Freight transport demand
Over the past decade freight transport volume has grown rapidly and has generally been coupled with growth in GDP. This is particularly striking in recent years when there has been a surge in freight transport activity. Consequently the objective of decoupling GDP and freight transport growth has not been achieved. Closer inspection reveals large regional differences, with the EU-12 Member States showing much faster growth since 2000 in the freight transport sector, compared to the EU-15. This is mainly a result of these countries starting from a relatively low transport level and then experiencing a shift towards high value production and service industries, which has resulted in strong transport growth. For the first time in the 13 years displayed, freight transport demand in the EEA32 experienced a year-on-year decline in 2008. This is in sharp contrast to the long-term trend; freight transport demand has grown by over two-fifths since 1995, and by nearly one-fifth in the period 2003-2008 alone. In 2008, decoupling between freight transport volume and GDP was observed for the first time in five years. However, this is likely to be due to the impact of the economic recession, and will not necessarily continue in the future. Aside from this, the recent trend is for positive coupling between GDP and freight transport demand. Within the European Union, the EU-12 has experienced growth in freight demand over three times that of the EU-15 in the period 1998-2008, and demand within the EU-12 continued to grow in 2008 despite the general downturn.
Is freight transport demand being decoupled from economic growth?
Trend in freight transport demand and GDP
Note: Green indicates faster growth in GDP than in transport while red indicates stronger growth in transport than in GDP. Figure 1 shows a large increase in freight tkm in 2004. This is due to a change in the methodology used to calculate the estimates for this year. (see metadata for more details) The main reason is that countries had to harmonise their surveys with the EU legislation, Freight transport demand is defined as the amount of inland tonnes-kilometre travelled every year in the EEA32. Inland freight transport includes transport by road, rail and inland waterways. The current version of the indicators is based on inland transport only. Although statistics on sea transport are already well developed, due to their predominantly international nature, there are conceptual difficulties in dealing with these modes in a manner consistent with the inland modes. Data from Lichtenstein is not included as it was not available as part of the dataset .The ratio of annual growth of inland freight transport to GDP, measured in 2000 prices, determines the amount of coupling between GDP and transport. The decoupling indicator, depicted by the green bars, is calculated as unity minus the coupling ratio; so a positive score indicates decoupling (i.e. transport demand grows less slowly than GDP), with a negative score showing the opposite (i.e. transport demand outpaces GDP growth).
- Eurostat: Volume of passenger transport, Last update: 09-09-2010 (supplied directly to contractor via EEA) This statistic is not currently available via the Eurostat website, and was supplied to the contractor directly via the EEA by email.
- DG TREN Statistical Pocketbook 2010, http://ec.europa.eu/transport/publications/statistics/statistics_en.htm [accessed 2 September 2010]
- GDP data: EEA, September 2010 (supplied directly to the contractor)
Overall in the EEA32, freight transport demand has grown significantly since the mid 1990s (40% since 1995), thereby making it increasingly difficult to limit transport’s impact on the environment. In the 10 years to 2008 the most significant growth by far was in road transport, growing by over one-third compared to around 13% growth in rail and 11% growth in inland waterways. However, trends vary widely between member states, as is discussed below.
As well as being the mode with the fastest growth, road freight is by far the dominant mode in inter-European freight transport, accounting for over three-quarters of freight movement (in tkm) in 2008. However, it is on the decline in some major economies: in the last decade there was a decrease in road freight activity in Italy, Switzerland, Denmark and Belgium (and small decreases in the UK and the Netherlands). Of these, only Denmark and Italy have seen an overall reduction in freight demand. In contrast, Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania have all experienced a more than threefold increase in road freight demand in the same period. This may be a result of these countries starting from a relatively low level of demand, and experiencing a shift towards high-value production and service industries that have resulted in strong transport growth.
Rail freight has seen a much smaller increase in the EEA32 Member States over the 1998 to 2008 period. There is significant variation between countries, even within economic groupings – for example, Germany has seen an increase in rail freight demand of over 50% in this period, but France has had a decline of nearly 25% over the same time frame. Many of the Member States that have seen large growth in rail freight transport have also increased their investment in rail infrastructure at some point in this period (see TERM019: Infrastructure investments). Overall, 17 Member States have seen a growth in rail freight in the ten-year period to 2008, and 11 have seen a decline.
Inland Waterways (IWW) make up a much smaller proportion of the overall freight movement, with many countries experiencing declines or very small increases. Romania saw the most relevant increase with a doubling of freight transport by IWW between 1998 and 2008; they have also more than tripled their investment in IWW infrastructure in the same period (see TERM 19: Infrastructure investments). Two countries, Germany and the Netherlands, accounted for over three-quarters of freight transport by IWW in 2008. Germany also account for 60% of the investment in IWW infrastructure in the same year (data for the Netherlands are not available).
For the EU-15 Member States, the main explanation for the recent dominant trend of tonne kilometres growing faster than GDP 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 EU-12 Member States, there has been a large shift in production away from traditional relatively heavy low-value industry towards higher-value production and services. This has led to strong freight transport growth, which has surpassed the growth in GDP. The EU-12 has seen an increase in freight transport of over 70% between 1998 and 2008, compared to a 20% increase in the EU-15. In addition, in 2008, when freight transport demand fell overall, it grew by 3% in the EU-12 (whilst falling by nearly 3% in the EU-15).
In addition to the internal shift of production processes within the EU, there has been a huge growth in international imports, particularly from the East, in the last decade. Imports from outside the EU-27, for example, have risen by around 60% between 2000 and 2008, and the share of imports originating from China has more than doubled in that time (Eurostat, 2010). If the growth in international shipping to and from Europe were to be taken into consideration, the overall growth in freight demand and therefore coupling with GDP would be even more pronounced.
Development of the Trans-European Networks under the TEN-T programme may facilitate further growth in freight volume due to the focus on relieving bottlenecks and expanding the infrastructure capacity. The revised guidelines have some provisions for environmental issues, namely a call on Member States to perform a Strategic Environmental Assessment of national transport programmes and a requirement that funding for TEN-T projects be conditional on compliance with EU environmental legislation. However, environmental concerns are secondary for the selection of projects and the overall environmental impacts have not been assessed.
 Of the remainder, Cyprus, Iceland and Malta have no railways, and there was no data available for Lichtenstein.
Is the share of goods transported by road being reduced relative to other transport modes?
Freight transport demand by mode - EU27
Note: Freight transport demand by mode - EU27
DG TREN Transport & Energy Statistical Pocket Book 2010, Table 3.2.2, EU27 performance by mode: Freight Transport. http://ec.europa.eu/transport/publications/statistics/statistics_en.htm [accessed 2 September 2010]
In terms of mode share, road freight has by far the largest share at 77% in 2008, whereas the share for rail and inland waterways (IWW) are 17% and 5% respectively. The modal split has changed little in the last two years, and in the period 1998 – 2008 the share of both rail and inland waterways has declined gradually. As a result, the objective outlined in the Common Transport Policy (CTP) of stabilising the mode 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 significant reversal of the current trend.
The relative split of overland freight between road and rail in the EU-15 is similar to the situation in the EEA-32 as a whole: road has dominated over the period shown, with little change until the last two years, when the share of rail has begun to increase very slightly. Since the economies of the EU-15 are larger, the overall trend is most strongly influenced by this group of Member States. In the EU-12, however, road and rail exchanged positions in mid 1990s, with road transport’s share increasing strongly and reaching 73% (of market share between road and rail) in 2008 at the expense of rail transport. This can be explained primarily by historical preference for rail transport in the centrally-led economies in the EU-10 (not the case in Cyprus and Malta). Liberalisation of markets led to the decrease in heavy industry in those economies alongside an increasing demand for more flexible road transport.
The current dominance of road freight transport can be explained by looking at 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.
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, and more reliable than rail or water transport. In addition, as a result of spatial planning and infrastructure development, many destinations can only be reached directly by road, and combined/intermodal transport is so far 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 broader competition (with only limited success to date in the case of rail). The average tonne of goods carried by road travels about 110 kilometres, 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 of an issue. The low price of shipping is probably of overriding importance.
However, in terms of all freight transport volumes, sea shipping dominates when international sea transport is also included. Due to methodological and data reliability problems, sea transport is frequently omitted from transport statistics, but volumes should not be underestimated. Data is available for the EU-27 and it shows that the demand for intra-European short-sea transport is roughly equivalent to the level of road transport.
Indicator specification and metadata
Freight transport demand is defined as the amount of inland tonne-kilometres travelled every year in the EEA33. According to the latest metadata, inland freight transport includes transport by road, rail, inland waterways, air and maritime. Transport via rail and inland waterways is based on movements within national territory ('territoriality principle'), regardless of the nationality of the vehicle or vessel; road transport is based on all movements of vehicles registered in the reporting country.
The ratio of annual growth of inland freight transport to GDP, measured in 2010 prices, determines the amount of coupling between GDP and transport. The decoupling indicator is defined as unity minus the coupling ratio, where the data index = 2000.
The modal split of freight transport is defined as the percentage share of modes (road and rail) in total inland transport. It includes transport by road, rail and inland waterways.
The unit used to express freight transport volume is tonne-kilometre (tkm), which represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre.
GDP is Gross Domestic Product expressed in constant euro, indexed to the year 2010.
Freight transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (2000=100).
The modal split share for freight transport is shown as a percentage (%).
Policy context and targets
Minimising the negative impacts of transport is a central theme in EU transport policy:
- The objective of decoupling freight transport demand from GDP was first mentioned in the Transport and Environment integration strategy that was adopted by the Council of Ministers in Helsinki (European Council, 1999). 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 (European Commission, 2001): “A sustainable transport policy should tackle rising volumes of traffic and levels of congestion, noise and pollution. Action is needed to bring about a significant decoupling of transport growth and GDP growth, in particular by a shift from road to rail, water and public passenger transport”.
- 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 in 2001 (European Commission, 2001).
- In the White Paper on the Common Transport Policy - "European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide" (European Commission, 2001) - the Commission outlined concerns for curbing the demand for transport, which included the fact that economic growth will almost automatically generate greater needs for mobility, therefore increasing demand for goods and services, and for passengers. The objective of breaking the link between economic growth and transport growth was therefore considered as the basis for the White Paper for the next decade. Thus, a number of measures were proposed within the White Paper, aimed at achieving a modal shift and decoupling from GDP.
- The European Commission's White Paper on transport published in 2011 - "Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area – Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system" - acts as a framework to guide future policy developments in the transport sector over the next decade. The White Paper sets out 10 goals for a competitive and resource-efficient transport system. These goals serve as benchmarks for achieving the target of a 60 % reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from transport from 1990 levels, by 2050. One of these goals is that "30 % of road freight over 300 km should shift to other modes such as rail or waterborne transport by 2030, and more than 50 % by 2050, facilitated by efficient and green freight corridors"
- Decouple transport growth significantly from growth in GDP in order to reduce congestion and other negative side effects of transport;
In the EU, a total of 30 % of road freight over 300 km should shift to other modes such as rail or waterborne transport by 2030, and more than 50 % should shift by 2050, facilitated by efficient and green freight corridors
Related policy documents
A sustainable future for transport
In 2001, the Commission issued a White Paper setting an agenda for the European transport policy throughout 2010. This programme was updated in the mid-term review of 2006. Approaching the end of the 10-year period, it is time to look further ahead and prepare the ground for later policy developments.
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
Keep Europe Moving: Sustainable Mobility for our Continent
European Commission, 2006. Keep Europe Moving: Sustainable Mobility for our Continent. Mid-term review of the EC’s 2001 Transport White Paper.
Sixth Environment Action Programme
DECISION No 1600/2002/EC OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 22 July 2002 laying down the Sixth Community Environment Action Programme
Transport White paper 2011
Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area - Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system
WHITE PAPER European transport policy for 2010: time to decide
The need for integration of transport in sustainable development
Methodology for indicator calculation
To measure the 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 EEA-33. The annual tkm growth rate is therefore compared with the annual GDP growth rate. 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.
Freight transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (for freight transport demand: 2000=100; GDP at 2010 prices).
A detailed description of concepts used and data collected in the transport database can be found in (http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/ramon) .
Methodology for gap filling
No gap filling is required for this indicator.
Data sets uncertainty
Population statistics (Eurostat)
provided by Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat)
Transport statistics (Eurostat)
provided by Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat)
Transport (Primary topic)
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
- CSI 036
- TERM 013
Contacts and ownership
EEA Contact InfoDiana Vedlugaite
EEA Management Plan2010 2.9.2 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
- 07 Sep 2010 - Freight transport demand
- 21 Apr 2009 - Freight transport demand
- 22 Dec 2008 - Freight transport demand
- 28 Jun 2006 - Freight transport demand by mode and group of goods
- 03 Oct 2005 - Freight transport demand
- 28 Apr 2005 - Freight transport demand by mode and group of goods
- 28 Mar 2004 - Freight transport demand by mode and group of goods
- 28 Oct 2003 - Freight transport demand by mode and group of goods
- 01 Jun 2001 - Freight transport demand
- 01 Jun 2001 - Freight transport
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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