Unbreakable: the link between road safety and sustainable mobility

19 December 2022

Almost 20,000 people lost their lives in road accidents in the EU in 2021, with pedestrians, cyclists and moped riders accounting for over 32% of those fatalities, European Commission data show.  

In urban areas, EU figures from 2020 paint an even grimmer picture for vulnerable users: some 52% of all traffic-related deaths in cities involved people on a bike, on foot or a moped. Among those three categories, most deaths resulted from collisions with cars.  

With pedestrians and two-wheel users at the heart of sustainable mobility strategies, the figures emphasise the need to ramp up traffic safety efforts.  

Only roads where people can securely hop on their bikes and walk in the streets will convince more and more users to embrace active modes of transport such as walking and cycling.

Two cyclists crossing the road in Brussels
Cyclists in Brussels. Photo: PJ DC

For Eurocities’ mobility expert Juan Caballero, this is literally a matter of life and death.  

“We need to preserve the word ‘life’ in the idea of ‘active lifestyle,'” remarks Caballero, the Campaign Manager for European Mobility Week, the awareness-raising campaign of the EU promoting active and green modes of transport. 

Cities leading the way to safety

Traffic fatalities took centre stage at the Road Safety Conference of the European Commission’s Mobility and Transport on 8 December. How to increase prevention?

The 2021-2030 Road Safety Policy Framework of the European Commission provides national and local authorities with a roadmap to curb road accident deaths by half by 2030, on the way to zero-fatalities by 2050.

The scheme relies on a comprehensive approach and hinges on pillars such as safe vehicles, safe infrastructure, speed limits, sober driving, seat belts, helmets, a fast and effective emergency response and close cooperation with national governments.

A cyclist on a Paris street
A street in Paris. Photo: Eddie Junior

In addition, it recognises municipalities as standard-bearers for road safety, whose actions to curb road deaths can simultaneously bolster green mobility.

“Towns and cities in particular are well placed to develop the synergies between safety and sustainability measures: for example, less car use in cities combined with safer environments for pedestrians and cyclists will reduce CO2 emissions, improve air quality, reduce congestion,” the Commission writes in the strategy.

“Similar synergies can be found in enabling safe and affordable access to mobility to all members of society, in particular for the disabled and the growing share of elderly people,” the document adds.  

Further guidelines for cities come from specialised organisations like the European Transport Safety Council (ETSC), a non-profit whose mission is to curb transport-related deaths and injuries.  

Valongo's River Leça Park. Photo: Valongo Municipality
Valongo’s River Leça Park. Photo: Valongo Municipality

Put vulnerable users first

On its website, the Brussels-based ETSC calls for safety actions to first focus on active users.  

“In urban areas, ETSC has long advocated for an inverse triangle hierarchy of priority with vulnerable road users at the top, followed by public transport, with private motorised transport at the bottom.”  

The construction of new cycling paths that separate two-wheel users from car traffic flows is a step in that direction, a move that cities across Europe have been embracing for years.  

A road sign indicating a pedestrian and cycling area
Photo: Minh Tran

Valongo’s new and improved pedestrian areas and cycling paths helped the Portuguese city win the 2021 European Mobility Week Award for small municipalities, in addition to wide-ranging actions linking green mobility with road safety. 

“Now people can walk to the centre, which is not as dangerous as it used to be,” Valongo’s Alderman Paulo Esteves Ferreira said in a recent interview. A renewed sense of security makes a convincing case for switching to sustainable transport modes, he added. 

“Parents usually pick up their children by car, which wastes fuel and is expensive, but children will be able to move around on foot or by bicycle because now it is safe,” the Alderman remarked.  

Where one’s rights end

Setting stringent speed limits is another powerful tool to drastically reduce road accident deaths. From 2021, vehicles cannot exceed 30 km/h on most roads in Paris and across the Brussels Capital Region.  

People at car-free day in Brussels, 18 September 2022.
People on car-free day in Brussels, 18 September 2022. By D. Berretta

Pedestrians and cyclists feature high on “Good Move”, the Brussels Capital Region’s sustainable mobility plan that relies on measures such as banning through-traffic from the city centre.  

Integral to “Good Move” is the Belgian capital’s new Road Safety Action Plan to achieve “Zero deaths and serious road injuries by 2030,” 20 years ahead of the EU-set deadline.  

For all its notable intentions, however, “Good Move” has been sparking loud protests and harsh criticism in Brussels, not least from motorists unwilling to give up their right to drive and park everywhere in the city.

“In our work on road safety, we hear this emphasis on freedom a lot around Europe,” says Ellen Townsend, an ETSC Policy Director in a rebuke to these critics.

“But let’s not forget: your right to drive 1.5 tonnes of steel around a city at 50 km/h may well impinge on the right of a child to walk to school safely, a mother to ride her bike to work in peace, or a student to get to sports practice on their e-scooter without risking death along the way,” Townsend adds in an open letter to municipalities and decision-makers.



Daniela Berretta Eurocities Writer