Sustainable mobility is a question of conviction and of solidarity
'My message is clear: the mobility question is too complex to be reduced to a purely “social” problem or to the umpteenth “free of charge” story.'
Of late I have been accused in various media of lacking in mobility vision. I am, for example, supposed to be preparing “socially unacceptable” measures. It is true that I have always resisted “free of charge” politics, but it is not because I am targeting certain policy-makers. On the contrary, I simply do not believe that “free of charge” exists and as a Christian Democrat I support a more nuanced vision. After all, a sustainable transport sector can only be achieved when consumers, producers and public authorities appreciate the three dimensions of sustainability: the economic, the social and the ecological. The transport sector must therefore respond to transport needs in a cost-effective manner, guarantee sufficient reliability and safety to those needing transport (including those who are less mobile and financially less secure), and limit the negative impact on people and the natural environment (pollution, noise, ....).
So much for the theory, now the practice: are these three dimensions sufficiently addressed in daily reality?
1. In the past few years the transport sector has followed the growth of the economy.
Road transport in particular has done well (because of its high flexibility). The causes are familiar: growth of economic activity, changes in the organisation of work (the introduction of just-in-time systems or the splitting up of integrated production processes), globalisation, changes in lifestyle, et cetera. Reversing these developments is not an option, except at the cost of significant loss of prosperity for the population. We should, on the other hand, uncouple the growth of transport from the growth of prosperity, because without this uncoupling we shall be heading – literally – for a complete dead end in our small and densely populated country. The creation of new infrastructure can provide a solution, especially for eliminating the “missing links”. Even so specialists point out that new infrastructure – especially if it is made available “free of charge” – will attract new transport demand and will therefore only provide a temporary answer. It seems more appropriate to use the existing infrastructure intelligently and to provide the necessary stimuli for using new technologies to this end.
The transport flows naturally follow the laws of demand and supply: means of transport become more attractive to the extent that the costs of usage are lower than those of alternatives. The market attunes the individual decisions of buyers and sellers to one another: they are best placed to formulate their needs and wishes accurately. A sustainable transport sector, however, demands that every user or supplier of transport integrates the three dimensions of sustainability in his decision. That is obviously a question of conviction: users and suppliers of transport services must be convinced of the need to integrate sustainability into their conduct. And that, again, is a question of solidarity, within one’s own generation as well as with future generations.
To achieve a fundamental change in policy I believe in a gradual approach and in the creation of public support. Nevertheless, research and experience have taught us that moral convictions and the provision of information alone are not enough to change behaviour. (Apart from that, no unfair competition should be allowed to arise between those who want this change in behaviour and those who don’t). The market mechanism must be placed in an institutional context, in which the government should demarcate the social and ecological parameters.
In a mixed economy such as ours, however, the government as well as the private sector plays a role. All actors, private and public, must therefore bear in mind this longer term dimension of sustainability. The construction and maintenance of transport infrastructure must happen in a well thought-out manner by tuning in to the expected transportation demand and to the initiatives from other regions and other countries. Projections of the expected transport flows must be coupled to the expected availability of transport infrastructure. There is an urgent need to link the macro-economic and sectoral growth projections, policy intentions, views about environmental planning and regional economies, etc, of the different regions, taking into account the specific location of Belgium and its function as the logistical pole in North-West Europe. In this way I hope to promote integrated thinking about future mobility between all public authorities (federal, regional and municipal). In my opinion that is what the people want from politicians: that we do not confine ourselves to sterile discussions about competencies, but that each of us in our own place and with our own resources must accept responsibility and through cooperation provide an answer to the challenges of tomorrow.
2. The social dimension of sustainable mobility demands reliability and safety for all transport users.
Successive federal officials responsible for mobility have set themselves the objective of reducing the number of traffic fatalities in Belgium by half to a maximum of 750 per year by 2010. The recent traffic safety barometers already show a positive development: the number of traffic fatalities continues to decline, but it of course remains to be seen if these trends will continue. Considering the limited time that is available for achieving the objective, the federal government will need to step up efforts in the area of sensitisation and enforcement for the years 2009 and 2010.
3. Transport has given rise to all sorts of taxation over the years, but the current tax system deserves critical reflection.
Also in this domain I consider the time ripe to develop a vision for our country. There is a need for a global mechanism of price formation for the transport infrastructure to replace the existing forms of taxation on transport. As a starting point one can take best practices in other countries while taking into account the complex structure of Belgium. Such a large-scale restructuring of government revenue streams requires thorough research, not only into the effects on transport flows themselves, but also into the budgetary impact, the repercussions for competitiveness and income distribution.
Price formation is a powerful instrument for steering the behaviour of families and companies. This can be supplemented with instruments such as legislation and subsidising of transport behaviour that is environmentally friendly. With a policy mix one achieves more than with excessive emphasis on a single (“free of charge”) policy instrument and public support will be wider. Besides, government itself is a significant initiator of transport demand and can set a good example. In 2009 I will develop a number of initiatives within my own departments: a company transport plan, work from home for certain activities, acquiring more environmentally friendly company vehicles, etc.
This combination of ideas about the mobility issue may not look spectacular. It is the old Christian Democratic story of “on the one hand, on the other hand”. Yet my message is clear: the mobility question is too complex to be reduced to a purely “social” problem or to the umpteenth “free of charge” story. For the solution of complex problems I believe in a gradual approach: sustainable mobility is a question of conviction and of solidarity. The solution lies in developing a vision and in accepting responsibilities, not in discussions about competencies between policy levels. Lengthy and sometimes difficult balancing acts will be necessary between the economic, social and ecological dimensions of sustainability. I believe, however, that this approach will produce results, perhaps not by the next election, but certainly for future generations ...
About Etienne Schouppe
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