International trade in goods by mode of transport
Data extracted in May-June 2017
Planned article update: November 2019
In 2016, sea transport accounted for just over half of all goods imported into the EU.
Globalisation patterns in EU trade and investment is an online Eurostat publication presenting a summary of recent European Union (EU) statistics on economic aspects of globalisation, focusing on patterns of EU trade and investment.
This article focuses on developments for international trade in goods analysed by mode of transport. Goods would historically have been stored in a warehouse close to a port until an empty vessel was available, onto which they would typically be loaded by hand (in sacks, crates, barrels); this process was known as break bulk cargo. In 1956, the container ship was invented, while a set of international standards for container sizes was agreed at the end of 1970, including the industry standard for referencing cargo volumes, the Twenty foot Equivalent Unit (TEU). During the 1970’s there was a restructuring of the maritime industry, with considerable investment in new vessels and port facilities, after which container ships became the most common and economically viable means of transporting goods over lengthy distances. Their introduction drastically lowered transport freight charges and may be viewed as one of the main drivers behind globalisation; furthermore, shipping containers offer interoperability insofar as they can also be used for further transportation by road or rail.
Statistics on international trade in goods by mode of transport
International trade statistics by mode of transport are collected for the ‘active means of transport’ (for example, road, rail, sea) with which goods are presumed to leave from or arrive in the statistical territory of an EU Member State. Such data may be used to formulate transport policy, monitor international transport routes or assess the impact of international trade on the environment.
Data by mode of transport are available according to the Standard goods classification for transport statistics, revised (NSTR) which has been used in Eurostat since January 1999; it comprises 99 chapter headings which may be aggregated up to 10 sections.
These statistics are predominantly collected for extra-EU trade flows, although most EU Member States (all except for Denmark, France, Croatia, the Netherlands, Austria, Slovenia, Sweden and the United Kingdom) also collect these data for intra-EU trade.
Note that all of the statistics presented in this article refer to trade in goods for extra-EU flows. By contrast, road transport is often the most flexible and common mode of transporting goods within the EU, as there is an extensive motorway network and the single market provides for a seamless transition when crossing national borders.
Mode of transport
There are a wide range of factors that may influence the decisions of enterprises as to which type of transport they use when trading goods, among which: the destination country, the size and weight of the goods being transported, the speed of delivery (for example, perishable goods), rules and regulations (for example, concerning the transport of animals), environmental or security considerations (for example, dangerous goods).
In 2016, sea transport accounted for just over half of all goods imported into the EU-28
In 2016, the total value of EU-28 goods transported by sea was EUR 1 701 billion, this figure is for both imports and exports to non-member countries. Figure 1 shows the structure of extra-EU trade by mode of transport, with sea transport accounting for around half of goods exported from (47.6 %) and imported into (50.8 %) the EU-28 in 2016. Air accounted for around a quarter of the EU-28’s trade in value terms. The value of goods transported by sea was therefore about 1.8 times higher than that recorded for goods transported by air (EUR 925 billion) and almost three times as high as for goods transported by road (EUR 571 billion).
The relative share of sea transport in the total value of goods transported into and out of the EU-28 grew during the period from 2002 to 2016. The proportion of imported goods that were transported by sea rose by 7.4 percentage points during the period under consideration, while there was also an expansion in the use of sea transport for EU-28 exports, their share rising by 4.3 points; a growing share of the EU-28’s imported goods were also transported by air (up 2.1 points). By contrast, there was a decline in the share of ‘other transport modes’ as a mode of transport for extra-EU trade; this heading includes postal consignments (which faced competition from other means of communication), fixed installations (such as pipelines or power lines; note that the price of oil and gas has fallen in recent years), or goods under their own propulsion.
Figure 2 shows a similar analysis but in quantity rather than value terms. It shows that the relative importance of sea transport was even greater, accounting for 80.8 % of EU-28 exports and 73.4 % of EU-28 imports in 2016. There was also confirmation that the relative share of sea transport in the total quantity of goods transported to and from the EU rose between 2002 and 2016. It is interesting to note that in quantity terms (based on tonnes), air transport accounted for just 2.3 % of the EU-28’s exported goods and 0.3 % of its imported goods in 2016; the difference when compared with the shares of air transport in value terms gives an indication as to the high unit value of goods transported by air.
Variations by Member State
Among the EU Member States, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus recorded the highest shares of their extra-EU exports in 2016 carried by sea
As noted above, geographical location may play an important role in determining the relative importance of different modes of transport that are used for transporting goods. For example, Ireland, Cyprus, Malta and the United Kingdom are all islands separated from mainland Europe, while countries such as Greece, Portugal or Finland are found around the periphery of the EU, a relatively long distance away from some of Europe’s main transport hubs. That said, infrastructure developments have improved connections (in the form of new roads and rail links, tunnels, bridges and pipelines) so that there are nowadays far greater possibilities for onward transport to these countries.
Figure 3 presents information on the preferred mode of transport for each of the EU Member States in 2016; note again that the statistics presented concern only extra-EU trade. The highest proportions of extra-EU exports (in value terms) carried by sea were recorded in Portugal (77.1 %), Greece (75.6 %) and Spain (72.4 %), while sea was the principal mode of transport for extra-EU exports in a majority (16) of the Member States. Air transport accounted for approximately two thirds of the total value of exports made by Malta (67.7 %) and Ireland (66.3 %) to non-member countries in 2016, while this share was just over half (50.2 %) in the United Kingdom. By contrast, the relative importance of road transportation was often much higher among several of the eastern Member States that joined the EU in 2004 or more recently, likely reflecting their geographical location close to a number of neighbouring countries on the Eurasian landmass.
As regards goods imported into the EU (as shown in Figure 4), the relative importance of sea transport was generally even greater. Indeed, sea was the preferred mode of transport for imports in 21 of the EU Member States in 2016; it accounted for close to three quarters of the total value of trade with non-member countries in Portugal (78.7 %), Greece (76.0 %) and Spain (73.4 %). Ireland and the United Kingdom both reported around two fifths of their extra-EU imports (in value terms) was transported by air, but they were both surpassed by Luxembourg, where air transport accounted for more than two thirds (68.4 %) of the imported goods from non-member counties.
Source data for tables and graphs
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators
- International trade in goods - aggregated data
- International trade in goods - long-term indicators
- International trade in goods - detailed data
- International trade in goods (ESMS metadata file — ext_go_agg_esms)