Transport engineer Hugh McCarthy examines why Denmark - a country remarkably similar to Ireland - has a seemingly better transport system


Author: Hugh McCarthy, MIEI CIHT, chartered engineer, is vice-chair of the Engineers Ireland GB Region

The Danes have given us many things – Lego, lager and some compelling TV drama series. However, it is their transport system that also receives plenty of attention from many other countries. Denmark is remarkably similar to Ireland yet it has a seemingly better transport system.

Both countries joined the EU at the same time in 1973 and a quick search on the Eurostat website reveals we spend a similar level of income on transport per head of population. So have they done better than us or are we more similar than we think?



Rep of Ireland Denmark


Size (km2) 70.1 42.9
Population (million) 4.6 5.5
Urban % 63 88
GDP per capita (€,000) 130 126
Motorways (Km) 900 1,143
Rail lines (km) 1,919 2,667
Bike Paths 9,000km
Total Road Network (km)


96,269 73,930

Table 1: Denmark and Ireland vital statistics

Road origins

Historically, both countries were never conquered by the Roman Empire and thus did not inherit the road building expertise that other central European nations benefitted from. It was only in later centuries that both nations began developing a national road infrastructure strategy.

These developed naturally in both countries relative to the topography or land property limits of the times. The ancient Brehan Laws in Ireland established some semblance of this with all roads leading to Tara (the Rome of early Ireland). It also established early requirements for road maintenance such as road cleaning.

The Danish King Frederik V in 1761 had to rely on the expertise of French engineers to design many ‘straight-line’ roads as there was a lack of expertise available within the country. In the 1790s, road design standards were published and included details on cross sections, structure and curvature.

There was also a requirement to line many roads with trees to protect commuters from cross winds on these straight, flat roads. With industrialisation taking hold throughout Europe in the early 19th century, mass migration occurred, with many moving to cities in Denmark while Ireland, with its sparse rural population, had a more agricultural-based economy.

Subsequently, roads lost much of their significance in Denmark, with some being converted to railways (those straight lines coming in handy) to further service industry. Rail lines also continued in Ireland, peaking at 3,500km of track in 1920.

At the turn of the 20th century, roads regained their relevance when the growth of cars and motorisation took hold. In 1950s Denmark, road widening programmes took place to accommodate growth and which required controversial removal of the trees planted two to three centuries previously. This took place at a slower pace in Ireland as a newly formed state was still establishing itself and its national infrastructure systems, budgets and civil war slowed things down somewhat.

In 1920, the Road Traffic Act, which was the first modern plan to develop a road network plan and management in the country, was passed. This was augmented by declining rail services as a result of the world war fuel constraints and more affordable cars coming online.


Copenhagen in the 1960s

While the 1950s and 1960s produced better wages, and thus more demand for more cars and increased road freight, the construction of more road networks was needed. This continued until the 1970s when both countries joined the EU, and sought to expand their infrastructure, accommodate car growth and further develop their economies. What could possibly go wrong?

Rattling to a halt – the 1970s oil crisis

In 1973, the most time-efficient war in history took place (the Six-Day War), with Arab countries attacking Israel on the Monday, hostilities ending on the Saturday and everybody presumably sleeping in or doing laundry on the Sunday. The political fallout from this led the quadrupling of oil prices, leaving fuel unaffordable for many throughout the world.

How both countries responded was interesting. Realising its vulnerability, Denmark set about developing an infrastructure that would be sustainable and as free as possible from external market conditions. Cycling would be central to this plan to develop infrastructure that would be less dependent on foreign oil. There was also the burgeoning environmental movement and the advent of town planning, which led to the optimisation of services.


Dublin in the 1960s

By then 80 per cent of Danes lived in cities, so it was more essential there than in Ireland which, at 55 per cent, had a much lower urban population. Additionally, Ireland abolished car tax in 1977 in a bid to regenerate the economy. And, naturally, this incentivised car driving.

Road safety

In the 1970s, both countries experienced a historical peak in road fatalities. By 1988, Denmark set up its first national safety action plan due to expanding traffic volumes and network lengths. Since then, the average deaths of 700 per year have dropped to about 200 per year.

While there is a national road safety plan, it is also interesting that of the 98 Danish councils, 77 have a road safety plan. This is intended to give responsibility to road safety officials at a local level and implement more subtle, effective changes. In Ireland, a little more than 25 per cent of councils have published road safety plans.

The city of Copenhagen, in its last tender for waste management, required the supplier’s trucks to have low-level cabs so cyclists/pedestrians could be more easily seen by drivers. Similarly, the latest strategy acknowledges that the recession may have influenced a drop in collisions post-2010. It also refers to Euro NCAP, the vehicles testing and regulatory body, and how its work on car safety can influence road safety statistics. It suggests applying financial incentives to purchasing cars with a five-star NCAP rating and correspondingly increasing tax on vehicles with insufficient safety equipment.

In 2014, Denmark was ranked top of the European rankings while Ireland was sixth. Since 2000, the greatest reduction in Denmark has occurred on urban roads (-62 per cent) where automatic speed controls have been introduced. This was recently augmented by a target of no more than 120 deaths per annum by 2020 in line with EU targets.

On the Irish side, the introduction of systems such as penalty points, mandatory alcohol testing points and mass media campaigns have also been a large success and public surveys have attributed these factors as being among the main reasons for recent road safety improvements. We have also experienced a 72 per cent drop in fatalities since 1990.

This could also be attributed to an increase in the number of motorways here and the general targeting of speeds collisions associated with rural roads. In the latest Irish Road Safety plan, work is planned to link hospital datasets with Garda datasets to further look at collision details at improving road safety. Both national strategies also reflect on the economic, as well as emotional cost, of serious injury collisions.

Annual Road Deaths 162 167
Fatalities per million passenger cars 85 83
Fatalities per 100,000 population 3.5 3.0
Personal Injury per 1000 5.6 3.1
EU Road Safety Ranking 6 1
2020 target No more than 124 fatalities and 330 serious injuries No more than 120 deaths and serious injuries

Table 2: 2012 Road Safety Data

Travel patterns

In 2012, the stock of registered cars dropped in Ireland by four per cent but increased marginally in Denmark by 0.4 per cent. While the general annual distance travelled in a car by Danes is typical at 66 per cent, those travelling to work by bike is 20 per cent. Ireland is much higher – 74 per cent of Irish journeys are by car, 15 per cent are via walking and the remainder by other modes. What is also stark is that 46 per cent of Danish households only have one car, with 41 per cent not having any car at all. This has a lot to do with the high taxation of vehicles.

Future plans and innovation

Both countries are interesting in terms of their future plans and innovation. The 2008 financial crisis notwithstanding, there is a continuous improvement in services and tightening up of infrastructure. The greater Dublin area is increasingly being linked together, with light rail lines, cycle routes and previous plans for the Dublin Metro being approved this year. In rural areas, cycle schemes are being developed, with old rail lines being redesigned as cycle lanes to aid tourism.

This year, cycle rental schemes aimed at boosting cycling and cutting traffic have been unveiled in Cork, Limerick and Galway. We may also learn to use our size to an advantage with an electric charging network being trialled on the Aran Islands and which could well be expanded across the wider network. Meanwhile, the Danes are continuing to strive forward as well, driven by plans to be 100 per cent energy-efficient by 2050. This would mean that there would be an awful lot of electrically powered vehicles.

The first metro in the country opened in Copenhagen in 2002, and linked the city centre with the airport. A proposed Fehmarn link – a 19km route consisting of motorway and electric railway – will connect Copenhagen with northern Germany.

This will be an essential link in the trans-European network linking Scandinavia with mainland Europe as part of the TEN-T network. Crucially, this is also expected to improve market conditions for rail goods transportation in the region. Similarly the TEN-T network section between Dublin and Belfast is also being strengthened further, with more and improved rail lines and motorways.

So, what can we learn from all this? It’s important to show that developing long-term plans and sticking to them despite short-term opposition is worth it. Ireland has stabilised politically in the past two decades and we are now developing interesting innovative ideas in the area of transport.

However, it seems this will only come to fruition once populations become more centralised in the larger cities as has happened in Denmark. It is then that we will have a more favourable environment to use sustainable transport and link cities together. Overall, Ireland has had a more sparse population in which to allocate transport services. This has also been reflected in Danish rural areas where there has been a lack of connections with other areas of the country.

Despite this, it seems we can be relatively happy with our recent transport schemes, and future proposals – if delivered – could allow both Ireland and Denmark to set the standard for a sound transport infrastructure in a smaller-sized country. O'RiordanCivilcycling,Denmark,Dublin,roads,transport
  Author: Hugh McCarthy, MIEI CIHT, chartered engineer, is vice-chair of the Engineers Ireland GB Region The Danes have given us many things – Lego, lager and some compelling TV drama series. However, it is their transport system that also receives plenty of attention from many other countries. Denmark is remarkably similar to Ireland...