Lars Barfred : Copenhagen Congestion Study

Background Reading

If you have not read Lars Barfred’s articles on Copenhagen Congestion you should begin there:

Some Take-Aways From This Study

In his original article segment Lars writes:

I previously and enthusiastically wrote about the Copenhagen congestion ring which most people, at the time, thought was a done deal. The plan was later scrapped but I am going to cover what really happened, before and since, and what will be the result of the government’s Congestion Commission, which has been charged with developing alternate solutions.

I am going to cover all this in a series of articles on Copenhagen and congestion, which I hope will be relevant to many other bicycling/active transport advocacy agents.

About 15 years back, a majority in the Copenhagen City Council agreed that car traffic had surpassed any reasonable level and decided that car traffic must be forced to remain at 1996 levels – at the most.

When I tell you that…

  • Today, 8% of Danes die a premature death due to car accidents, car noise and air pollution.
  • Cars occupy 5-20 times as much infrastructure capacity as any other commuter modality we know in Copenhagen, so if you want to fight congestion, you need to change modal share from cars to other modes of transportation.
  • Car infrastructure is ten to 25 times as expensive as bike infrastructure and, in most cases, research from Aalborg University shows, almost never returns reasonably on investment, due to induced traffic.
  • Oh, yes, and the noise and air pollution decreases property values and workforce productivity.

it’s easy to understand why car growth had to be stopped.

At the same time, Copenhagen is proud to call itself a bicycle city and pretty much believes it’s the best in the world. Although many of you from the Netherlands, many Danish and some Swedish and German cities know this might be a bit of an exaggeration.

The goals are aimed high. In the mid-2000´s the city decided to increase modal share from 34% to 50% by 2015.

In order to achieve this goal, they agreed with 18 neighboring cities on a congestion ring. An astonishing feat in its own right, as cooperation between the cities in the capital region is a rarity.

Lars makes the case (from his point of view) that automobiles are a drag on the economy in terms of congestion and their impact on  human health. Certainly congestion’s effect is in evidence the world over. We Yanks spend an inordinate amount of time commuting from our bedroom communities into our central hubs. This extends both the length of our workdays as well as causes wear and tear on the very vehicles responsible for getting us there. And the roadways that we build and repair on a nearly annual basis are expensive and seldom bring about the reduction in congestion we had designed them for.

Pushback #1

Building more modern automobile infrastructure creates a false hope in the commuters who use them that they can get to work faster and safer than ever before. But the news of the improvements merely draws more users to the highways which reduces the effectiveness of any congestion remedies built into them.

Put in simpler terms, if you reduce the calorie content of a favorite food, people do not generally end up eating few calories. What they do instead is eat more of the newly improved food stuff and thus end up eating as many or even more calories than before.

Roadways are the same situation write large. Danes have decided to simply reduce the congestion rather than improve the infrastructure. They have focused on the automobile as the culprit and not the drivers. It is akin to deciding that to control violence you remove guns from the general populous. When in fact the guns themselves are inanimate objects as are automobiles.

Perhaps a completely driverless automobile could tackle the problem of congestion? Currently the increased numbers of automobiles means an occasion for increased numbers of human errors which cause accidents. In addition the greediness of drivers means that they will inevitably attempt to leap ahead in snarled traffic and not allow others to advance before them. If the human factor is simple removed from automobiles in favor of the highway itself controlling everything perhaps the situation could be improved. Time will tell.

More Take-Aways

In his second article segment Lars has this to say about a surprising cause of congestion:

An unlikely authority plays an an active role in maintaining a high volume of car traffic in the city and ensures that bicycle infrastructure and facilities are not allowed to proliferate.

The Copenhagen Police fight virtually anything that would risk increasing bicycle mobility. Bizarrely, they can veto any initiatives that the city suggests – without having to base it on accident statistics or research and they even consistently ignore the guidance from the National Police, who support allowing cyclists to turn right on red. They also soundly ignore recommendations from the City, the Road Directorate and the Transport Ministry that lower speed limits should be implemented in the city.

The Police share the same concept of traffic safety as  The Road Safety Council. A concept of judging what saves most lives in each unique situation. Unfortunately, they have no real understanding of the traffic system as a whole, which makes it easy for them to maintain very strict rules for vulnerable road users.
They have no concept of the many side-effects of bad bicycle mobility or the general health consequences for road users or their surroundings. The result is that they sub-optimize the traffic system. Or rather, optimize it for cars.

Indeed, regarding car traffic, they have an altogether different concept which makes car mobility trump the mobility and safety of vulnerable road users. They are completely and utterly unable to explain to anybody why this is. It just has to be like this, otherwise they can’t control traffic, they say.

If a certain spot on the traffic map has a high accident rate, the Police seek solutions that reduce bicycle mobility. In their last century mentality, less bicycles means less accidents – instead of working towards reducing the root of the problem – the motorists and their cars. The Copenhagen Police are legendary in their ability to Ignore the Bull.

Pushback #2

Automobiles are the future. They represent something that simply cannot be had by bicycle, the ability to leave your home and arrive somewhere else on your own schedule carrying as many people and as much stuff as you can. Ultimately automobiles represent a modern convenience that neither bicycles nor public transportation provide. While the latter two are perhaps more intelligent use of our resources, they are only suitable in short distance situations.

If you want to travel from Chicago to Elburn you would need to ditch bicycles and buses in favor of mass transportation like commuter trains. And this grows especially important when you are talking about inclement weather conditions. Again an automobile promises the convenience of leaving your front door for work and then afterwards to drive north to Milwaukee to take in a Cubs-Brewers game before heading up to Madison Wisconsin to enjoy a weekend bicycle tour with your club.

Much of the increase in bicycle travel is Copenhagen and other European cities is spurred by the shorter distances and better weather than is often possible in many parts of North America.

Yet More Take-Aways

Lars is frankly attacking The Establishment for its unwillingness to accommodate cyclists to the degree he would like. When they do begin to see his point of view he writes:

In this series, we are bluntly criticizing the politicians, the City planners, the Police and the Congestion Commission, as you may have figured out. I also need to pay my respects to the people who stick their neck out.

Just after Part 1 of the Series was published, the mayor of the City’s DoT, Ayfer Baykal, announced that her party SF (People’s Socialist Party) aims to make yet another important shopping street much more pedestrian and bicycle friendly.

Pushback #3

Congestion is congestion. Transferring congestion to the bicycle infrastructure still has its problems. You only have to traverse the Chicago Lakefront Trail on weekends to understand this problem. That trail allows no motor vehicles, only pedestrians and human-power vehicles. And yet it can be downright unpleasant to travel along its length depending on the time of day or the day of the week.

After the recent Chicago Air Show ended I happened to be traveling against the traffic coming away from viewing sites along the beaches. it was a mad house. As congested and accident prone as Rush Hour on any highway. Admittedly the chance for extreme injury was diminished by the fact that the pedestrians and bicyclists are moving at slower speeds with far less mass than automobiles. But the same behaviors that one sees on highways during rush hour had been brought to bear on the situation on this trail. People are greedy and will not wait their turn.

Slower moving traffic on a trail like the Chicago Lakefront Trail represents the same kind of impediment that motorists see in one another during Rush Hour. And child on foot with its parent is still subject to bodily injury from impatient cyclists. Hopefully the severity of injuries incurred in these situations are lessened, but the aggravation levels are nearly the same.

Fourth Take-Aways

In his fourth segment Lars writes:

As a compromise, the Government decided to form a commission to address the Copenhagen congestion and pollution challenges. Trængselskommissionen – or The Congestion Commission.
The commission assignment is to:                  
  1. Analyse basic challenges of the capital-area traffic system.
  2. Analyse advantages and disadvantages of a range of initiatives.
  3. Suggest a strategy and financing.
Whereas the goal of the Congestion ring was to reduce car traffic by some 30%, the commission started out with lowering the bar to less than zero. Now the vague objective is to lower the growth of car traffic.

They are not considering whether or not growth of traffic may not be a benefit to society. Rethinking how we develop our cities is also out of the question. Nor are concepts like reducing urban sprawl, giving people incentives to move closer to work, reducing car-centric shopping malls in favour of more closely-knit city environments with local shops. Not at all.
Prior to the first meeting, a range of literature and analyses were listed for consideration. None of them included cycling or other modes of active transportation. In addition, all the presentations after the first meeting have all completely ignored cycling.

Pushback #4

Congestion in an of itself is not a bad thing. It is Nature’s way to telling us that we are fallible as navigators. Recently a Critical Mass Ride here in Chicago had to deal with unwanted congestion as it made its way around the South Side of Chicago. One of the respondents wrote the following:

Reply by James BlackHeron on Sunday

Like I said earlier, a good rule of thumb is when the mass moves out of a “choke point” where it is slowed down for whatever reason the folks at the front need to be conscious NOT to speed up and lose the guys who are still going slow at (and before) said choke point and are still struggling to move through it.     The leaders can’t go any faster than those behind them once they get back out onto a nice, wide, open street. Those behind are still in that choke point and CAN’T go faster so if the head moves faster than the body (or the tail) the Mass will naturally get too spread out.

It’s human nature to WANT to speed up after one has been slowed-down to “make up for lost time” -but that very natural instinct is exactly what causes the slinky-effect as those behind you can NOT speed up until they are past the slow area.

And yes, I understand that it is difficult to rein in the yahoos exuberant folks from blazing ahead too fast at the front of the Mass.  it isn’t exactly common sense (or common knowledge) that one needs to hold back once the head of the Mass emerges from a choke point.   And yes, more of us experienced massers needed to ride to the front and help out.  But it gets tiring to fight this same battle month after month.    It wasn’t super-terrible this month anyhow and the leaders hopefully learned from the experience, which only leads to more folks who actually know what is going on.   If the same few folks step up month after month and work to stop these types of minor mistakes from happening then the new guys never really get to understand why this stuff is important or how to pace the front of the mass.

Congestion however brings with it inefficiencies. On Critical Mass Rides it means that the group thins out in spots and ultimately grows more disorganized. It takes a good deal longer to get through intersections then when the grouping is compact. In automobile traffic it means that tempers start to flare and horns begin to honk, but worst of all is the waste in fuel while vehicles needlessly idle. That in turns means that an inordinate amount of exhaust particles fill the air and the city air becomes less breathable and those with respiratory ailments notice this immediately.

The solution to congestion is to handle the traffic as expertly as possible. It means that were it possible to zoom forward in time we would find a global network of driverless vehicles ambling along highways at rates of speed consistent with the traffic patterns in place. People who need to exit a vehicle would be shunted off to a “virtual kissing lane”. Folks in transit would be traveling at a rate of speed that does not cause the traffic pattern to accordion. If there were a traffic accident cars would immediately be moved to open lanes and emergency vehicles would be automatically directed to the spot where they are needed. Those drivers who could benefit from being on side streets would be direct to them and everyone would be moving along at an optimum pace.

In this future world the bulk of the vehicles would be electric or at the very least hybrid in nature so that the effects of congestion are simply more tolerable if not eliminated altogether. But society in the 21st Century and beyond will need cars first and foremost for the convenience of its citizenry. For better or worse we will have come to rely on automobiles in increasing new ways for varied sorts of trips. Cars are the future. Bicycles in areas away from the equator are more or less use depending on the severity of winter. When it rains or snows or the temperatures plummet we will likely lose some of the benefits accrued when cyclists are out and about. But that is to be expected.

Perhaps in the world of the future we will have created bike lanes that are sheltered from beginning to end and most of the ridership that desires it will be able to afford and use bikes with electric assist. But it is certainly the case that human power has its appeal to a limited portion of the population and becomes less desirable when either there are time constraints on travel or energy limits due to the age or physical impairments of the rider.


Demonizing the automobile is about as meaningful as demonizing guns. I find myself strangely ill at ease on this issue. I am not in favor of having guns become part of every day life in America. And that is largely because of the nearly lethal mix of that much firepower with impatient and greedy individuals who feel entitled to whatever it is they want. Democracy after all is most clearly defined not by its supposed freedoms but rather by the willingness of individuals to “wait their turn in line”.

Without the bigger picture uppermost in the minds of commuters it is difficult to imagine that we ever get to work each day in one piece. Just imagine the carnage if every driver decided to mimic bicycle riders and treat stop signs as yield indicators. Imagine further the problems that would arise if every automobile driver decided to run red lights as frequently as do cyclists? No intersection would be safe for either automobiles or bicyclists. And pedestrians would end up being the only ones capable of traversing the traffic snarled intersections with relative ease.

We Have Met The Enemy And He Is Us.

I believe that we are the problem. Politicians and Cycling Advocates alike try to sell us a bit of snake oil when the point the finger at automobiles.

Left alone cars would stay parked in their garages and never venture out onto roadways with their teenage brains impaired by alcohol on a Friday night to race up and down deserted country roads or even city streets.

Automobiles would never force their occupants to turn up their radios and their iPods to listen to music loud enough to prevent their awareness of road conditions like the approach of emergency vehicles.

Cars do not text while in operation. They are single-minded and concentrate on delivering power to the wheels to the extent required by their drivers. Cars don’t operate telephones or take response altering drugs when pulling away from the family garage. Humans are the culprits here.

Traffic jams are basically human inventions. They are not inherently part of the driving experience. But humans are unlikely to leave in time to reach their destinations safely. They are seldom interested when late in waiting their turn in line. On ramps and off ramps are literally death traps in most highway situations as people getting on try to force over the drivers already in the right lane to make room for themselves and in doing so make riders leaving the highway to do so safely.

Anything that a human decides to do in the stream of traffic is a potential degradation of the flow of traffic. Trying to grab a parking spot along a busy route at rush hour when you are terrible at parallel parking is a classic example of this. Driverless cars could be the answer to much of the congestion issues that plague both city and suburbs.

Even if all of the motor vehicle traffic were banned from downtown areas, you would only have managed to create new problems. Parking problems for bicycles would burgeon. And traffic issues between cyclists would escalate with a greater number of them on the road at the same time. The basic congestion issues take on a different form when you move from one form of transportation to another. But the problem of humans interacting with one another would persist.

Chicago and New York are always going to have trucks and vans delivering goods to shops and businesses. Buses are going to be moving even more people if automobiles are banned. Trains will likewise see an increase in ridership and neither of these modes of travel is as scalable as that of the bicycle. A sudden increase in ridership on buses and trains would mean overcrowding on both until such time as new cars and vehicles could be brought into service.

If you want to see what that kind of world looks like visit Japan and ride the trains into the central city during rush hour. They literally have to force riders into the compartments using shield like devices to ensure that every car is packed to the maximum. Not a pretty picture. The women on these cars are constantly complaining about being groped.

A more honest assessment of the situation would force us to acknowledge that centralized cities are a bit like corporate farms as compared to smaller organic farms. Decentralizing the business districts to have them distributed evenly throughout the areas surrounding the inner cities would help. It would reduce the need to travel great distances to reach our places of employment. If you can walk to work all the better.

If a smaller number of people are bicycling to work it means an easier and less unsightly vision of bicycle parking spaces along streets and sidewalks. The culprit is the density of the workspace provided in urban areas. Move the offices closer to the suburbs and everyone benefits.