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Freight transport demand (CSI 036/TERM 013) - Assessment published Apr 2009

Indicator Assessment Created 12 Dec 2008 Published 21 Apr 2009 Last modified 20 Feb 2014, 04:40 PM
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Generic metadata


Transport Transport (Primary topic)

csi | transport
DPSIR: Driving force
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CSI 036
  • TERM 013
Geographic coverage:
Austria, Belgium, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, United Kingdom

Key policy question: Is freight transport demand being decoupled from economic growth?

Key messages

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.

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

Data source:


Downloads and more info

Key assessment

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.

Specific policy question: Is the share of goods transported by road being reduced relative to other transport modes?

Specific assessment

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.

Data sources

More information about this indicator

See this indicator specification for more details.

Contacts and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Cinzia Pastorello


EEA Management Plan

2010 2.9.2 (note: EEA internal system)


Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled once per year in October-December (Q4)
Filed under: ,


European Environment Agency (EEA)
Kongens Nytorv 6
1050 Copenhagen K
Phone: +45 3336 7100