• If ‘decoupling’ sounds boring, call it ‘transport efficiency’

    Editorial by Jos Dings The run-up to this autumn’s proposed review of the EU’s Common Transport Policy seems to be creating a wave of nostalgia for outdated and discredited transport thinking. Last month, an advertisement appeared in the European Voice newspaper from an MEP of the European People’s Party and an organisation calling itself the “Taxpayers Association of Europe”. This appears to be a grouping of pro-road interests, as it calls for two central objectives of the current CTP to be abandoned: modal shift from road to rail and the decoupling of transport growth from economic growth.


    It’s easy to agree with two points made by this initiative. The CTP does indeed need some major re-thinking (and T&E will be playing its part in this); and it is extremely important that public money is only used for transport projects after a lot of thought, research and analysis has been done, to ensure taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely and efficiently. But it is also extremely important that these two solid beliefs are not used as a cover for poor economics, as abandoning decoupling and the road-to-rail shift would be.

    There is no doubt that transport is indispensable to a modern economy, but it is a big and illogical step to say – as road interests like to do – that mobility is therefore a right. Transport is not an end, it is a means to an end, and as it causes costs to society, it needs to be used as sparsely and efficiently as possible. As the costs to society of road transport are greater compared with rail, it is absolutely correct that a cornerstone of a sustainable and economically efficient transport system should be to shift freight from road to rail.

    As for the decoupling argument, there’s an easy parallel to draw with energy efficiency. At the beginning of the 1970s there was a generally-held consensus that economic growth and growth of energy consumption inevitably go hand in hand. Some people even argued that attempts to break the link (ie. to save energy) would lead to economic disaster. Although energy consumption is still on the rise, it is now, thankfully, clearly nonsense to view energy saving as a bad thing.

    Thirty years on, transport policy makers have some catching up to do. There is abundant scientific and empirical evidence that reducing transport – especially on roads – can have numerous positive consequences (better traffic flow, improved safety, reduced environmental and health impacts), especially when transport prices are artificially low, as they generally are. European countries that use least transport to earn their income rank highly on the competitiveness index, particularly Denmark, Norway and Great Britain. Yet still the calls to make the false link between economic growth and increased transport continue to come.

    I realise the word “decoupling” is a bit boring, a bit negative, and many people have to think twice to know what it means. Although it means the same, it might be more appealing to talk about creating a transport-efficient economy. If the EU is serious about sustainability, it should aim to have the most transport-efficient economy in the world, just like we are trying to become the most energy-efficient economy in the world. Having a thriving, dynamic, knowledge-based economy that uses transport, energy and other resources as sparsely as possible should be our key driver. There is nothing boring or negative about that.

    This news story is taken from the September 2005 edition of T&E Bulletin.