Welcome to the United Nations
Rural Transport

Reaching the most remote: rural transport challenges and opportunities

Saturday,  26 November, 3:00 – 4:30 P.M.

Lead entity: Department of Economic and  Social Affairs


Transport is a key enabler of multiple SDGs, allowing people—including women, smallholder farmers and other inhabitants of rural areas—to access markets, employment, health  andeducation services, social interaction and the world beyond their village or local community. To  ensure that such access is sustainable,  economic, social and environmental priorities must be taken into account in a manner that advances the development objectives of current generations without undermining the wellbeing of  future generations. Sustainable transport priorities for rural areas must therefore go beyond simply building more all-­‐weather roads. At the same time, viable solutions to transport gaps must be an integral  part of any strategies that  that seek to ‘leave  no one behind.’

Depending on the context, road, water and air links can all be vital for  rural areas – but both coverage and quality tends to be poor. For  example, estimates using the World Bank’s  Rural Access Index (RAI) and 2015 population data suggest that over 1.3 billion people worldwide lack access to roads in rural areas. In Sub-­‐Saharan Africa, lack of access affect 66  per cent of the rural population, or about 411 million people. Lack of accessibility is also high in Asia-­‐Pacific region (37 per cent of rural population or 794 million people), in Latin America and the Caribbean (40 per cent or 50 million people), and in the Middle-­‐East and North Africa region (40 per cent or 60  million people), and relatively lower in Europe and Central Asia (18 per cent or 47 million people).

Achieving  the 2030 Agenda in the rural context will require a holistic approach to transport, and other  complementary interventions: infrastructure improvements, technology transfer and innovation, policies and planning that encourage smooth inter-­‐modal connections,  promotion of health and safety an emphasis on active mobility, and local economic and social development. Opportunities for a green path to these objectives must be  maximized, with an eye  to leapfrogging over unsustainable  practices when possible.

Remote rural areas  are often  cut off from economic opportunities, markets, and public  services. While other forms of  communication—such as mobile phones—have   hown  great success in connecting the ‘last mile’, this  remains a particularly  acute challenge for the physical movement of people and goods in  the rural context of  developing countries. Such deprivation can lock people into low productivity and poorer outcomes for wellbeing along any  dimensions, with disproportionately large effects for women, children, the elderly and the disabled.

Evidence  shows that levels of poverty among rural people in remote areas frequently increase in proportion to how far they must walk to get to the nearest road or waterway. In sub-­‐Saharan Africa, agricultural  production in areas more than eight  hours’ travel time  from a town of 100,000 people is reported to be at five per cent of its potential, compared  with 45 per cent  of its potential in areas less than  four hours’ travel time away.  Poor access to  transport is  a major  cause of peri-­‐natal mortality resulting from inadequate transport to access basic health  facilities and  transport for  referrals to hospitals. The consequences of such limited options for transport compound the atastrophic  effects of natural disasters.

Challenges to  establishing appropriate transport  solutions can become  self-­‐perpetuating. Low population densities  and low income levels  in rural areas  can make certain transport options  economically unviable—but the  lack of such options can lead to the migration of productive workers and their families to urban areas, further lowering  the prospects for economic viability. Difficult terrain, fragile ecosystems or a relative lack of voice in the decision-­‐making process can all add to the challenge of finding effective solutions.

If properly designed  and implemented, rural  infrastructure investment can  help to reduce  inequality. However,  investments can  disproportionally benefit the upper  socio-­‐economic strata if the needs of marginalized groups are not taken into account. Indeed quite often, transport planning and decision making tend to be conducted as a technocratic process with minimal  information released  to the public until construction begins.

Infrastructure investment  in rural  areas  has received  much attention over  the last  three decades.  New designs of  trail bridges  and footpath construction  have been developed  and tested by local  communities. Some countries, such as Lesotho  and Nepal, even have  specific units  responsible for installing and maintaining rural footbridges. A rural transport project in  Peru rehabilitated  and maintained  7000 km of trails, primarily used by women and children.  The government of India has made a policy  decision  to   connect all  villages with more  than 500 inhabitants (250 inhabitants  in the  remoter areas)  to an all-­‐weather  road. China  also aims to connect all “administrative villages” to all-­‐ weather roads.

The benefits  from such  developments—particularly for  the poor—is also  well documented.  In Viet  Nam, poor  households living in  rural communes with  paved roads  have a  67 per cent  higher probability of  escaping poverty than  those in communes without  paved roads; an  evaluation of a  World Bank-­‐funded rural road rehabilitation project found that the strongest positive impact was for the poorest households. In particular, the time saved in reaching habitual destinations was highly significant for the poorest 40 per cent of  households. Many studies linking  road access  to  agriculture have  shown that the  construction of rural  roads has led to increased agricultural production: one review  of 25 studies relating to rural transport in various countries found that investment in this type of infrastructure enhanced agricultural production, employment, living standards and poverty reduction. Others have shown that new roads are correlated with lower input prices and freight costs in India, with inc  asing crop outputs in Ethiopia and increasing cultivated farm areas in Nicaragua.

Such improvements are not confined to incomes alone. In  Peru, a  program that aimed to  maintain rural pathways and feeder-­‐roads also increased primary school enrolment for girls by seven per cent, and secondary school attendance  for boys  by 10 per cent. School  attendance increased by 22 per cent as a result of an Indian project building new village roads. In particular, enrolment from disadvantaged groups increased significantly, and there was a five per cent improvement in primary educational enrolment for children ages five to 14, without significant gender differences.

Better rural infrastructures facilitate women’s movement, empowerment and overall emancipation. In Peru, rural road projects increased women’s income by 14 per cent, primary school attendance by girls by seven per cent, and the number of visits by women and children to health centers by 55 per cent. Reducing the cost and time to reach health enters  through improved transport frequently leads to an increase in timely access of the poor to health care.

Regional transit corridors including the Northern  Corridor in Africa  and the “One Belt One Road”  project in China combine road, rail and waterway transport to facilitate regional trade. These transit corridors can also serve to connect rural communities and enhance their access to markets  and services. Some countries, including in the Amazon Basin, are  working to use inland waterways and coastal marine transport to connect communities in remote and low population areas.

A richer understanding of these multifarious benefits  can help improve the design and effectiveness of interventions, and strengthen the case for making them in the first place. Indeed, experiences from Bangladesh, Cameroon, China, Ethiopia, India, Viet Nam and other countries have shown that  investment in secondary rural roads tends to have a high positive impact on many areas compared to investment in higher-­‐volume roads.

Rural transport investments are most effective when devoted to rural community roads, paths and trails. A study from Nepal has shown very high benefit-­‐cost ratios for new rural roads. A study of public  investments in rural  Uganda suggested that the most basic ‘feeder’ roads had a benefit-­‐cost ratio of 7.2, with 34 people taken out of poverty for each million shillings invested. In contrast, the benefit-­‐cost ratios of gravel roads were not significant. The greatest returns to investments in China have come from construction of low-­‐volume rural roads, as  their benefit-­‐cost ratios  were found to be four times greater for national GDP than investments in high-­‐volume roads.

Rural  infrastructure projects need to be included in participatory processes that involve local communities. Participatory planning tools such as the Sustainable Transport Appraisal Rating (STAR), developed by the Asian Development  Bank, and the Integrated Rural Accessibility Planning (IRAP) allow consulting with local communities when preparing investment plans based on multi-­‐ dimensional measurement tool that includes economic, poverty and social, environmental and sustainability risk criteria. In its recent report, Mobilizing  sustainable Transport for Development, the Secretary-­‐General’s High-­‐Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport recommends that governments “seek inputs, buy-­‐in and, when possible, co-­‐creation, from a wide range of stakeholder groups when making transport planning,  policy, infrastructure and system decisions.”

Possible questions for discussion:

1. How  can local and regional communities become more engaged in designing and attracting rural transport solutions that would enable them to increase their productivity and incomes? 

2. How can a holistic approach to rural transport both increase and benefit from the development of gender equality and women’s empowerment? 

3. How can technology  and rural transport initiatives better connect smallholder farmers to markets? 

4. How can transportation initiatives in remote areas work to enhance environmental  sustainability? 

5. What kinds of partnership are  needed between public and  private actors to deliver on the potential and promise of rural transport solutions for the SDGs?