International trade in goods by mode of transport
Data extracted in August 2020
Planned article update: August 2021
In 2019, sea transport accounted for around half of all goods traded between the EU and the rest of the world.
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.
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 and Sweden) 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.
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).
In 2019, sea transport accounted for around half of all goods traded between the EU-27 and the rest of the world
Figure 1 shows the structure of extra-EU trade by mode of transport, with sea transport accounting for 46.0 % of the value of goods exported from and 56.2 % of goods imported into the EU-27 in 2019. Air transport accounted for 28.6 % of the EU-27’s exports and 19.4 % of its imports. Road transport accounted for 19.9 % of the EU-27’s exports and 16.0 % of its imports. Rail transport (1.4 % exports, 1.7 % imports) and other modes of transport (4.1 % exports, 6.7 % import) did not have double digit shares.
The share of imported goods that were transported by sea rose by 15.8 percentage points (pp) during the period under consideration, while there was also an expansion in the use of sea transport for EU-27 exports, their share rising by 7.2 pp. A growing share of the EU-27’s were also transported by air: up 4.7 pp in exports and up 2.0 pp in imports. The share of goods imported by road, rail and other modes all decreased.
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 79.1 % of EU-27 exports and 74.6 % of EU-27 imports in 2019. 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 2019. It is interesting to note that in quantity terms (based on tonnes), air transport accounted for just 1.7 % of the EU-27’s exported goods and 0.2 % of its imported goods in 2019; 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 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 (76.5 %), Portugal (74.5 %) and Spain (71.8 %); sea was the principal mode of transport for extra-EU exports in a majority (18) of the Member States. Air transport was the preferred mode of transport for exports from Ireland (71.6 %) and Malta (53.2 %) to non-member countries in 2019. By contrast, the relative importance of road transportation was often much higher among several of the eastern Member States (Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Czechia, Hungary, Croatia and Slovenia) 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 20 of the EU Member States in 2019. It accounted for more than three quarters of the total value of trade with non-member countries in Portugal (83.7 %), Greece (82.1 %) and Spain (77.7 %). Road transportation was the preferred mode of transport in Czechia, Hungary and Croatia, air transportation in Ireland, Luxembourg and Austria, and other modes of transportation in Latvia.
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)