Cities and regions are ready for modal shift, but serious support is needed at all levels.
This summer was marked by burning forests, heat waves and droughts and impending water scarcities. Climate change is heavily impacting all of us. One area where we can rapidly decarbonize is urban transport. Transport accounts for nearly 30% of the CO2 emissions within the European Union (EU), more than 70% of the EU population live in cities, and 23% of the EU’s transport greenhouse gases come from urban areas.
The European Commission has put forward the new EU Urban Mobility Framework to shape the urban mobility of the future and proposes a reinforced focus on Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans (SUMPS), which aim at solving transport related problems in urban areas more efficiently, and develop a more harmonized approach across the EU. Our current transport system is far from sustainable: There are 44 road deaths per million inhabitants on average across the EU, air pollution is linked to more than 300,000 premature deaths per year, and congestion costs €270 billion per year at EU level. Not only do we need to decarbonize fast, but we also need to fundamentally rethink our approach to mobility.
Active mobility such as walking and cycling comes at very little cost while generating significant environmental and societal benefits, including in terms of public health. There are also benefits for the local economy as pedestrians and cyclists shop closer to their homes. But we need to reconsider how space and funds for different transportation modes are allocated. Promoting infrastructure such as protected bike lanes or making cities pedestrian-friendly requires little in terms of investment while facilitating alternative, emission-free modes of transport. Real citizen participation is key when designing the streets of the future. When (re)designing public spaces, all citizens should be consulted, including families with children, young and elderly, and people with disabilities, to ensure inclusive streets by design.
To get where walking or cycling cannot take us, European cities need well-functioning, accessible and affordable public transport systems. The overall capacity of public transport needs to be increased, both in terms of geographical coverage and increased frequencies, to accommodate the expected increase in passenger volumes. We must urgently counter the chronic underinvestment in public transport witnessed over recent decades. But not at the cost of users! Public subsidies have the potential to support green public transport services and encourage modal shift. And while extending the offer of green public transport, the polluter-pays principle should be applied to non-sustainable modes of transport. In 2022, it is unacceptable that a journey by train, tram or by bus can still cost more than an equivalent journey by plane or car, at a time when we are already experiencing the dramatic consequences of climate change. The current geopolitical crisis should urge us to do more, not less, to reach the EU’s transport decarbonization objectives. To seriously incentivize modal shift, we need public subsidies consistent with decarbonization, an EU-wide exchange of best practices on the affordability of public transport and an analysis on the feasibility of implementing a free public transport system across the EU.
With the “Climate-neutral and Smart Cities Mission,” the EU Commission has started a giant pilot project involving 100 cities. This is a great start – but let‘s not stop there. Cities and regions are ready to make modal shift happen. But they need support – financially, technically, and strategically – from the EU level, and backing from their citizens, to make the mobility transition a reality.1
1 Decarbonising transport is a key pillar of Green Deal Going Local, the CoR flagship initiative to place cities and regions at the heart of the EU transition towards climate neutrality.