The Climate Pitfalls of Denmark’s Electric Car Parking Perk

Outside of China, only two cities of more than a million people are known to have a bicycling mode-share over 30 percent: Amsterdam and Copenhagen. As Rutgers urban expert John Pucher has documented, cycling’s vibrantly high percentage of urban trips throughout Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany was not the product of amorphous cultural factors. Rather, it came about through public policies that not only made cycling safe and convenient but also made driving costly and cumbersome.

Free parking for electric cars would go against the grain of longstanding policies, like the decision to pedestrianize the Strøget, shown here in 1935, when private cars were still allowed. Photo: Copenhagenet.

So it was disconcerting to learn that one of these measures — limiting the supply and raising the price of central-city car parking — is about to be compromised in Copenhagen. And the announcement could not be more ill-timed, with the Danish capital set to host the U.N. Climate Change Conference starting Monday.

The government of Denmark this week unveiled a package of incentives to jump-start the sale and use of electric cars. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, each new electric car comes not just with a per-purchase subsidy of $40,000, but with this stunning perk: free parking in downtown Copenhagen.

Free parking, as UCLA Professor Don Shoup has taught us, comes with a high cost: greater car use. The more valuable and pricey the parking space, the greater the inducement to drive when it is given away. In the case of downtown Copenhagen, where parking probably goes for the U.S. equivalent of $25 a day, the inducement will be powerful indeed.

Consider a resident of metropolitan Copenhagen headed downtown from, say, 10 miles away. Even with petrol taxed to a price of $8 a gallon, the fuel cost of the 20-mile round-trip in a 32 mpg car is just five bucks. That’s pocket change next to the $25 parking cost. But make parking free, and the $30 car trip can now be made for $5. Econometric models using price-elasticity suggest that the number of trips will roughly triple as a result — at least until the resulting traffic chokes off some of the increase.

Granted, the parking subsidy applies only to electric cars, so for a while the surge might remain a trickle. But once put in place, subsidies are hard to withdraw. Eventually, the increase in use of electric cars for commuting and other trips into the heart of Copenhagen will take mode share from cycling, walking and transit — not just directly due to the subsidy for driving, but indirectly because those “green modes” will have become less efficient, less safe, and less valued by society.

But perhaps the most jarring aspect of the new policy is the way the national government is cloaking it in green.

As the Times reported:

“We want to be a test and laboratory country for electric cars, hybrid cars and other new technology,” said Lars Barfoed, the Danish minister of transport. “And as host of the climate change conference, that’s made us feel responsible and want to show the world we can do something.”

“Doing something” apparently refers to supplying the battery-charging stations with kilowatts generated by wind turbines, which now account for a world-beating 20 percent of the nation’s electricity. While effective use of wind power is a big carbon plus, subsidizing electric car use could easily end as a net negative if it pushes the travel mix to more car use and undermines Copenhagen’s urban vitality.

Denmark and Copenhagen are hardly alone in being blinded by alternate-fuel vehicles’ green halo. The 2007 Bloomberg congestion pricing plan specified a two-thirds discount for “clean-fuel” trucks, despite the dwindling air quality advantage as cleaner diesel fuels and engines are phased in anyway, and in seeming denial of the additional traffic congestion (as well as reduced toll revenues to support transit).

The veteran energy and transportation specialist Lee Schipper wrote recently in a related context:

Creating a zero-carbon car for China tomorrow won’t solve the much bigger problems of urban congestion, traffic fatalities and the paving over of once-beautiful cities to make room for more cars. The discussions should back up. Energy is only a means to an end. What are the ends, urban access and mobility, or cars for a small minority?

Wise words for Danes and Americans alike.

  • curly

    The road to hell is paved for “green cars”
    We advocates must remain vigilant! As we learned here in NYC recently, even the greenest transportation regimes can backpedal. I wonder what the local advocates are saying about this?

  • In L.A., our mayor just proposed parking perks, subsidies and a boatload of other goodies for people that buy electric cars.

  • PBS’s NOW had a great episode talking about this. Check out the post:

  • Charlie’s commentary is right on the mark. Any “green” differences between electric and conventional cars are overshadowed by differences between cars and other forms of transportation along all sorts of dimensions. Even among automotive fuels, all-electrics are far from innocent. For the US, a National Research Council report (“Hidden Costs of Energy”) estimates that greenhouse-gas emissions of all-electric cars are only moderately lower than others (gasoline, diesel, or natural gas), while health costs from particulate emissions are actually higher – both due to coal plants being an important part of our electricity supply, as well as accounting for energy-intensive battery manufacture.

  • zowie — looks to me like Lee Schipper got it spot-on. i’m trying to find the language to talk more convincingly about what i see as the number one negative externality of cars — ‘the deterrence factor’ — i.e. preventing people from walking, scooting, and biking to get around town. so, pollution and global warming and traffic fatalities and the like are very harmful, of course, but the incredible public health costs of car-dominated streets are probably far worse than the relatively isolated incidents of pedestrians and bikers getting mowed down by cars (think about deaths due to heart disease, diabetes, etc.). well, i guess we can’t leave out the number of people killed *in* cars. add that to the catastrophe that is cars.

  • Ian Turner

    Have we priced in the effect of the deadly smug emissions created by green cars? San Francisco is choking in the stuff.

  • I can understand 25 or 50% off for 2 or 3 years or maybe free parking in the evening or some such if we want people to shift, but 100% off forever? Has anyone read the fine print? Can someone find it and get it to Charlie to report? The Danes can’t be that stupid.

  • Agree to the above

    the 3,000 pound particulates hurtling through our streets are not welcome. You’re still dead if you get run over by an electric car.

    Copenhagen’s main street was made carfree year ago and the region has an excellent regional rail system. Still missing is light rail.

    For NYC, surface light rail would work well, especially in a carfree streets.

  • JK

    Nice piece Charlie. As you imply, there should be zero parking or roadway accommodations for electric or alt fuel vehicles. Low pollution/low carbon emitting vehicles should be encouraged via some form of carbon pricing, be it a gas tax or carbon tax or slightly reduced VMT tax. The public cost of setting aside roadway or curb space for these vehicles is far too high to justify the benefits. There is an interesting piece in Planetizen on how too much attention has been paid to tail pipe emissions and VMT reduction, and not enough on how car use effects the urban form and in turn has multiple impacts on carbon emissions and the environment. (

  • Even putting aside for a moment the powerful human costs of pollution, accidents, and congestion-caused loss of productivity, encouraging car use deadens the human spirit and lowers everyone’s quality of life. I am sometimes overwhelmed when walking around New York at how *ugly* all the car-based infrastructure has made our streets. Is there anything beautiful about highways, expressways, parking lots, garages, and miles and miles of unending asphalt? Is there anything beautiful about cars choking the streets with their filth and noise? Is there anything beautiful about having to watch your step in case a car jumps the curb or barrels around an intersection and kills you? Who would want to live in such a world?

    Our collective car addiction has made our cities ugly and unpleasant places to live and it will be extremely difficult to make them places worth living in again until we make them car-free.

  • Arrived in “Wonderful Copenhagen” yesterday. Am at the climate conference, representing the Carbon Tax Center, which Charlie co-directs, as CTC’s Washington rep.

    For cyclists and pedestrians, Copenhagen’s earned its reputation. Bike lanes with curbs between the sidewalks and streets. And so many cyclists! Saw a lady wearing a fur coat cycling yesterday. Bikes aren’t just for the spandex crowd here.

    Transit in Copehagen is convenient and frequent; bus fare from Kastrop airport cost roughly what I paid to go from Capitol Hill to Dulles on DC’s Metrorail and bus. A pleasant surprise, especially considering the steep exchange rate.

    So yes, free parking for electric cars would suck in some of the numerous cyclists, pedestrians and transit riders, even here where good planning has built non-auto habits and culture. And yes, those freebies are terribly hard to pull back. Imagine Copenhagen if electric cars become the standard and they retain an “entitlement” to free parking. Not so wonderful.

    Many here don’t bother with cars. As she left to pick up her daughter via bicycle, my 20-something host proudly informed me that she’s never had a drivers license. Would she switch transportation modes if parking were free? She struck me as a committed environmentalist, but convenience and cost are decisive for nearly everyone else.

  • lee schipper

    I just played a jazz concert here in Copenhagen and we had to wheel the vibraphone back to the hotel through the streets. Fortunately there were no EV’s parked in the way.

    As I remarked 17 years ago in a big EV conference in Sweden, if EV’s provide so many benefits as relief from other externalities, then tax the externalities on other vehicles, but don’t give EVs (or hybrids or anything else) privileges any more.

    Let me also repeat an important factoid about Denmark. The 200-% or so taxes on new cars make them expensive and there are fewer than in Neighboring Sweden. The taxes also suppress interest in energy efficiency TECHNOLOGY on a given car because the manufacturing cost has to be tripled because of taxes. A few technologies (like air bags) are exempt.

    the Danes are smart – they drive a given car much more than a car in Sweden, so they get about as much distance/capita in cars as in Sweden.

    That’s not good transport policy and not good environmental policy.

    Lee Schipper
    Berkeley and Stanford
    (and for two more days in lovely Copenhagen)

    Our side event is in the Aegget Room of the SAS Royal Hotel Saturday December 5, 2-6 pm, followed by….. a jazz concert.

  • Mark Delucchi

    Hi Charlie, Hi Ken, Hi Lee,

    I agree with the basic thrust of Charlie’s comments, but to keep things interesting, I am going to be a bit provocative, and at the same time promote some of my own (favorite) research.

    I agree that the disbenefits of free EV parking outweigh the benefits, whether in Copenhagen or New York. In Copenhagen EVs are quite clean, but they tend to displace options that are safer, quieter, and less-resource intensive and cause less pollution. In the US cities, on average, EVs will not displace these options so much, but then EVs themselves are not as clean. (BTW, we have known for at least two decades that EVs in the US have relatively high emissions of GHGs and particulates; the recent NRC study doesn’t offer much that is new, except perhaps for an unclear and questionable method for estimating upstream emissions!)

    Now to be provocative. Conventional EVs are dangerous, congestive, noisy, and resource-intensive because they are large, heavy, and fast-moving. If they were small, light, and slow-moving, they would not be dangerous, congestive, noisy, or resource intensive. So, the best alternative, in my view, would be to have free parking and a dedicated street infrastructure for bicycles, electric mo-peds, electric scooters, and — the provocative part — small, lightweight (under 1000 lbs), low-speed (under 25 mph, by design) electric vehicles. The drivetrains should be electric because two-stroke engines are dirty, and because people are closely exposed to vehicle pollution in city centers.

    Now to promote my favorite own research. I have designed and evaluated a new-town plan with a dedicated infrastructure for lightweight, low-speed vehicles. A book chapter and a report are available on my web site (

    Enhancing Resource Sustainability by Transforming Urban and Suburban Transportation, Delucchi, Mark A., chapter 24 in Strüngman Forum Report, Linkages of Sustainability, ed. by T. E. Graedel and E. van der Voet, MIT Press, pp. 439-459 (2010).

    How We Can Have Safe, Convenient, Clean, Affordable, Pleasant Transportation Without Making People Drive Less or Give Up Suburban Living. Delucchi, Mark A., Ken Kurani, Kevin Nesbitt, and Tom Turrentine. ITS-Davis. September 2002. Publication No. UCD-ITS-RR-02-08.

    I am guessing that hard-core cyclists — and I nominate myself as an emeritus member of that group, having had very long bicycle commutes in my life — will be wary of my plan, but I think it is worth a look. I have paid special attention to safety, and believe that the vehicles and the system can be designed so that fatalities are virtually eliminated. No other policy that allows the use of private motorized vehicles can claim anything remotely close to this.


    Mark Delucchi
    Research Scientist
    Institute of Transportation Studies
    U. C. Davis

  • Good article.

    Electric cars, are by all appearances a red herring, a distraction and are not in the right direction; and as mentioned here may make existing problems worse.

    Wherein bicycles and other small vehicles (existing and in the future) use 1 percent of the resources of that cars do; with infrastructure requirements many times less than 1 percent and a cornucopia of benefits (low costs, safety, health, distributed and on-demand, etc.); this seems to be the logical way to go to seriously address global warming.

    There is a real lack of clear thinking on this subject.

  • Rasmus Jensen

    Lee Schipper is right when he tells about the high taxes for cars, but until 2011 those taxes do not apply to electrical cars and electrical cars are therefore quite cheap compared to normal cars in Denmark.

    After 2011, the current government wants to put “normal” car tax on electrical cars I therefore doubt that the free parking initiative will be enough incentive to buy an electrical car after 2011.

  • Ken Coughlin

    Great post, Charlie. I’ll add just one dimension that I think has been overlooked: the environmental impact of the manufacture and then the disposal of a car — any car. In her landmark book Asphalt Nation, Jane Holtz Kay cites a mid-90s study by researchers in Heidelberg, Germany, that found that of the 66 tons of CO2 spewed by the average (German) car during its lifetime, 15 tons are released in manufacture and another 6 tons in the disposal of the now undrivable or unwanted vehicle. (See pages 92-93 of the hardcover.)

  • A large-scale switch to running cars with green electricity will cut emissions terrifically.

    But, the key issue is that a large-scale switch to global mobility based on small vehicles will cut emissions much better to a completely sustainable level, quite possibly to less than 1% of current emissions.

    Part of this issue is to provide logical arguments on how this new mobility can be crafted to be much more practical, convenient, and safe; can provide better accessibility, performance, speed, range, etc. than current systems and is completely achievable in the extreme short term.

    Small vehicle transit — such as currently embryonic public bicycle systems — may be just starting to appear on the radar of advocacy groups addressing rapid action to mitigate and adapt to the climate change crisis and, hopefully, much more advanced small vehicle transit will soon become a mainstream idea as one of the critical solutions to the rapidly accelerating crisis.

  • William Bendsen

    Just correcting some guesses here:
    Parking: 10-28 DKR/ hour (2-5$).
    Subsidies are reformed every year, when the “law of finances” is approved. It is easy to remove subsidies, and happens regularly, when subsidies have outplayed their role.
    There are five parking spots reserved for EV’s in inner city. These are near the most desirable places to park your car, and they are mostly empty. It’s going to be a long time before electric cars are even visible in the traffical makeup of Copenhagen.

    In the comments: Ken Small.
    The Danish coal-plants are among the cleanest in the world – the Sulphur-extraction process is well implemented, and a large portion of the power comes from wind, so the National Research Councing report does not apply here

    Bern Grush.
    Not forever. reviewed every year, and annulled when the share of EV reaches a not-yet-set target.

    George Haikalis:
    We have regional, local and ultra-local rail. (100+ km between stops, 3 km between stops and 500m between stops)
    Light Rail is not for everyone. Light Rail-proponents are missing it. The rest of us use the normal rail.

    Generally, just to put into perspective the prices of EV’s and normal cars.
    Reva Citycar, 100.000 DKR with lead-acid batteries, 166.000 with LiPo batteries
    Mercedes-Benz A-class 160 BlueEfficiency 342.000 DKR (120.000 without tax)

  • gecko

    Small size as a natural strategy is very effective for both mitigation and adaptation.


    Latest from NY Times: Meaninguf Numbers of Plug-In Hybrids Still Decades Away

  • To repeat:

    Latest from NY Times: Meaningful Numbers of Plug-In Hybrids Still Decades Away

    Right now there are over 400 million cyclists in China and 100 million additional using electric bicycles. In New York City there is something on the scale of 200,000 cycling communters daily. These are meaningful numbers.

    When will the common wisdom arrive that small transit vehicles and systems are the best way for global transportation policy to mitigate and adapt to the climate change crisis?

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