Lessons from Denmark: Day 3

We started this morning off meeting with city transportation staff from Copenhagen. We had a great discussion about policy, programs, and politics here in Copenhagen and strategized together about how US cities, like Memphis, can use the information and apply it in the context of our cities. Following the robust discussion we went on a bicycle tour, led by city staff, of Copenhagen. Along the way, I was really impressed by a seemingly innocuous effort, but one that I think is really important to how the Danish accomplish so many great efforts to improve walking and bicycling.

Today I observed a couple construction sites where Copenhagen staff were reconstructing elements of the cycle tracks. Roadway infrastructure construction is vastly different than what we do in the US. In Denmark, the standard construction material is a variety of cut stone, like granite, and is arranged to construct everything from sidewalks and curbs to the cycle tracks themselves. While it is more labor intensive and expensive on the front end, this approach allows the city to quickly modulate roadway conditions based on the needs of transportation users without the costly expense of repurchasing and reconstructing existing infrastructure. Take for instance a sidewalk in Copenhagen. If the sidewalk gets more use than its original width can handle, the city can easily widen the sidewalk using the same curb and pavers the original sidewalk was built using and moving it around and filling in the gaps. Built using the modular stone curbs and walkways, the city can react quickly and reduce future overhead costs. Additionally, the stone pavers last a lot longer than traditional concrete or asphalt. Think of it like building pubic infrastructure with legos…and the Danes are experts at it.

The approach in the US is vastly different. Instead of thinking about flexibility of design, we often plan for infrastructure permanence at the lowest up-front cost. While this approach works well in a limited fiscal environment, it commits cities to buying into their design and construction from the onset and limits their ability to make alterations in the future based on demand or supply without great expense. What we know today is that our streets aren’t static places, and while we’re doing a better job across the nation to think better about design and function, we haven’t changed the basic approach to construction that will allow us to stay flexible and modular in the future.

The Danish approach to construction isn’t perfect. As previously mentioned, it’s expensive. Custom cut pieces of granite used for every horizontal surface in a city could quickly empty the bank account. Additionally, to install these facilities you’ve got to have a large, highly skilled workforce to install them. This is hand work done by people – no big machines here. Also, the Danish standards regarding persons with disabilities isn’t at the same quality as the Americans with Disabilities Act in the US. The pavers that make their design flexible and impressive to look at would cause serious issues with the passage of wheelchairs and persons with visual impairments would find the surface a little too uneven to traverse without problem.