How Copenhagen’s Policy Failure Led to Infrastructure Success

By Mike Thompson

Copenhagen and Congestion Failure

The Danish capital of Copenhagen is often referred to as a “biking beacon,” with its world-class bicycling infrastructure. The city and its surrounding suburbs contain dozens of miles of bike paths connecting residents to their workplaces. While its bicycling infrastructure is well known, its latest innovation regarding the expansion of the network is less publicized but no less important. Perhaps most interestingly, this latest revolution in the ever-evolving Danish capital stemmed from a congestion pricing policy failure. Their success and innovation that emerged from this failure should inspire other municipalities to look for innovative solutions to seemingly intractable bicycle policy challenges. As Copenhagen’s story demonstrates, cooperation and collaboration are often-overlooked tools that can deliver success.

In the mid-2000s, Copenhagen, along with major cities like London, Stockholm, and New York, experimented with congestion pricing policies, which charge private automobile users for entering the city center. Congestion pricing encourages the usage of public transit and non-motorized transportation, and improves air quality, traffic flow, and travel times in the city center. Although New York’s plan was eventually rejected by Albany, the London and Stockholm congestion pricing policies flourished. Copenhagen’s plan suffered the same fate as New York’s, as protests from neighboring municipalities became frequent and citizens rejected the extra costs associated with car travel. As a result, the city’s congestion charge proposal was discarded.

Without a congestion charge as a viable option, Copenhagen and local suburban officials faced a challenge—how to reduce traffic in the city center and provide safe, efficient, and affordable access to transportation? The answer in Denmark, where the biking culture is thoroughly entrenched, was to further expand its bicycling infrastructure – to incentivize bicycling rather than penalize driving.

Copenhagen began with a vast bicycling inventory: the area boasts over 250 miles of bike paths (below), and nearly 60 percent of all trips made within 5 kilometers are done via bicycle. Yet only 20 percent of trips longer than 5 kilometers are done on bicycle, despite the expansive infrastructure. The short term goal for planners and officials is to increase trips of more than 5 kilometers to 30 percent, yielding 50,000 more trips per day by bike. This goal represents a giant leap forward for a city aiming to reduce traffic congestion and become carbon-neutral by 2025.

Copenhagen’s Commuter Bike Paths Source: Citiscope

While Copenhagen possesses some of the best bicycling infrastructure in the world, many of its suburban routes were not connected to each other or to downtown Copenhagen, which presented safety and efficiency challenges to would-be bicycle commuters. In addition to the lack of suburban connectivity, existing paths were of varying quality. These limitations spurred many residents to drive rather than bike to and from work. The proposed solution, born out of a congestion pricing policy failure and the lack of network connectivity, proved to be one Copenhagen’s most innovative thus far.

Municipal Cost Sharing

One of the most challenging aspects of developing reliable and connected bicycling infrastructure is creating a working funding structure and coordinating municipal cooperation. Often, new infrastructure projects are funded by a single municipality that dominates a given metropolitan region. Historically, while this strategy benefits an entire region, a single municipality is burdened with the lion’s share of the costs and causes the suburbs to balk at any subsequent cost burdens (such as congestion pricing). Looking for new ways to fund vital infrastructure and to achieve its sustainability goals, municipalities in the Copenhagen region began experimenting with collaboration, changing the funding approach – to bicycle infrastructure, at least – to a more distributive model that reflects the size of the municipalities.

Although implementing congestion pricing did not work out for Copenhagen, the failed policy proposal initiated conversations between city officials and suburban officials. The Copenhagen Mayor for Technical and Environmental Administration invited suburban officials to discuss plans to improve bicycle infrastructure. Each of the 22 municipalities sent at least one representative, and additional regional bicycle infrastructure was agreed upon: more suburb to suburb routes supplemented by new connecting routes leading to Copenhagen, intersection signalization designed to favor bicyclists, and “conversation lanes” (bike lanes wide enough to hold bikers side by side).

Because some municipalities were not able to afford the new infrastructure, a new cost sharing structure was created in which participating municipalities pay only half the construction cost, while the other half is subsidized from a national fund for bicycling support. This new funding structure improved the financial prospects for the participating municipalities, as they normally pay in full for all bicycling infrastructure. Additionally, a six person secretariat was set up as a neutral body to administer the project, with each municipality paying a fee to support its work. This fee is based on population, meaning that Copenhagen pays the most, and smaller municipalities receive assistance from the Capital Region of Denmark.

Copenhagen Cycle Track Source: The Atlantic

New Jersey’s aging infrastructure and heavily traveled roads present a multitude of challenges to bicycle planners and policy makers. To help address some of the financial challenges of building bicycle infrastructure, the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT), as well as the US Department of Transportation, offers numerous grant opportunities to municipalities and counties. NJDOT’s municipal aid grant program is one such program under which NJDOT allocates state funding for local bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure projects.

Additional programs that benefit local communities and their ambitions for bicycle and pedestrian friendly infrastructure include the Safe Routes to School (SRTS) program established by the United States Federal Government and also run in New Jersey by NJDOT. In this program, the federal government allocates funding to county, municipal, school districts, and schools. Amongst the program’s goals are to make bicycling and walking to school a safer and to facilitate the planning, development, and implementation of projects that improve safety.

While NJDOT provides grants, municipalities and school districts could work together to develop innovative funding structures, a particularly salient opportunity given the current cash-strapped economy. Copenhagen and its suburbs reached a mutually beneficial agreement through a revolutionary cost structure to by conducting age-old methods: cooperation and collaboration. The results are impressive, including the recent opening of C95, one of two bicycling “super highways” aimed at suburban commuters, and features smooth pavement, good lighting, separation from traffic (pictured above), safe road crossings, rain shelters, and maintenance station. Furthermore, cooperation and collaboration led to a total of 28 planned new routes (290 miles), eleven of which will be completed by 2018. New Jersey can draw inspiration from the Copenhagen experience: when life gives you lemons, work with your neighbors to make lemonade – or in this case, miles of brand new bicycle lanes.

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