Green transition needs cross-border public transport

February 2022

The green and just transition of Europe needs a greater shift to soft mobility and public transport. This is not equally easy in all places. When public transport services need to operate across national borders, there is another layer of complexity.

Given that about 1/3 of the population in the EU lives in regions bordering other EU member states, cross-border public transport is an important element of our transition to a green and just future.

Generally, cross-border public transport is defined as a regular, scheduled transport service in a border region, which is available to the general public and has at least one stop on each side of the border in the cross-border region. Services that cross a border but do not stop on both sides within the cross-border region, or services that start in the border areas but do not cross the national border are not cross-border public transport services.

Cross-border public transport services in Europe

A recent study provides a good overview on the state of play of cross-border public transport services in the EU and neighbouring countries. In rough terms, following services are available:

  • 1,414 cross-border rail services were operated in winter 2019/20, some of which even cross more than one national border while still serving the border regions. The borders between Austria and Germany, Germany and Switzerland, Italy and Switzerland, as well as France and Switzerland stand out as the areas with the highest numbers of cross-border rail services offered. On the other end of the spectrum, there are border areas in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Ireland, Bulgaria and Greece, where one finds the lowest numbers of cross-border rail services.
  • 5,312 cross-border bus services are available. 62% of which are operated in urban border-regions, and 37% are long-distance express services extending beyond the immediate border regions. Services mainly for tourists or school busses account for less than 1% of all cross-border bus services. Along the borders between Germany and Netherlands, Germany and Austria, Germany and France, Netherlands and Belgium, France and Switzerland, one finds the highest numbers of cross-border bus services.
  • 200 cross-border ferry services offer water-born cross-border public transport and have been only considered if the one-way crossing is below one hour. Most of them are passenger ferries and only a few are car ferries. Cross-border passenger ferry services are mainly to be found on Lake Constance (Austria, Germany Switzerland), Lake Geneva (France, Switzerland), Lake Maggiore (Italy, Switzerland). Cross-border car ferry services are mainly to be found on the Danube between Bulgaria and Romania, over the Fehmarn Belt between Denmark and Germany, in the Øresund between Denmark and Sweden. There are also cross-border car ferry services connecting islands. This is e.g. the case for ferries connecting English channel islands to France, Sardinia to Italy, or the Germany island Sylt to the Danish island Rømø.
  • 23 cross-border tram services exist so far. All of them are in agglomeration areas and twin-cities at the borders between France, Germany and Switzerland.

Taken together cross-border public transport services show a clear core-periphery pattern across Europe. The highest concentrations are found in the border regions within the area to many known as ‘Blue Banana’ or ‘European Pentagon’ with the cornerstones of Hamburg, Milan, Paris and London. This implies the availability of cross-border public transport services correlates to a certain degree with the population density in Europe and in particular in border regions. However, zooming in to the exact segments of the border regions served by cross-border public transport, one also finds rural areas and even sparsely populated areas with cross-border public services. It can also be noted that the majority of cross-border public transport services – and that is not just rail services – operate along TEN-T corridors. This poses the question of whether a further development of TEN-T corridors in the rail network could help to improve new cross-border public services in more general terms. Thus, a variety of border specificities matters for the provision of cross-border public transport, both in terms of provided modes and potential demand for these services.

Challenges in beefing-up the services

Overall, cross-border public transport services stand only for a tiny share of all cross-border transport flows in Europe’s border regions. For instance, in the Belgian-French Eurometropolis Lille-Kortrijk-Tournai, only about 5% of the pre-COVID 500,00 daily cross-border movements take place via public transport. In the Italian-Slovenian twin city Gorizia-Nova Gorica it is only 1%, and the French-German tram connection between Saarbrücken und Sarreguemines stands for less than 0.5%.

Scattered insights on the users of cross-border public transport services suggest that they are often mainly used by visitors and tourists and for other occasional purposes or by students rather than by daily commuters. Still in some areas cross-border public transport can help to boost cross-border employment. This is e.g. the experience in Slovak-Hungarian border regions.

For a green transition and more people shifting to public transport, more cross-border public transport offers are needed. Offering cross-border public transport services often requires considerable efforts. Among the most relevant hinders are administrative issues, and especially different forms of lacking coordination across-borders. This can be e.g. asymmetric competences and structural differences between key players. National legal obstacles are another set of hinders, ranging from eligibility for public subsidies, divergent safety standards to incoherent pricing systems.

Still, experience shows that most of obstacles can be overcome. This however requires willingness to find solutions, stubbornness to fight longwinded and complex processes and especially governance structures and capacities to drive the necessary processes and not give in. Different access points to solutions are offered in a toolbox.

More details are presented in the study on cross-border public transport services. Furthermore, a web-viewer allows to explore the geography of Europe’s cross-border public transport services.

by Kai Böhme & Sabine Zillmer

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