In a new audit report the European Court of Auditors (ECA) found that road congestion and air pollution in European cities have not decreased six years after the EU launched its Urban Mobility Package on sustainable mobility.
In 2013, the European Commission urged a “step-change” in addressing urban mobility issues by increasing the funding available for investments in busses, trams and metro lines. In total, the EU funds made available for urban mobility in the 2014- 2020 period amounted to €16,3 billion (besides national co-financing). Operational and maintenance costs are not funded by EU.
The goal was to reduce the use of private cars in the cities by promoting a shift to sustainable public transport and active mobility, such as walking and cycling. However, traffic congestion is still one of the biggest challenges to urban mobility, affecting most Europeans and costing around €270 billion a year.
Road transport is also one of the main causes of air pollution and the sector whose greenhouse emissions have increased most. According to the auditors, many European cities suffer from poor quality and regularly exceed the limits for the protection of human health.
“Substantial improvements in making mobility in our cities more sustainable may need more time, but are not possible without Member States’ commitment,” said Iliana Ivanova, the ECA Member responsible for the report. All stakeholders at EU, national, regional and city level should work together to achieve this goal.”
The audit report was published timely in view of the recent launch of the European Green Deal. ECA expects that it will help all stakeholders to use EU funds more effectively.
The performance audit included visits to 8 cities in 4 member states: Leipzig, Hamburg, Naples, Palermo, Warsaw, Lodz, Madrid and Barcelona, combined with geo-spatial congestion analyses by Eurostat. At a press briefing last week in Brussels (3 March), the audit team explained that the findings can be generalised to other cities since the data collection was complemented by a survey to 88 cities.
In addition, the auditors carried out study visits to Copenhagen and Stockholm to explore the potential of congestion charges and cycling. They also consulted external experts on urban mobility.
The 8 cities are all included in EU infringement procedures against respective member states for breaching air quality standards. The trend of increasing congestion was observed in all visited cities. In fact, congestion worsened in 25 out of 37 urban “nodes” for which data was available.
A major shortcoming in the implementation of urban mobility programme was the absence of sustainable urban mobility plans despite the Commission’s guidelines on such plans. Of the visited countries, Italy and Spain have made the plans a condition for EU and national funding but the auditors were not able to assess their quality.
Three Commission directorates-general are involved in the urban mobility programme but none of them will be held accountable for the shortcomings identified in the report. A spokesperson told The Brussels Times that the Commission plays a limited role and that member states and cities manage urban mobility locally.
As usual, ECA is addressing its recommendations to the Commission as a whole. For a change, the Commission accepted all of them and agreed that there is room for improvement – but with one caveat. Making funding conditional on the adoption of the sustainable urban mobility plans depends on the outcome of legislative negotiations.
How does the Commission intend to use the audit report as input to its actions on smart and sustainable mobility in the European Green Deal? A Commission spokesperson replied that encouraging sustainable mobility is one of the Commission’s priorities and that it will take note of the audit recommendations.
“In addition to the measures outlined in the Green Deal roadmap, the Commission intends to continue to support less developed regions with transport networks and transition towards a low-carbon economy during the next EU long-term budget 2021-2027,” a spokesperson told The Brussels Times.
“The success of linking EU funding and sustainable urban mobility plans will also require good cooperation with the member states in the context of the preparation of the future partnership agreements and programmes.”
Furthermore, the Commission intends to develop policies relevant to urban mobility in the context of its forthcoming Sustainable and Smart Mobility Strategy. This strategy would combine a series of measures to address emissions, urban congestion, and improved public transport, all areas that the Urban Mobility Package largely failed to address.