Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
The European Union is set to abandon daylight saving time in 2021. Here’s why transportation officials have a final say on making it happen.
Starting in 2021, the European Union will say goodbye to daylight saving time. After years of discussion, members of the European Parliament voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to abolish the practice of turning the clocks forward and back by one hour each spring and autumn.
While this is a significant pronouncement for a parliament that doesn’t get much coverage, the real force behind the decision lies elsewhere—not just in Europe’s national governments, but specifically in their transportation ministers. Those ministers already thrashed out a loose agreement in October; to make it final, they need to ratify parliament’s decision at a meeting later this year.
But why do transportation ministers get the final word on what time of day it is? It might seem odd, given that clock changes affect people regardless of whether or not they are on the move. But their authority comes from the very real fact that disagreements in time-keeping systems can be especially cumbersome—and potentially dangerous—when it comes to transportation networks.
It’s not just that headaches could emerge over, say, train timetables. European ministers have expressed fears that a “patchwork” approach to daylight saving could cause air traffic control problems, with planes flying in and out of different time pockets as they cross the continent. In a largely borderless union where many airports, some major railway stations, and even a few public transit systems serve more than one country, the potential for transit chaos from mismatching clocks is substantial.
“It would make no sense if Germany or Hungary and Italy and Austria had different time systems,” said Austrian Transport Minister Norbert Hofer to newspaper Die Welt, while acknowledging there might still be a debate over which seasonal time to go for. “Which model that will be, summer time or winter time, the talks will show in the next few months.”
While those might seem like quintessentially European challenges, the region isn’t alone in giving transportation officials some say over the clocks. In the United States, the Department of Transportation has regulatory authority over the nation’s time zones; states can opt out of daylight saving time, but as the law is written, the secretary of transportation has the power to set time zone boundaries as well as the dates when clocks change.
As the U.S. DOT explains on its site, time zones, transportation, and international cooperation have gone together almost as long as humans have been moving quickly over land:
In 1883, U.S. and Canadian railroads adopted a four-zone system to govern their operations and reduce the confusion resulting from some 100 conflicting locally established “sun times” observed in terminals across the country. States and municipalities then adopted one of the four zones, which were the eastern, central, mountain, and Pacific Time zones. Local decisions on which time zone to adopt were usually influenced by the time used by the railroads.
As for daylight saving time, it has generally been moments of crisis that advanced its adoption in Europe. Clock changes arose during the first and second world wars as a way of reducing energy use, shifting the working day to fit the available window of daylight. Most countries ditched the habit some time after the armistice, only to adopt it again during the oil crisis of the 1970s, which had a far more drastic effect in Europe than North America, with the screws tightening on all forms of fuel use. Since then, the time changes have been a regular source of frustration for many Europeans.
That is partly because so much of Europe’s population lives in far northern latitudes, where daylight lengths swing greatly with the seasons. The number of people living north of the Arctic Circle—who get either no day or no night around the equinoxes—is very small, it’s true, but there are nonetheless quite a few major cities where, in summer, it’s possible to go to a nightclub late in the evening and emerge just a few hours later into sunlight, wondering if night had ever actually happened.
The flip side is huge tracts of winter darkness. In many places, winter daylight hours are an especially precious, squabbled-over commodity—in Scotland, for example, daylight saving time can make the difference between people going to work in darkness or daylight. It thus makes potential sense to shift the clock, but daylight saving doesn’t really save energy. It might mean evening lighting is turned on later, but illumination nowadays is relatively energy efficient. It certainly pales in comparison to the amount needed for heating, something which isn’t altered greatly by seasonal time changes.
And while time changes are notoriously unpopular, the international cooperation required to change anything is itself a complicating factor. A survey of 4.6 million respondents by the E.U. found 84 percent in favor of ditching clock changes—although it has been claimed that this poll was unfairly weighted toward German respondents. As you might expect, there has been some grumbling in Britain that the whole effort is an example of the E.U. twisting the country’s arm, as the U.K. would be obliged to follow the E.U. ruling during the transition period to Brexit. The country could reinstate clock changes after leaving the union, of course, but that would put it in a different seasonal time zone to Ireland, causing headaches for people living in Northern Ireland in particular.
In all this mess, someone must bring order, and that means it’s a rare chance for transportation ministers to exercise their authority over the clocks. With the plan broadly agreed to, it remains to be seen when the EU officials will finalize the 2021 changeover. But frankly, if we can get rid of that dread day in late autumn where the afternoon sun seems to have been snuffed out like a candle, the change can’t come soon enough.