Freight transport demand
Freight transport volume has grown rapidly, and has generally been 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 EU-15 Member States and slower than GDP in the EU-12 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 two curves show the development in GDP and freight transport volumes, while the columns show the level of annual decoupling
Freight transport demand has grown significantly since the early 1990s, thereby making it increasingly difficult to limit transport's impacts on the environment. Ireland and the Netherlands have seen the highest growth in freight between 1996 and 2006. However, the almost parallel growth with GDP is a more complex issue. Freight transport demand has grown significantly faster than GDP in the EU-15 Member States, yet trends tend to be opposite in the EU-10 Member States.
For the EU-15 Member States, the main explanation for demand overtaking 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 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.
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 infrastructure capacity. The revised guidelines have some provisions for environmental issues, namely a call on Member States to perform 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.
Freight volumes have increased in the EEA member countries (data for Bulgaria, Cyprus, Liechtenstein, Malta and Romania is missing) over the past couple of decades. The most extensive growth was in road transport with an average annual growth rate of 3.5 % in the EEA member countries. Between 1996 and 2006 road, rail and inland waterways freight (tkm) increased by 43 %, 15 % and 11 %, respectively.
Is the share of goods transported by road being reduced relative to other transport modes?
Trends in the annual intensity of freight transport demand
Note: Road freight transport is assigned to the country of origin of the transport vehicle in EU statistics rather than to where the vehicles drive
In terms of modal share, road freight has the largest share constituting 78 % of the market in 2006. The modal share of rail and inland waterways is 17 % and 5 % respectively. Since 1996, the share of both rail and inland waterways freight has declined gradually. As a result, the objective outlined in the Common Transport Policy (CTP) of stabilising the modal 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 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. 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 only undertaken 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 the 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.
In terms of total international freight transport volumes, sea shipping dominates. The lack of information about sea transport is due to methodological and data reliability problems, which frequently results in the mode being omitted from transport statistics. The volumes of freight transported by sea should not, however, be underestimated. The demand for intra-European short-sea transport is roughly equivalent to that of road transport in the EU-15, for which data is available.
Total freight volume has increased for all current member states. Estonia (162 % growth), Ireland (156 %) and Lithuania (152 %) have seen the biggest increase during the period of 1996 to 2006.
Road freight has seen the highest increases with Lithuania and Latvia experiencing the biggest increase of more than 350 % from 1996-2006.
Rail freight has seen a much smaller increase and for many countries a decline has been measured among EU-15. Countries such as France, Ireland and Luxemburg have all seen a drop in rail freight whereas Austria, Germany and Greece saw a fairly high increase in the period from 1996 to 2006.
Inland waterways (IWW) makes up a much smaller proportion of the overall freight movement with many countries experiencing declines or very small increases. Belgium saw the greatest increase with growth of 56 % between 1996 and 2006. New member states saw much lower increases with Romania and Bulgaria experiencing the largest growth of 117 % and 55 % respectively.
Indicator specification and metadata
Freight transport demand is defined as the amount of inland tonne-kilometre travelled every year in the EEA33. According to the latest metadata Inland freight transport includes transport by road, rail, inland waterways, air and maritime: rail and inland waterways transport are based on movements on 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 2005 prices, determines the amount of coupling between GDP and transport. The decoupling indicator, is defined as unity minus the coupling ratio. data index = 2000.
The modal split of freight transport is defined as the percentage share of modes (road and rail) to 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 express in constant euro, indexed to the year 2005.
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
The EU set itself the objective of reducing the link between economic growth and freight transport demand ('decoupling') in order to create a more sustainable transport network. Reducing the link between transport growth and GDP is a central theme in EU transport policy to minimise the negative impacts of transport:
- 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, 2001a): “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, 2001a).
- In the White Paper on the Common Transport Policy "European Transport Policy for 2010: Time to Decide", (European Commission, 2001b) 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 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 mode shift and decoupling from GDP.
- In the review of the Transport and Environment integration strategy in 2001 and 2002, the Council reaffirmed the objective of reducing the link between the growth of transport and GDP (European Council, 2002a and 2002b). The review also stated that the modal split should remain stable for at least the following ten years, even with further traffic growth.
- 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.
- 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 GHG emissions from transport by 2050 target (from 1990 levels).
- 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 EEA33. 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.
The unit is the tonne-kilometre (tkm), which represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre.
Freight transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (2000=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.
A detailed description of concepts used and data collected in the transport database can be found in (Found in RAMON, http://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/ramon) .
Methodology for gap filling
no gap filling
No methodology references available.
Data sets uncertainty
Population evolution (Eurostat)
provided by Statistical Office of the European Union (Eurostat)
Transport statistics - freight (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 InfoCinzia Pastorello
EEA Management Plan2010 2.9.2 (note: EEA internal system)
Frequency of updates
- 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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