Mobility stakeholders urge more EU funds for public transport

The EU can contribute to improving urban mobility through harmonisation, research and benchmarking, but re-directing investment and citizens’ mindsets towards public transport will also be critical, according to urban-mobility actors.

The major question concerning the Green Paper is whether the EU should really be doing anything at all. Indeed, the differences in the size, population density, economic-growth levels, social cohesion and cultural specifities of each city bring with them the need for differentiated solutions, thought-out at local level. 

However, the scale of the problems faced by urban areas and their spread mean that local administrations cannot manage the situation alone. Also, the EU’s commitment to combating global warming and to enhancing Europe’s potential for economic growth and job creation – which requires attractive and easily-accessible cities – means that it has a duty to intervene. 

Nevertheless, the Commission has clearly stated that it has no intention to impose any targets or specific solutions, but rather to enable local and regional authorities to “create space to develop these solutions”. 

The conference outlined a number of areas in which the Commission could help avoid duplication of efforts and enhance effectiveness of local action by defining a common EU framework. These include: 

  • Providing better financing to public transport infrastructure through structural funds
  • promoting the exchange and dissemination of good practice;
  • issuing a recommendation for the internalisation of external costs of transport (a preliminary report is due end of March); 
  • carrying out research  on key issues for urban mobility; 
  • setting a legal framework for public service obligations;
  • establishing technological standards and ensuring interoperability, and; 
  • providing guidelines on urban planning.

Stakeholders also pointed out the need to modify consumers’ behaviour towards public transport if a real change in urban mobility is to occur. 

Matthias Ruete, director-general of the Commission's transport and energy directorate-general spoke in favour of a global approach. "In the past, the big hammer of subsidiarity was always swung out when the Commission talked about urban transport," he said, adding that this was no longer seen so much as an obstacle, more as a challenge. The EU wants to add value to what is done at the local level, he explained, adding: "The Commission is not here to impose solutions but to create the necessary space to enable these solutions," notably via harmonisation and the dissemination of best practice. He nevertheless commented that he remains "rather keen on technological solutions" because the "clock is ticking" and policy initiatives such as pricing and emissions-trading schemes could take too long. 

A representative of Belgium’s public transport operator STIB, however, argued that the EU gets the best results when it fixes mandatory targets. "Establishing goals to be attained is the only solution to get member states to mobilise the necessary means," he said. 

But Ruete replied that setting the same targets for all 27 EU-members would be "very difficult". "It was not with this in mind that we launched the consultation," he said. 

Italian liberal MEP Paolo Costa, president of the Parliament's transport committee, said: "The Commission says that during the past five years rail did not gain in transport share and that greener results both in terms of congestion, safety and environmental damage can be obtained acting only through new technology applied to road transport. But I am afraid this will not be enough. Technology alone cannot solve the current and foreseeable problems." 

German green MEP Michael Cramer agreed that combating climate change needs more than technology. "We need people to change their behaviour," he said. He accused the Commission of "political cowardice" for using subsidiarity as an excuse for not acting earlier. 

Martin Konecny presented a CEE Bankwatch Network/Friends of the Earth Europe (FoEE)  study underlining the apparent link between EU funds and climate change. He claimed that the EU's regional policy undermines its sustainable mobility goals because 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. "The EU has committed to improving 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." 

Commission official from DG TREN retorted that CO2 gases will inevitably rise as the new member states develop: "We cannot deny new members what we have allowed old members in the past," she said. 

But Konecny countered that "low-carbon development paths exist and this is what EU funds should focus on". 

Michael Cramer agreed that towns should only receive structural funds if they are willing to change their habits. 

"What's important is that public transport be perceived as the way forward in member states," said Guido del Mese, president of the UITP EU-Committee. "It is time for us to achieve a cultural shift. Mobility is not a minor stake for our future. Public transport needs to improve its image to become at least as attractive as private vehicles," he stressed. 

Other participants underlined that this would mean improving accessibility – especially in the context of an ageing Europe – guaranteeing reliability, and running forceful- image campaigns from an early stage. 

Over the next few months, the Commission will be examining ways in which it can contribute to reducing transport's negative impact on the environment and public health by tackling the issue of mobility in Europe's cities. 

With three quarters of Europeans living in urban areas and carrying out the majority of their trips by car, European towns are suffering heavily from congestion, as well as high levels of pollution, noise and accidents. 

At the same time, the economic importance of large cities means that they are often more apt and willing to take up the challenge and to spearhead innovative solutions. 

The Commission aims to present a Green Paper on urban transport by September 2007, in which it will look into whether and how it can add value to actions taken at a local level. 

European urban-mobility stakeholders gathered to discuss the future content of the EU paper during a European Conference organised by the International Association of Public Transport (UITP) on 27 February 2007. 

  • End March 2007: Commission due to publish a preliminary draft report on the internalisation of external costs for all modes of transport.
  • March-July 2007: A number of workshops will be held on various issues, including integrated approaches to mobility, the ageing problem, pricing, etc.
  • September 2007: Expected presentation of the Green Paper on urban transport.  

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