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Dr Manu Sasidharan, Research Associate in Infrastructure Asset Management

Rebooting our travel behaviour and transport infrastructure management practices

Linear transportation networks (roads and railways) and associated infrastructure are considered as the largest public owned asset in most of the countries. Transportation networks not only provide mobility but also drive economic development, influence land use, urban planning, impact the environment and enhance the liveability. One of the important challenges facing many countries is to make its transport infrastructure to be resilient. Policies and governance structures that appraise transport investments and mobility startegies need to consider the impact of climate change, air and noise pollution, safety, congestion, low mobility, lack of equity and health impacts. Infrastructure investment appraisal processes are often hierarchical and demand discrete decision-making in risky environments. In practice, when decision-makers face many alternatives that are governed by political, economic, socio-cultural, technological, environmental and other external influences; they often resort to short-term strategies (usually based on limited and uncertain data), which not only ignores a holistic perspective but also fails to deliver sustainability and cater to resilience. Despite initiatives to improve the efficiency of transportation asset management practices, the budgetary constraints result in significant (unsustainable) increase in transport costs.

COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface interconnected social, economic and environmental issues the society as a whole must crucially address to resolve climate action challenges and achieve sustainability. Given the limited understanding of the epidemiology of COVID-19 and the lack of a vaccine, the transport sector can contribute greatly to tailoring public health interventions of human-mobility reduction and social-distancing. There is a need to achieve a trade-off between the potential public health benefits of closing public transport during a pandemic thereby delaying the community spread, against the socio-economic impacts of curtailing/reducing human mobility. Determining the vulnerability of regions/locations to COVID-19 might be helpful in achieving such trade-offs. At the same time, it is also imperative to recognise that we have a once in a generation opportunity to deliver transformative change in decarbonising transport if we look at COVID-19 as a ‘disruptive event’ that has brought about a range of changes in travel behavior. As the human-mobility choice in a post-COVID-19 world might incline towards private transport, increase in motorised transport poses a significant risk of increased greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, the increased usage puts pressure on existing and ageing transport infrastructures. Ongoing research at the Cambridge Centre for Smart Infrastructure and Construction (CSIC) is developing risk-informed and value-based asset management approaches for the transport industry to consider the macro economic benefits associated with delivering resilience of its infrastructure and services thereby increasing the value of transportation systems. Research is also ongoing at CSIC to address the ability of transport systems to quickly recover to acceptable levels of service after an extreme event.

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