MEP Gyula Hegyi: ‘Making EU cities sustainable’

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This article is part of our special report Industrial revival.

The congestion and pollution problems facing Europe's cities are worsening. MEP Gyula Hegyi, who wrote Parliament's report on the EU urban-environment strategy, tells EURACTIV what he believes that Europe should do to improve the situation.

What do you think are the major challenges faced by Europe's cities today?

As I was general rapporteur in the Parliament on a sustainable urban- development strategy, I think, of course, that there are a lot of issues that should be mentioned. 

But one of the most important, for me, is public transport, because the main source of air pollution is traffic – not industry or housing. 

In Budapest, for instance, many factories have been closed over the past twenty years. We also switched to central heating. Yet still the pollution is still increasing and becoming more and more of a problem – and the biggest source is transport. 

Also, transport is not only an environmental, but also a social issue. And I think that everybody should have access to transportation, either individual or public. 

It's also very important to have a good connection between the suburbs and the downtown centre of the city. For instance, the divide is highest in Paris, in the 'banlieues'. Of course, the people living in banlieues had many complaints when the riots took place in 2005, but one of them was that, during the night, there no public transport between Paris and the banlieues, so the people are really closed in. They cannot go for entertainment all over the city – they have to stay among those huge block houses. 

So that's why public transport is very important. Not only because it means less pollution and better energy efficiency, but also because it has a social importance. 

What's the situation of public transport in the new member states?

Twenty years ago, the new member states had an excellent network of public transport. The proportion of public transport inside overall transportation was far higher – and has remained far higher – than in the old member states. But it is decreasing and I think we are really in the 24th hour, we have to stop this process. 

In principle, the European Union always speaks about the importance of public transport – to have fewer cars and more tramways, or buses, or undergrounds. But then, in practice, where there are parts of the European Union in which public transport is still higher, the EU doesn't do anything or does very little to improve the situation. 

That's why I think it's very important that the European Union reserves more money for improving public transport. Also, for instance, in Hungary, there's a big debate on what kind of public transport should be co-financed by EU money. But I think it's very important to have a balanced fund, not only for a certain type of underground system or tramway, but for all kinds of systems. 

Another problem in the new member states is that, although they still have networks that are bigger than in an average Western European city, these networks are a little run-down, very uncomfortable. So, if you don't improve them, people won't use them. 

Would you be in favour of rules dictating that a proportion of EU funds should go towards this?

Yes, yes. That would be a good idea. Also when I made my report, I made a recommendation – which was not accepted by the Parliament, or, rather it was accepted as a recommendation and not as a binding target – that in five years, all European cities which have more than 100,000 inhabitants should make a 5% shift from individual to public transport. It means that they have to increase by 5% the rate of the use of public transport. And other people have suggested – it's a very interesting idea – 1% per year. It’s almost the same at the end of the day, but yes, I would be very happy, not only having an obligatory rate of funds going towards public transport, but also a binding target on how to increase the rate of the public transport in our cities. 

And what kind of policies should cities implement in order to reach this target?

The funding and low-emission zones are also very important. Speed limits can also play a very important role, as they have done in Graz – a 30 kilometre-per-hour speed limit. And then, of course, the congestion-charge system, which works quite well in London. It also works in Stockholm. And it now seems that the Mayor of New York, is also thinking of employing this system. 

However, I think that every city should find its own best solution. For instance, if you look at Budapest, it is in two parts – Buda and Pest – and there are eight, nine or ten bridges. Almost everybody crosses a bridge at least twice a day. So, instead of placing very expensive electronic surveillance systems, you could just solve the city-centre congestion problem with a bridge toll, which could cover around 90% of all trips. 

You mentioned the congestion charge and low-emission zones. What's the difference between the two? 

In the congestion-charge system, you charge every car that enters the zone. In the low-emission zone, you can establish some criteria so that certain cars, with approved, limited emissions, can enter – and for instance trucks, huge lorries, cars with more energy consumption and of course pollution, are forbidden. London is actually moving towards this kind of system. 

One argument often used against congestion charging is freight. Because of course, the concept of a sustainable city also means keeping the economy going and shutting off cities is often a real problem for freight operators…

Actually, this makes me think of a very good quotation I read recently. It was the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, and he gave an excellent answer. He said: "Using economics to influence public behaviour is something this country is built on – it’s called capitalism." So I think that's my answer – if you have a capitalist system, you should use financial and economic tools not only for bad things but also for good things – to have a cleaner city. 

So what are you hoping will come out of the Commission's Green Paper on Transport? Do you think the EU can – or will – do something to improve the situation?

Well, as a politician I have to be optimistic and I think that sooner or later everybody will realise that things cannot go on as they are. In day time, in rush hour, if you want to cross the bridge in Budapest, a distance of two kilometres can take half an hour or forty or fifty minutes to travel – this is unrealistic. And people are buying more and more cars, and, of course, the jams are becoming more and more problematic. 

So, hopefully the Green Paper might suggest some targets to limit the growth in car use… At least, it will speak about the possibility of having binding targets, and then perhaps, in the future, maybe… 

When I made my report on the sustainable urban development strategy, the Commission – Commissioner Dimas personally – promised me that there would be some kind of Directive or new Report around 2009 or 2010. So I hope that there will be a follow-up. 

Making cities sustainable also requires action in areas other than transport, doesn't it?

Yes, of course. It is not only about public transport. For example, there is a very new phenomenon because of climate change: the heat waves in the cities. Summers are becoming hotter and hotter, less and less tolerable, and more and more people die because of these heat waves. I believe that we should have a strategy to combat heat waves, including architectural tools such as green facades, water on the roofs. And of course we have to think about the central heating – district heating – systems also. 

So there is a need for better planning in cities?

Yes, first of all the planning. For example, cities need so-called air corridors, so that air can come in from the outside. Big houses should not be built in these air corridors. However, if it is too late to do this, you need to have technical and architectural solutions such as green roofs, putting water on the top, having different kinds of materials and facades – that’s the second solution. And if these two solutions are not enough, then we can look at the heating and air-conditioning. 

Am I right in thinking that the heating and cooling issue is a particular problem in new member states?

Housing is the biggest energy-consumer in Europe. And in new member states, houses consume a lot more energy because the district heating system is very inefficient. In certain countries, district heating is more expensive than individual heating – two or even three times more expensive. 

This also has a social effect, because it is mostly the poor and lower- and middle-class people who are living in those huge dividing houses where they have central or district heating. If district heating is more expensive than individual gas heating, this is bad domestic legislation. 

Also, individual gas consumption is subsidised by the state, and district heating by companies. So it means that if you are using a district heating system, then you pay more, because you don't pay directly to the gas company. 

The Commission should have a plan on district heating, and it should be linked to district cooling. In all this time, we've been talking only about energy-efficient heating and nobody has thought to link together heating and cooling. 

Which other areas need to be worked on?

Well, if we are talking about sustainable cities, green areas are also very important. And that is a sector in which the Union can do something. 

Instead of funding or co-funding greenfield investment, the Union should push countries by saying: 'If you need co-financing for certain investments, please use your brownfields – so, the city's industrial and commercial areas that have been abandoned or are not used – instead of greenfield areas.' In this way, the Union really can influence the decision-making process. 

What would you say is most lacking at present in EU policies on cities?

Generally the importance of the city is not seen in the EU projects and funds. 

Imagine that 80% of EU citizens are living in towns and cities. And their interests are not really represented. 40% of our entire budget goes towards agriculture. The rest goes towards cohesion and infrastructure funds, and most of this money also goes to the countryside. 

It doesn't mean that people living in the cities are poorer than people living in the country. That’s not what I'm saying. But as a group, citizens living in cities are not targeted properly by the Union's funds. That's my main message. 

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