Transportation has evolved over time, from relying on human power alone, animal riding and wheels that improved the speed and range of mobility. Then came the steam engine, combustible engine, gas engine, even an electric motor. Transportation has become so essential for human lives, moving both people (passenger transport) and goods (freight transport).
However, moving people and goods consumes a huge amount of energy. At the global level, the transportation sector constitutes more than one third of the total energy consumption in 2018, with considerably higher growth compared to other sectors in the last 10 years. Southeast Asia shares a similar story as transportation is one of the most energy-consuming sectors, only second to industry.
In 2018, energy consumed in the transportation sector equaled 141 metric tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe), almost the same size as the total energy consumed by Indonesia, according to the data by ASEAN Center for Energy (ACE). This lion’s share is projected to soar in the future to cope with the economic growth, even though the fuel economy is expected to increase.
The current COVID-19 pandemic, though, might give a hint of an alternative future; a future where instead of growing, mobility is reduced, even halted.
The fight against COVID-19 has inhibited mobility like nothing before. For a while, people are forced to change their behavior. They are confined to their homes, as they work and study from home. No more commuting to work. Rush hour has become as serene as the midnight hour.
Halted activities have hit the economy hard. Even so, curiously, some studies showed that work productivity can be maintained even from home. Various techniques are employed to maintain concentration and productivity, such as Pomodoro. One study even showed that remote employees can work more efficiently than usual.
With a limited impact on productivity, benefits are extensive. Operating costs for office space and supplies are reduced. Commuting becomes obsolete, freeing on average one and a half to three hours (Indonesia Traffic Watch (ITW)). This precious time can be used to sustain a healthy lifestyle, hobbies, family activities, exercises and rest. Such enlightenment might open the path for remote working policy.
Challenges, of course, are at every corner. Face-to-face communication still triumphs over online meetings, at least for now. But the “experiment” during the era of movement restrictions could become hints of the current limitation of remote working, waiting to be improved upon. Witnessing the astonishing development of information and communication technologies, such challenges would become a thing of the past in the next five or 10 years.
The transportation sector has transformed during the pandemic. People have shifted from public to private transportation over the fear of contagion. Overall, mobility is reduced. Although once it is over, transportation needs will return, including international transport; to some extent, behavioral changes due to COVID-19 will pertain post-pandemic.
The changes imposed by the health crisis might be temporary, but a future where mobility could be replaced by internet-based communication would be a reality — but perhaps not for all and not for the near future as we do still need physical transportation.
Freight transport, for starters, would remain unchanged. The movement of goods cannot be replaced by emails or messages after all. Human involvement, though, would be limited by the advancement of self-driving vehicles.
Passenger transportation, meanwhile, would be reduced. As the “experiment” during the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, proper use of information and communication technologies could replace office work. For instance, ACE has been replacing face-to-face meetings with virtual meetings, including official regional meetings.
Assuming work-related transportations is to be reduced to next to nothing, vehicles could only be required for leisure activities. The rise of e-commerce would further limit the need for passenger transport.
The pandemic provided us with an opportunity to change our lifestyle and massively reduce the use of transportation. It had led to blue skies in big cities, animals roaming around and the improvement of air and water conditions. This could be the beginning of an evolution of transportation, where mobility will be reduced to its bare minimum.
As transportation of the future focuses more on those that support supply chains and recreation, the industry would — and should — evolve accordingly. For example, seeing the shifting trend of consumption patterns to online-based transactions, the transportation industry could focus on modes that support more efficient online shopping, including two-wheeled vehicles and high load vehicles.
ACE data shows that 2018 transportation demand in the region was dominated by road transport, more than 90 percent. Out of this, 72 percent was served by buses, motorcycles, private passenger vehicles and taxis. Meanwhile, the remaining 28 percent is for trucks and others. Energy consumption reached 141 million tons of oil equivalent (Mtoe), with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions reaching 414 CO2 equivalent. The less mobile future could cut a huge chunk of such energy demand and related GHG emissions.
Moreover, lower transportation demand could provide opportunities to be fulfilled mostly by electric vehicles, replacing the conventional internal combustion engine vehicles. Supporting policies such as subsidy reallocation from fossil fuel-based transportation system to its climate-friendly alternatives could accelerate such opportunities.
On the other hand, information and communication technologies must be improved to seamlessly become the “vehicle” of the future. Acknowledging the challenges of working from home, such as focus, infrastructure, the innovative solution of “working near home” might help.
Such a concept would include the development of coworking spaces nearby suburban residential areas. In a broader perspective, urban planning should consider this approach as well, clustering sectors instead of building types. These would considerably cut commuting needs, as well.
The transportation system should also be infused with information and communication technology (ICT) solutions. Innovations such as driverless vehicles and smart public transport could improve mobility efficiency, cutting down energy demand and emissions further.
Cleaner mobility is inseparable from the trend in ICT. Interlinkages of both sectors would bring a less mobile future. Such is the direction of the transportation sector we envision going forward, which must be in the mind of policy makers.
Dr Zulfikar Yurnaidi is a senior officer of sustainable energy, renewable energy and energy efficiency at the ASEAN Center for Energy (ACE). Richard is an intern at the ASEAN Climate Change and Energy Project (ACCEPT). The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of institutions or organisations that the author may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity unless explicitly stated.
This Op-Ed originally appeared in The Jakarta Post, 18 August 2020.