Cutting-edge technology may seem to offer the mobility solutions of the future but what is really needed is a remaking of our transport system to ensure it is accessible, affordable, and sustainable, argues Ciarán Cuffe.
Ciarán Cuffe is an Irish member of the European Parliament affiliated with the Greens/EFA group. He is a member of the Parliament’s transport and energy committees.
Will it be hyperloops and flying cars, or quieter streets and cleaner air? Hopefully, the latter will come to pass as Europe reinvents transport over the coming decades.
Keeping to our climate targets can improve lives: reliable trains, less emissions, and fifteen-minute neighbourhoods where all that you need can be reached within a short bike ride or a few minutes’ walk.
The EU has given citizens and businesses the opportunity to work, travel and trade across the continent. This has fostered cultural exchange, allowed people to follow their dreams, and fostered economic growth.
However, the transport system that facilitates this movement comes with a cost. A 2016 study commissioned by DG MOVE found that the external costs for transport in the EU amount to €987 billion per year.
These costs are in terms of air and noise pollution, climate change, well-to-tank emissions, accidents, congestion, and habitat damage. Amounting to around 6.6% of EU GDP, they have real life consequences.
For example, in 2019 over 300,000 people died prematurely due to exposure to fine particulate matter pollution in the EU.
This shows that our transport system isn’t working for EU citizens. But it’s not just in terms of these external costs: it’s also not working for women, for people with reduced mobility, for many workers, the poor and for those suffering from transport poverty.
The journey to better transport is complex, but it must be fair. Simply put, the future of transport should be inclusive and rectify these injustices so that everyone can travel in a safe, secure, accessible, affordable, and sustainable way.
Unfortunately, the Commission’s Smart and Sustainable Mobility Strategy, unveiled to much fanfare in December 2020, fails to outline this vision, offering half-measures, flawed policy choices and a lack of ambition on social and environmental aspects.
To give just one example – it fails to envision a climate-neutral transport system by 2050, the latest date by which the EU should legally eliminate all emissions.
Road transport presents the biggest headache, as it is the largest contributor to the negative externalities from transport. Our cities are clogged with people sitting in individual cars, producing emissions, air and noise pollution, causing accidents, and taking up huge amounts of public space.
The Commission has set a goal of at least 30 million zero-emission vehicles by 2030 on EU roads, but there were 264 million cars in the EU in 2017 alone.
Electrification is essential to decarbonising road transport and I welcome the proposal on alternative fuels infrastructure, but we need to make payment options as consumer-friendly as possible, and avoid investing in hydrogen for road, a technology that should be reserved for hard-to-abate sectors like shipping.
We also need 2030 as the absolute latest date for the phase out of the internal combustion engine.
However, emissions and environmental damage caused by the extraction and production processes means we cannot replace every car on the planet with an electric one.
The future of road transport in Europe is less cars. It’s more active travel, electrified public transport and shared mobility.
We need free or low-cost public transport, and innovative rural mobility solutions. Right now, we are seeing a revolution in European cities, with huge increases in active mobility. This shows that the right infrastructure changes behaviour and reduces negative externalities.
Active mobility offers a healthy, and inclusive way for cities to decarbonise, improve road safety and reclaim public space. This approach must be an EU priority and be at the core of the upcoming Urban Mobility Framework and TEN-T revision due in December.
At times there is a tendency to we focus on the new for the sake of the new, despite the associated costs. While flying taxis and hyperloops are exciting technologies, they are either prohibitively expensive when compared to perfectly good existing solutions, or come with their own costs in terms of noise, congestion and security.
We need to rethink our whole approach to transport, thinking in terms of transport sufficiency for example.
Turning to aviation, this mode produces the highest CO2 emissions per passenger km travelled. Despite this, the polluter pays principle is not applied to the sector (subsidies, tax exemptions, free allowances under the ETS, and no regulation of the non-CO2 effects) but both industry and EU leaders continue to promote endless growth.
The hard truth is that frequent fliers making up just 1% of the world’s population are responsible for more than half of total passenger aviation emissions. Meanwhile, only 11% of the world’s population travelled by air in 2018.
Unfortunately, technological solutions for the decarbonisation of aviation are a long way off, which is why pricing the true cost of aviation and a move towards more sustainable modes must be the immediate priority.
This will incentivise innovation and reduce emissions. We need a frequent flyer levy, and a move away from short-break flights, which are bad for people, workers, and the planet. Instead, we can support eco-tourism, which prioritises local economies and the environment.
Short-haul journeys can be serviced by sustainable modes. Already, there are important moves in this direction but we need action at EU level. And while we must support truly sustainable aviation fuels, this cannot be a distraction from fair pricing and modal shift.
In shipping, there are many challenges, but a mixture of support for wind power, electrification, slow-steaming, short-sea shipping, renewable hydrogen, and renewable hydrogen-based ammonia offers the most sustainable path for decarbonising shipping – not fossil gas.
The future of transport will of course involve much more rail. Rail is one of the cleanest transport modes available, capable of transporting people and goods long distances.
We need to invest significantly in rail, focusing more on the connections used by the majority of people each day – regional, urban and suburban rail, small cross-border missing links – and less on the mega projects, often delayed and over budget.
Night trains are making a comeback and offer a comfortable and sustainable way to travel long distances, and we need huge investment in rolling stock.
But ticketing remains a nightmare for people, and we need the Commission to urgently propose legislation that introduces multimodal ticketing, and through-ticketing in rail.
To promote modal shift, we also urgently need the Commission to come forward with an ambitious proposal on combined transport as soon as possible.
My colleague MEP Grace O’Sullivan is rapporteur on the 8th Environmental Action programme legislation.
The European Parliament position focuses on creating a framework that will advance the EU towards a well-being economy where we measure economic progress by looking at more than just GDP growth, the endless pursuit of which is fundamentally unsustainable.
Instead, a well-being economy measures progress by looking at the health of our citizens and the planet, allowing us to look “beyond GDP”.
Public interest should shape economic choices, and this should drive our policy choices in all areas, including transport: building a transport system that serves the interests of all generations, current and future, and not just the interests of the few.
As we work to make the European Green Deal a reality, we have a historic opportunity to make transport safe, secure, accessible, affordable, and sustainable for all.