European cities and regions are seeking to attract companies and skilled workers by providing them with a suitable environment for business and a good quality of life for citizens. At the same time, local authorities and governments are doing their best to meet key sustainability goals, including environmental objectives.
As part of this picture, transport contributes greatly to regional growth, benefiting local economies and people, helping to access jobs and education. Nevertheless, commuting to work or for leisure represents a large amount of time spent in traffic and huge costs for individuals, businesses and the society as a whole.
This is particularly the case for densely populated regions and big cities, where transport authorities often have the challenges of increasing demand for mobility and a saturated road network.
Since the 1990s, European governments have levied lower taxes on diesel than on gasoline, thinking that diesel was a cleaner alternative. However, while less carbon emission is better for the planet, diesel cars emit nitrogen dioxide (NO2) harmful to human health and tiny particulates that can harm the lungs.
Regrettably, despite diesel fuel use being a key cause of air pollution, diesel consumption has been rising in many countries, partly for economic reasons and partly as a measure to combat climate change. Recent research has shown that NO2 pollution causes approximately 5900 early deaths every year in big cities, such as London.
Moreover, the World Health Organisation estimates that outdoor air pollution generally led to some three million premature deaths worldwide in 2012. There is without doubt an urgent need to reduce the use of diesel-powered vehicles, and to shift towards alternative solutions.
The EU has set ambitious targets that could help into that direction: by 2030 to halve the use of 'conventionally fuelled' cars in urban transport, and to eliminate their use by 2050.
In addition, with regard to sustainable urban mobility, the aim is to achieve essentially carbon-free movement of goods by 2050. Although achieving sustainable mobility in the EU has long been a goal for centre-left politicians, sufficient funding and investment has been lacking.
Some cities have already adopted measures intended to reduce congestion and clean up the air, such as low-emission zones that involve traffic restrictions.
Others, such as Madrid, Paris and Athens have pledged to ban polluting diesel cars from their centres by 2025, deploying clean vehicles in a smart and multi-modal manner. The Ile-de-France region is currently working to complement public transport with novel electric vehicles sharing services, in combination with several train stations.
Consequently, electric mobility has never been closer to the mainstream, with the market being pushed ahead by a wide array of new electric car models from established car firms. Nevertheless, the market is still emerging and the impact of electric mobility on the grid today is limited. For a long time the use of electric cars was conditioned by battery technology limitations.
Today other problems need to be resolved, such as recharging infrastructure and integration of charge stations into electrical networks. Therefore, although it is good news for the environment that the EU sales of electric cars are rising, and in the long-term the gap between the cost of combustion and electric engines will significantly decrease, this trend is unlikely really to take off without a more strategic and well-resourced policy regarding electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
Ideally, all relevant authorities should be further encouraging and supporting development of electric vehicles and recharging infrastructures in and around urban areas, providing necessary facilities in public areas; companies should also invest in providing premises and surroundings with specific infrastructure for their employees.
As for individual users, we should integrate alternative car ownership schemes, such as vehicle-sharing and pooling, with public transport in a multi-modal approach, benefiting the users of both.
For example, users could easily access electro-mobility platforms, which could be available at several stations, take a pre-booked electric vehicle or book one on the spot. Finally, we need to keep up the pressure on manufacturers to switch to producing more gas, hybrid and electric cars, and help them modify the diesel cars they have already produced to limit pollution.
It is clear that EU focus and funding is a helpful catalyst, but national, regional and local authorities must do so much more to achieve the levels of investment and support required. As it is usually the case with the transport sector, this is a complicated issue, linked closely with planning and wider development policies.