Sprawl is ubiquitous, even in my beloved Copenhagen


The year I attended the University of Copenhagen as an undergraduate, I lived in a suburb north of the city and commuted to the central city via bus and rail (the famous S-trains). What a great system, I remember thinking as an impressionable ingénue (you could go anywhere, and trains were on time to the second!). When I returned as a graduate student I lived right in the city center and discovered that great public transit did not obviate the need for extensive walking (I must have worn out five pairs of shoes that year). Besides my two stints as a resident, I have been fortunate enough to return to Copenhagen countless times as a visitor for business, scholarship and pleasure, and I am familiar with the place both as a motorist and public transit user.

In all the 37 years I have been traveling to and living in Copenhagen, it has always struck me that despite one of the best public transportation systems of which I am aware (in terms of coverage, efficiency, ease of use and affordability), and despite the fact that cars are at least twice as expensive as here in the States (the sales tax on cars is 180%), and despite the fact that gasoline is three to four times as expensive as here, and despite the fact that city parking is difficult, non-existent or prohibitively expensive (and parking fines severe) – despite all of this – rush hour traffic congestion is awful (a constant source of grief and complaint), and the endless streams of cars seem to contain, as in so many cities with lesser alternatives, lone drivers.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The city development plan was designed as a hand with five fingers outstretched – the palm as city center and each of the five fingers as a corridor of residential, commercial and retail development (along rail lines, of course). This was smart growth before the term had been invented. It worked, but what was perhaps unforeseen was that development would also occur in areas in-between and beyond the five corridors. As a result, Copenhagen has become, like so many modern cities, a multi-centered urban metropolis. In order to function in this post-industrial economy and society, residents and workers need to travel freely and frequently to many different points around the metro area, at different times of the day, for different reasons, for different lengths of time, for different purposes. Because the existence of the five corridors has created a defacto hub-and-spoke system, it is difficult and prohibitively time-consuming to use public transit for such travel (and ungodly in winter). So of course Copenhagen has become as car-dependent as Los Angeles.

Another piece of this picture is that Danes, being a free and intelligent people, prefer suburban living in detached single-family residences over enforced residential density, and prefer owning and driving their own cars over taking public transportation (if given the choice!). So despite a very leftist political orientation among elites, media, academia, government and public policy professionals (including urban planners), and despite a highly socialized component to its otherwise free-market economy, the Danish capital’s suburban job, business and population growth has been outpacing its urban growth for decades.

According to Ronald D. Utt and Wendell Cox, writing on www.heritage.org (in response to a World Watch report, "City Limits: Putting the Brakes on Sprawl"), from 1950 to 1990 Copenhagen's population dropped from 760,000 to 465,000, nearly 40 percent.

Since 1960, the Copenhagen urbanized area (including suburbs) has dropped in population 14 percent, while its land area has expanded 24 percent. And from 1970 to 1990, per capita automobile usage increased nearly 70 percent in the Copenhagen area, while public transit's market share declined 15 percent.

This of course is a problem. People are not behaving according to our plans! According to the report "Urban Sprawl in Europe? The Ignored Challenge," released by the European Environment Agency (based in Copenhagen, by the way), sprawl is affecting almost all of Europe’s cities: "If this trend continues, the European urban area will double in just over a century. Sprawling cities demand more energy supply, require more transport infrastructure and consume larger amounts of land. This damages the natural environment and increases greenhouse gas emissions."

The report identifies the key problem as too much local control of urban development decisions, and calls for "urgent action by all responsible agencies and stakeholders to realize common objectives," or in other words, centralized planning and control. Among the report's conclusions is this little chill-inducing nugget:

"The EU has specific obligations and a mandate to act and take a lead role in developing the right frameworks for intervention at all levels, and to pave the way for local action. Policies at all levels including local, national and European need to have an urban dimension to tackle urban sprawl and help to redress the market failures that drive urban sprawl."

It's all pointless, of course: sprawl is ubiquitous, natural, desirable, beneficial, and preferable. As Edward Glaeser (Harvard, Brookings) and Matthew Kahn (UCLA) document in "Sprawl and Urban Growth" (National Bureau of Economic Research), transportation technologies dictate urban form, and in the 21st century the dominant transportation technology is the car. Hence, the urban form of the 21st century is sprawl, or city living based on the automobile. Isn’t this a bad thing? Quite the contrary, per Glaeser and Kahn: "Sprawl has been associated with significant improvements in quality of living, and the environmental impacts of sprawl have been offset by technological change."

Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History (2005), would agree. He calls sprawl a logical consequence of economic growth and the democratization of society, a pattern of development that has provided millions of people with the kinds of mobility, privacy and choice that were once the exclusive prerogatives of the rich and powerful. Add Bruegmann, Glaeser, Kahn, Cox and Utt to the growing component of anti-anti-sprawl policy analysts such as John Carlisle (Capital Research Center), Peter Gordon (USC School of Urban Planning), Peter Huber (Manhattan Institute), Mark Mills (Competitive Enterprise Institute), Steve Hayward (Pacific Research Institute), Anthony Downs (Brookings Institution), and Harry Richardson (Cascade Institute).

Copenhagen remains one of my favorite cities, a marvelous combination of the old and new. It has a great quality of life and in my experience, the Danes know how to live it. The central city is charming, and the urban sprawl adds to the possibilities and potentials for all manner of experience and opportunity. I'm already looking forward to my next trip back.

Dr. Roger Selbert is a business futurist and trend guy. He publishes Growth Strategies, a newsletter on economic, social and demographic trends, and is a professional public speaker. Roger is US economic analyst for the Institute for Business Cycle Analysis in Copenhagen, and North American representative for its US Consumer Demand Index.

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