Urban Transport


In September 2007, the Commission presented the outlines of a new ‘urban strategy’, which lays out a large range of potential solutions and areas where the EU could take action in order to tackle the growing congestion, pollution and safety problems in Europe’s cities.

Cities generate 75-85% of the EU’s GDP. Creating a high-quality urban environment is a priority of the 
renewed Lisbon Strategy
– to "make Europe a more attractive place to invest and work" – in order to enhance its potential for economic growth and job creation. 

But many European cities are suffering heavily from congestion and other nuisances, such as high levels of pollution, noise, and accidents, largely caused by excessive use of the private car. 

Indeed, 75% of the journeys undertaken in metropolitan areas are done by car. And total kilometres travelled in EU urban areas are expected to increase by 40% between 1995 and 2030, with significant consequences for the health and quality of life of city-dwellers and the economic performance of the cities themselves. 

The Commission's 2001 
White Paper on Transport
aspired to change the direction of EU transport policy to deal with these challenges. It set the aim of breaking the link between growth in transport and economic growth, shifting towards more sustainable transport modes (intermodality), such as railways and water transport, and modernising public transport (see LinksDossier on Transport White Paper). 

The June 2006 Sustainable Development Strategy committed to the same objectives. But the Commission's 
mid-term review of the White Paper
, also adopted in June 2006, makes no reference to curbing overall transport growth, instead advocating the "decoupling of transport growth from its negative effects". 

In 2006, the Commission also adopted a 
Thematic Strategy on the Urban Environment
, in the framework of its 6th Environment Action Programme (6th EAP). The strategy identifies urban transport as an area that can significantly contribute to achieving policy objectives in areas such as climate change, energy efficiency, congestion, alternative fuels, modal split, road safety, industrial competitiveness, environment, health and social inclusion. 

Urban Mobility Problems

  • Automobile Dependency

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. 


  • 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. 

  • Accidents & Safety

Increased traffic goes hand in hand with more accidents. One fatal traffic accident in three takes place in urban areas. 

  • Noise

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. 

  • Improving infrastructure

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.

According to the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) and the European Transport Workers’ Federation (ETF), the scale of the problems besetting transport in urban areas means that “the Commission can no longer confine itself to promoting good practice”. 

They believe that new infrastructure cannot provide a solution in urban areas, where space is very limited. “We need to reduce the volume of traffic. Technology alone cannot provide a solution, we have to change people’s behaviour too,” said the Director of the UITP-EuroTeam Brigitte Ollier. They suggest that the EU should set targets for all member states, such as the reduction of car traffic by 1% annually for five years. “Binding targets would be nice but this is not realistic…What we are looking for is stronger political leadership,” said ETF Deputy Secretary General Sabine Trier

The International Road Transport Union (IRU), on the other hand, says investing in new road infrastructure is part of the solution: “Limited infrastructure causes traffic jams with growing aggravation…Clearing bottlenecks, building new infrastructure and making existing road systems work more efficiently helps reduce the environmental impact of city roads.” It rejects the idea of congestion charges, saying that these would simply damage the road goods transport sector and the economy as a whole with little result as most transport operators have “limited, if any, opportunities to alter their behaviour in response to a congestion charge.” 

The International Automobile Federation (FIA) says sustainable urban transport must be achieved through adequate road links and public transport, and not by “punishing motorists by increasing the already high taxes they face”. On road pricing, it states: “Damaging a city’s economy for simple environmental goals is not sustainable development.” Nevertheless, if a levying system were introduced, FIA believes that the revenues should be re-invested in roads rather than cross-subsidising other modes. 

“The issue of quality is central to growing the use of public transport,” according to the Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR), which believes that barriers to public transport are often psychological, arising from misconceptions and stereotypes. It says authorities must devote more time to changing these perceptions. It is concerned that, while increased competition may have positive economic effects, “all too often, such benefits come at the expense of quality”. 

The Mayor of London Ken Livingstone said: “The congestion charge has been a huge success in reducing traffic levels and supporting the public transport system.” He now intends to bring forward plans to encourage drivers to purchase low emission vehicles, by charging higher rates for more environmentally damaging cars. 

Green NGO Transport and Environment (T&E)  says: “Transport users should be held financially responsible for the costs of their travel, including the damage their actions cause to the natural and built environments, society and the economy. Infrastructure pricing, environmental levies or congestion charges would go a long way to alleviating the harm to human health caused by transport. The London congestion charge is proof that it is politically possible to implement a charging system.” 

CEE Bankwatch Network and Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE) believe the EU’s regional policy is undermining its sustainable mobility goals because the new member states in central and eastern Europe are using their Structural and Cohesion Funds to invest massively in roads at the expense of public transport. Anelia Stefanova, Transport Coordinator at CEE Bankwatch Network, said: "The EU has committed to improve public transport and to shift transport from roads to railways, but its funds are set to subsidise more lorry and car transport by channelling money into new roads and motorways." 

According to Inland Navigation Europe (INE), the European platform for inland navigation promotion, and the European Inland Federation of Inland Imports (EFIP), inland shipping is "extremely energy efficient" with "relatively low harmful emissions" and represents the "most silent transport modality".  Therefore, it represents a "perfect partner for populated urban areas".  But the organisations stress that the sector is being bogged down by "time-consuming, complex and often costly administrative labyrinth" of planning, building and environmental for regulations and permits.  They call on regional, national and European authorities "to streamline regulation without decreasing protection and safety levels".

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