Urban Mobility Problems
Nearly half of Europe’s 490 million citizens own a car. Major factors contributing to automobile dependency are:
- Consumer choice: Realistically, the car will remain the most popular transport mode because of its various advantages, such as comfort, status, speed and convenience.
- Under-pricing: Drivers do not bear the full cost of car use.
- Planning and investment practices: Public funds tend to centre on road and parking facilities, disregarding other transportation alternatives. This has created a vicious circle of congestion.
Infrastructure provision has not kept up with vehicle-fleet growth, causing extensive travel delays. In London, road traffic is actually slower now than it was in the days of horse-and-cart travel.
Urban productivity is highly dependent on the efficiency of its transport system to move workers, consumers and freight from one place to another. It is estimated that the economic costs of traffic congestion will reach 1% of EU GDP – around €105 billion per year – by 2010. Congestion also wastes fuel, increases air pollution, reduces public transit efficiency and spurs aggressive behaviour.
Land consumption & urban sprawl
Cities are expanding as land becomes scarcer. This is both a cause and consequence of the rising use of the personal car. (For more information on urban sprawl, see study by the European Environment Agency.)
Air pollution & Climate change
Road traffic in urban areas accounts for more than 10% of all emissions of carbon dioxide – the principal greenhouse gas – in the EU. With 4.3 million extra cars taking to Europe's roads each year, CO2 releases from transport could be 40% higher in 2010 than in 1990 – undermining efforts made by other industrial sectors to fulfil Europe's Kyoto commitments (see LinksDossier on climate change).
Road transport is also the main source of carbon monoxide and fine particulates, which pose serious health hazards, including respiratory problems such as asthma. Every year, 300,000 people are thought to die prematurely from air-pollution related diseases.
Increased traffic goes hand in hand with more accidents. One fatal traffic accident in three takes place in urban areas.
65% of the EU population is exposed to unacceptably high sound levels – most of this stemming from urban traffic. Noise can cause sleep disturbance and impair people’s learning, motivation and problem-solving abilities. An estimated 1,800 deaths - mostly in urban areas - are brought forward each year through excessive noise.
What can be done?
Subsidiarity vs EU Action - The EU Green Paper on Urban Transport
Each town has its own culture and specificities, so that local authorities are best-placed to decide on urban transport issues. The subsidiarity principle therefore applies to EU policies. However, the scale of problems suggests that action is needed at all levels: local, regional, national and European.
Since 2002, the Commission has supported an annual Mobility Week to raise awareness in European cities. It also has a number of policies and actions in place to promote the use of clean urban transport by local authorities and public transport operators.
Its main tools include the provision of financial support – notably through its Structural and Cohesion Funds and its Research Framework Programmes – for investments and projects that meet certain environmental priorities.
On September 2007, the Commission presented a Green Paper entitiled "Towards a new culture for urban mobility"
, to determine what more the EU can do to improve urban mobility, while taking this subsidiarity into account.
Promoting the use of cleaner vehicles
The EU has introduced compulsory caps on emissions of particulate matter, nitrogen oxides and hydrocarbons from petrol and diesel vehicles via its 'Euro' Directives (see LinksDossier on Euro V). Up till now, no binding limits have been introduced for CO2 emissions. The Commission is considering setting binding limits for cars in seprate legislation (EurActiv 22/01/07) but the Green Paper suggests it could also consider setting harmonised minimum performance standards for the operation of vehicle fleets.
Furthermore, in order to support the introduction of clean and energy-efficient vehicles by local governments, the Green Paper suggests reviving a proposal on 'green public procurement' of road vehicles. New rules could compel local authorites to include life-cycle energy consumption, CO2 and other pollutant emissions in the award criteria, in addition to the vehicle's price. The original 2005 legislative proposal would have required that 25% of all heavy-duty vehicles (buses and trucks of over 3.5 tonnes) purchased or leased by public bodies meet an EU "enhanced environmentally friendly" standard. However, MEPs rejected the proposal saying it was too weak. A new proposal could cover all vehicles.
To complement these measures, research into cleaner and safer transport has been given priority at EU level, under its Research Framework Programmes. The CIVITAS Initiative, which provides support for cities wishing to test and introduce innovative measures to improve urban mobility and re-balance the modal split towards sustainable transport modes, is a key element of the EU’s strategy.
Also, under seperate energy plans (see LinksDossier on energy package) the EU is encouraging the development of new forms of propulsion technology and alternative fuels (see LinksDossiers on alternative fuels and on biofuels for transport). A proposal on 'green propulsion' will be presented in 2009.
Stakeholders disagree on the importance of new infrastructure. Some say more roads will simply encourage automobile dependency, while others insist that lack of infrastructure worsens traffic jams. While new infrastructure will continue to have a place in overall strategies, the Commission says the priority should fist be on better management of existing infrastructure and reallocation of capacity to more sustainable modes of transport, due of the lack of space in cities.
Reducing the automobile’s share of urban trips
- Dissuasion - through reduction of road capacity or parking spaces - or prohibition, via pedestrianisation of city centres.
- Creating carpooling and 'high-occupancy' lanes.
- Pricing: Imposing tolls for parking and entry to parts of the city, as in London, Oslo and Stockholm, where drivers are charged upon entry of the city-centre congestion zone. Some vehicles could be exempt. Money raised could be reinvested in public transport and improving infrastructure. Despite its success (in London, traffic has been cut by roughly 20%, congestion by 30% and traffic-related emissions of CO2 by 20%, contributing an estimated £50 million per year of net transport benefits to the economy), congestion-charging remains politically controversial and expensive due to the high cost of microelectronics and the complexity of administration. Residents of Edinburgh resoundingly rejected such a scheme in 2005. But the Commission appears keen to facilitate the application of such tools, by creating a harmonised legal framework, which would lift restrictions currently imposed in some member states, including France and Denmark, that prevent local governments from introducing such charges.
- Quotas on the number of vehicles: Singapore is the only country in the world to have successfully controlled the growth rate of its vehicle fleet by imposing a "cap-and-trade" system, whereby car-owners must first bid for a licence at auction before their vehicles are allowed onto the road. These licences have now have become so expensive that it is cost- prohibitive to own a car.
Promoting the use of public transport
Public transit is not just a social service provided by local authorities to ensure a certain level of mobility for everyone. It is also the most efficient transport mode in terms of space consumption and air pollution per passenger. But it also faces a number of challenges:
- Financing: Erosion of public funding, fuel price hikes and competition from private cars mean that public transit lacks resources to invest in quality. Financing could be ensured via taxation or polluter-pays schemes. In 2000, the Commission presented a proposal aimed at making the public transport sector more efficient and profitable by introducing competitive tendering for public service contracts. But in 2005, it revised this proposal to allow municipal authorities more freedom to introduce competition or not.
- Competition from cars erodes public transport revenues and leads to a decline in public service efficiency as automobiles and public vehicles compete for the same infrastructure.
- Accessibility: People with reduced mobility – including the disabled and elderly, but also people with temporary injuries, babies or large amounts to carry – represent around 35-40% of EU citizens. As Europe's population ages, accessibility will become more and more of a problem.
- Decentralisation: Public-transit systems are not designed to service the low density and scattered urban areas that increasingly dominate the landscape (urban sprawl). The more urban activities are spread out, the more difficult and costly it becomes to serve them, especially for fixed infrastructures such as rail and metro.
Cycling and walking:
Up to half of all EU road trips are 5 km or less. Thus, walking and cycling can provide an easy alternative for many journeys. They can be encouraged through regulated access or pedestrianisation of cities' sensitive zones and the construction of cycle and pedestrian paths.
Shifting traffic to waterways:
Water runs through the heart of many European city centres, providing a sustainable way of reducing lorry traffic and maintaining the accessibility of economic centres. However, water transport activities also face strong competition from tourism, leisure and housing, and suffer from under-investment in innovative infrastructure projects, causing many ports to be congested. A shared use of the waterfront and more integrated urban planning could help to revive waterborne transport activities.