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Towards road transport fit for a green and digital future

Green & Digital Transition / COMMENTARY
Stefan Sipka

Date: 27/11/2020
The EU must support the transition towards sustainable and digital road transport to reduce climate and environmental impacts and make the European economy more competitive.

The efficient movement of people and goods is central to the functioning of modern economies. However, there is a growing awareness that more must be done to address the environmental impacts of mobility systems. Transport accounted for 27% of the EU’s GHG emissions, of which more than 70% originated from road transport and 44% from passenger cars in 2017. In urban areas, transport – especially private cars – is the biggest contributor to unacceptably poor air quality, resulting in hundreds of thousands of premature deaths yearly. While the current priority is rightfully to minimise the number of deaths from COVID-19, the significant environmental impacts related to road transport must not be left unattended. With the European Commission’s new Strategy for sustainable and smart mobility on its way, the time is ripe for European road transport to take full advantage of the joint green and digital transitions.

Digital prospects for greening road transport

Digitalisation carries the potential to be one of the enablers and catalysts for creating more sustainable mobility systems. It is already reshaping the mobility sector, including road transport, especially in cities. Sensors, cameras, connected vehicles and online apps help generate, access, share and process huge amounts of mobility-related data and information. Artificial intelligence (AI) and vehicle automation – supported by 5G corridors – provide entirely new prospects for road transport.

Data and digital solutions can provide valuable tools for enhancing sustainable road transport. They can help to tackle climate and environmental challenges by enabling:

-       smart traffic management systems and improved logistics, which can improve efficiency across the whole transport system;

-       multimodal mobility – seamless connectivity between different modes of transport – and mobility-as-a-service, reducing the need to use (and own) a car;

-       connected mobility and optimised use of vehicles (e.g. fuel/electricity consumption, travel routes), which can lower emissions;

-       automated mobility, which, if designed well, could increase accessibility to greener mobility options and reduce car dependence; and

-       life-cycle assessments and the internalisation of externalities[1], enhancing transparency, awareness and knowledge about sustainable mobility options.

If the EU becomes the world leader in using data and digital solutions to improve mobility, this would not only be beneficial for climate, environment, health and people’s well-being,[2] but also for European industry. The market for sustainable mobility solutions is growing beyond the EU as well. Becoming a standard-setter and market leader in green and digital mobility services and technologies would provide attractive prospects for enhancing European competitiveness.

Many challenges still lie ahead

Turning digitalisation into an enabler for sustainable road transport is easier said than done. Mobility-related data, including the full climate and environmental footprint of travel modes, is lacking. This makes it difficult for multimodality platforms, for example, to guide citizens to make sustainable choices. The lack of coordination between local-level mobility apps and multimodal mobility solutions can result in unnecessary duplication and fragmentation. Digital mobility can also be expensive. Being a global market leader in digital mobility is not a given and other global players are moving fast. Finally, not all citizens have the digital skills to benefit from apps, online platforms and IoT.

The corona crisis presents a valuable opportunity to rethink the mobility transition. The pandemic has brought down transport-related emissions worldwide – albeit temporarily. However, it carries the risk of encouraging people to use cars over public transport, to minimise contact with others. If the EU and European cities use this momentum to extend public transport and bicycle lanes networks, they would contribute to sustainable mobility and lower road transport-related emissions permanently while ensuring physical distance too. Digital tools can also be helpful in this process, for example, by using sensors to estimate the number of people using public transport and prevent overcrowding.

The policy framework to build upon

The European Green Deal aims to reduce transport emissions by 90%, and create a new push for sustainable mobility. The upcoming Strategy for sustainable and smart mobility is expected to support a European mobility that is fit for a green and digital future.

The new Digital Agenda envisages a ‘common European mobility data space’ that can support the improved management of mobility-related data. 5G corridors should be rolled out across Europe in the next years. The role of AI in the development of safer and cleaner transport is recognised. Moreover, the EU, member states and subnational authorities are already running several smart city initiatives, including smart and sustainable mobility, providing a solid basis upon which to continue this work.[3]

The EU’s 2021-27 Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and Next Generation EU (NGEU) could provide an additional boost to increase the use of data and digital solutions for sustainable road transport. The European Structural and Investment Funds, Digital Europe, Horizon Europe, Connecting Europe Facility, European Space programme and InvestEU could especially contribute to these efforts.

Next steps to achieve the transition

The policy framework is almost in place – now the EU must walk the talk. Greening mobility with the help of digitalisation requires guidance. Without it, digital mobility could lead to rebound effects (e.g. emissions, congestion) due to an increased number of automated vehicles on the road and unnecessary trips (e.g. using cars more frequently thanks to online apps).

The EU should develop a ‘Charter for Sustainable Mobility in the Digital Age’ – a forward-looking vision that is endorsed by all the relevant stakeholders. The Charter should aim to avoid the possible rebound effects and recognise how the pandemic-induced paradigm shift is increasing teleworking and demands on road transport. It should consider sustainable mobility to be a driver of a more competitive European economy.

The European mobility data space should establish standards and rules on accessing, sharing and processing data from the public and private sector that is relevant to making road transport sustainable. In addition to collecting and sharing data on different travel modes’ GHG emissions, Europe-wide coordination is urgently needed to establish a comprehensive picture on other emissions and air pollutants.

The EU should encourage the development of user-friendly apps that offer its citizens ‘green and clean’ travel options. Collecting and sharing data on the climate and the environmental footprints of travel modes should serve as the basis for developing such apps. The EU should also create guidelines on using AI to support sustainable, connected, automated and multimodal road transport.

The 2021-27 MFF and NGEU should financially support the management of data, and the development and deployment of digital solutions for sustainable mobility. When channelling funds to sustainable digital mobility, the EU must ensure a just transition which accounts for the needs of the vulnerable and most affected by the transition, including the elderly, people with physical disabilities, and the socioeconomically precarious.

This window of opportunity shouldn’t be missed

Mobility is changing. The green transition can no longer be avoided, and digitalisation offers many opportunities to enhance the sustainability of road transport. Aligning the ongoing green and digital transitions and ensuring that they lead to a smooth transition overall requires addressing the potential rebound effects, building on the COVID-19 ‘new normal’ and achieving a just transition. As the Strategy for sustainable and smart mobility is expected to modernise the European mobility sector further, this is a perfect occasion to ensure that the EU’s digital road transport becomes a real driver for a sustainable and competitive European economy.

Stefan Šipka is Policy Analyst in the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe programme.

This Commentary builds on the findings of the European Policy Centre’s (EPC) project, Digitalisation and Sustainability, which was commissioned by the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and carried out between 2019 and 2020.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

[1] For example, costs of emissions could be reflected in the price of each mobility option and consumers would have better access to information about related environmental impacts.
[2] N.B. there are still many other measures to be taken to make mobility more sustainable (e.g. electrification, clean energy).
[3] EU-level initiatives include, for example, the Urban Agenda for the EU, CIVITAS Network and European Innovation Partnership on Smart Cities and Communities.

Photo credits:
Raigo Pajula / AFP

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