Transport poverty in France fuelled the grievances mobilised by the gilets jaunes. EU policy-makers need to address this social dimension to the green transformation.
Mobility is essential for the everyday life of Europe’s citizens, whether as employees commuting to work in the morning, as suppliers of goods and services in our modern diversified economies or as citizens of the European Union enjoying their right to move freely across the EU. A good indicator of the significance of mobility is that in 2016 the average citizen in Europe travelled 13,317km—about 36km per day.
It has become increasingly clear, however, that today’s transport system is not sustainable. Transport contributed 29 per cent of Europe’s CO2 emissions in 2016, an increasing obstacle to the EU achieving its commitment under the Paris agreement. Even more worryingly, emissions from transport have continued to increase—in contrast to other sectors (see figure).
Greenhouse-gas emissions by sector in the EU-28, 1990-2016
Recognising the problem, EU policy-makers have launched several initiatives under the umbrella of the ‘Europe on the move’ packages to clean up the transport sector, including tight(er) CO2 emissions standards for new cars, vans and lorries, an action plan for an alternative fuels infrastructure and rules for designing more energy-efficient lorries.
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While important, this ‘green’ agenda fails to capture fully how intertwined transport is with citizens’ multi-faceted everyday lives—and thus how changes towards greening transport may have unforeseen ripple effects. Maybe the most visible ripple from a narrowly defined transport agenda was the protest movement of the gilets jaunes in France. French citizens took to the streets in October 2018 over the implications of a fuel-tax rise which increased the cost of transport to those most dependent on it in their everyday life.
In France, seven out of ten employees use the car to go to work and in the EU overall more than 80 per cent of passenger transport is by car, offering an insight into the potential scale of social repercussions of greening transport policies. Intriguingly, while in the neighbouring policy field of the energy transition there is increasing awareness of the challenges of energy poverty and regional disparities, the social agenda in transport has revolved primarily around the issues of social dumping and the protection of mobile employees.
Given that the new European Commission seeks to ‘leave no one behind’ through a European Green Deal and its Just Transition Fund, and given that the populist challenge to the EU’s legitimacy is far from over, the transport-policy debate should be widened to include concepts such as transport poverty and inequality.
Defining the problem in its multi-dimensionality is a first step to addressing it.
A second is to gather data systematically on where the problem exists. Eurostat and the European Commission produce statistics on the differential difficulty of securing access to public transport. These show which part of the population in cities, towns and rural areas cannot reach public transport and is thus isolated. Unsurprisingly, public transport in cities is six times more accessible than in rural areas.
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Nevertheless, these statistics only study public transport, failing to cover issues related to lack of investments and accessibility. The European Energy Poverty Index covers transport-energy poverty—in terms of the share of transport-energy expenditures out of total expenditures—by collecting data on car ownership, the difficulty in gaining access to public transport and the affordability of the latter in terms of cost for distance travelled. Yet the collection and analysis of data concerned with transport poverty and inequalities remains patchy in Europe.
A third, related step would be to enrich such quantitative data by assembling a knowledge repository, with descriptions of transport policies which perform best in reducing transport poverty and inequality. This would facilitate policy transfers among member states, regions and local authorities.
There is an institutional model from which transport policy-makers at EU level could learn, to undertake these initial steps to address transport poverty. Launched in 2016, the EU Energy Poverty Observatory gathers data and assists decision-makers in implementing the most equitable political solutions.
Transport poverty and inequality should become one of the central issues when pathways to climate neutrality by 2050 are being envisaged. This goal requires a fundamental transformation of Europe’s economies and societies, affecting all sectors and citizens’ everyday practices. It is therefore important that Europe’s decision-makers recognise the complexity of the social challenges associated with this green transformation.