Driving Towards an Unsustainable Future: Poor Support to Public Transportation in Serbia

Lowering greenhouse gas emissions is now a main EU priority – Finland’s Ambassador to Serbia even declared it the main goal of the Finnish Presidency of the EU Council at a recent CEP event. While member states need to meet EU-wide targets, states in the accession process such as Serbia are also expected to make noteworthy progress and have committed to similar goals. However, in a general sense, while some progress has been made towards reduced carbon emissions, Serbia has not kept to its overall commitments. This is especially true in the transportation sector of energy consumption, in which it seems little at all is being done to lessen impacts. Even in the National Renewable Energy Action Plan for Serbia, produced by the Ministry of Energy, Development and Environmental Protection to plan for a more efficient future, energy consumption in the transportation sector is expected to increase rapidly. This plan from 2013 estimates nearly 40% more net energy consumption in transportation by 2030, despite declines in other sectors and overall population declines. Instead, however, of accepting increased energy consumption as a given, action should be taken in this field; improving Serbia’s public transportation is a clear path to a more efficient future. However, public transportation in Serbia has been allowed to languish, and, in the void, more and more people have instead turned to private automobiles.

Since 2009 transportation has been the largest single energy-consuming human activity. It is also the fastest growing use of energy, with worldwide energy consumption in the sector projected to double by 2050, despite clear-cut needs for a more sustainable way of life.[1] As it stands, increases in wealth worldwide are tied with less efficient transportation: the private automobile (which is also growing in its average size), remains an international symbol of success.[2] Even in countries which have done well in limiting energy consumption in other sectors, transportation (in essence the effect of the private automobile) has been one of the hardest nuts to crack. While Germany has, for instance, been able to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by approximately 30% since 2007, it is unlikely to meet its goal of 40% by 2020 as transportation emissions continue to increase and the country’s automakers enjoy record sales (in part fuelled by export markets).[3]

In Serbia’s example, travelling by bus, the most common form of public transportation, uses approximately one fifth of the energy per kilometre of traveling by private automobile.[4] Nonetheless, every year more and more kilometres are travelled by private automobile. This increase in private automobiles has led to a host of problems, particularly as the vehicles used in Serbia tend to be especially unclean, with an average age of fourteen years, many second-market imports from Western Europe.[5] The widespread use of these dated vehicles thus leads to increased energy consumption, as well as a great deal of pollution, on occasion producing conditions dangerous for respiratory health in some Serbian cities. Something, therefore, has to be done: there are both direct and indirect commitments in state plans, important to accession negotiations, to cleaner transportation. According to Serbia’s National Renewable Energy Action Plan, the country has committed to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 27% (in which, as proven in the German model, the impact of transportation must also be considered), as well as to a 10% share of renewable energy sources in the field of transportation by 2020.[6] As it stands, the European Commission has noted in their most recent report on Serbia that these goals seem unlikely.[7]

Today in Serbia it seems little is being done to encourage cleaner transportation. In Belgrade, the epicentre of Serbia’s public transportation infrastructure, city transportation is limited in its scope (consisting only of surface traffic), as well as expensive and overcrowded. Public transportation costs are very high for the country’s income level, with both monthly passes and single rides about the average cost of those of countries with double the GDP per capita (from my own research costs are similar to those in Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, and much higher than those in Bucharest, Kiev, and the ex-Soviet Union in general). These costs are in spite of the fact that Belgrade doesn’t have a metro (while most of the other mentioned cities do in fact), meaning that the buses, trams, and trolleys that constitute the city’s transportation network must move slowly through the city’s growing traffic. Finally, the actual fleet for the city’s public transportation is quite dated and frequently breaks down. The city’s buses, the bulk of public transportation in Belgrade, have an average age of over 10 years, and are uncomfortable and inefficient, yet new ones are rarely ordered, while the tram system mostly consists of dated Swiss donations and custom-built models more than 25 years old.[8] Other more sustainable modes of transportation are also insufficiently supported: there are few bike lanes in most Serbian cities, for instance.

In fact, it seems Serbia’s government has actively worsened public transportation to an extent in recent years. In one example, the rights to fare collection in Belgrade were sold to a private company under suspicious circumstances (the bidding contract was under-publicised and excessively difficult to comply with). This company, Apex Solution Technology (which, when the deal with the city was signed, had only 1 employee and €500 in equity), is entitled to 8.5% of collected fare revenue that in the past would have gone back into the municipal transit company, for their role in setting up and enforcing an electronic fare collection system.[9] Similarly, in Belgrade city projects are currently limiting public transportation even further: at the time of writing, construction at Republic Square has cut most of the city’s trolley lines and a number of bus lines, while construction in Dorćol and Savamala has cut other bus and tram lines.

Outside of Belgrade, many parts of Serbia have few options for transportation apart from private automobiles. Other Serbian cities have similarly outdated and uncomfortable bus systems. Smaller cities and villages are also losing their rail links, as thousands of employees of the state railroad have been made redundant in recent years and over one thousand kilometres of track have been shut down in pursuit of increased profitability.[10] What recent work has been done to Serbia’s rail system has largely been on international routes important to trade and with support of other governments (notably the Belgrade to Budapest line, for which work has ironically closed traffic on Serbia’s busiest stretch of rail, between Belgrade and Novi Sad).[11] However, in terms of daily public transportation, options are limited and apparently worsening.

While the outlook for cleaner transportation in Serbia looks fairly grim today, with a focused response from the government, major improvements could be made. One solution that has been in discussion for decades in Belgrade’s case is the construction of a metro system. While there is currently ongoing discussion about launching the preliminary phases of a such a project, it is unclear what the immediate future looks like.[12] Passing under the streets of Belgrade, avoiding the city’s traffic, would likely represent the fastest way to get around the city. With a system which shrinks travel times considerably with new infrastructure, residents would likely be pulled towards this mode of public transportation that seems like a better value. Rail is also one of the most efficient modes of transportation, with very low emissions impacts for riders.[13] Thus, while the costs of building a metro are high, and while Belgrade has waited for such a system since the post-war era, its impacts would be massive in terms of shifting how Belgrade moves.

In the short term, however, Belgrade (and Serbia’s largest potential user of public transportation) is stuck with its aging trams, buses, and trolleys. Modernising these fleets would likely lead to increased use of public transportation, yet factors such as cost, inefficiency, and overcrowding would still likely limit the usage of these systems. As Serbia (and countries around the world) work to limit greenhouse gas emissions, action needs to be taken to reform how Serbia moves. In some areas progress has been made (some solar and wind power has been introduced, for instance), but in the transportation sector Serbia is expecting worse and worse results in coming years while doing little to change this trajectory. The state of public transportation in Serbia is shown clearly by the example of Belgrade: even as the most straightforward way to reduce the environmental impacts of transportation, systems have been allowed to remain at a fairly low standard, with few improvements of note (and some notable declines) in recent years. As transportation takes up a greater and greater portion of total energy consumption, it is time analysis and attention is given to improving a system that has been allowed to decay despite its essential role in the everyday lives of citizens and the climate impact of the country at large.

The author is Miles Lewis, an intern at CEP.

[1] Jovanović, Miomir (2016), “Belgrade’s Urban Transport CO2 Emissions from an International Perspective”, Polish Journal of Environmental Studies, Volume 25, p. 636, available at: http://www.pjoes.com/Belgrade-s-Urban-Transport-CO2-Emissions-from-an-International-Perspective,61259,0,2.html

[2] Ibid.

[3] Atkin, Emily (2018), “Germany Has Proven the Modern Automobile Must Die”, Wired, 21 August 2018, available at: https://www.wired.com/story/germany-proves-cars-must-die/

[4] “Belgrade’s Urban Transport”, 641.

[5] United Nations Development Programme (2014), “Sustainable Transport and GHG Emissions in Belgrade”, Belgrade: UNDP, p. 18, available at: http://www.klimatskepromene.rs/wp-content/uploads/2017/04/Sustainable-Transport-and-GHG-emissions-in-Belgrade.pdf

[6] Ministry of Energy, Development and Environmental Protection of Serbia (2013), “National Renewable Energy Action Plan of the Republic of Serbia,” Belgrade: Ministry of Energy, Development and Environmental Protection, p. 13, available at: http://www.mre.gov.rs/doc/efikasnost-izvori/NREAP%20OF%20REPUBLIC%20OF%20SERBIA%2028_June_2013.pdf?uri=CELEX:32009L0028.

[7] European Commission (2018), “Serbia 2018 Report”, Brussels: European Commission, p. 68, available at: https://ec.europa.eu/neighbourhood-enlargement/sites/near/files/20180417-serbia-report.pdf

[8] N1, “Belgrade city transport leasing, not buying new buses“, (March 2019), available at: http://rs.n1info.com/English/NEWS/a466345/Belgrade-city-transport-leasing-not-buying-new-buses.html

[9] Vasić, Jelena (2012), “Ticket Deal May Leave Belgrade Short-Changed”, Balkan Insight, 13 July 2012, available at: https://balkaninsight.com/2012/07/13/ticket-deal-may-leave-belgrade-short-changed/

[10] Government of the Republic of Serbia (2018), “Economic Reform Programme for the Period 2018-2020“, Belgrade: Government of the Republic of Serbia, p. 41, available at: https://www.mfin.gov.rs/UserFiles/File/strategije/2018/ERP%202018-2020%20ENG%20FINAL.pdf

[11] Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure of Serbia (2019), “Project of Modernization and Reconstruction of the Railway Track Belgrade – Budapest, Section Belgrade – Stara Pazova and Section Novi Sad – Subotica – State Border (Kelebija)“, Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, 3 April 2019, available at: https://www.mgsi.gov.rs/en/projekti/project-modernization-and-reconstruction-railway-track-belgrade-budapest-section-belgrade

[12] Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure of Serbia (2019), “Mihajlovic: Construction of the Belgrade Metro is the Biggest Infrastructure Project in the Region”, Ministry of Construction, Transport and Infrastructure, 14 June 2019, available at: https://www.mgsi.gov.rs/en/aktuelnosti/mihajlovic-construction-belgrade-metro-biggest-infrastructure-project-region

[13] European Environment Agency (2016), “Carbon dioxide emissions from passenger transport”, European Environment Agency, 29 June 2016, available at: https://www.eea.europa.eu/media/infographics/carbon-dioxide-emissions-from-passenger-transport/view