The research, by the Sustainable Mobility project, an initiative by the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) looks at world-wide figures for car, bus, rail and air transport in the years 1950, 1960, 1970, 1980 1990, and 1997, and therefore does not take into account the reduction in air travel since 11 September.

This may be significant, since the winners in the passenger travel stakes are reported as being high-speed rail and air, which by 1997 accounted for over 15% of all passenger kilometres in the developed world.

The car’s share of the market is still massive, though – in the US, figures show 87.6% of travel was by car in 1950, with that share slowly sliding to 81.8% by 1997 from a peak of 90% in 1960. Over the same period, air and high-speed rail picked up from just 1% of the market to 14%. Bus and ordinary rail travel also suffered considerable reductions in market share over the research period, from 6.9% to 3.3% for bus and 4.6% to 0.6% for rail.

In Europe, car travel rose from 30% of market share in the 1950s to 72.7% in 1997, a small decrease on the figures for 1980 and 1990. Again, high-speed rail and air were also beneficiaries, rising from 1% of the market to 10.8%. Bus and ordinary rail travel dropped just as markedly in percentage terms, from 28.8% to 10.4% for bus and 40.2% to 6.2% for rail.

Total car mileage is rising fast – in the US, the average individual mileage is 24,000km/year, twice that of Europe. In other areas of the world, such as the former USSR and the Pacific OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries, rail still has significant market share. In the OECD cars take 43.7% of the market compared to 37.3% for rail, and in the former USSR cars have 43.4% of the market and rail 20.7%, with bus also on a significant 29.8%.

The EU has been undertaking initiatives aimed at reducing car use and assessing its environmental impact, which may help to further reduce the car’s market share. A computer model that predicts environmental outcomes from different EU transport policies, Tremove, is being reassessed and may be upgraded, the European Commission’s environment directorate has announced.

The directorate wants to substantially improve Tremove’s ability to predict air quality and greenhouse gas emissions. A final report will be published next February.

Further measures to reduce car use include the now-regular European car-free day, on 22 September this year, in which a thousand European cities closed off areas to car traffic. The number of participants was up from 760 cities the year before. The event’s progress can be judged by the fact that at its inauguration in 1999 just 66 French and 92 Italian cities were involved.

Environment Commissioner Margot Wallström explained at the time that “the European car free day responds to a demand for participatory democracy that is visibly increasing in modern societies”. “People want to understand and get directly involved in the decisions that affect their everyday life,” she said. “European citizens have taken full ownership of the car free day.”

The day was an awareness-raising event that aimed to directly involve European citizens in environmental action in line with EU environmental initiatives on climate change, air quality and the urban environment. Polls undertaken in 2000 in six of the participating cities showed 80% of their citizens believed the day was a good idea and that it should become a regular fixture.

The event also provided an opportunity to test alternative transport solutions such as park and ride, expanded pedestrian zones and cycle-friendly schemes.

Local authorities taking part in the day also had to make a commitment to implement permanent measures to reduce congestion and car pollution.

Another recent move was the European Commission’s White Paper, European Transport Policy for 2010, which was adopted this September. This evaluates the existing situation and proposes strategies for maintaining a competitive and sustainable transport system.

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