The European Commission has been urged to set up a multi-billion euro grant scheme for zero-emission buses and to help cities build new cycle paths, as part of the EU’s coronavirus recovery package.
City officials from Bonn, Brussels, Dublin and Milan – whose populations total a combined 7.5 million people – have called on the Commission to boost public transport during the post-virus rally, suggesting a zero-emissions bus fund worth €3.5 billion.
In a joint letter – also signed by five civil society groups – the officials say that “public transport has suffered immense loss of revenue; it will need to be supported to ensure attractive services and, at the same time, achieve climate and air quality goals.”
Coronavirus lockdown measures significantly reduced the amount of journeys on public transport in March and April, as governments across Europe and the world advised against unnecessary trips and in favour of remote work.
The number of bus, metro and tram rides have begun to pick up again, as coronavirus cases start to decrease, and the Commission has issued guidance that includes the wearing of masks on board vehicles and at transport hubs.
But mobility experts have warned that social-distancing measures and a shift in public opinion could hurt transport providers in the long-run if they are not given the support needed to make their services attractive again.
“There is a risk that rather than returning to public transport, commuters will shift to individual, fossil-powered vehicles, leading to a rebound in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and pollution in the coming months,” the letter insists.
The note – addressed to EU climate chief Frans Timmermans and transport Commissioner Adina Vălean – lists not only the clean bus fund but also money for initiatives like high-speed internet on board vehicles and zero-emission taxis.
It adds that resources should be allocated from the EU’s Connecting Europe Facility (CEF) and that the idea is fully in line with the bloc’s marquee economic policy, the Green New Deal.
According to an attached annex, the €3.5bn would ensure all newly-purchased urban buses in the EU – some 12,000 – would be zero-emission by the mid-2020s and the level of grants per bus would fall from an initial €150,000 to €15,000 by 2027 as a result.
Electric buses are still more expensive to buy than their diesel equivalents and associated charging infrastructure is still a hefty expense for city authorities. Manufacturers have only just started to ramp up the choice available for prospective buyers.
The fund would not be targeted solely at electric-battery vehicles, as the letter says that “in the procurement of zero-emission buses, it must follow the principle of technology neutrality to provide the necessary flexibility for local adjustments and promote innovation.”
Buses that run on alternative fuels like hydrogen have already been put into service across Europe, with many cities announcing ambitious fleet-renewal schemes for the next few years. The ‘technology neutral’ mantra would also make it an easier sell for the Commission.
A major challenge would be to make bus-fleet upgrades a pan-EU mission, as according to data from 2018, just five countries – France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and the UK – accounted for more than half of electric bus purchases.
It is also an area in which Europe once again lags significantly behind China, which according to some estimates accounts for more than 95% of the global electric bus fleet.
According to draft documents seen by EURACTIV, clean-mobility funding is already in the works for the trillion-euro recovery package – due to be presented in some form later this week – as Timmermans intends to set aside up to €60bn for research and development.
As part of a €100bn-strong warchest, rail transport and incentives for green car-scrappage schemes would also get more money.
Cycling and walking are also championed in the letter sent to the Commission, which calls for a grant system aimed at helping cities “construct permanent safe cycling infrastructure and widen footpaths as soon as possible”.
Many European cities – including Brussels, Rome and Paris – have already provided new cycle paths, while some governments have issued grants for two-wheeled purchases. Italian citizens living in towns of 50,000 people or more are entitled to a €500 voucher, for example.
(Edited by Frédéric Simon)