Freight transport demand
Key messagesFreight transport volume has grown rapidly, and has generally been strongly coupled with growth in GDP. Consequently the objective of decoupling GDP and transport growth has not been achieved. Closer inspection reveals great regional differences, with growth faster than GDP in the old Member States and slower than GDP in the new Member States. This is mainly a result of the economic restructuring in the new Member States over the past decade.
Is freight transport demand being decoupled from economic growth?
Trend in freight transport demand and GDP
Note: The decoupling indicator is calculated as the ratio of freight transport demand to GDP measured in 1995 market prices
Trends in the annual intensity of freight transport demand
Note: Tonne/km for road, rail and inland waterways.
Freight demand data used in the structural indicators (february 2005), Eurostat.
Freight transport demand has grown significantly since 1992, thereby making it increasingly difficult to limit the environmental impacts of transport. But underlying the almost parallel growth with GDP is a more complex picture. Freight transport demand has grown significantly faster than GDP in the 15 old Member States whereas the picture for the 10 new Member States is the opposite.
For the 15 old Member States, the main explanation is that the internal market is leading to some relocation of production processes, causing additional growth in transport demand over and above the steady growth in GDP. For the new Member States, the main reason is the large shift in production away from traditional relatively heavy low-value industry towards higher-value production and services. This, coupled with strong economic growth, means that freight transport growth is not keeping up with GDP growth. Both effects are temporary, but the data do not contain any indication that real decoupling (difference between GDP and transport volume growth) is taking place.
The share of alternative modes (rail and inland waterways) in freight transport has declined during the past decade. As a result, the objective outlined in the Common Transport Policy (CTP) of stabilising the shares of rail, inland waterways, short-sea shipping and oil pipelines, and shifting the balance from 2010 onwards, will not be achieved unless there is a strong reversal of the current trend.
This development can be explained by looking the type of goods transported. This plays an important role in choice of mode. Perishable and high-value goods require fast and reliable transportation - road transport is often the fastest and most reliable form available, providing much flexibility with pickup and delivery points. Agricultural products and manufactured goods are some of the most important goods transported throughout Europe. Their shares in tonne-km are also rising.
Because the transport system allows it, modern production prefers 'just-in-time' delivery of goods. Transport speed and flexibility are therefore of great importance. Despite congestion, road transport is often faster and more flexible than rail or water transport. In addition, as a result of spatial planning and infrastructure development, many destinations can only be reached by road, and combined transport is used only to a limited extent. Furthermore, the road sector is liberalised to a great extent, while the inland waterway and rail sectors have only relatively recently been opened up to broad competition. Finally the average tonne of goods carried by road travels about 110 km, a distance over which rail or inland waterways are less efficient because road transport is needed to and from the points of loading. Moreover, in using multi-modal transport for such short distances, valuable time is lost due to lack of standardisation of loading units and convenient and fast connections between inland waterways and rail. For short-sea shipping, the average tonne of goods is carried more than 1 430 km. Here, time is less an issue. The low price of shipping is probably of overriding importance.
Is the share of goods transported by road being reduced relative to other transport modes?
As part of the modal-split indicators project, Eurostat is working on methods regarding the calculation and territorial attribution of maritime freight transport. Total freight transport demand currently includes road, rail and inland navigation.
The modal split indicators are structural indicators. Any change regarding the methodology (i.e. possible inclusion of maritime transport) will be reviewed and incorporated in the core set indicator as soon as Eurostat validates the data. The (possible) inclusion of a new mode would have a dramatic effect on the modal split shares and therefore we will not publish these shares until Eurostat's finalises its work this year.
Indicator specification and metadata
The indicator "freight transport demand" will be presented in two different ways:
1) To measure decoupling of freight demand from economic growth, we will use the volume of freight transport relative to GDP, including separate trends for its two components. Both freight demand and real GDP growth will be indexed on 1995. The decoupling indicator is defined as the ratio between tonne-kilometres (inland modes) and GDP (Gross Domestic Product in constant 1995 EUR). It will be indexed on year t-1 in order to be able to observe changes in the annual intensity of freight transport demand relative to economic growth.
2) Modal split share of freight transport: This indicator is defined as the percentage share of road in total inland transport. The unit used is the tonne-kilometre (tkm), which represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre. It includes transport by road, rail and inland waterways. Rail and inland waterways transport are based on movements on national territory, regardless of the nationality of the vehicle or vessel. Road transport is based on all movements of vehicles registered in the reporting country.
The unit used is the tonne-kilometre (tkm), which represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre. It includes transport by road, rail and inland waterways. Rail and inland waterways transport are based on movements on national territory, regardless of the nationality of the vehicle or vessel. Road transport is based on all movements of vehicles registered in the reporting country. Freight transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (1995=100). The ratio of the former to the latter is indexed on year t-1 (i.e. annual decoupling/intensity changes).
When the results from Eurostat's modal-split project become available, the modal split share for freight transport will be shown as a percentage (%).
Policy context and targets
The EU has set itself the objective to reduce the link between economic growth and freight transport demand ('decoupling') in order to achieve more sustainable transport.
Reducing the link between transport growth and GDP is a central theme in EU transport policy for reducing the negative impacts from transport:
- The objective of decoupling freight transport demand from GDP was first mentioned in the Transport & Environment (T&E) integration strategy that was adopted by the Council of ministers in Helsinki. Here, the expected growth in transport demand was named as an area where urgent action was needed. In the sustainable development strategy that was adopted by the European Council in Gothenburg, the objective of decoupling is set in order to reduce congestion and other negative side-effects of transport.
- In the review of the T&E integration strategy in 2001 and 2002, the Council reaffirmed the objective of reducing the link between the growth of transport and GDP.
- In the Sixth Community Environmental Action Programme, decoupling of economic growth and transport demand is named as one of the key objectives in order to deal with climate change and to alleviate health impacts from transport in urban areas.
Shifting freight from road to water and rail is an important strategic element in the EU transport policy. The objective was first formulated in the Sustainable Development Strategy ("SDS"). In the review of the T&E integration strategy in 2001 and 2002, the Council states that the modal split should remain stable for at least the next ten years, even with further traffic growth.
In the White Paper on the Common Transport Policy (CTP) "European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide", the Commission proposes a number of measures aimed at the modal shift.
Decouple transport growth significantly from growth in Gross Domestic Product in order to reduce congestion and other negative side effects of transport.
Bring about a shift in transport use from road to rail, water and public passenger transport so that the share of road transport in 2010 is no greater than in 1998.
Related policy documents
COM (2001) 264 final
A sustainable Europe for a better world: A European Union strategy for sustainable development. Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament. COM (2001) 264 final.
COM (2001) 370 final. European transport policy for 2010.
WHITE PAPER European transport policy for 2010: time to decideCOM (2001) 370 final
Presidency conclusions of the Cardiff European Council, 15 June 1998
Presidency conclusions of the Cardiff European Council, 15 June 1998
Methodology for indicator calculation
To measure decoupling of freight transport demand from economic growth, the volume of freight transport relative to GDP (i.e. the intensity) is calculated. Separate trends for its two components are shown for the EU-25. Relative decoupling occurs when freight transport demand grows at a rate below that of GDP. Absolute decoupling occurs when freight transport demand falls and GDP continues to rise or remains constant. If demand and GDP both fall, they remain coupled.
The unit is the tonne-kilometre (tonne-km), which represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre. It includes transport by road, rail and inland waterways. Rail and inland waterways transport are based on movements within national territory, regardless of the nationality of the vehicle or vessel. Road transport is based on all movements of vehicles registered in the reporting country.
Freight transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (1995=100). The ratio of the former to the latter is indexed on the previous year (i.e. annual decoupling/intensity changes) in order to be able to observe changes in the annual intensity of freight transport demand relative to economic growth.
For EU Member States according to the Regulation (EC) No 1172/98, road transport data are based on all movements of vehicles registered in the reporting country. All other transport data refer mainly to movements on the national territory, regardless of the nationality of the vehicle. Eurostat metadata for different transport modes can be found here
A detailed description of concepts used and data collected in the transport database can be found in Eurostat's concepts and definitions database
Gross domestic product (GDP) is the central aggregate of National Accounts. Methodological information related to GDP can be found here.
demand does not include maritime transport. This is fully consistent with the structural indicators.
The core set indicator can also be presented as the share of road transport in total inland transport (i.e. modal split share for freight transport). Eurostat is currently working on methods for the calculation and territorial attribution of performance data for short shipping which, if included, would have a significant impact on the freight modal shares. When Eurostat's results become available, the core set indicator will be reviewed and the modal split shares may be shown.
Methodology for gap filling
According to Eurostat "where data have been unobtainable from Eurostat/ECMT/UNECE Common Questionnaire on Transport Statistics (passenger transport performance) and Regulation (EC) No 91/2003 on rail transport statistics (rail transport data from 2003), figures have been taken, where possible, from national statistical institutes, ECMT, UNECE, UIC, DG for Energy and Transport".
No methodology references available.
To answer the question of whether freight demand is being decoupled from economic growth we need to look at the intensity of freight transport relative to changes in real GDP. A reduction in intensity should signal relative decoupling. This has some implications on the interpretation one makes of the observed intensity values. GDP in constant prices simply takes away the effect of price increases from year X to year Y but it does not guarantee that GDP in year X for country A is comparable to GDP in country B (as year X is the result of price increases from previous years etc). Therefore, cross-country comparisons of transport intensities based on real GDP may be relevant for trends (i.e. growth/changes over time) but not for comparing intensity values in specific years.
If we are interested in knowing whether freight transport intensity is higher in one country than in another, GDP should ideally be measured in purchasing power parities. These are currency conversion rates that both convert to a common currency and equalise the purchasing power of different currencies (i.e. they eliminate the differences in price levels between countries). It is arguable, however, whether purchasing power parities are the best currency unit for time-series analysis. One way to avoid such problems is to use population instead of GDP. This would in principle be appropriate for the comparison of intensities between countries as well as for looking at trends over time. It seems also more equitable. To respond to the question of whether or not we are decoupling transport demand from economic activity (i.e. looking at growth rates over time) we would still need to use GDP. Total inland freight transport demand excludes maritime transport. This is due to methodological problems related to the allocation of international maritime transport to specific countries. Thus, the effect of globalisation (production being moved from Europe to e.g. China) does not have a measurable impact on the indicator in spite of having large real consequences for total freight transport demand. It would be important to capture such effect, which currently accounts for about 40% of freight transport demand for short sea shipping in the EU (i.e. excluding maritime transport from or to destinations outside the EU). In 2004, Eurostat launched a project to produce a set of modal split indicators. The aim of the project is to establish consistent and comparable datasets for the transport performance (in tonne-kilometres, passenger-kilometres and vehicle-kilometres) of road, rail, inland waterways, maritime and air transport on the national territory ('national territory' principle) of the countries and to use those series in a regular annual production of modal split indicators.
Eurostat is working on methods regarding the calculation and territorial attribution of transport performance data for maritime transport. We are awaiting the results from Eurostat's project in order to apply their methodology as soon as it is validated. Until then, our aggregate for total inland freight transport will exclude (as does now the structural indicators) maritime transport.
Data sets uncertainty
The unit used to measure the volume of freight transport is, as defined in the indicator, the tonne-kilometre (tkm). It represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre. Load factors for road freight transport are not obligatory variables (i.e. they are optional) which are collected only in the framework of Council Regulation (EC) No 1172/98. Even for those countries where such variables are provided, data have been reported to Eurostat only since 1999. Dissemination of the loading of vehicles was not foreseen by the Regulation.
Detailed information about road transport (including data quality) is available from Eurostat
Loading of the vehicle is a key factor playing a key role in the assessment of whether or not there is decoupling of freight transport demand from economic activity. One could hypothetically think of a situation where the number of vehicles is replaced by larger trucks capable of loading more cargo. Since load factors are not available the task of making a sound assessment of freight transport trends becomes very difficult. One could not, for instance, properly determine what share of the trend observed for tonne-kilometres belongs to changes in the cargo loaded. For a complete picture of transport demand and the related environmental problems, it would therefore be valuable to complement the data on the number of tonne-kilometres with vehicle-kilometres.
The 2 indicators "volume of freight transport relative to GDP" and "modal split of freight transport" are part of the European Commission's structural indicators. As such, their components are already calculated and downloadable in their final form from Eurostat's database. Where data is not available, estimations have been made or data has been taken from other sources: national statistical institutes, ECMT, UNECE, UIC or DG for Energy and Transport. Estimates are not always included in Eurostat's Newcronos database but are used for the purpose of calculating the structural indicators. Data are kindly provided by Eurostat's Transport Statistics Unit in the form of an Excel Spreadsheet for internal use. The final calculations (i.e. the indicators) are published on the structural indicator's homepage.
Eurostat is in the process of reviewing/completing the quality section of the metadata part for the 2 structural indicators as well as on the possibility to include the estimates in the Newcronos database.
The main policy question relates to whether freight demand is being decoupled from economic growth. Thus, one needs to monitor trends in the intensity of freight transport demand relative to changes in GDP at constant prices. The ratio of inland freight transport to GDP could increase even though the actual freight transport volume may fall. Similarly, the indicator could fall despite of a possible increase in the volume of freight transport. What makes the ratio increase or decrease is the relative change in the volume of freight transport (numerator) to gross domestic product (denominator). As long as the numerator increases more (or falls less) than the denominator, the indicator "freight transport demand" will increase. The indicator does indeed summarise "freight transport intensity". From an environmental point of view, it is important not to overlook trends in the total volume of freight transport. The actual absolute values are key to understand environmental pressures originating from more demand for freight transport.
Intensity can be also explained using the concepts of relative and absolute decoupling. Relative decoupling in freight transport demand occurs when its volume grows at a rate below that of gross domestic product. In this case, however, the volume of freight may well increase as long as this increase is less rapid/strong than the one observed in economic activity. Absolute decoupling in freight transport demand occurs when the volume of freight transport falls. This is the necessary condition. Absolute decoupling is present if GDP increases or remains unchanged. If GDP falls, there is absolute decoupling only if the fall in freight volumes is stronger than the contraction in GDP. This is important since from a purely statistical point of view one could imagine a situation where no absolute decoupling is observed and yet this may be good for the environment. For example, both GDP and freight volumes could fall, with the latter falling less than the former. The fact that the volume of freight transport goes down is good for the environment but the hypothetical situation just described does not strictly correspond to absolute decoupling.
Even if two countries have the same freight transport intensity or show the same trend over time there could be important environmental differences between them. The link to the environmental pressure has to be made on the basis of the energy fuels used by the freight fleet. The primary fuel today is diesel but other options may be available in the future.
In relation to the modal split indicator (i.e. percentage share of road in total inland freight transport), what makes a share increase or decrease for a particular mode depends on the change in the volume of transport for that specific mode relative to the total volume of all modes vis a vis the relative changes observed for the other modes. That is, not only it depends on whether the volume of road freight transport increases or decreases but also on how the increase or decrease in the total volume of inland freight transport is distributed across the different modes. From an environmental point of view, the relative contribution of each mode to the total volume of freight transport has to be put in the wider context. Absolute (as opposed to relative) values of transport volumes for each mode are key to understand the environmental pressures.
Transport statistics - freight (Eurostat)
provided by Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat)
Annual Macroeconomic Database
provided by Directorate-General for Economic and Financial Affairs (DG ECFIN)
Transport (Primary topic)
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CSI 036
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoPeder Gabrielsen
EEA Management Plan2010 (note: EEA internal system)
For references, please go to www.eea.europa.eu/soer or scan the QR code.
This briefing is part of the EEA's report The European Environment - State and Outlook 2015. The EEA is an official agency of the EU, tasked with providing information on Europe’s environment.
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