Severing car dependency in EU cities ‘very realistic’

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Klaus Bondam, chairman of EuroCities’ Mobility Forum, a major partner of the annual European Mobility Week and Car Free day, and vice-mayor of one of Europe’s best performing cities in terms of sustainable mobility, shares his beliefs with EURACTIV on how to deal with growing congestion and pollution in Europe’s urban areas.


To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

Copenhagen is often cited as an example of best practice in terms of sustainable mobility. Which policies have you implemented to limit congestion and pollution in the city-centre?

We have the goal of being the number-one bicycle city in the world – we often say we’re engaged in a friendly competition with Amsterdam. Among the polices we have implemented are, of course, a very strong focus on bicycle accessibility, cycle roads and what we call “green waves”, where all the traffic lights on major streets are programmed to change to green at a pace that suits cyclists rather than cars. 

What helps, of course, is that Denmark is a rather flat country, with a favourable climate for cycling. And we have a strong tradition of cycling. 

But then, we also have a tradition of intense taxation on cars, so a car in Denmark is probably the most expensive in the world. This means there is no natural incentive to buy a car. And, when it comes to modern living in Copenhagen, around 40% of inhabitants actually use their bicycle 365 days a year – including myself – because it is the easiest and quickest way to get around in the city. 

We also use another tool, which is to reduce the number of parking spaces in the inner city to discourage people from coming in from the suburbs by car. 

Of course, in Denmark, we have experienced a growth in welfare over the past few years and, as people get richer, the percentage of car ownership also goes up. But actually, although 25% of Copenhagen households have a car, there is a very sound car use, meaning that owners only use their vehicles once a week or less. 

It sounds as though you have in some way managed to reduce citizens’ dependency on the automobile in Copenhagen. In wider Europe, however, 75% of the journeys undertaken in metropolitan areas are still done by car and a recent Eurobarometer survey showed that citizens are still very attached to their vehicles. Is it realistic to think we can sever this dependency on the automobile?

It is very realistic. First of all, you have to look at how you design the streets. For example, you have to design cycle roads that allow bikers to have quick accessibility and stay on the move all the time because it makes it easier and more comfortable to cycle. 

Then, of course, there is also the safety issue. People will not bike if they hear of a lot of people getting injured, so one of our very strong programmes is to reduce the number of people who sustain major injuries. 

Basically, the idea is to separate the different modes of traffic – pedestrians on the walkways, then a bike lane, then the parked cars, and then the cars. 

In many other cities they have a pavement, with the parked cars, the bicycles and the cars all mixed up. That gives a lot of insecurity. 

I heard the mayor of a big Australian city referring to the need to ‘Copenhagenise’ the streets and we are, of course, very proud of that. 

But you cannot bike all the time and for all distances. So, people are of course also very dependent on having a reliable public transport system. 

Our challenge is not to get public transport users onto bicycles. We already see a big modal shift between those two kinds of transport – a lot of bikers use public transport and vice versa. Our challenge is to move people from cars into public transport. And one of the things we do is to hold a dialogue with a lot of big businesses in and around Copenhagen to encourage them to put bicycle facilities in their offices so there is a shower and a locker where you can put your bicycle clothes. 

There are a whole range of positive things to be achieved by cycling. You do your part for the reduction of CO2-emissions. You get some exercise, so it is good for the public health. And finally, what I have personally realised is that it is a cell-phone-free zone – a time you have all for yourself. I actually like that. 

But do you think it’s possible to convince other Europeans?

I think in the middle of Greece, in very hilly Italian towns, or in very, very hot towns in Spain and Southern France, we might have some challenges. But I think that in middle Europe there are many possibilities. 

Paris introduced its new city bike this year and it has been a huge success. Not necessarily for going from the suburbs to the city centre, but for example taking a train into the city centre, then taking one of the city bikes to get around in the city because it is much quicker and easier. 

There are many cities that have a very big potential for this – for example Berlin has quite wide streets – because of the war of course – so they actually have the space to do it. 

It’s not only the space though, is it? It’s also a question of having the money…

Yes… My administration here usually tells me that whenever I look at the edge of a pavement it costs around €300,000. It is expensive, but it’s a very good and lasting investment. You only have to do it once. 

This year’s Mobility Week theme ‘Streets For People’ puts particular emphasis on reallocating road space to non-motorised traffic. Is there not a risk that this could make cities even more congested as cars have less and less room to get around?

Well, as you know, we do not have a congestion-charge scheme in Copenhagen yet. So, whenever we transform road space for cars to space for non-motorised traffic we have to move the traffic elsewhere. 

One thing we do in neighbourhoods with lots of residential areas is to semi-close them, to make them more difficult to drive through. You can get in and out, but not use them as a quick way to get from A to B. And that of course creates lesser-motorised streets, where you will see bikes and sometimes people in the middle of the streets. It creates traffic conditions to the benefit of the softest people – the pedestrians. 

That also puts traffic out on the major roads, and so that it is where we have the congestion problems today. But I think that by relocating traffic you can offer more quality for a lot of people, and less quality for fewer people – when I am talking about fewer people, of course, people living out on the streets are then heavily motorised. 

So, you said Copenhagen does not have a congestion charge “yet”. I believe that Denmark is currently one of several countries where local governments are still forbidden from introducing such charges…

Indeed, we need a government scheme to be able to do it. The city’s political majority is of a different colour from the political power at state level. And there is a sort of political “fight’ among us about that. Because in Denmark we have had a thing called ‘tax-stop’ for several years now, and they say that if we introduce a congestion charge, we would be breaking our commitment to our voters for tax-stop. 

In Copenhagen though, since this new administration began on 1 January 2006, we have kept the whole debate on congestion-charging very high on the public agenda. We have even collaborated with 15 councils on the border of Copenhagen to prepare a scheme for ourselves, so we basically have the scheme ready for the day we get the permission in law. 

What can often be heard behind closed doors and also from high-ranking right-wing politicians is that we are going to have to do this at some point. But the opposite opinion is that the price of cars in Denmark is already so high because of taxes that you should not have to pay even more. 

What it is important to emphasise, though, is that when you introduce a congestion charge, the revenue from that should go both towards improving public transport, lowering fares and creating more bicycle accessibility, and to larger infrastructural road investments. 

For example, we are a seaside town, so a lot of traffic that just needs to pass our city is obliged to go through it because there is no space for it to go around – well, it can on one side but not on the seaside. So, we basically need what we call a ‘harbour tunnel’ for cars to avoid going through the city. And that should be one of the things that the revenue from the congestion charge is used for. 

The timeframe, I would say, is between five to ten years. It is difficult for us to compare ourselves to London because it is such a big city, but we have learned a lot from Stockholm, which is a little bigger than Copenhagen and has just introduced the scheme permanently. 

So, you’d be in favour of an EU initiative creating a legal framework for congestion charging – something which, it is rumoured, may come out of the Commission’s Green Paper on Urban Transport?

Definitely! Because although, of course, there is also a money aspect to the debate – how do we raise enough money to make the necessary investments in infrastructure and public transport? – it basically comes down to a question of air pollution and CO2-emissions – and those do not know any borders. 

And there is also the question of noise pollution, which although it doesn’t move so far, is probably also relevant for many people in Europe. So, there could also be other EU initiatives, for example a regulation on making tyres broader, because wider tyres actually make less noise. 

Of course, we often talk about congestion charging when discussing the environment or social needs. But is this compatible with our economic interests? How can the interest of, for example, freight transporters be integrated alongside these other concerns?

I think it is important to have a dialogue with those sectors of society. But I think we have to put the consideration and interests of the single individual higher. There are so many people who are harmed by air and noise pollution, who get sick, are injured or who die prematurely… So, I think it’s important now to reinvent the whole concept of living in cities. 

Cities and great city areas are the stronghold of Europe. That is how we are going to survive in a more globalised world, competing with China and the rest of Asia. Because our cities can provide a sort of network of centres for design, innovation and creativity – all those things are better created in city areas where people can easily communicate with each other, exchange ideas and invent new things. 

Basically, I believe that the biggest task of this century is to reinvent the European city. We see people flooding to the towns to enjoy city life. And, as a bottom line, this means we will have to fit more people into the same amount of space. 

So, if we have to pay a little more for our goods in order to increase our quality in lives, I think that’s acceptable, especially as, fortunately, in many places there is growing welfare, people have more money. 

Another CO2-emission reducing thing you can do is to buy goods that come from your local area, so you don’t need all that transport. 

I think the challenge today is transporting people and knowledge around – not goods. 

So you disagree that all of these efforts to combat climate change could harm Europe’s economic growth? Because cities are actually at the heart of economic growth…

I think that a lot of people are willing to pay a little extra for something that is health and environmentally conscious. And I’m not just plucking numbers out of the air – we have realised, in Copenhagen, that organic food sold in grocery shops and supermarkets has a 14% market share. I believe that it is a world record. The national rate in Denmark is 7%, so we are at double that and it is growing every single day. 

Of course, people buy organic food because it tastes better, but definitely people also buy it because they know that it is not a good idea to put all sort of chemicals into the ground. 

This is the only chance we have now to change the course. Our generation and the generations before us have really used our land heavily. And we’ve had a fun time, but now it’s time to think about leaving something for our children and grandchildren. I think there is a growing understanding of that. 

It used to be only the sort of ‘dark Green’ segment of Copenhageners that felt concerned, but now everybody is wondering what they can do to change their behaviour. Of course, you can’t do everything, but everyone can do a little bit. I think there is definitely a growing understanding of this. 

We are extremely occupied about all this in Copenhagen because, in 2009, we will host a big UN Climate Summit, intended to set new goals after the Kyoto Agreement. If it goes well, if China gives in, if America gives in, it can hopefully be the most important climate summit for the next generation – as Kyoto was. 

Going back to the Commission’s Green Paper on urban transport, due next week, you spoke about your expectations for some sort of legal framework on congestion charging and noise pollution. Is there anything else that you are hoping might be included in the text?

I just hope that they come with a very strong Paper, because I have realised, as chairman of the European mobility forum, that many cities in Europe are concerned about identical issues. We all have problems with our state governments – they will not give us the tools that we need to create sustainable modern city lives. 

I hope that, if we press from below, the EU can push from above. And hopefully this can be the start of a Europe of cities. 

What I happily realised, when I was meeting with the Commission Vice-President Barrot some months ago, was that he actually listened to what we said and responded to it. He seemed generally interested in the problems that we were presenting him with. So, I hope that they come up with a strong paper and that our governments will listen to it and try to implement it and put the issue on the top of the agenda. 

Would you be in favour of some form of mandatory targets (regarding transport financing or a percentage shift of car traffic to public transport)?

The thing is, you can put up all sorts of goals, but if you do not have the tools to achieve those goals or the money to make the necessary investments, then it’s just words on a piece of paper. 

Of course, I would prefer that the EU made some laws in this field that national governments have to follow and to implement over a certain period over time. I would definitely prefer that, because what I have really realised – of course allowing for some local differences – is that the problems we are struggling with are identical. Whether you go to Copenhagen, to Munich, to Seville or to Turin – they are identical. 

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