50 years of improving transport research

The challenges for policy
OECD Observer

Transport is safer today – road deaths have been halved since the early 1970s. Transport is also faster and more reliable – just think of high-speed trains and the growing availability of low-cost air travel. Mobility has increased substantially in all areas of the transport sector. Despite these improvements, however, the transport sector is in crisis.

Congestion is omnipresent in urban areas. Pollution, largely from vehicle emissions, causes premature deaths. What can be done?

It is precisely questions like this one that the European Conference of Ministers of Transport (ECMT) will consider when it celebrates its 50th anniversary at its 16th international symposium on Theory and Practice in Transport Economics, in Budapest on 29-31 October 2003. The theme of the symposium is “50 years of transport research: experience gained and major challenges ahead”.

One of the ECMT’s achievements over the years has been to persuade its members that increased mobility carries costs which must be controlled. Transport consumes such resources as energy through use of fuel, space through infrastructure and time through traffic and simply getting from A to B. It also has other impacts, such as the damage to the environment, wear and tear on road surfaces, as well as the severance effects of road-building. These costs are only partially taken into account by end-users. Motorists have seen no increase in fuel costs in constant terms and public transport users remain unaware of the subsidies that governments pay to cover investment and even the operating costs of their services. Deregulation of road freight has made haulage activities cheaper and more efficient. In contrast, the railways, which have not emulated this trend, have experienced comparatively little growth in productivity.

But while greater competition and deregulation could help the railways, stricter environmental measures can reduce pollution at source. The example of the congestion charge to limit through-traffic flows in London shows what innovative measures can achieve in urban areas.

All transport users must be offered high-quality services whose cost is commensurate with the resources consumed. But raising the taxes on transport is only acceptable if the revenue is reinvested in transport systems. Driving through messages like these and helping to put transport on a more economically rational footing will continue to be the ECMT’s aim in the next 50 years.

©OECD Observer No 238, July 2003

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