Last night I attended a talk by Social Democratic Member of Parliament Rasmus Prehn about the Aalborg Light Rail Transport (LRT) project. The International Committee of the DSU Aalborg (Social Democratic Youths) organized the event and invited Prehn to come and give a talk in English to an audience of Aalborg residents from various countries. About 50-60 people showed up to hear him speak and ask questions about the project.
Aalborg’s LRT is a topic Prehn is clearly passionate about – both as a Social Democrat and a member of the Parliamentary Transportation Committee. A graduate of AAU and former member of DSU Aalborg himself, Prehn has served for 10 years as a Member of Parliament for the Social Democratic party, representing Nordjylland. While he participates in several Parliamentary committees, the Transportation Committee is his main area of focus and green transport at the top of his priority list.
Prehn sees the LRT project as part of Aalborg’s transformation from an industrial city to a modern, knowledge-focused economy. ‘We have to look for opportunities in the problems,’ he said, and move people from unemployment to jobs, transform the city into a green, climate-friendly place, and reduce congestion and pollution. All of which he claims the LRT will help achieve.
At the beginning of his presentation, he explained that Aalborg is in a growth phase. The population is increasing (the only place in Nordjylland that this is the case – Aalborg is expected to have 25,000 more residents by 2025); a lot of building is taking place (the new regional hospital is slated to open around 2020 in Aalborg Øst); and new things are happening. On an increasing basis, Aalborg is the headquarters for the whole northern Denmark region.
The vision behind the LRT project includes the following:
- Easy access to many functions (there is increased pressure on local infrastructure and traffic in the city must be handled more effectively)
- Accelerate development in the growth axis
- Redevelop the city
- Change mobility behavior (in Florence, for example, car traffic has ceased to exist in the city center where LRT is; there are now more cyclists and pedestrians in the center)
- Make peaceful traffic streets
- Contribute to the city’s identity (improve image)
While various alternative public transportation systems were discussed in the lead-up to the decision to go with the LRT, including a Bus Rapid Transit system (BRT) and expansion of the current bus system, city council members decided that the LRT would be the best for securing more passengers, the fastest mode of transport, the ‘greenest’ choice, and the system that would provide the most space for people, e.g. a 12m bus can carry 70 passengers, while a 32m LRT can transport 220. In addition, he explained, studies have shown that people prefer track-system modes of transport over wheel-based forms, presumably due to a higher comfort level.
Prehn was challenged to provide more extensive proof that the choice of LRT over BRT was sound. After all, argued one audience member, the BRT would be cheaper and buses in a BRT system could provide higher frequency pick up/drop off than an LRT, perhaps to the extent that the number of passengers transported would be the same (LRT vs. BRT.) But Prehn responded that another positive about the LRT is the fact that is a track-based system, which conveys the message that this system is around to stay; that it is, in a sense, permanent – not something that cannot be taken away on a whim. And this is important to the image of the city: a good public transportation system that is here for good. He also argued that for this reason and others the LRT will bring bigger investments than a BRT could.
And investment in the city is one of the top aims the city hopes to achieve with the construction of an LRT. LRT systems attract people and companies because they provide inexpensive and easy access to other parts of a city. In the case of the Aalborg LRT, the tracks will extend from the new hospital to Mølholm, a distance of 12.3 kilometers, with 24 stops along the way. Other cities that have invested in LRT systems have experienced myriad benefits in this regard:
- Bergen – 13 times more investment in the first stage of LRT
- Freiburg – offices with access to LRT have 15-25% higher rental rates than offices without
- Nantes – many large companies moved operations to the LRT corridor after line 2 opened
- Rouen – house prices along LRT corridor increased by 10% in proximity to stations
So how much will it cost and who is paying? The budget forecast is 1,730 billion DKK and this amount will be split among Aalborg Kommune (the majority), the Danish government (47%), and the regional government (a small amount.) Aalborg’s contribution will be made in the form of a loan taken out by the city council, which, according to Prehn, will take roughly 40 years to pay off, depending greatly on energy prices and other factors, after which the project should finance itself. While 1.7 billion kroners sounds like a lot, Aalborg’s LRT project is actually the least expensive of the four being planned in Denmark (Copenhagen, Århus, and Odense are the other cities building LRTs – it is the biggest investment by the Danish government in green infrastructure the country has seen in 100 years, according to Prehn), partly because it will be logistically easier to build one here, but also because Aalborg has learned from problems the others have faced. In Århus, for example, there have been a lot of problems with LRT planning and politicians have had to renegotiate as the price has increased. If the price of Aalborg’s LRT increases, as public infrastructure projects are wont to do, there will have to be a financing renegotiation process among the city, regional, and national governments. However, having learned from previous infrastructure projects with run-away costs, there is also a buffer of 30% built into the budget; if the project stays on budget, the 30% will be reinvested in new projects.
Politics has played a huge role in the successful bid to get Aalborg an LRT. Prehn explained that as a member of DSU Aalborg 20 years ago, he and Thomas Kastrup-Larsen, Aalborg’s mayor, first started talking about the possibility of a green transport system for the city, albeit in rather abstract terms. Over the past five to ten years in their positions as city council members, Prehn’s membership in Parliament and Kastrup-Larsen’s as mayor, the dream has taken wings. While Aalborg has been criticized by some as ‘such a little city for such a big investment,’ some members of the city council really believed in and worked for it, while Prehn has tried to establish it at the national level through Parliament.
However, what politics can achieve, it can also take away. If, for example, the next government is liberal-conservative, they may not be as friendly to the idea of this LRT as the current government and the project may have to be altered. Many conservative politicians think it is better to invest in more roads and the accommodation of more cars in Denmark. However, if the conservatives take over, while they are pro-road expansion and improvements over green transport, they are also quite fond of LRTs as well and cancelling the plan would be understood as a very unpopular move. Still, the danger that Aalborg’s LRT could be reduced in terms of track length or number of stops does exist.
If all goes as planned, Aalborg’s LRT will be up and running by 2021. Still to be ironed out are many details, including a debate going on between trade unions over whether current bus drivers or train drivers will operate the trains, how the system can be constructed such that future additions to it could be made, e.g. a line out to City Syd, how best to educate the public in order to encourage people to use the system, etc. However, it seems the project is well under way and as it gathers momentum more jobs will be created to construct and maintain it. This is positive news for Aalborg, indeed!
See my previous post about Aalborg’s LRT, including a map of the system, here.