Indicator Assessment

Passenger and freight transport demand in Europe

Indicator Assessment
Prod-ID: IND-465-en
  Also known as: CSI 056 , TERM 039
Created 12 Dec 2019 Published 19 Dec 2019 Last modified 19 Dec 2019
18 min read
  • Passenger transport demand in the EU-28 increased by 2 % between 2016 and 2017 to reach a new all-time high, which was 30 % higher than in 1995.
  • Car passenger travel remains the dominant transport mode, accounting for just over 70 % of total passenger transport.
  • Air transport continues to grow and now boasts a modal share of passenger transport of 11 % — a higher share than in all previous years. Compared with 2016, air transport grew by 9 % in 2017.
  • Rail passenger travel is stable, accounting for 7 % of transport demand in 2017.
  • In 2017, the main contributors to the increase in total freight transport were road and rail freight (+4.7 % and 2.2 %, respectively). Total freight transport increased by 2.4 % compared with 2016.
  • The modal share of freight transported over land remained largely constant and is still dominated by road transport (73 %), followed by rail (17 %) and inland waterways (6 %).

Passenger transport volume and modal split

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Freight transport volume and modal split within the EU

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Inland freight transport volumes and GDP

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Passenger transport demand

Passenger transport demand in the EU-28, measured in passenger-kilometres (pkm), reached an all-time high in 2017 (17.3 % higher than in 2000). The growth in demand recorded during previous years continued for the fifth consecutive year. Total passenger transport demand now clearly exceeds the levels seen before the economic recession (8.2 % higher than in 2008).

Since 2010, passenger transport volumes (in pkm) have grown by 9 %. Across the different modes, they have changed as follows:

  • Passenger cars: +6 %;
  • Powered two-wheelers: +3 %;
  • Buses and coaches: -4 %;
  • Railways: +13 %;
  • Trams and metro: +11 %;
  • Aviation: +45 %;
  • Sea: –2 %.

In absolute terms, passenger cars have accounted for most of the overall increase in passenger transport volumes since 2010, closely followed by aviation. Since 2010, the EU population has grown by 1.6 %, significantly less than the 9 % growth in total passenger transport. In the vast majority of Member States, the demand for passenger transport by car in 2017 was greater than in any preceding year.

Rail passenger traffic volumes have increased steadily since 2009 and slightly outpaced total passenger transport demand growth. However, significant variation exists among EU Member States. Rail demand has grown strongly in most EU countries since 2009, in some cases by 30 % or more. This includes some old Member States such as Luxembourg and the United Kingdom, but also newer Member States such as Czechia and Slovakia. In contrast, other countries recorded stagnating or declining volumes. The decrease has been particularly large in Bulgaria, Greece, Croatia and Slovenia.

Within passenger rail transport, high-speed rail plays an increasingly important role. In 2017, it accounted for 27 % of all passenger rail transport in the EU. In France and Spain, more than half of all passenger rail kilometres were travelled by high-speed rail. This growth goes hand in hand with the expansion of suitable rail infrastructure. However, the bulk of the activity is concentrated in relatively few countries.

Passenger transport by air has increased strongly and more than doubled in volume since 1995. In 2017, aviation accounted for 11 % of all passenger transport, a higher share than in all previous years. It also recorded the strongest year-on-year growth rates among all modes during the last 5 years. In absolute terms, only transport by passenger car saw a stronger increase.

Trends in inland passenger transport demand and gross domestic product (GDP) have decreased in intensity (pkm/EUR) since 2000, with the exception of 2009 for which the impacts of the economic recession are clear. In 2009, the sharp reduction in GDP in the EEA-33 was however still associated with a slight increase in passenger transport volumes compared with previous years, suggesting that passenger transport demand reacted less (and more slowly) to changes in GDP than freight. Since 2012, only small changes in the intensity ration were recorded.

Freight transport demand

Alongside economic growth and expansion, total land freight transport within the EU-28 (road, rail and inland waterways) increased steadily throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, growing by 23 % in the years up to 2007. Between 2000 and 2007, the real average annual growth rate of GDP was slightly more than 2 % in the EU‑28, with higher growth in the EU‑13 than in the EU‑15. This growth took place in the context of continued globalisation, with rising trade volumes both within the EU and with trade partners outside the EU. A sharp fall in freight demand occurred in the years immediately following the economic downturn in 2008. Since then freight volumes have recovered and are now again close to the peak recorded in 2007. In 2017, total land freight transport increased by 4.2 %, compared with 2016.

  • Road: Total road freight volumes in 2017 were around one-quarter higher than in 2000. This growth is entirely driven by the EU-13, where road freight volumes have seen uninterrupted growth since 2000 and have more than tripled. In the EU, road haulage accounted for more than three quarters of total inland freight movements within the EU-28 in 2017.
  • Rail: The amount of freight transported by rail in the EU-28 has grown during the last 4 years, but is still below the peak recorded in 2007. In 2017, rail freight transport demand increased by 2.2 % compared with the previous year. The rail transport demand observed in the EU-13 and EU-15 has largely moved in parallel over the years.
  • Inland waterways: the amount of freight transported by inland waterway was stable in the EU-28. In 2017, it remained at levels seen in the previous 2 years. Compared with 2010, total tonne-kilometers in the EU-28 have decreased by 5 %.

If the evolution of the intensity of freight transport (tonne kilometres per unit of GDP in constant with 2010 prices) is considered, with 2000 as a benchmark, no major changes could be observed during the last 4 years in the EEA-33 (excluding Liechtenstein). Freight intensity was 5 % below the 2000 level in 2017. While some decoupling could be observed in the EU-15 over the last decade, the rapid growth in tonne kilometres in the newer Member States resulted in a marked increase in freight transport intensity in the EU-13.

Passenger transport modal split

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The combined share of bus and coach, and rail has been largely flat since 2005 in the EU-28, with a slight downward tendency. The share of bus and coach passenger transport decreased from 10.1 % in 2005 to 8.7 % in 2017, however, rail transport increased from 7.1 to 8 %. Bus and coach transport is a more popular choice in the EU-13 than in EU-15 (15.1 % and 7.6 %, respectively in 2017).

Modal split between freight transported by road and rail

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The majority share of freight in the EU-28 is transported by road. Over time, there has been no substantial change in this share at an aggregated EU level. In 2017, 82 % of all freight transport on land was performed by road. This means that road freight has not been reduced relative to other transport modes. Instead, its share has increased over time. This EU-wide increase was driven by a strong increase in the EU-13, where road transport has clearly gained in importance relative to rail transport.

Supporting information

Indicator definition

'Passenger transport demand' is defined as the number of passenger kilometres (pkm) travelled every year in a country or group of countries. Inland passenger transport includes transport by passenger car, bus, coach and train.

'Freight transport demand' is defined as the amount of inland tonne-kilometres (tkm) travelled every year in a country or group of countries. 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. 

'Modal split' is defined as the proportion of total pkm allocated to different transport modes every year. The modal split of freight transport is defined as the percentage share of modes (road and rail) in total inland transport, including transport by road, rail and inland waterway.

The 'decoupling indicator' is defined as the annual changes in the ratio of pkm/tkm (inland modes) to GDP (in 2010 prices) growth.


The unit used to express passenger transport volume is the passenger-kilometre (pkm), which represents one passenger travelling a distance of 1 km. It is based on transport by car, bus, coach and train. 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.

Gross domestic product (GDP) is expressed in constant euros, indexed to the year 2010.

Transport demand and GDP are shown as an index (2000=100). The ratio of the former to the latter is indexed to the year t1 (i.e. annual decoupling/intensity changes) in order to observe changes in the annual intensity of passenger transport demand relative to economic growth (GDP). 

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


Policy context and targets

Context description

The EU has set itself the objective of decoupling economic growth from transport demand in order to create a more sustainable transport system. This decoupling has been a central theme in EU transport policy and is intended to minimise the negative impacts of transport.


  • In this indicator, the policy target to significantly decouple transport growth from GDP growth in order to reduce the negative environmental effects of transport and congestion is considered.
  • In the EU, a total of 30 % of road freight transported over distances greater than 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

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • A European Strategy for Low-Emission Mobility
    Transport is the backbone of the economy, an enabler of growth and jobs, essential for the functioning of the single market and the free movement of goods and people. Market integration, economic growth and transport activity are strongly related. The global transition towards a low-carbon economy has started, supported by the Paris Climate Agreement. Transport will need to play an important role in this transition. The transition towards a low-carbon economy also represents a major opportunity for jobs and growth in the transport sector, as markets for low-emission mobility grow globally. This transition will be supported by a number of disruptive trends, such as digitalisation and new technologies. Transport is increasingly becoming an on-demand service as consumer needs and perceptions of mobility solutions evolve. Taken together, these trends also imply important competitiveness challenges and significant effort will be required from businesses and regulators to turn them into growth and employment opportunities for Europe. A forward looking and long-term policy approach with the aim of ensuring a regulatory and business environment that is conducive to meeting the competitiveness challenges that the transition to low-emission mobility implies is a vital precondition. The analysis carried out in this paper provides insights on the necessary tools to do this.
    Regulation (ec) no 443/2009 of the European parliament and of the Council setting emission performance standards for new passenger cars as part of the community's integrated approach to reduce CO2 emissions from light-duty vehicles.
  • REGULATION (EU) No 510/2011
    REGULATION (EU) No 510/2011 OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL setting emission performance standards for new light commercial vehicles as part of the Union's integrated approach to reduce CO 2 emissions from light-duty vehicles
  • Transport White paper 2011
    Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area - Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system


Methodology for indicator calculation

In order to measure the decoupling of passenger demand from economic growth, the volume of passenger transport relative to GDP (i.e. the intensity) is calculated. 

The annual pkm/tkm growth rate is therefore compared with the annual GDP growth rate. Relative decoupling occurs when passenger and freight transport demand grows at a rate below that of GDP. Absolute decoupling occurs when passenger and freight transport demand falls and GDP continues to rise or remains constant. If demand and GDP both fall, they remain coupled.

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 inEurostat's concepts and definitions database.

Methodology for gap filling

No gap filling is required for this indicator.

Methodology references



Methodology uncertainty

To understand whether or not transport demand is being decoupled from economic growth, the intensity of transport demand relative to changes in real GDP is analysed. A reduction in intensity should signal the relative decoupling of transport demand from economic growth.

A decoupling indicator analyses pressures on the environment because of changes in the relevant economical variables to which environmental pressures are causally linked. This indicator compares the growth in pkm as a proxy of the pressures on the environment caused by transport. It is considered a good proxy; however, it is known to be inaccurate as pkm/tkm values in isolation do not fully explain the environmental pressures. 

Data sets uncertainty

Figures on pkm/tkm travelled by air are available as an EU-28 aggregate only. Air pkm/tkm are a provisional estimate for domestic flights and flights between EU countries. Figures for freight transport by road, rail, bus and inland waterway are available separately for all EU-28 Member States. The sources used by the European Commission (DG-MOVE) include national statistics, estimates, the International Transport Forum and Eurostat.

Rationale uncertainty

Even if two countries have the same transport intensity, or show the same trend over time, the environmental effects can be different. The link to environmental impact has to be assessed on the basis of the energy consumption and fuels used to satisfy demand and the technology used, in addition to the new infrastructure-related impacts. 

Data sources

Other info

DPSIR: Driving force
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)
Indicator codes
  • CSI 056
  • TERM 039
Frequency of updates
Updates are scheduled once per year
EEA Contact Info


Geographic coverage

Temporal coverage


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