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The EU Needs to Work Out What Sustainable Public Transport Means

The European Union could be on the road to setting a target that would substantially increase the number of rapid transit bus schemes in the continent, but is in danger of hitching its transport policy too closely to the demands of the road users' lobby.

Chief amongst this lobby group is the International Road Transport Union (IRU) which wants the bloc to make doubling public transport by 2025 an EU policy priority. It says that although there is a place for train travel in its "multi-modal" transport vision it wants to see a greater emphasis on rapid transit bus schemes as found in Bogotá, Colombia, albeit running not on diesel but on electric or hybrid systems which do not contribute to air pollution. 

So far so good; but that wasn't the whole picture this week in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Bogota's TransMilenio rapid transit bus system

Bogotá's TransMilenio rapid transit bus system

This beautiful capital city of one of the newly EC-acceding Baltic states, which currently holds the 6-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, was hosting the 3rd IRU/EU Road Transport Conference "The Road Transport Market – Competitiveness & Partnership. Transforming Challenges into Effective Solutions for Growth".

This conference brought together some 200 political, transport and trade leaders from all 28 EU Member States as well as representatives from many Eastern Partnership states.

Jointly organised by the Lithuanian Presidency, the European Commission and the International Road Transport Union, it focused on the main challenges facing the road transport industry and tabled proposals to encourage motorists to use more public transport in order to reduce congestion, fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, and, potentially, road accident rates.

Whilst claiming to support sustainability from this angle, the conference and the IRU sent mixed messages, particularly in relation to calling for a growth in commercial road transport.

The problem was that discussions lacked a consistent definition of "sustainable mobility".

Making the best use of existing infrastructure is certainly one of the conditions of sustainable transport and so is promoting public transport, making it the heart of urban and inter-urban planning, as in a city like Curitiba, Brazil.

A key metric to determine sustainability would be the carbon impact of travel based on emissions per head per mile travelled. Another would be local air pollution levels and a third would be journey times.

Depending on the mode of transport, reducing carbon impacts means aerodynamic design improvements, drive train efficiency gains and integrated transport logistics, with efficient connections between modes. These, the conference did recognise.

It also means the increased use of collective passenger transport in particular by bus, coach and taxis, called for by the IRU; but they conspicuously played down the importance of trains and trams.

It took a spokesperson for the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) to point out that: "Urban transport – including urban bus - and rail are very complementary".

Siim Kallas, the EC Vice-President and European Commissioner for Transport
Siim Kallas, the EC Vice-President and European Commissioner for Transport

The Vice President of the European Commission, Siim Kallas, unwittingly expressed the contradiction inherent in uncritically supporting the IRU's lobbying when he said: "More and more goods are carried on the road between the EU and our neighbours. This is a good and healthy sign of closer integration of our respective markets. It will support economic growth to the benefit of everybody."

Since sustainability involves the sourcing of goods and services nearby, then the integration of markets at a distance from each other, whilst laudable in the interests of political harmony across the enlarged EU, will necessarily result in increased carbon emissions and air pollution, which clearly does not benefit everybody.

Oleg Kamberski, Head of Passenger Transport, IRUThe road lobby is dominated by freight interests. The IRU President, Janusz Lacny, reminded delegates that "commercial road transport is the only transport mode which provides door-to-door service" before going on to warn of the need to "avoid situations where increasing restrictions and costs or limiting possibilities for innovation for road transport operators will reduce ... the economic viability of ... road transport enterprises."

So, while it's no doubt good for the European Commission to listen to the IRU's collective transport expert Oleg Kamberski (right) when he says: "It is in the public interest to place buses coaches and taxis ... at the heart of policy making at EU, national and local levels," it must always bear in mind that economic benefits are by far from the only criteria by which transport policy should be judged.