Transportation at a crossroads

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Transport is fundamental to our economies, to the movement of goods in the single market, and to citizens as they enjoy their freedom to travel.” –European Union Transport Commissioner Siim Kallas, speaking at the annual conference held by Swedish truck maker Scania in Brussels, Belgium, last month

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It’s no secret that freight-hauling trucks are perhaps the single most critical linchpin holding many of the world’s economies together. (I’m quite sure I’m preaching to the choir on this one.)

That statement doesn’t denigrate the other modes, either, for whether you start out shipping goods via ocean-going freighter, train, plane, river barge, or whatever, it ends up on a truck at some point. How can it not? Rail depots don’t exist in every single suburban community, nor do runways or canals; it’s the roads connect all the final dots.

Yet the venerable truck is under the gun these days, in no small part because trucks consume tons upon tons of petroleum (that longtime scalawag) and of course, via combustion of said petroleum, pollute the air.

Thus governments across the globe are gearing up their policy machines to try and tackle this tricky conundrum: find ways to keep reducing the petroleum consumption and pollution production of commercial trucks, without impeding the vital economic role they play.

The European Union (EU) is trying to take a broad stab at this, according to Siim Kallas, the group’s transport commission. His staff is working on a white paper to propose policies designed to “enhance transport's competitiveness,” in his words, while “providing a clear road map” for moving to alternative energy sources.

“Transport is at a crossroads,” he said in speech to the annual conference held by Swedish truck maker Scania in Brussels, Belgium, last month. “Old challenges remain while new ones have appeared. Since the Industrial Revolution, transport has depended on available and cheap fuel – first coal and then oil. Most predictions see oil becoming scarcer in future decades, sourced increasingly from unstable parts of the world. Together with increasing demand from the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, China) and other rapidly developing economies, the price will increase substantially.”

[Here are some other thoughts from Scania’s conference on some of these issues.]

He said that today, EU transport is 96% oil powered – and that while substantial change will be difficult and needs time to implement, it is essential.

“Industry needs a clear direction and timeline for change, keeping in mind its global character and competitiveness needs,” Kallas stressed. “If we do not address this oil dependence, people's ability to travel – and our economic security – could be severely impacted. It is our duty to give governments, manufacturers and industry the clarity they need to plan investments and a policy for the decades to come.”

Kallas said the EU is looking to meet these and other transportation issues in several ways:

First, Europe must integrate its internal transport market. “We must move decisively towards a genuinely integrated internal transport market in which modes are truly and seamlessly integrated, forming one Single Transport System,” he explained. “Co-modality will help increasing both the energy efficiency and the economic efficiency of the transport system.”

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A "Single Transport System" requires improvements on various fronts, Kallas (at right) said: elimination of obstacles to the internal market, further harmonization of interoperability standards, better information for users, adequate trans-shipment platforms, multimodal electronic transport documents, and multimodal transport can save energy and reduce congestion, “but we need to make it as cheap, easy and reliable as road transport,” he stressed.

Second, new technologies muct be promoted. “If we want to use a cleaner type of energy that also frees transport from its oil dependency, we have to promote new vehicle technologies,” Kallas said. “We should however not put all our eggs in one basket. We need to assess which are the most promising technologies [over the] short, medium and long term, and focus our limited investment capabilities accordingly.”

He added that progress is needed on different solutions that may all be needed at different points in time: sustainable biofuels, clean electricity and hydrogen.

“Timing is also important: too much ambition too soon may favor existing technologies (biofuels) over more promising, but less mature ones,” Kallas noted. “We already promote technology in various ways: by defining standards, by public procurement rules, by setting CO2 [carbon dioxide] limits for vehicles and through a global target for the use of renewable energy in transport (10% by 2020). We could perhaps accelerate the uptake of new technologies by promoting their use in public and commercial fleets [through] favorable tax treatment.”

[Below, Melanie Kemper from the Ecologic Institute discusses other ways of what the group calls “decoupling” economic growth and the need for increased freight capacity. This is part of the path the EU is following to achieve the EU’s new “transportation vision.”}

Next, the EU must pursue a well-targeted infrastructure policy, as funding problems, low public acceptance and environmental impact prevent the possibility to expand transport infrastructure.

“In some cases, new infrastructure is nevertheless needed, if only to fill gaps in existing networks,” Kallas explained. “Apart from that, and to improve co-modality, activities and money should generally be concentrated on the nodes of the transport system such as trans-shipment platforms. They are increasingly becoming bottlenecks and therefore deserve particular attention. For the rest we need to maintain and upgrade what we have, finding ways of accommodating more traffic.”

He believes technology can be of great help here, with many “intelligent” transport systems already available. “The challenge is now to deploy them and integrate them across modes,” Kallas said.

How transport infrastructure itself is funded must also be reviewed. In a context of ageing societies and the need for budgetary consolidation, financing of transport is becoming an ever more delicate issue; not just on the amount of funding, but also on appropriate instruments and consistency in their use, he explained.

“In the future, transport will have to be increasingly self-financed,” Kallas pointed out. “We need to find new sources of revenues that, at the same time, give better signals and incentives to users. The internalization of externalities and the application of the ‘polluter pays principle’ should not be seen as an additional burden, but as a way for transport to solve its problems.”

Finally, there is the urban dimension of transport: Cities account for more than 70% of the population and are responsible for one quarter of all transport CO2 emissions. “Their weight is increasing [and] there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution, but it is clear that cities have to take responsibility for playing their part in making transport more sustainable,” Kallas noted.

That's a full plate of issues, no doubt, and not everyone will agree with the direction the EU wants to go in. But it's an example of how compex the crossroads are becoming for transportation these days.

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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