also feel less safe and secure in public spaces, which deters them from choosing public transport, taxis, shared mobility, or from cycling and walking. Ultimately, this limits women’s and girls’ access to schools, jobs, health and other public services. The digital gender gap further hampers women’s access to online mobility services.

Even if the observational evidence is there for all to see, well-designed policies reply on good data. Gendered analysis helps assess whether specific gender needs are met properly and what the impact of innovation could be on mobility. Understanding what women want from cities, and how this translates into a vision for urban transport, should be at the heart of urban public policy. This, however, will require much finer and more differentiated knowledge of travel behaviour and users’ needs than has been the case until now. New data sources can help develop that knowledge base, but it is important to avoid biases that have become ingrained in past transport policy making. Public-private co-operation to collect, share and process gendered data is a solution, not least as a way to benefit from the wealth of mobility data created during the Covid 19 pandemic through track and trace apps.

Technology and planning alone will not suffice to improve our transport systems. Access to and affordability of transport often depends on education and income. Digital competence now also determines access to new mobility solutions, as well as the need to own a smartphone. Universal access to innovative transport services can only be achieved when these aspects are placed squarely at the centre of governance framework design.

Ride hailing is a good example. Few industries have been so greatly impacted by the pandemic, but the form of impact has varied enormously. In some markets, passenger trips have stopped, while in others there has been a sudden surge in demand as wary riders shift away from public transport. Focusing on women would not only be morally justifiable: it would enable a resilient recovery for the sector. Post-Covid recovery plans that are attentive to the concerns and needs of women will lead to an increase in female customers.

The experiences of women working in the transport sector been highlighted, and changed, by the pandemic. Customer-facing staff have seen their role expanded from ticket sales and information to policing social distancing and mask wearing regulations. Often their jobs are more dangerous where public co-operation is lacking. Transport staff, of course, risk greater exposure to the virus, as born out by infection and death rate data.

Women are often hailed as front-line “heroes” of the pandemic. The increased automation of ticketing, cleaning and other activities in response to the virus is more likely to threaten their jobs, however. Women must be given access to the training and skills development needed to benefit from the employment opportunities led by innovation. Some of the most innovative sectors – like remotely piloted aircraft systems (drones) – have pronounced gender disparities. The industry as a whole reflects the existing gender inequalities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). Governance, nomenclature, and education must be combined in our approach to right this injustice.

Good governance is essential to point technological innovation towards equity and sustainability. But we need to rethink governance itself to follow rapid innovation and increased complexities. Exchange of good practices and ideas among all stakeholders – policymakers, business, civil society and academia – is essential to any good governance framework. The ITF Annual Consultation on gender provides a unique platform to advance dialogue on gender issues in transport and to facilitate knowledge exchange.

Our latest Compendium on Transport Innovation will inspire the discussions at this year’s consultation on 11 February 2021. But the discussions won’t stop there, and will continue in the lead-up to and during the 2021 ITF Annual Summit on Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development: Reshaping Mobility in the Wake of Covid-19.

2021 ITF Compendium on Transport Innovation for Sustainable Development: A Gender Perspective

Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli is a Manager for Summit Preparation at the International Transport Forum

 

How shipping can help to avoid pandemics


Diseases like Covid-19 are passed from animals to humans. They spread because of animal trafficking, deforestation and human encroachment into wildlife habitats. Maritime shipping plays an important role here that needs to be addressed.

By Olaf Merk

Cruise ships played a highly visible role in spreading Covid-19
(Photo: Kotenko Oleksandr/Shutterstock)

The exact causes of Covid-19 are still unclear. Yet it is highly probable that it is a so-called zoonotic disease, transmitted from animal to human. Around 60% of existing human infectious diseases are zoonotic, including highly lethal ones such Ebola, Aids, SARS, West Nile Fever and the plague. Zoonotic viruses cause no symptoms in the host animal; for humans they can be deadly.

The main factor behind zoonotic diseases is humanity’s relation with nature. Viruses spill over to people as a result of the exploitation of the globe’s fauna, such as hunting and wildlife trade. Human encroachment into other species’ natural habitats, for instance through logging, mining cultivation or urban development, has increased contact with wild animals and heightened virus spill-over.

“Highly efficient transport networks can propel localised virus outbreaks into worldwide pandemics.”

As humans continue to invade unexplored wildlife areas, more zoonotic diseases are likely to jump the boundary between species and afflict us. Fully 75% of the emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic. Of these, almost half are linked to changes in land use, principally for the production of meat, soy and palm oil.  As science journalist David Quammen, author of “Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic” put it back in 2012: “If you shake a tree, something will fall out.”

Carrying ballast

The physical interconnectedness of our globe through a finely-woven web of transport links has huge benefits for mankind.  The downside: highly efficient transport networks can propel localised virus outbreaks into worldwide pandemics – as happened with Covid-19.

The main responsibility falls on maritime shipping. This is nothing new – infectious diseases have spread aboard ships for centuries, including the plague in the Middle Ages and the lethal 1918/19 influenza. The role of shipping as an amplifier of infectious diseases has waned somewhat with the decline of sea-borne passenger transport. But ships still spread viral diseases, as the many cases of Covid-infected cruise ships show. A significant part of the spread of Covid-19 in Australia has been associated with infected passengers disembarking from a cruise ship in Sydney.

The ballast water dumped by ships contains alien invasive species
(Photo: Denys Yelmanov/Shutterstock}

Ships also carry pathogens in much more oblique, but no less dangerous ways: via ballast water. Ballast is an essential component of seafaring. During a voyage, vessels take on board sea water to replace weight lost through fuel and water consumption while at sea. The ballast reduces hull stress, optimises manoeuvrability and improves propulsion. No longer needed, the water is dumped into the sea again.

This simple practice can have lethal consequences. Ballast water contains a multitude of microbes, small invertebrates, larvae, and bacteria. Removed from their habitat and dumped elsewhere, they become “aquatic invasive species’ that can cause havoc in their new ecosystem.

“The 1991 cholera epidemic in Peru is believed to have been introduced into three ports through ballast water.”

The 1991 cholera epidemic in Peru is believed to have been introduced into three ports through ballast water from Bangladesh. The disease subsequently spread throughout Latin America, killing more than 10 000 people by 1994. The use of ballast water has been much stricter regulated in recent years, nevertheless it remains a primary conduit for invasive alien species worldwide – with immediate consequences for human health.  

A seamless (virus) supply chain

With a share of 80% of global freight, maritime shipping is the mainstay of the frictionless and cost-efficient transport chains that lubricate global trade. And therefore it is also implicated in the causal chain that links international trade into the causes of pandemics – both directly and indirectly.

Pangolins are the most trafficked wild animal
(Photo: Afrianto Silalahi/Shutterstock)

Legal and illicit wildlife trade is one aspect. Hundreds of millions of plants and animals are moved around the planet every year, with an estimated annual economic value of over USD 300 billion. Several zoonotic infectious diseases have emerged in part due to the human-animal contact that occurs along the wildlife trade chain.

Maritime shipping plays an important but hardly recognised role in this. Take trade in pangolins, one of the possible intermediary hosts of Covid-19. Pangolins are the most trafficked animal in the world, mostly because of their scales which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. An estimated 596 000 pangolins were illegally traded between 2016 and mid-2019 –  usually via ocean transport, with scales concealed in boxes or sacks in shipping containers and declared as fish or other cargo. Arrests, prosecutions and conviction rates are low, also because of corruption at certain seaports.

The forest for the trees

Another example of shipping’s role in the loss of biodiversity is its indifference towards illegal forestry. Depending on the source, illegal logging accounts for 5% to 40% of global wood production. Too many in the maritime supply chain turn a blind eye on illegal wood trade. Working in separate systems, suppliers, transporters and government agencies report forest products differently, which makes identification of – and action against – illegal wood trade difficult.

Shipping plays an important role in the illegal wood trade
(Photo:  Infinitum Produx/Shutterstock)

Law enforcement is weak in many ports. Some have become downright hubs for “wood laundering”, where the origin of the wood is covered up before it reaches its final destination. Ship operators and agents that do not check the legality of the cargo they transport enable such practices. The anonymity of shipping containers helps, as do vessels operating under “flags of convenience” with little regulatory scrutiny. Critics lament “a lack of due diligence, a denial of responsibility, and even of culpable negligence”.

Lessons to learn

The reaction of transport policy-makers to Covid-19 has so far been to address the immediate effects of the pandemic. Soon, the focus should shift towards how future pandemics can be avoided, and such a strategic reflection will need to consider the role of maritime transport.

Such a strategy should identify shipping-related measures to halt the future propagation of pathogens. It should also address the causes of pandemics, such as wildlife trade, deforestation and other pressures on biodiversity loss via changes in land use. Governments should not be shy about making financial help for shipping companies conditional on the implementation of measures which will help prevent the next zoonotic disease developing into a pandemic.

“Seaports should up their game and improve their capability for effective scrutiny of cargo.”

Maritime transport companies, for their part, could use their pivotal role in supply chains to better scrutinise their cargo. The ongoing digitalisation of the maritime supply chain improves the traceability of cargo and its characteristics, including its legality. That way, shipping companies could show they are serious about implementing due diligence on the cargo they transport.

Seaports should also up their game and improve their capability for effective scrutiny of cargo. Several ports have created Wildlife Traffic Monitoring Units to detect and prevent the illegal transport of wildlife. Seaports should also include combating illegal timber and wildlife trade as objectives in their sustainability strategies, and be accountable for their actions on this. 

Certainly certified

The shipping sector can also do a lot to contain further deforestation around the globe. Commitments to move cargo only for clients that comply with certification schemes that protect natural forests would go a long way. These are common in palm oil, timber and paper supply chains, but rarer in the soy and cattle sectors.

Deforestation is a result of export-oriented, intensive agriculture which needs sea transport
(Photo: Rich Carey/Shutterstock)

Examples include schemes run by bodies such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC), the Round Table on Responsible Soy (RTRS), the Amazon Soy Moratorium, and the Zero Deforestation Cattle Agreements and, for fish, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).

Last but not least, the international community will do well to think more about the role of maritime shipping in relation to biodiversity – in the oceans as well as on land – and include it in multilateral agreements. The new UN Global Biodiversity Framework, currently in preparation under the Convention on Biological Diversity, will define targets and pathways for the conservation and management of biodiversity for the next decade and beyond. It seems like a good opportunity for a strong signal that long-term lessons from the current Covid-19 health crisis are being learned.


Olaf Merk is ports and shipping expert at the International Transport Forum. Views are his own.

Safer arterial roads in Latin America: lessons from Bogotá, Fortaleza and Mexico City

Three Latin American cities provide effective road safety lessons using a holistic management approach to a culture hooked on speed.

Bogotá permanently reduced maximum speed limits from 60 to 50 km/h in May 2020 | Source: Secretaría de Movilidad de Bogotá

Road safety is a growing concern in cities aiming to become more liveable. Where people feel unsafe, policies to promote walking and cycling will be handicapped, and deliver far less than their potential. Reducing crash risks thus not only saves lives, it also unlocks sustainable forms of transport that cut pollution, fight congestion and improve the physical and mental health of citizens. Cities all around the world have committed to deliver safer streets. Many have taken a leadership role in the battle for road safety. Much can be learnt from cities that have achieved large reductions in traffic fatalities, as revealed in this ITF report. The publication details seven case studies of cities implementing data-driven policies that inspire best practices in urban road safety.

In Latin America, the case studies provide insights into how to address high road mortality rates (PDF) in the context of rising motorisation and a culture hooked on speed. Lessons from Bogotá, Fortaleza and Mexico City are the key to delivering safer arterial roads. In all three cities, streets with a mix of vulnerable road users and motor vehicle traffic were limited to 30 km/h in accordance with international guidelines, while arterial roads were limited to 50 km/h. Strategies to improve speed limit enforcement, including introduction of new speed control systems, were also part of the holistic speed management approach taken in these cities.

Safe speed limits on Bogotá’s most dangerous roads

In 2016, the administration in Bogotá adopted a ‘Vision Zero’ approach as the roadmap for their road safety strategy. From the adoption of a speed management programme, the city targeted arterial roads for speed reduction and installation of speed cameras. In 2017, these corridors accounted for three out of four traffic deaths.

The speed reduction programme on arterial roads first targeted the five corridors with the highest casualty rates. It tested the benefits and then disseminated results via social media before the expansion to other roads. Headlines included the number of lives saved since implementation and days without recording a death. The demonstrated reduction in lives lost convinced many of the administration’s strongest critics to accept the speed management programme as effective.

Positive results led to the reduction of speed limits on another set of five corridors at the beginning of 2019. The arterial roads that received treatment under the programme showed a decrease of 21% in traffic fatalities compared to the average for the three years 2015-2018, corresponding to 46 lives saved. Data from speed cameras also indicated improvement in compliance, with lower excess speeds although the proportion of vehicles exceeding limits, old and new, was unchanged at around 20%.

Arterial roads selected for new speed limit of 50km/h in 2018 and 2019 in Bogotá:

Source: Secretaría de Movilidad de BogotáSource: Secretaría de Movilidad de Bogotá

Plans for the programme to cover the entire arterial road network of Bogotá were accelerated by the Covid-19 crisis. The city announced a permanent reduction of the maximum general speed limit for all roads from 60 km/h to 50 km/h in May 2020. Intended to clear hospitals of traffic injury victims during the peak of the pandemic, the measure also aimed to protect the lives of citizens in the long term. 92 speed cameras placed at 40 points in the city will monitor speeding and issue automatic sanctions to offenders.

Disrupting the high-speed culture in Fortaleza

Source: Prefeitura Municipal de Fortaleza

Fortaleza is one of the rare places in the world that achieved the United Nations’ target of cutting traffic fatalities by half during the Decade of Action for road safety. The city went from a rate of 14.9 deaths per 100 000 inhabitants in 2010 to 7.4 in 2019. A successful strategy targeted the culture of speeding in Fortaleza through street transformations. Bike lane and dedicated bus lane networks were both expanded. Traffic calming measures were implemented in specific areas, with the redesign of pedestrian crossings, modernisation of the traffic light system, and speed limit reduction on arterial roads.

The city followed a similar approach to Bogotá in securing public support and winning over opposition. Each intervention was first tested on pilot projects, with positive outcomes publicised extensively. A first experience targeted Fortaleza’s most dangerous arterial road, the Avenida Leste-Oeste. Framed as an infrastructure improvement, this pilot proposed to complement the speed reduction with a redesign of the avenue. The new limit of 50 km/h accompanied new traffic lights, pedestrian crossings, lighting, bike lanes, and bus lanes. Narrower lanes and more frequent stop lights were also used to nudge drivers towards compliance with the new speed limit.

Redesigned Leste-Oeste avenue with safer speed limit of 50km/h:

Source: Prefeitura Municap de Fortaleza

The success on the Avenida Leste-Oeste was measurable: collisions involving motorised vehicles and pedestrians decreased by 63%. Data from the city’s camera enforcement system also revealed a higher rate of compliance. The city applied a tolerance period without penalties to give drivers the time to adapt: the police notified drivers of infractions but gave no sanction to people driving between 50 km/h and 60 km/h during the first six months. Positive results from this pilot project resulted in a decision to expand the same treatment to another four avenues. Fortaleza is now working on a Road Safety Plan for the next 10 years to scale up interventions and consolidate a Safe System approach (PDF) to the whole of the city.

Innovative speed control systems in Mexico City     

Source: SEMOVI Mexico city

In Mexico City, hostility to traffic surveillance and control mechanisms, in particular speed cameras, pushed local authorities to rethink their speed control system. The city shifted from Fotomultas (automatic fines) to Fotocívicas, a new system that replaced monetary fines with civic sanctions. Traffic penalties in Mexico City are now educational and correspond to the number of infractions perpetrated by the driver. They range from online courses, to awareness workshops, and up to 10 hours of community work.

The new system aims at improving driver behaviour and increasing compliance with speed limits. To curb speeding, Fotocívicas considers speed violations of more than 40% above the limit as more serious. Such infractions correspond to five penalty points, in contrast to one-point penalties for other violations registered by red light and speed cameras. The programme also relocated the surveillance technology to road sections and intersections with a higher incidence of traffic collisions and speeding.

An online course is one of civic sanctions from the new Fotocívicas system:

Source: SEMOVI Mexico City

Early results from the new system indicate improvements in the compliance with speed limits. Fotocívicas identified a reduction of almost 60% in the average speed of the vehicles exceeding the limit of 50 km/h on urban roads. The results also reveal a lower repeat offence rate: one out of three sanctioned drivers violated traffic rules on more than one occasion, in contrast with one out of two for the same period under the old system.

A positive repercussion of the awareness workshops among the population incited Mexico City to plan an expansion of this educational programme towards all drivers. As a first step, the administration selected motorcyclists engaged in commercial activities to be the first road user group to attend the workshops. Currently, one out of two crashes in Mexico City involve a motorcyclist.

Bogotá, Fortaleza and Mexico City are members of the ITF’s Safer City Streets network, which includes more than 40 cities across the globe. Together in the network, cities share data and draw lessons from their various approaches to urban road safety policy. To join the network, contact the ITF secretariat: alexandre.santacreu@itf-oecd.org

Why Container Shipping is a Lot Like Farming

Transporting massive amounts of containers across the high seas has much in common with the business of rearing dairy cows or growing wheat – and alternative thinking about agriculture holds lessons for the maritime industry.

By Olaf Merk

Remorkers carrying containers to ships in Hong Kong harbour,

I have not always worked on maritime transport. One of my first assignments at the OECD was to conduct a Rural Policy Review of the Netherlands. This is how I met Jan Douwe van der Ploeg, professor at the agricultural university of Wageningen. I mention this because I think that his insights on agriculture are very relevant for container shipping. I will summarise them here briefly.

Van der Ploeg’s analysis of business models in agriculture goes against the received wisdom that economies of scale are always desirable. Over the past decades, farms have grown bigger through consolidation of land, driven by a race for market shares via cost reduction. This has required big investments in expensive equipment and huge loans to finance these.

In the process, agriculture and the local environment have become decoupled. The farmer’s main inputs (machines, seeds) are bought abroad. Most of the work has become automated. Agricultural land has turned into a space exclusively dedicated to production – it is no longer a multi-functional area where work and leisure, production and consumption can be combined.

Van der Ploeg’s merit lies in his detailed calculations showing that smaller but more diversified firms are more productive and profitable. They are less indebted, less dependent on intermediaries and less affected by price volatility, because they have developed economies of scope. And they provide more added value, jobs and biodiversity for the local community.

A container terminal seen from above

Striking similarities

Container shipping has followed a course strikingly similar to agriculture. The dominant idea: more economies of scale. The way to achieve it: cost reductions, ever larger ships and industry consolidation. The result: the large majority of the goods we consume are now moved by a handful of very large global shipping companies that source their workforce from developing countries and register their ships in tax havens. These companies have accumulated as much debt as a mid-size country they emit as much CO2 as a big country and have difficulties to be profitable except in the most bullish of times.

Container ports follow the same pattern. Completely sealed off from their surrounding communities, highly specialised, continuously trying to catch up with ever-larger ships, today’s container terminals leave no room for the intermingling that once gave port cities their charm.

In both agriculture and container shipping, policies – notably those of the European Union – are designed to pursue economies of scale. In agriculture the tool was subsidies; container shipping’s equivalent is the tonnage tax. Both sectors have special regimes that make them hybrids: market-driven sectors in name, but dependent on public support in practice.

In both, creating local synergies is an afterthought that goes by the name of rural development policies in one case and maritime cluster development in the other. In both sectoral policies, building large firms is more important than guaranteeing competition. In both cases, policy reform has become very difficult considering sunk investments, path dependency and regulatory capture by corporate lobbyists.

Cargo ship entering Singapore harbour, one of the busiest ports in the world.

Where the parallel ends

There are of course differences. Probably the most important is the extent of what economists would call the symmetry between buyers and sellers. Farmers buy from very large companies (seeds, pesticides) and sell to very large companies (food industry and retailers). In this constellation, company size could be a countervailing force to the monopoly power of buyers and sellers: larger farms – or cooperatives of farms – might better able to negotiate with the large multi-national companies in seed production, the food industry and supermarket chains.

In container shipping, liner companies buy from fragmented suppliers (shipyards, ports and port service providers) and sell to fragmented buyers (the companies that import and export), so it is the shipping company itself that is the major source of monopoly power. 

There is of course another major difference: agriculture is vital, in the true sense of the word. Container shipping is essential to the extent that global trade is. With many world leaders pleading for more regional sourcing, long-range containerised transport might be less inevitable than thought – which opens the perspective for possible fundamental change.

A policy choice

Professor Van der Ploeg proposes an alternative to the large-scale industrialised agriculture: smaller, more localised, quickly adapting to demands of clients. It is time to imagine similar alternative perspectives for container shipping, if only because that will make shipping more resilient.

The first step in sketching potential new futures would be to realise that there is nothing self-evident or inevitable about the strategy of economies of scale. It has been stimulated by public policies – and these policies can change.


Olaf Merk is ports and shipping expert at the International Transport Forum. He is the (co-) author of The Impact of Alliances in Container Shipping (2018) andContainer Shipping in Europe: Data for the Evaluation of the EU Consortia Block Exemption Regulation (I2019). Views are are his own.

Put Women In The Driver’s Seat

If you are looking for a user-friendly, safe and accessible mobility system, involve female transport users and workers.

By Emma Latham-Jones

Every step made to improve the experience of women in transport is a win for everyone. When policy makers address gender issues in transport, they increase accessibility for all. What this means is taking a user-centric approach: every single transport user is the focus. We need to rethink transport policies that are biased against certain users, especially vulnerable citizens: children, pregnant women, disabled people, those from poorer backgrounds – they all need to be at the heart of transport policy decision making.

To do that, it is important to look at the data. The evidence should inform transport policies to ensure they reflect real-life situations and solve real-world problems. Rich evidence shows that gender is a significant determinant for the choice of transport modes. Women’s travel habits tend to be more multifaceted than those of men: they tend to take more frequent, mostly short trips; they use different services than men, and at different times of the day.

Women’s trips also more often involve children. To make transport inclusive, we cannot only serve those who make few, direct trips at set times and normally alone. Transport needs to work for everyone. When it does, it has an incredible ability to empower citizens.

Female leadership

Here at the International Transport Forum, we celebrate women who work across the sector and work to amplify women’s voices and visions for improved transport for all. The ITF appreciates the importance of diversity for the quality and value of our transport systems, and we know that women can be powerful agents of change. That is why we have a broad  range of work on Gender in Transport: from consultations on (and with) women in transport, via conferences on how to attract more females to the transport sector, to reports on how to ‘Plan and Design Transport Systems That Will Ensure Safe Travel for Women’.

Female leadership is of critical importance to increase representation of women in the transport sector. At the ITF, we are proud that three members of our staff – Mary Crass, Sharon Masterson and Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli – have been honoured as “Remarkable Women in Transport” by the Transformative Urban Mobility Initative (TUMI); testament to our commitment advance the mainstreaming of gender perspectives in transport, together with our partners in governments, international organisations, academia and the private sector.

“The transport sector needs more gender diversity”, say argues Magdalena Olczak-Rancitelli, who is Manager of Summit Preparation at the ITF. “One of the most effective way to motivate women to make themselves heard and felt in transport is to tell stories about inspiring women who thrive in the sector.”

Outstanding female researchers

Women already achieve great things on the frontlines of transport, as bus drivers, aircraft pilots, logistics planners, and so on. But they play an equally as important role as researchers, academics and thinkers. When French transport scientist Anne de Bortoli won the ITF’s Young Researcher of the Year Award 2020, with a groundbreaking study on the environmental impact of shared e-scooters in cities, she was only the latest female success story in a long history of female excellence in transport research.

2013 Young Researcher of the Year, Laura Schewel from the United States, won the Award with a fascinating analysis of the history and policies of moving retail goods. Today, Laura is the CEO of Streetlight Data, a start-up that provides transport and urban planners the with an easy and affordable way to incorporate data on mobility behaviour into important decisions – for instance how citizens are using roads, bike lanes and sidewalks. Last year, Schewel’s company created the first ever bike and pedestrian metrics for the urban transport industry. The MIT Technology Review named her one of its “35 Innovators Under 35” in 2013.

Laura Schewel receiving the Young Researcher of the Year Award at the ITF Summit of Transport Ministers in Leipzig, Germany, in May 2013

Women researchers are also making major contributions to better understanding the link between transport and climate change. In 2015, Dr Nihan Akyelken from Turkey won the ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award for developing a conceptual framework for the governance of sustainable freight transport, which the jury honoured for its’ originality and policy relevance. Today, Nihan is an Associate Professor in Sustainable Urban Development at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, where she is teaching students in the Masters and Doctoral programmes in Sustainable Urban Development, she helps to form the next generation of innovative transport leaders, many of them women. Her forthcoming book is, appropriately, titled “Women, Work and Mobilities”.

This year’s award winner Anne der Bortoli also has a clear take on gender and transport: “Women are generally under-represented in expert panels, academia, PhD programs, and industrial leading positions higher education. This is particularly noticeable in some STEM subjects, to the point that it’s almost jarring, she says. “Yet women have proven time and again that we can overcome barriers and smash glass ceilings, and this is exactly what we must do in order to see long-lasting positive change.

We must be confident, we must challenge discrimination, and we must take action for what moves us. Women need a large variety of role models. I urge all female researchers who work in transport-related fields to apply for the next ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award. Why? Because every time you give yourself a chance to win, you’ve made a major step towards gender equality.”

2929 Young Researcher of the Year Award, Anne de Bortoli

Emma Latham-Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum. You can read more about the 2020 ITF Young Researcher of the Year Award, Anne de Bortoli’s research, and find the recording of the ceremony here.

Scooting Around: Are Shared E-Scooters Good Or Bad For The Environment?

The shared e-scooters floating around Paris may have emitted 12 000 tonnes of additional greenhouse gases over the course of one year, according to a new study. Are the popular micro-vehicles good fun, but not good for the climate?

by Anne de Bortoli

The sudden arrival of massive numbers of shared electric scooters in many cities around the world since 2017 has triggered considerable resentment from other users of our urban space. The skepticism is shared by governments and local authorities – some of whom have banned e-scooters outright, as is the case in London and many university campuses in the United States.

Others have targeted e-scooters with specific regulations. France added a new section to the Code de la route that covers motorised micro-vehicles. The city of Paris will allow only three selected companies to operate in the city, which will be partly chosen on environmental criteria.

But assessing the hoped-for environmental benefits of e-scooters turned out to be a headache for public authorities. The first scientific assessment was not published until the summer of 2019 and was too narrow to draw general conclusions about their environmental effect: it only estimated the environmental impact of using a free-floating e-scooter over an average of one kilometre in US cities.

Change to the system

Yet e-scooters are disrupting the long-established patterns of urban mobility and should not be looked at in isolation. They are not just something additional, they are bringing real change to the system: by replacing trips with cars, bicycles or on foot, but also by inducing people to take an e-scooter when previously they would not have bothered to move.

The environmental question, therefore, should be addressed in these terms: have shared e-scooters reduced the overall environmental impact of human mobility so far? If the answer is yes, how can we exploit these benefits even further? If it is no, should there be any room for e-scooters in a sustainable mobility system?

What’s in a lifetime?

At the University of Patras, we took up the challenge. Using a cutting-edge method developed in-house, we were able to calculate how CO2 and other greenhouse gas emissions for the entire mobility system of Paris over a whole year were affected by the usage of shared e-scooters

The model reflects how people switch from other transport options to shared e-scooters as well as the new trips these trigger, information that was gleaned from a dedicated survey. It also uses a so-called life cycle assessment, which takes account not only of direct emissions during operation but the entirety of emissions over the life cycle of the elements that make up the transport system, including infrastructure and vehicles.

This is crucial. The operation of shared vehicles is comparatively energy efficient, and much of the environmental impact stems from manufacturing, maintenance, and disposal. The model also anticipates changes that are likely to occur in relevant industries – for instance a change in the carbon intensity of the electricity consumed – to calculate environmental performance.

In the (carbon) balance

The result of the modelling exercise was perhaps unexpected: Parisian e-scooters (shared ones, that is) generated 12 000 tonnes of additional greenhouse gases in the city over one year ─ that is equivalent to the annual emissions produced by a French town of 15 000 inhabitants.

Three reasons lie behind this negative carbon balance.

First, the production of e-scooters is not very environmentally-friendly. Production accounts for a full third of the Parisian e-scooters’ marginal environmental impact, that is to say of the absolute values of the GHG savings and extra-emissions due to shared e-scooters. This is notably due to the carbon-intensive production of the aluminum used for the vehicle frame and because of the lithium-ion battery.

Second, servicing the e-scooters causes considerable emissions. Standard vans with internal combustion engines are used to collect the e-scooters, charge them and then drop them again across the city. This support also makes up one third of the Parisian e-scooters’ marginal emissions due to shared e-scooters.

Finally, e-scooter trips often replace low-carbon trips. This is due to 60% of modal shifts coming from massive electrified public transport – the Metro, the RER light trains, the trams, 13% from walking, and 9% from cycling. These transport modes present a lower carbon footprint than the shared e-scooter: respectively 8, 9, 20, 2 and 36 gCO2eq per passenger-kilometre traveled, compared to 108 g for the e-scooter.

Strike ‘em?

So should e-scooters be struck from the list of solutions for green mobility? In fact, things are not quite that simple. Their environmental impact depends on three factors: firstly, their entire life cycle emissions (and how operators manage these), the specific mobility patterns of the cities in which they operate (and the shares of transport modes e-scooters replace); and, finally, the carbon intensity of the electricity they consume.

The carbon footprint for a shared e-scooter roaming Paris is 50 grams of CO2eq per kilometre, if servicing impacts are excluded – which is about as much as that of a shared bicycle. And if the e-scooter’s lifetime mileage increases to 5 200 kilometres instead of 3 750 (our base case scenario in the model), the emissions fall to 30 gCO2eq per kilometre traveled: in Paris, this is one quarter of a diesel bus, one seventh of a private car, and one tenth of a taxi’s emissions per passenger-kilometre traveled.

Operators thus have their work cut out: they need to simultaneously green manufacture of e-scooters, improve their durability and recyclability, and drastically enhance their servicing process. In the case of Paris, the last point is necessary to get a positive impact of the shared e-scooters.

Each city has a unique mobility system with specific environmental impacts and different user behaviors, and these factors shape the impact e-scooters have on the overall system. The results of our analysis thus cannot be simply transferred to other cities, and even less to other countries. But  an extra analysis we did on the impact of the electricity carbon intensity does suggest that, beyond the case of Paris or similar cities, shared e-scooters have a good potential to make urban mobility greener, once the three main factors that make their current carbon balance negative – at least in Paris – have been addressed. Whether that promise materialises in different contexts will need to be examined in well-tailored, case-by-case studies.

Watch the life cycle

What are our conclusions and recommendations? First, the environmental performance of transport options must be assessed for the complete life cycle to ensure shared vehicles are really green(er). Conventional wisdom assumes that using more shared vehicles reduces the environmental footprint, but our somewhat counter-intuitive results show that servicing and shorter lifespans can in fact lead to higher overall emissions.

Secondly, proper assessments of transport modes needs (good) data. Operators should therefore be required, as a licensing condition, to share their data with the public authorities ─ vehicle components and energy consumption, as well as statistics on servicing, lifetime mileage, maintenance schemes and recycling. For our study, we contacted the thirteen e-scooter operators in Paris in the summer of 2019 ─ only one answered, and finally did not share any data.

Finally, e-scooters and other micro-vehicles have a role to play in a green mobility system ─ even  where their eco-balance is less good than other modes. E-scooters can help overcome the first/last mile problem that keeps many people from using public transport because the closest metro station is too far to walk to.

The availability of shared e-scooters can also trigger a ripple effect: the experience could nudge people to buy their own personal e-scooter, which will likely be used much longer and thus with a much lower life cycle emissions ─ we estimate them as low as 12 gCO2eq/km for a life-cycle use of 15 000 km.

Let’s not forget that mobility systems are dynamic. Thus, environmental assessments need to be updated regularly, especially when new services enter the mix and change somewhat established patterns. And it is a safe bet that the current pandemic is changing mobility habits drastically, possibly for good.

Anne de Bortoli is the ITF Young Researcher of the Year 2020. This blog summarises the findings of her winning paper, which she wrote while at the University of Patras, Greece, and currently under peer review for an international journal. Anne is now an eco-design researcher with Eurovia, the road construction subsidiary of the VINCI Group.

Sleepless at the Wheel

Few things are as healthy as a good dose of sleep – except when we’re driving. Then, nodding off becomes a lethal danger, and instantaneously. Emma Latham Jones sat down with road safety expert Veronique Feypell on World Sleep Day 2020 to talk about driver fatigue and why it is underestimated.

ELJ: What exactly is “driver fatigue”?

VF: There are two main types of fatigue from a road safety perspective. For one thing, it is the result of a lack of sleep. Simply put, drivers who are tired because they either haven’t slept enough or haven’t slept well are at risk of fatigue. The second type of fatigue is as a direct result of the task of driving. Perhaps the driver has been driving too long without taking a break. Perhaps they have had a long work day and is already tired when getting in the car. For truck drivers, this second type of fatigue could result from the waiting time during the loading and unloading. These two kinds of fatigue have different causes, but both have same negative effect on the ability to drive a car safely.

ELJ: How does that negative effect manifest itself?

In a number of ways. Loss of vigilance is one. Drivers suffering from fatigue may misperceive the road environment. They may not notice important road signs and warnings; or they may not register the complexity of a traffic situation at an intersection. Fatigue makes it more likely that the driver will overlook other road users, as it negatively affects vision. Tired drivers are much less likely to spot a cyclist in their peripheral vision, or a pedestrian coming out into the road. And since fatigue also reduces reaction time, the result can be fatal. In the extreme case, drivers may feel asleep and completely lose the control of their vehicles.

ELJ: Who is most likely to get drowsy when driving and should take particular care?

One might think that older drivers are particularly susceptible to concentration loss. But in fact young drivers are also very much at risk from fatigue. They have less experience on the road, so even slight fatigue may affect their driving performance. Certain medications can contribute to drowsiness. Also, those driving long distances on motorways are more at risk to fall asleep at the wheel. Fatigue is a main source of fatal crashes on motorways. Driving there can be pretty monotonous, which contributes to the fatigue.

ELJ: How big of a problem is driver fatigue? What do the statistics tell us?

VF: We don’t have a lot of statistics, unfortunately, and the ones we have are not very accurate. If one follows the police statistics, one or two percent of fatal crashes are due to fatigue. But a crash usually involves multiple factors, so the link to fatigue is often not obvious. It’s very difficult for the police officer at the scene to pick up all of this. Hence there is probably significant under-reporting. In-depth investigations put the share of crashes in which fatigue played a role at up to 10 percent.

ELJ: Are there attempts to measure how many drivers experience drowsiness, without there necessarily being a crash?

Some such studies exist, but far too few because it’s not easy. You can measure seat belt use by simply about counting who wears them and who doesn’t. But you can’t sit on the roadside and reliably count who is falling asleep at the wheel. Most studies rely on drivers to report their experience. In the United States, a survey by the National Sleep Foundation found that 60% of adult drivers had experienced fatigue while driving at least once per year. But there have also been some studies with monitoring equipment in cars to evaluate drowsiness. They use cameras that detect how often the driver blinks and also register other movements that are indications of fatigue.

ELJ: Couldn’t such technology also be used to warn drivers when they’re about to fall asleep?

VF: Absolutely, that is something researchers and the car industry are working on. It won’t be very long until new cars will be equipped with sensors that can detect drowsy drivers and then triggers a loud “wake up” message. This sort of driving assistance system might play an important role in enhancing road safety. But then there are also very effective low-tech means. On motorways, rumble strips are very good at waking up drowsy drivers when they drift off their lane.

ELJ: What should drivers do who don’t have hi-tech helpers?

VF: Nobody should take the risk of relying on sensors to keep them awake. Stop for a break when you notice you are getting tired. It’s okay to take a 15-minute nap in your car at a petrol station or on a parking area on the roadside. Many countries recommend a break from driving is recommended every two hours. Freight managers also should be encouraged to provide proper information about the risk of fatigue and how to prevent it to their drivers. And freight companies must of course respect legislation on driving time. A cup of strong coffee make help for a short time, but don’t make the mistake of thinking that it will get you home safely if you have a long drive– it won’t. What you need is enough sleep.

ELJ: Thank you so much for your time on World Sleep Day, Veronique.

Veronique Feypell manages the road safety work of the International Transport Forum. She is currently working on, among other things, on the creation of regional road observatories for Africa and the Asia-Pacific. These will help countries in those regions to collect better crash data and use them to inform more effective road safety measures.

Emma Latham Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum.

Road safety will also be on the agenda at the International Transport Forum’s 2020 Summit on “Transport Innovation for Sustainable Mobility”, inter alia in a session on Road Safety and Security in The Age of New Mobility.

“To Empower Women, Everyday Acts Matter Most”

How can the transport sector get better at serving the needs of women – both as customers and as employees? On the occasion of International Women’s Day 2020, Sharon Masterson spoke to Emma Latham Jones about women innovators, why getting girls interested in STEM is not enough, and inspiring female voices at the transport ministers’ Annual Summit.

How can the transport sector become more attractive for women?

ELJ: Innovation will be the core theme of the ITF Summit in May 2020. What is the role of women in innovation?

SM: There have been women among transport innovators throughout history – they just weren’t acknowledged. Think of Katherine Johnson, a woman and mathematician who worked for NASA. Her trajectory calculations were critical for successfully sending the first humans into space. Despite her enormous contributions to space exploration, she remained mostly unknown until the 2016 movie “Hidden Figures” made her a household name – at the age of 98. Sadly, Katherine Johnson passed away this 24 February; she was 101 years old.  

NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson at the 2017 Academy Awards

ELJ: A powerful reminder of both of the impact women can have and how little their contributions are often valued! I know you have a strong interest in developing female innovators and leaders. When you look at the next generation, what do you see?

SM: I am more than interested, I am passionate about the development of the next generation. If I look at the young women of today, I see they are strong and not afraid to claim their space at the decision-making table. They know exactly how to make their voices heard – and others are listening! 

ELJ: Can you give me some examples?

SM: This February, I was at the Global Ministerial Road Safety Conference in Sweden. One of the largest delegations at that conference was the delegation of the World Youth Assembly for Road Safety. Their co-chair, Omnia El Omrani, a medical student, made an impassioned plea to all present for safer and more sustainable roads and cities. She demanded “no false promises or fake commitments”. She made the very poignant point that today’s youth feel that their future is uncertain and not enough importance is given to critical issues that affect it.

If we think of sustainability, and in particular climate change, it is also a young female activist, Greta Thunberg, who has the largest following. Her message is a very simple one: listen to the climate experts and the science, and then act upon their advice.

Young women are making their voices heard

ELJ: How can the transport sector attract more women and girls?

SM:  The sector is working hard on this, but there is a still a lot to do. Last year the ITF’s Corporate Partnership Board organised a workshop on “Hiring and retaining a diverse workforce”. Two of the many interesting findings from that discussion were the need to address unconscious bias in the workplace and to put measures in place that ensure diversity of applicants in the recruitment process.

To get there, the transport sector has to raise awareness about all the different types of jobs that exist in transport and mobility. We produced a video aimed at encouraging girls and women to consider a career in the transport sector, to simulate their curiosity.

One of the things I would point out is that while there is a lot of emphasis on getting girls interested in science, technology, engineering, mathematics and the professions related to the STEM subjects,  there are many non-STEM jobs in the transports sector, for instance in transport policy, tourism, or urban planning.

#WomenInTransport: ITF Corporate Partnership Board event on 8 March 2019

ELJ:  Transport ministers and delegations from more than 70 countries attend the ITF Summit. How present will women be? Which remarkable women will ministers be hearing from at the Summit in May?

SM: First of all, there is an increasing number of female transport ministers. This traditionally male-dominated portfolio is led by women in ITF member countries from Albania and Austria via Italy and the Netherlands to Korea and the United Sates. They are still a minority, but things have clearly begun to move.

In May, we’ll have a host of remarkable women speaking at our Summit. If I had to pick just one or two from that list, I would highlight Mary Robinson and Sinéad Burke, because they’re Irish and Ireland holds the ITF presidency this year.

Mary Robinson will give a keynote at the Summit. As an Irish woman myself, I remember her election as the first female President of Ireland well. In her acceptance speech she stated: “I was elected by the women of Ireland, who instead of rocking the cradle, rocked the system”. Since her presidency she has gone on to do other very important things in many areas, including advocating for climate change and human rights.

Mary Robinson, former Irish President, will be a keynote speaker at the ITF Summit 2020

Sinéad Burke is a young Irish lady and a powerful advocate for diversity. I was fascinated by her TED Talk and an intervention she made at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where she spoke about why design should include everyone. So when I met Sinéad in person I asked her if she would speak at the ITF Summit and give us a user perspective on transport design and inclusion. It will be inspiring to have Sinéad with us!

ELJ: Whose responsibility is it to help women and girls succeed?

SM: I believe that all of us have a shared responsibility to help the next generation, both the young men and the young women. Kind words and encouragement go a long way. It is the everyday acts that matter most to empower women. Diversity and equality matter every day, not just on International Women’s Day. Mol an óige agus tiocfaidh siad is an old Irish saying meaning young people will progress and grow better with praise than criticism. I grew up with that saying and it is something that I’ll be passing along to my daughter.   

ELJ: That’s a beautiful saying. Thank you for sharing it. Finally, how will you be celebrating International Women’s Day?

SM: The two events we had prepared for International Women’s Day 2020 have had to be postponed until later in the year because of the Coronavirus situation, unfortunately. We will reschedule our workshop on “Gender: The Importance of Co-operation between Industry and Government” and share experiences and best practices among the ITF Corporate Partnership Board’s member companies. The focus will be on how to build and maintain successful women’s networks, as well as the mentoring and coaching activities our member companies have put in place. We will also find a new date for a high-level panel discussion on the same topic – stay tuned!

ELJ: Thank you so much, Sharon.


Sharon Masterson is the Manager of the ITF Corporate Partnership Board (CPB), the International Transport Forum’s platform for engaging with the private sector. The CPB works with the ITF on emerging transport policy issues around topics such as the sharing economy, blockchain, drones, innovative mobility, transport decarbonisation, and gender and diversity.

Emma Latham-Jones is a Young Associate at the International Transport Forum.

Global pandemics and transport systems in an age of disruptions

The Coronavirus is the most recent in a list of global pandemics – and it is the most impactful. The human and economic costs of Covid-19  go far beyond those of Sars, the Swine flu or Ebola. Its immediate impact on transport activity has been nothing short of dramatic. Will it also change human mobility and freight transport in the long run?

By Francisco Furtado

Arriving passengers are tested for Coronavirus symptoms at Bologna airport in Italy | Source: Shutterstock

It is still early in the cycle of this global pandemic and care needs to be taken not to draw rash conclusions. But some of the striking effects of the Coronavirus on transport and related sectors are evident.

Air travel demand decreased for the first time in a decade from mid-February, according to estimates by IATA, the global association of airlines. In the Asia-Pacific region, air travel is forecast to fall by 8.2% in 2020 compared to 2019. Worldwide, the sector will shrink by 0.6%.

The bulk of this reduction is associated with the domestic Chinese aviation market, which is set to contract by USD 12.8 billion in 2020. Foreign airlines reduced capacity for flights to and from China by 80%, and Chinese airlines by 40%, according to ICAO, the UN aviation body.

More container ship tonnage is idle now than during the global financial crisis. Port operators in China say that volumes for container shipping were 20 to 40% less than last year. On the land side, warehouses and factories are unable to receive or send goods as imposed quarantine exacerbates the existing shortage of truck drivers.

Cancelled and postponed

Supply chain disruptions have led to factory closures and the shutting down of assembly lines – from Hyundai in South Korea to JCB in the United Kingdom – mainly because of the cessation of activity in China and the lack of components sourced from there.

Tourism is another highly visible victim of the Coronavirus. Up to 90% of tourism-related bookings for March are cancelled in some parts of Italy. Preliminary estimates for France point to a 30 to 40% drop in the number of tourists compared to what would be expected for this time of the year. The practically complete absence of Chinese tourists in Europe since the outbreak of Covid-19 points to lost revenue in the order of EUR 1 billion per month.

Rail passengers wearing face masks in Bangkok, Thailand | Source: Shutterstock

The cancellation and postponement of events worldwide has hit big-ticket meetings from the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the Paris and Milan Fashion Weeks, or the US-ASEAN summit in Las Vegas. The cancellation of the Berlin Tourism Fair ITB, scheduled for early March, meant 160 000 expected visitors did not travel, use their hotel rooms, or visit the German capital’ s restaurants. Where organisers maintain events, attendance drops dramatically as big employers like Amazon take steps to limit staff travel.

Will things get worse?

Much of this activity should pick up towards the end of the year. To what extent that probable resurgence can make up for the first-quarter plunge is an open question. Some of the above figures, for instance for the aviation sector, were published before the virus reached Europe and other regions outside China. So while they take into account the impact on China, the effects of the global spread of Covid-19 are not yet included. Worse may be to come.

The economic impact was most vividly reflected on the stock markets. The week of 24-28 February was the worst week for stocks since the 2008 crisis. Covid-19 could shave 0.5 percentage points to 1.5% of GDP growth in 2020 compared to previous estimates according to the OECD’s Interim Economic Outlook published on 2 March. In a more severe “downside scenario” global economic growth would halve.

Unlike 2019, NO2 levels in Wuhan did not rise after Chinese New Year | Source: NASA

Nasa images show the dramatic extent to which transport activity and industrial production came to a grinding halt across China – not just in Wuhan province – as drastic anti-virus measures were put in place. The levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) in the air were 10 to 30% lower in January and February 2020 than the average of the same period for 2005-19. Such a dramatic drop across such a vast area has never been registered before – an indication to how much drastically reducing transport and industrial activity can impact emissions.

Figure 2. Pollutants in early January 2020 across eastern and central China compared to mid-February

Pollutants across eastern and central China in early January and mid-February 2020 | Source: NASA

Are telework and virtual meetings the new normal?

The contraction of transport activity is twofold: Right now, restrictions on travel and voluntary cancellations of trips compound the impact of reduced economic activity that is beginning to be seen. Later, when transport activity resumes towards the second half of 2020 – which is not a given – the bounce back to compensate for the earlier stoppage might lead to congestion on certain nodes of the transport networks, with increased costs and travel times as a result.

Most likely, Covid-19 will also have more long-term effects on transport systems and the demand for their services. Widespread cancellations of business trips and global events could drive the wider adoption of remote meetings and virtual conferences. Rather than an exception, virtual attendance might become a standard practice or even the norm. Improved digital connectivity and changing corporate cultures could work in the same direction.

The same is true for teleworking. The cost to organisations of having staff members in quarantine to contain the spread of Covid-19, is being considerably softened where those concerned can telework. The likely effect is that this form of work will become more widely accepted, reinforcing an already existent trend.

Will virtual meetings become the new normal?

A boost for re-shoring and resilience?

The tendency for nations to trade relatively more with countries of the same region than with the rest of the world is another trend this health crisis could reinforce. The disruption caused to supply chains by events on the other side of the world highlights security, safety and strategic concerns associated with off-shoring industrial production. The 2008 crisis triggered a rise in protectionism and the regionalisation of trade. In recent years, shutdowns of factories resulted in shortages of components “Made in China”, resulting in a push for the diversification of supply sources, including re-shoring.

A third relevant issue for which the pandemic could become a turbo-charger is resilience. The interest in strengthening transport networks’ ability to absorb shocks, deal with slumps and peaks, or to adapt to shifting trade flows was originally stimulated by extreme climate events, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. The rise of global trade disputes in recent years further nourished it.

Resilient transport networks feature different transport modes that can be used alternatively, they offer multiple route options to circumvent stoppages, and possess built-in flexibility –  for instance to easily mobilise resources to deal with activity peaks and repurpose them for other needs during slumps. More resilience reduces the costs of shocks to the system and increase safety and security of supply – but it also comes with a price tag.

There is still a great degree of uncertainty about this pandemic’s long-term legacy with regard to the mobility of people and the transport of goods. What emerges more and more as the situation evolves is that it could be significant and long-lasting.


Francisco Furtado is an Analyst and Modeller at the International Transport Forum. He is currently working on a project on Decarbonising Transport in Emerging Economies.


Read more about disruptions to the transport system in the ITF Transport Outlook 2019