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Can ‘middle class’ Danish people afford to own a car?

Recent social media claims have insinuated owning a car is out of the financial reach of normal families in Denmark. We look at the data.

Cars parked on a dealership forecourt in Denmark.
Cars parked on a dealership forecourt in Denmark. Are they really unattainable for large sections of the population? File photo: Henning Bagger/Ritzau Scanpix

Carla Sands, the former United States Ambassador to Denmark, was last week ridiculed for claiming large parts of the Danish population cannot afford to own a car.

Sands, who was appointed by former president Donald Trump and served as ambassador from 2017-2021, claimed in a Twitter post on Friday that “in Denmark, middle class people can’t afford to drive a car”.

People in Denmark “have a bike and take the train for long trips. My embassy driver would bike an hour in the snow to get to work,” Sands tweeted.

The tweet elicited responses from Danish politicians members of the Danish public, with Sands largely mocked for the claim.

Tweeting a picture of himself on a bicycle, former Minister of Transport Benny Engelbrecht wrote that “I can assure you that using the bike for urban mobility is a question of choice, not economy for most Danes. This is for instance me in my time as minister — and don’t worry, we could afford a car.”

READ ALSO: ‘Danish royals can’t afford a car’: Former US envoy to Denmark ridiculed over cycling tweet

According to official data, there were 2.79 million private cars on Danish roads at the beginning of 2022. The country’s population is 5.8 million.

Around 276 million cars were registered in 2020 in the United States, where the population is around 330 million. So there are indeed more cars per person in the US than in Denmark.

But is this really because Danes can’t afford cars, or are other factors more important?

It’s unclear exactly who Sands was referring to by “middle class people”, since Danish society does not have such highly differentiated social classes as, for example, the United Kingdom.

Nor does the Scandinavian country have the sort of chasm between rich, middle and poor incomes that isolates communities from each other enough to make classes easily definable – even though economic segregation is reported to be on the increase.

Official statistics suggest that families in Denmark are becoming increasingly likely to own a car. A July 2021 report from official agency Statistics Denmark notes a significant increase in the number of car-owning households between 2011 and 2021.

The number of households who own one or more cars increased by 233,800 over the ten-year period, according to the agency.

That equates to 62.3 percent of all households owning a car in 2021, compared to 59.6 percent a decade prior.

READ ALSO: Six things to know about buying a used car in Denmark

In four Danish municipalities – all located in Jutland – over 30 percent of families own more than one car (i.e. two cars or more). This was not the case anywhere in the country in 2011.

The agency’s data shows that there is a difference between car ownership in urban and rural areas – supporting Engelbrecht’s argument that bicycles are a popular choice for urban mobility. In the Greater Copenhagen area, under 60 percent of families own a car, while the proportion can increase to over 80 percent in municipalities just outside of the capital’s urban sprawl.

There is also a difference between the types of family households with relatively high and low car ownership.

Amongst families with high levels of car ownership are couples with children, of whom over 90 percent owned a car in 2021.

People in executive jobs also owned a car in over 90 percent of cases in 2021, while 84 percent of those who lived in detached house also owned a car.

This supports the suggestion that the more affluent are more likely to own a car, which is perhaps unsurprising.

Single people without children owned a car in 40 percent of cases in 2021, while those with the lowest amount of disposable income – the 10 percent of the population with the smallest amount of monthly disposable income – owned a car in 14 percent of cases.

People who live in Greater Copenhagen or another city with 100,000 or more residents owned cars in 42-48 percent of cases in 2021. A similar proportion – 39 percent – applies to people who live in apartments.

Given the high cost of living in Copenhagen, where rent and house prices are far higher than elsewhere in Denmark, it’s conceivable that, if all other factors are equal, a household in the capital might have less money available to run a car. Or perhaps they just don’t need one?

Small towns or villages with populations less than 2,000 had car ownership percentages of 77-80 percent in 2021, much higher than in Copenhagen.

A separate 2021 analysis from Statistics Denmark states that close proximity to a bus, rail, metro or light rail network correlates to the amount of people who own cars.

According to the analysis, around 360,000 people over the age of 18 in Denmark have easy access to a very high level of public transportation – meaning at least 10 departures per hour and more than one type of service located with 500 metres of where they live.

Just under one million have slightly lower access – 4-9 departures per hour – while around one million do not have a permanent bus stop or rail station within 500 metres of their home.

In Greater Copenhagen, 77 percent of all people have a high public transport service level. This falls to under one percent in towns with fewer than 200 inhabitants.

More than 80 percent of families in areas with the lowest levels of public transport own one or more cars. This figure is 39 percent in areas with very high service.

The analysis also found that families in areas with high levels of public transport coverage are less likely to have a car than families in areas with medium or low levels of public transport.

Calculations intended to correct the trend for factors including income, age, family type, children, socioeconomic group and commuter distances found that people in rural areas with less public transport were still more likely to own cars, albeit by a smaller difference.

For a family in an area with very high public transport coverage, the probability of having a car was calculated to be 57 percent. An equivalent family (with the same income, city size, distance to work etc.) in a low public transport area was found to be 68 percent likely to have a car, the report notes.

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For members


Six useful products I discovered in Denmark

Denmark is well known for its tradition for high quality design, but which products make a difference to everyday life?

Six useful products I discovered in Denmark

Inbuilt bike locks 

There’s no need to carry around a heavy and impractical chain to lock up your bicycle in Denmark, as these all come fitted (or you can cheaply add) an inbuilt lock on the frame of the bike.

The lock is the form of a circular bar which is released by a key and goes between the spokes of the back wheel, meaning it can’t be turned when the lock is in the fixed position.

This way, bikes can be locked while still standing freely – which is just as well, since there are not enough railings and bike stands in the country to accommodate the many, many bicycles.

Of course, a locked bike can, in theory, be picked up and carried away even if the wheel doesn’t turn and unfortunately, this does happen sometimes. But not enough to undermine the public trust in bicycle wheel locks.

Photo: Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix

Rain trousers

Rain trousers/pants (regnbukser) can be bought on their own or with a matching jacket as part of a regnsæt (“rain set”).

These waterproof pants are a novelty to those of us who don’t come from bicycle cultures, but after your first rainy day cycling commute leaves you at the office with drenched trousers, you’ll understand the appeal.

They are designed to fit over your regular trousers and can be stretched over the top of your shoes and held underneath them with a piece of elastic attached to the bottom hem.

While primarily designed for cycling, they also come in handy for walking around during Denmark’s regular spells of cold, damp weather.

Photo: Emil Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

READ ALSO: Essential rain gear for a wet Danish winter (and spring, summer, autumn)

The flatbed toaster

There’s something indefinably satisfying about putting two slices of bread in a toaster and waiting for the ‘ping’ as they pop up, warm and ready for spreading.

However, there’s no getting around the fact that toasters are a bit impractical when it comes to thick slices and rolls.

Of course, you can also warm bread in the oven, but it’s more hassle and not for quite the same result.

Enter the flatbed toaster. This device is much more popular in Denmark than the pop-up version and enables easy, simultaneous warming of several slices of bread of various shapes and sizes – including of course, the national favourite, rye bread.

Pro tip: turn the dial less for toasting the second side of the bread, because the element will already be warm. This way you avoid burning the second side.

Photo: Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix

The cheese slicer

Cheese products popular in Denmark include havarti and the Cheasy range from dairy Arla.

These are both soft cheeses and should be cut with an ostehøvl (cheese slicer), a quintessential Danish kitchen utensil.

There are two types of ostehøvl: a wire-based type and a version that looks a bit like a trowel, with a raised edge and a gap in the middle for the sliced cheese to pass through.

Cutting Danish soft cheese with a knife will turn the block into a crumbling mess, so in this setting you can’t really avoid using the specialised slicers. And while their usefulness is diminished for something like cheddar, there are plenty of softer cheeses in other countries that would surely benefit from being set about with an ostehøvl.

One thing to be aware of: injudicious use of the slicer can cause a “ski slope” cheese block, creating uneven slices and leaving one side of the block thicker than the other. Slice evenly.

READ ALSO: Why does Denmark produce so much cheese?

Foam washing cloths for babies

If you’re a parent and have found yourself struggling with a pile of dirty wet wipes or cotton pads after changing your baby, you may have found yourself wondering if there’s another way.

In Denmark, there is: the engangsvaskeklude (disposable washing cloth) comes in tightly-stuffed packets of 50-100 small, square foam cloths, around 20 square centimetres in size.

The cloths are made from thin slices of polyether foam, a type often used in sofa cushions. Manufacturers say it is better for the environment than other types, and the advantage against wet wipes is they are perfume-free.

They just need to be made damp with a splash of lukewarm water, then you’re ready to wipe – they tend to have a good success rate for picking up baby poo.

A sticker saying ‘no thanks’ to junk mail

We’re talking about physical junk mail here, not the type that goes into your email spam box although if there was a sticker for this, I’d be at the front of the queue.

The reklamer, nej tak (“advertisements, no thank you”) sticker can be ordered from FK Distribution, the company which operates Denmark’s tilbudsaviser (“special offer newspaper”) deliveries. These result in piles of paper leaflets, detailing offers at supermarkets, being pushed through letter boxes every day.

These leaflets are useful for bargain hunters, but many people take them out of their overfilled letter box and dump them straight into recycling containers. If you have a nej tak sticker on your letter box, you won’t receive any of the brochures in the first place.

You can also choose a sticker which says “no thanks” to adverts but excludes the offer leaflets, so you can cut down on the junk mail while still keeping abreast of good deals.

Have I missed any good ones? Let me know.