Born out of need: How the Global South is driving transport innovation

By Will Duncan

The world’s emerging nations are fertile ground for radical and creative mobility solutions. Government-supported innovation is helping the Global South become a leading force in the future of transport.

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RT-Mart electric bus in China | Photo: Mars Hartdegen/Flickr

The transport sector is moving quickly these days. New technologies, shared services, and GPS are changing how we get from A to B. But perhaps one of the most interesting trends in transport is where, exactly, these innovations are coming from.

“The future of transport is in the Global South’s hands,” says Bambang Susantono, former transport minister of Malaysia and now vice-president of the Asian Development Bank.

It’s easy to see why: Twenty-seven of the world’s 33 megacities are in the Global South — a term that describes low- and middle-income countries in Africa, the Asia-Pacific, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

Extraordinary economic growth and rapid urbanisation have brought sudden change to the Global South. With progress comes a host of challenges — and, first among these is transport.

But need begets innovation. And thus, the assumption that innovation flows from rich to less prosperous regions, from industrialised to developing countries, from the northern to the southern hemisphere is being challenged. Inspiration for tomorrow’s transport solutions can be found in the Global South’s emerging nations by those who care to look.

Decades ahead

Take shared mobility. No other topic preoccupies city officials, transport planners and entrepreneurs in the industrialised North today as much as the question of how to get more than one person into a car built for four or more.

In the South, it’s been a reality for decades. “Shared mobility is everywhere when I travel cities as a global researcher,” says Fábio Duarte, Professor of Urban Planning in Curitiba, Brazil. “I take taxis in Brasília, hold on tight to ojek motorcycles in Jakarta, or figure out how to reach my destinations with matatus in Nairobi.”

Durante says that “thinking of shared mobility as a novelty is a narrow view held in the Global North”. It ignores the creative ways that societies with few cars and inadequate public transport are coping with the lack of options.

WhereIsMyTransport, a UK start-up, secured USD 1.5 million in funding in 2016 to create an accessible and accurate data service for Cape Town’s formal and informal transport routes. Informal shared minibus routes make up a significant proportion of the city’s commutes, which is typical of many cities outside of Europe and North America. WhereIsMyTransport’s digital map has made these services visible. They’re presented as complimentary or, for all intents and purposes, equivalent to any other way to get around the city.

After securing further investment, the company has expanded its data and mapping service throughout Latin America and Asia. A recent project saw informal transport in Mexico City mapped to include over 30 000 informal minibus routes.

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Formal and informal transport networks in Gauteng, South Africa. Source: WhereIsMyTransport

The South is electric

Electric mobility is another example. Despite ambitious pledges, the share of electric vehicles in the Global North remains marginal: just 2.5% of 2018 car sales in the UK were electric, 2.1% in France, and 1% in Japan. Only Norway stands out, with just under 49.1%.

The world leader in electric mobility today is China. Almost 99% of all electric buses and two-wheelers, and 40% of the world’s total of private electric cars can be found there.

This hasn’t happened by accident. The electric mobility revolution that is sweeping the Peoples’ Republic is the result of deliberate government policy. Beijing’s regulatory push mixes substantial investment into research and development, and strict emissions standards designed to force out internal combustion engines with targeted subsidies that have reduced risk for transport operators looking to adapt to the new cleaner technology. Thus, research, industry, and government are steered towards a prevailing direction, turning the country into a world market leader.

Both national legislation and city halls are in a position to provide the “enabling framework” for healthy competition, innovative ideas, and for market disruptions with the potential to greatly benefit citizens.

Emerging nations find themselves with greater freedom to innovate, as they tend to be less restricted by the historical legacies of some more developed countries. “Developing countries can break the mould of traditional transport,” says Susantono. ”The Asian car market is less wedded to internal combustion engines; hence the region now has the largest share of e-vehicles worldwide,” Susantono explains. “In this dynamic, governments of the Global South can be the leaders of change.”

In a further article looking into transport innovation in the Global South, we take Indonesia’s Gojek as a case study and examine Southeast Asia’s bustling on-demand transport market.

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To learn more about global transport innovation, check out the ITF Corporate Partnership Board’s new report Expanding Innovation Horizons: Learning from transport solutions in the Global South.

Will Duncan is currently studying a Master in Public Policy at Sciences Po in Paris, and is an intern at the International Transport Forum at the OECD.

 

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