Transport — passenger transport demand and modal split

Briefing Published 18 Feb 2015 Last modified 23 Nov 2020
7 min read
Photo: © Joscha Beninde/EEA

There was an increase in passenger transport demand between 2005 and 2012, although overall it has been stable in recent years. However, national trends varied significantly, with demand increasing in 23 countries and decreasing in 10.

In 2012, the car was the dominant mode of transport in all countries. Car passenger transport has generally decreased in the last three years (2009 to 2012) with a significant drop in some countries.

Setting the scene

Transport is fundamental to society and the economy. Passenger transport is necessary for personal mobility and access to goods and services. The accessibility and affordability of passenger transport and the amount of time spent commuting are important contributors to quality of life.[1]

Transport also contributes to a range of environmental pressures and health impacts, including greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, poor air quality and noise levels in urban areas. Transport infrastructure contributes directly to habitat fragmentation, ecosystem degradation, and biodiversity loss. In combination with food, housing, and utilities, transport accounts for more than two thirds of the direct and indirect environmental pressures caused by household consumption.[2]

The SOER 2015 briefing on transport provides an overview of the status, trends and prospects for transport at a European level. This SOER 2015 cross-country comparison focuses on passenger transport demand and use of different transport modes.

About the indicator

The EEA publishes a range of transport indicators. The TERM (Transport and Environment Reporting Mechanism) report series provides an annual assessment of developments using a core set of indicators.[3]

The EEA indicator passenger transport demand[4] provides information on trends in volume of passenger transport, modal split and decoupling from economic growth. Passenger transport demand is defined as the volume of inland passenger-kilometres travelled every year.

Modal split is defined as the percentage share of different transport modes in total inland passenger transport. These include transport by passenger cars, buses, coaches, and trains, but do not include air travel, tram and metro, cycling, and walking due to lack of availability of comparable data. Although longer time series are available for some countries, 2005 to 2012 is used as it is the best available in terms of country coverage. 

Data on passenger transport are regularly published by the European Commission as part of transport statistics.[5] Further information on methodology, quality assurance and country-specific differences is published by Eurostat.[6]

Policies, targets and progress

Transport demand has risen in recent decades and is strongly linked to economic activity. One of the objectives of European transport policy and many national policies is a decoupling of the environmental pressures and impacts from transport and economic growth. The European Commission White Paper on Transport also sets a goal of reducing CO2 emissions from transport by at least 60% by 2050 from 1990 levels.[7]

The Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe has an objective to improve overall efficiency in the transport sector in order to deliver greater value in terms of optimal use of resources and reduced impacts.[8] Therefore, optimising transport demand, technological improvements, and a shift in transport modes are essential to meeting these objectives.

There was an overall increase in passenger transport demand in European countries between 2005 and 2012. Demand increased constantly until 2007–2008, but has been stable in recent years.[4] National trends varied significantly during this period, with demand increasing in 23 countries and decreasing in 10 (Figure 1). The largest percentage increases were recorded in Turkey, Bulgaria and Cyprus and the largest decreases were recorded in Lithuania, Italy and Latvia. 

Figure 1: Percentage change in total passenger transport demand in 33 European countries (2005 to 2012)

As different modes of transport have differing environmental effects, it is important not just to look at trends in total demand but also to consider the modal split of transport (Figure 2).

In 2012, the car was the dominant mode of transport in all countries, comprising on average 81% of all passenger transport. The share of car transport varied from a high of 96% in Montenegro to a low of 62% in Turkey. The share of bus transport comprised on average 13% of all passenger transport, ranging from a high of 37% in Turkey to a low of around 3% in Montenegro. The average share of rail transport was around 5%, reaching a high of 17% in Switzerland. 

Figure 2: Modal split of passenger transport in 35 European countries in 2012

There have also been changes over time in the use of different modes of transport. Total car passenger-kilometres for countries as a whole increased from 2005 to 2012 by over 2%. However, national trends varied significantly, with car passenger transport increasing in 25 countries and decreasing in 8 (Figure 3). The largest increases were recorded in Turkey, Bulgaria and Poland, and the largest reductions were recorded in Italy, Lithuania and the Netherlands.

Figure 3: Percentage change in car passenger transport demand in 33 European countries (2005 to 2012)

Those countries that recorded the highest increases in total passenger transport demand also recorded the highest increases in car passenger transport over the same period. Conversely, countries that recorded a decrease in total passenger transport demand also recorded a decrease in car passenger transport over the same period (with the exception of Slovakia). This highlights the dominant role of car transport in shaping overall passenger transport demand.


Given the synergies between transport policy and a range of other areas such as climate, air pollution, biodiversity and health, there are many benefits to be gained from more sustainable passenger transport. Meeting short-term and particularly long-term goals (see [9] for an overview) will require the establishment of new transport patterns in which the greatest number of passengers are carried by the most efficient combination of modes. 

Establishing new transport patterns will require systemic change, as improving the energy efficiency of vehicles will not be enough on its own. Changing the mobility system requires a combination of a new concept of mobility, technologies, and more sustainable behaviour. Changes can take time to implement, as opportunities and developments are influenced by the infrastructure and vehicle fleet already in place. There is evidence of public recognition of the damage caused by current travel patterns and of the need for change. Europeans consider the use of public transport to be one of the top three priorities for protecting the environment, and they report using their cars less and choosing more environmentally-friendly ways of travelling.[10]

European countries have implemented a range of measures and initiatives aimed at minimising the impacts of transport, which include reducing the need for travel and supporting modal shifts. One important contribution to optimising demand will be ensuring the external costs of transport are internalised. This is particularly true in the case of road transport, for which there is increasing evidence that the costs of climate change, air and noise pollution, and health impacts outweigh existing taxes and charges.[3]

In relation to passenger transport, increasing vehicle occupancy through car sharing can reduce overall car transport. The development of high speed rail linking major cities can encourage passengers on long journeys to shift from car to rail. EU-15 Member States have invested heavily in high speed rail since 2000, increasing track capacity by 150% and passenger-kilometres by almost 80%.[4] Public bicycle hire schemes can encourage passengers on shorter journeys to also shift away from car use.[9] The TERM 2014 report provides further country specific information on passenger transport with a focus on long distance transport.[11]

While European policy sets a common framework and shared goals, national and local action is essential to achieving many of these. The variability in trends in passenger transport demand across European countries highlights the potential for greater understanding of the underlying drivers and potential barriers to change. This could be combined with exchange of good practices to facilitate faster uptake of effective measures and initiatives such as the development of Sustainable Urban Mobility Plans for European cities.

Understanding of trends in passenger transport demand would also be improved with better information on vehicle occupancy rates, complementing data on passenger-kilometres with vehicle-kilometres. This would enable determination of what share of the trends observed in overall distance travelled is caused by changes in the average number of passengers in the vehicle. Improved country coverage for data on non-motorised modes of transport would also provide better information on the shift towards more sustainable transport modes across Europe.

Countries' perspectives

References and footnotes

[1] Stiglitz, J. E., Sen, A. and Fitoussi, J.-P. (2009), Report by the Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress, Commission on the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress.

[2] EEA (2013), Environmental pressures from European consumption and production, Technical report No 2/2013, European Environment Agency.

[3] EEA (2011), Laying the foundations for greener transport TERM 2011: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe, EEA Report, No 7/2011, Copenhagen.

[4] EEA (2014), Passenger transport demand (CSI 035/TERM 012) — Assessment published in December 2014.

[5] European Commission (2014), EU transport in figures, Statistical pocketbook 2014, European Commission, ISBN 978-92-79-37506-4.

[6] Eurostat (2013), Modal split of passenger transport metadata, accessed 23 September 2014.

[7] EC (2011), White paper: Roadmap to a Single European Transport Area — Towards a competitive and resource efficient transport system, COM (2011) 144 final, Brussels, 28.3.2011.

[8] EC (2011), Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions — Roadmap to a Resource Efficient Europe, COM (2011) 571 final, Brussels, 20.9.2011.

[9] EEA (2013), A closer look at urban transport TERM 2013: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe, EEA Report No 11/2013, European Environment Agency.

[10] EC (2014) Attitudes of European citizens towards the environment. Special Eurobarometer 416. ISBN 978-92-79-39763-9.

[11] EEA (2014), Focusing on environmental pressures from long-distance transport — TERM 2014: transport indicators tracking progress towards environmental targets in Europe, EEA Report No 7/2014, European Environment Agency.




Geographic coverage