International trade in goods by mode of transport

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Data extracted in July 2021

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Highlights

Measured in value, in 2020, sea transport accounted for 46 % of goods traded between the EU and the rest of the world, measured in volume the share was 81 %.

Value of extra-EU trade in goods, by mode of transport, 2002 and 2020
(% of total)
Source: Eurostat - Comext DS-022469

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 1970s 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.

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.

Full article

Trade by mode of transport in value and quantity

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 others: 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).

Measured in value, in 2020, sea transport accounted for 46 % of goods traded between the EU and the rest of the world, measured in volume the share was 81 %.

Figure 1 shows the structure of extra-EU trade by mode of transport, with sea transport accounting for 41.4 % of the value of goods exported from and 51.2 % of goods imported into the EU in 2020. Air transport accounted for 25.6 % of the EU’s exports and 21.1 % of its imports. Road transport accounted for 26.9 % of the EU’s exports and 21.6 % of its imports. Rail transport (1.8 % exports, 2.1 % imports) and other modes of transport (4.3 % exports, 4.0 % import) did not have double digit shares.

The share of imported goods that were transported by sea rose by 4.9 percentage points (pp) during the period under consideration, while there was a decrease in the use of sea transport for EU exports, their share falling by 0.9 pp. Good transported by road increased by 6.4 pp for exports and 2.1 pp for imports while other modes of transport (mostly pipelines) decreased by 4.7 pp for exports and 8.3 % for imports. The share of the EU's goods transported by air and rail remained almost unchanged.

Figure 1: Value of extra-EU trade in goods, by mode of transport, 2002 and 2020
(% of total)
Source: Eurostat - Comext DS-022469

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 74.1 % of EU exports and 83.9 % of EU imports in 2020. 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 2020. It is interesting to note that in quantity terms (based on tonnes), air transport accounted for just 0.6 % of the EU’s exported goods and 0.3 % of its imported goods in 2020; 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.

Figure 2: Quantity of extra-EU trade in goods, by mode of transport, 2002 and 2020
(% of total, based on tonnes)
Source: Eurostat - Comext DS-022469

Variations by Member State

Among the EU Member States, Greece, Portugal and Spain recorded the highest shares of their extra-EU exports in 2020 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 and Malta are all islands separated from mainland Europe, while countries such as Greece, Portugal and 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 2019; 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 Greece (69.1 %), Portugal (67.6 %) and Spain (63.7 %); sea was the principal mode of transport for extra-EU exports in a majority (14) of the Member States. Air transport was the preferred mode of transport for exports from Ireland (68.3 %) and Malta (53.3 %) to non-member countries in 20120. By contrast, the relative importance of road transportation was often much higher among several of the eastern Member States (Romania, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, Lithuania, Croatia, Hungary, Czechia and Slovenia) that joined the EU in 2004 or more recently, but also in Luxembourg and Austria, likely reflecting their geographical location close to a number of neighbouring countries on the Eurasian landmass.

Figure 3: Value of extra-EU exports, by mode of transport, 2020
(% of total)
Source: Eurostat - Comext DS-022469

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 2020. It accounted for more than 70 % of the total value of trade with non-member countries in Greece (81.7 %), Portugal (74.5 %) and Spain (70.5 %). Road transportation was the preferred mode of transport in Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, Austria, Latvia and Czechia.

Figure 4: Value of extra-EU imports, by mode of transport, 2020
(% of total)
Source: Eurostat - Comext DS-022469
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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