Related Articles/Videos

Michael Cramer on Urban areas hold the key for sustainable mobility

26th April 2012

photo © greensefa

Michael Cramer is Member of the European Parliament and spokesman of the Greens/EFA on transport policy.

Heading in the wrong direction

A fundamental reorientation of transport policies in Europe towards a more sustainable mobility is indispensable: the current situation, characterised by a heavy reliance on fossil energy resources, is incompatible with the objective of fighting against climate change.

In the EU, transport is responsible for 29% of all climate-damaging emissions and that figure is still increasing rapidly. Since 1990, CO2-emissions from transport have risen by 30%, while substantial emissions reductions have been achieved over the same period in the industry (-34%), in energy generation (-17%) and in the households (- 14%). In other words: the increase in the transport sector more than outweighs the progress made in other sectors with billions of Euros of European tax payers. This means that we cannot fight climate change without changing our mobility.

A shift towards more efficient and more environmentally-friendly transport modes is thus urgently needed and urban areas play a key role in the overhaul of transport policies. More than 80 % of all EU citizens live in urban areas. And in cities the transport sector accounts for 40% of all the CO2-emissions and 70% of all emissions which are harmful to the climate.

Urban areas: from problem to potential

But not only do cities represent a major challenge, they also hold a great potential for change: 90 % of all trips in German cities are for instance shorter than 6 km – ideal distances for walking, cycling and public transport.

Measures to put the transport sector on a sustainable track are both feasible and economically sensible – and metropolitan areas should go ahead: Public transport needs to be at the centre-stage of a new approach, combined with cycling, walking and car-sharing. What we need is integrated mobility solutions. If we succeed to implement these changes in urban mobility, we are on a good way towards sustainability.

In this article I want to demonstrate that we can be mobile without damaging the climate and putting at stake the existence of future generations. The three-pronged approach that we need relies on reduction, a modal shift and increased efficiency. This can be translated into six concrete measures.

First: Lower priority for motor traffic

Road traffic accounts for more than 70% of all the CO2-emissions from transport. And what is even worse: Transport remains one of the few sectors whose emissions keep rising. Above all, technical efficiency is needed, but it still is not enough. We need a change in our lifestyle - away from car use and towards mobility by foot, bike, bus,train - and, of course, taxi. This is the challenge in urban transport planning. This is where new intermodal mobility strategies come into play. The prerequisite for an intermodal transport system is a well-developed public transport network as the backbone of the system, which is then supplemented by individual mobility facilities such as car sharing and bicycle hire.

Congestion charges, as they have been introduced in cities like London and Stockholm, can give clear incentives to switch from individual car use to public transport.

Berlin has a very extensive road network, which means that apart from a few exceptions to create access to new residential and industrial areas, there should be no further building of new roads. Nonetheless Berlin is currently constructing a motorway that has been designed 60 years ago - showing that little has been learnt.

Automobile transport must be reduced, and one of the methods must be to introduce car parking charges equivalent to the prices of tickets in public transport. The public transport ticket in Berlin costs 2.30 euros, but parking is largely free of charge. In just a few areas, some 50 Eurocents must be paid for half an hour of parking. Therefore it is necessary to extend the parking areas and raise the prices.

Second: we need a well-developed public transport system

To get car users off the streets, public transport has to operate regularly and be safe, clean and affordable. It is in fact necessary to reduce the fares and to introduce attractive intervals and an all-night subway service like in New York, where the trains operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When public transport was dominant in Berlin before the Second World War, the Berlin transport company BVG operated at a profit. That was still true between 1945 and 1948 even though the damages caused by the war had to be repaired. Future- oriented transport policy therefore needs to concentrate first and foremost on increasing the number of passengers.

Third: Cycling must be promoted

A cheap and highly efficient approach lies in the promotion of cycling and walking. Half of all car journeys in the EU are shorter than five kilometres, whilst 10% are even less than one kilometre. Many of these journeys could be made by bike or even on foot. If only 30% of car journeys of less than five kilometres were made by bicycle instead, the volume of CO2 emissions generated by road traffic would be cut by four per cent in Germany, for example.

Today 13% of Berlin's citizens travel by bike - while 10 years ago, it was only 6%. German towns which have been encouraging cycling for a longer period, such as Erlangen and Freiburg, reach more than 30%, Groningen in the Netherlands or Copenhagen in Denmark even reach 50%.

The decentral urban structure in Berlin without any major uphill stretches is ideal for cycling. Much could be achieved here with a low level of investment. Even the Senate wants to increase the cycling ratio to 25%. In Berlin 90 % of all houses are situated at only five minutes by bike to the next urban railway or underground station. And it is possible to take your bike also on tramways, trains and in the underground at all times. This is a great progress for bike & ride to school and to work. I consider the e- bike a very good innovation since it gives elderly people the chance to use this mode of transport; furthermore it extends the range of cycling and makes it a more comfortable alternative in mountainous regions.

Four: the connection of residential areas and transport junctions to the tram network

We must correct the wrong decisions that have been taken to adapt the city to the needs of cars instead to the needs of citizens. Residential areas should not be built anymore without ensuring good public transport connections.

Similarly, the major transport junctions of railways, subways and buses must be linked to the tram network as quickly as possible. It is a terrible thing that, in spite of all good intentions, a residential area for 15,000 people has been built in the north-east of Berlin without creating the necessary public transport infrastructure. Another example is the Märkisches Viertel in the northern part which was built for 50,000 people 40 years ago close to the former border. And although after the fall of the Berlin Wall a good and cheap connection to the tram network in the eastern part of the city is possible, within more than 20 years later the tramways still end in the eastern part of Berlin in front of the former border. The only available mode of public transport is still the bus.

Five: Priority for bus and tram on the existing roads, the way they are

Bus and tramways must be given priority on the existing roads. Synchronized traffic lights for automobiles must be subordinated to synchronized traffic lights for bus and tram.

In Berlin, most of the tramway lines spend 20% of their travelling time waiting at red lights. If the traffic lights were synchronized for all the trams in Berlin, as they already are in Zurich and Cologne, the operating costs could be reduced by 20%, while at the same time improving the level of service and reducing the travel time.

The same also applies to buses. It would not only be attractive for the passengers as they would then reach their destinations more quickly, it would also be financially attractive. Public transport companies estimate that annual savings amount to 250,000 euros per kilometre of bus lanes. It also benefits bicycles and taxis, which are entitled to use the bus lanes but - and I think that this is important - motor bikes are not permitted on the bus lanes.

Six: Achieving the greatest efficiency with the least effort

Future-oriented transport policy can only be directed towards what is financially feasible, not what is merely desirable. It is better to build 100 kilometres of tramway lines in three years than to engage in the construction of 5 kilometres of subway which usually takes up to 30 years. If we want to achieve a change of direction in transport policy in the foreseeable future, we must switch the lights to green for a renaissance of the tram system like it has already happened in Paris, London or Los Angeles.

The tram is an extremely flexible means of transport which can travel at walking speed through pedestrian areas, and which is almost as fast as the subway and urban railway in outlying districts. Because of the shorter distance between the stops and the shorter walks to and from platforms, the travelling time from door to door is rarely longer than with the subway or urban railway. That may be different for long distances, but within the city, most trips are shorter than 5 kilometres. The investment costs for the tram, at 15 million euros per kilometre, are only one thirteenth of the subway construction costs, which have risen to 200 million euros per kilometre.

Tram operating costs are only half the cost level for subway or for bus routes with medium to high passenger volumes - and that saving applies every year. The capacity of the tram is 20,000 persons per hour. This is slightly below that of the subway and urban railway. But it is twenty times the capacity of a lane of automobile traffic, which can handle just 800 automobiles per hour. With an average of 1.1 persons per automobile, that represents less than 900 persons per hour.

The role of the EU: set the right framework and encourage exchange of good practice

You may wonder what the role of the EU can be in this context. Of course, urban mobility is mainly organised at local or regional level. And nobody is calling for central planning in Brussels or uniform mobility plans all over the EU. It makes total sense to respect the principle of subsidiarity and take decisions at the level that knows best the specific challenges.

Yet, the cities and regions cannot do their work properly if the framework is inappropriate. And that is where the EU comes into play: The conditions for fair competition between the transport modes and among the companies are primarily set at EU level. If environmentally-friendly transport modes pay higher taxes or are confronted with artificial technical barriers, they cannot offer affordable, reliable and clean mobility solutions.

At the moment, the overarching framework is such that it discourages sustainable mobility behaviour. One example amongst many is the mandatory toll on railways that is unlimited in height and applies to every locomotive on every kilometre, whereas road tolls are non-mandatory and capped by EU-law. Moreover, many Member States only charge road tolls on highways and for trucks heavier than 12 tonnes.

If people are to choose sustainable transport modes, prices need to reflect the real costs of mobility. This requires the internalisation of external costs, making polluters and users pay instead of tax payers. But we are still heading in the wrong direction: In Germany, every car receives 1,500 euros of subsidies every year if one takes into account costs such as accidents, pollution or land use. If the costs of climate change were included, the amount would even be much higher.

This means that transport is too cheap in the EU, only the environmentally-friendly transport modes, like the railways, are too expensive - and all this is due to political will. The aviation sector, for instance, receives 30 billion euros of subsidies every year because airlines, unlike railway companies, do not pay VAT on international connections and never kerosene taxes.

Imagine: If every year 30 billion euros were invested into the railways of the EU, we would have an excellent railway network, much lower ticket prices and only half as many flights that do harm to our climate and a noise reduction as well!

Instead of subsidising unsustainable mobility, we should re-orientate scarce public funds. At EU level for instance, 60% of all funds in the transport sector are still being invested in road projects, whereas rail receives only 20% and cycling barely 0.7%. The Greens therefore call for a new distribution of funds: At least 40% should be invested in rail, at most 20% should go to road transport and not less than 15% need to be committed to walking and cycling.

Finally, the EU can also play its role by facilitating the exchange of good practice. European cities do not need to reinvent the wheel. Experiences from different cities should be collected and offered as a toolbox to tackle urban problems.

At the end of the day, one needs to bear in mind that by changing the mobility patterns in Europe's urban areas, the quality of life will also be improved. Sustainable transport means less pollution, less noise, less accidents but more space and more physical activity. When thinking about the city of the future, don't you believe that these are key ingredients for a more liveable urban sphere?

The city of the future could be much more enjoyable and liveable than today. Yes, we can ensure mobility and save the climate at the same time, so that our children and their children will also have a chance to live on this planet.

Recommended Readings