Barrot eyes congestion-charging as urban-mobility solution

The transport commissioner may propose a European legal framework that would give cities the possibility of introducing congestion charging schemes similar to London’s – a move previously forbidden in some member states.

EU Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot has welcomed moves that would allow cities more freedom to set up their own pricing schemes, which, if implemented, could lead to more towns following the example of London’s congestion charging scheme. 

Meeting on 19 April 2007 with representatives of around 20 European cities to discuss the future of urban mobility in Europe, the commissioner said that his future Green Paper on urban transport, due in September, could contain provisions for a harmonised legal framework on traffic-management schemes – one of the central requests of Eurocities, which represents 132 major cities across Europe. 

Currently, national legislation in many EU countries, including France and Denmark, prevents local governments from introducing such charges – which can be useful both for limiting congestion in city centres and as a much-needed source of financing for developing public-transport systems. 

Barrot also responded positively to Eurocities’ other major request, namely to allow local authorities to engage in joint-procurement campaigns to purchase clean vehicles. For the moment, each city must work with its own procurement procedures, which often causes market fragmentation and makes it expensive to invest in cleaner technologies. 

EUROCITIES President Gérard Collomb said: "The problem in cities is that we have so many goals set by the Commission, the national government, local authorities - 'You have to reduce pollution, and noise, and traffic jams' - but we have no means to do this." 

The city of Lyon, for example, receives zero funding from the national government, he said, adding that this creates a real challenge in terms of social inclusion because, in many cities, the most deprived areas are also those with the poorest transport provision. "To change this situation, local authorities need financial support from their national governments," he insisted. 

Collomb added that the lack of means for improving mobility in cities is one reason why Eurocities would welcome moves to give local authorties the freedom to introduce congestion charges. 

"Of course, this does not mean that cities would be obliged to follow London and Stockholm in implementing congestion charges but it would give them the option of doing so and that is a good idea. The money raised could then be used to finance public transport." 

Pascal Mangin, in charge of European affairs in Strasbourg's City Council, was less enthusiastic about congestion charging. "Citizens outside Strasbourg’s centre, who are generally those that are not very rich, would have to pay a tax. That is not equitable," he said. 

He said that he hoped the Commission would be "very pushy" on setting environmental standards, as this would allow cities to demand more innovative solutions in their tenders. 

John Shipley, leader of Newcastle City Council, said that the issue of transport and its impact on the environment is probably the biggest challenge facing the EU today. 

He noted that although London is seen as a leader in terms of urban-mobility solutions, the rest of the UK is actually well behind Europe because 90% of UK public transport has been privatised. 

Ian Catlow from London's European Office in Brussels said that he was very cautious about EU legislation on congestion zones: "We do not want strict regulation on how to do this. We want flexibility to adapt the system as we see best," he said. 

"But, Europe can do things to help," the two British officials agreed, pointing to the need for improved cross-border enforcement, harmonised technological standards to ensure interoperability and common environmental standards. Setting a framework for joint public-procurement initiatives would also be useful, especially for the new member states, they added. 

However, Gabor Demszky, Mayor of Budapest, played down the importance of such initiatives, explaining that cities often need very specific transport solutions that cannot be jointly commissioned. 

He said that what new member states really needed was more financial support to integrate urban and suburban transport, and less for building motorways. 

He highlighted the different situation in new member states, where the real problem is not a lack of public transport infrastructure but rather degradation, due to years of neglect. 

For this reason, he had hoped that the Commission's plans might allow EU funds to be used for the replacement of rolling stock (trams, buses, etc) rather than simply for extending the network. "But the answer was no," he said. 

With an increasing number of European cities suffering heavily from congestion, noise, accidents and pollution largely caused by excessive use of private cars, the Commission will in autumn present proposals for a European strategy on urban transport. 

Stakeholder consultations are currently under way to identify how the EU can contribute to improving urban mobility while taking subsidiarity into account. 

  • September 2007: Expected presentation of the Green Paper on urban transport.
  • Autumn 2008: Commission to adopt Action Plan based on Green Paper.  

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