More than half of Copenhageners cycle to work every day using a network of cycle paths and at speeds that are often faster than cars or public transport. The Copenhagen success story has inspired urban planners around the world who are increasingly treating cars as anti-social barriers to the creation of liveable and happy cities.
But while bicycles have gained significant territory on cars since the first cycle paths were built in the 1970s, not everyone thinks motorists are the enemy of a successful city. Ahead of the November 19 elections, the right-wing parties are rallying behind cars and against the city’s bicycle-friendly policies.
Lars Berg Dueholm, the mayoral candidate for Liberal Alliance, argues that congestion is worse than it was 40 years ago, even though there are now fewer cars in the city centre. He blames the city’s infrastructure decisions such as widened cycle paths, priority bus lanes and poorly planned roadworks for making it more difficult for motorists to get about.
Traffic policies cause traffic
“The left-wing parties have specifically targeted reducing the number of cars in the city and they’ve succeeded, but we’ve been left with fewer cars and more congestion,” Dueholm said.
The Konservative’s mayoral candidate, Rasmus Jarlov, agrees. He says the city’s anti-car policies make life difficult for businesses.
“They have demonised carpenters who need to transport their tools and others who need to use their cars for their jobs and their lives – all in the name of political correctness,” he said.
The results of the election could have a dramatic impact on the city’s future traffic infrastructure. The City Council’s traffic policy is largely set by the Technical and Environmental Administration (TMF), which is currently run by deputy mayor Ayfer Baykal from the left-wing Socialistisk Folkeparti (SF).
She has invested heavily in bicycle infrastructure, proposed increasing the cost of parking permits in order to encourage more car sharing, and drawn up plans to close Amagerbrogade to car traffic.
Baykal’s reign as head of the TMF is likely to end in January, however, as SF is predicted to do poorly in the election. Leading opposition party Venstre (V) is keen to take control of the administration and has launched a pro-car campaign, ‘Venstre takes action for cars’, to rally support.
Pushing out businesses
“It’s unacceptable that Copenhagen’s drivers are being harassed,” V’s mayoral candidate, Pia Allerslev, wrote in a press release. “Many families with children need a car to make their lives fit together. And for many people with businesses, cars are a necessity. Copenhagen’s left-wing majority falsely think they can exclude cars from the city, but the unfortunate consequence is that they push families, businesses, and work places out of the city.”
Venstre has a fight on its hands, however, as far-left party Enhedslisten (EL) also has its sights set on the TMF. EL stands a good chance of securing the administration as it is expected to become the city’s second largest party after the election. This would be bad news for the right wing, as Enhedslisten has little sympathy for motorists.
Plenty of alternatives to cars
“The right wing wants more cars, but the rest of us on the left don’t agree,” Kabell said, adding that few people have to use cars to get around the city.
Urban design consultant Bianca Hermansen from Copenhagenize Consulting also has a dim view of the right wing’s promotion of private motoring within the city centre. She argues that the pro-car campaigns are unlikely to result in better infrastructure for cars.
“It’s a rhetorical move rather than a policy-making move and is designed to attract certain types of voters,” Hermansen said. “Cars are not as good in the city where the easiest way to get around is by bike. Making it easier to drive in the city will simply add more cars, which adds even more layers of complexity to solving mobility issues in the city.”
Hermansen pointed out that while only 29 percent of Copenhagen households actually own a car, there are 3.6 parking spots per car in the city. This, she argues, is an ineffective use of public space that has to be optimised because it is limited and shared.
“Car infrastructure sets itself apart from this sharing and is socially imbalanced. We can’t all have the freedom to drive. It is not possible.”
The right-wing push to improve conditions for motorists arrives despite Copenhagen’s well documented congestion problems. Copenhageners sitting in traffic jams waste a combined 130,000 hours per day, which according to the government is costing society over six billion kroner through lost productivity.
After a failed attempt to introduce a congestion charge around the city, the government instead established a commission to come up with alternative ways to reduce traffic. One member, Harry Lahrmann, an associate professor from the University of Aalborg, says the right wing is not wrong when they blame the city’s traffic policies for the increasing congestion.
“It is difficult to be a motorist in Copenhagen,” Lahrmann said.
Lahrmann argues that more intelligent traffic light systems could increase the speed of city traffic, but that it would be ultimately counterproductive. Decades of research has demonstrated that creating more space for cars almost always increases the numbers of cars on the roads.
The right incentives
Some people have to drive, however, and the only way to create more space for them is to reduce the number of people on the road who could use alternative modes of transport. The only incentive that works, Lahrmann argues, is charging drivers for every kilometre driven – so-called ‘road-pricing’.
“According to our calculations we could invest in both roads and public transport and reduce the number of cars by 20 percent and congestion by half, but only if we also introduce road pricing,” Lahrmann said.
There is little political and popular support for road-pricing, however. The transport minister, Pia Olsen Dyhr (SF), has dismissed the idea, and only 35 percent of respondents to a Voxmeter/Ritzau survey said they supported it.