Brussels, like most of Europe, currently bears the brunt of a ‘second wave’ of COVID-19 infections. During an online team meeting our minds wander back to sometime in April. It was week number five of the first lockdown. Or was it week six? Whatever it might have been, we clearly recall seeing families cycling and children on all sorts of scooters. The air felt cleaner. Had a revolution happened?

No, it is just that with less need to move about, some people were able to temporarily break out of the fossil-fuelled, CO2-heavy and polluting system that dominates our lives. It is a very sad reality that this only seems to have happened due to a globally disruptive pandemic which continues to bring terrible consequences for people’s lives and livelihoods as we write this article.

At the same time, the political momentum for recovery and change – including the investments that countries are readying to spur it – makes us wonder whether we can use some learnings of the pandemic to the benefit of all our transport habits.

We know the fossil-fuelled normality is bad for our planet but, traffic jams excepting, it may have also felt a little too convenient. How can we then change the system without it feeling like an uncomfortable sacrifice?

Many people are dependent on their car out of necessity, not out of choice. Some simply lack a good train or public transport connection, or perhaps a car-sharing scheme in their neighbourhood. Others might be tempted to start driving an electric vehicle but find the upfront cost prohibitive.

The solution is clear: we need to make sustainable choices available – say, by having more electric car charging points – as well as more attractive and affordable. These last two make-or-break factors are where Green Deal decision-makers can help turn the idea of ‘sacrifice’ into one of ‘opportunity’. To get there, consumers need the right price signals.

Price signals as such can be positive or negative. Purchase incentives to buy an electric car or lower VAT rates for train travel are ‘positive’ signals. Higher environmental taxation for more polluting cars or city driving bans – which can force people to have to buy new cars – are ‘negative’ ones. The problem with purely negative signals is that they do not provide solutions. They are simply a trap. But they can be converted to bring solutions and positive outcomes. For example, the much-discussed kerosene tax on air travel would make sense if its revenues are used to improve cross-border rail links or other sustainable alternatives.

Whatever the signal, it must be fair. That is the one big lesson from the gilets jaunes movement. Too often, the polluter pays principle impacts consumers with less available income more strongly than wealthier ones. This makes it difficult for the principle to gain the public acceptance it so desperately needs. However, targeted measures can neutralise this regressive effect.

For example, purchase incentives for electric cars could appeal to more people if they were higher for those on lower incomes and extended to second-hand cars. This lowers the barrier created by the higher upfront cost of buying electric, which is the main obstacle to their uptake. Once on the road though, consumer research has shown that these cars are cheaper to run than petrol ones.

Of course, not everyone has, wants or can afford a car (even with financial incentives). Taxing more polluting mobility behaviour can also help fund ‘mobility premiums,’ which people could use to buy a bike or get a public transport pass. German consumer group Verbraucherzentrale Bundesverband has found that 66% of consumers support CO2 taxation on the condition that tax revenues offer consumers a clear benefit. A premium can be a good mechanism for this.

A transport revolution has not happened yet. A cursory look onto Brussels’ streets during autumn attests to that. And yet we have been reminded – amidst otherwise very challenging circumstances – that we can change our mobility habits. Let us hope that COVID, its impacts and the restrictions of freedom it brings will be over soon. We should then face the next challenge, that of economic and social recovery, with bold policy decisions. In transport terms, this must include fair price signals and the availability of sustainable alternatives that are affordable to all.

Cover picture by Haroon Wahidi (via Unsplash)

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Posted by Dimitri Vergne, Robin Loos and Laurens Rutten