How to make transport policies healthier, wealthier and wiser

April 30, 2014

One of the frustrations of EU transport policy is the relentless focus on the internal market as the one-and-only justification for setting standards, introducing rules or spending money. It leaves us all short-changed. On the rare occasion that ‘Brussels’ tries to make suggestions for cities’ or regions’ transport policies to improve air quality, safety or health, the spectre of ‘subsidiarity’ spooks everyone and the idea vanishes.

This explains why we’re stuck with an expensive focus on spending the EU’s transport billions on mega-corridors and cross-border bottlenecks, while we’re missing the opportunities to get more bang for our euros in towns and cities, where more of us would benefit. 
As the UN Economic Commission for Europe and World Health Organisation’s Transport, Health and Environment Pan-European Programme (THE PEP) has recently pointed out, there are massive economic, environmental and health opportunities in policies encouraging car-free mobility. For starters, we can slash our self-imposed transport bill which today costs us 6% of EU GDP in reduced congestion, less pollution, fewer accidents and less infrastructure damage. Not to mention over €1 billion every day that we’re spending on imported oil. Money it’d clearly be better not to burn.
These figures usually forget the 900,000 deaths per year in Europe due to lack of physical activity. At least one in five Europeans are obese. The WHO’s recommended 20 minutes per day of moderate exercise could be easily achieved by switching some short car journeys to walking or cycling, perhaps at either end of a bus or train trip. 
There are stunning gains to be had from active travel – walking and cycling – with huge benefits for the whole economy. The health benefits of cycling are similar to those of giving up smoking and save health services €1,300 per person per year. If all Londoners got their 20 minutes a day, for example, there would be a 12% reduction in heart disease and a fall of over 20% in some types of cancer. If London manages to increase cycling to similar levels as Copenhagen (26% of trips by bike), 8,000 new jobs would be created. Imagine the untapped potential in Madrid, Sofia and Budapest where only 1% of trips are by bike, 2% in Athens and 3% in Paris.  
Jobs created by a biking boom are just the beginning. Active travel, sharing schemes, traffic management and public transport have more long-term jobs potential than car use and road building. A Spanish study found that a policy shift to sustainable transport could create over 300,000 new jobs. A similar study for the UK estimated 450,000 new jobs.
More local accountability can surely move things forward quickly. Since the UK shifted responsibility for public health to local authorities rather than the National Health Service in 2012, local governments are taking transport and health much more seriously, including a new health-focused action plan from Transport for London. Some London boroughs quickly brought in 20m/h (32km/h) speed limits to improve safety and air quality, reduce noise and encourage people to cycle and walk. 
So what can the EU do to capitalise on these benefits while striking the right balance for local governments, transport users and taxpayers? Scrap the outdated traditions for starters: strip back the subsidies and tax breaks for company cars, airports, airlines and fossil fuels – especially diesel. 
Next, recognise in policy that (some) people want to get out of their cars. ‘Peak car’ is already a reality across much of Europe with people driving less and young people less interested in getting driving licenses and more willing to share cars when they do. Combined with cars becoming more fuel efficient, future fuel tax revenues are likely to fall. The EU should illustrate the options for more sustainably financing transport and look at where we want future transport growth to be (in cities, on foot and by bike). Taxing fuels on the basis of carbon and energy content and road pricing will be part of the solution and rewards those who make the shift.
Last but not least, building on the transport and health studies, policy-makers should put a value on the health impacts when drawing up policies and approving spending plans, to help us all make the wisest moves.