More radical, more impatient: How the current crises are fast-forwarding change in European cities

Barbara Stoll — December 19, 2022

Blog by Barbara Stoll and Jens Mueller, Clean Cities Campaign

It’s not hard to predict that most end-of-year reviews for 2022 will be pretty grim. Stuck between a dragging pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has not only been suffering dramatic human tragedies, but has also undergone a series of setbacks in its efforts to clean up transport. Greenhouse gas emissions in the EU transport sector have rebounded after a sharp decline at the beginning of the pandemic. EU governments this year wasted 35 billion euros to make fuel cheaper at the pump, thereby worsening Europe’s addiction to fossil fuels. Even the human toll of road accidents increased compared to 2020.

But where there is shadow, there is light. Underneath these sobering developments lie encouraging changes that offer hope and are here to stay: City dwellers and leaders have not only become more radical in the solutions they are willing to imagine and even enact, but rightly have also grown impatient and therefore became much more pragmatic when it comes to reining in the climate crisis, toxic air pollution, deadly accidents, or turning scarce public space into people centred havens (such as parks and playgrounds).

Three important changes deserve a closer look.

First, moving less is no longer a taboo. This goes against dearly held beliefs, enshrined notably in the European Commission’s famous 2011 doctrine stating ‘curbing mobility is not an option’. Lockdowns imposed during Covid came as a shock, but now people also see the advantages of pausing to rethink our mobility. We learned that less commuting, less traffic jams and less hyperactive travel not only help clean up the air we breathe, but can actually enrich our lives. 

Take working from home: For many commuting white-collar and office workers working (partially) from home became the new normal. Companies have reconfigured themselves, and many employees have fully embraced the change and don’t want to go back. Almost 42 million people teleworked across the EU in 2021, double the number of 2019. This number only slightly declined in 2022, and is even expected to resume due to the technological and cultural changes we have witnessed, an EU agency found.

Second, Russia’s war in Ukraine has drastically increased the sense of urgency when it comes to weaning Europe off oil and gas. We knew fossil fuels were bad for the climate, but now they’re also a major source of funding for the largest military conflict on European territory since World War II. Suddenly coming clean is no longer a distant target set for 2050, but an urgent political priority to escape from the dependence on foreign exporters. 

We don’t have time, but we do have solutions, and people demand them. An analysis commissioned by the Clean Cities Campaign showed that every day of working from home can save between 2.2% and 3.3% of the total daily oil consumption in the road transport sector in the EU and the UK. APan-European survey also showed that 62% of city dwellers support one car-free day per week in their city to curb oil demand.

Third, we are finally getting serious about combining new technologies with proven and tested ‘low-tech’ solutions for zero-emission transport. The good old bicycle is a brilliant example of this. The pandemic showed cycling was a virus-safe, cheap and fast alternative to public transport, and when Russia attacked Ukraine, the plea ‘Fight Putin, ride a bike’ became popular. 

Cities and governments have understood and built more than 1,400 kilometres of new cycle paths since the beginning of the pandemic. The newfound enthusiasm seems to have stuck: Data from Transport for London shows that levels of cycling in autumn 2022 were 40 per cent higher than in 2019. In Paris, one of Europe’s emerging bike capitals, cycling levels also keep rising, having increased by up to 30% in certain places compared to 2021.

These three important changes were barely foreseeable when the idea of the Clean Cities Campaign was first entertained in 2020. But they have the potential to direct us towards an urgently needed fast lane to a climate friendly and more livable urban future. This is best illustrated by the EU’s new ‘Mission for 100 climate-neutral and smart cities by 2030’. Inspired by the US mission to the moon, it attracted no less than 377 applications from cities. Not long ago, such a radical and rapid ambition would have been ridiculed. Now it seems the greatest worry is how the necessary solutions can be rolled out at sufficient pace. Maybe times are really changing.

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