EU delays urban transport plans as Mobility Week begins

The Commission yesterday (16 September) celebrated the launch of the 7th European Mobility Week aimed at encouraging citizens to give up their cars and make cities less polluted. But a much-anticipated EU action plan on urban mobility is being held up.

With two thirds of all European cities still exceeding EU ambient air quality standards, mainly due to high levels of pollution from transport, this year’s theme, ‘Clean Air for All’, aims to encourage local authorities to organise initiatives highlighting the link between mobility and air quality. It also seeks to mark the launch of permanent measures to cut harmful emissions, such as the introduction of London-style low-emission zones or parking and bus shuttle services to city centres. 

Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas said: “More and more people are taking part in this initiative every year, and this underlines how important urban travel issues are to European citizens.” 

Speaking at the European Transport Forum (ETF) yesterday, Commission Director General for Transport Matthias Ruete noted that, with 40% of EU CO2 emissions originating from urban traffic and road transport remaining the single main source of Nitrogen Oxides (NOx), it was time for a “radical rethink” of transport policies.

During last year’s Mobility Week, former Transport Commissioner Jacques Barrot presented the outlines of a new urban transport strategy, highlighting a large range of potential solutions and areas where the EU could take action to tackle the growing congestion, pollution and safety problems in Europe’s cities. 

Having carried out a broad consultation on the Urban Transport Green Paper, the EU executive was due to present a follow-up action plan by October this year. But internal shifts in Commission staff related to the takeover of the transport portfolio by the Italian Antonio Tajani mean things are moving more slowly than they should have done. 

According to Ruete – who conceded that he was being cautious with the dates – the action plan is now only likely to come out at the beginning of next year. He also stressed there would be no legislative measures and that the EU had just “a small role” to play in terms of mobility. 

“The new commissioner has a different agenda,” a representative of a road transport federation told EURACTIV, referring to Tajani’s interest in the Aliatalia case (EURACTIV 04/09/08). 

In a recent interview with EURACTIV, Green MEP Michael Cramer had also warned that the nomination of Tajani as transport commissioner would be “a catastrophe” likely to result in a scaled-down fight against dirty road transport. 

According to Ruete, the main elements of the action plan will be Intelligent Transport Systems, interoperability and the definition of harmonised rules for green zones. 

These issues were also highlighted as “essential” by truckmakers Renault and Volvo, who were showcasing their new models at the ETF to show how road transport can contribute to cleaner cities. According to them, the creation of large logistics hubs outside town centres, combined with both a “massification” of freight via an increase in truck size and smaller low-polluting vehicles delivering to “the last mile”, could serve to drastically reduce congestion, energy consumption, freight costs and CO2 emissions. 

But rail transport associations and green groups are sceptical, saying the introduction of ‘monster trucks’ would make road transport less expensive than it is now, creating a modal re-shift of freight transport from rail to road. They also say it would increase the gravity of road accidents and imply costly infrastructure changes (EURACTIV 23/07/07). 

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