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The environment and urban life have been under-prioritized in traffic planning

Bicycles, electric cars and other environmentally friendly modes of transport now play an important role in the traffic debate, which was previously dominated by private motoring and expansion of the motorway network.
Per Homann Jespersen metro
Photo: Uffe Weng

Traffic planning has long been characterized by a narrow objective that road-users should use as little time in traffic as possible. Large socio-economic perspectives about how much time is wasted in traffic have been dominant.

But this is a rather one-sided view of traffic that overshadows other perspectives, including the environment and quality of life in the cities, says Associate Professor Per Homann Jespersen from Roskilde University.

"It is wrong to simply look at traffic as a matter of wasted time. It is not an adequate way of looking at it. The environmental angle has been under-prioritised in the traffic debate, where there has been a narrow understanding of mobility. The debate has focused primarily on reaching our destination as rapidly as possible, and the pollution caused by cars has therefore been regarded only as a secondary priority”, explains the researcher.

He has been occupied for many years with various aspects of traffic, and the environment has been one of them. The environment is one of many factors that come into play and is affected by traffic, but traditionally the traffic sector has been regarded as a closed system, where these factors did not play a particularly important role.

"Many decisions within the traffic sector are taken on the basis of large models, which can be difficult to figure out. They are mostly concerned with how to get the maximum volume of traffic through the system in the shortest possible time. But some planning tools are probably required that can support the concept that traffic is more than simply a waste of time that should be minimized," explains Per Homann Jespersen.

Increased focus on cyclists

Per Homann Jespersen can see there has been some movement in a direction where the environment and other factors play a greater role in traffic planning.

He highlights the City of Copenhagen's efforts to replace car traffic with more cyclists, public transport and pedestrians in certain parts of the city. Perhaps the most prominent example is Nørrebrogade, which was closed to cars in 2008.

"The problem with traffic in large cities is that there is not sufficient space to accommodate all the cars. Car traffic on Nørrebrogade was restricted in order to provide more space for cyclists and allow buses to pass through quickly. This was the new way of thinking about mobility in cities like Copenhagen”, says Per Homann Jespersen, adding:

"This approach was completely absent in Denmark 10 years ago, but by disseminating foreign research and through practical experience, Copenhagen managed to change course", he says.

In 2013, the City of Copenhagen evaluated the first stage of the trial, and the municipality could conclude that car traffic across the Dronning Louise Bridge at the end of Nørrebrogade had been reduced by approximately 60% from 2008 to 2012.

On the other hand, the number of cyclists and pedestrians on the Dronning Louise Bridge has increased dramatically.

Cycling is receiving more attention generally, and there is now a greater understanding that bicycles are an efficient daily mode of transport, and are not simply used for recreational purposes.

Los Angeles as the nightmare scenario

There was also a widespread perception previously that if there was congestion on motorways, the only solution was to add more lanes. But a realisation has gradually emerged that this is not always a good idea, and that sometimes it just leads to even more cars on the roads.

"The consequence of discussing the issue in a slightly primitive way is that some cities have traffic that is based predominantly on cars, which impairs the physical environment and ultimately a poorer urban environment", notes Per Homann Jespersen.

The nightmare scenario is Los Angeles in the United States, where planners continued to expand the network of motorways over several decades. But it nevertheless failed to solve the problem of congestion. As recently as in March of this year, the newspaper Los Angeles Times declared that the Los Angeles area is the worst traffic area in the country. Again.

In the following month, the same newspaper reported that the Californian city had the country's worst air pollution, partly as a result of the numerous cars.

But although there is now a greater appreciation in Denmark that traffic is more than just how much time motorists spend in their cars, it does not mean that cars will soon be a thing of the past.

"The world looks different, depending on whether you live in Copenhagen or in a small town in Jutland. It's difficult to understand all the talk about bicycles if you live out in the countryside and definitely cannot meet a major part of your transport requirements using a bicycle. I think the vast majority of our future transport needs will be provided by cars,” says Per Homann Jespersen.

Cars will not just disappear

This is a question of finding a balance between the need for transportation of people and goods, while at the same time taking care of the environment.

"It is important to discuss what we want from a transport system. How can we achieve our purpose while causing the least possible harm to the environment and to the climate, and simultaneously achieve the best and broadest benefit for citizens?,” asks Per Homann Jespersen.

One method would be to get more electric cars onto the roads.
"We must try to encourage the use of cars that cause less pollution and emit less CO2. We need to explore ways to make the adoption of electric cars occur even faster than if it is simply left to the market to decide. The Climate Council has recently declared that the vehicle fleet will have to be electrified, if Denmark is to meet the EU demand for CO2 reduction in 2030,” says the Associate Professor.

The Climate Council is an independent council of experts established to advise the government, and in June 2016 the council declared that it is concerned that taxes are hampering efforts to get more electric cars onto the roads. The council proposed a tax deduction on electric car batteries, in order to facilitate the green transition.