22 November 2021
Driving Home the Importance of Safe and Sustainable Mobility
Photo Credit: Kazuo Ota /Unsplash
story highlights

It still comes as a surprise to even the most informed among us that road fatalities are the number one cause of death in people aged 5 to 29 years old.

Five critical areas are scientifically proven to increase safe mobility; these should be addressed in efforts to include mobility in building back better.

By Nneka Henry, UN Road Safety Fund

The COVID-19 vaccine roll-out currently underway has prompted several countries and companies to shift their focus and investments back to the largely unfinished business of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Under the auspices of “building back better,” there is a renewed impetus to re-prioritize “people, planet and prosperity.”

Recognizing the crucial connection between health, environment, and transport, one way to give teeth to this renewed global development agenda is to invest in helping developing countries shape mobility in a positive way by embedding safe and sustainable mobility into stimulus packages and COVID-19 recovery programmes available across the world, which are estimated to be worth a total of USD15 trillion dollars.

Transport is the only sector whose greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing in recent years.


Eye-opening research by the World Health Organization (WHO) has shown that road traffic incidents claim the lives of nearly 1.3 million people every single year. Even more alarming, over 90% of fatal road incidents occur in developing countries, and many of the lives lost are vulnerable road users such as young children, pedestrians, and cyclists. It still comes as a surprise to even the most informed among us that road fatalities are the number one cause of death in people aged 5 to 29 years old.

During the first Decade of Action on Road Safety (2010-2020), important progress was made under the “people” pillar. Notable steps were: the appointment of a UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy on Road Safety; the inclusion of a SDG target calling to halve road traffic fatalities by 2030; and the establishment of the United Nations Road Safety Fund (UNRSF). In its three years of operation, the Fund is helping hundreds of policymakers, institutions, road safety designers, and enforcers in 30 countries to shape mobility in a safer and more sustainable way by elevating their national road safety systems to UN and international safety standards. Thanks to UNRSF projects, communities and families in beneficiary countries will be spared unnecessary road fatalities and injuries.

Road safety can be a low-cost, high-value undertaking. Each life-saving initiative – providing safe helmets for motorcyclists or building speed bumps – can be affordable on its own, ranging from ten cents to ten dollars per item. But the UNRSF estimates that up to USD 700 million dollars each year is required to facilitate the systemic transformation required, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, to halve road traffic deaths by 2030. In August 2020, in the height of the pandemic, countries decided not to wait to re-prioritize the importance of safe mobility and saving lives, resulting in the UN General Assembly launching a Second Decade of Action on Road Safety (2021-2030).

People must be at the centre of any effort to include mobility in building back better. This means moving from isolated country interventions towards a holistic systems approach that addresses the five critical areas which have been scientifically proven to increase safe mobility. This calls for government and corporate strategic priorities and budgets to align with the ambitious agenda to shape mobility in a much safer way, particularly in developing countries where resources and expertise for road safety are especially limited.


Transport is the only sector whose greenhouse gas emissions have been increasing in recent years. Road transport is the largest contributor to these emissions – 99% of which is CO2, due to the prevalence of fossil fuel supplied internal combustion engines. Since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that less than ten years remain to prevent irreversible damage from climate change, the link between road transport and climate change is an immediate concern.

The SDGs expressly recognize the need for sustainable mobility. Through SDG target 11.2, UN Member States call for “…access to safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all, improving road safety…with special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations.” Major economies, including the European Union, have been pursuing greener, more sustainable modes of transport. Sustainable mobility has also been a central theme to several UN Global Road Safety Week celebrations – notably in May 2021, with a focus on the benefits of lower speed limits for reducing fuel consumption and pollutant emissions. This year’s World Remembrance Day for Road Traffic Victims, commemorated on Sunday 21 November also focuses on speed management.

These efforts are essential. However, if we are to build back better for the planet, we must do so for all countries and at pace. The stakes are higher for developing countries that lack resources for tackling climate change – many of whom have openly called for greater financial and technical support. Many low- and middle-income countries that have been most affected by loss of life on unsafe roads are also the countries on the frontline in the war against climate change.

Some essential ingredients in more sustainable mobility in developing countries are innovative multi-sectoral partnerships and blended financing. Initiatives such as Vehicle Scrapping and Recycling in Egypt and Safer and Cleaner Used Vehicles in West and East Africa are examples of how international development assistance and corporate social responsibility grants can be invested to catalyze tangible and game-changing impacts on mobility where they are needed most.


The delayed mainstreaming of safe and sustainable mobility, including within development assistance programming by donors, also comes at a substantial economic cost. The WHO’s most recent Global Status Report on Road Safety indicates that road traffic incidents amounts to USD518 billion globally, or between 1-2 % of each country’s GDP. Moreover, the World Economic Forum’s Future of Nature and Business report predicts that a global pivot towards a nature-positive economy, which includes a systemic shift towards safer and sustainable shared mobility, could deliver USD10.1 trillion in annual business opportunities and 395 million jobs by 2030.

Many developed countries have successfully embraced safe and sustainable mobility through a smart mix of policy and legislative change, greener transport modalities, science-backed decision making, technological innovations and private sector investment. But this has not happened enough in developing countries. Given their many competing and compounded development priorities, stretched resources, and limited technical know-how, there is a real risk that low- and middle-income countries will be left behind, again, at the end of the of the Second Decade of Action in 2030.

In the world’s poorest households and communities, safe and sustainable mobility can yield multi-generational benefits ranging from food security to higher productivity and income generation to women’s empowerment and better access to quality education. Embedding safety and sustainability as a core value in mobility is a win for all. If prosperity is still a valid focus as we build back better, for everyone everywhere, it will require each of us to help drive home the importance of road safety.

Whether we travel as pedestrians, cyclists, bus passengers, motorcyclists, or drivers, all of us, through our governments or companies, can be pioneers for safe and sustainable mobility. 

related posts