It is no exaggeration to say that transport is the bedrock of any country's economy. It is the driving force for the supply chain, enabling trade flows via the movement of goods and people; in short, a highly effective engine of job creation and economic growth.
Without good transport connections, there is little chance of prosperity. We would, quite literally, be sitting still and going nowhere. Everyone depends on transport for opening up markets, developing trade and connecting businesses. It is clear that the demand for mobility will continue to grow in the foreseeable future. This is, after all, a fundamental right and freedom for all citizens. But parts of our transport infrastructure are starting to show signs of age, crumbling and creaking, and in some areas we are already approaching capacity limits.
There are also many bottlenecks and important missing links across the European transport network. These squeeze trade flows within the European Union's internal market, to the detriment of the wider economy. So there are some obvious concerns about how transport in the EU will look by 2050, and exactly how it will cope with the constraints of today and the challenges of tomorrow. Transport networks are the arteries of the single market, the lifeblood of competitiveness. If they do not work smoothly, or strain to match demand with insufficient capacity, then this is reflected in lost opportunities to create new markets and new jobs. In short, the result is that transport fails to realise its full potential. We can already see this happening in several transport sectors.
Our strategy for the future, our vision of how transport could and should look by 2050, aims to respond to these problems in the context of several other longer-term challenges, as the European Commission has set out in its Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area. In a world of sky high oil prices, rising congestion and the looming spectre of climate change, the overarching goal is to make sure that the EU's transport system – the network that joins us all together – is sustainable, safe, smart, clean and, above all, efficient. Efficiency is, ultimately, the key word: efficiency of transport use, of investment in infrastructure, of the different transport modes that make up the overall European network. Without efficiency in transport, wider economic growth is hampered and even decelerated. And this is certainly not a time when we can afford to have any additional drain placed on the European economy.
There is now a need to prepare for the future, by investing in infrastructure and technological innovation and by thinking of transport as more of a network, and as a system, rather than just in terms of individual modes of travel. This is especially important given the expected demand for transport in years to come – freight transport alone is expected to grow by 80 per cent by 2050 – so capacity problems must be addressed. Europe's transport system has developed against a background of generally cheap oil, expanding infrastructure, technological leadership and limited environmental constraints. We must now adapt to very different conditions.
Firstly, the almost total dependence on oil to fuel our transport system has to be broken – without sacrificing the system's efficiency or compromising the mobility of people and businesses. Oil now accounts for around 96 per cent of the transport sector's total energy supply. Road transport takes by far the largest share of the energy used by all transport modes. Oil is likely to become harder to source in the coming years, especially given that Europe's oil imports come from increasingly unstable parts of the world. Neither is oil a cheap option, given today's prices on global energy markets, which remain as volatile as ever. This is why we are looking into innovative and cleaner alternatives to fossil fuels and also investing in research to develop new sources of energy. We need to put reliable fuel alternatives in place long before we run out of oil. Already, today's new aircraft burn 70 per cent less fuel per seat than the early jets. With the help of research, we can expect further improvements in fuel efficiency in the coming decades.
Secondly, our cities, roads, railways and skies are ever more congested. This is one of the worst transport problems, especially on the roads and in the skies, and causes heavy amounts of carbon and other unwelcome emissions. Congestion also costs Europe about 1 per cent of its gross domestic product every year. Urbanisation will inevitably continue however, while transport demand in cities and on their access routes will certainly grow. Bottlenecks are also present in some ports. These are serious challenges, and not just for the EU.
Perhaps the task with most immediate importance is to ramp up work on developing, upgrading and expanding the wider transport network across all major modes – air, rail, road and water – given the long-term nature of most major infrastructure projects. It can take up to 20 years, for example, to build a motorway from initial planning to final construction. For this, hefty investments in infrastructure will be needed, including greater use of private funds, to relieve congestion, remove the bottlenecks and better knit together the different modes of transport into a seamless logistics chain. At the same time, we will be filling in the missing links in the overall network to join the west properly up with the east, and north with south.
This is where the Trans-European Transport Network, or TEN-T, comes in. This longstanding and ambitious project has achieved some remarkable successes – for instance the Øresund bridge between Malmö and Copenhagen, Europe's longest combined road and rail bridge, which has transformed work and leisure opportunities and created a new city region. This bridge is a tremendous case study for the value the EU can bring to its citizens. Building and maintaining infrastructure is, however, an expensive exercise. Developing the infrastructure to match rising demand will cost an estimated €1.5 trillion up to 2030. Just up to 2020, we will need about €500bn to complete TEN-T – and of that, half will be spent on getting rid of the main bottlenecks.
Europe needs to change its travelling habits, and look at how to combine or substitute road travel with a cleaner option like rail or waterborne transport, for example. Integrated ticketing and journey or freight planners are excellent ways to promote this, optimising passenger choice. Shifting the mode of transport used is one of the cornerstones of the commission's strategy for the future of the sector; it represents a major change in focus and attitude – not least to ensure optimal use of capacity for future growth.
We cannot maintain the status quo because this is not sustainable in the long or even medium term. Cleaner transport modes will need to play a substantially greater role in moving freight, particularly over longer distances. We have set targets to transfer 30 per cent of road freight travelling over distances of more than 300km to alternative modes such as rail or waterborne – short-sea or inland waterways – by 2030, and more than 50 per cent by 2050. High-speed rail will be a particular focus, since we aim to triple the length of the EU's network by 2030. High-speed trains are, in any case, the preferred passenger choice: when Spain's high-speed Madrid-Seville line was launched in 1992, the route's market share for rail rose from 19 per cent to 53 per cent. The share of the Barcelona-Madrid link rose from under 14 per cent before it opened to nearly 46 per cent in 2010.
We would also like to see conventionally fuelled cars and trucks phased out from cities by 2050. If we do not work towards achieving targets like these, it will be difficult – if not impossible – to decarbonise Europe's transport system. One only has to look at the pollution caused by long-distance vehicles carrying freight on the roads, instead of by rail, to see the problem. Despite all our targets, road traffic will certainly still grow, due to the likely large increase in total freight volumes.
But if we manage to decarbonise, at the same time we will be making better use of our cities by reducing congestion and making them cleaner places to live. Transport, for all of us – people and businesses – must be sustainable in the longer term if Europe is to cope responsibly with these inevitable challenges of the future. To do that, we cannot let the grass grow under our feet. We need to start changing, and acting, now.
Siim Kallas is vice-president of the European Commission responsible for transport. This article first appeared in PublicServiceEurope.com's sister publication Public Service Review: Transport