“Smart Ways to Net Zero”, the 2022 Eurocities Mobility Forum, kicked off in Antwerp today against the backdrop of unprecedented global challenges.
From 16 to 18 November, European officials, local politicians and transport experts alike are swapping notes and charting the way toward two of the European Union’s chief long-term goals: the Green Deal and sustainable mobility.
The Mobility Forum is inspired by ‘Smart Ways to Antwerp’, the Belgian city’s pioneering effort on digital and integrated mobility.
The event is taking place as cities are confronted with a rapidly warming planet and the energy crisis. The latter has far-reaching consequences, not least on transport, with rising energy and mobility costs weighing more heavily on low-income households.
While national governments seek to address these challenges, in Antwerp local officials showcased how cities can offer bottom-up solution, drive chance and help to transform today’s crises into opportunities for action.
Local politicians agreed that residents need to be on board at all times and that political decisions need to get people’s seal of approval.
“Mobility users are central to everything that we do. We need to give people different choices on how to move around the city so that they can make decisions themselves,” said Koen Kennis, Deputy Mayor of Antwerp.
Sitting at the table with the EU
A high-level political meeting opened this year’s event; for cities and the EU this was a chance to share visions and hurdles on the pathway to sustainable mobility.
Political representatives from thirteen European municipalities met with Charlotte Nørlund Matthiessen, a Policy Advisor in the Cabinet of Adina Valean, the European Commissioner for Transport and Mobility.
Cities’ efforts to limit transport’s climate impact have already received a powerful boost from the EU: in late 2021, the Commission revised its urban mobility regulations to align it with the goals of the Green Deal.
“After the Commission updated its policies, it was important for local official to sit at the same table with the EU, especially in the current context,” said André Sobczak, Secretary General of Eurocities and the meeting’s chair.
“With municipalities translating the new EU mobility rules into action, today’s dialogue in Antwerp is paramount to making adjustments wherever needed,” Sobczak added.
Last year, the EU executive branch set new measures to support the digital transformation of public transport, promoted the decarbonisation of last-mile deliveries and revised the Trans-European Transport Network (TEN-T) regulation to improve transport, commercial and social connections across Europe.
In May 2022 the Commission further added the REPowerEU to tackle the energy crisis: the plan suggests ways to reduce energy consumption, diversify energy supplies and foster renewable energy production. REPowerEU includes advice to decarbonise mobility in cities such as setting car-free days, improving public transport and advancing shared mobility.
For local authorities, today’s high-level session was a chance to gain a better insight into these new regulations and share their own experiences with the EU.
Cities described an uneven picture from the ground: adding to municipalities’ individual issues, the Covid pandemic, energy and climate crises that have rattled the world in close succession are complicating local sustainable mobility efforts.
Jean-Claude Dardelet, the Mobility Forum Chair and Vice-President of the Toulouse Metropolitan area, underlined how municipalities can tap into the potential of the new EU regulation to emerge from current challenges and accelerate their net-zero mobility path.
“With REPowerEU we could test new ways to move in the city and experiment new solutions,” Dardelet explaind.
Nørlund Matthiessen emphasised how REPowerEU helps cities to address current urban energy challenges by encouraging them to take inspiration from each other and replicate successful mobility models.
Tackling energy poverty
For years, members of the Eurocities network have been leading the way with their mobility plans to combat pollution, congestion, traffic and accidents
However, significant challenges remain. Public transport took a brutal hit when ridership numbers dropped during the Covid pandemic. Data shows that the sector is now facing rising costs due to the energy crisis.
If unaddressed, the energy crunch and galloping inflation will dramatically affect public transport, hampering cities’ ability to provide an affordable and sustainable way for citizens to move around. “Because of the crises, this is not the right moment to save on public transport; quite the opposite,” Elke van den Brandt, Brussels Capital Region’s Minister of Mobility, Public Works and Road Safety, said.
Elina Rantanen, the Deputy Mayor in the Finnish city of Turku, echoed those words. “We need to do more to also introduce transport-related measures in energy savings plans,” Rantanen explained. “Offering low-cost and accessible alternatives needs to become a priority to ensure a fair and just transition,” she added.
Sonja Haider, an Alderwoman in the municipality of Munich, reminded that the price increase also has an impact on those using other means of transport.“For low-income households, car dependency is getting more and more problematic in these times of crisis,” Haider explained.
In its 2021 urban mobility policy revision, the EU introduced new obligations for European cities located along the strategic TEN-T transport corridors: for example, it mandated municipalities to adopt a Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) and create transport and freight hubs.
TEN-T strategies should work in tandem with SUMP plans and both be used as an opportunity for advancing urban sustainable mobility goals, said Robert Van Asten, the Alderman for Urban Development, Strategy and European Affairs at the Hague, a city located on a TEN-T corridor for car and freight traffic.
However, local authorities don’t receive enough financial support from the European Commission to carry out these new tasks, added Van Asten. Further complicating this picture, car use in the Netherlands has grown during the pandemic along with traffic jams and air pollution, the Dutch politician said.
“My city faces complex challenges. Our national government wants to widen and enlarge roads which is not a good solution for us, not only because it would increase environmental pollution, but also because more highways would lead to a further rise in car use,” Van Asten explained.
Dardelet highlighted the importance of the urban-EU cooperation to define solutions to common issues and improve sustainable mobility strategies in a timely manner. “We’ve seen it already with the Covid vaccines: when there is an emergency, the EU is there, but it needs to act now,” the Mobility Forum Chair concluded.
Top photo credit: city of Antwerp