The Challenge of Cleaning Up Transport – A Developing Country Perspective

Transport contributes about a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, as well as causing other environmental, social, economic, and health problems. By 2050 there will be 2 billion cars in the world. In a previous article, the challenge of cleaning up the transport sector in developed countries was presented. This article addresses the challenges that developing countries face in cleaning up their transport sectors.


The problems for transport in developing countries can be divided into two sets of issues: those in rural areas and those in cities. In rural areas, a lack of access to a basic level of transport restricts access to socio-economic opportunities such as markets for agricultural produce. Inadequate transport can also be a barrier to accessing timely healthcare. In many regions of the developing world investment in transport infrastructure has helped to lift people out of poverty and overcome these challenges. For these reasons, improvements in transport access for the world’s rural poor are desperately needed, but they must be implemented in a sustainable way.

For cities in the developing world, one of the most significant challenges is poor air quality. This arises from the large volumes of older, more polluting vehicles travelling on highly congested transport networks. For example, Delhi was identified as the world’s most polluted city for PM2.5[1], one of the most damaging particulate pollutants, by the World Health Organisation. In India as a whole there were 692,425 premature deaths in 2010 as a result of air pollution, of which air pollution caused by transport contributes a significant amount to.

Additionally, in developing countries, the transport infrastructure is often less established than in developed countries. This provides an opportunity to plan and construct infrastructure on a sustainable pathway that can help to avoid growth in emissions while providing the access to transport services that people require. By investing in public transport, which is effective, affordable and desirable to use, it might be possible to avoid following the pathway that many countries have taken of continuous growth in private car ownership, and potentially develop the transport network on a more sustainable pathway. One such example is the development of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Bogota, Columbia, as seen in the picture below. This system provides priority to the bus network over car traffic by having separate lanes throughout. The frequency of services is higher in a BRT system, and customer information is widely available. This, in turn, improves the provision of public transport, which is a more sustainable transport choice. Moreover, if a public transport system is run efficiently and effectively, as the BRT system in Bogota is reported to be, then it can present an attractive alternative to private car ownership and simultaneously allow all transport to develop on a more sustainable pathway.

In many developing world cities, rapid urbanisation and population growth in cities have led to vast informal settlements, slums, developing around urban areas. These settlements often lack suitable infrastructure, so developing sustainable transport infrastructure for the people living in these areas is as essential for improving their quality of life as it is for people living in rural areas.

It is clear that there are significant challenges in developing countries: on the one hand, providing transport is a necessary precondition to foster economic growth and social welfare. On the other hand, doing so in a sustainable manner is critical to prevent and avoid serious environmental and health implications. Meeting the increasing need and demand for transport in these parts of the world is crucial to help lift people out of poverty by providing access to economic and other opportunities. Developing a new sustainable transport system through effective planning and investing in transit infrastructure will help to avoid continued growth in private transport, which tends to be the most highly polluting and inefficient mode. Ambitious and affordable policy options are available with infrastructures such as BRT – this could help to clean up transport in developing countries and improve quality of life for those who live there.

Author Biography:

Clare Linton is a researcher at the University of Leeds. Her research examines pathways to a sustainable transport future, exploring both technological and behavioural approaches to the challenge. She has worked with the Institute for Public Policy Research and holds an MSc in Climate Change and Policy from the University of Sussex. Follow on Twitter: @ClareLLinton and LinkedIn.

[1] Particulate matter.

Photo Credit: Claudio Olivares Medina under a CC BY-ND-NC 2.0 Creative Commons license

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