CITIES: Bicycle-friendly Copenhagen strives to outdo itself (02/18/2009)
COPENHAGEN — While the U.S. Congress debated whether to include less than $1 billion in funding for Amtrak in the stimulus package, the Danish parliament has put all its economic stimulus eggs in one basket: transportation. The small Nordic country of 5.4 million people will spend 94 billion kroner, or about $16 billion, by 2020 to improve transportation. Two-thirds of that money will be used to make public transit even better than it already is.
The government will invest billions in high-speed intercity trains that will cut travel between northern Jutland and Copenhagen by a third, install light rail systems, expand the Copenhagen Metro, and widen and lengthen city bike lanes.
“We are making public transit a lot more attractive with massive investments to increase capacity, improve on-time performance and lay brand-new railroads. We are also making the biggest push to promote cycling in recent memory,” said Transport Minister Lars Barfoed.
For Copenhagen, already one of the world’s most bicycle-oriented cities, that is a very tall order. The oil shocks of the 1970s inspired Denmark to build a vast network of bike lanes in the hope that Danes would start driving less and biking more. Three decades later, the strategy has borne fruit in Copenhagen, where a third of the inhabitants, or more than 500,000 people, now bike to work every day.
For visiting American tourists, rush hour in Copenhagen is an eye-opening event. There is more congestion on Copenhagen bike lanes than on streets. Soon there may be more. The city now plans to increase commuting by bike to 50 percent of workers by 2015. For many here, that will be back to the future.
According to the Danish Cycling Association, in the last 15 years, Danes have begun to slump on their handlebars. The country as a whole saw a 30 percent drop in biking as pedalers shifted to the comfort of cars. Now the government is determined to spend 1 billion kroner ($171 million) to encourage even more biking by improving cycling lanes, adding bike parking and producing advertising campaigns.
The ‘road to Copenhagen’ may well be a track
Denmark is keenly aware of the symbolism of a possible new global carbon emission reduction treaty at the U.N. Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen later this year. The new public transit plan is meant to show visitors that the Danes are leading by example.
“Now we will finally break the CO2 curve, which no previous government has managed,” said Climate Minister Connie Hedegaard. “We are putting far more resources in public transit than into roads. By taxing cars in a climate-friendly way, new emission demands on taxis and new ‘green’ tolls on roads, we will cut CO2 emissions and reduce traffic jams at the same time.”
The legislation was supported by all parties in the Danish parliament except a fringe former communist group. It is based on several core principles:
CO2 emissions from transportation should decrease and car taxes should be redistributed according to environmental priorities.
Most of the future growth in transportation should take place in public transit.
Train traffic should be reliable, safe and state-of-the-art.
Road capacity should be increased in areas with traffic jams or projected future bottlenecks.
Bicycling should be promoted wherever it is a realistic option.
Denmark should become a green technology laboratory for transportation.
Bridges, roads and railroads should not disturb irreplaceable nature.
Air pollution in cities should be decreased.
Speeding up and sprucing up the rails
The biggest single item in the transportation package is 22 billion kroner for new train signal systems to align the Danish railway network to modern European standards, allowing better safety and higher train speeds and even full automatization of the commuter train lines in the Copenhagen area. Right now, commuter trains are run by mechanics, but the newer, automated metro system runs pilotless within the city.
A third of commuters in Copenhagen bike to work. The city would like to raise that to 50 percent.
An additional 13 billion kroner will be used to lay down extra railway to double capacity on certain corridors and increase train speeds from 120 kilometers per hour to 160 kph, cutting transit time between Copenhagen and Odense, the birthplace of fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, by 25 percent to only one hour.
The line and signal improvements will also cut travel time between Odense and Aarhus from 1 1/2 hours to 1 hour, and between Aarhus and Aalborg, the country’s fourth-largest city in northern Jutland, from 1 hour and 20 minutes to 1 hour. The government’s ambition is to cut train travel from Copenhagen to Aalborg, a distance of 260 miles, to only 3 hours from the current 4 hours and 30 minutes.
Aarhus, Denmark’s second-largest city, with 300,000 inhabitants, will also get a new light-rail system that will service stations in the city every 5 minutes starting in 2015. The central government will contribute 500 million kroner to the project, with additional investments coming from Aarhus’ city hall.
“A light-rail system will help the environment and public transit in the city, and will have the same effect for Aarhus as the Metro has had for Copenhagen,” said Aarhus Mayor Nikolai Wammen.
Those who insist on driving get ‘road pricing’
The state-of-the-art Copenhagen Metro opened in 2002 and currently serves 22 stations on two lines. A Metro rider can reach downtown Copenhagen from the airport in only 15 minutes. Under the new bill, the metro will build a third line circling the city at a cost of 1.5 billion kroner.
“We’re talking about an important change of direction in Danish transport policy,” said Johs Poulsen, a member of parliament from the opposition Radical Party. “We’re really placing our bets on increasing public transit. At the same time, there is a breakthrough in individual traffic, with the introduction of road pricing.”
Under the legislation, the government will come up with rules to make it cheaper to buy a new, more environmentally friendly car, but more expensive to use it. The final rules will not be released until next year, but they are expected to include road pricing, with tolls differentiated according to the amount of pollution each car emits.
Car owners’ lobby FDM was unhappy with the legislation, saying more money was needed to ease rush-hour congestion on roads in a country where buying a new car currently triggers a 180 percent tax.
FDM’s complaints so far have remained unheeded, and the government actually added more expenditures for certain drivers in the new bill. Particle filters on trucks were made mandatory from 2011. New taxicabs will have to be more energy efficient, emitting 20 percent less CO2 per car compared to the current fleet of mostly Mercedes-Benz sedans.
Some drivers got one wish fulfilled: Denmark will build a 12-mile bridge to Germany over the Baltic Sea’s Fehmarn Strait. The bridge will cost 32 billion kroner, or about $6 billion, and will be financed and owned entirely by Denmark. Construction will begin in 2012, and the cost will be recouped through tolls, so technically, the funding for this bridge is not included in the total bill for the stimulus package.
The bridge will have a four-lane highway and a two-track railway connecting Rodby in Denmark and Puttgarden in Germany. It will cut the 4 1/2-hour trip between Copenhagen and Hamburg by 1 hour when it opens in 2018.
Some German environmental groups oppose the bridge, but Denmark says the link would cut CO2 emissions compared with the ferries that cross the strait now.
It will be the third major transport link built in Denmark in recent years. The Great Belt Bridge, connecting the Danish islands of Zealand, home to Copenhagen, and Funen, opened in 1998. Two years later, Sweden and Denmark were connected by the Oresund Bridge between Malmo and Copenhagen.