Indicator Assessment

Freight transport demand

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-36-en
  Also known as: CSI 036 , TERM 013
Published 21 Apr 2009 Last modified 11 May 2021
12 min read
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This page was archived on 17 Jan 2019 with reason: Other (Replaced by: Passenger and freight transport demand (CSI056/TERM039))

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.

This indicator is discontinued. No more assessments will be produced.

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:


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.

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.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

Freight transport demand is defined as the amount of inland tonne-kilometres travelled every year in the EEA-33. According to the latest metadata, inland freight transport includes transport by road, rail, inland waterway, air and maritime. Transport via rail and inland waterway 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 waterway.


The unit used to express freight transport volume is the tonne-kilometre (tkm), which represents the movement of one tonne over a distance of one kilometre.

GDP is Gross Domestic Product expressed in constant euros, indexed to the year 2010.

Freight transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (2000=100). 

The modal split for freight transport is shown as a percentage (%).


Policy context and targets

Context description

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 transport from road to water and rail is an important strategic element in 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 outlines concerns for curbing the demand for transport, which included the fact that economic growth will almost automatically generate a greater need for mobility, an increasing demand for goods and services, and more 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



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 the concepts used and data collected in the transport database can be found in Eurostat's concepts and definitions database (

Methodology for gap filling

No gap filling is required for this indicator.

Methodology references

No methodology references available.



Methodology uncertainty

not applicable

Data sets uncertainty

not applicable

Rationale uncertainty

not applicable

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Driving force
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CSI 036
  • TERM 013
Frequency of updates
This indicator is discontinued. No more assessments will be produced.
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage





Filed under:
Filed under: csi, transport
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