A working model transport system

by Art Elphick

hat would San Diego's traffic be like if environmentalists controlled the transportation planning process? Could any new project ever get approved, and would lawsuits bury any projects that did get approved?

    For a likely answer, we can look for examples in Denmark, the world's most pro-environment nation. Despite living north of the 48 contiguous US states in a climate where houses need heat throughout most of the year, the average Dane consumes about one-eighth as much oil and gas as you and I. You might expect this low level of energy consumption if the people were poor and homeless, but the average Copenhagen household takes in $42,260 per year (versus $42,148 for the average US household and $39,318 for the average San Diego household). San Diego has more homeless people than all of Denmark, where the typical home is comfortably heated.

    The Danes save energy by working very hard at conservation. Saving energy can take precedence even over personal comfort and convenience. For example, only in Denmark could a district council pass a plan to totally eliminate the use of oil or gas for generating heat and electricity in their district. What's more, after passing that plan with almost no resistance, people rallied for its success like Texans rooting for their football team.

    With 1.8 million people, the Copenhagen metropolitan area has about as many people as greater San Diego. Yet traffic jams are rarely seen in Copenhagen, and most Danish people get to their jobs more quickly than we get to ours. Copenhagen's transportation system is impressively fast, cheap, and reliable. Commuters have several alternatives for getting to work, and none of the options require too much time. For distance commuting, people use either cars, which we know can go almost anywhere, or high-speed commuter trains, which go just as fast, but can't take their riders directly from door to door.

    Although the freeways are not crowded in Copenhagen, only one in three commuters uses a car. That is because cars in Denmark are very expensive, and the other alternatives get riders to their destinations just as fast. To discourage the use of cars, the government taxes new cars at about 150% of their purchase price. Gas, parking, and licensing costs are also kept very high.

    The short-distance options are busses, bikes, and footpaths, all of which commuters can use in conjunction with the high-speed trains.

    Biking is very popular and reasonably safe. Wherever a road exists, including the Danish freeways, there is also a barrier and a wide bike lane running beside the road in each direction. Bike lanes in the city, which have their own traffic controls, are separated from both the pedestrian walkways and the motorized vehicles. If you accidentally use a bike lane for walking, which you can easily do if bike lanes don't exist where you come from, pedestrians give you the evil eye and bikers assume that you wish to die. Pedestrians treat the bike lanes just like the roads.

    When bike riders get to the commuter train, they have two options.

    They can park in a bike garage, which is found at every train station. Bikes seem to be safe at the station. Some people lock them, but just as many do not. Perhaps the same social ethic that drives the Danes to protect the environment makes them also respect the property of absent commuters.

    Riders can also take their bikes on the train, to use again when they get to their stop. Taking a bike on a train may sound a bit awkward, but it really isn't necessary. A train ride always includes a free bus transfer pass, and in the city, unlike available parking spaces, busses are always in sight. For a single fee, many people use the busses at both ends of the train ride.

    I could find no statistics, but it appears that at least 30% of all the city's commuters either take a bike to work, or they combine a bike ride with a trip on the commuter train. As Americans rely on cars, the Danes rely on bikes - both as a source of exercise and a means of travel that takes no toll on the environment. Many families keep a car for shopping trips and other hauling, but they use their bikes for commuting to work.

    Could such a system work in San Diego?

    With San Diego already rated as the nation's fifth worst city for traffic congestion, our growth rate remains very high. Unless we expand our transportation system to accommodate this growth, the existing gridlock will only get worse.

    Could trains, bikes, and busses provide a good solution for San Diego's traffic quagmire? When I talk with our government planners, they always furnish several reasons why the answer is no:

  • Despite our weather, which is better for biking than Denmark's, San Diegans would not be willing to peddle bikes, especially with our hilly terrain.
  • We could never raise enough money to build a transportation infrastructure like the one now found in Denmark.
  • And if we did build a train system and purchase the needed busses, no one would use them.

    These explanations assume that San Diegans are fundamentally different than Danes in some very basic ways. What works well in Denmark could not work here at all. Send us to Denmark and we would all buy cars right away.

    Have San Diegans really evolved into a species so dependent on cars that we would rather waste hours in traffic jams than take a train to work? The answer, of course, is no, and the reasons they give are nothing but excuses for not facing up to a very difficult problem, which is that after years of ignoring the obvious inadequacy of our transportation system, any effective, long-term solution will now require a sizable investment.

    When Denmark built thousands of miles of bike lanes, it could not recoup the cost from tolls or user gas taxes. The government had to fund the project. With California's governor now calling for an end to new freeways, as well as budget cuts across the board, frustrated commuters will see few new solutions anytime soon. It would cost billions to build a system of trains and feeder busses that could speed commuters to their destinations faster than the car, and the ROI would be figured in decades. When our leaders consider this cost, they decide instead to just pass the problem along to some other generation - even as more and more people continue moving in to join us in the gridlock.

    Perhaps the best solution for any San Diegan wanting relief from our traffic is to pack your bags for Denmark.