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May 19, 2004

Can reliable, efficient transit limit number of second cars?

Special to the Journal

Photo by Patricia Chase
Municipalities in Denmark go to great lengths to get people on transit, making bus and rail travel more efficient than car travel in larger cities.

OK. Even I think the Danes may have gone too far. Last Friday, when Hollywood's royalty -- Brad Pitt, Nicole Kidman and Johnny Depp -- were pulling up to the Cannes Film Festival in their Rolls Royces, European royalty -- princes and princesses from Norway, Spain and Monaco -- were being chauffeured to the wedding of Denmark's Crown Prince Frederick in buses.

They were no doubt luxurious, but they were still buses. I've often asked myself, but especially after seeing this, why are the Danes so obsessed with buses, trains and all forms of public transportation?

This is why: In Scandinavia as well as other parts of Europe, mobility -- the ability to get around -- is more than a necessity, it's a right. It is a deeply ingrained cultural value that no one should be left out of the societal flow because of money, age or disability.

The problem with universal mobility is that as long as it is used only by those who don't have a choice, it is very expensive. This is a challenge to municipalities, who are largely responsible for getting people from one place to another.

Better transit, fewer cars

Transportation planners in Denmark realize that no matter how good public transportation is they will never prevent people from wanting to own a car, so they don't try to fight that battle. The battle they are waging is to keep families from buying a second car, even if they can afford it.

A great amount of time and money is spent to improve bus and train systems to achieve this goal. More fare-paying passengers reduce the public subsidy needed for transit. It's a matter of making the social value of universal mobility an economic practicality.

In their seduction of the potential second car owner, municipalities go to great lengths. On well-traveled routes during much of the day, buses and metros come by every five minutes or less, making schedules unnecessary.

Transportation planners put public transport first, making bus and rail travel more efficient than car travel in larger cities. City centers and certain streets have limited or no access to cars. In-bus global positioning systems automatically communicate with traffic lights, so that if a bus is running late, every intersection it reaches has a green light.

Communication, reliability and accessibility are essential in making public transportation appealing. At bus stations and stops, real-time displays tell passengers exactly when the next bus will arrive, not when it is supposed to arrive. In Copenhagen, the operator of the metro is fined if the on-time rate goes below 98 percent.

Buses are comfortable and safe enough for children to travel on their own. Children traveling with their parents are free.

During the wee hours of the night when there are few passengers, riders can call for a taxi and pay what it would cost to take a bus. This is much less expensive than providing around-the-clock bus service.

Smart cards coming

Denmark is going to a smart-card system for all forms of public transportation. With this system, passengers will have one card to use for all modes: buses, trains and metros. Once the card is scanned, the money will automatically be debited from their bank account.

In addition to making public transportation easier to use, planners believe it will have an added psychological benefit.

The expense of car use is largely hidden from the owner since the cost of the car is paid either all at once or in monthly installments, which are automatically paid from their bank account. The purchaser feels the pain either all at once, or once a month when looking at a bank statement.

Passengers on public transportation feel little bits of pain all the time, every day, and frequently many times a day. The smart-card system will give riders the same sort of hidden-expense benefit that car owners have.


Implementing all of these ideas into a system that provides passengers with a high-quality experience takes a tremendous amount of collaboration.

The northern city of Aalborg, Denmark, population 170,000, must work with 14 counties to come up with fares and routes, and develop systems. It also must coordinate with the national train system to insure that passengers can easily transfer from one system to another.

Although a public agency oversees the system, 24 private companies with 330 buses actually deliver service.

Because of the coordination required with a multitude of transportation systems and private companies, as well as the on-bus GPS system and real-time information network, sophisticated information technology is critical to making everything work.

Seattle is a city that is having the life choked out of it by traffic. As in Denmark, it would be unrealistic and impractical to expect people to give up car ownership completely. But getting many people to forego a second car, if there were convenient alternatives, is worth considering.

Broadening the base of public transportation users would make it less expensive for the city, safer for users and provide everyone with a higher quality of life.

Patricia Chase is with International Sustainable Solutions, an organization that encourages sustainability practices and products. ISS has organized tours by Northwest architects, engineers, developers and others to look at urban sustainability projects in Scandinavia. Educational materials produced by ISS are sponsored by Catapult Community Developers, CH2M Hill, Gregory Broderick Smith Real Estate, Magnusson Klemencic Associates, Nitze Stagen, ZGF Partners and Vulcan Inc.

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