If the Betalingsring is the answer, then what was the question again?

An argument for shifting the currently dysfunctional discourse about driving and taxes in Denmark.

The problems that the Betalingsring is trying to solve originate not in our city centre but in our suburbs, we need to improve the quality of the town centers that comprise Copenhagen metropolitan region ensuring they are walkable, bike-able and provide everyday amenities.  We need to improve connections and accessibility between these town centers and into the centre of Copenhagen.  We need broad investment in a variety of transit options from car-sharing to public transit to ensure high quality alternatives and most importantly we need to consider the suburbs and promote medium density and quality housing.  We want a city that works in the center and at the edges.

The current discourse about the congestion charge (betalingsring) in Copenhagen has focused on the political differences between left leading urbanites and more conservative car owners.  We aim to shift the discussion from mere political grandstanding to what ought to be the key question; how do we achieve good quality of life for all Copenhageners, a question which we all need to take seriously and responsibility for achieving. Improving quality of life and making a better city for our shared future is about more than charging motorists to drive into the centre. It should be visionary, ambitious and holistic in approach. However as with any problem – before we presume to propose solutions we must carefully take measure and assess where exactly the problems lie?

Some of the key ingredients of a good town centre

Besides being poorly named and branded, the betalingsring, (which roughly translates as payment ring) where the current political discourse is centrifugally focused – has also narrowed the view of the problem to within the confines of the city centre of Copenhagen. This is actually the inverse of where we believe the problems originate. The relative lack of quality and offer in the town centres that stretch along Copenhagen’s pioneering finger plan; the quality of other transit options (besides private vehicle) that connect the center to its suburbs and the absence of public transit connections between the suburbs, we believe go some-way to describing the transit and spatial problem. Mobility choices are multi-dimensional and people’s preferences complex so we need to investigate the wider view that encompass  social preferences that influence human choice; Why do we have so many people driving into the centre, and also why do we have so many driving within localities in the suburbs. Because they can? Because they have to? Because they like to? We need to find out if anything is to change. The Danish Society of Engineers have come out to say that amongst experts only 4 out of 10 believe that the betalingsring will work as hoped. Infrastructure and technology to develop safe cities, low-carbon transit solutions, green energy alternatives and other sustainable initiatives can only succeed if people choose to use it, or in the case of betalingsring, it effects change as predicted. Establishing a bike-share program is only sustainable if cyclists use it. Investing in public transport is only worthwhile if it is comfortable and convenient.  Implementing urban elements to promote safety will only be effective if people behave the way we predict they will. Behavioral understanding is central in the design of any potentially successful interventions.

Ways to add quality to the design of town centres

Just as we have made our city centre walkable, bike-able and attractive – this should be applied more widely creating towns that provide everyday amenities.   In our experience with working in transit hubs in both Gothenburg and Skåne, improving  the quality within 1km of the transit hubs including park and ride schemes, reliable wifi connections that support working while commuting and other initiatives that improve convenience can greatly increase the attractiveness of public transport and really affect people’s transit choices. The London congestion charge scheme generated £930 million of revenue between 2003-2007 but such are the operating costs, only 30% of that was re-invested into public transport.  We need efficient investment, from a mixture of public and private investors as well as from social entrepreneurs to invite alternatives in a variety of transit forms from community car-pools and commercial car clubs to increased reliability on existing rail lines.  Finally and most importantly we need to consider the suburbs’ configuration and promote medium density and quality housing as well as educating consumers about the costs and conveniences of different housing choices.  We want a city with attractive suburban hubs that complement the centre.

In defining what kind of city we want, Gehl Architects argue that a congestion charge alone can’t provide what growing families; ambitious professionals, ageing seniors – people who live in small apartments in the centre or have a house and car in the suburbs- most desire from their city. A safe, healthy, vibrant, attractive, accessible, and ultimately sustainable city.  The answer to this ambitious vision lies both in a holistic and comprehensive regional view as well as the technical details of any scheme for charging motorists in Copenhagen City Centre.

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