How flexible transport helped save lives and provide support in Ukraine

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Shin-pei Tsay, Director, Policy for Cities and Transportation, Uber Technologies, Abhinav Bahl, Senior Manager, Global Social Impact & Community Engagement, Uber

  • When Russia invaded Ukraine, transit became a critical safety issue for both people and aid organizations of various kinds.
  • Ride-sharing tech helped get doctors to hospitals, families across the border and cultural artefacts to safety.
  • The experience in Ukraine highlights how public-private collaboration is essential to mounting an effective crisis response.

When Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine on 24 February 2022, no one knew what would happen next. How long would it last and where would the next barrage land?

Existing systems were put under strain or collapsed – as is the case in any crisis – but the urgency of the situation meant new ones were quickly required in their place.

In such situations, partnerships between all sectors – public, private and social – can prove key – as was highlighted in regards to transport at the outbreak of the Ukraine invasion.

In the case of Uber, the ride hailing company initially paused its service to assess the situation and implement safeguards. But as the conflict unfolded, the need to move people to safety and supplies to communities in need became clear.

With the electrical grids and transit lines disrupted, municipal authorities in Ukraine asked Uber to turn its service back on as basic infrastructure broke down.

People with vehicles wanted to help transport others to safety or to healthcare. Doctors and nurses needed rides to the hospital.

Meanwhile, aid organizations trucking in supplies needed last-mile distribution in smaller vehicles. Even cultural artefacts needed to be moved away from danger.

Since turning service back on, the company doubled its footprint from nine cities to 18. More than 25,000 drivers have used Uber’s platform in Ukraine since the invasion.

Flexibility was critical in an emergency

Large-scale organizational response to a crisis will always be necessary, but it became clear that flexibility to meet ever changing needs on the ground is also critical in an emergency.

For example, an initial attempt to distribute free-ride vouchers for healthcare workers through centralized channels led to weak uptake because those central organisations were overwhelmed.

Uber’s local team realized that healthcare workers were continuing to struggle to get to the hospital and so worked with nimble local non-governmental organizations to send representatives to the hospitals to individually meet doctors and nurses, tell them directly about the service, and show them how to use the free ride vouchers.

The initiative now covers more than 100 hospitals across Ukraine and has already provided more than 180,000 free rides for frontline healthcare workers.

Another alarming development underscored the added value of flexible transit. Large congregations of people trying to leave the country from concentrated chokepoints like train stations created the risk of mass casualties in the event of a missile strike.

Point-to-point car and shuttle van services had the unplanned but added safety benefit of distributing refugees across multiple pickup points. Refugees fleeing the conflict were able to open Uber’s app and request a free car or shuttle van ride to safety, with Uber ultimately providing more than 150,000 of these relief rides.

As aid organizations ramped up, transporting supplies within Ukraine experienced a well-known urban problem: last-mile delivery challenges. It became clear that the distribution of emergency food, medicine, and housing supplies would often require smaller trucks and vans to reach many of the final recipient communities.

Uber supported Ukraine relief effort

In response, Uber built a customized logistics platform for United Nations relief agencies and delivered more than 220 truckloads of emergency supplies at no cost.

The platform allows relief agencies to dispatch vehicles on demand to their central warehouses in Ukraine, calculate delivery routes, coordinate with recipients, confirm drop-offs, and provide tracking and inventory updates in real time.

The most recent deliveries have focused on emergency winter shelter supplies – for example, blankets, stover, tarps to seal shattered windows – for the hardest-hit suburbs of Kyiv and eastern frontline areas.

One of the more unexpected consequences of the war involved The Smithsonian Institute and US State Department reaching out to partner on protecting Ukrainian cultural heritage that was under attack.

Uber responded by building a custom version of the app to provide free on-demand transport to teams of conservationists from Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture to locate and protect tens of thousands of artefacts of irreplaceable value to Ukrainian cultural heritage and independent national identity.

The app enabled the Transport of Ministry experts across more than 45,000 km to reach more than 200 cultural and historical sites in cities, towns and villages across Ukraine.

The teams have secured priceless artworks, archives and other artefacts on-site where possible, while evacuating those at greatest risk for storage in secure locations.

Public-private collaboration is key

Under normal circumstances, any system benefits from more options, whether through trains or trucks or cars or through various operators, to move people and goods.

But in a crisis situation, with great unpredictability and lives at stake, those options become paramount. War-time conflict may be one extreme but nearly every place will experience more natural disasters due to climate change.

In a world of uncertainty, disruption is all but guaranteed, and adaptable systems that can flexibly work with partners can fill critical gaps in a crisis.

Such partnerships come with multiple challenges and lessons to be learned. Here are a few takeaways from our experience:

1. An existing relationship is the best way to enable action

While we had some relationships on the ground, we had to quickly forge new ones on the go. Investing in relationship building before a crisis can reduce response times and help mobilize resources quickly.

2. Local trust is important

Our team on the ground received first-hand information about the developing situation and adjusted their responses hour by hour. Their presence helped all our collaborators – from hospitals and NGOs to Ukraine’s Ministry of Culture – to understand the role we could play. They were therefore able to provide important information in near real-time, allowing us to respond quickly and appropriately and build trust through action.

3. Many partners all the time

An openness towards partnership with all organizations who were effectively serving urgent needs on the ground helped bridge institutional gaps between the public, private and social sectors that otherwise threatened to delay urgently needed action.


How is the World Economic Forum helping to improve humanitarian assistance?

Fragility and conflict in one country often has consequences around the world. This has been evidenced by the COVID-19 pandemic, numerous climate emergencies as well as the war in Ukraine and the ensuing refugee crisis. Regions affected by conflict are particularly vulnerable to the devastating impacts of these crises.

Urgent relief, supported by public-private partnerships, remains necessary in acute crises but it is essential those efforts are supplemented by long-term investments that help affected communities recover and rebuild.

The World Economic Forum is working with partners to identify and scale solutions in fragile parts of the world. The Humanitarian and Resilience Investing (HRI) Initiative seeks to unlock private capital so it flows into financially sustainable opportunities that benefit vulnerable communities. The Global Future Council on the New Agenda for Fragility and Resilience provides guidance to humanitarian and development actors as well as the private sector to improve support to local actors and facilitate responses that strengthen community resilience.

To learn more and get involved in initiatives that are improving millions of lives, contact us.

These are, of course, good lessons to keep in mind for providing options and flexibility in any locality during “normal” times.

However, they also enable a more resilient response in a time of crisis, as the experience in Ukraine shows.

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