Niels, you have a long career in mobility and transportation. You changed your role three years ago. Before you started working at the Danish Road Directorate, you had been Director of the Traffic Department of the City of Copenhagen. What are the main differences between now and then?
One of the main differences is the scarcity of space when dealing with urban mobility. The denser a city becomes, it becomes more obvious that solutions are needed to transform urban mobility. The car, for example, becomes increasingly inconvenient for users, due to the limited space. However, it’s not surprising that car ownership is higher in the outskirts than the city centers. This is not because the people are silly. They just have another way of everyday life, which makes them search for other solutions than people who live in the central part of, for instance, Copenhagen.
Urban mobility is on everyone's lips right now. Would you say that this topic is currently trending? Or do you think that the buzz is related to improved technology and growing mobility problems?
When you look back, 30 or 40 years ago, if you were living in a large city and you had the opportunity to get a family you normally wanted to provide the best possible environment for your children. Back then that wasn’t in the city, but in the outskirts. Today, the environment in cities has got cleaner and healthier. The advantages of life in the city are so strong that people want to stay there. Copenhagen is one of those cities where families, even with one, two or three children stay in the city and don’t rush into the suburbs. Everybody talks about urban mobility because today we have a very powerful demand for a better environment, for a better urban environment. I think that’s one of the key answers to your question.
You can’t talk about urban mobility without talking about politics. Why do so many cities have a hard time organizing better mobility? What is so difficult about it?
For many cities, dealing with mobility entails profound changes that involve our freedom of choice as citizens. Furthermore, it is about the way politics gives priorities to urban spaces. Most people don’t like changes. That’s why it’s very hard for politics or cities to change the mobility to the better. We have to deal with cars and parking lots; we have to deal with the question of who or which mode of transportation gets access to the city center. Furthermore, we have to deal with investments in public transport and much more. It’s difficult, even for politicians, to say what is the best decision. Every decision can have bad side effects.
Can you give an example?
We have to think about solutions that could solve the problem that you want to get rid of without creating other problems. There is a very good example in Copenhagen. We tried to improve the standards for bicycles. An obvious solution was to build more bike lanes. But it’s not that easy to build more bike lanes on the busiest streets just because this is where people want to ride their bike. If you remove 30 parking lots there, drivers will just go into the next side street to park their car. So if we wanted to build new bike lanes, we would have to optimize the parking situation in the areas close by. So, while we improved the bike lanes, we also optimized parking lots in the area. Our politicians got what they wanted and they could communicate this solution to the people living and having their car there. Change in urban mobility often entails more than just one measure and is complex.
Are mobility discussions suffering from too much ideology or too little vision? What do you think?
Too little vision, probably. We came up with a clear idea, with a clear vision and a solution attached to it. Of course, politicians have to explain the support for a solution in their own political language. That might come up in different ways, but the understanding and the support of the idea was actually not the difficult part. The difficult part for them, the politicians in Copenhagen, was to explain this to their voters. Some said they had supported that project because it created more car parking space, and others said that they had supported that project to increase the number of bike lanes. The solution was the same, but they had to create a political framing surrounding it. A lot of the success comes with the clever communication of solutions.
Why do you think Copenhagen became a role model for the world?
Copenhagen is unique. We have worked on the status of the mobility in this city over a great number of years. However, we also reach tipping points. Driving bicycles has become a mainstream. So now, we have reached 60 up to 70 percent in the city and it’s probably not the end. What happens is that the more people get used to take their bike as the obvious, fastest, healthiest and simplest solution, the more will these people ask for better conditions for cyclists. And that creates new challenges for the planners.
What did you do differently in Copenhagen?
Generally, there is a different attitude in Copenhagen. In 2003, when I was starting my job, 30 percent of the people were cyclists. I remember lots of discussions on the climate strategy. The challenge was how traffic and transportation could effectively fit into that. Our idea was to have more car drivers to switch to bikes. We needed to design solutions and create affordable strategies that would turn the next car driver into a cyclist but we needed to act with caution. We didn’t want to force drivers out of their cars too much.
What do you think makes people ditch their car?
We have to make other modes of transportation more comfortable und safe. On the one hand, you can make car use more inconvenient, for example by increasing parking fees or strictly limiting parking areas. However, we would rather concentrate on how we can make riding a bike even more comfortable, and also how can we make people to feel safe when riding in the bike lane.
What are the incentives you can give people?
We made a lot of different attempts that worked surprisingly well like having official bicycle counters. It was just a way of telling the cyclists through campaigns: “We’ve seen you; we are counting you; we know you’re there; we appreciate what you do”. People got the feeling “Well, now I’m on the good side, now the people appreciate what I’m doing. The community appreciates what I’m doing”. That’s a nice feeling. On top of that, we built new bike lanes. You shouldn’t forget that it’s mainly about providing the infrastructure that makes people feel comfortable and safe. That will change a lot.
Copenhagen is a role model for a bicycle-friendly city. In contrast, Vienna is praised for its public transport. What role does public transport play in Copenhagen? And why did Copenhagen focus on bikes when others focused more on public transport?
Well actually we didn’t, but I think one answer to this is that Copenhagen developed quite differently from Vienna. The public transport in Vienna is organized by only one company which supervises everything. In Copenhagen, we have one company running the buses, one company running the suburb trains, one company for national trains and one company for the metro. Everything is divided into several companies optimizing their own business. We really would like a centralized Viennese organization, but this hasn’t happened yet.
But we haven’t forgotten public transport. Parallel to improving cycling and parking, we improved the bus system a lot in order to make better traffic lines, better bus stop designs, and better reliability regarding the timetables. Ultimately, Copenhagen decided to build a metro system that required a huge investment. We started the first two lines in 2002.
What was the hardest time you had while you were the director of traffic in Copenhagen?
Once we redesigned one of Copenhagen’s busiest shopping streets. The redesign included new and wider bike and pedestrian lanes as well as new bus stations. At the same time, we abandoned car parking in this street. We thought to optimize the shopping street. Some of the shop owners and other members of the local community in this part of the city joined forces to oppose the project, because they were scared they might lose customers. This made it difficult. The local newspaper joined the alliance and suddenly also the political opposition voted against the project, although we clearly explained how it would work to the city and the shopkeepers.
We then went to the Netherlands and asked for advice. They made an evaluation about shopping streets and how much money people spend in a shopping streets. They compared bicycle users to car users. The evidence was that the project would increase the amount of money people spend. Due to a very solid conflict, the local community and politicians in Copenhagen didn’t believe us. The project itself was good, but we obviously didn’t really manage to communicate it strong enough. That’s why this project failed. That was a tough time for me.
What’s your greatest learning from that time?
The best learning is probably that once you can think of a good solution you should directly think of the way you can communicate it, especially from two different political points of view. That is one of my most important learnings. To understand that politicians are not crazy: They just want a solution, they can communicate, in their own perspective, towards their voters.
Which tip would give to other traffic directors around the world?
Join forces with other stakeholders, find solutions and communicate a strong story officially and effectively to the whole world. We can all learn from each other.
Niels Torslov has been the Director of Operations at the Danish Road Transport Authority since 2015 and is therefore responsible for intercity transport. He was previously Director of the Copenhagen Transport Authority for twelve years and has been involved in mobility and transport for a long time.