Economic growth brings transportation challenges
by Robert L. Nemeskeri
European Union accession and general economic growth are expected to usher in a regional transportation boom, which will have many economic benefits for Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), but may also have serious consequences for the environment.
The statistics are staggering: According to WIFO, an Austrian economic research institute, the volume of transport (in tonnes) in Austria is going to increase five- to seven-fold after the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia have joined the EU. Similar increases are foreseen in these CEE accession countries as well.
What is worse, given current trends, much of this transport growth is likely to be in the form of road traffic, which is one of the least-efficient, heaviest-polluting means of transport.
Without careful planning, this increase in transport can create a severe strain on the environment of the region. If CEE is to absorb this increase with minimal impact on the environment, it will be necessary to address the question of transport using a holistic, interdisciplinary approach.
Increased traffic is not all bad. The intensive development of sophisticated infrastructure, one of the major prerequisites to economic and social development, is inevitable across CEE and is seen as an important step in the preparation for the extension of the EU. Accessible and fast transport plays a great role in the quality of our lives and our economic welfare.
On the other hand, poorly planned and built transport infrastructure can pose a threat to public health and safety, and also cause environmental degradation and economic inefficiency. Proper prioritisation of transport infrastructure projects including roads, railways, ports, airports, bridges and bus and train stations is essential.
West offers a poor example
The countries of CEE should not necessarily be looking to the West for examples. In most Western countries, the less-efficient modes of transport, road and air, are growing more rapidly than the more energy efficient modes of rail and waterway transport. Unfortunately, the same trends are developing in CEE, where the pace of growth in automobile-use outstrips that of the West as countries of the region expand economically and begin to "catch up" with more developed nations.
Consequences in CEE
The problems caused by this trend are felt most acutely in CEE urban areas that have not been planned, designed and built for handling highly motorised populations.
Right now, public transport is still relatively well developed in CEE, compared to many Western countries. However, the infrastructure and management systems for public transport are often run down and inefficient, causing more and more people to feel the real or perceived need to buy and use automobiles.
It seems that many travellers prefer automobiles to public transportation because driving a car offers the perception of personal freedom. The ability to decide where and when to go or stop is very appealing, but as the roads fill up, it becomes impossible to maintain this level of freedom without more road construction.
The result is a vicious cycle that can be observed all over the developed and developing worlds. Continuous road construction and expansion attracts even more people to take to the highways for commuting or leisure travel, but the new roads soon become congested too.
Negative impacts of the growth in traffic
The contraction of CEE's industrial sector, combined with increased environmental standards at factories, have meant a reduction in industrial pollution at the same time that pollution from transport has been increasing.
As a result, the worst pollution problems in most CEE cities are caused by exhaust from internal combustion engines and these problems are serious. Public health can be affected by vehicle emissions of VOCs like benzene and benzol, photochemical products like ozone, carbon monoxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, lead, other heavy metals and various particulates, like dust and soot.
The health problems caused by these pollutants obviously create medical costs for society, but these costs are rarely assessed, so polluters do not pay the true price of transport-related pollution.
Another major problem caused by transport is noise. Noise contributes to stress, which in turn may be a factor in a number of health problems. There are different engineering solutions to reduce noise, such as roadside noise barriers and the design of quieter vehicles, but these approaches are often given low priority in CEE.
Public safety is yet another transport-related concern. Even though statistics dating back for several decades show that the greatest daily risk taken by the average resident of a civilised country is to roll out on the road, travellers continue to eschew safer means of transport.
An additional threat to the environment caused by automobiles and other means of transportation is soil and water pollution from transport-related activities, including the careless discharge of fuel, lubricants, cleaning fluids, and paints. This sort of pollution can pose a hazard to groundwater and animals, all through the food chain.
Transportation is also responsible for emissions of CO2, one of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. Although industry, especially power generation, is responsible for most of the CO2 generated by human activity in the world, the transport sector is a major contributor. Among different types of transportation, road traffic is by far the biggest generator of CO2. In Hungary and the Czech Republic in 1995, road traffic contributed 74 percent of all CO2 created by transportat, according to a report by DHV and LT Consultants.
Potential solutions in CEE
The solutions to the challenges posed by transport are not so obvious. Clearly, the best approach is a holistic one that addresses the problem on several levels. The solutions may involve some sacrifice for citizens who have become used to the "freedom" offered by automobiles. It is obvious that, unless there are checks on driving, the freedom of the road will be choked off by stagnant traffic.
In March 2001, at the Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe, representatives of NGOs, and the ministries of transport, health and environment from countries throughout the region met to identify directions for future transport policy. They recommended that the following areas be given priority:
encourage further development of land use planning systems as a tool for integrating environmental policy into other sectors;
promote strategic environmental assessment of transport policies and transport, regional development and land use;
develop comprehensive economic instruments for encouraging sustainable transport;
government funding to promote rail, and other environmentally friendly alternatives to road projects;
infrastructure for cycling, and access to public transport for the disabled;
communication strategies to raise awareness about the environmental and health impacts of transport, as well as developments in sustainable transport; and
institutional strengthening and capacity-building to address these priorities.
In their 1999 report on the CEE transport sector, Transport and the Environment, a Multi-Country Approach, DHV and LT Consulting recommended a range of actions to address the region's transport concerns. They proposed the following key objectives describing the direction in which transport should develop:
enhance the use of cleaner, more fuel-efficient and quieter vehicles;
enhance the use of cleaner fuels;
reduce noise along main roads;
limit increases of (inter-urban) car traffic;
promote transport by rail;
enhance the use of maritime and inland waterway transport for shipping;
strive for sustainable development of air transport;
improve urban traffic management;
optimise combined transport;
improve the environmental performance of the transport sector; and
enhance the safety of transport of dangerous goods.
These sets of objectives and priorities should set CEE governments on the right track towards the development of more sustainable transport systems. It is important that, as systems are developed, all aspects of sustainability be considered. Mechanisms such as strategic environmental assessment, if properly followed, will help identify considerations and lead to better planning and decision-making.
Hopefully the actions of CEE countries and the EU together will help alleviate, and eventually contain, the impact of the explosion in transport that this region can expect in the next few years.
The Bulletin, 2001