The need to avoid crowded spaces led Europeans to opt for “private mobility modes”, such as cycling, walking, and private vehicles, according to the European Mobility Atlas 2021, a report analysing key facts and figures about transport in Europe.
European travellers abandoned public transport for private cars during the COVID-19 pandemic, a trend that may harm efforts to drastically cut emissions in the sector, the report found.
Even though sales of bicycles skyrocketed during the pandemic, the most popular means of transport for longer journeys remained the private car.
Air pollution plummeted in the early days of the pandemic, as coronavirus lockdown measures implemented across Europe emptied the streets from traffic. However, improvements in air quality and carbon emissions are “likely to be temporary,” said the European Environment Agency in November.
Still, the European Commission’s climate chief, Frans Timmermans, saw positive signs that transport habits may be shifting in the long term.
Lockdown measures, coupled with the ongoing shift to green transport, is causing a “relatively radical and profound change in the way we organise our mobility,” Timmermans said at the report launch on Wednesday (3 February).
The Dutch EU commissioner expressed hope that 2021, which the EU has dubbed the ‘European Year of Rail’, will see an upturn in train travel, which offers an alternative to flying.
“It is totally unacceptable that we have short-haul flights. Between Amsterdam and Brussels there are, in normal times, four or five flights a day, which should be considered nonsensical,” he said.
Air travel was highlighted as a particularly polluting travel mode enjoyed by a minority. Over 80% of the global population has never taken a flight, while just under half of UK residents don’t fly at all, according to the report.
“The current state of affairs reflects a clear imbalance. We need to implement a ‘polluter pays’ principle across all means of transport,” said Dr Ellen Ueberschär, president of the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a policy think tank affiliated with the German Green Party and the foundation behind the report.
For Timmermans, it is important to underline that any move towards green transport must be egalitarian.
“The one thing that could derail the Green Deal, is the reality – or the impression – that this is something for well-to-do, Tesla driving, tofu eaters,” he said. “We can not afford to leave anybody behind in this.”
Transport is responsible for around 30% of total EU greenhouse gas emissions, making it a focus for reduction measures.
Emissions in the sector fell in 2020 as lockdowns brought in to contain the virus saw previously office-bound commuters work from home, while air travel came to a virtual standstill.
In April, flight passenger levels dropped by 90% compared to the same month in 2019. Airlines across the continent are now seeking bailouts to the tune of €32.9 billion to cover the downturn wrought by the crisis.
“The pandemic has shifted our perspective regarding the infrastructure that we need and use for interconnectedness and mobility all over Europe today,” said Ueberschär.
[Edited by Frédéric Simon]