“The right to mobility – how can mobility poverty be overcome?”

Manuela Kropp, Project Manager, Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung Brussels

Workshop on 26 April 2022 in the context of the “Global Green New Deal” conference by the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung, Brussels

Mobility poverty is a growing problem in the EU. Rising fuel prices, the discussion about an oil embargo due to the war in Ukraine, rising food prices, rising ticket prices on public transport and trains as well as the lack of public transport (especially in rural areas) are pushing more and more households into financial hardship and mobility poverty. Currently the European parliament is negotiating an expansion of the European CO2 price to the transport and buildings sectors (ETS 2) – this will lead to further price increases in transport and heating. Even if a European social climate fund were to be introduced, it is questionable whether this will bring sufficient relief. A CO2 price on petrol and diesel brings a disadvantage above all to middle and low income households, in particular if these households have no choice and are reliant on a car. On the other hand, the most recent IPCC report illustrates how urgent it is that a shift takes place and that we lower greenhouse gases in the transport sector. With this in mind we discussed how to ensure the right to mobility for all because mobility means social participation.

We held our discussion with the following speakers:

  • Cornelia Ernst, Member of the European Parliament, left fraction THE LEFT, Germany
  • Sabrina Iannazzone, European Anti-Poverty Network EAPN
  • Yamina Saheb, Scientist, Openexp
  • Béla Galgóczi, European Trade Union Institute
  • Sabine Trier, European Transport Workers’ Federation
  • Thomas Eberhardt-Köster, Attac Germany
  • Pierre Eyben, local councillor, Liège, Belgium

In her contribution, Cornelia Ernst (MEP, THE LEFT) explained that the topic of “mobility poverty” was hardly ever discussed in the European Parliament; in particular the special needs of disabled people, women and people in rural areas were ignored. In saying this it is clear that we have to reconstruct the whole field of individual transport – with less cars, that we need to phase out petrol and diesel cars, but on the other hand also a comprehensive expansion of public transport. Naturally this includes an expansion of infrastructure, e.g. railway tracks, where in Germany alone 6000 kilometres of tracks have been dismantled since 1990. The European Commission’s suggestion to expand the ETS 2 (European CO2 price) to transport and housing should be rejected since this is simply socially unjust and above all puts a strain on lower and middle incomes and commuters in the countryside. This would see the threat of mobility poverty and energy poverty increase further and this in the current situation of already increasing prices. In addition, the experience so far with the classic Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) has shown that the market based solutions only achieved a slight steering effect and lead much too slowly to a decrease in greenhouse gases. Here regulatory measures should be introduced instead. The introduction of a European social climate fund was a good suggestion but it should not come from a European CO2 price on transport and buildings (ETS 2). Also the financial provision for this fund of 72 billion euros for the period 2025 to 2032 for the whole of the EU is far too little. The suggestion from the EPP, S&D and Renew Group to also use this fund for other purposes, such as supporting small and medium-sized companies, further reduces the available finances to fight mobility poverty and energy poverty. Therefore THE LEFT rejects this. Hence THE LEFT demands that this fund is disconnected from the CO2 price, stocked up with more funds and financed from the general budget. These monies should, for example, be used for energy upgrades in buildings to fight energy poverty. It could also support cooperative car-sharing services. Projects, on the other hand, which work with fossil fuels or where workers’ rights are violated, should not receive any funding. As a whole, the hype around hydrogen and electric cars must be looked at critically because we simply need less cars on our roads. In order to win citizens over for climate protection and the redevelopment of our economy, suggestions such as a European CO2 price for transport and buildings must be rejected. And the 100 billion euros which have been set aside additionally in Germany for the military would be much better off spent on developing a climate friendly infrastructure.

Sabrina Iannazzonne (European Anti-Poverty Network EAPN) emphasised how important it is to fight mobility poverty because social justice must be ensured during the transformation. When analysing mobility poverty it is a matter of access to public transport with low CO2 emissions, which, at the same time must be affordable and of high quality. When looking at the question of mobility poverty there is a great difference between Eastern European and Western European Member States – in Eastern Europe people suffer to a greater degree from the increased cost of fossil fuels. The EAPN considers transport as a service in the general public interest and in the framework of the European pillar of social rights this is seen as an essential service. EAPN is of the opinion that there is a specific need for regulation: the public authorities must guarantee safety, quality and affordable prices and must not leave this to the market. Even if public transport is provided by private service providers, the state must ensure that certain standards are met. Here reference is made to a report from the European Economic and Social Committee of 2019, which stipulated that essential services are important in order to implement the European pillar of social rights. Public transport is deemed a public service duty so that it must not be subservient to the market rules of the European domestic market. However, the most recent cuts in rail transport and the public transport network have further impaired the supply in transport offers especially in rural areas and allowed the difference between the various communities to grow even more. It is especially low income households who are then forced to continue to fall back on transport solutions with fossil fuels because they have less access to electric cars due to the purchase costs. Higher CO2 prices (e.g. by expanding the ETS) would further increase inequality for these households. These could even affect the employment market if people cannot compete for certain jobs due to mobility poverty. Thus an integrated political approach is necessary: progressive taxation which benefits low-income earners. The electricity market also needs to be redesigned in such a way that fair prices can be guaranteed.

Yamina Saheb (scientist, Openexp) welcomed the fact that the topic of mobility poverty (in connection with energy poverty) had finally arrived on the political agenda. An indicator for the various Member States is required, which brings mobility poverty and energy poverty together and represents them together. On a European level there are tools to fight energy poverty, however none whatsoever for mobility poverty. The first time the term mobility poverty appeared was in the EUFitfor55 packet – but unfortunately it was for the wrong reasons: in connection with the expansion of the ETS to transport and buildings. Yamina Saheb suggests a European definition for mobility poverty in order to be able to grasp the issue accordingly. In scientific literature on the topic of mobility poverty, the dependency on cars is a major subject of discussion but, unfortunately, not the lack of public transport provision. It is precisely in the public transport field that data is simply lacking, whereby data is collected every two years in the various Member States for the affordability of motorised private transport. An indicator that captures the well-being of people must also contain data on mobility poverty and energy poverty. Yamina Saheb also referred to the connection between mobility poverty and misdirected city planning: in the last 30, 40 years our cities have undergone urban sprawl while the provision of public transport has not kept up. A long known concept should be revived: when modern Paris emerged, there was already the requirement that a public transport stop must not be more than a certain distance away from a residence. This requirement has simply been forgotten, but today it is more important than ever. Germany and France score equally poorly on the topic of mobility poverty but for different reasons: in France the distances to the next public transport stop are too far, in Germany, on the other hand, in many regions there simply is no public transport. Expanding the ETS to the transport and buildings sector could trigger another yellow vest movement. This shows how much people are suffering from energy and mobility poverty. The European pillar of social rights at least recognises the entitlement to mobility, so it is clear that: mobility poverty must not be alleviated, but rather eliminated.

Bela Galgoczi (European Trade Union Institute) clarified that mobility poverty in connection with energy poverty is a complex challenge and needs to be addressed, for the fight against climate change must go hand in hand with social security. The contrast between the city and the countryside is made particularly clear when talking about mobility poverty: in the city centre the availability of public transport is good but at the same time high rents have to be paid. On the other hand, people in rural areas often get a commuter allowance. The expansion of the ETS to the transport and buildings sector is the “elephant in the room”, since the CO2 price is directly related to households in this case. On the one hand, dependence on fossil fuels (now in particular from Russia) must end, on the other, the social question must be taken into consideration. Energy poverty above all affects low-income earners, whereas mobility poverty predominantly hits the medium incomes – for the lower tenth of households on the income distribution can, for example, no longer afford a car. The European Social Climate Fund above all serves to balance out the social “side effects” of the ETS2 (so it is no additional tool), it could, however, nonetheless be a suitable tool to fight mobility poverty if at least 50 percent of the revenue were repatriated. Aside from market based tools, there is also a need for a taxation policy, regulation and standards in the required mix of tools in climate policies.

Sabine Trier (European Transport Workers’ Federation) emphasised that the issue of mobility poverty was first mentioned in the smart mobility strategy of the European Commission but unfortunately for the wrong reasons. Thus, as already explained by Sabrina Iannazzonne, mobility belongs under public service and consequently the right of citizens to the provision of transport services, which must be a public service. Mobility assures social participation such as, for example, the appreciation of educational opportunities, driving to the work place or to cultural events. Mobility poverty must therefore be tackled via the promotion of public transport and this must be affordable, accessible and of high quality. For we cannot allow public transport to become only an emergency option for low income households. On the contrary, it must be designed to be so attractive and sophisticated that everyone would like to switch to public transport – the ecological transformation cannot be mastered any other way. In current documents published at EU level on “ecological transport” public transport is missing because it has not yet been recognised as decisive for the transport turnaround. The expansion of public transport is a case for Member States, but it also needs political specifications at European level, for example, to ensure financing via suitable means. Up until now, the EU Regulation on public service obligation places its bets too strongly on competition and ensures that only the cheapest providers get a look in. This creates problems with the quality of the public transport and also puts the working conditions for employees under pressure. Rather, it is far more important to ensure public service and public interest by direct awards in public transport and railway transport. The obligation to invite tenders in public transport encourages the “downward spiral” – therefore the guidelines on public service obligations must be interpreted differently and not in terms of competition logic. Furthermore, Sabine Trier explained that the on-demand offers for mobility platforms could well be an attractive offer for the rural areas but therein lies a great threat of precarious working conditions. This must entail very clear rules to ensure working conditions otherwise work will become increasingly precarious. Of course this also concerns city supply services – for example, it mustn’t come to Amazon advertising with the slogan “zero delivery costs”. In closing, Sabine Trier explained that in introducing free public transport jobs could also be lost (e.g. the ticket conductors or ticket sellers). But here Luxembourg is a good example where, when introducing free public transport, the trade unions were able to push for new jobs in other areas of public transport. And train and bus drivers were lacking in almost all Member States. In closing she observed that the ETF union also finds the expansion of the ETS to the transport sector problematic because this aggravates social unbalance.

Thomas Eberhardt-Koester (Attac Germany) described how, from the point of view of the transport turnaround movement, pressure must come from below in order to truly initiate the mobility turnaround. In the current Attac campaign “Just change! Climate friendly mobility for everyone” social and ecological questions are brought together. In Germany, there is the particular phenomenon that social questions “about cars” and “about fuel prices” are discussed and allegedly solved. Unfortunately, in discussions, the social question never gets past the fuel price. And also when the necessary cancellation of subsidies for air traffic is the issue, then the argument is often “holiday flights” which average earners will then no longer be able to afford. This misjudges the fact that most people only fly occasionally or not at all. And over 50 percent of low income households don’t own a car simply because it is so expensive. Whereas high income households own two or even more cars – it can be seen how subsidising fuel maintains the social unbalance. In addition comes the fact that people on low incomes are more likely to live on large, dirty, loud streets or in the vicinity of airports and their health is burdened much more from the levels of traffic. So mobility poverty is not dependent on how much the prices are subsidised, but rather how we would design mobility as a social infrastructure. Under the current German Federal Government the necessary mobility turnaround is hardly making progress: “more railways” and “more public transport” was proclaimed but the concrete financial planning is lacking. And the necessary reduction in car traffic overall has not been discussed at all. Attac therefore demands the creation of public and climate friendly transport systems for everyone, which are financed from taxation. Mobility platforms as a social infrastructure also belong in public hands – refer to a study by Attac and RLS of 2021.

Pierre Eyben (local councillor from Liège, Belgium) describes how, from a local politician’s view, the interests of car owners could block the expansion of local public transport in the city. The city of Liège has approximately 200,000 inhabitants but the city’s catchment area has 600,000 people. In this city, the wealthy people live outside the city and drive their cars into the city centre every day, whereas the poorer people live in the city and suffer from the lack of public transport, land usage for parking spaces, air pollution and noise pollution. Every day, approximately 150,000 cars drive into the city centre in order to benefit from the city’s cultural offers and infrastructure. In Belgium, the cities’ finances are dependent on the incomes of those who live in the city, so that there are not enough funds available to expand public transport. There is downright “lobbying” against the expansion of public transport because there is a fear of increased taxation. This leads to the poorer people practically sitting tight in the city and due to a lack of public transport suffering from mobility poverty. It is therefore important to expand public transport, which doesn’t necessarily have to be free, but affordable, of good quality and also enable easy transport of bicycles. Low-emission zones, only accessible for electric cars, are also no solution because many people can simply not afford to purchase an electric car. So it would be much better to prohibit cars from a certain size upwards in the city centre and to limit the space for cars in general in order to achieve more spatial justice.

During the concluding discussion it was emphasised how important the democratic participation of citizens is, how much the question of mobility must be developed at a local level from below, since it is experienced constantly in everyday life by people and how what really counts is to compile a definition and collect data on the existence of mobility poverty.

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