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Tackling air pollution: the role of sustainable urban mobility

European citizens voice their concern

According to a 2012 survey on air quality conducted across the European Union[1], citizens believe not only that air quality has deteriorated over the last ten years, but also that not enough is being done to address the issue. And the issue is serious, not just from an economic point of view, but in terms of environmental and human health. As Jacqueline McGlade, Executive Director of the European Environment Agency recently expressed in stark terms: “Lives are being cut short by air pollution, and chronic respiratory disease makes life miserable for many across the continent”. The survey findings reflect this. Eighty seven percent of Europeans consider asthma and allergy, and 92 percent think cardiovascular disease, to be serious problems in their country.

Over recent decades, the EU has implemented legal instruments to reduce air pollution[2] - among these, the Air Quality Directive (EC, 2008) that regulates concentrations of chemical compounds such as nitrogen dioxide, benzene and lead. Legislation has contributed to a measurable reduction in air pollutant emissions, but air quality standards are still substantially exceeded – and transport is a major culprit. Seventy nine percent of citizens surveyed pointed out that the European Union should propose additional measures to tackle the problem. A majority also acknowledged the efforts they could make, with 63 percent identifying a reduction in car use as one the most important actions to take. It would seem clear that citizens understand the value of sustainable urban mobility solutions in improving air quality.

Improving air quality as a shared priority

The findings also highlight the crucial role that cities and local authorities can play in introducing measures that aim at reducing emissions. Seventy two percent of those surveyed think that public authorities are not doing enough to tackle pollution – yet action is being taken. Against the backdrop of the 2013 Year of Air, during which clean air will be the focus of EU environmental policy discussions, CIVITAS cities continue to explore approaches and introduce measures that help Europe breathe more easily. From promoting cleaner fuels and energy-efficient vehicles for passenger and freight transport, to raising awareness among citizens of the benefits of more environmentally-friendly modes of travel – these efforts are the essential building blocks of progress. The three CIVITAS cities that follow – Utrecht in the Netherlands, Donostia - San Sebastián in northern Spain, and Ljubljana in Slovenia – offer good examples for others to follow…


Cleaner air through sustainable freight traffic

Between 1990 and 2007, greenhouse gas emissions from transport in general increased by 36 percent. With the rising demand for freight transport in particular, significant emissions’ increases of more than 45 percent are predicted between 2010 and 2050[3]. In short, across Europe, an increase in the transport of goods is leading to poor air quality.

Within this context, partly under CIVITAS MIMOSA, Utrecht in the Netherlands has achieved some substantial reductions in air pollution. A vital transport node in the region where major roads and railways intersect, freight distribution is a primary concern. Under the Action Plan for Sustainable Freight Traffic, measures have been implemented to bundle, innovate and optimise freight traffic and make it greener. The innovative initiatives take into account the city’s unique topology, including a city centre dating back to Roman times and crammed with canals.

“Utrecht has an ambitious policy to increase its urban quality and diminish CO2 emissions by at least 30 percent by 2020 by investing in sustainable transport and quality of public space”; explains Mark Degenkamp, Mobility Policy Advisor for the City of Utrecht. “Heavy freight vehicles lower air quality in the city and damage the historical infrastructure. Activities to increase efficiency and stimulate cleaner vehicles can be very effective in addressing challenges”.

With the aim of reducing PM10[4] and NOx[5] emissions, the city’s strategy included implementing the privately-operated Cargohopper, a 16 metre long mini-train that transports the freight of about five vans. Fully CO2 neutral, for nine months of the year it runs on solar power; for the other three months, on green electricity. “Cargohopper enables goods distribution in the heart of Utrecht –but through a new and sustainable mode of transport. It is cost-neutral over its lifespan, as well as easy to transfer to other cities,” says Mark. Most importantly, the Cargohopper resulted in a decrease of 4,080 vehicle trips, a saving of 88,332 kilometres by diesel van or light truck, and emissions savings of 73 percent (5.8 tonnes) of CO2, 27 percent of NOx and 56 percent PM10. Based on this success, in 2011 the even bigger Cargohoper II was introduced.

As part of an integrated approach, the city implemented a plan allowing flexible access for cleaner freight traffic. Participating in the national project “Privilege approach for cleaner, quieter vehicles”, Utrecht made an inventory of “super clean” fuels and the privileges that could be given to promote their use. These included flexible night-time access for clean and quiet vehicles and exemption from prohibitions on bus lane use and other restricted areas. Although this Privilege approach has not been brought into practice, the ideas and opportunities generated are feeding into a pilot taking place this year, with a limited number of freight trucks using two bus lanes in Utrecht.

Road weight restrictions make waterways the obvious choice

And that’s not all. “Since good accessibility is crucial for the city’s economic viability, we decided to expand the existing water transport by introducing a zero-emission electrical vessel to ferry fresh and frozen goods to shops, bars and restaurants in the tightly-packed city centre”, continues Mark. The Electric Beer Boat, as it is known, has been navigating Utrecht’s canals since January 2010, operating six times a day, four days a week and supplying more than 60 catering businesses. “The boat has had immediate positive effects on air quality, noise and overall liveability in the city centre”, confirms Mark. The benefits include a saving of 38 tonnes CO2 emissions, 31 kg of NOx and 6 kg of PM10, and a net present value of EUR 420,000. This makes the boat an attractive model for cities where suppliers, transport companies and chain stores are taking more rational cost and environment-related decisions. In 2012, an electrical Garbage Boat was added to the fleet.

Mark has some final advice for other CIVITAS cities that are looking at implementing sustainable freight traffic measures. “Changing this type of transport is a step-by-step process, in which there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If there is agreement at national or regional level though, suppliers will be more likely to change their delivery habits”. Useful words of wisdom which have doubtless contributed to the city being recognised as a frontrunner for sustainable mobility in the Netherlands.


Testing alternative fuel options reaps rewards

Winner of the CIVITAS City of the Year award 2012, for the last 20 years Donostia - San Sebastián in northern Spain has achieved successful results in reducing pollution and improving air quality by favouring pedestrians, cycling and public transport. In 2009, the city’s public transport company CTSS-DBUS carried out a study of alternative fuel and vehicle technology options, taking into account operational, environmental and financial performance. The findings led to a series of ‘test’ actions implemented under CIVITAS ARCHIMEDES, with the help of EUR 4,266,116 of funding.

“Our aim was to achieve a cleaner public transport fleet in Donostia - San Sebastián and decrease air pollutant emissions”, says Eduardo González López, Head of Maintenance at DBUS. “In line with the study’s conclusions, and with a view to lowering emissions from public transport, CTSS embarked upon an expansion of the use of biodiesel at high blends in both new and existing vehicles. We also invested in new diesel-engine buses that meet the EEV[6] standard,” he explains.

Active promotion for wider uptake

A mixing/filling station had been introduced into CTSS headquarters in 2008. “Implementing the station was a first step in developing the measure. It enables experimentation with biofuel mixes, and a better understanding of their use under different conditions”, says Eduardo. Biodiesel is currently being applied to the whole fleet, with 95 out of 120 buses running on a B30 blend (30 percent biofuel), 15 on B50 and 6 buses on B100. “The use of biodiesel is serving as a local showcase for promotion to other municipal fleet operators, as well as to individual car users”, Eduardo adds.  The partners also explored other options to lower emission levels, including testing a Hybrid bus on several routes. The performance data was used to develop a final operational model that was launched in 2011. Driver and CTSS technical staff were fully trained in its use.

“As a complementary action, 82 municipal vehicles are now powered by biodiesel blends, and the municipality has introduced 13 hybrid cars and seven electric vehicles among the Police, Mobility Department and Town Hall services, as well as four electric bicycles”, continues Eduardo. Keen to share the results of its measures more widely, the team organised an international conference on Biofuels and Clean Vehicles in June 2011 in Donostia – San Sebastián.

Impressive results, useful learning points

“We succeeded in our aim of improving the environmental performance of the public transport fleet and decreasing air pollutant emissions”, confirms Eduardo.  In 2011, reductions ranged from 20 percent for CO2 emissions (more than 1,700 tonnes) to 45 percent in particulate matter. And even though the use of biofuels has led to increased fuel consumption, this is offset by a significant decrease in dependency on fossil fuels.

Eduardo believes that Donostia - San Sebastián’s experience can be valuable for other cities as it provides concrete information based upon actual performance over a long period. It also takes into account diverse conditions such as different fuel blends, a range of diesel engines, a changing climate and a varied topography. “For those cities inspired to replicate our efforts, I strongly recommend involving staff at all levels in order to create a framework for innovation and, crucially, establishing and maintaining effective communication channels with all stakeholders”.

Together with CIVITAS VANGUARD, the City of Donostia - San Sebastián is organising a study tour to showcase five of the successful measures that contributed to it winning the CIVITAS City of the Year award 2012. For more information, visit the Events section of the CIVITAS website at or email Fermín Echarte Peña ( or Yannick Bousse (


Learning from the past to shape the future

Within CIVITAS II and CIVITAS Plus, Slovenia’s capital city Ljubljana has done much to reduce CO² emissions by encouraging less car-dependent lifestyles through bike-use and mobility management. “There are 280,000 inhabitants in Ljubljana and 535,000 in the urban region. Every day, commuters to the capital generate 120,000 car trips”, explains City Councillor Mitja Meršol. The city abolished the tramway in 1961, and ignored the needs of public transport, cycling and walking in both urban planning and subsequent implemented projects. “This resulted in too much public space being given to cars – and impacted on the quality of these spaces and their use by citizens. Now we’re trying to ‘go back’, to get people using more sustainable modes of travel” says Mitja.

Reducing car use, enhancing air quality

The challenge is compounded by the fact that the car has a powerful symbolic status in Slovenian society, denoting prosperity, independence and freedom in mobility. “Even though it is not easy to change people’s thinking and behaviour, a number of measures have been successful, while others are already looking positive”, confirms Mr Meršol. These measures have been put in place alongside awareness-raising aimed at the general public. “We cannot expect people to “give up” their cars, but we can promote their limited and smart use”, he says. He also added that political and media support was vital to bringing about change.

One of the most successful measures was the introduction of the public bike-sharing scheme BICIKE(LJ) in May 2011. After just one year, during which each bike was used almost eight times a day, the scheme’s users cycled the equivalent of 57 times the equator, and contributed to reducing CO2 emissions by 500 tonnes. Moreover, after a year and a half, the system recorded 40,000 registered users who, in this period, performed more than one million rides. At the same time, between 2009 and 2011, private bike use increased by 27 percent. The city is capitalising on these results to promote bike use more widely as healthy and environmentally friendly. It is also paying more attention to cycling and walking in urban planning activities, for example through a huge extension of pedestrian zones – 550 percent over the last five years.

An integrated approach for best results

The Councillor was keen to point out the importance of developing an integrated set of measures to achieve substantial change – a key understanding that has come out of the city’s ten-year participation in CIVITAS. “It is not enough to simply modernise the public transport operator’s fleet by introducing, say, CNG[7] or other clean vehicles. We have to introduce “soft” measures too that make public transport more attractive to passengers”. This includes smart card ticketing, the possibility of paying for rides using a mobile phone, real-time information on bus stops, planning trips on Google Transit[8], free-of-charge transport for electric vehicles in pedestrian zones and an ‘on-demand’ public transport service for passengers with disabilities.

Mitja was proud to confirm the City Council’s adoption of a Sustainable Urban Transport Plan in September 2012. It defines measures to be taken, implemented and evaluated in Ljubljana until 2020.[9] “We are determined to pursue the sustainable mobility path. It is a pre-condition to maintaining a high quality of life, while ensuring accessibility for our citizens”.

“Clean air – it’s your move” has been announced as the theme of European Mobility Week (EMW) 2013. Launched in 2002, EMW is the most widespread campaign on sustainable mobility in the world, with its annual award scheme proving increasingly popular. For the 2012 edition, under the theme "Moving in the Right Direction”, CIVITAS Plus city Zagreb in Croatia, was revealed as the winner at a prestigious ceremony in Brussels on 6 March. The Croatian capital was praised for its innovative approach to citizen engagement, which transformed EMW into a weeklong celebration. On the same evening, the inaugural edition of the Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan (SUMP) Award, a highlight of “Do the Right Mix” campaign on Sustainable Urban Mobility Planning, recognised Aberdeen, UK, as the worthy winner out of 29 applicants from 12 countries. The schemes and awards are organised with the political and financial support of the Directorates-General for the Environment and Transport of the European Commission. For more information, visit: and

The Directorate-General for the Environment has produced a new Video News Release (VNR) for broadcast journalists, free of charge and copyright, entitled “Air quality – taking care of the air we breathe”. The VNR focuses on two of the sectors that play a key part in contamination – transport and agriculture – and illustrate the risks, as well as some solutions to reduce polluting emissions. It can be viewed and downloaded here.


[1] Flash Eurobarometer survey: Attitudes of Europeans towards Air Quality, September 2012 – January 2013;



[4] Particulate matter 10 micrometers or less in diameter

[5] Nitrogen oxides

[6] Enhanced Environmentally friendly Vehicles (European Emission standard)

[7] Compressed Natural Gas


[9] The Traffic Policy of the City of Ljubljana was adopted in September 2012 and is being implemented step-by-step.

Mostra S.A.
St├ęphanie Semeraro
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