Opinion pieces

The Commission needs to outline a truly transformative vision for transport

The European Commission will unveil on 9 December its strategy on Smart and Sustainable Mobility. Green MEP Ciarán Cuffe explains what he expects to see in the plan and why it should be a “fundamental reshaping” of our transport policies.

As cars and air travel have become the norm in the industrialised world, more sustainable modes like active travel and rail have been eclipsed. The opportunities afforded to people by the growth in travel have been many. Yet, we cannot overlook the associated cost.

In the unfolding climate emergency, our world has become too dependent on fossil-fuelled powered transport. The COVID-19 lockdowns have shown us that fewer cars mean cleaner air to breathe, less congestion, emissions, fewer road accidents, and more public space available for use.

We can choose cleaner and healthier ways to get around, but it requires action. Sadly, vested interests, a lack of vision and a failure to face up to the reality of the climate emergency may mean a return to the ‘business as usual’ approach and transport technologies that damage the environment.

On 9 December, the European Commission is expected to adopt its long-awaited strategy on Smart and Sustainable Mobility. This must represent a fundamental reshaping in EU transport policy that ultimately changes the lives of its citizens for the better.

However, it will require unequivocal acceptance of the current transport sector’s costs to society, and ambitious targets and proposals as a response.

People must be able to move freely and easily. However, many aspects of our transport system impose enormous costs on all of us, and often disproportionately so on those less able to afford it.

A 2016 study commissioned by DG MOVE found that in the EU the total external costs for transport amounted to €987 billion, or 6.6% of EU GDP – that’s around half of the EU’s total proposed budget for the next seven years.

Road transport is responsible for the biggest share by far. If the Commission’s strategy is about fundamentally reshaping transport policy and aligning with the objectives of the European Green Deal, then it must internalise these costs across all modes and ensure that user and polluter pay principles are respected. Crucially, all solutions must account for induced demand and the rebound effect.

Cars and trucks dominate our roads, but increased support for more sustainable transport modes can make a big difference. Ambitious modal shift targets are needed. This will move freight and passenger traffic away from congested roads and heavily subsidised air travel, and into rail, active mobility, and inland waterways.

This requires ambition, and measurable targets with incentives for change.  Proper planning and supports can make the modal shift happen. The 2021 European Year of Rail is a golden opportunity to kick-start a rail renaissance.

Significant investment to improve rail infrastructure is needed, but with a focus on missing cross-border links and inter-modality rather than costly mega-projects. We need retrofitting and the purchase of new silent and bike-friendly rolling stock; support for night trains; and seamless through-ticketing.

If we are serious about tackling air pollution and GHG emissions, the internal combustion engine (ICE) must be phased out by 2030 at the very latest. Some countries such as the Netherlands, Slovenia and Sweden will ban the sale of such vehicles between 2025 and 2030.

The EU must step up and find smart ways to overcome any legal obstacles. We need to electrify our vehicles, but also boost smarter greener ways of travelling. This can tackle congestion, road safety and well-to-wheel emissions that stem from private vehicle ownership.

In the field of active mobility, we must hard-wire the temporary measures put in place during the lockdowns and ensure EU support for making permanent these positive changes. For example, we can channel EU recovery money towards this, introduce binding targets in Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans, and support active mobility in the revision of TEN-T.

In aviation, we need a social and ecological rebuilding of the industry. This means a level playing field between transport modes. We need to ensure that airlines, which are exempt from paying tax on the fuel they burn and from VAT on intra-EU flights, pay their fair share.

With €37 billion secured in government bailouts by airlines there must be a quid pro quo. Aviation’s poor environmental and social record cannot continue. The Commission should revise state aid guidelines on airlines and airports to ensure alignment with the European Green Deal.

They must propose phasing out short-haul flights where sustainable alternatives exist and addressing the non-CO2 effects of aviation. Let’s implement the recommendations of the recent EASA report. This is essential to fair competition between transport modes.

Above all, the strategy must be inclusive. EU citizens should be entitled to affordable, accessible, and sustainable transport that meets their needs. Meaningful action on transport poverty is needed.

This means member states must put in place rural mobility plans with a focus on sustainable shared mobility. Transport infrastructure and modes must be accessible to persons with disabilities.

We can improve working conditions for transport workers by tackling social dumping and precarious employment practices. We also need proposals on increasing the participation of women in transport and transport decision-making.

Sadly, in transport, we often ignore the obvious solutions. The Commission’s strategy needs to recognise that endless growth in certain transport modes is inherently unsustainable. Tinkering around the edges is no longer an option.

We must listen to the science about increasing emissions, the huge loss of biodiversity, environmental pollution, and the impact this has on human health and well-being.

Only then, will the Smart and Sustainable Mobility Strategy align with the European Green Deal and the EU climate targets.


December 2, 2020

first published


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