Transport - is it really necessary to move people from their cars to public transport to improve air quality? Michael Cramer's article in the European Voice on transport in European cities
It is hard not to notice the impact of cars on the air that we breathe, with the stench of exhaust fumes hanging over many European cities, particularly at periods of peak traffic. For pedestrians and bikers with an urban commute, the fumes are impossible to ignore. However, the smell is far from the biggest problem caused by these noxious emissions. Air pollution is a silent but deadly killer in Europe's cities.
Some 80% of EU citizens live in cities or densely populated areas. That means that a large majority of Europeans are exposed to the effects of congestion, including noise and air pollution. According to studies by the European Commission, current levels of air pollution, in the form of particulate matter, cause severe health problems and result in more than 350,000 premature deaths each year. This highlights that choosing to travel by car is not just a personal lifestyle choice, it impacts upon general public health.
Clearly, from a public health point of view, there is a need for a dramatic reduction in vehicle emissions. Low and zero emission vehicles can help to improve air quality, but expectations should not be to high. A decade ago European, Japanese and Korean carmakers made a voluntary commitment to achieve a noticeable carbon emission reduction for new cars by 2008.
However, despite the promise of remarkable technical improvements, it is now clear that the target for 2008 will not be met, as progress has slowed considerably in recent years.
Even with massive improvements in car emissions, other problems of urban transport would remain unsolved. That does not mean that the development and research in this field is useless or unnecessary. On the contrary the Greens strongly support the idea of greening cars since realistically they will remain one of the most popular modes of transport. On the way to a zero emission car, systematic pressure and support are needed for technological innovations designed to improve conventional propulsion technology and to develop and apply new forms of propulsion technology, such as hybrid engines, fuel cells and solar-powered propulsion, and alternative fuels, like biofuels, natural gas and hydrogen. This presents the highly advanced European car industry with opportunities, particularly in the context of dwindling oil resources, as well as risks.
But technical improvements alone can only go so far. Without a shift towards public transport, biking and walking, air quality in Europe will not improve sufficiently. Problems will increase as transport will increase. Between 1995 and 2030, total kilometres travelled in EU urban areas are expected to grow by 40%. Already, cars account for about 75 % of kilometres travelled in EU metropolitan areas. Without promoting other modes of transport the car will remain over-dominant. Beyond the damage to peoples' health and also to nature and buildings European cities suffer of time-taking and money-wasting congestion. In its report on Clean Urban Transport the commission says that in some European cities, average traffic speeds at peak times are lower than in the days of the horse-drawn carriage.
This is where new 'inter-modal' mobility strategies come into play. The prerequisite for an 'inter-modal' transport system is a well-developed public transport network, which acts as the backbone of the system. This can and should be supplemented by individual mobility facilities such as car-sharing and bicycle hire, while 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.
Moving people from their cars to public transport clearly has an important role to play in improving air quality . As noted above, it is realistic to expect the car to remain a popular form of transport, so efforts must be intensified to progress towards emissions-free vehicles as a standard. In addition, we need to promote a shift to other transport modes like walking and cycling for short distance journeys. This will naturally have positive side-effects for public health, particularly as the quality of air hopefully improves.