International Models for Public Transportation: Improvements in Copenhagen
When we look around the globe, we see several regions that are building entirely new transportation systems. But there are also great examples of cities and regions that are improving on what they already have. For the U.S.—which has some form of public transportation in almost every region of the country—we should seek out strong models for expanding and improving already established systems. Denmark’s capital city of Copenhagen offers just such an example.
Improving Established Infrastructure
Copenhagen’s urban rail “S-train” network has been operating since 1934. (The nationwide train system goes back to the 1800s.) It connects outlying regions of the city and suburbs to the city center. While the S-train network is similar to an American commuter rail system, trains run frequently—at least every ten minutes during working hours—and have stops spaced just 2 kilometers apart, on average.
While the S-train operates like a subway within the heart of Copenhagen, the city wanted to provide further transportation options, especially for people living in a growing outlying area called Ørestad. After considering many options, planners settled on a light rapid transit system, called the Copenhagen Metro, that uses short three-car driverless trains. Smaller trains, smaller stations, and driverless systems help contain long-term costs and enable frequent service 24/7. The system launched in 2003, and an expansion is slated to open in 2019.
Even though Copenhagen had the S-train system—as well as buses—planners recognized that the metropolitan area was continuing to grow and public transportation needed to expand as well. Though light rapid transit had higher upfront costs than other options, such as a tram network, planners determined that this type of system would provide better value in the long run—and it has.
Technology as a Game-Changer
Inconvenience and inefficiency are challenges public transportation systems must continually confront and overcome. People may want to ride, but they don’t want to wait. Navigating multiple ticketing systems—or even finding correct change—is also a hassle that can discourage the use of public transportation.
Copenhagen recognized that investments in technology, combined with the spread of smart phones, can help address these challenges. The city now has an integrative ticketing system that enables riders to move seamlessly between different modes of transportation. Riders can find real-time information on their phones and purchase tickets through a smart phone app or even text message.
The city’s transportation network also supports commuting by bicycle. Copenhagen is one of the most bicycle-friendly cities in the world. Metro stations have bike-parking facilities to support multi-modal transportation. Bicycling is central to transportation planning, not an afterthought, and the city has a goal that 50 percent of commuters will use bicycles to reach work or school. Bicycling and public transportation have already significantly cut the city’s pollution.
Takeaways from Copenhagen
Though Copenhagen is the capital of Denmark and the country’s largest city, its metropolitan area, with a population of about 2 million people, is roughly the size of metropolitan areas like Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis, Indiana; or Las Vegas. Robust public transportation has a place not just in mega-cities, but in more modest-size cities and smaller communities as well.
Copenhagen’s public transportation also makes some other key takeaways clear:
- Planning and investment for the long term pay dividends
- Even if you already have public transportation, you must commit to maintenance, growth, and expansion as populations expand and needs change
- The smart use of technology can improve public transportation and increase ridership, which means a bigger return on investment for the local economy
- Public transportation works best when it is integrated with other forms of transportation, such as bicycling or rideshare programs
Congress should not simply fund public transportation. It should also support sound strategies that get the most out of our public investment. Some of those strategies can be found in the example of Copenhagen.